|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 |
THE KING OF CATTLE THIEVES
 ODYSSEUS and his tutor tarried, as I have told you, a
whole month at Delphi; for Phemius would not venture
farther on their journey until the Pythian oracle
should tell him how it would end. In the mean while
many strangers were daily coming from all parts of
Hellas, bringing rich gifts for Apollo's temple, and
seeking advice from the Pythia. From these strangers
Odysseus learned many things concerning lands and
places of which he never before had heard; and nothing
pleased him better than to listen to the marvellous
tales which each man told about his own home and
One day as he was walking towards the spring of
Castalia, an old man, who had come from Corinth to ask
questions of the Pythia, met him, and stopped to talk
"Young prince," said the old man, "what business can
bring one so young as you to this place sacred to
"I am on my way to visit my grandfather," said
 Odysseus, "and I have stopped here for a few days while
my tutor consults the oracle."
"Your grandfather! And who is your grandfather?" asked
the old man.
"The great chief Autolycus, whose halls are on the
other side of Parnassus," answered Odysseus.
The old man drew a long breath, and after a moment's
silence said, "Perhaps, then, you are going to help
your grandfather take care of his neighbors' cattle."
"I do not know what you mean," answered Odysseus,
startled by the tone in which the stranger spoke these
"I mean that your grandfather, who is the most cunning
of men, will expect to teach you his trade," said the
man, with a strange twinkle in his eye.
"My grandfather is a chieftain and a hero," said the
boy. "What trade has he?"
"You pretend not to know that he is a cattle-dealer,"
answered the old man, shrugging his shoulders. "Why, all
Hellas has known him these hundred years as the King of
Cattle Thieves! But he is very old now, and the
herdsmen and shepherds have little to fear from him any
more. Yet, mind my words, young prince: it does not
require the wisdom of the Pythian oracle to foretell
that you, his grandson, will become the craftiest of
men. With Autolycus for your grandfather and Hermes for
your great-grandfather, it would be hard indeed for you
to be otherwise."
 At this moment the bard Phemius came up, and the old
man walked quickly away.
"What does he mean?" asked Odysseus, turning to his
tutor. "What does he mean by saying that my grandfather
is the king of cattle thieves, and by speaking of
Hermes as my great-grandfather?"
"They tell strange tales about Autolycus, the mountain
chief," Phemius answered; "but whether their stories be
true or false, I cannot say. The old man who was
talking to you is from Corinth, where once reigned
Sisyphus, a most cruel and crafty king. From Corinth,
Sisyphus sent ships and traders to all the world; and
the wealth of Hellas might have been his, had he but
loved the truth and dealt justly with his fellow-men.
But there was no honor in his soul; he betrayed his
dearest friends for gold; and he crushed under a huge
block of stone the strangers who came to Corinth to
barter their merchandise. It is said, that, once upon a
time, Autolycus went down to Corinth in the night, and
carried away all the cattle of Sisyphus, driving them
to his great pastures beyond Parnassus. Not long
afterward, Sisyphus went boldly to your grandfather's
halls, and said,—
" 'I have come, Autolycus, to get again my cattle which
you have been so kindly pasturing.'
" 'It is well, said Autolycus. 'Go now among my herds,
and if you find any cattle bearing your mark upon them,
they are yours: drive them back to your own pastures.
This is the offer which I make to
 every man who comes
claiming that I have stolen his cattle.'
"Then Sisyphus, to your grandfather's great surprise,
went among the herds, and chose his own without making
a single error.
" 'See you not my initial, Σ, under the hoof of each of
these beasts?' asked Sisyphus.
"Autolycus saw at once that he had been outwitted, and
he fain would have made friends with one who was more
crafty than himself. But Sisyphus dealt treacherously
with him, as he did with every one who trusted him. Yet
men say, that, now he is dead, he has his reward in
Hades; for there he is doomed to the never-ending toil
of heaving a heavy stone to the top of a hill, only to
see it roll back again to the plain.
It was from him
that men learned to call your grandfather the King of
Cattle Thieves; with how much justice, you may judge
"You have explained a part of what I asked you," said
Odysseus thoughtfully, "but you have not answered my
question about Hermes."
"I will answer that at another time," said Phemius;
"for to-morrow we must renew our journey, and I must go
now and put every thing in readiness."
