THE HOMECOMING OF ULYSSES
BY M. M. BIRD
After ten long years of fighting Troy had fallen
and the kings and captains had sailed away bearing
home to Greece the spoils of the sacked city. Among
these chieftains was Ulysses, lord of the small and rocky
island of Ithaca, and none more famous than he for
prowess in arms and yet more for the spirit of wisdom
that the wise goddess Minerva put into the heart of her
But while the other leaders straightway sought their
homes, Ulysses roamed the seas for another ten years.
The goddess Juno loved him not, and often drove him
from his course; and he, ever yearning to gain knowledge
of lands and men, encountered the strangest adventures
in his wanderings, some of which you have already heard.
But it is of his homecoming that I have now to tell.
His perils and adventures were not ended yet, and
without Minerva's aid he must surely have perished.
When he landed on the rocky coast of Ithaca he found
himself a complete stranger in his own land after twenty
years of absence, so by Minerva's advice he disguised
himself as a beggar that he might discover something
of the state of his kingdom before making himself known.
His queen, Penelope, had suffered great troubles and
perplexities all these years. She had the care of all the
lands and vast herds of cattle that made up the riches
of the kingdom; many of her servants proved both dishonest
and rebellious; and now a number of the neighboring
princes had come seeking her hand in marriage.
For all men held that Ulysses must have perished or he
would surely have returned ere this. Telemachus, her
young son, had just reached manhood, but was not yet
strong enough unaided to drive out his mother's bold and
shameless suitors and restore order to his realm. So
the suitors continued to live in the palace, feasting daily
and wasting Ulysses' goods and cattle with their wanton
extravagances, while they continually urged Penelope to
marry one of their number and give him the right to rule
her kingdom for her. To this she would not give consent,
for she loved Ulysses, and wept in secret over his
absence and longed for his return, though she scarcely
dared to hope for it after so many years had passed without
news of his safety.
At length Telemachus was inspired by Minerva to set
out on a journey to seek his father. The goddess accompanied
him in the guise of a wise old man named Mentor,
to assist him in his search. After adventurous wanderings
he reached the city of Sparta, where King Menelaus
reigned, who gave him news of Ulysses and counseled
him to return at once to Ithaca since his father was on
his way thither. Telemachus hastened back, and, arriving
before he was expected, went secretly to the house
of Eumaeus, a faithful servant of the King, who for
many years had filled the post of chief herdsman and
keeper of the royal swine. This was an office of trust,
for much of the wealth of the kingdom was in these
herds of swine, which were required as sacrifices to the
gods as well as for human food.
Ulysses by this time had reached the house of
Eumaeus, who had received him with kindness, and fed
him, although he did not recognize his King in the aged
beggar he found at his door. To this beggar he made
complaint of the King's wasted substance, and the insufferable
behavior of these suitors of the Queen. His
tales of their doings made Ulysses' blood boil. He could
hardly contain his indignation sufficiently to sustain the
character of a wandering beggar whom these things did
not concern. But he succeeded so well that Eumaeus
had no suspicion who his strange guest could be.
When Telemachus appeared, Eumaeus greeted him
with the tenderness of a father, for he loved the young
man dearly, and at once hastened to announce the joyful
news of his safe return to his mother Penelope. When
thus left alone, Ulysses threw off his disguise and declared
himself to his son. Long time they discussed how
best to take vengeance on these wicked and insolent
princes who were plotting to deprive them of their kingdom;
and they decided that as they were many and powerful
it was needful to exercise caution and overcome
them by cunning. Therefore Telemachus departed to the
palace and disclosed to no one the news of Ulysses' return,
not even to the Queen his mother.
The wicked suitors had planned an ambush to slay
the young prince as he made his way home from his
journey in search of his father, but thanks to his secret
and unexpected arrival, he had escaped their clutches.
According to their daily custom they sat down to a
feast in the hall of the palace, where Telemachus, putting
on an appearance of great friendliness, joined them.
