|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 RACE FOR A WIFE
 DAYS and weeks passed by, and still Odysseus tarried as
a guest at the court of King Tyndareus. His friend
Iphitus had gone on to Tiryns to meet the hero
Heracles, and had left with him his blessing and the
bow of Eurytus. But the young princes who had come to
Lacedæmon to woo the beautiful Helen remained in
the palace, and each had vowed in the secret of his
heart that he would not depart until he had won the
matchless lady for his bride. Each had offered to the
king gifts of countless value,—gold and jewels, fine
horses, and well-wrought armor; and each had prayed him
that he would himself set the bride-price for his
daughter, and bestow her on whom he would, even on the
man who pleased him best. But the king, for reasons of
his own, would give them no answer.
All this time, Odysseus held himself aloof from the
crowd of wooers, and kept his own counsel; and, though
all believed that he too was smitten with love for the
peerless Helen, yet in his heart the blue-eyed Penelope
reigned queen. One day as he sat alone with
Tynda-  reus in his chamber, he saw that the king was sorely
troubled; and he began in his own way to find out the
cause of his distress.
ODYSSEUS ADVISES KING TYNDAREUS CONCERNING HELEN'S SUITORS.
"Surely, O king!" he said, "you are the happiest of
men. For here you have, in Lacedæmon, every thing
that can delight the eye, or please the heart. Wherever
you may turn, there you see wealth and beauty; and it
is all yours, to do with as you like. Your sons are the
bravest in the world; your daughters are the fairest;
your palace is the most beautiful; your kingdom is the
strongest. There is certainly nothing to be wished for
that is not already yours."
"And yet," answered Tyndareus, with a sigh, "I am the
most miserable of mortals. I would rather be a witless
swineherd in the oak forests, living in a hut, and
feeding upon roots and wild fruits, than dwell in this
palace, beset with cares like those which daily weigh
"I cannot understand you," said Odysseus. "You are at
peace with all the world; your children are all with
you; you have no lack of comfort. There is nothing more
for you to desire. How, indeed, can care come in
through these golden doors, and sit upon your brow, and
weigh you down with heaviness?"
"I will tell you," answered the king, "for I know that
I can trust your good judgment. Here in my palace are
all the noblest princes of Hellas suing for the hand of
Helen, whom the gods have cursed with more than mortal
beauty. Each has offered me a
 price, and each expects
to win her. I dare not withhold her long; for then all
will become angered, and my kingdom as well as my
daughter will be the prey of him who is the strongest.
I dare not give her to one of them, for then the other
nine and twenty will make cause against me and bring
ruin to Lacedæmon. On this side grin the heads of
Scylla, all black with death; on that side dread
Charybdis roars; and there is no middle way. Why, oh,
why did not the immortals bless my daughter by giving
her a homely face?"
Then Odysseus drew nearer to the king, and spoke in
lower tones. "I pray you, do not despair," he said.
"There is a safe way out of all this trouble. If you
will only trust me, I will lead the whole matter to a
"How, how?" eagerly asked the king.
"I will tell you," said Odysseus. "But you must first
listen to a plea that I have to make. To you alone it
is known that I am not a suitor for the hand of Helen,
but that my hopes are all for coy Penelope. Speak to
her father, your brother Icarius, and help me will her
for my own, and I will settle this matter between you
and the princely lovers of fair Helen in a manner
pleasing to every one."
"It shall be as you wish!" cried the king, taking
heart. "I will trust the management of this business to
you, and may the wise Pallas Athené prosper
The next morning shrewd Odysseus arose, and clothed
himself in princely fashion; and, after the
meal had been eaten, he bade the heralds call the
suitors into the council chamber. And the heralds
called the gathering; and the young heroes quickly
came, one after another, until nine and twenty sat
within the chamber where the elders of Lacedæmon
were wont to meet. Then Odysseus stood on the raised
platform, close to the door; and Pallas Athené,
unseen by the dull eyes of mortals, stood beside him,
and whispered words of wisdom in his ear.
"Noble men of Hellas," said Odysseus, "I pray that you
will hearken to the words which I shall speak, and that
you will duly weigh them in your minds. We have all
come to Lacedæmon with one wish and one intent,—and
that is, to win the most beautiful woman in the
world. We have offered, each one for himself, a
bride-price worthy of the bride; yet the king, for
reasons which you ought to understand, is slow in
bestowing her upon any of us. And so weeks and even
months have passed, and we are still here, devouring
the substance of our kind host, and yet as far as ever
from the prize which we desire. Now, it behooves us to
bring this matter to an end; for otherwise we all shall
suffer loss by being too long absent from our homes."
The princely suitors listened kindly to his words and
all nodded their assent. Then he went on:—
"Upon how many of you, now, has the peerless Helen
smiled as if in admiration?"