"But has the oracle spoken?" asked Odysseus in
"The Pythia has answered my question," said the
"I asked what fortune should attend you on this
journey, and the oracle made this reply:—
'To home and kindred he shall safe return ere long,
With scars well-won, and greeted with triumphal song.' "
"What does it mean?" asked Odysseus.
"Just what it says," answered the bard. "All that is
now needed is that we should do our part, and fortune
will surely smile upon us."
And so, on the morrow, they bade their kind hosts
farewell, and began to climb the steep pathway, which,
they were told, led up and around to the rock-built
halls of Autolycus. At the top of the first slope they
came upon a broad table-land from the centre of which
rose the peak of Parnassus towering to the skies.
Around the base of this peak, huge rocks were piled,
one above the other, just as they had been thrown in
the days of old from the mighty hands of the Titans. On
every side were clefts and chasms and deep gorges,
through which flowed roaring torrents fed from the
melting snows above. And in the sides of the cliffs
were dark caves and narrow grottos, hollowed from the
solid rock, wherein strange creatures were said to
Now and then Odysseus fancied that he saw a mountain
nymph flitting among the trees, or a satyr with shaggy
beard hastily hiding himself among the clefts and crags
above them. They passed by the great Corycian cavern,
whose huge vaulted chambers
 would shelter a thousand
men; but they looked in vain for the nymph Corycia,
who, they were told, sometimes sat within, and smiled
upon passing travellers. A little farther beyond, they
heard the mellow notes of a lyre, and the sound of
laughter and merry-making, in a grove of evergreens,
lower down the mountain-side; and Odysseus wondered if
Apollo and the Muses were not there.
The path which the little company followed did not lead
to the summit of the peak, but wound around its base,
and then, by many a zigzag, led downward to a wooded
glen through the middle of which a mountain torrent
rushed. By and by the glen widened into a pleasant
valley, broad and green, bounded on three sides by
steep mountain walls. Here were rich pasture-lands, and
a meadow, in which Odysseus saw thousands of cattle
grazing. The guide told them that those were
the pastures and the cattle of great Autolycus. Close
to the bank of the mountain torrent,—just where it
leaped from a precipice, and, forgetting its wild
hurry, was changed to a quiet meadow brook,—stood the
dwelling of the chief. It was large and low and had
been hewn out of the solid rock; it looked more like
the entrance to a mountain cave than like the palace of
Odysseus and his tutor walked boldly into the great
hall; for the low doorway was open and unguarded, and
the following words were roughly carved in the rock
above: "Here lives Autolycus. If your heart
 is brave,
enter." They passed through the entrance-hall, and came
to a smaller inner chamber. There they saw Autolycus
seated in a chair of ivory and gold, thick-cushioned
with furs; and near him sat fair Amphithea his wife,
busy with her spindle and distaff. The chief was very
old; his white hair fell in waves upon his great
shoulders, and his broad brow was wrinkled with age:
yet his frame was that of a giant, and his eyes glowed
and sparkled with the fire of youth.
"Strangers," said he kindly, "you are welcome to my
halls. It is not often that men visit me in my mountain
home, and old age has bound me here in my chair so that
I can no longer walk abroad among my fellows. Besides
this, there are those who of late speak many unkind
words of me; and good men care not to be the guests of
him who is called the King of Cattle Thieves." Then
seeing that his visitors still lingered at the door, he
added, "I pray you, whoever you may be, fear not, but
enter, and be assured of a kind welcome."
Then Odysseus went fearlessly forward, and stood before
the chief, and made himself known, and showed them the
presents which his mother Anticleia had sent. Glad
indeed was the heart of old Autolycus as he grasped the
hand of his grandson; and Amphithea took the lad in her
arms, and kissed his brow and both his eyes, and wept
for very fulness of joy. Then, at a call from the old
chief, an inner door was opened, and
 his six sons came
in. Stalwart men were they, with limbs strong as iron,
and eyes like those of the mountain eagle; and they
warmly welcomed the young prince, and asked him a
thousand questions about his home in Ithaca, and his
queen-mother, their sister Anticleia.
