Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

The King of Cattle Thieves

O DYSSEUS and his tutor tarried, as I have told you, a whole month at Delphi; for Phemius would not venture farther on their journey until the Pythian oracle should tell him how it would end. In the mean while many strangers were daily coming from all parts of Hellas, bringing rich gifts for Apollo's temple, and seeking advice from the Pythia. From these strangers Odysseus learned many things concerning lands and places of which he never before had heard; and nothing pleased him better than to listen to the marvellous tales which each man told about his own home and people.

One day as he was walking towards the spring of Castalia, an old man, who had come from Corinth to ask questions of the Pythia, met him, and stopped to talk with him.

"Young prince," said the old man, "what business can bring one so young as you to this place sacred to Apollo?"

"I am on my way to visit my grandfather," said Odysseus, "and I have stopped here for a few days while my tutor consults the oracle."

"Your grandfather! And who is your grandfather?" asked the old man.

"The great chief Autolycus, whose halls are on the other side of Parnassus," answered Odysseus.

The old man drew a long breath, and after a moment's silence said, "Perhaps, then, you are going to help your grandfather take care of his neighbors' cattle."

"I do not know what you mean," answered Odysseus, startled by the tone in which the stranger spoke these words.

"I mean that your grandfather, who is the most cunning of men, will expect to teach you his trade," said the man, with a strange twinkle in his eye.

"My grandfather is a chieftain and a hero," said the boy. "What trade has he?"

"You pretend not to know that he is a cattle-dealer," answered the old man, shrugging his shoulders. "Why, all Hellas has known him these hundred years as the King of Cattle Thieves! But he is very old now, and the herdsmen and shepherds have little to fear from him any more. Yet, mind my words, young prince: it does not require the wisdom of the Pythian oracle to foretell that you, his grandson, will become the craftiest of men. With Autolycus for your grandfather and Hermes for your great-grandfather, it would be hard indeed for you to be otherwise."

At this moment the bard Phemius came up, and the old man walked quickly away.

"What does he mean?" asked Odysseus, turning to his tutor. "What does he mean by saying that my grandfather is the king of cattle thieves, and by speaking of Hermes as my great-grandfather?"

"They tell strange tales about Autolycus, the mountain chief," Phemius answered; "but whether their stories be true or false, I cannot say. The old man who was talking to you is from Corinth, where once reigned Sisyphus, a most cruel and crafty king. From Corinth, Sisyphus sent ships and traders to all the world; and the wealth of Hellas might have been his, had he but loved the truth and dealt justly with his fellow-men. But there was no honor in his soul; he betrayed his dearest friends for gold; and he crushed under a huge block of stone the strangers who came to Corinth to barter their merchandise. It is said, that, once upon a time, Autolycus went down to Corinth in the night, and carried away all the cattle of Sisyphus, driving them to his great pastures beyond Parnassus. Not long afterward, Sisyphus went boldly to your grandfather's halls, and said,—

" 'I have come, Autolycus, to get again my cattle which you have been so kindly pasturing.'

" 'It is well, said Autolycus. 'Go now among my herds, and if you find any cattle bearing your mark upon them, they are yours: drive them back to your own pastures. This is the offer which I make to every man who comes claiming that I have stolen his cattle.'

"Then Sisyphus, to your grandfather's great surprise, went among the herds, and chose his own without making a single error.

" 'See you not my initial, Σ, under the hoof of each of these beasts?' asked Sisyphus.

"Autolycus saw at once that he had been outwitted, and he fain would have made friends with one who was more crafty than himself. But Sisyphus dealt treacherously with him, as he did with every one who trusted him. Yet men say, that, now he is dead, he has his reward in Hades; for there he is doomed to the never-ending toil of heaving a heavy stone to the top of a hill, only to see it roll back again to the plain. It was from him that men learned to call your grandfather the King of Cattle Thieves; with how much justice, you may judge for yourself."

"You have explained a part of what I asked you," said Odysseus thoughtfully, "but you have not answered my question about Hermes."

"I will answer that at another time," said Phemius; "for to-morrow we must renew our journey, and I must go now and put every thing in readiness."

"But has the oracle spoken?" asked Odysseus in surprise.

