Book XXI

The Bending of the Bow of Ulysses

Proposal of Penelope to the suitors to contend for her hand with the bow and arrows of Ulysses⁠—Their ineffectual attempts to bend the bow⁠—Management of Ulysses to obtain the bow, which he bends with ease, and sends an arrow through the twelve rings set up in a row for the purpose.

Pallas, the goddess of the azure eyes,
Woke in the mind of sage Penelope,
The daughter of Icarius, this design⁠—
To put into the suitors’ hands the bow
And gray steel rings, and to propose a game
That in the palace was to usher in
The slaughter. So she climbed the lofty stair,
Up from the hall, and took in her plump hand
The fair carved key; its wards were wrought of brass,
And ivory was the handle. Soon she reached
The furthest room with her attendant maids.
There lay the treasures of Ulysses⁠—brass
And gold, and steel divinely wrought. There lay
His bow unstrung; there lay his quiver charged
With arrows; many were the deadly shafts
It held, a stranger’s gift, who met him once
In Lacedaemon, Iphitus by name,
The son of Eurytus, and like the gods
In presence. In Messenè met the twain,
And in the mansion of Orsilochus,
The warlike. Thither had Ulysses come
To claim a debt from all the region round;
For rovers from Messene to their ships
Had driven and carried off from Ithaca
Three hundred sheep and those who tended them.
For this Ulysses, though a stripling yet,
Came that long voyage, on an embassy,
Sent by his father and the other chiefs.
And Iphitus had come in search of steeds
Which he had lost⁠—twelve mares, and under them
Twelve hardy mules, their foals. That errand brought
The doom of death upon him. For he came,
In journeying, to the abode of Hercules,
The mighty hero-son of Jupiter,
Famed for his labors, who, in his own house,
Slew Iphitus, the stranger. Cruel wretch!
Who reverenced not the vengeance of the gods,
Nor what was due to his own board, at which
He placed his guest, and slew him afterward,
And in his stables kept the goodly mares.
’Twas when this guest was seeking for his steeds
He met Ulysses, and bestowed on him
The bow, which mighty Eurytus once bore,
And dying in his lofty palace left
The weapon to his son. Ulysses gave
In turn a trenchant sword and massive lance,
A pledge of kindly hospitality,
Begun, but not continued till they sat
Each at the other’s table; for the son
Of Jove first took the life of him who gave
The bow, the godlike son of Eurytus.
That bow Ulysses, when he went to war
In his black galleys, never took with him,
But left it in his palace, to be kept
In memory of a beloved friend,
And only bore it in his own domain.

Now when the glorious lady reached the room,
And stood upon the threshold, wrought of oak
And polished by the workman’s cunning hand,
Who stretched the line upon it, and set up
Its posts, and hung its shining doors, she loosed
With a quick touch the thong that held the ring.
Put in the key, and with a careful aim
Struck back the sounding bolts. As when a bull
Roars in the field, such sound the beautiful doors,
Struck with the key, gave forth, and instantly
They opened to her. Up the lofty floor
She stepped, where stood the coffer that contained
The perfumed garments. Reaching forth her hand,
The queen took down the bow, that hung within
Its shining case, and sat her down, and laid
The case upon her knees, and, drawing forth
The monarch’s bow, she wept aloud. As soon
As that new gush of tears had ceased to fall,
Back to the hall she went, and that proud throng
Of suitors, bearing in her hand the bow
Unstrung, and quiver, where the arrows lay
Many and deadly. Her attendant maids
Brought also down a coffer, where were laid
Much brass and steel, provided by the king
For games like these. The glorious lady then,
In presence of the suitors, stood beside
The columns that upheld the stately roof.
She held a lustrous veil before her cheeks,
And, while on either side of her a maid
Stood modestly, bespake the suitors thus:⁠—

“Hear, noble suitors! ye who throng these halls,
And eat and drink from day to day, while long
My husband has been gone; your sole excuse
For all this lawlessness the claim ye make
That I become a bride. Come then, for now
A contest is proposed. I bring to you
The mighty bow that great Ulysses bore.
Whoe’er among you he may be whose hand
Shall bend this bow, and send through these twelve rings
An arrow, him I follow hence, and leave
This beautiful abode of my young years,
With all its plenty⁠—though its memory,
I think, will haunt me even in my dreams.”