Thither Eumaeus persuaded his aged guest to accompany
him. In fluttering rags and leaning on his staff as though
weighed down by age and weakness, Ulysses passed along
the road to the palace that was his own. Outside the
gate they were met by Melanthius, the faithless steward,
whose own ill deeds made him show spite and jealousy
to the blameless Eumaeus. He rated the old beggar
soundly and ordered him away, and when he protested,
cursed him and muttered a prayer that some suitor's
sword might pierce the heart of Telemachus and rid them
of a son no better than his dead father. Ulysses stood
a moment in speechless rage, doubting whether to strike
the wretch to earth with one blow of his mighty arm;
but wiser counsels prevailed, and he curbed his anger
and bore all affronts and insults with a noble fortitude
that steadfastly awaited the right moment to strike.
Passing the insolent Melanthius with disdain they approached
the door. Lying on a dunghill beside the way
Ulysses beheld his aged hound Argus, the hero of many
a gallant chase. Now neglected, starved, forlorn, he had
crept forth to die. But at the sound of his master's
voice he strove in vain to raise the wasted body that was
too weak to move from the dunghill where it lay. But
with tail and ears and eyes he proclaimed his joy. A tear
stole unperceived down Ulysses' cheek. He questioned
Eumaeus about the hound, and as he paused, the noble
creature, to whom fate had granted a sight of his master
after twenty years of patient waiting, took one last look
When Eumaeus introduced the old beggar into the
banqueting hall, true to the character he had adopted
Ulysses went round to each reveler in turn and begged
for food. Some carelessly flung him a few scraps, giving
away readily what was not their own, but Antinous,
the most lawless and violent of all the suitors, abused
him and threw a footstool at him, striking him on the
shoulder. Telemachus indignantly protested against this
act of violence, and Ulysses was permitted to sit down
by the door, with his scrip full of scraps from the princes'
Presently there entered another beggar, a surly vagrant
of great stature, named Irus, well known at the
tables of the rich. He was enraged to find that another
had been before him, and attacked the old man with loud
abuse, finally challenging him to a fight, thinking him too
weak with age to defend himself.
The princes applauded him and urged on the fight
between the two beggars. Ulysses pretended to fear,
but when he threw off his rags and displayed his well-knit
limbs and great muscles, all gazed at him astonished,
and Irus tried to escape. He was caught and
dragged before Ulysses and forced to engage in the combat
he had provoked. Ulysses, knowing his own strength
to be invincible, did not strike with more than half his
force, but the first blow broke the sturdy beggar's jaw
and flung him to the ground, from whence he was unable
to rise. Ulysses was then given as the prize of victory
a stew of savory meat.
When the revelers were deep in their cups Ulysses and
his son Telemachus stole away from the hall and conferred
together in secret. They gathered all the best of
the weapons in the armory and hid them in a convenient
chamber, to be at hand in case of need.
Telemachus then introduced Ulysses to the chamber of
his mother Penelope, who failed to pierce his disguise,
but listened with eagerness to the account the beggar gave
of his wanderings and adventures. He claimed to have
formerly entertained her husband in Crete, described his
appearance exactly, and declared to her joy that his return
within a month was certain. She then sent him to
the bath, and bade Euryclea wait upon him. It happened
that Euryclea was his old nurse, and her heart
went out to the stranger, for in his look and voice there
was something that reminded her of her absent lord.
Gladly she fetched water to refresh him and knelt before
him to bathe his feet. He remembered the long scar on
his thigh, made by the tusk of a wild boar when as a
youth he had hunted on Parnassus, and he strove to keep
it concealed. But the loving eyes of his faithful nurse
pierced the tattered rags that he wore, and she knew him
for her lord and master. "My son—my King!" she
cried. He laid his hand on her lips to stay the cry of
joy that broke from her, and gravely warned her not to
betray his return.
