|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 VOYAGE ON THE SEA
 EARLY the next morning, while yet the dawn was
waiting for the sun. Odysseus arose and hastened to
make ready for his journey. The little galley which
was to carry him across the sea had been already
launched, and was floating close to the shore; and the
oarsmen stood upon the beach impatient to begin the
voyage. The sea-stores, and the little chest in which
the lad's wardrobe lay, were brought on board and
placed beneath the rowers' benches. The old men of
Ithaca, and the boys and the maidens, hurried down to
the shore, that they might bid the voyagers God-speed.
Odysseus, when all was ready, spoke a few last kind
words to his mother and sage Laertes, and then with a
swelling heart went up the vessel's side, and sat down
in the stern. And Phemius the bard, holding his
sweet-toned harp, followed him, and took his place in
the prow. Then the sailors loosed the moorings, and
went on board, and, sitting on the rowers' benches,
wielded the long oars; and the little vessel, driven by
their well-timed strokes, turned slowly about, and then
 glided smoothly across the bay; and the eyes of all on
shore were wet with tears as they prayed the rulers of
the air and the sea that the voyagers might reach their
wished-for port in safety, and in due time come back
unharmed to Ithaca.
No sooner had the vessel reached the open sea, than
Pallas Athené sent after it a gentle west wind to urge
it on its way. As the soft breeze, laden with the
perfumes of blossoming orchards, stirred the water into
rippling waves, Phemius bade the rowers lay aside their
oars, and hoist the sail. They heeded his behest, and
lifting high the slender mast, they bound it in its place;
then they stretched aloft the broad white sail, and the
west wind caught and filled it, and drove the little bark
cheerily over the waves. And the grateful crew sat
down upon the benches, and with Odysseus and Phemius
the bard, they joined in offering heartfelt thanks
to Pallas Athené, who had so kindly prospered them.
And by and by Phemius played soft melodies on his
harp, such as the sea-nymphs liked to hear. And all
that summer day the breezes whispered in the rigging,
and the white waves danced in the vessel's wake, and
the voyagers sped happily on their way.
In the afternoon, when they had begun somewhat to
tire of the voyage, Phemius asked Odysseus what they
should do to lighten the passing hours.
"Tell us some story of the olden time," said Odysseus.
And the bard, who was never better pleased
than when recounting some wonderful tale, sat down
 in the midships, where the oarsmen could readily hear
him, and told the strange story of Phaethon, the rash
son of Helios Hyperion.
"Among the immortals who give good gifts to men,
there is no one more kind than Helios, the bestower
of light and heat. Every morning when the Dawn
with her rosy fingers illumes the eastern sky, good
Helios rises from his golden couch, and from their
pasture calls his milk-white steeds. By name he calls
" 'Eos, Æthon, Bronté, Astrape!'
"Each hears his master's voice, and comes obedient.
Then about their bright manes and his own yellow
locks he twines wreaths of sweet-smelling flowers,—amaranths
and daffodils and asphodels from the heavenly gardens.
And the Hours come and harness the
steeds to the burning sun-car, and put the reins into
Helios Hyperion's hands. He mounts to his place, he
speaks,—and the winged team soars upward into the
morning air; and all earth's children awake, and give
thanks to the ruler of the Sun for the new day which
smiles down upon them.
"Hour after hour, with steady hand, Helios guides
his steeds; and the flaming car is borne along the
sun-road through the sky. And when the day's work
is done, and sable night comes creeping over the earth,
the steeds, the car, and the driver sink softly down
to the western Ocean's stream, where a golden vessel
 waits to bear them back again, swiftly and unseen, to
the dwelling of the Sun in the east. There, under the
home-roof, Helios greets his mother and his wife and
his dear children; and there he rests until the Dawn
again leaves old Ocean's bed, and blushing comes to
bid him journey forth anew.
"One son had Helios, Phaethon the Gleaming, and
among the children of men there was no one more fair.
