|A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes|
|by James Baldwin|
|This book paves the way to an enjoyable reading of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, by presenting the legends about the causes of the Trojan War woven into a continuous narrative, ending where the story of the Iliad begins. The youthful Odysseus is the hero, as he journeys to visit his grandfather Autolycus, then Nestor and Menelaus, hearing the old stories as he goes. Ages 8-12 |
A GLIMPSE OF THE WORLD
 TO the simple-hearted folk who dwelt in that island
three thousand years ago, there was never a sweeter
spot than sea-girt Ithaca. Rocky and rugged though
it may have seemed, yet it was indeed a smiling land
embosomed in the laughing sea. There the air was
always mild and pure, and balmy with the breath of
blossoms; the sun looked kindly down from a cloudless
sky, and storms seldom broke the quiet ripple of the
waters which bathed the shores of that island home.
On every side but one, the land rose straight up out of
the deep sea to meet the feet of craggy hills and mountains
crowned with woods. Between the heights were
many narrow dells green with orchards; while the gentler
slopes were covered with vineyards, and the steeps
above them gave pasturage to flocks of long-wooled
sheep and mountain-climbing goats.
On that side of the island which lay nearest the rising sun,
there was a fine, deep harbor; for there the
shore bent inward, and only a narrow neck of land lay
between the eastern waters and the western sea. Close
 on either side of this harbor arose two mountains, Neritus
and Nereius, which stood like giant watchmen overlooking land
and sea and warding harm away; and on
the neck, midway between these mountains, was the
king's white palace, roomy and large, with blossoming
orchards to the right and the left, and broad lawns in
front, sloping down to the water's edge.
Here, many hundreds of years ago, lived Laertes—a man
of simple habits, who thought his little island
home a kingdom large enough, and never sighed for a
greater. Not many men had seen so much of the world
as he; for he had been to Colchis with Jason and the
Argonauts, and his feet had trod the streets of every
city in Hellas. Yet in all his wanderings he had seen
no fairer land than rocky Ithaca. His eyes had been
dazzled by the brightness of the Golden Fleece, and the
kings of Argos and of Ilios had shown him the gold
and gems of their treasure-houses. Yet what cared he
for wealth other than that which his flocks and vineyards
yielded him? There was hardly a day but that
he might be seen in the fields guiding his plough, or
training his vines, or in his orchards pruning his trees,
or gathering the mellow fruit. He had all the good
gifts of life that any man needs; and for them he never
failed to thank the great Giver, nor to render praises
to the powers above. His queen, fair Anticleia, daughter
of the aged chief Autolycus, was a true housewife,
overseeing the maidens at their tasks, busying herself
with the distaff and the spindle, or plying the shuttle
 at the loom; and many were the garments, rich with
finest needlework, which her own fair fingers had
To Laertes and Anticleia one child had been born,—a son,
who, they hoped, would live to bring renown to
Ithaca. This boy, as he grew, became strong in body
and mind far beyond his playfellows; and those who
knew him wondered at the shrewdness of his speech no
less than at the strength and suppleness of his limbs.
And yet he was small of stature, and neither in face
nor in figure was he adorned with any of Apollo's grace.
On the day that he was twelve years old, he stood with
his tutor, the bard Phemius, on the top of Mount Neritus;
below him, spread out like a great map, lay what
was to him the whole world. Northward, as far as his
eyes could see, there were islands great and small; and
among them Phemius pointed out Taphos, the home of
a sea-faring race, where Anchialus, chief of warriors,
ruled. Eastward were other isles, and the low-lying
shores of Acarnania, so far away that they seemed mere
lines of hazy green between the purple waters and the
azure sky. Southward beyond Samos were the wooded
heights of Zacynthus, and the sea-paths which led to
Pylos and distant Crete. Westward was the great sea,
stretching away and away to the region of the setting
sun; the watery kingdom of Poseidon, full of strange
beings and unknown dangers,—a sea upon which none
but the bravest mariners dared launch their ships.
The boy had often looked upon these scenes of beauty
 and mystery, but to-day his heart was stirred with an
unwonted feeling of awe and of wonder at the greatness and
grandeur of the world as it thus lay around
him. Tears filled his eyes as he turned to his tutor.
"How kind it was of the Being who made this pleasant earth,
to set our own sunny Ithaca right in the centre of it,
and to cover it all over with a blue dome like
a tent! But tell me, do people live in all those lands
that we see? I know that there are men dwelling in
Zacynthus and in the little islands of the eastern sea;
for their fishermen often come to Ithaca, and I have
talked with them. And I have heard my father tell of
his wonderful voyage to Colchis, which is in the region
of the rising sun; and my mother often speaks of her
old home in Parnassus, which also is far away towards
the dawn. Is it true that there are men, women, and
children, living in lands which we cannot see? and do
the great powers above us care for them as for the
good people of Ithaca? And is there anywhere another
king so great as my father Laertes, or another kingdom
so rich and happy as his?"
Then Phemius told the lad all about the land of
the Hellenes beyond the narrow sea; and, in the sand
at their feet, he drew with a stick a map of all the
countries known to him.