Every man among them raised his hand in answer.
 "Who, among you all, believes that fair Helen would
prefer him, above every other, for a husband?"
Every man arose, and, glancing proudly around him,
"I have, then, a plan to offer," said Odysseus. "Let us
leave the choice to Helen. And, in order that each may
the better show whether there be aught of nobility in
him, let us go forth straightway, and make trial of all
the games in which any one of us excels. And when the
games are ended, let glorious Helen come and choose him
whom she will wed."
At this all the suitors shouted assent; for each felt
sure that he would be the chosen one.
"But hearken to one word more!" cried Odysseus. "The
most beautiful woman in the world is a prize of
priceless value; and he who wins that prize will hardly
keep it through the might of his unaided arm. Let us
bind ourselves by an oath that he whom Helen chooses
shall be her wedded husband, and that the rest will
depart at once from Lacedæmon; and that if any
man, from near or far, shall carry peerless Helen from
her husband or her husband's home, then we will join
our forces, and never falter in the fight until we have
restored her to him."
"And further still," added Ajax Telamon, "let us swear
that should any one of us forget the agreement made
this day, then the remaining nine and twenty will cause
swift punishment, and terrible, to fall upon him."
 Much more did shrewd Odysseus and the assembled princes
say; and in the end they made a solemn sacrifice to
Father Zeus, and lifting up their hands they swore that
they would hold to all that had been spoken. Then, at
an hour which had been set, they went out to make trial
of their skill in all kinds of manly games, so that
each might show wherein he excelled all other men, and
thus stand higher in the regards of matchless Helen.
And the heralds made announcement, and a great company
followed them to the broad marketplace between the
palace and the city walls. King
Tyndareus, happy that his perplexities were soon to end,
sat upon a high throne overlooking the place; and at
his side stood the glorious twins, Castor and
Polydeuces, clad in their snow-white armor. But Helen,
dowered with beauty by the gods, stood with her maidens
at the window of her high-built chamber, and watched
the contest from afar.
Then all the suitors, arrayed in princely garments, as
became the mightiest men of Hellas, stood up in the
lists, each for himself to take his part in the games.
And each fondly believed that he, among them all, was
the favored suitor of fair Helen. But shrewd Odysseus
kept his own counsels, and wisely planned to reach the
ends which he so much desired.
Then the games began. And they made trial, first, in
throwing the heavy spear; and gray-bearded Idomeneus
led all the rest. Then in shooting with the bow; and
Odysseus was far the best, for no one else could
or handle the matchless bow of Eurytus. Then in
throwing heavy weights; and Ajax, son of Telamon, sent
a huge stone hurtling from his strong arms far beyond
all other marks. Then in wrestling; and there was not
one that could withstand the stout-limbed son of
Oileus. Then in boxing; and Philoctetes, the
armor-bearer of Heracles, carried off the palm. Then in
fencing with the broad-sword; and Diomede held the
championship, and found no peer. Then in leaping; and
Thoas of Ætolia, one of the later comers,
excelled all others. Then in the foot-race; and here
again the lesser Ajax left all the rest behind.
And now the car of Helios was sloping towards the
western sea, and King Tyndareus by a signal ordered
that the games should cease.
"Come, my friends," said he, "the day is spent, and
nothing can be gained by further trials of strength and
skill. Let us go forthwith to my banquet hall, where
the tables groan already with the weight of the good
cheer which has been provided for you. And when you
have rested yourselves, and put away from you the
thought of hunger, fair Helen will descend from her
high chamber, and choose from among you him who shall
be her husband."
And all obeyed, and went straightway to the great
banquet hall of the king. Now the court, and the hall,
and even the passage-ways of the palace, were thronged
with people old and young, noble and base-born; for all
had heard of what was to follow. And the steward of
king had slain a score of long-wooled sheep, and many
swine, and two slow-footed oxen; and these he had
flayed and dressed for the goodly banquet. Then all sat
down at the tables, and stretching forth their hands,
they partook of the pleasant food so bounteously spread
before them. And though some of the princely suitors
had been beaten in the games, yet all were merry and
hopeful, and many a pleasant jest was bandied back and
forth among them.
"The son of Oileus should remember," said Nireus, "that
the race is not always to the swift."
"And Nireus should remember," said Thoas, "that beauty
does not consort with comeliness. Aphrodite did not
choose Apollo for her husband, but rather the limping
Then some one asked Nireus what was the price of
hair-oils in Syma; and this led to much merriment and
many jokes about his smooth curls, his well-shaven
face, and his tight-fitting doublet.
"If his father were living," said one, "he would be
setting a bride-price upon him."