And the great heart of Helios beat with love for his
earth-child, and he gave him rich gifts, and kept nothing
"And Phaethon, as he grew up, became as proud as
he was fair, and wherever he went he boasted of his
kinship to the Sun; and men when they looked upon
his matchless form and his radiant features believed
his words, and honored him as the heir of Helios Hyperion.
But one Epaphos, a son of Zeus, sneered.
" 'Thou a child of Helios!' he said; 'what folly!
Thou canst show nothing wherewith to prove thy kinship,
save thy fair face and thy yellow hair; and there
are many maidens in Hellas who have those, and are
as beautiful as thou. Manly grace and handsome features
are indeed the gifts of the gods; but it is by
godlike deeds alone that one can prove his kinship to
the immortals. While Helios Hyperion—thy father,
as thou wouldst have it—guides his chariot above the
clouds, and showers blessings upon the earth, what dost
thou do? What, indeed, but dally with thy yellow
locks, and gaze upon thy costly clothing, while all the
 time thy feet are in the dust, and the mire of the earth
holds them fast? If thou hast kinship with the gods,
prove it by doing the deeds of the gods! If thou art
Helios Hyperion's son, guide for one day his chariot
through the skies.'
"Thus spoke Epaphos. And the mind of Phaethon
was filled with lofty dreams; and, turning away from
the taunting tempter, he hastened to his father's house.
Never-tiring Helios, with his steeds and car, had
just finished the course of another day; and with words
of warmest love he greeted his earth-born son.
" 'Dear Phaethon,' he said, 'what errand brings thee
hither at this hour, when the sons of men find rest in
slumber? Is there any good gift that thou wouldst
have? Say what it is, and it shall be thine.'
"And Phaethon wept. And he said, 'Father, there
are those who say that I am not thy son. Give me,
I pray thee, a token whereby I can prove my kinship
"And Helios answered, 'Mine it is to labor every
day, and short is the rest I have, that so earth's children
may have light and life. Yet tell me what token
thou cravest, and I swear that I will give it thee.'
" 'Father Helios,' said the youth, 'this is the token
that I ask: Let me sit in thy place to-morrow, and
drive thy steeds along the pathway of the skies.'
"Then was the heart of Helios full sad, and he said
to Phaethon, 'My child, thou knowest not what thou
askest. Thou art not like the gods; and there lives
 no man who can drive my steeds, or guide the sun-car
through the skies. I pray thee ask some other
"But Phaethon would not.
" 'I will have this boon or none. I will drive thy
steeds to-morrow, and thereby make proof of my birthright.'
"Then Helios pleaded long with his son that he
would not aspire to deeds too great for weak man to
undertake. But wayward Phaethon would not hear.
And when the Dawn peeped forth, and the Hours harnessed
the steeds to the car, his father sadly gave the
reins into his hands.
" 'My love for thee cries out, "Refrain, refrain!"
Yet for my oath's sake, I grant thy wish.'
"And he hid his face, and wept.
"And Phaethon leaped into the car, and lashed the
steeds with his whip. Up they sprang, and swift as a
storm cloud they sped high into the blue vault of
heaven. For well did they know that an unskilled
hand held the reins, and proudly they scorned his
"The haughty heart of Phaethon sank within him,
and all his courage failed; and the long reins dropped
from his nerveless grasp.
" 'Glorious father,' he cried in agony, 'thy words
were true. Would that I had hearkened to thy warning,
"And the sun-steeds, mad with their new-gained
free-  dom, wildly careered in mid-heaven, and then plunged
downward towards the earth. Close to the peopled
plains they dashed and soared, dragging the car behind
them. The parched earth smoked; the rivers turned
to vaporous clouds; the trees shook off their scorched
leaves and died; and men and beasts hid in the caves
and rocky clefts, and there perished with thirst and the
" 'O Father Zeus!' prayed Mother Earth, 'send help
to thy children, or they perish through this man's presumptuous
"Then the Thunderer from his high seat hurled his
dread bolts, and unhappy Phaethon fell headlong from
the car; and the fire-breathing steeds, affrighted but
obedient, hastened back to the pastures of Helios on
the shores of old Ocean's stream.
