Now, the goddess, bright-eyed Athene, prompted wise Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, to confront the Suitors in Odysseus’ palace with his bow and the grey iron axes, as a challenge and a means to their destruction. Penelope climbed the high stair to her room, and with a firm hand, took up a bronze key, finely-shaped with an ivory handle. She made her way with her women to the distant storeroom, where her husband’s treasure lay, gold and bronze and hammered iron. There lay the curved bow, and quiver full of fatal arrows, given him when he visited Lacedaemon, by godlike Iphitus, Eurytus’ son.
They had met in Messene, at the house of wise Ortilochus. Odysseus was there to collect a public debt, because Messenians had stolen three hundred sheep and their shepherds too from Ithaca, loading them aboard their oared ships. Odysseus had been sent by his father and other elders to resolve the matter, though he was still quite young. Iphitus was there in search of a dozen brood mares he had lost, along with the sturdy little mules they were suckling. But his search caused his death, when he came upon Heracles, Zeus’ lion-hearted son, well-versed in mighty labours. Ruthless Heracles killed him, though he was a guest in his house. Careless of the gods’ anger and the sanctity of the dinner-table, he killed him there and then, and hid the heavy-hoofed mares in his own stables.
But back when Iphitus was searching for them, he had met Odysseus, and given him the bow that mighty Eurytus carried of old, and that, dying in his palace, he had left to his son. And Odysseus had given Iphitus in return a sharp sword and a fine spear as a token of the start of a loving friendship. But before they could meet again at table, Zeus’ son had killed godlike Iphitus, Eurytus’ son, the giver of the bow that noble Odysseus had never taken with him aboard his black ship to war, leaving it behind in his palace as a memento of a good friend, to use only at home.
Now Penelope, that lovely woman, reached the storeroom and set foot on the oaken sill, once skilfully planed and trued to the line by some carpenter of old, who also set the doorposts in it, and hung the gleaming doors. Quickly she unhooked the thong, slid in the key and with a sure touch shot back the bolt. With a groan like a bull bellowing in a grassy meadow, the polished doors flew open at the touch of the key. Then she mounted to the high platform loaded with chests of fragrant clothes. Here, reaching up, she lifted the bow, in the gleaming case, from its peg. Then she sat down with the case on her knees, and weeping aloud drew out her husband’s bow. Yet once her tears and sighs were done, she went to the hall and the crowd of noble Suitors, carrying the curved bow and the quiver full of fatal arrows. And the maids followed with a chest full of bronze and iron won by her man. When the lovely woman reached the Suitors, she stood by a pillar of the great hall, with a shining veil in front of her face, and a loyal maid stood on either side. Then she issued her challenge.
‘Noble Suitors, listen to me. You have battened on this house, with its master long gone, eating and drinking endlessly, and you could find no better excuse to offer than the desire to win me as a wife. Well come now, my Suitors, your prize stands here before you, clear to see. Godlike Odysseus’ mighty bow is the test. Whoever makes the best attempt at stringing the bow and shooting an arrow through the rings of a dozen axes, with that man I will go, and leave this house that saw me a bride, this lovely and luxurious house, that I will always remember in my dreams.’
With this she ordered Eumaeus the master-swineherd to set out the bow and the axes with their handle-rings of grey iron for the Suitors. Eumaeus was in tears as he laid them down, and the cowherd wept too, at the sight of his master’s bow. Antinous turned on them in anger: ‘Stupid yokels, living in the past! Your tears, you wretches, lower your mistress’ spirits, as though her heart wasn’t already troubled by her husband’s loss. Sit and eat in silence, or go outside and snivel, and leave the bow here to test us, her Suitors: I doubt this gleaming bow will be easy to string, since I once saw Odysseus, and there’s no man here to equal him. Yes, I remember him, though I was but a child.’
Such were his words, but he nursed the hope in his heart that he himself would string the bow and shoot an arrow through the iron rings. Yet in truth he was to be the first to feel the blow of an arrow from peerless Odysseus whom he was now abusing in the palace, while urging on his friends to do the same.
Then royal Telemachus intervened: ‘Zeus must have addled my wits, indeed! My dear mother, in her wisdom, says she will take another husband and leave this house, and I laugh like a happy idiot! Come, my lords, since your prize is here, a lady who has no equal in all Achaea, not in Pylos, Argos, or Mycenae, nor in Ithaca itself, nor on the dark mainland. You know that yourselves, what need have I to sing my mother’s praises? No excuses now: let’s have no delay in stringing the bow, and then we’ll see. I might even try the bow myself, later. If I can string it and shoot an arrow through the iron rings, I shan’t be so upset by my dear mother’s departure for another house, seeing I myself will be a man capable of winning fine prizes like my father.’
