Ulysses, king of the island of Ithaca, had been very unwilling to go to the Trojan War because there was a prophecy that if he went he would not return for twenty years. So he pretended that he was mad. Yoking an ox and a horse together, he would plow the seashore, and sow the sand with salt.
One of the chiefs suspected that all this was a trick, and to test Ulysses placed the king's infant son Telemachus in front of the plow. Ulysses at once turned the plow to one side and thus showed that he was not mad. He now had no excuse for staying at home and had to go to the war with the other chiefs.
ULYSSES SHOW THAT HIS MADNESS IS A PRETENSE
All through the siege of Troy he was of great value to the Greeks, and after the death of Achilles the splendid armor of that hero was given to Ulysses.
As soon as Troy had fallen he set sail on his homeward voyage. If the winds had been fair he might have reached Ithaca in a month. But the story is that it took him ten years.
He had hardly begun his voyage when his fleet was caught in a storm and his ships were blown to the land of the lotus-eaters. The lotus was a plant that made those who ate it forget their homes and friends forever. Two of Ulysses' sailors went on shore for only a few minutes, and having tasted this curious food became so anxious to stay with the lotus-eaters that they had to be dragged back on board their ship.
After leaving the land of the lotus-eaters the fleet sailed to another shore. The sailors saw the mouth of a cavern and near it large flocks of sheep and goats. Ulysses, with twelve of his men, went to examine the cavern and see if any one lived there. They carried with them a skin full of old wine to give to the king of the island if they should happen to meet him.
They entered the cave and saw pens for sheep and goats. They also found several baskets of cheese. It was plain that somebody lived in the place, so Ulysses decided to wait for the owner and buy some of the cheese from him. Meanwhile he and the sailors helped themselves to what they wanted.
Just as the sun was setting the bleating of sheep and goats was heard, and looking through the mouth of the cave the Greeks saw the owner of the place coming toward them.
He was one of the race of giants called Cyclops, who, you remember, forged lighting and thunder for Jupiter to use in the battles with Cronus. On his back the Cyclops carried a bundle of firewood. Before him went a great flock of sheep and goats. The cave was a shelter for him and his flock.
When the giant had driven the sheep and goats inside he followed them in and closed the entrance with a huge stone. Soon he set about milking the goats. As he milked he muttered that thieves had stolen some of his cheeses. When the milking was over he lighted a fire on the floor of the cave and sat down to a supper of cheese and milk.
The fire lit up the corners of the cave where the Greeks had hidden themselves, and the Cyclops soon saw them.
"Who are you?" he growled. "And what business have you here?"
"Noble Sir, " replied Ulysses, "we are Greeks from the island of Ithaca. With the rest of our nation we have fought against Troy for ten years. At last the city has fallen and now we are sailing homeward. A storm blew us to your island and we landed to look for food. In the name of the blessed gods we ask you to give us something to eat and let us go on our way."
"I care nothing for gods!" roared the Cyclops. "But as for men—let me show you how much I like them!"
With that he seized two of the Greeks and ate them up, devouring even their bones. The other Greeks looked on in terror.
Soon after his supper the Cyclops went to sleep; and Ulysses and his companions would have lost no time in killing him if it had not been for the great stone that blocked the door of the cave. All the Greeks together could not move it, and so they let the Cyclops live because in the morning he would roll the stone away.
Next morning, after devouring two more of the Greeks, he did move the stone; but he put it back as soon as he had driven out his flock, and the Greeks were again shut up. In the evening, after the Cyclops had returned and had supped upon two more Greeks, Ulysses thought of his old wine and asked the giant to taste it. Taste it he did, and then quickly drained three cups.
"What is your name?" asked the Cyclops.
"Noman," answered Ulysses.
"Very well, Noman, you shall be the last that I will eat." And with that the giant lay down in a stupor.
Ulysses had sharpened the trunk of an olive tree that the Cyclops used for a walking cane, and he now held the sharp end in the fire until it glowed. Then with the help of four of his men he rammed the red-hot point into the giant's eye.
The monster roared so loudly that he wakened the other giants who lived in caves nearby, and they came running to ask who had hurt their companion.
"Noman!" screamed the Cyclops. "Noman has put out my eye!"
His friends of course understood him to mean that no one had hurt him. They thought that he had had a terrible nightmare from eating roast cheese and so they went back to their caves.
Ulysses now hit on a plan to get his friends and himself safely out of the cave. He bound the big, long-fleeced rams together, three abreast, and fastened a Greek under each middle ram so that every man was completely covered with fleece. He himself managed to cling to a ram that was the largest of the herd.
When the flock was passing out of the cave the Cyclops thought that perhaps the Greeks would try to ride out on the backs of the sheep and goats; so he carefully felt the back of each animal as it went through the door. But he did not feel the Greeks and they all got out safely.
Ulysses then untied his comrades and they ran quickly to their ships, driving before them some of the sheep of the Cyclops. When men and sheep were on board the vessels Ulysses cried out:
"Good-by, Cyclops! What think you now of the gods? They sent me to punish you for your cruelty. Noman is not my name. I am Ulysses, Ithaca's king."