"Phaethon fell into the river which men call Eridanos,
and his broken-hearted sisters wept for him; and as
they stood upon the banks and bewailed his unhappy
fate, Father Zeus in pity changed them into tall green
poplars; and their tears, falling into the river, were
hardened into precious yellow amber. But the daughters
of Hesperus, through whose country this river
flows, built for the fair hero a marble tomb, close by
the sounding sea. And they sang a song about Phaethon,
and said that although he had been hurled to the
earth by the thunderbolts of angry Zeus, yet he died
not without honor, for he had his heart set on the
doing of great deeds."
As Phemius ended his story, Odysseus, who had been
too intent upon listening to look around him, raised his
eyes and uttered a cry of joy; for he saw that they had
left the open sea behind them, and were entering the
long and narrow gulf between Achaia and the Ætolian
land. The oarsmen, who, too, had been earnest listeners,
sprang quickly to their places, and hastened to ply
their long oars; for now the breeze had begun to
slacken, and the sail hung limp and useless upon the
ship's mast. Keeping close to the northern shore they
rounded capes and headlands, and skirted the mouths
of deep inlets, where Phemius said strange monsters
often lurked in wait for unwary or belated seafarers.
But they passed all these places safely, and saw no
living creature, save some flocks of sea-birds flying
among the cliffs, and one lone, frightened fisherman
who left his net upon the sands, and ran to hide himself
in the thickets of underbrush which skirted the beach.
Late in the day they came to the mouth of a little
harbor which, like one in Ithaca, was a favored haunt
of old Phorcys the elder of the sea. Here the captain
of the oarsmen said they must tarry for the night
for the sun was already sinking in the west, and after
nightfall no ship could be guided with safety along
these shores. A narrow strait between high cliffs led
into the little haven, which was so sheltered from the
winds that vessels could ride there without their hawsers,
even though fierce storms might rage upon the
sea outside. Through this strait the ship was guided,
 urged by the strong arms of the rowers; and so swiftly
did it glide across the harbor that it was driven upon
the shelving beach at the farther side, and stopped not
until it lay full half its length high upon the warm, dry
Then the crew lifted out their store of food, and their
vessels for cooking; and while some took their bows
and went in search of game, others kindled a fire, and
hastened to make ready the evening meal. Odysseus
and his tutor, when they had climbed out of the ship,
sauntered along the beach, intent to know what kind
of place it was to which fortune had thus brought
them. They found that it was in all things a pattern
and counterpart of the little bay of Phorcys in their
Near the head of the harbor grew an olive tree, beneath
whose spreading branches there was a cave, in
which, men said, the Naiads sometimes dwelt. In this
cave were great bowls and jars and two-eared pitchers,
all of stone; and in the clefts of the rock the wild bees
had built their comb, and filled it with yellow honey.
In this cave, too, were long looms on which, from their
spindles wrought of stone, the Naiads were thought to
weave their purple robes. Close by the looms, a torrent
of sweet water gushed from the rock, and flowed
in crystal streams down into the bay. Two doorways
opened into the cave; one from the north, through
which mortal man might enter, and one from the south,
 kept as the pathway of Phorcys and the Naiads. But
Odysseus and his tutor saw no signs of any of these
beings: it seemed as if the place had not been visited
for many a month.
After the voyagers had partaken of their meal, they
sat for a long time around the blazing fire upon the
beach, and each told some marvellous story of the sea.