In the midst of the merriment, a herald passed through
the hall, crying out, "Remember your oaths, O princes
of the Hellenes! Remember your promises to the
A silence fell upon that multitude, like the stillness
which takes hold upon all nature when waiting for the
thunder-cloud to vent its fury upon the plains. And the
minstrel, who sat upon a raised seat at the farther
 side of the hall, touched his harp with his deft
fingers, and brought forth sounds so sweet and low and
musical that the ears of all the hearers were
entranced. Then the door of the inner chamber opened,
and the glorious Helen, leaning on the arm of old
Tyndareus, came forth to make her choice. The hearts of
all the suitors stood still; they could not bear to
look toward her, although her heavenly beauty was
modestly hidden beneath her thick veil. She came into
the hall: she passed Idomeneus, who sat nearest the
inner chamber; she passed the mighty Ajax, him of the
noble form and the eagle eye; she passed the doughty
Diomede, wielder of the sword; she passed Philoctetes,
and Odysseus, and the stout-limbed son of Oileus. The
hearts of the younger suitors on the hither side of the
hall began to heat with high hopes.
"She surely has her eyes on me!" said the coxcomb
Nireus, speaking to himself.
She came to the table where Menelaus, the brother of
Agamemnon, sat. She paused a moment, and then she held
out her lily-white hand, in token that he was the
husband of her choice. The great silence was at once
broken, and a mighty shout went up to the high roof of
the palace. Every one of the slighted suitors felt for
an instant the keen pang of disappointment; then,
remembering their oaths, all joined in wishing joy to
Menelaus and his bride. Some, however, chagrined and
crestfallen, soon withdrew from the palace; and calling
their servitors about them, they secretly and in
departed from Lacedæmon. When the morning dawned,
only ten of the young princes still staid in the halls
of old Tyndareus.
It was easy to understand why these remained.
Sweet-faced Penelope had won other hearts beside that
of young Odysseus. "Since the glorious Helen is to be
the bride of Menelaus," said each of those who tarried,
"why shall not her fair cousin—who is worthier if not
so beautiful—be mine to wed?"
And straightway they beset Icarius with offers of rich
gifts, begging him to set a bride-price on his
daughter, and bestow her upon him who should agree most
willingly to pay it. The old man was sorely troubled,
for he loved his daughter dearly; and he could not bear
the thought that a strange prince should lead her into
distant lands where, perchance, his eyes should never
more behold her.
While he pondered sadly, sitting alone and bewildered
in his chamber, he heard a minstrel singing in the
hall. He listened. It was a song about Atalanta the
fair huntress of Arcadia, beginning with the time when
Meleager of the golden hair awarded her the prize in
the far-off wood of Calydon.
Then the minstrel sang of the maiden's return to
Arcadia: How she had stopped at Delphi on her way, and
had asked the Pythia in Apollo's temple to reveal the
secrets of her future life. How the oracle could tell
her nothing of the things that would befall her, but
only gave her this advice: "Keep thyself from
chains!" How, when she came again to her father's
palace, she found him beset by suitors asking for the
hand of his fleet-footed daughter. Then the maiden,
calling to mind the Pythia's warning, besought her
father to send the suitors home, and let her, like
Artemis, live unwedded; for she would be as free as the
winds which play in the lovely vales of Mantinea, or
beat the bleak tops of Mount Enispe. But old Iasus was
a crafty man—an unfeeling father, loving gold more
than his daughter. "Behold," said he, "the bride-price
that is offered. Shall I refuse so great gain, simply
to please thy silly whims?" Then Atalanta was sorely
troubled, and she prayed Artemis, the huntress-queen,
to send her help in the time of her great need. And
Artemis hearkened, and spoke words of comfort to her
heart; and kind Pallas Athené gave her wisdom.
"My father," said she to old Iasus, "take thou the
bride-price that any suitor may offer for me—but on
these conditions: that he shall make trial with me in
the foot-race, and if he outrun me, then I will go with
him as his bride; but if I outstrip him in the race,
then he is to lose the bride-price offered, and his
life is to be at your mercy."
Crafty Iasus was highly pleased, and he rubbed his
palms together with delight; and he caused the heralds
to proclaim the terms on which the matchless Atalanta
might be won. Some of the suitors departed in despair,
for they knew that no mortal man was so fleet
 of foot
as the lovely huntress of Arcadia. But many others,
less wise, put themselves in training for the trial.
Then one by one, like silly moths plunging into the
candle's flame, they went down to the race-course of
old Iasus, and tried their speed with that of the
wing-footed damsel; but all failed miserably, and none
of them ever returned to their homes or their loving
friends. And Iasus grew rich upon the spoils—the
jewels, and the bride-gifts, and the arms—which he
thus gained from the luckless lovers.
One day Milanion, a youth from distant Scandia, came to
try his fortune. "Knowest thou the terms?" asked Iasus.
"I know them," was the answer, "and though they were
thrice as hard, yet would I win Atalanta."