Saying this, Telemachus threw off his purple cloak, and springing up removed the sharp sword slung from his shoulder. Then he set all the axes in a long trench, in a straight line, stamping the earth in around them. The onlookers were amazed that never having seen them before he arranged them so correctly. Then he took up his stand on the threshold and tried the bow. Three times it quivered in his hands as he made a fierce effort to string it, and three times he had to relax his grip, though he had hoped deep down to succeed and shoot an arrow through the iron handle-rings. Now exerting all his power he might have strung it at the fourth attempt had Odysseus not shaken his head, and checked his eagerness.
‘Alas’ royal Telemachus exclaimed, ‘it seems I shall always be a coward and a weakling. But perhaps I am still too young, and haven’t the strength yet to defend myself against whoever picks quarrels for no reason. You then, who have more strength than I, try the bow, and decide the contest.’
With this, he placed the bow on the ground, leaning it against the gleaming panels of the door, and the feathered arrow against the door-handle, and then resumed his seat. Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, called out: ‘Come forward, all of you Suitors, one by one, from left to right, beginning from where the wine-steward sits.’ They welcomed his words, and the first to rise was Leodes, Oenops’ son, their seer, who always sat by the huge mixing bowl in the depths of the hall: he alone despised the Suitors’ acts of wantonness, and they filled him with indignation. Now he was first to take up the feathered arrow and the bow, stride to the threshold, and try to string it. But he failed, his smooth and delicate hands quickly drained of strength. He spoke to the Suitors, saying: ‘My Friends, I cannot do it: let someone else try. This bow will break the heart and spirit of many a man here. Still, it is better to die trying, than live on without winning the prize that brings us here each day, in endless expectation. Many must hope and long to wed Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, but when they have tried the bow, and failed, let them go woo some other Achaean woman in her lovely robe, and try and win her with their gifts. And let Penelope wed the man who offers her most, and is destined to be her husband.’
With this, he set the bow aside, leaning it against the gleaming panels of the door, and the feathered arrow against the door-handle, and then resumed his seat. But Antinous criticised him, saying: ‘Leodes, what dark and monstrous words have crossed your tongue! I’m angered by your suggestion that “this bow will break the heart and spirit of many a warrior here”, merely because you failed to string it. Your dear mother didn’t bear you for drawing a mighty bow, and shooting arrows, perhaps, but others of the noble Suitors will soon succeed.’
Then he called to the goatherd, Melanthius: ‘Quick, light a fire in the hall, Melanthius, and put a large fleece-covered chair beside it, and bring a big piece of tallow from the stores, so that we youngsters can heat the bow and grease it, before we try it and settle the contest.’ Melanthius, swiftly obeyed. He revived the glowing fire, put the large fleece-covered chair beside it, and brought a big piece of tallow from the stores. The youths then warmed the bow and tried to string it, but those who tried were too weak to succeed.
Antinous and godlike Eurymachus, however, the leaders of the Suitors, and the most capable, continued the contest. Meanwhile noble Odysseus’ cowherd and swineherd slipped out of the hall together, and Odysseus followed them. When they were beyond the courtyard gates he sounded them out carefully:
‘Cowherd, swineherd, Can I share something with you or should I keep it to myself? My heart tells me to speak. If Odysseus suddenly returned, brought by some god, would you be the men to fight for him? Would you be for the Suitors or Odysseus? Say what your heart and spirit tell you.’
‘Father Zeus,’ the cowherd prayed, ‘may that come true! May the hero return, with a god’s guidance! Then you would see the strength I can still show in my hands.’ And Eumaeus also prayed, to all the gods, that wise Odysseus might come home.
Once Odysseus was sure, he opened his mind to them, saying: ‘Well, I am home. Here I stand before you, I myself, back in my own country in the twentieth year after many painful trials. I know that of all my servants you both welcome my return, but I’ve not heard a single one of the others praying I might reach home. I’ll tell you truly what I intend for you. If a god brings the noble Suitors down, I’ll find you each a wife, give you goods, and build you a house near mine: and I’ll always regard you as friends and brothers of Telemachus. Now, so you can be certain in your hearts that it is I, let me show you a sign you’ll know, the scar from the wound the white-tusked boar gave me, when I hunted Parnassus with Autolycus’ sons.’