She spake, and bade the master of the swine,
The good Eumaeus, place the bow and rings
Of hoary steel before the suitor-train.
In tears he bore the bow and laid it down.
The herdsman also wept to see again
His master’s bow. Antinoüs called to both
With a loud voice, and chid them angrily:⁠—

“Ye silly rustics, who can never see
Beyond the hour, why trouble with your tears
The lady who had grief enough besides
For her lost husband? Sit and share the feast
In silence, or go forth and leave the bow;
A difficult contest it will be for us,
Nor, as I think, will this fair bow be bent
With ease, since surely there is no man here
Such as Ulysses was. I saw him once,
While but a child, and still remember him.”

He spake, yet in his secret heart believed
That he should bend the bow, and send a shaft
Through all the rings. And yet he was the first
To taste the steel⁠—an arrow from the hand
Of the great chief Ulysses⁠—whom he wronged
In his own palace, and to equal wrong
Encouraged others. Then Telemachus
Rose in his sacred might, and thus began:⁠—

“Alas! it must be that Saturnian Jove
Has made me lose my wits. Wise as she is,
My mother promises to leave her home
And follow someone else, and yet I laugh,
And am delighted in my foolish heart.
Come then, since such a contest is proposed,
Ye suitors! and for such a woman too.
The like is not in all the lands of Greece,
Argos, Mycenae, or the hallowed shore
Of Pylos, or in Ithaca itself,
Or the dark mainland coast. Ye know it well;
Why should I praise my mother? Come then, all;
Let there be no excuses for delay,
Nor longer leave the bow untried, that we
May see the event. I too am moved to try;
And if I bend the bow, and send a shaft
Through all the rings, my gracious mother then
Will not, to my great grief, renounce her home,
And, following another, leave me here,
Although my prowess even now might win
The glorious prizes that my father won.”

He spake and, rising, from his shoulders took
The purple cloak, and laid the trenchant sword
Aside; and first he placed the rings of steel
In order, opening for them in the ground
A long trench by a line, and stamping close
The earth around them. All admired the skill
With which he ranged them, never having seen
The game before. And then he took his place
Upon the threshold, and essayed the bow;
And thrice he made the attempt, and thrice gave o’er,
Yet hoping still to draw the cord, and send
An arrow through the rings. He would have drawn
The bow at the fourth trial, but a nod
Given by his father caused him to forbear,
Though eager for the attempt. And then again
The princely youth bespake the suitors thus:⁠—

“Well, this is strange! I may hereafter prove
A craven and a weakling, or perchance
Am yet too young, and cannot trust my arm
To do me right against the man who first
Assaults me. Come then, ye whose strength excels
My own, and try the bow, and end the strife.”

He spake, and setting down the bow to lean
Against the firm smooth panels of the wall,
And the swift shaft against the bow’s fair curve,
He took again his seat upon the throne
From which he rose. And then Eupeithes’ son,
Antinoüs, to the crowd of suitors said:⁠—

“Rise one by one, my friends, from right to left.
Begin where he begins who pours the wine.”

So spake Antinoüs, and the rest approved.
Then rose Leiodes, son of Oenops, first.
He was their seer, and always had his seat
Beside the ample bowl. From deeds of wrong
He shrank with hatred, and was sore incensed
Against the suitors all. He took the bow
And shaft, and, going to the threshold, stood
And tried the bow, yet bent it not; it galled
His hands, for they were soft, and all unused
To such a task; and thus at length he spake:⁠—

“O friends, I bend it not; another hand
Must try. This bow, upon this very spot,
Will take from many a prince the breath of life.
And better were it thus to die, by far,
Than, living, fail of that intent for which
We haunt this place, and still from day to day
Assemble. There is many a one whose wish
And hope are strong to wed Penelope,
The consort of Ulysses; but so soon
As he shall see and try the hero’s bow
Let him with marriage presents seek to gain
Some other bride among the long-robed dames,
Achaia’s daughters. Let him leave the queen
To wed the suitor who shall bring to her
The richest gifts, and him whom fate appoints.”

He spake, and setting down the bow to lean
Against the firm smooth panels of the wall,
And the swift shaft against the bow’s fair curve,
He took again his seat upon the throne
From which he rose. Antinoüs then took up
The word and answered, and reproached him thus:⁠—

“What words are these, Leiodes, that have passed
Thy lips? harsh words and fearful⁠—that this bow
Shall take from many princes here the breath
Of life, and all because thou hast no power
To bend it? Thy good mother bore thee not
To draw the bow and send the arrow forth,
But others of the noble suitor-train
Are here, by whom this bow shall yet be bent.”

