The Return of Odysseus


"Twenty years gone, and I am back again . . ."


Odysseus has finished telling his story to the Phaeacians. The next day, young Phaeacian noblemen conduct him home by ship. He arrives in Ithaca after an absence of twenty years. The goddess Athena appears and informs him of the situation at home. Numerous suitors, believing Odysseus to be dead, have been continually seeking the hand of his wife, Penelope, in marriage, while overrunning Odysseus' palace and enjoying themselves at Penelope's expense. Moreover, they are plotting to murder Odysseus' son, Tetemachus, before he can inherit his father's lands. Tetemachus, who, like Penelope, still hopes for his father's return, has journeyed to Pylos and Sparta to learn what he can about his father's fate. Athena disguises Odysseus as a beggar and directs him to the hut pfEumaeus,' his old and faithful swineherd. While Odysseus and Eumaeus are eating breakfast, Telemachus arrives. Athena then appears to Odysseus.


. . . From the air

she walked, taking the form of a tall woman, handsome and clever at her craft, and stood beyond the gate in plain sight of Odysseus, unseen, though, by Telemachus, unguessed, for not to everyone will gods appear, Odysseus noticed her; so did the dogs, who cowered whimpering away from her. She only nodded, signing to him with her brows, a sign he recognized. Crossing the yard, he passed out through the gate in the stockade to face the goddess. There she said to him: "Son of Laertes and the gods of old, Odysseus, master of landways and seaways, dissemble to your son no longer now. The time has come: tell him how you together will bring doom on the suitors in the town. I shall not be far distant then, for I myself desire battle."

Saying no more,

she tipped her golden wand upon the man, making his cloak pure white, and the knit tunic fresh around him. Lithe and young she made him, ruddy with sun, his jawline clean, the beard

no longer gray upon his chin. And she withdrew when she had done.

Then Lord Odysseus

reappeared—and his son was thunderstruck. Fear in his eyes, he looked down and away as though it were a god, and whispered:


you are no longer what you were just now! Your cloak is new; even your skin! You are one of the gods who

rule the sweep of heaven! Be kind to us, we'll make you fair oblation2 and gifts of hammered gold. Have mercy on us!"

The noble and enduring man replied:

"No god. Why take me for a god? No, no. I am that father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he."

Held back too long, the tears ran down his cheeks as he embraced his son.

Only Telemachus, uncomprehending, wild with incredulity, cried out:

"You cannot

be my father Odysseus! Meddling spirits conceived this trick to twist the knife in me! No man of woman born could work these wonders by his own craft, unless a god came into it with ease to turn him young or old at will. I swear you were in rags and old, and here you stand like one of the immortals!"

Odysseus brought his ranging mind to bear and said:

"This is not princely, to be swept away by wonder at your father's presence. No other Odysseus will ever come, for he and I are one, the same; his bitter fortune and his wanderings are mine. Twenty years gone, and I am back again on my own island.

As for my change of skin, that is a charm Athena, Hope of Soldiers, uses as she will; she has the knack to make me seem a beggar man sometimes and sometimes young, with finer clothes about me. It is no hard

thing for the gods of heaven to glorify a man or bring him low."

When he had spoken, down he sat.

Then, throwing

his arms around this marvel of a father Telemachus began to weep. Salt tears rose from the wells of longing in both men, and cries burst from both as keen and fluttering as those of the great taloned hawk, whose nestlings farmers take before they fly. So helplessly they cried, pouring out tears, and might have gone on weeping so till sundown, had not Telemachus said:

"Dear father! Tell me what kind of vessel put you here ashore on Ithaca? Your sailors, who were they? I doubt you made it, walking on the seal"

Then said Odysseus, who had borne the barren sea:

"Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.

Great seafarers, the Phaeacians, gave me passage

as they give other wanderers. By night

over the open ocean, while I slept,

they brought me in their cutter,3 set me down

on Ithaca, with gifts of bronze and gold

and stores of woven things. By the gods' will

these lie all hidden in a cave. I came

to this wild place, directed by Athena,

so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

Count up the suitors for me, let me know

what men at arms are there, how many men.

I must put all my mind to it, to see

if we two by ourselves can take them on

or if we should look round for help."

Telemachus replied:


"O Father, all my life your fame as a fighting man has echoed in my ears— your skill with weapons and the tricks of war— but what you speak of is a staggering thing, beyond imagining, for me. How can two men do battle with a houseful in their prime?* For I must tell you this is no affair of ten or even twice ten men, but scores, throngs of them. You shall see, here and now.

The number from Dulichiurn alone

is fifty-two picked men, with armorers,

a half dozen; twenty-four came from Same,

twenty from Zacynthus; our own island

accounts for twelve, high-ranked, and their retainers,

Medon the crier, and the Master Harper,

besides a pair of handymen at feasts.

If we go in against all these

I fear we pay in salt blood for your vengeance.

You must think hard if you would conjure up

the fighting strength to take us through."


who had endured the long war and the sea answered:

"I'll tell you now.

Suppose Athena's arm is over us, and Zeus her father's, must I rack my brains for more?"

Clearheaded Telemachus looked hard and said:

"Those two are great defenders, no one doubts it, but throned in the serene clouds overhead; other affairs of men and gods they have to rule over."

And the hero answered:

"Before long they will stand to right and left of us in combat, in the shouting, when the test comes— our nerve against the suitors' in my hall. Here is your part: at break of day tomorrow home with you, go mingle with our princes. The swineherd later on will take me down

the port-side trail—a beggar, by my looks,

hangdog and old. If they make fun of me

in my own courtyard, let your ribs cage up

your springing heart, no matter what I suffer,

no matter if they pull me by the heels

or practice shots at me, to drive rne out.

Look on, hold down your anger. You may even

plead with them, by heaven! in gentle terms

to quit their horseplay—not that they will heed you,

rash as they are, facing their day of wrath.

Now fix the next step in your mind.


counseling me, will give me word, and I shall signal to you, nodding: at that point round up all armor, lances, gear of war left in our hall, and stow the lot away back in the vaulted storeroom. When the suitors miss those arms and question you, be soft in what you say: answer:

'I thought I'd move them

out of the smoke. They seemed no longer those bright arms Odysseus left us years ago when he went off to Troy. Here where the fire's hot breath came, they had grown black and drear. One better reason, too, I had from Zeus: suppose a brawl starts up when you are drunk, you might be crazed and bloody one another, and that would stain your feast, your courtship.

Tempered iron can magnetize a man.'

Say that.

But put aside two broadswords and two spears for our own use, two oxhide shields nearby when we go into action. Pallas Athena and Zeus All-Provident will see you through, bemusing our young friends.

Now one thing more.

If son of mine you are and blood of mine, let no one hear Odysseus is about. Neither Laertes, nor the swineherd here, nor any slave, nor even Penelope.


But you and I alone must learn how far the women are corrupted; we should know how to locate good men among our hands, the loyal and respectful, and the shirkers5 who take you lightly, as alone and young."