So saying, he drew his rags apart to show the long scar. When the two had examined it carefully, they clasped their arms about wise Odysseus’ neck, and weeping kissed his head and shoulders in loving recognition. Odysseus likewise kissed their heads and hands. And the twilight would have seen them still weeping if Odysseus had not restrained them: ‘Stop wailing now, in case someone comes from the house and sees us, and tells those inside. Let’s go back in, now, one after the other, not together. Follow me, and here’s the signal we will act on. The others, the noble Suitors, will refuse to allow me to handle the bow and quiver, but as you carry the bow round the hall, Eumaeus, set it in my hands, and tell the women to shut their hall doors tight. Say that if any of them hear men shouting or groaning in here, they are not to rush out, but to stay there and silently carry out their tasks. And good Philoetius, I charge you with barring the gate of the courtyard, and lashing it tight.’
With this, he entered the royal palace, and resumed his seat. And the two servants followed.
The bow had reached Eurymachus, who was turning it in his hands before the fire to warm it. But despite that he failed to string it, and groaning inwardly he said, in anger: ‘Oh, I’m not just bitter about this myself, but for all of you, too. It’s not that I’m bothered about the marriage, though it grieves me. There are plenty of other women in Achaea, in Ithaca’s isle, and in other places. No, it’s more that our strength falls so short of godlike Odysseus’ that we can’t even string his bow. It’s a disgrace that posterity will hear of.’
‘No, Eurymachus,’ Antinous, Eupeithes’ son, replied, ‘that’s not so, and do you know why? Today is the feast of Apollo, throughout the island, his holy day. Should we be bending bows? Set it aside, softly. As for the axes, why not leave them there? No one will steal them: not from a house owned by Odysseus, Laertes’ son. Come, let the steward pour wine for libations, and put the bow down. In the morning tell the goatherd, Melanthius, to bring us the best she-goats in the flock, so we can lay thigh-pieces on Apollo’s altar, the famous Archer, then try the bow, and decide the contest.’
They all agreed with Antinous. So, while the squires sprinkled water over their hands, pages filled the mixing bowls and served them all, first pouring a few drops of wine for libation into each man’s cup. When they had made their libations and quenched their thirst, resourceful Odysseus spoke with subtle intent: ‘Suitors of the glorious Queen, hear me, so I might express what is in my mind. I aim my plea primarily at Eurymachus, and godlike Antinous, who made such a good suggestion, to forget the bow for today, and leave the issue to the gods. Come morning the god will grant victory to whoever he wishes. So, lend me the polished bow, and I can see what strength is in my hands, and if I still possess the power I used to have in limbs once supple, or whether poor nourishment and endless wandering has reduced it.’
The Suitors were greatly angered by his words: all afraid he might string the gleaming bow. Antinous addressed him with scorn: ‘Wretched beggar, you’re out of your mind. Isn’t it enough for you we allow you to dine in peace in our noble company, letting you share in what’s on the table, privileged to listen to our talk, unlike other beggars and strangers. The wine, the honeyed wine, has addled your brain as it does others who gulp it down without restraint. It was wine that maddened Eurytion, the famous Centaur, in brave Peirithous’ palace, when he visited the Lapithae. Crazed with drink he caused uproar in Peirithous’ own house. The outraged hosts leapt to their feet, and dragged him through the gate then cut off his nose and ears with the cruel bronze, leaving him to wander off, bearing the burden of tragic error caused by his foolish urge. So began the feud between the Centaurs and men, but he was the first to meet disaster, drunk with the wine. I promise you the same, if you string the bow. You’ll find no help from anyone here. We’ll pack you off in a black ship to King Echetus, the maimer of men, and you’ll not escape with your life. So, have done, and drink your wine, and don’t try and compete with younger men.’
But wise Penelope intervened: ‘It is neither right nor just, Antinous, to deny his due to a man who came to Telemachus’ house as a guest. Do you really think that if the stranger, trusting in the strength of his hands, strings Odysseus’ bow, he will take me home as his wife? He could never harbour such a hope. So let none of you sit at this feast in trepidation: that would be wrong.’
Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, answered her: ‘Icarius’ daughter, wise Penelope, we had no thought of his taking you home, that would certainly be wrong, but we shudder at the thought of idle gossip, of some wretch among the Achaeans saying: “Those are weaklings that woo the wife of a peerless man. They can’t even string his gleaming bow, though a wandering beggar did so easily, and shot an arrow through the axes.” So they would say, and shame us.’
