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The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler, [1922], at

Book XXI


Then Minerva put it in Penelope's mind to let the suitors compete for the bow and for a prize of iron. So she went upstairs and got the key of the store room, where Ulysses’ treasures of gold, copper, and iron were kept, as also the mighty bow which Iphitus son of Eurytus had given him, and which had been in common use by Eurytus as long as he was alive. Hither she went attended by her women, and when she had unlocked the door she took the bow down from its peg and carried it, with its quiverfull of deadly arrows, to the suitors, while her maids brought the chest in which were the many prizes of iron that Ulysses had won. Then, still attended by her two maidens, she stood by one of the bearing posts that supported the roof of the cloister, and told the suitors she would marry the man among them who could string Ulysses’ bow most easily, and send an arrow through the twelve holes by which twelve axe-heads were fastened on to their handles.

So saying she gave the bow into the hands of Eumæus and 80 bade him let the suitors compete as she had said. Eumæus wept as he took it, and so did Philœtius who was looking on, whereon Antinous scolded them for a couple of country bumpkins.

Telemachus said that he too should compete, and that if he 113 was successful he should certainly not allow his mother to leave her home with a second husband, while he remained alone. So saying he dug a long trench quite straight, set the

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axes in a line within it, and stamped the earth about them to keep them steady; every one was surprised to see how accurately he fixed them, considering that he had never seen anything of the kind before. * Having set the axes duly, he stood on the stone pavement, and tried to string the bow, but failed three times. He would, however, have succeeded the fourth time, if Ulysses had not made him a sign that he was not to try any more. So he laid both bow and arrow down and took his seat.

140 "Then," said Antinous, "begin at the place where the cup-bearer begins, and let each take his turn, going from left to right." On this Leiodes came forward. He was their sacrificial priest, and sat in the angle of the wall hard by the mixing bowl; but he had always set his face against the wicked conduct of the suitors. When he had failed to string the bow he said it was so hard to string that it would rob many a man among them of life and heart—for which saying Antinous rebuked him bitterly.

175 "Bring some fire, Melantheus, and a wheel of fat from inside the house," said he to Melanthius, [sic] "that we may warm the bow and grease it." So they did this, but though many tried they could none of them string it. There remained only Antinous and Eurymachus who were their ring leaders.

188 The swineherd and the stockman Philœtius then went outside the forecourt, and Ulysses followed them; when they had got beyond the outer yard Ulysses sounded them, and having satisfied himself that they were loyal he revealed himself and shewed them the scar on his leg. They were overjoyed, and Ulysses said, "Go back one by one after me, and follow these instructions. The other suitors will not be for letting me have the bow, but do you, Eumæus, when you have got it in your hands, bring it to me, and tell the women to shut themselves

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into their room. If the sound of groaning or uproar reaches any of them when they are inside, tell them to stick to their work and not come out. I leave it to you, Philœtius, to fasten the gate of the outer court securely." He then went inside, and resumed the seat that he had left.

Eurymachus now tried to string the bow but failed. "I do 245 not so much mind," he said, "about not marrying Penelope, for there are plenty of other women in Ithaca and elsewhere. What grieves me is the fact of our being such a feeble folk as compared with our forefathers."

Antinous reminded him that it was the festival of Apollo. 256 "Who," said he, "can shoot on such a day as this? Let us leave the axes where they are—no one will take them; let us also sacrifice to Apollo the best goats Melanthius can bring us, and resume the contest tomorrow."

Ulysses then cunningly urged that he might be allowed to 274 try whether he was as strong a man as he used to be, and that the bow should be placed in his hands for this purpose. The suitors were very angry, but Penelope insisted that Ulysses should have the bow; if he succeeded in stringing it she said it was absurd to suppose that she would marry him; but she would give him a shirt and cloak, a javelin, sword, and a pair of sandals, and she would send him wherever he might want to go.

"The bow, mother, is mine," said Telemachus, "and if I 343 choose to give it this man out and out I shall give it him. Go within the house and mind your own proper duties."

Penelope went back, with her women, wondering into the 354 house, and going upstairs into her room she wept for her dear husband till Minerva shed sweet sleep over her eyes.

Eumæus was about to take the bow to Ulysses, but the 359 suitors frightened him and he was for putting it down, till Telemachus threatened to stone him back to his farm if he did not bring it on at once; he therefore gave the bow to Ulysses. Then he called Euryclea aside and told her to shut the women up, and not to let them out if they heard any groans or uproar. She therefore shut them up.

At this point Philœtius slipped out and secured the main 388

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gate of the outer court with a ship's cable of Byblus fibre that happened to be lying beside it. This done, he returned to his seat and kept his eye on Ulysses, who was examining the bow with great care to see whether it was sound in all its parts.

397 "This man," said the suitors, "is some old bow-fancier; perhaps he has got one like it at home, or wants to make one, so cunningly does the old rascal handle it."

404 Ulysses, having finished his scrutiny, strung the bow as easily as a bard puts a new string on to his lyre. He tried the string and it sang under his hand like the cry of a swallow. He took an arrow that was lying out of its quiver by his table, placed the notch on the string, and from his seat sent the arrow through the handle-holes of all the axes and outside into the yard.

424 "Telemachus," said he, "your guest has not disgraced you. It is now time for the suitors to have their supper, and to take their pleasure afterwards with song and playing on the lyre." So saying he made a sign to Telemachus, who girded on his sword, grasped his spear, and stood armed beside his father's seat.


88:* If Telemachus had never seen anything of the kind before, so probably, neither had the writer of the "Odyssey"—at any rate no commentator has yet been able to understand her description, and I doubt whether she understood it herself. It looks as though the axe heads must have been wedged into the handles or so bound on to them as to let the hole be visible through which the handle would go when the axe was in use. The trial is evidently a double one, of strength as regards the bending of the bow, and accuracy of aim as regards shooting through a row of rings.

Next: Book XXII. The Killing of the Suitors