Then to Melanthius, keeper of the goats,
Antinoüs gave this bidding. “Light a fire
With speed, Melanthius, in the palace here,
And place a seat before it. Lay a fleece
Upon the seat, and bring us from within
An ample roll of fat, that we young men
By warming and anointing may make soft
The bow, and draw the cord, and end the strife.”

He spake; Melanthius kindled instantly
A glowing fire, and near it placed a seat,
And on the seat a fleece, and from within
Brought forth an ample roll of fat, with which
The young men, having warmed it, smeared the bow
And tried, but bent it not, too weak by far
For such a feat. Antinoüs kept aloof,
He and the godlike youth Eurymachus
Two princes who in might excelled the rest.

The herdsman of Ulysses meantime left
The palace, and with him the swineherd went,
And after them Ulysses. When they all
Were now without the gate and palace court,
Ulysses spake to them, and blandly said:⁠—

“Herdsman and swineherd, shall I say to you
Somewhat, or shall I keep it back? My heart
Moves me to say it. Should Ulysses come,
Led by some god, and suddenly, what aid
Would he receive from you? Would ye take part
With him, or with the suitors? Frankly speak;
And tell me what your hearts would bid you do.”

Then answered thus the keeper of the herds:
“O Father Jove! wouldst thou but grant my wish,
And let some god conduct him hither, then
Shall it be seen what might is in these hands!”

So also did Eumaeus offer prayer
To all the deities, that speedily
The wise Ulysses might return; and when
The chief perceived in all its truth the thought
And purpose of their hearts, he spake and said:⁠—

“Know, then, that I myself am he, at home
Again, returning in the twentieth year,
And after many sufferings, to the land
That saw my birth. I know that I am come
Welcome to you alone of all my train
Of servants, since I hear no others pray
For my return. Hear, then, what I engage
Shall be hereafter. If some god o’ercome
For me these arrogant suitors, I will give
To each of you a wife and lands, and build
For each a house near mine, and ye shall be
The friends and brothers of Telemachus
Thenceforth. And now, that ye may surely know
And trust me, I will show a token here⁠—
A scar which once the white tooth of a boar
Made, when long since, on the Parnassian mount,
I hunted with Autolycus’s sons.”

Thus having said, he drew from the broad scar
The covering rags; they looked and knew it well,
And wept, and round Ulysses threw their arms,
And kissed in that embrace the hero’s head
And shoulders, while Ulysses also kissed
Their heads and hands. The sun would have gone down
Upon their weeping, but for him. He said:⁠—

“Cease now from tears, lest someone from the hall
Should see us, and report of us within.
Now let us enter, not in company⁠—
I first, and ye thereafter, one by one,
And let the sign be this: the others all⁠—
The haughty suitors⁠—will refuse to me
The bow and quiver. When thou bearest it,
My noble friend Eumaeus, through the halls,
Bring it and place it in my hands, and charge
The women to make fast the solid doors;
And then if any one of them should hear
A groan or other noise of men within,
Let her not issue forth, but silently
Pursue her task. Meantime be it thy care,
My good Philoetius, with a key to lock
The portals of the court and fix the chain.”

Thus having said, into that noble pile
He passed again, and took the seat from which
He lately rose, and afterward, in turn,
Entered the servants of the godlike chief.

Eurymachus was busy with the bow,
Turning and warming it before the blaze
On both its sides. He could not bend it thus.
There came a deep sigh from his boastful heart,
And greatly was he vexed, and sadly said:⁠—

“Alas! great cause of grief indeed is here
For me and all. ’Tis not that I lament
So much the losing of the bride, although
That also vexes me⁠—there yet remain
Many fair ladies of the Achaian stock,
Both in the seagirt lands of Ithaca
And other regions⁠—yet if we be found
To fall in strength of arm so far below
The great Ulysses that we cannot bend
His bow, our sons will hear of it with shame.”

Eupeithes’ son, Antinoüs, answered thus:
“Not so, Eurymachus, as thou thyself
Shouldst know. This day is held a solemn feast
Of Phoebus by the people. Who would draw
The bow today? Nay, lay it by in peace,
And suffer all the rings to stand as now;
For no man, as I think, will dare to come
Into the palace of Laertes’ son
And take them hence. Let him who bears the cup
Begin to serve the wine, that, having poured
Part to the gods, we may lay down the bow,
And with the morning let Melanthius come⁠—
The goatherd⁠—bringing with him from the flock
The choicest goats, that we may burn the thighs,
An offering to the god of archery,
Apollo. Then will we again essay
The bow, and bring the contest to an end.”