‘Eurymachus’ said wise Penelope, ‘no one thinks well, in any case, of men like you who ruin and dishonour a King’s house, so why worry about further shame? The stranger is tall and well-built, and says he comes of good stock. Well then, hand him the gleaming bow, and let us see. Hear what I say, and I’ll surely do this too: if Apollo brings him glory and he strings the bow, I’ll dress him in a fine new cloak and tunic, and give him a sharp spear to keep off dogs and men, and a double-edged sword, and sandals for his feet, and help him travel wherever his heart and mind dictate.’
It was wise Telemachus who spoke to her then: ‘Mother, none of the Achaeans – those who rule in rocky Ithaca or in the islands seaward of the horse pastures of Elis – have more right than I to give or refuse the bow to whoever I wish. None of them can challenge my will even if I choose to give the bow to the stranger, here and now, to take away with him. So go to your quarters now, and attend to your own duties at loom and spindle, and order your maids about their tasks: let men worry about such things, and I especially, since I hold the authority in this house.’
Seized with wonder she retired to her own room, taking her son’s wise words to heart. Up to her high chamber she went, accompanied by her maids, and there she wept for Odysseus, her dear husband, till bright-eyed Athene veiled her eyelids with sweet sleep.
Meanwhile the worthy swineherd had picked up the curved bow and was walking off with it, when the Suitors cried out in protest. One proud youth called out: ‘Where do you think you’re going with that, you wretch, your mind must be addled? If Apollo and the rest of the gracious gods are good to us, the hounds you’ve bred yourself will finish you off, out there alone, far from men, among the swine.’
At this, Eumaeus dropped the bow he was carrying, on the spot, terrified by the uproar in the hall. But Telemachus shouted harshly at him from the other side: ‘Stick to the bow, old man – you’ll be full of regret if you listen to them all – or, young as I am, I’ll shower you with stones, and chase you through the fields. My strength is greater than yours. I only wish the power of my hands was greater than the Suitors’ in my hall, then I’d soon send a few of them off in a way they wouldn’t enjoy, the trouble makers.’
On hearing this, the Suitors laughed out loud at Telemachus, and so blunted the edge of their anger, while the swineherd carried the bow through the hall, and reaching wise Odysseus, set it in his hands. Then Eumaeus spoke softly to the nurse Eurycleia, saying: ‘Wise Eurycleia, Telemachus orders you to shut the hall doors tight, and if any of the women hear men shouting or groaning in here, they are not to rush out, but to stay where they are and silently carry out their tasks.’
So he spoke, and without a word she went and locked the doors of the great hall. At the same time, Philoetius slipped out quietly to bar the gates of the courtyard. He lashed them to, with a ship’s cable twined from papyrus reed that was lying beneath the portico, then slipped back inside, and resumed his seat, keeping his eyes fixed on Odysseus. He meanwhile was handling the bow, turning it this way and that, fearing the pieces of horn bound to the wood might have become worm-eaten while he was away. The Suitors glanced at each other, and one commented: ‘This fellow must be an expert, or a cunning dealer in bows. Or if he hasn’t got bows like this stored away at home, the wretched beggar must be setting out to make one: he studies it so carefully.’
Another arrogant youth replied: ‘I’d guess he’d have as much luck at that as he will at trying to string this bow.’
So they chattered, but once wily Odysseus had flexed the great bow and checked it all over, he strung it easily, as a man skilled in song and the lyre stretches a new string onto its leather tuning strap, fixing the twisted sheep-gut at either end. Then grasping the bow in his right hand, he plucked the string that sang sweetly to his touch with the sound of a swallow’s note.
The Suitors were mortified, and their faces were drained of colour, while Zeus sounded a peal of thunder as a sign. Noble long-suffering Odysseus was pleased at this omen from the son of devious Cronos, and he picked up the feathered arrow that lay alone on the table next to him, while the others the Achaeans were destined to feel were still packed in their hollow quiver. He set it against the bridge of the bow, drew back the notched arrow with the string, and still seated in his chair let fly with a sure aim. The bronze-weighted shaft flew through the handle hole of every axe from first to last without fail, sped clean through and out at the end. Then he turned to Telemachus saying: ‘The guest in your hall has not disgraced you. I have not missed the target, nor did it take me long to string the bow. My strength is undiminished, not lessened as the Suitors’ taunts implied. Well now it is time for the Achaeans to eat, while there is light, and afterwards we shall have different entertainment, with song and lyre, fitting for a celebration.’
As he spoke he gave the signal, and Telemachus, the godlike hero’s steadfast son, slung on his sharp-edged sword, grasped his spear, and stood beside his father, armed with the glittering bronze.