"The Pythia has answered my question," said the bard. "I asked what fortune should attend you on this journey, and the oracle made this reply:—

'To home and kindred he shall safe return ere long,

With scars well-won, and greeted with triumphal song.' "

"What does it mean?" asked Odysseus.

"Just what it says," answered the bard. "All that is now needed is that we should do our part, and fortune will surely smile upon us."

And so, on the morrow, they bade their kind hosts farewell, and began to climb the steep pathway, which, they were told, led up and around to the rock-built halls of Autolycus. At the top of the first slope they came upon a broad table-land from the centre of which rose the peak of Parnassus towering to the skies. Around the base of this peak, huge rocks were piled, one above the other, just as they had been thrown in the days of old from the mighty hands of the Titans. On every side were clefts and chasms and deep gorges, through which flowed roaring torrents fed from the melting snows above. And in the sides of the cliffs were dark caves and narrow grottos, hollowed from the solid rock, wherein strange creatures were said to dwell.

Now and then Odysseus fancied that he saw a mountain nymph flitting among the trees, or a satyr with shaggy beard hastily hiding himself among the clefts and crags above them. They passed by the great Corycian cavern, whose huge vaulted chambers would shelter a thousand men; but they looked in vain for the nymph Corycia, who, they were told, sometimes sat within, and smiled upon passing travellers. A little farther beyond, they heard the mellow notes of a lyre, and the sound of laughter and merry-making, in a grove of evergreens, lower down the mountain-side; and Odysseus wondered if Apollo and the Muses were not there.

The path which the little company followed did not lead to the summit of the peak, but wound around its base, and then, by many a zigzag, led downward to a wooded glen through the middle of which a mountain torrent rushed. By and by the glen widened into a pleasant valley, broad and green, bounded on three sides by steep mountain walls. Here were rich pasture-lands, and a meadow, in which Odysseus saw thousands of cattle grazing. The guide told them that those were the pastures and the cattle of great Autolycus. Close to the bank of the mountain torrent,—just where it leaped from a precipice, and, forgetting its wild hurry, was changed to a quiet meadow brook,—stood the dwelling of the chief. It was large and low and had been hewn out of the solid rock; it looked more like the entrance to a mountain cave than like the palace of a king.

Odysseus and his tutor walked boldly into the great hall; for the low doorway was open and unguarded, and the following words were roughly carved in the rock above: "Here lives Autolycus. If your heart is brave, enter." They passed through the entrance-hall, and came to a smaller inner chamber. There they saw Autolycus seated in a chair of ivory and gold, thick-cushioned with furs; and near him sat fair Amphithea his wife, busy with her spindle and distaff. The chief was very old; his white hair fell in waves upon his great shoulders, and his broad brow was wrinkled with age: yet his frame was that of a giant, and his eyes glowed and sparkled with the fire of youth.

"Strangers," said he kindly, "you are welcome to my halls. It is not often that men visit me in my mountain home, and old age has bound me here in my chair so that I can no longer walk abroad among my fellows. Besides this, there are those who of late speak many unkind words of me; and good men care not to be the guests of him who is called the King of Cattle Thieves." Then seeing that his visitors still lingered at the door, he added, "I pray you, whoever you may be, fear not, but enter, and be assured of a kind welcome."

Then Odysseus went fearlessly forward, and stood before the chief, and made himself known, and showed them the presents which his mother Anticleia had sent. Glad indeed was the heart of old Autolycus as he grasped the hand of his grandson; and Amphithea took the lad in her arms, and kissed his brow and both his eyes, and wept for very fulness of joy. Then, at a call from the old chief, an inner door was opened, and his six sons came in. Stalwart men were they, with limbs strong as iron, and eyes like those of the mountain eagle; and they warmly welcomed the young prince, and asked him a thousand questions about his home in Ithaca, and his queen-mother, their sister Anticleia.

"Waste not the hours in talk!" cried old Autolycus at last. "There is yet another day for words. Make ready at once a fitting feast for this my grandson and his friend the bard; and let our halls ring loud with joyful merriment."

