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While courage and strength seemed to the ancient Greeks the noblest of virtues, they ranked wisdom and ready wit almost as high. Achilles was the strongest of the Grecian warriors at the siege of Troy, but there was another almost as strong, equally brave, and far shrewder of wit. This was Ulysses. It was he who ultimately brought about the capture of the city. Homer speaks often of him in his "Iliad;" and the bard's second great work, the "Odyssey," is devoted entirely to the wanderings of Odysseus, or, as we have learned from the Romans to call him, Ulysses. Whether he was a real person or only a creation of the poet's fancy, it is impossible to say. But as it is now generally agreed that there was a siege of Troy, it follows that there was probably a Ulysses, and his adventures, while in the main mythical, are of value as having perhaps some foundation in truth, and giving, at all events, a picture of what the old Greeks thought a hero should be and do.
Ulysses defying the Cyclops.
No sooner had his flying ships escaped from Ciconia than they were struck by a terrific tempest which drove them far out of their course. For three days the storm continued; then, as it abated, they saw before them an unknown shore on which they landed to rest and recover their strength. It was the land of the lotos-eaters, and when Ulysses sent messengers to find out where he was, they, too, ate of the lotos fruit. It caused them to forget everything; their struggles and exhaustion, their homes, their leader, the great battles they had fought, all were obliterated. They only cared to lie there as the other lotos-eaters did, doing no work, but just dreaming all their lives, nibbling at the fruit, which was both food and drink, until they grew old and died.
Ulysses knew that any life, no matter how wretched, was far better than this death in life. He forbade any other of his men to touch the fruit, and binding those who had already eaten it, he bore them, despite their pleading and weeping, back to his ships, which he at once led away from that clime of subtle danger. They next sighted a fertile island, where leaving most of his comrades for the rest they needed, Ulysses sailed in his own ship, exploring. He soon found himself in a beautiful country, where were seen vast herds of sheep and goats, but no people. Landing with his men, they explored it and found great caves full of milk and cheese, but still no people, only a huge giant in the distance. So sitting down in one of the caves they feasted merrily and awaited the return of the inhabitants.
Now these inhabitants were giants, such as the one they had seen. They were called Cyclops, and had only one great eye in the middle of the forehead. The Cyclops who owned the cave in which the adventurers were was a particularly large and savage one named Polyphemus. When he returned at night and saw the men within, he immediately seized two of them, cracked their heads together, and ate them for supper. Then he went to bed. Ulysses and his terrified men would have slain the huge creature as he slept; but he had rolled a great stone in front of the door, and they could not possibly move it to escape. In the morning the monster ate two more of the unfortunates and then went off with his flocks, fastening the door as before. In the evening he ate two more.
By this time the crafty Ulysses, as Homer delights to call him, had perfected his plans. He offered Polyphemus some wine, which so delighted him that he asked the giver his name, and said he had it in mind to do him a kindness. The crafty one told him his name was No-man. Then said the ogre, "This shall be your reward, I will eat No-man the last of you all." Then, heavy with the wine, he fell into a deep sleep. The tiny weapons of the wanderers would have been of little effect against this man-mountain, so taking a great pole, they heated it red-hot in the fire, and all together plunged it into his one great eye, blinding him. Up he jumped, roaring and howling horribly, and groping in the dark to find his prisoners; but they easily avoided him. Then came other Cyclops running at the noise from their distant caves, and called to him, "Who has hurt thee, Polyphemus?"
He answered them, "No-man has hurt me, No-man has blinded me."
Then they said, "If no man has hurt thee, thy trouble is from the gods, and we may not interfere. Bear it patiently, and pray to them."
In the morning Polyphemus opened the door, and sitting in it, let his sheep pass out, feeling each one, so that the Greeks might not escape. But the crafty one fastened himself and his remaining comrades under the breasts of the largest sheep, and so, hidden by the wool, escaped unnoticed. They hurried to their ship and put out to sea. And now feeling safe, Ulysses shouted to the blind monster and taunted him, whereon, rushing to the shore, Polyphemus lifted up a vast rock and hurled it toward the sound he heard. It almost struck the vessel, and its waves swept the little craft back to the land. In great haste they shoved off again, and when they felt safe, shouted at him once more. He followed them, hurling rocks, but now they were beyond his reach and returned safely to their companions.
Next the wanderers reached the island of AEolus, who controls the winds. He received them with royal hospitality, pointed out to them their proper course to Ithaca, and when they left him, gave to Ulysses a bag in which he had tied up all the contrary winds, that they might have a fair one to waft them home. For nine days they sailed, and at last were actually in sight of their destination; but the seamen fancying there was treasure in AEolus's bag opened it while their leader slept. At once leaped out all the wild winds, and there was a terrible tempest which swept the vessels back to their starting-point. AEolus, however, refused to help them again, for he said they were plainly accursed of the gods.