So spake Antinoüs, and they all approved.
Then heralds came, and on the suitors’ hands
Poured water; youths filled up the cups with wine,
Beginning at the right, and gave to each
His share; and when they all had poured a part,
And each had drunk, the shrewd Ulysses thus
With artful speech bespake the suitor-train:⁠—

“Hearken, ye suitors of the illustrious queen,
To what my heart is prompting me to say;
But chiefly to Eurymachus I make
My suit, and to Antinoüs, who so well
Hath counselled to lay by the bow and trust
The gods. Tomorrow Phoebus will bestow
The needed strength on whomsoe’er he will;
But let me take that polished bow, and try
Among you, whether still the power that dwelt
In these once pliant limbs abides in them,
Or whether happily it has passed from me
Amid my wanderings and a life of want.”

He spake, and all were vehemently moved
With anger, for they feared that he would bend
The bow, and thus Antinoüs, railing, spake:⁠—

“Thou worthless vagabond, without a spark
Of reason, art thou not content to sit
And banquet with the proudest, where no part
Of all the feast escapes thee, hearing all
That we are saying, which no other man,
Stranger and beggar, is allowed to hear!
This good wine makes thee foolish, as wine oft
Makes those who swallow it too greedily,
And drink not with due stint. It maddened once
Eurytion, the famed Centaur, in the halls
Of the large-souled Pirithoüs. He had come
Among the Lapithae, and when inflamed
With wine to madness, in those very halls
Did lawless deeds. The heroes were incensed.
They rushed upon him, dragged him through the porch
And out of doors, and there cut off his nose
And ears, and he departed, frenzied still,
And bearing in bewilderment of mind
His punishment, whence war arose between
Centaurs and men; yet surely he had brought
The evil on himself, when overcome
With wine. Such fearful mischief I foretell
Will light on thee, if thou shouldst bend this bow,
Nor canst thou hope for favor here among
The people. We will send thee speedily,
In a black galley, to King Echetus,
The enemy of human kind, from whom
Thou shalt find no escape. Drink, then, in peace
Thy wine, and seek no strife with younger men.”

Then spake the sage Penelope again:
“Truly, Antinoüs, it becomes thee not,
Nor is it just, to vex the stranger guests
Who seek the palace of Telemachus.
Dost thou, then, think that, should this stranger bend,
Proud as he is of his great strength of arm,
The mighty bow that once Ulysses bore,
He leads me hence a bride? No hope of that
Is in his heart, and let no one of you
Who banquet here allow a thought like that
To vex him; ’tis a thing that cannot be.”

Then to the queen, Eurymachus, the son
Of Polybus, replied: “We do not fear,
Sage daughter of Icarius, that this man
Will lead thee hence a bride; it cannot be.
We fear the speech of men and women both.
The very meanest of the Achaian race
Will say: ‘Degenerate men are these, who seek
To wed the consort of a glorious chief,
Not one of whom can draw the bow he bore;
And now there comes a wandering beggar-man,
Who draws the bow with ease, and sends a shaft
Through all the rings of steel.’ Thus will they speak,
And this will be to us a cause of shame!”

And then the sage Penelope rejoined:
“Eurymachus, it cannot be that those
Should earn the general praise who make the wealth
Of a most worthy man their spoil, and bring
Dishonor on his house. The stranger’s frame
Is powerful and well knit; he claims to be
Of noble parentage. Now let him take
The bow, and we will see the event; but this
I promise, and will make my promise good,
If he should bend it⁠—if Apollo give
To him that glory⁠—he shall have from me
A tunic and a cloak, fair garments both,
And a keen javelin, his defence against
Both dogs and men, a two-edged sword besides,
And sandals for his feet, and I engage
To send him whither he desires to go.”

Then spake discreet Telemachus again:
“Mother, in all Achaia there is none
Who has more power than I can claim, to grant
Or to deny the bow to whom I will.
No one of those who rule the rugged coast
Of Ithaca, or isles where Elis breeds
Her mares, may interpose to thwart my will,
If on the stranger I bestow the bow
To be his own, and bid him take it hence.
Withdraw, O queen, into thy bower; direct
Thy household tasks, the distaff and the web,
And bid thy maidens speed the work. The bow
Belongs to men, and most to me; for here,
Within these walls, the authority is mine.”