The sons at once obeyed. From the herd which was pasturing in the meadows, they chose the fattest calf; this they slew and quickly dressed; and then, cutting off the choicest parts, they roasted them on spits before the blazing fire. And when the meal was ready, great Autolycus, his wife, and his sons sat down with their guests at the heavy-laden table; and they feasted merrily until the sun went down, and darkness covered the earth. Then the young men brought arm-loads of dry branches, and logs of pine, and threw them upon the fire, and the blaze leaped up and lighted the hall with a rich ruddy glow; and Odysseus sat upon a couch of bearskins, at his grandfather's feet, and listened to many a wonderful story of times long past, but ever present in the old man's memory.

"Truly there are two things against which it is useless for any man to fight," said Autolycus, "and these are old age and death. The first has already made me his slave, and the second will soon have me in his clutches. When I was young, there was not a man who could outstrip me in the foot race. I even thought myself a match for the fleet-footed maiden Atalanta. There were very few men, even among the great heroes, who could hurl a spear with more force than I; and there was hardly one who could bend my great bow. But now both spear and bow are useless. You see them standing in the corner there, where my eyes can rest upon them. To-morrow you shall help me polish them."

Then after a moment's pause he added, "But, oh the wrestling and the leaping! There was never but one mortal who could excel me in either."

"I have heard," said Odysseus, "that even great Heracles was your pupil."

"And such indeed he was," answered the old man. "The first time I saw the matchless hero, he was but a child, tall and beautiful, with the eyes of a wild deer, and with flaxen hair falling over his shoulders. But he was stronger even then than any common mortal. His stepfather Amphitryon called me to Thebes to be the boy's teacher, for he saw in him rich promises of future greatness. With me he called many of the noblest men of Hellas. First there was Eurytus, the master of archers, who taught the hero how to bend the bow, and send the swift arrow straight to the mark. But in an evil day Eurytus met his fate, and all through his own folly. For, being proud of his skill, which no mortal could excel, he challenged great Apollo to a shooting match; and the angry archer-god pierced him through and through with his arrows.

"Second among the teachers of Heracles was Castor, the brother of Polydeuces and of Helen, the most beautiful of women. He taught the hero how to wield the spear and the sword. Then, there was Linus, the brother of Orpheus, sweetest of musicians, who came to teach him how to touch the lyre and bring forth bewitching melody; but the boy, whose mind was set on great deeds, cared naught for music, and the lessons which Linus gave him were profitless. 'Thou art but a dull and witless youth!' cried the minstrel one day, striking his pupil upon the cheek. Then Heracles in wrath smote Linus with his own lyre, and killed him. 'Even a dull pupil has his rights,' said he, 'and one of these is the right not to be called a blockhead.' The Theban rulers brought the young hero to trial for his crime; but he stood up before them, and reminded them of a half-forgotten law which Rhadamanthus, the ruler of the Elysian land, had given them: 'Whoso defends himself against an unjust attack is guiltless, and shall go free.'  And the judges, pleased with his wisdom, gave him his liberty."

"Did Heracles have any other teachers?" asked Odysseus, anxious to hear more.

"Yes; Amphitryon himself taught the lad how to drive a chariot skilfully, and how to manage horses. And, as I have said, he called me to teach him the manly arts of leaping and running and wrestling. He was an apt pupil, and soon excelled his master; and Amphitryon, fearing that in a thoughtless moment he might serve me as he had served unlucky Linus, sent him away to Mount Cithæron to watch his herds which were pasturing there."

"Surely," said Odysseus, looking at the giant arms of his grandfather, ridged with iron muscles,—"surely there was no danger of the young hero harming you."

"A son of Hermes, such as I," said the old chief, "might dare to stand against Heracles in craft and cunning, but never in feats of strength. While the lad fed Amphitryon's flocks in the mountain meadows, he grew to be a giant, four cubits in height, and terrible to look upon. His voice was like the roar of a desert lion; his step was like the march of an earthquake; and fire flashed from his eyes like the glare of thunderbolts when they are hurled from the storm clouds down to the fruitful plains below. He could tear up trees by their roots, and hurl mountain crags from their places. It was then that he slew the Cithæron lion with his bare hands, and took its skin for a helmet and a mantle which, I am told, he wears to this very day. Only a little while after this, he led the Thebans into a battle with their enemies, the Minyans, and gained for them a glorious victory. Then Pallas Athené, well pleased with the hero, gave him a purple robe; Hephaestus made for him a breastplate of solid gold; and Hermes gave him a sword, Apollo a bow, and Poseidon a team of the most wonderful horses ever known. Then, that he might be fully armed, he went into the Nemæan wood, and cut for himself that stout club which he always carries, and which is more terrible in his hands than spear, or sword, or bow and arrows."

