IV TELEMACHUS MEETS THE COUNCIL

                                          IV

 

As soon as it was dawn Telemachus rose from his bed. He got dressed, hung his sharp sword across his shoulder, and took in his hand a bronze spear. Then he went to where the Council was being held in the open air.

The men of the land of Ithaka had gathered already for the council. When everyone was there, the man who was oldest amongst them, the lord Ægyptus, stood up and spoke. He had sons, and two of them were working in his fields. But one, Eurynomous was one of the wooers of Telemachus’ mother. Ægyptus had had another son. He had gone on Odysseus’ ship to the war of Troy, and Ægyptus knew he had died on his way back. He constantly mourned for this son, and thinking about him as he spoke, Ægyptus had tears in his eyes.

‘Never since Odysseus summoned us together before he set sail for the war of Troy have we met in council,’ said he. ‘Why have we been brought together now? Has someone heard news of the return of Odysseus? If so, may the god Zeus give luck to him who tells us of such good fortune.’

Telemachus was glad because of the kindly speech of the old man. He stood up to speak and the herald put a staff into his hands as a sign that he was to be listened to with respect. Telemachus then spoke, addressing the old lord Ægyptus.

‘I will tell you who it is,’ he said, ‘who has called the men of Ithaka together in council, and for what purpose. Lord Ægyptus, I have called you together, but not because I have had news of the return of my father, Odysseus, nor because I want to speak to you about some affair of our country. No. I want to speak to you all because I suffer and because I am at a loss. Odysseus has been away from Ithaka for a long time, and I believe that he will never return. You have lost your King. But you can choose another King to rule over you. I have lost my father, and I can never have another father . And that is not my only loss, as I will show you now, men of Ithaka.

‘For three years now my mother has been plagued by men who come to woo her to be wife for one of them. Day after day they come to our house and kill and devour our animals and drink the wine that was stored for my father’s return. They waste our goods and our wealth. If I were an adult I would defend my house against them. But as yet I am not able to do it, and so I have to stand by and see our house and wealth being destroyed.’

When his speech was ended Antinous, who was one of the wooers, stood up.

‘Telemachus,’ he said, ‘why do you try to put us to shame in this way? I tell all here that it is not us, but your mother who is to blame. We, knowing her husband Odysseus is no longer alive, have asked her to become the wife of one of us. She gives us no honest answer. Instead she has come up with a cunning trick to keep us still waiting.

‘I will tell you of the council what this trick is. The lady Penelope set up a great loom in her house and began to weave a wide piece of cloth. To each of us she sent a message saying that when the shroud she was working at was woven, she would choose a husband from amongst us. “Laertes, the father of Odysseus, is alone with none to care for him living or dead,” said she to us. “I must weave a shroud for him for when old Laertes dies. Do not bother me while I do this. For if he should die and there is no winding sheet to wrap him in all the women of the land would blame me greatly.”

‘We were not unreasonable and we left the lady Penelope to weave the shroud, and the months have gone by and still the shroud is not finished. But we have heard from one of her maids how Penelope tries to finish her task. What she weaves in the daytime she unravels at night. Never, then, can the shroud be finished and this is how she tries to cheat us.

‘ People have praised her  for doing this. “How wise Penelope is,” they say, “with her tricks.” Let her be satisfied with their praise then, and leave us alone. We too have our tricks. We will live at her house and eat and drink there and give orders to her servants and we shall see which will satisfy her best—to give an answer or to let the wealth of her house be wasted.

‘As for you, Telemachus, I have these words to say to you. Lead your mother from your father’s house and to the house of her father, Icarius. Tell Icarius to give her in marriage to the one she chooses from amongst us. Do this and no more goods will be wasted in the house that will be yours,’

Then Telemachus rose and said, ‘ I will never lead my mother out of a house that my father brought her into. Leave my father’s house, or  the day may come when a doom will fall upon you there for your insolence in it.’

Even as Telemachus spoke, two eagles from a mountain flew over the place where the council was being held. They wheeled above and flapped their wings and looked down on the crowd with destruction in their gaze. They tore each other with their talons, and then flew away across the City.

An old man who was there, named Halitherses who was skilled in the signs made by birds, told those who were around what was foretold by the combat of the eagles in the air. ‘Odysseus,’ he said, ‘is not far from his friends. He will return, and his return will mean trouble for those who insult his house. Now let them end their mischief.’ But the wooers only laughed at the old man, telling him he should go home and prophesy to his children.

Then another old man, whose name was Mentor stood .He was someone who had been a friend of Odysseus. He spoke to the council saying,’ Never again need a King be gentle in his heart. Your King, Odysseus was kind and gentle to you all. And now his son asks you for help and you do not give it to him. It is not so much upsetting to me that these wooers waste his goods as that you do not rise up to forbid it. But let them persist in doing it and see what happens to them at last. For a doom will come on them, I say. And I say again to you of the council, you are many and the wooers are few. Why then don’t you drive them away from the house of Odysseus?’

But no one in the council took the side of Telemachus and Halitherses and Mentor—so powerful were the wooers and so afraid of them were the men of the council. The wooers looked at Telemachus and his friends with mockery. Then for the last time Telemachus stood up and spoke to the council.

‘I have spoken in the council, and the men of Ithaka know, and the gods know, the rights and wrongs of my case. All I ask of you now is that you give me a swift ship with twenty youths to be my crew so that I may go to Pylos and to Sparta to seek news of my father. If I find he is alive and that he is returning, then I can endure waiting another year in the house and accept what you do there.’

They even mocked this speech. One of them called Leocritus said, ‘Even if Odysseus is alive and one day came into his own hall that would not frighten us. He is one, and we are many, and if he should fight with those who outnumber him, why then, let his doom be on his own head. And now, men of the council, go home, and let Mentor and Halitherses help Telemachus to get a ship and a crew.’

Leocritus said that knowing that Mentor and Halitherses were old and had few friends, and that they could do nothing to help Telemachus to get a ship. The council broke up. But the wooers went together back to the house of Odysseus.