The queen, astonished, heard him and withdrew,
But kept her son’s wise sayings in her heart
And then ascending to her bower, among
Her maids, she wept her well-beloved lord,
Ulysses, till the blue-eyed Pallas came,
And poured upon her lids the balm of sleep.

Meantime the worthy swineherd bore the bow
In hand, and all along the palace-halls
The suitor-crew were chiding him aloud,
And thus an insolent youth among them spake:⁠—

“Thou awkward swineherd, whither goest thou
With the curved bow? Thy own fleet dogs which thou
Hast reared shall soon devour thee, far from men
And midst thy herds of swine, if we find grace
With Phoebus and the other deathless gods.”

Such were their words; the swineherd where he stood
Set down the bow in fear, for many a voice
Called to him in the hall. On the other side
Shouted Telemachus with threatening words:⁠—

“Nay, father, carry on the bow, nor think
To stop at every man’s command; lest I,
Though younger than thyself, cast stones at thee,
And chase thee to the fields, for I in strength
Excel thee. Would that I excelled as far
In strength of arm the suitors in these halls,
Then would I roughly through the palace-gates
Drive many who are plotting mischief now.”

He spake, and all with hearty laughter heard
His words, and for their sake allowed their wrath
Against the prince to cool. The swineherd went
Forward, along the hall, and, drawing near
The wise Ulysses, gave into his hands
The bow; and then he called the nurse aside,
Dame Eurycleia, and bespake her thus:⁠—

“Sage Eurycleia, from Telemachus
I charge thee to make fast the solid doors,
And then, if any of the maids should hear
A groan or other noise of men within,
Let her not issue forth, but silently
Pursue the task in hand, and keep her place.”

He spake, nor were his words in vain. The dame
Made fast the doors of that magnificent hall,
While silently Philoetius hastened forth
And locked the portals of the high-walled court.
A cable of the barque of Byblos lay
Beneath the portico⁠—it once had served
A galley⁠—and with this the herdsman tied
The portals, and, returning, took the seat
Whence he had risen, but ever kept his eye
Fixed on his lord. Ulysses, meantime, held
The bow, and, turning it, intently eyed
Side after side, and tried each part in turn,
For fear that worms, while he was far away,
Had pierced the horn. At this, a youth among
The suitors, turning to his neighbor, said:⁠—

“Lo an inspector and a judge of bows!
Perhaps he has a bow like that at home,
Or else would make one like it. How he shifts
The thing with busy hands from side to side⁠—
The vagabond, well trained in knavish tricks!”

Then also said another insolent youth:
“May he in all things be as fortunate
As now, when he shall try to bend that bow!”

Such was their talk; but when the wary chief
Had poised and shrewdly scanned the mighty bow,
Then, as a singer, skilled to play the harp,
Stretches with ease on its new fastenings
A string, the twisted entrails of a sheep,
Made fast at either end, so easily
Ulysses bent that mighty bow. He took
And drew the cord with his right hand; it twanged
With a clear sound as when a swallow screams.
The suitors were dismayed, and all grew pale.
Jove in loud thunder gave a sign from heaven.
The much-enduring chief, Ulysses, heard
With joy the friendly omen, which the son
Of crafty Saturn sent him. He took up
A winged arrow, that before him lay
Upon a table, drawn; the others still
Were in the quiver’s womb; the Greeks were yet
To feel them. This he set with care against
The middle of the bow, and toward him drew
The cord and arrow-notch, just where he sat,
And, aiming opposite, let fly the shaft.
He missed no ring of all; from first to last
The brass-tipped arrow threaded every one.
Then to Telemachus Ulysses said:⁠—

“Telemachus, the stranger sitting here
Hath not disgraced thee. I have neither missed
The rings, nor found it hard to bend the bow;
Nor has my manly strength decayed, as these
Who seek to bring me to contempt pretend;
And now the hour is come when we prepare
A supper for the Achaians, while the day
Yet lasts, and after supper the delights
Of song and harp, which nobly grace a feast.”

He spake, and nodded to Telemachus,
His well-beloved son, who girded on
His trenchant sword, and took in hand his spear,
And, armed with glittering brass for battle, came
And took his station by his father’s seat.