"Waste not the hours in talk!" cried old Autolycus at
last. "There is yet another day for words. Make ready
at once a fitting feast for this my grandson and his
friend the bard; and let our halls ring loud with
The sons at once obeyed. From the herd which was
pasturing in the meadows, they chose the fattest calf;
this they slew and quickly dressed; and then, cutting
off the choicest parts, they roasted them on spits
before the blazing fire. And when the meal was ready,
great Autolycus, his wife, and his sons sat down with
their guests at the heavy-laden table; and they feasted
merrily until the sun went down, and darkness covered
the earth. Then the young men brought arm-loads of dry
branches, and logs of pine, and threw them upon the
fire, and the blaze leaped up and lighted the hall with
a rich ruddy glow; and Odysseus sat upon a couch of
bearskins, at his grandfather's feet, and listened to
many a wonderful story of times long past, but ever
present in the old man's memory.
"Truly there are two things against which it is useless
for any man to fight," said Autolycus, "and these are
old age and death. The first has already made me
slave, and the second will soon have me in his
clutches. When I was young, there was not a man who
could outstrip me in the foot race. I even thought
myself a match for the fleet-footed maiden Atalanta.
There were very few men, even among the great heroes,
who could hurl a spear with more force than I; and
there was hardly one who could bend my great bow. But
now both spear and bow are useless. You see them
standing in the corner there, where my eyes can rest
upon them. To-morrow you shall help me polish them."
Then after a moment's pause he added, "But, oh the
wrestling and the leaping! There was never but one
mortal who could excel me in either."
"I have heard," said Odysseus, "that even great
Heracles was your pupil."
"And such indeed he was," answered the old man. "The
first time I saw the matchless hero, he was but a
child, tall and beautiful, with the eyes of a wild
deer, and with flaxen hair falling over his shoulders.
But he was stronger even then than any common mortal.
His stepfather Amphitryon called me to Thebes to be the
boy's teacher, for he saw in him rich promises of
future greatness. With me he called many of the noblest
men of Hellas. First there was Eurytus, the master of
archers, who taught the hero how to bend the bow, and
send the swift arrow straight to the mark. But in an
evil day Eurytus met his fate, and all through his own
folly. For, being proud of his skill, which no
could excel, he challenged great Apollo to a shooting
match; and the angry archer-god pierced him through and
through with his arrows.
"Second among the teachers of Heracles was Castor, the
brother of Polydeuces and of Helen, the most beautiful
of women. He taught the hero how to wield the spear and
the sword. Then, there was Linus, the brother of
Orpheus, sweetest of musicians, who came to teach him
how to touch the lyre and bring forth bewitching
melody; but the boy, whose mind was set on great deeds,
cared naught for music, and the lessons which Linus
gave him were profitless. 'Thou art but a dull and
witless youth!' cried the minstrel one day, striking
his pupil upon the cheek. Then Heracles in wrath smote
Linus with his own lyre, and killed him. 'Even a dull
pupil has his rights,' said he, 'and one of these is
the right not to be called a blockhead.' The Theban
rulers brought the young hero to trial for his crime;
but he stood up before them, and reminded them of a
half-forgotten law which Rhadamanthus, the ruler of the
Elysian land, had given them: 'Whoso defends himself
against an unjust attack is guiltless, and shall go
free.' And the judges, pleased with his wisdom, gave
him his liberty."
"Did Heracles have any other teachers?" asked Odysseus,
anxious to hear more.
himself taught the lad how to drive a
chariot skilfully, and how to manage horses. And, as I
have said, he called me to teach him the
 manly arts of
leaping and running and wrestling. He was an apt pupil,
and soon excelled his master; and Amphitryon, fearing
that in a thoughtless moment he might serve me as he
had served unlucky Linus, sent him away to Mount
Cithæron to watch his herds which were pasturing
"Surely," said Odysseus, looking at the giant arms of
his grandfather, ridged with iron muscles,—"surely
there was no danger of the young hero harming you."
"A son of Hermes, such as I," said the old chief,
"might dare to stand against Heracles in craft and
cunning, but never in feats of strength. While the lad
flocks in the mountain meadows, he
grew to be a giant, four cubits in height, and terrible
to look upon. His voice was like the roar of a desert
lion; his step was like the march of an earthquake; and
fire flashed from his eyes like the glare of
thunderbolts when they are hurled from the storm clouds
down to the fruitful plains below. He could tear up
trees by their roots, and hurl mountain crags from
their places. It was then that he slew the
Cithæron lion with his bare hands, and took its
skin for a helmet and a mantle which, I am told, he
wears to this very day. Only a little while after this,
he led the Thebans into a battle with their enemies,
the Minyans, and gained for them a glorious victory.