For their thoughts were all upon the wonders of the
"We should not speak of Poseidon, the king of
waters," said the captain, "save with fear upon our lips,
and reverence in our hearts. For he it is who rules the
sea, as his brother Zeus controls the land; and no one
dares to dispute his right. Once, when sailing on the
Ægæan Sea, I looked down into the depths, and saw his
lordly palace,—a glittering, golden mansion, built on
the rocks at the bottom of the mere. Quickly did we
spread our sails aloft, and the friendly breezes and our
own strong arms hurried us safely away from that
wonderful but dangerous station. In that palace of
the deep, Poseidon eats and drinks and makes merry
with his friends, the dwellers in the sea; and there he
feeds and trains his swift horses,—horses with hoofs
of bronze and flowing golden manes. And when he
harnesses these steeds to his chariot, and wields above
them his well-wrought lash of gold, you should see, as
I have seen, how he rides in terrible majesty above the
waves. And the creatures of the sea pilot him on his
way, and gambol on either side of the car, and follow
 dancing in his wake. But when he smites the waters
with the trident which he always carries in his hand,
the waves roll mountain high, the lightnings flash, and
the thunders peal, and the earth is shaken to its very
core. Then it is that man bewails his own weakness,
and prays to the powers above for help and succor."
"I have never seen the palace of Poseidon," said the
helmsman, speaking slowly; "but once, when sailing to
far-off Crete, our ship was overtaken by a storm, and
for ten days we were buffeted by winds and waves,
and driven into unknown seas. After this, we vainly
tried to find again our reckonings, but we knew not
which way to turn our vessel's prow. Then, when the
storm had ended, we saw upon a sandy islet great
troops of seals and sea-calves couched upon the beach,
and basking in the warm rays of the sun.
" 'Let us cast anchor, and wait here,' said our captain;
'for surely Proteus, the old man of the sea who
keeps Poseidon's herds, will come erewhile to look after
"And he was right; for at noonday the herdsman of
the sea came up out of the brine, and went among his
sea-calves, and counted them, and called each one by
name. When he was sure that not even one was missing,
he lay down among them upon the sand. Then
we landed quickly from our vessel, and rushed silently
upon him, and seized him with our hands. The old
master of magic tried hard to escape from our clutches,
and did not forget his cunning. First he took the form
 of a long-maned lion, fierce and terrible; but when this
did not affright us, he turned into a scaly serpent; then
into a leopard, spotted and beautiful; then into a wild
boar, with gnashing tusks and foaming mouth. Seeing
that by none of these forms he could make us loosen
our grasp upon him, he took the shape of running
water, as if to glide through our fingers; then he became
a tall tree full of leaves and blossoms; and, lastly,
he became himself again. And he pleaded with us for
his freedom, and promised to tell us any thing that we
desired, if we would only let him go.
" 'Tell us which way we shall sail, and how far we
shall go, that we may surely reach the fair harbor of
Crete,' said our captain.
" 'Sail with the wind two days,' said the elder of the
sea, 'and on the third morning ye shall behold the hills
of Crete, and the pleasant port which you seek.'
"Then we loosened our hold upon him, and old Proteus
plunged into the briny deep; and we betook ourselves
to our ship, and sailed away before the wind.
And on the third day, as he had told us, we sighted the
fair harbor of Crete."
As the helmsman ended his story, his listeners
smiled; for he had told them nothing but an old tale,
which every seaman had learned in his youth,—the
story of Proteus, symbol of the ever-changing forms of
matter. Just then Odysseus heard a low, plaintive
murmur, seeming as if uttered by some lost wanderer
away out upon the sea.
 "What is that?" he asked, turning towards Phemius.
"It is Glaucus, the soothsayer of the sea, lamenting
that he is mortal," answered the bard. "Long time
ago, Glaucus was a poor fisherman who cast his nets
into these very waters, and built his hut upon the Ætolian
shore, not very far from the place where we now
sit. Before his hut there was a green, grassy spot,
where he often sat to dress the fish which he caught.