So they journeyed on as best they might, and came to the land of the Laestrygonians. These people were of enormous strength and were cannibals; but Ulysses and his men knowing nothing of this, sailed into the narrow harbor. As they landed the cannibals rushed upon them and slew them, and hurling rocks from the top of the narrow entrance, sank those ships which would have escaped. Ulysses in his own ship managed to force his way out, but all the other ships were taken and their crews slain.
Then, in deep mourning, Ulysses sailed on till he came to the home of Circe, a beautiful but wicked enchantress. Here he divided his crew into two parties, and while one half rested, the others went to find what place this was. Circe welcomed them in her palace, feasted them, and gave them a magic drink. When they had drunk this, she touched them with her wand, and they were turned into swine, all except one, who had feared to enter the palace, and now returning, told Ulysses that the others had disappeared. Then the hero arose and went alone to the palace; but on the way he sought out a little herb which might render the drink harmless. This he ate, and when Circe having given him the deadly cup, would have turned him also into a brute, he drew his sword as if to slay her. Terribly frightened, she besought mercy, and at his request restored his men to their own forms.
Directed by her, Ulysses is said to have entered the abode of the dead, and conversed with the ghosts of all the great warriors who had been slain in the Trojan war, or who had died since. At last, when Circe had no more wonders to show him, the wanderer left her, once more directed on the road to Ithaca, and to some extent warned of the dangers which beset the path.
First he had to pass the Sirens, beautiful but baleful maidens, who sat on a rocky shore and sang a magic song so alluring, that men hearing it let their ships drift on the rocks while listening, or threw themselves into the sea to swim to the maidens, and were drowned. No man had ever heard them and lived. Here the crafty one filled his companions' ears with wax, so they could not hear the Sirens' song, and he bade them bind him to the mast, so that he might hear it but could not go to them. This was done, and they passed in safety. Ulysses heard the sweet song, and raved and struggled to break his bonds, but they held fast. So he was the first to hear the Sirens' song and live. And some say he was the last as well, for in despair, thinking their music had lost its power, the maidens threw themselves into the sea.
Next the wanderers came to a narrow strait, on one side of which was Charybdis, a dread whirlpool from which no ship could escape, and on the other was the cave of Scylla, a monster having six snake-like heads, with each of which she seized a man from every passing ship. Choosing the lesser evil, the bold Ulysses sailed through the strait close to Scylla; and six poor wretches were snatched by the monster from the deck and devoured, but the rest escaped.
Then they came to an uninhabited island, filled with herds of cattle. These were held sacred to the sun, and no man might slay or eat them without being punished by the gods. This Ulysses knew well, and warned his men against touching them; but great tempests now swelled up, and for a whole month the sailors could not leave the island. Their provisions gave out and they were starving. Then their leader wandered away looking for help, and while he was gone they slew some of the oxen and ate their fill. The storm died, and, Ulysses returning, they again set sail; but at once came a terrific hurricane, upset the ship, and drowned all of the guilty ones. Ulysses had not eaten the flesh of the oxen; and he alone was saved, clinging to a spar, and was tossed on the island of the nymph Calypso. After a long sojourn he escaped from here on a raft. But his old enemy Neptune again raised a storm, which broke his raft; and, naked and almost dead, he was thrown upon another shore, from which at last the pitying people sent him home. He had been away twenty years.
His fair wife Penelope had been for four years past pestered with suitors, who declared that Ulysses must be dead. She put them all off, by saying that first she must finish a wonderful cloth she was weaving; and on this she undid each night what she had done in the day. Meanwhile they stayed in the palace, haughty and insolent, terrifying everybody, in defiance of the protests of Ulysses' infant son, now grown to be almost a man.
The wanderer, coming alone and finding how things were, feared they would slay him; so, disguised as an old beggar man, he went to the palace. The suitors mocked him, and then in sport it was proposed to see who could bend the great Ulysses's bow. It was brought out, but none could bend it. The beggar asked leave to try, and they hesitated, but gave him leave. Right easily he bent it, and sent then a broad arrow through the leader of the suitors. Ulysses's son ranged himself by his side. Some old servants, recognizing him, did the same; and soon all those parasites were slain. Then was there a royal welcome from wife and son, and afterward from kinsmen and friends and servants, for the royal wanderer, whom the gods had spared, and who at last was returned home.
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