Then Pallas Athené, well pleased with the hero,
gave him a purple robe; Hephaestus made for him a
breastplate of solid gold; and Hermes gave him a sword,
Apollo a bow, and Poseidon a team
 of the most wonderful
horses ever known. Then, that he might be fully armed,
he went into the Nemæan wood, and cut for
himself that stout club which he always carries, and
which is more terrible in his hands than spear, or
sword, or bow and arrows."
"I have heard," said Odysseus, "that Cheiron, the
centaur, was one of the teachers of Heracles."
"He was not only his teacher," said Autolycus, "but he
was his friend. He taught what was just and true; he
showed him that there is one thing greater than
strength, and that is gentleness; and he led him to
change his rude, savage nature into one full of
kindness and love: so that in all the world there is no
one so full of pity for the poor and weak, so full of
sympathy for the down-trodden, as is Heracles the
strong. Had it not been for wise Cheiron, I fear that
Heracles would not have made the happy decision which
he once did, when the choice of two roads was offered
"What was that?" asked Odysseus. "I have never heard
"When Heracles was a fair-faced youth, and life was all
before him, he went out one morning to do an errand for
his stepfather Amphitryon. But as he walked, his heart
was full of bitter thoughts; and he murmured because
others no better than himself were living in ease and
pleasure, while for him there was naught but a life of
labor and pain. And as he thought upon these things, he
came to a place where two roads met; and he stopped,
not certain which one to take. The road
 on his right
was hilly and rough; there was no beauty in it or about
it: but he saw that it led straight towards the blue
mountains in the far distance. The road on his left was
broad and smooth, with shade trees on either side,
where sang an innumerable choir of birds; and it went
winding among green meadows, where bloomed countless
flowers: but it ended in fog and mist long; before it
ever reached the wonderful blue mountains in the
"While the lad stood in doubt as to these roads, he saw
two fair women coming towards him, each on a different
road. The one who came by the flowery way reached him
first, and Heracles saw that she was beautiful as a
summer day. Her cheeks were red, her eyes sparkled; she
spoke warm, persuasive words. 'O noble youth, she said,
'be no longer bowed down with labor and sore trials,
but come and follow me. I will lead you into pleasant
paths, where there are no storms to disturb and no
troubles to annoy. You shall live in ease, with one
unending round of music and mirth; and you shall not
want for any thing that makes life joyous,—sparkling
wine, or soft couches, or rich robes, or the loving
eyes of beautiful maidens. Come with me, and life shall
be to you a day-dream of gladness.'
"By this time the other fair woman had drawn near, and
she now spoke to the lad. 'I have nothing to promise
you,' said she, 'save that which you shall win with
your own strength. The road upon which I would lead you
is uneven and hard, and climbs many a hill,
descends into many a valley and quagmire. The views
which you will sometimes get from the hilltops are
grand and glorious, but the deep valleys are dark, and
the ascent from them is toilsome; but the road leads to
the blue mountains of endless fame, which you see far
away on the horizon. They cannot he reached without
labor; in fact, there is nothing worth having that must
not be won by toil. If you would have fruits and
flowers, you must plant them and care for them; if you
would gain the love of your fellow-men, you must love
them and suffer for them; if you would enjoy the favor
of Heaven, you must make yourself worthy of that favor;
if you would have eternal fame, you must not scorn the
hard road that leads to it.'
"Then Heracles saw that this lady, although she was as
beautiful as the other, had a countenance pure and
gentle, like the sky on a balmy morning in May.
" 'What is your name?' he asked.
" 'Some call me Labor,' she answered, 'but others know
me as Virtue.'
"Then he turned to the first lady. 'And what is your
name?' he asked.
" 'Some call me Pleasure,' she said, with a bewitching
smile, but I choose to be known as the Joyous and Happy
" 'Virtue,' said Heracles, 'I will take thee as my
guide! The road of labor and honest effort shall be
mine, and my heart shall no longer cherish bitterness
 "And he put his hand into that of Virtue, and entered
with her upon the straight and forbidding road which
leads to the fair blue mountains in the pale and
"My dear grandson, make thou the same wise choice.
"But now the fire has burned low, and it is time that
both old and young should seek repose. Go now to your
chamber and your couch; and pleasant dreams be yours
until the new day dawns, bringing its labors and its
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