THE CYCLOPS HURLS STONES AT ULYSSES
At this the Cyclops picked up great rocks and threw them at the ship of Ulysses. The vessel, however, was not struck, and Ulysses and his men sailed on their way.
The next land reached was an island on which Æolus, the god of the winds, had his home. Æolus treated Ulysses very kindly. The west wind, which could carry the ships to Ithaca in nine days, the god left free. All the others he tied up in a stout leather bag, which he gave to the hero. Ulysses then bade farewell to Æolus.
For some time everything went well. One day, however, while Ulysses slept his crew untied the wind bag, hoping to find money in it. As soon as the winds were set free they blew the ships back to the island of Æolus, who drove them off because he thought the gods were angry with them.
The fleet next reached an island where there were cannibals of great size and strength. They broke up all the ships except the one that Ulysses himself commanded, and then feasted on the sailors.
Ulysses made his escape on a single ship with those of his men that were left. He soon arrived at another island, on which at some distance from the shore he saw a marble palace in the middle of a grove. He sent twenty-two men under the charge of his trusty captain Eurylochus to ask for food.
When Eurylochus reached the palace he was met by a troop of lions, tigers and wolves, which capered about and fawned upon him and his men as so many playful puppies might do. This put Eurylochus on his guard. He made up his mind at once that the palace was the home of a wizard or a witch. At the palace gate he inquired, "Who dwells here? We are strangers seeking food."
"Welcome!" replied a voice from within. "Welcome to the palace of the sun-god's daughter. The best that is here shall be yours."
The voice was that of an enchantress called Circe. It was her delight to change men into brutes. The lions, tigers and wolves that had met Eurylochus were really men who had once sat at her table and drunk her enchanted wine.
CIRCE AND THE COMPANIONS OF ULYSSES
Eurylochus refused to eat, but the men who went with him were a gluttonous set. They ate greedily and drank deeply. When the feast was at its height Circe touched them with her wand and changed them into hogs.
Eurylochus returned to the ship and told what had happened. Ulysses then hastened to Circe's palace. On the way Mercury met him and walked with him some distance. As they passed through a wood the god plucked some flowers of a plant called moly and gave them to Ulysses.
"Smell them," said Mercury, "while Circe is talking to you and especially when you drink her enchanted wine."
When he reached the palace the hero was welcomed as his comrades had been. Circe herself put a golden cup full of wine into his hand. Ulysses took the cup and drained it, taking care all the while to smell the moly that Mercury had given him in the wood.
When the cup was empty the enchantress tapped the hero with her wand and said, "Now, turn to a pig and join your grunting companions."
Unchanged, however, Ulysses drew his sword and cried, "Wicked enchantress, you have no power over me. The gods have sent me here to punish you and you shall die."
"I will undo what I have done if you will spare me," she cried.
So Ulysses followed her to the sty, where she touched the swine, one by one, with her magic wand. As each was touched he was changed back to a man. Next the troop of lions, tigers and wolves were touched, and they too were quickly changed back to men.
The other Greeks were then called from the ships and Circe gave them a feast. After this Ulysses remained on her island for a whole year.
When at last he was going to sail the enchantress gave him some good advice. On the homeward way he and his men would have to pass close to the Isle of the Sirens, as the Argonauts had done long before them.
"To sail by the Sirens' Isle safely," said Circe, "let the men fill their ears with wax and lash you to the mast when the ship draws near to the Isle."
Ulysses and his men then left Circe's island. As they drew near to the Sirens' Isle Ulysses made the sailors fill their ears with wax and lash him to the mast. As they rowed past the Sirens sweet music came over the waters.
"Loose me!" Ulysses cried to his sailors. "Loose me. I must go nearer that music!" But the sailors rowed on. They could hear neither him nor the song of the Sirens.
"Slaves!" cried Ulysses, "Loose me!" But the sailors rowed on.
The music grew fainter and fainter. At last it died away, and the vessel was out of danger. Then the men took the wax from their ears and loosed the cords that bound their chief.
After passing the Sirens' Isle Ulysses had to sail through a dangerous strait, now know as the Strait of Messina. In a rocky cave on one side of it dwelt a monster called Scylla that had six heads and six mouths. Each mouth could take in a whole man at once. Near the other side of the strait was Charybdis, a whirlpool that sucked down all ships that came near it.
Ulysses saw that he could not escape both these dangers, and so to avoid Charybdis he steered close to Scylla. He ordered his men to row as fast as they could past the monster's cave; and the ship fairly spun through the water. But Scylla was also quick. Darting out all her heads at once, she seized six of the crew. While she was devouring them the ship sped past her, and Ulysses with the rest of his men escaped.
The hero now wished to continue his voyage without stopping, but his comrades were so tired that he agreed to land for the night on the coast of Sicily. So they pulled their ship up the sandy shore and soon all were fast asleep.
In the morning a storm was howling about them. It would have been certain shipwreck to put to sea. The storm raged for a whole month, and even crafty Ulysses did not know what to do.
