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

Page: 166

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PENELOPE. (Vatican, Rome.)

Ulysses’ return to Ithaca.

Disguised as a beggar by Minerva’s kindly care, Ulysses sought the lowly dwelling of Eumæus, his swineherd, and from him [357] learned all he wished to know about his wife and son. He heard that Penelope was fairly besieged with suitors, who were even now feasting and reveling in his palace, whence they refused to depart until she had made choice of a second husband; and also that Telemachus, now a young man, indignant and displeased with the suitors’ conduct, and guided and accompanied by his tutor Mentor, had set out in search of the father whom he could not believe dead.

Mentor was Minerva in disguise, who guided the young man to the courts of Nestor and Menelaus, and finally in a dream bade him return to Ithaca, where he would find the parent he sought. The young prince immediately obeyed, and landed near Eumæus’ hut, escaping a clever ambuscade posted by the suitors at the entrance of the port.

Minerva now permitted the father and son to recognize each other, in spite of their twenty years’ separation, and together they planned how best to punish the insolent suitors. They finally agreed that Telemachus should return to the palace and make no mention of his father’s return; while Ulysses, still in the guise of a beggar, should enter his home and claim the usual hospitality.

All was executed as they had planned. No one recognized the long-expected hero in the miserable old beggar—no one save his aged nurse Euryclea, and his faithful old dog Argus, who died for joy at his long-lost master’s feet.

“While over Argus the black night of death
Came suddenly as soon as he had seen
Ulysses, absent now for twenty years.”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).
Penelope’s web.

Penelope, hearing that a stranger was within her gates, sent for him, to inquire whether he knew aught of her husband. She too failed to pierce his disguise, and languidly continued a piece of work which she cleverly used to baffle her suitors; for once, when urged to marry, she had replied that she would do so as soon as her work was finished.

[358] As she was a diligent worker, the suitors expected soon to hear her decision, little knowing that she raveled at night all the web so carefully woven during the day.

“Three full years
She practiced thus, and by the fraud deceived
The Grecian youths.”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).
Ulysses’ bow.

At last the subterfuge was discovered, and the unfortunate Penelope was forced to finish her work; but ere it was quite done, she found another expedient to postpone her choice of a husband. She brought Ulysses’ bow, and announced that she would marry the man who could bend it and send an arrow through twelve rings which she pointed out.

“‘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.’”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).
Death of the suitors.

The suitors all vainly strove to bend the mighty bow, which was then seized by the disguised Ulysses, while the youths laughed aloud in scorn, until Telemachus bade them let the old man try his strength. To the amazement of all, Ulysses easily performed the required feat; and then, turning his aim toward Antinous, the handsomest and most treacherous of all the suitors, he pierced his heart.

A scene of wild commotion ensued, in which Ulysses, Telemachus, Eumæus, and Minerva disguised as Mentor, opposed and slew all the wooers. Penelope, unconscious of all this bloodshed, slept in her room, until she was gently awakened by Euryclea, who announced the return of her long-absent husband.

[359] “‘Awake, Penelope, dear child, and see
With thine own eyes what thou hast pined for long.
Ulysses has returned; thy lord is here,
Though late, and he has slain the arrogant crew
Of suitors, who disgraced his house, and made
His wealth a spoil, and dared insult his son.’”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).

But Penelope had too long believed her husband dead to credit this marvelous news; and it was only after Ulysses had given her an infallible proof of his identity, by telling her a secret which was shared by her alone, that she received him.

Ulysses’ last journey.

Ulysses was now safe at home, after twenty years of warfare and adventure, and at first greatly enjoyed the quiet and peace of his home life; but after a while these tame joys grew wearisome, and he decided to renew his wanderings. He therefore prepared a fleet, and sailed “out into the West,” whence he never returned. The Greeks, however, averred that he had gone in search of the Isles of the Blest, where he dwelt in perfect peace, and enjoyed the constant society of heroes as brave and renowned as himself.

“‘Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides: and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’”




You have already heard how the Greeks entered the city of Troy in the dead of night, massacred the inhabitants, and set fire to the beautiful buildings which had been the king’s pride and delight. Now you shall hear how Virgil relates the escape of some of the Trojans from general destruction.

Unconscious of coming danger, Æneas, son of Venus and Anchises, lay fast asleep in his palace; but the gods had not doomed him to perish, and sent the shade of Hector to warn him in a dream to arise, leave the city, and fly to some distant land.

“‘Ah, goddess-born,’ he warns me, ‘fly!
Escape these flames: Greece holds the walls;
Proud Ilium from her summit falls.
Think not of king’s or country’s claims:
Country and king, alas! are names:
Could Troy be saved by hands of men,
This hand had saved her then, e’en then.
The gods of her domestic shrines
That country to your care consigns:
Receive them now, to share your fate:
Provide them mansions strong and great,
The city’s walls, which Heaven has willed
Beyond the seas you yet shall build.’”
Virgil (Conington’s tr.).
Æneas goes to save Priam.

Awakened at last by the ever-increasing tumult without, Æneas seized his arms and hastened forth, attended by many of his fellow-citizens, to ascertain the cause of the great uproar. [361] A few minutes later he discovered that the Greek army had entered the town, and was even now killing, plundering, and burning without mercy. The men were all slain, but the fairest women were dragged away to be sold as slaves in Greece; and among them Æneas beheld in the hands of Agamemnon’s soldiers the unfortunate daughter of Priam, Cassandra, whom the gods had endowed with prophetic powers (p. 310), but whom no one would heed.

Æneas, seeing ere long that there was no hope of saving the doomed city, quickly disguised himself in a Greek armor which he tore from the corpse of one of his foes, and rushed on to the palace, hoping to save the aged king, who, at the first alarm, had seized his weapons, determined to fight to the very last.