When he returned from his bath, the Queen, still more
impressed by his noble presence, though yet she knew him
not, confided to him a design she had planned to assist
her choice among these suitors who were all distasteful
to her. She proposed to set them a superhuman task—to
bend the great bow of Ulysses and perform the feat
in which he used to excel. Two rows of beams, six
in each row, should be set at equal distances apart, to
support twelve silver ax rings, and through each line of
six rings the archer must let fly his arrow straight and
true. And the noble archer who should perform this feat
should be rewarded by her hand.
Ulysses applauded this design, urging her not to fear
to name herself the prize, since Ulysses himself would
enter the lists before the trial was over, win the prize,
and claim her for his own.
The following day another great feast was set, and
the princes sat down to their feasting. Ulysses by this
had watched the behavior of his people, and now understood
who were faithful to him and who deserved no
trust. Into this scene of revelry Penelope entered with
her maidens, bearing the great bow and arrows of
Ulysses, and challenged the princes to bend this bow and
shoot the arrow through the silver rings as her lord
Ulysses had been used to do, promising that he who
could accomplish this should be her husband.
The beams were already set in place, and Telemachus
claimed his right to try his skill first among the suitors,
since victory meant to him the safeguarding of a kingdom
already his by right of descent. He set the axes in line
upon the beams, with the rings ready for the flight of
his arrow. Three times his young arm tried to bend the
bow, three times he failed.
Then all the princes in order, from right to left, took
up the bow in turn and tried their skill. In vain they
strained their muscles; they rubbed the bow with fat;
they warmed it at the flame to make it supple; they tried
every device to bend it. The tough bow bent not in their
While they strove Ulysses took aside Eumaeus, and
Philaetus a herdsman and one who had remained faithful
to him, and revealed himself to them. He then ordered
that every door of the palace should be guarded
by a trusty matron, and the main gate secured by a
cable, and bade them then attend on him in the hall.
Telemachus had sent his mother and her maids away to
their own apartments, and asserting his authority now
directed Eumaeus to bear the bow to the disguised beggar,
that he might try his skill and strength. All the
suitors were furious at this strange favor shown to a
common beggar, and it was amidst a scene of tumult and
confusion that Ulysses, without rising from his seat, bent
the bow and sent his arrow straight and true through
the silver rings. There was a moment of silent astonishment.
Telemachus hastened to gird on his sword and,
taking his javelin in his hand, stood by his father's side.
Ulysses cried aloud to the suitors that he had won the
first game he had tried to-day, and was ready to play
a second with them. And another arrow winged its way
straight at the throat of Antinous, who had raised a
golden bowl and was drinking deep of the wine. The
arrow pierced his neck and he dropped the goblet and fell
lifeless on the marble floor.
There was panic in the hall; the princes looked in vain
for weapons or a way of escape from the doom that
menaced them. "Aimest thou at princes?" they cried
to Ulysses in their terror.
"Dogs! ye have had your day!" cried he, and declared
his name and estate to them. Some drew their swords
and rushed on him, but the flying arrows pinned them,
and they fell dead in heaps, while the sword and javelin
of young Telemachus did good service. At length every
suitor lay dead. The hall was like a shambles.
Then the unfaithful servants were made to purify the
palace and afterwards paid with their lives for their
misdeeds, while those who had been true to their lord
crowded around him with joy.
Euryclea flew to summon the sleeping Penelope. She
was unable to believe the glad news. "Ulysses comes!
The suitors are no more!" She could not think it true.
At last she stood trembling before her lord, still afraid
to believe it was he, age and time seemed to have made
him so strange to her eyes.
Then Minerva crowned her watchful care of the hero
by restoring to him the beauty of his youth; but still
the Queen hesitated. Ulysses therefore described to her
the marvels of the bridal bed he had contrived for her
of the huge olive tree that grew in the courtyard.
Penelope saw then that it was indeed the King, who
alone could have known the secret of the bed. She fell
fainting into his arms in a transport of joy, and Ulysses
once more resumed his sway over the kingdom.