And Atalanta, when she saw his manly, handsome face,
and heard his pleasant voice, was sad to think that one
so noble and so brave should meet so hard a fate. But
Milanion went down to the race-course with a firm step
and a heart full of hope. For he had prayed to
Aphrodite that she would kindly aid his suit, and lend
him wings to reach the goal in advance of Atalanta; and
Aphrodite had listened to his plea, and had given him
three golden apples, and had whispered a secret in his
The signal was given, and youth and maiden bounded from
the lists like arrows shot from a bow. But the maiden
was much the fleeter of the two, and was soon far in
 "Another fool will soon come to grief!" said Iasus,
By this time Atalanta was near the turning-post, while
Milanion, straining every nerve, was many yards behind.
Then he remembered the secret which Aphrodite had
whispered, and he threw one of the golden apples far
beyond the post. It fell upon the green lawn, a
stone's-throw outside of the course. The quick eyes of
Atalanta marked its beauty, and she ran to pick it up.
And while she was seeking it among the grass, Milanion
passed the turning-post, and was speeding swiftly back
towards the goal. It was only a moment, however, until
Atalanta swift as the wind overtook him, and was again
far in the lead. Then the young man threw a second
apple, this time some distance to the right of the
course. The maiden followed, catching it almost before
it fell; but Milanion had gained a hundred paces on
her. Ere she could again overtake him, he threw his
third apple over his shoulder and to the left of the
course. Atalanta, forgetting in her eagerness that the
goal was so near, stopped to secure this prize also;
and lo! as she lifted her eyes, Milanion had reached
the end of the course. Old Iasus stormed with rage, and
threatened many fearful things. But Milanion, smiling,
came boldly forward and claimed his bride; and she,
blushing and happy, covered her face with her veil, and
followed him willingly to the home of his fathers, in
Such was the song which the minstrel sang, and to
Icarius listened while sitting in his chamber. Suddenly
a new thought seemed to strike him, and he bade a
herald call before him all the suitors of sweet
"My young friends," he said, "you have asked me for my
daughter's hand, and promised me a liberal bride-price.
I need none of your gold, nor do I wish to give my
daughter to a stranger with whom she would be loath to
go. Hence I shall do after this manner: He who shall
win in a foot-race to-day, on the long course beyond
the market-place, shall be husband of Penelope, but on
this condition: that, if she choose to go with him,
then he is to have her without the payment of a price;
but if she choose to stay with me, then he shall pay me
a rich dower, and straightway depart forever from the
gates of Lacedæmon."
The suitors heard the words of old Icarius, and all
assented. Then soon the people were gathered again in
the broad market-place; the long race-course was
cleared and put in order, and every thing was made
ready for the trial. The trumpet sounded, and the young
princes came forward lightly clad for the race.
Palamedes, the cousin of Menelaus, fair and tall; and
Ajax Oileus, who had won the race on the preceding day;
and Megas, brave as Mars, from far Dulichium; and
Thoas, the Ætolian prince; and Phidippus, the
grandson of great Heracles; and Protesilaus, from
distant Thessaly; and Eumelus, son of Admetus and the
divine Alcestis; and Polypoetes, descended from the
 king Peirithous and Hippodameia the daughter of
the Centaurs; and Elphenor, the son of large-souled
Chalcodon, ruler of Eubœa and the valorous
Abantes; and lastly, Odysseus, who had shrewdly planned
all matters to this end. Rarely have ten men so noble
stood up together to contend for honors or the winner's
The word was given, and they darted forth, at once and
swiftly, raising a cloud of dust along the course. From
the very start, they strained at utmost speed; they
reached the turning-post, and hurried onward to the
goal. But now stout Ajax no longer took the lead; for
Odysseus ran before the rest, and passed the goal, and
came to the crowd by the lists, while yet the others
with laboring breath were speeding down the course.
Old Icarius was pleased with the issue of the race. For
he hoped that Penelope would not consent to wed
Odysseus and follow him to distant Ithaca; and, if so,
he would be happily rid of all the troublesome suitors.
"Come here, my sweet daughter," he said. "This young
man, a stranger from a far-off land, has won thee in
the games; yet the choice is thine. Wilt thou leave thy
old father, lonely and alone in Lacedæmon,
preferring to share the fortunes of this stranger? Or
wilt thou stay with me, and bid him seek a wife among
the daughters of his own people?"
And sweet Penelope covered her face with her veil to
hide her blushes, and said, "He is my husband; I will
go with him."
Icarius said no more. But on that spot he
after-  wards raised a marble statue—a statue of Penelope veiling
her blushes—and he dedicated it to Modesty.
Soon afterward Odysseus returned with his young wife to
his own home and friends in sea-girt Ithaca. And, next
to Penelope, the richest treasure that he carried
thither was the bow of Eurytus.
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