Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt

The Old Man Who Lived at the Bottom of the Sea

If you and I lived at the bottom of the sea, I think we should know many secrets that we never shall know, wonderful things that we can only guess at now. Did anybody ever live at the bottom of the sea? I do not believe any one ever did, but a great many stories are told about one "Old Man of the Sea" who was very mysterious and knew all the secrets that are covered up by the waters.

It is strange how many secrets we can find out from a little glass of water when we look right through it. Even in a drop  of water we have seen under a microscope little living creatures go about like men wheeling wheelbarrows. It is no wonder then, if there has been a time when the great Sea seemed to be full of large secrets, and when some great old man living down at the bottom came up once in awhile and told them.

You know that when water freezes in a pail the ice is just the shape of the pail, and when it freezes in a pitcher it is just the shape of a pitcher. We know that water takes the shape of any dish into which it is put. And if we stand down by the sea-shore on a stormy day, we see the water rushing into all kinds of shapes and struggling with everything that stands in its way, or that tries to hold it. And then it slips away and takes some other shape.

I wonder how it would seem to take all kinds of shapes and never be twice alike. Perhaps when we came to our senses we might tell a story more marvelous than that which the people told in the olden times about the "Old Man of the Sea." I don't believe they were talking about a man at all, but you may not agree with me when you hear the story.

There was a young man whose father had gone off to the Trojan War, but he did not come back when the war was over. The young man sailed off in a ship to find his father and he came to the country of a good king who had been in the war. The young man begged the king to tell him where his father was, so the king said, "When I came home from the war, I was kept in a strange land for a long time, because I had not remembered to pay to the gods the sacrifices due them. But a goddess pitied me and she told me that her father was the Ancient of the Deep. She was too respectful, I presume, to call him the 'Old Man of the Sea,' but it means just the same. She told me that this land was one of the places her father loved to visit when he came up from his home at the bottom of the waters.

I asked the goddess how I might snare and hold the aged deity, and she made this answer: 'When the sun has climbed into the middle of the heavens, you will see the Ancient of the Deep coming up in the form of a large wave covered with scum. Then he will take the form of a god and walk out of the waves and go into a great cave where he will lie down. There the sea-calves, the children of the Sea-side, lie down and slumber near him as they come up out of the great ocean.

They are many in number and they have a bitter smell like the salt-water of the sea. At the break of day, I will go with you, oh brave king, and show you where you will find them. But now let me tell you the strange tricks of this good old prophet. He will awake after a little while and count all the sea-calves, he will count them five at a time. And when they are numbered, he will lie down to sleep among them as a shepherd lies down among his sheep.

When you see him stretched out at length, catch him and hold him with all your strength, for he will struggle to escape. He will take all kinds of shapes, the form of every reptile, and every other animal on earth, and then he will turn into water again, and into a raging fire. But hold him fast and put tight bands around him. When at last he takes the form of an old man, let him go free, for he will not try any longer to get away from you. Then ask him whatever you please and he will tell you.'

When the goddess had said this to me, she sprang into the billowy ocean and I went back to my ship. When morning came, the goddess came back and brought us each the skin of a sea-calf that had just been killed and wrapped us in them so that we looked exactly like sea-calves ourselves. Then she scooped out beds for us in the sea-sand and sat down to wait his coming. But our hiding-places sickened us, for those sea creatures have vile and bitter odors. We could hardly breathe, so the goddess brought some sweet smelling ambrosia and put it just under our noses.

We lay very quiet, and before noon the sea-calves came in a great crowd and laid themselves in rows along the shore. When the sun was at its highest, the 'Old Man of the Sea' came up out of the waves from his home at the bottom of the sea and counted all the sea-calves. He counted us with the rest and did not discover the fraud. When he had lain down to rest, we rushed out with shouts and caught him in our arms.

He did not forget his tricks but began taking all kinds of shapes, the form of a lion, a serpent, a panther, a huge boar, then he turned to water, and then he became a tall tree full of leaves. We did not let him go, however, and when he was tired out with his struggles to escape, he said, 'Oh, king, who hath taught you to take me in this snare?' I answered him, 'Old Prophet, tell me why I am kept so long in this land, away from my home, and tell me also where are the heroes who fought with me in the Trojan War.' Then he told me all the mysteries I desired to know, why I was detained, and the fates of the heroes, and he said that your father, whom you are seeking, my young friend, had met with many misfortunes and that he had lost his ships and could not leave the enchanted island where he was detained. When the Old Man of the Sea had told me these things, he plunged into the sea and went to his own home at the bottom of the waters."

When the king had finished his story, the young man went back to his ship and sailed to his home, thinking all the time how best he might rescue his father.

And now you may tell me if you have ever seen the "Old Man of the Sea" come up from the great Ocean, and why he comes at noon, and what the sea-calves are, and why he is said to know so many secrets.

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