"I have heard," said Odysseus, "that Cheiron, the centaur, was one of the teachers of Heracles."

"He was not only his teacher," said Autolycus, "but he was his friend. He taught what was just and true; he showed him that there is one thing greater than strength, and that is gentleness; and he led him to change his rude, savage nature into one full of kindness and love: so that in all the world there is no one so full of pity for the poor and weak, so full of sympathy for the down-trodden, as is Heracles the strong. Had it not been for wise Cheiron, I fear that Heracles would not have made the happy decision which he once did, when the choice of two roads was offered him."

"What was that?" asked Odysseus. "I have never heard about it."

"When Heracles was a fair-faced youth, and life was all before him, he went out one morning to do an errand for his stepfather Amphitryon. But as he walked, his heart was full of bitter thoughts; and he murmured because others no better than himself were living in ease and pleasure, while for him there was naught but a life of labor and pain. And as he thought upon these things, he came to a place where two roads met; and he stopped, not certain which one to take. The road on his right was hilly and rough; there was no beauty in it or about it: but he saw that it led straight towards the blue mountains in the far distance. The road on his left was broad and smooth, with shade trees on either side, where sang an innumerable choir of birds; and it went winding among green meadows, where bloomed countless flowers: but it ended in fog and mist long; before it ever reached the wonderful blue mountains in the distance.

"While the lad stood in doubt as to these roads, he saw two fair women coming towards him, each on a different road. The one who came by the flowery way reached him first, and Heracles saw that she was beautiful as a summer day. Her cheeks were red, her eyes sparkled; she spoke warm, persuasive words. 'O noble youth, she said, 'be no longer bowed down with labor and sore trials, but come and follow me. I will lead you into pleasant paths, where there are no storms to disturb and no troubles to annoy. You shall live in ease, with one unending round of music and mirth; and you shall not want for any thing that makes life joyous,—sparkling wine, or soft couches, or rich robes, or the loving eyes of beautiful maidens. Come with me, and life shall be to you a day-dream of gladness.'

"By this time the other fair woman had drawn near, and she now spoke to the lad. 'I have nothing to promise you,' said she, 'save that which you shall win with your own strength. The road upon which I would lead you is uneven and hard, and climbs many a hill, and descends into many a valley and quagmire. The views which you will sometimes get from the hilltops are grand and glorious, but the deep valleys are dark, and the ascent from them is toilsome; but the road leads to the blue mountains of endless fame, which you see far away on the horizon. They cannot he reached without labor; in fact, there is nothing worth having that must not be won by toil. If you would have fruits and flowers, you must plant them and care for them; if you would gain the love of your fellow-men, you must love them and suffer for them; if you would enjoy the favor of Heaven, you must make yourself worthy of that favor; if you would have eternal fame, you must not scorn the hard road that leads to it.'

"Then Heracles saw that this lady, although she was as beautiful as the other, had a countenance pure and gentle, like the sky on a balmy morning in May.

" 'What is your name?' he asked.

" 'Some call me Labor,' she answered, 'but others know me as Virtue.'

"Then he turned to the first lady. 'And what is your name?' he asked.

" 'Some call me Pleasure,' she said, with a bewitching smile, but I choose to be known as the Joyous and Happy One.'

" 'Virtue,' said Heracles, 'I will take thee as my guide! The road of labor and honest effort shall be mine, and my heart shall no longer cherish bitterness or discontent.'

"And he put his hand into that of Virtue, and entered with her upon the straight and forbidding road which leads to the fair blue mountains in the pale and distant horizon.

"My dear grandson, make thou the same wise choice.

"But now the fire has burned low, and it is time that both old and young should seek repose. Go now to your chamber and your couch; and pleasant dreams be yours until the new day dawns, bringing its labors and its victories."

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Silver-Bowed Apollo  |  Next: Two Famous Boar-Hunts
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.