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Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 156

Siege of Ismarus.

After leaving Troy in ruins, Ulysses embarked with his men and spoils, and, favored by a good wind, soon came within sight of Ismarus, the home of the worthy and wealthy Ciconians. To increase the riches he was carrying home, he proposed to his army to land and storm the city,—a proposal which was enthusiastically received and immediately carried out.

But when the men collected near the fleet, instead of embarking as Ulysses urged them to do, they began to drink the rich wine, to roast oxen whole, and to indulge in games and revelry. While they were thus employed and entirely off their guard, the neighbors and allies of the Ciconians came upon them unawares, and put many to death.

The Greeks, although taken by surprise, fought bravely; but it was only when the sun was fast sinking, that they finally embarked, and left the fatal Ciconian shores.

[338] “Onward we sailed, lamenting bitterly
Our comrades slain, yet happy to escape
From death ourselves.”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).
The Lotus-eaters.

A hurricane soon arose. The flying clouds blotted the stars from view. The vessels, with broken masts and torn sails, were driven far out of their course, and, after ten days, reached the land of the Lotophagi or Lotus-eaters,—a people whose sole food consisted of lotus fruit and blossoms.

Three of Ulysses’ best men were sent ashore to reconnoiter: but they had not gone very far before they met the natives, seated under their favorite trees, banqueting on their sweet food. These received the strangers hospitably, and made them partake of the lotus blossoms; but no sooner had the three men done so, than all recollection of their waiting companions or distant homes passed from their minds, while a dreamy, lethargic sensation stole over them, and made them long to recline there and feast forever.

“Whoever tasted once of that sweet food
Wished not to see his native country more,
Nor give his friends the knowledge of his fate.
And then my messengers desired to dwell
Among the Lotus-eaters, and to feed
Upon the lotus, never to return.”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).

Ulysses impatiently watched for their return; then, seeing they did not appear, feared some evil had befallen them, and set out, with a few well-armed men, to go in search of them. Instead of finding them in chains, as he fully expected, he soon perceived them feasting among the Lotus-eaters. Their eyes had lost all animation, and rested upon him in a vague, dreamy way, which aroused his suspicions. At the same moment some of the Lotus-eaters advanced to invite him and his troop to join in their feast.

[339] “Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far, far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.”
Tennyson.

In peremptory tones Ulysses quickly forbade his men to taste of the magic food, directed them to seize and bind their unwilling comrades, and forcibly take them back to their ships. There the magic effect of the lotus food soon wore away, and the men rowed steadily westward, until they came to the Island of Sicily, then inhabited by the Cyclopes, a rude race of one-eyed giants.

“A single ball of sight was fix’d
In their mid-forehead: hence the Cyclops’ name:
For that one circular eye was broad infix’d
In the mid-forehead:—strength was theirs, and force,
And craft of curious toil.”
Hesiod (Elton’s tr.).

The main part of the fleet was stationed at another island not far distant, but Ulysses and twelve companions landed in Sicily in search of food. The prospect was promising, for on the plains and hillsides great flocks of sheep cropped the tender grass; and Ulysses and his followers soon came to a great cave filled with rich stores of milk and cheese. This was the abode of Polyphemus, son of Neptune, the largest and fiercest among the gigantic Cyclopean race. The Greeks’ first impulse was to help themselves, since no one was there to say them nay; but they finally decided to await the master’s home-coming, and courteously ask his assistance. They had moored their vessel under an overhanging cliff, where no one would be likely to find it, and had therefore no fear lest their means of escape should be cut off.

[340]

Refer to caption

TRIUMPH OF GALATEA.—Raphael.

Polyphemus and Galatea.

[341] Polyphemus, the ugly giant in whose cave they were waiting, had once seen the charming sea nymph Galatea riding in her pearl-shell chariot drawn by bounding dolphins. Her unsurpassed loveliness made a vivid impression upon him, and he was soon deeply in love with her. He neglected his flocks, shunned his companions, and spent all his time near the seashore, watching for her, and bitterly cursing his fate, which prevented his seeking her in her native element, for the gods had cursed the race of Cyclops with an unconquerable aversion to water. He

—“lov’d
Not in the little present-making style,
With baskets of new fruit and pots of roses,
But with consuming passion. Many a time
Would his flocks go home by themselves at eve,
Leaving him wasting by the dark seashore,
And sunrise would behold him wasting still.”
Theocritus (Hunt’s tr.).


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