One day he carried a basketful of half-dead fish to that
spot, and turned them out upon the ground. Wonderful
to behold! Each fish took a blade of grass in its
mouth, and forthwith jumped into the sea. The next
day he found a hare in the woods, and gave chase to it.
The frightened creature ran straight to the grassy plat
before his hut, seized a green spear of grass between
its lips, and dashed into the sea.
" 'Strange what kind of grass that is!' cried Glaucus.
Then he pulled up a blade, and tasted it. Quick
as thought, he also jumped into the sea; and there he
wanders evermore among the seaweeds and the sand
and the pebbles and the sunken rocks; and, although
he has the gift of soothsaying, and can tell what things
are in store for mortal men, he mourns and laments
because he cannot die."
Then Phemius, seeing that Odysseus grew tired of
his story, took up his harp, and touched its strings, and
sang a song about old Phorcys,—the son of the Sea
and Mother Earth,—and about his strange daughters
who dwell in regions far remote from the homes of men.
 He touched his harp lightly, and sang a sweet lullaby,—a
song about the Sirens, the fairest of all the daughters
of old Phorcys. These have their home in an
enchanted island in the midst of the western sea; and
they sit in a green meadow by the shore, and they
sing evermore of empty pleasures and of phantoms
of delight and of vain expectations. And woe is
the wayfaring man who hearkens to them! for by
their bewitching tones they lure him to his death,
and never again shall he see his dear wife or his
babes, who wait long and vainly for his home-coming.
Stop thine ears, O voyager on the sea, and listen not
to the songs of the Sirens, sing they ever so sweetly;
for the white flowers which dot the meadow around
them are not daisies, but the bleached bones of their
Then Phemius smote the chords of his harp, and
played a melody so weird and wild that Odysseus
sprang to his feet, and glanced quickly around him, as
if he thought to see some grim and horrid shape threatening
him from among the gathering shadows. And
this time the bard sang a strange, tumultuous song,
concerning other daughters of old Phorcys,—the three
Gray Sisters, with shape of swan, who have but one
tooth for all, and one common eye, and who sit forever
on a barren rock near the farthest shore of Ocean's
stream. Upon them the sun doth never cast a beam,
and the moon doth never look; but, horrible and alone,
they sit clothed in their yellow robes, and chatter
 threats and meaningless complaints to the waves which
dash against their rock.
Not far away from these monsters once sat the three
Gorgons, daughters also of old Phorcys. These were
clothed with bat-like wings, and horror sat upon their
faces. They had ringlets of snakes for hair, and their
teeth were like the tusks of swine, and their hands were
talons of brass; and no mortal could ever gaze upon
them and breathe again. But there came, one time, a
young hero to those regions,—Perseus the godlike;
and he snatched the eye of the three Gray Sisters, and
flung it far into the depths of Lake Tritonis; and he
slew Medusa, the most fearful of the Gorgons, and carried
the head of the terror back to Hellas with him as
The bard chose next a gentler theme: and, as he
touched his harp, the listeners fancied that they heard
the soft sighing of the south wind, stirring lazily the
leaves and blossoms; they heard the plashing of fountains,
and the rippling of water-brooks, and the songs
of little birds; and their minds were carried away in
memory to pleasant gardens in a summer land. And
Phemius sang of the Hesperides, or the maidens of the
West, who also, men say, are the daughters of Phorcys
the ancient. The Hesperian land in which they dwell
is a country of delight, where the trees are laden with
golden fruit, and every day is a sweet dream of joy and
peace. And the clear-voiced Hesperides sing and dance
in the sunlight always; and their only task is to guard
 the golden apples which grow there, and which Mother
Earth gave to Here the queen upon her wedding day.
Here Phemius paused. Odysseus, lulled by the soft
music, and overcome by weariness, had lain down upon
the sand and fallen asleep. At a sign from the bard,
the seamen lifted him gently into the ship, and, covering
him with warm skins, they left him to slumber
through the night.
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