A GLIMPSE OF THE WORLD.
"We cannot see half of the world from this spot,"
said the bard, "neither is Ithaca the centre of it, as it
seems to you. I will draw a picture of it here in the
sand, and show you where lies every land and every
 sea. Right here in the very centre," said he, heaping
up a pile of sand into the shape of a mountain,—"right
here in the very centre of the world is Mount
Parnassus, the home of the Muses; and in its shadow
is sacred Delphi, where stands Apollo's temple. South
of Parnassus is the Bay of Crissa, sometimes called the
Corinthian Gulf. The traveller who sails westwardly
through those waters will have on his right hand the
pleasant hills and dales of Ætolia and the wooded
lands of Calydon; while on his left will rise the rugged
mountains of Achaia, and the gentler slopes of Elis.
Here to the south of Elis are Messene, and sandy Pylos
where godlike Nestor and his aged father Neleus reign.
Here, to the east, is Arcadia, a land of green pastures
and sweet contentment, unwashed by any sea; and
next to it is Argolis,—rich in horses, but richest of all
in noble men,—and Lacedæmon in Laconia, famous for
its warriors and its beautiful women. Far to the north
of Parnassus is Mount Olympus, the heaven-towering
home of Zeus, and the place where the gods and goddesses
hold their councils."
Then Phemius, as he was often wont to do, began to
put his words into the form of music; and he sang a
song of the world as he supposed it to be. He sang
of Helios the Sun, and of his flaming chariot and his
four white steeds, and of the wonderful journey which
he makes every day above the earth; and he sang of
the snowy mountains of Caucasus in the distant east;
and of the gardens of the Hesperides even farther to the
 westward; and of the land of the Hyperboreans, which
lies beyond the northern mountains; and of the sunny
climes where live the Ethiopians, the farthest distant
of all earth's dwellers. Then he sang of the flowing
stream of Ocean which encircles all lands in its embrace;
and, lastly, of the Islands of the Blest, where
fair-haired Rhadamanthus rules, and where there is
neither snow nor beating rains, but everlasting spring,
and breezes balmy with the breath of life.
"O Phemius!" cried the boy, as the bard laid aside
his harp, "I never knew that the world was so large.
Can it be that there are so many countries and so
many strange people beneath the same sky?"
"Yes," answered Phemius, "the world is very broad,
and our Ithaca is but one of the smallest of a thousand
lands upon which Helios smiles, as he makes his daily
journey through the skies. It is not given to one man
to know all these lands; and happiest is he whose only
care is for his home, deeming it the centre around
which the world is built."
"If only the half of what you have told me be true,"
said the boy, "I cannot rest until I have seen some of
those strange lands, and learned more about the wonderful
beings which live in them. I cannot bear to
think of being always shut up within the narrow
bounds of little Ithaca."
"My dear boy," said Phemius, laughing, "your mind
has been greatly changed within the past few moments.
When we came here, a little while ago, you thought
 that Neritus was the grandest mountain in the world,
and that Ithaca was the centre round which the earth
was built. Then you were cheerful and contented;
but now you are restless and unhappy, because you
have learned of possibilities such as, hitherto, you had
not dreamed about. Your eyes have been opened to
see and to know the world as it is, and you are no
longer satisfied with that which Ithaca can give
"But why did you not tell me these things before?"
asked the boy.
"It was your mother's wish," answered the bard,
"that you should not know them until to-day. Do you
remember what day this is?"
"It is my twelfth birthday. And I remember, too,
that there was a promise made to my grandfather,
that when I was twelve years old I should visit him in
his strong halls on Mount Parnassus. I mean to ask
my mother about it at once."
And without waiting for another word from Phemius,
the lad ran hurriedly down the steep pathway, and was
soon at the foot of the mountain. Across the fields
he hastened, and through the vineyards where the
vines, trained by his father's own hand, were already
hanging heavy with grapes. He found his mother in
the inner hall, sitting before the hearth, and twisting
from her distaff threads of bright sea-purple, while her
maidens plied their tasks around her. He knelt upon
the marble floor, and gently clasped his mother's knees.
 "Mother," he said, "I come to ask a long-promised
boon of you."
"What is it, my son?" asked the queen, laying aside
her distaff. "If there be any thing in Ithaca that I
can give you, you shall surely have it."
"I want nothing in Ithaca," answered the boy; "I
want to see more of this great world than I ever yet
have known. And now that I am twelve years old,
you surely will not forget the promise, long since made,
that I should spend the summer with my grandfather
at Parnassus. Let me go very soon, I pray; for I tire
of this narrow Ithaca."
ODYSSEUS AND HIS MOTHER.
The queen's eyes filled with tears as she answered,
"You shall have your wish, my son. The promise given
both to you and to my father must be fulfilled. For,
when you were but a little babe, Autolycus came to
Ithaca. And one evening, as he feasted at your father's
table, your nurse, Dame Eurycleia, brought you into
the hall, and put you into his arms. 'Give this dear
babe, O king, a name,' said she. 'He is thy daughter's
son, the heir to Ithaca's rich realm; and we hope that
he will live to make his name and thine remembered.'
