Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome – The Return of Ulysses (Greece)

When the great city of Troy was taken, the Greek chieftains set sail for their homes; but there was wrath in heaven against them, for they had borne themselves haughtily in the day of their victory. Therefore they did not all find a safe and happy return ; many were shipwrecked, and of them all the wise Ulysses was he who wandered farthest and suffered most. He escaped the enchantments of Circe, the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, came back to his course whence the winds of Aeolus had driven him far, and at last was allowed to come to his own land.

Here the goddess Athena met him and told him that his wife Penelope was almost a prisoner in her own home. The nobles of Ithaca and of the neigh-boring lands, believing Ulysses to be dead, were urging Penelope to marry some one of them. They were living in his house as owners rather than as guests, lording and domineering at their pleasure ; but Penelope, who had always believed that Ulysses would return, had refused her many suitors.

So Athena changed Ulysses in appearance into a very old man clad in tattered rags, and gave him a staff to support his steps. Then she sent him to his herdsman Eumaeus, strictly charging him that he should reveal himself to no man except to his own son Telemachus. Eumaeus received the old beggar kindly, bewailing much that his good master Ulysses did not return and that he was forced to work so long for evil men who hated him. And the old beggar answered him, ” My friend, I say to you solemnly, Ulysses shall return. Within this year, nay, ere this month be fully ended, your eyes shall behold Ulysses in his own palace, righting the wrongs of his wife and his son. ”

Then came to supper the servants of the herdsman, who had been out all day in the fields. After supper the beggar, who had eaten well and was refreshed, told the eager herdsmen tales that related to their king Ulysses and to the wars of Troy.

When morning was come, Ulysses made offer to depart ; but as he spoke the steps of one crossing the court were heard, and a noise of dogs fawning and leaping about as if for joy. Eumaeus said : ” It is the step of Telemachus, the son of King Ulysses. He has heard that there is here one who brings tidings of his father. ”

Ulysses covered his eyes with his hands, that the prince might not see the tears that stood in them. And Telemachus said, ” Is this the man who can tell us tidings of the king my father? ”

Then, as Eumaeus had departed to see to some necessary business, Athena suddenly stood at the door. She gave signs to Ulysses that the time was now come when he should make himself known to his son, and by her great power she changed him back into his own shape.

But Telemachus, who saw now a king in the vigor of his age, where but just before he had seen an old beggar, was struck with fear, and, thinking it was some god, he turned away his eyes. But his father cried: “Look better at me; I am no god. I am but thy father; I am that Ulysses whose absence has exposed thy youth to so many wrongs.” Then he kissed his son, nor could he any longer keep back the tears.

Then said Ulysses again: ” I am he that after twenty years’ absence has seen at last my own country. It was Athena that changed me as you saw.

And Ulysses gave directions to his son to return to the house, but to impart this secret to no one, not even to the queen his mother. And he charged him to hold himself ready, for he should follow shortly in his beggar’s likeness, and together they would drive out the wicked suitors. And Telemachus departed, promising to obey, and Ulysses became again a beggar in base and beggarly attire.

So Ulysses came to his own palace and crept by turns to each of the suitors as they sat at meat, holding out his hand for alms. And some pitied him and gave him alms, but the greater part reviled him and bade him begone as one that spoiled their feast.

Now Telemachus sat at meat with the suitors and knew that it was the king his father who begged an alms. And when his father came to him, he gave him of his own meat, and of his own cup to drink. And the suitors were angry to see a pitiful beggar so honored by the prince, and they said, ” Prince Telemachus does ill to encourage wandering beggars.”

” I see,” said Ulysses, ” that a poor man should get but little at your board.” And one of the suitors, angered by this speech, snatched up a stool and smote the beggar upon the neck and shoulders. But Ulysses said nothing more, for the time was not yet come.

Now Ulysses had not seen his wife Penelope, for the queen did not care to mingle with the suitors at their banquets, but, as became one that had been Ulysses’ wife, kept much in private, spinning and weaving among her maids. But Ulysses now went to her, and the maids said, ” It is the beggar who came to court to-day.” Then Penelope said, ” It may be that he has traveled and has heard something concerning Ulysses.”

So the beggar stood before the queen, and she knew him not to be Ulysses, but supposed that he was some poor traveler. And she asked him questions, but he did not tell her as yet who he was.

Now there was a bow that Ulysses had left when he went to Troy. It had been out of use and unstrung since that time, for no other man had strength to draw that bow. And Athena put it into the mind of Telemachus to propose to the suitors to try who was strongest. And he promised that to the man who should be able to draw the bow his mother should be given in marriage.

So Telemachus set up a mark and the bow was brought into the midst. The chief among the suitors had the first offer. He took the bow and, fitting an arrow to the string, strove to bend it, but not with all his might and main could he draw the ends of the bow together. Then they softened the string with fat, and one by one they tried, but not one could stir the string.

Then Ulysses prayed that he might try, and immediately a clamor was raised among the suitors, who scorned that a beggar should seek to contend in a game of such noble mastery. But Telemachus ordered that the bow should be given to him, since they had all failed.

Then Ulysses took the bow into his hand and surveyed it in all parts, to see if it had become stiff. He found it in good condition . and with ease drew the string of his own tough bow, and as he let it go it twanged with such a shrill noise as a swallow makes when it sings through the air. Then he fitted an arrow to the bow, and, drawing it to the head, he sent it right to the mark which the prince had set up.

Whereupon the rags fell from his shoulders, and his own kingly likeness returned. Telemachus advanced to his side, also armed. Then Ulysses revealed himself to all and said that he was the man whom they held to be dead at Troy, whose palace they had usurped and whose wife they had annoyed. And he dealt his deadly arrows among them, and there was no avoiding them. And Athena in the likeness of a bird sat upon the beam which went across the hall, and clapped her great wings with a fearful noise.

Then certain of the queen’s household went up and told Penelope what had happened, and how her lord Ulysses was come home and had driven out the suitors, and they said, ” That poor guest whom you talked with last night was Ulysses.” But the queen thought they mocked her, and would not believe it.

By this time Telemachus and his father were come to where the queen was. And when she saw Ulysses, she stood motionless and had no power to speak. And Telemachus called to her that it was his father. Then she doubted no longer, but ran and fell upon Ulysses’ neck. And to him his long labors and his severe sufferings seemed as nothing, now that he was restored to his home and his wife and son.

So from that time the land had rest from the suitors, and the happy Ithacans sang songs of praise to the gods for the safe return of their king.

Adapted from ” The Adventures of Ulysses ”

Circe (sir’se) : an enchantress who changed some of Ulysses’ companions into swine. — Scylla (sil’a) and Charybdis (ka rib’dis) : monsters who devoured seamen; supposed to personify a projecting rock and a whirlpool in the Straits of Messina (me se’na), between Italy and Sicily ; hence the saying, ” Escape Scylla to fall into Charybdis.” — “Bolus (e o lus) : the god of the winds. — Penelope (pe nel’o pt). — Eumaeus (u me’us). — Telemachus (te lem’a kus). —Alma-Tadema(al’ma tad’e ma).