Worst of all, their provisions began to fail. So the sailors made up their minds to kill some of the famous fat cattle belonging to Apollo that were kept upon the island. Ulysses had been warned not to kill the animals and had ordered his men to leave them alone.
One day, however, when he was away his crew killed some of the cattle. They lit a fire and were roasting several nice pieces of beef when suddenly all started back in terror. The pieces of beef lowed as though they were living and the skins of the slaughtered oxen got up and began to switch their tails and toss their horns and gallop up and down the shore.
The moment the tempest lulled the men dragged their ship down the shore and pushed off as fast as they could.
They were not far out at sea when, suddenly, blackness covered the sky and a dreadful squall blew up. The ship went to pieces and all the men were drowned except Ulysses, who was washed up on the shore of a lonely island.
The island was the home of the sea-nymph Calypso. She treated the shipwrecked hero most kindly and became so fond of him that she kept him with her seven years, and promised to make him immortal if he would stay with her always.
But Ulysses longed for home. So at last Calypso led him to the other side of her island, and there he saw a forest of stately pine trees. With a keen bronze axe he soon felled twenty trunks; with these he built a raft, and bidding farewell to Calypso he set out on his homeward voyage.
Soon a storm arose. Heavy waves dashed over the raft and broke it to pieces. The hero clung to one log and drifted on it two days and two nights. The wind then lulled, and Ulysses, seeing land near, swam to the shore. Cold and tired, he gathered dry leaves, lay down upon them, and soon fell asleep. He slept all night and all the next morning.
At noon Nausicaa, the daughter of the king of the island, went to the shore with her maidens. Their talking and laughing awakened Ulysses, and the princess, on hearing the tale of his shipwreck, took him home to her father's palace.
NAUSICAA AND HER MAIDS
Here he was royally welcomed, and the very next day a ship was made ready and he was sent home to Ithaca.
When at dawn the ship reached Ithaca Ulysses was so fast asleep that the crew carried him out of the vessel, wrapped in the rug on which he was sleeping, and laid him upon the sandy shore without wakening him.
When he awoke he did not know where he was. But the goddess Minerva appeared and told him that he was on his own island of Ithaca, and that Penelope, his wife, loved him as much as ever. Then he climbed the rocky heights of the island and went to the cottage of his swineherd, who invited him in. Without telling the swineherd who he was he stayed at the cottage that night.
Next morning there appeared at the swineherd's home Ulysses's son, Telemachus, who had just come back from a long search for his father. Ulysses made himself known to his son and they talked over all that had happened while Ulysses had been so far away.
More than a hundred men from Ithaca and the neighboring isles had come to Ulysses' palace, hoping to marry Penelope. For months and years they had stayed at her palace, feasting and drinking at her expense and demanding that she marry one of them. She told them that she could not wed until she had finished a shroud for her father-in-law, who was old and likely to die. She had spent years in making that shroud and even yet it was not finished,—for every night she had undone what she had woven during the day.
The suitors at last discovered the trick that Penelope was playing and refused to be put off any longer. They insisted that she must choose one of them for her husband. It was while they were doing this that Ulysses reached home.
He planned a way to punish the suitors. He first sent Telemachus to the palace alone to see his mother. Then, dressed as a beggar, Ulysses followed with the swineherd.
When he came to the palace gate in rags and tatters no one imagined who he was, but his old dog Argo knew him and licked his hand. The swineherd led the way into the banquet hall, and a few paces behind him walked the ragged beggar, leaning upon a staff.
The swineherd kindly gave him a seat and invited him to eat and drink of the good cheer on the table. Hardly had Ulysses seated himself when jests and insults were heaped upon him by the suitors. It wrung the heart of Telemachus to see his father so badly used in his own palace, but he kept his temper and waited.
Not long after Ulysses' arrival Penelope entered the banquet hall. She did not know that her husband had returned, but Minerva had told her what to do. So she stood beside one of the columns that upheld the roof of the hall, and said:
"Hear, all who are in this hall of Ulysses! You wish to take the place of my husband. I bring to you his bow. Whoever among you can bend and string it and with it shoot an arrow through twelve rings, him will I wed and him will I follow from this fair home."
Then the suitors, one by one, haughtily tried to string the bow. And, one by one, they utterly failed to bend it.
Ulysses then demanded that he, too, might try to bend the bow. Amid sneers and laughter he was at length allowed to do so.
As easily as a skillful player stretches a cord from side to side of the harp, so without any effort he strung the bow; and forthwith through each and all of the twelve rings an arrow winged its way. It was followed by another which struck the chief man among the suitors dead. Telemachus and two faithful men, who had already locked the doors of the hall, now lent their aid to Ulysses. Arrows flew, swords flashed, and clubs were swung, until all the suitors who had tried to steal his wife and kingdom from Ulysses lay dead on the floor of the banquet hall.
ULYSSES SLAYS THE SUITORS
Penelope's joy was great when she learned that the beggar was her husband; and Ulysses' delight at finding that she still loved him made all his weary wanderings seem like a dream.