"Then Autolycus smiled, and gently dandled you
upon his knees. 'My daughter, and my daughter's lord,'
said he, 'let this child's name be Odysseus; for he shall
visit many lands and climes, and wander long upon the
tossing sea. Yet wheresoever the Fates may drive him,
his heart will ever turn to Ithaca his home. Call him
by the name which I have given; and when his twelfth
 birthday shall have passed, send him to my strong halls
in the shadow of Parnassus, where his mother in her
girlhood dwelt. Then I will share my riches with him,
and send him back to Ithaca rejoicing!' So spake my
father, great Autolycus; and before we arose from that
feast, we pledged our word that it should be with you
even as he wished. And your name, Odysseus, has
every day recalled to mind that feast and our binding
"Oh that I could go at once, dear mother!" said
Odysseus, kissing her tears away. "I would come
home again very soon. I would stay long enough to
have the blessing of my kingly grandfather; I would
climb Parnassus, and listen to the sweet music of the
Muses; I would drink one draught from the Castalian
spring of which you have so often told me; I would
ramble one day among the groves and glens, that perchance
I might catch a glimpse of Apollo or of his
huntress sister Artemis; and then I would hasten back
to Ithaca, and would never leave you again."
"My son," then said Laertes, who had come unheard
into the hall, and had listened to the boy's earnest
words,—"my son, you shall have your wish, for I know
that the Fates have ordered it so. We have long looked
forward to this day, and for weeks past we have been
planning for your journey. My stanchest ship is ready
to carry you over the sea, and needs only to be launched
into the bay. Twelve strong oarsmen are sitting now
upon the beach, waiting for orders to embark.
To-  morrow, with the bard Phemius as your friend and
guide, you may set forth on your voyage to Parnassus.
Let us go down to the shore at once, and offer prayers
to Poseidon, ruler of the sea, that he may grant you
favoring winds and a happy voyage."
Odysseus kissed his mother again, and, turning, followed
his father from the hall.
Then Anticleia rose, and bade the maidens hasten to
make ready the evening meal; but she herself went
weeping to her own chamber, there to choose the garments
which her son should take with him upon his
journey. Warm robes of wool, and a broidered tunic
which she with her own hands had spun and woven,
she folded and laid with care in a little wooden chest;
and with them she placed many a little comfort, fruit
and sweetmeats, such as she rightly deemed would please
the lad. Then when she had closed the lid, she threw
a strong cord around the chest, and tied it firmly down.
This done, she raised her eyes towards heaven, and lifting
up her hands, she prayed to Pallas Athené:—
"O queen of the air and sky, hearken to my prayer,
and help me lay aside the doubting fears which creep
into my mind, and cause these tears to flow. For now
my boy, unused to hardships, and knowing nothing of
the world, is to be sent forth on a long and dangerous
voyage. I tremble lest evil overtake him; but more
I fear, that, with the lawless men of my father's household,
he shall forget his mother's teachings, and stray
from the path of duty. Do thou, O queen, go with him
 as his guide and guard, keep him from harm, and bring
him safe again to Ithaca and his loving mother's arms."
Meanwhile Laertes and the men of Ithaca stood
upon the beach, and offered up two choice oxen to
Poseidon, ruler of the sea; and they prayed him that
he would vouchsafe favoring winds and quiet waters
and a safe journey to the bold voyagers who to-morrow
would launch their ship upon the deep. And when the
sun began to sink low down in the west, some sought
their homes, and others went up to the king's white
palace to tarry until after the evening meal.
Cheerful was the feast; and as the merry jest went
round, no one seemed more free from care than King
Laertes. And when all had eaten of the food, and had
tasted of the red wine made from the king's own vintage,
the bard Phemius arose, and tuned his harp, and
sang many sweet and wonderful songs. He sang of
the beginning of things; of the broad-breasted Earth,
the mother of created beings; of the sky, and the sea,
and the mountains; of the mighty race of Titans,—giants
who once ruled the earth; of great Atlas, who
holds the sky-dome upon his shoulders; of Cronos and
old Oceanus; of the war which for ten years raged on
Mount Olympus, until Zeus hurled his unfeeling father
Cronos from the throne, and seized the sceptre for
When Phemius ended his singing, the guests withdrew
from the hall, and each went silently to his own
home; and Odysseus, having kissed his dear father and
 mother, went thoughtfully to his sleeping-room high up
above the great hall. With him went his nurse, Dame
Eurycleia, carrying the torches. She had been a
princess once; but hard fate and cruel war had overthrown
her father's kingdom, and had sent her forth a
captive and a slave. Laertes had bought her of her
captors for a hundred oxen, and had given her a place
of honor in his household next to Anticleia. She loved
Odysseus as she would love her own dear child; for,
since his birth, she had nursed and cared for him.
She now, as was her wont, lighted him to his chamber;
she laid back the soft coverings of his bed; she
smoothed the fleeces, and hung his tunic within easy
reach. Then with kind words of farewell for the night,
she quietly withdrew, and closed the door, and pulled
the thong outside which turned the fastening latch.
Odysseus wrapped himself among the fleeces of his
bed, and soon was lost in slumber.
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