Atria Books 2013
It has been said that a myth is a story about the way things never were but always are. The Odyssey is the original hero’s journey, an epic voyage into the unknown that has inspired other creative work for millennia—from ancient poetry to contemporary fiction and films. With its consummately modern hero, full of guile and wit, always prepared to reinvent himself in order to realize his heart’s desire—to return to home and family after ten years of war—The Odyssey now speaks to us again across 2,600 years.
Stephen Mitchell’s translation brings Odysseus and his adventures vividly to life as never before. His muscular language keeps the diction close to spoken English, yet its rhythms recreate the oceanic surge of the ancient Greek. Full of imagination and light, beauty and humor, this Odyssey carries you along in a fast stream of action and imagery. One-eyed man-eating giants, irresistibly seductive sirens, shipwrecks and narrow escapes, princesses and monsters, ghosts sipping blood at the Underworld’s portal desperate for a chance to speak to the living, and the final destruction of all Odysseus’s enemies in the banquet hall—these stories are still spellbinding today. So, too, are the intimate moments of storytelling by the fire, of homecoming and reunion, fidelity and love—all of greater value to Odysseus, and to us, than the promise of immortality.
The first translation to benefit from modern advances in textual scholarship, Mitchell’s Odyssey also includes an illuminating introductory essay that opens the epic still further to our understanding and appreciation, as well as enlightening textual notes that will benefit all readers. Beautiful, musical, accurate, and alive, this Odyssey is a story for our time as well as for the ages.
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man
who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years
after he plundered Troy. He passed through the cities
of many people and learned how they thought, and he suffered
many bitter hardships upon the high seas
as he tried to save his own life and bring his companions
back to their home. But however bravely he struggled,
he could not rescue them, fools that they were—their own
recklessness brought disaster upon them all;
they slaughtered and ate the cattle of Hélios,
so the sun god destroyed them and blotted out their homecoming.
Goddess, daughter of Zeus, begin now, wherever
you wish to, and tell the story again, for us.
Calypso’s Last Night with Odysseus (from Book 5)
Right away Hermes did as Zeus had commanded.
He laced to his feet the beautiful golden sandals
that could fly him across the water and over the earth
as fast as the wind, and he picked up the rod that spellbinds
the eyes of men and puts them to sleep or wakes them,
and down through the upper air he flew till he stepped
on to the crest of Piéria, and from there
he swooped down on to the sea, and he skimmed the water
like a seagull hunting for fish as it dives through the dread
troughs of the waves and moistens its wings in the spray.
But when he came to the island that lay far off
in the midst of the violet sea, he landed and walked
until he came to the cavern where the nymph lived.
He found her at home. A fire burnt on the hearth,
and the scent of cedar and juniper spread far out
over the island. Inside, Calypso was sweetly
singing as she moved back and forth at her loom
and wove with a golden shuttle. In front of the entrance
a luxuriant wood grew: alders, poplars, and fragrant
cypresses, where many large birds made their nests—
horned owls and falcons and loud-screeching cormorants,
who fly to the sea for their living; and all around
the mouth of the cavern, a vine trailed, heavy with grapes.
Four clear springs bubbled up there, near one another,
and flowed with clear water, then turned off in four directions,
and in meadows on either side of them violets bloomed
and wild parsley. Even a god who came to that place
would marvel, and the messenger Hermes stood there
marveling at it. And when he had looked around
to his heart’s content, he entered the cave. Calypso
knew who he was (gods know each other at once,
no matter how seldom they meet). But he did not find
Odysseus inside the cave; he was on the shore,
sitting and watching the sea, as he often did,
racking his heart with groans and with bitter weeping.
Calypso had Hermes sit down on a polished chair,
then asked, “What brings you here, Hermes? This is an honor.
You are always most welcome—and what a long time it has been!
Say what is on your mind. I shall certainly do it
if I can and if it is something that may be done.”
The goddess drew up a table with a large plate
of ambrosia on it and mixed him a cup of red nectar,
and he ate and drank. And when he had finished his meal
and refreshed himself, he said to her, “Goddess, you asked me
why I have come here, and I shall tell you the truth.
It was Zeus who sent me; I came here at his command.
For who would willingly make this long journey across
the vast and fathomless waters, without one city
where mortals make their due offerings to the gods?
But truly no god can ever evade or cancel
the will of Zeus. He says that you have a man here
who has suffered more than all others who went to Troy.
For nine long years they fought there, and in the tenth
they plundered the city of Priam, but on their way
to the ships, they committed a crime that offended Athena,
and she raised fierce winds and violent waves against them.
All his companions were drowned, but as that man clung
to the keel for dear life, the high winds carried him here.
Zeus tells you to let him go now, immediately.
It is not ordained that he spend his life here with you
on this island; he is fated to reach his country
and finally see his home and the people he loves.”
Hearing these words, Calypso shuddered and said,
“You are all hard-hearted, you gods, and envious too;
you hate it whenever a goddess sleeps with a man,
even if she has chosen him as her husband.
You were just as malicious that time when rose-fingered Dawn
made love to Oríon; you envied her, and at last
Ártemis hunted him down in Ortýgia and shot him.
And the time when Deméter yielded to her desire
and lay in love with Ïásion in the field
of the three ploughed furrows: soon enough Zeus found out
and, furious, struck him dead with a bolt of lightning.
In just the same way, you envy me now for living
with a mortal man. I rescued him as he floated
alone, astride the keel of his ship, when Zeus
had blown it apart with lightning on the dark sea.
All his companions were drowned, but as that man clung
to the keel for dear life, the high winds carried him here.
I took care of him and I loved him; I even offered
to make him unaging and deathless. But since no god
can ever evade or cancel the will of Zeus,
I shall let him leave, if that is what Zeus commands,
and shall see that he sails away from this island, although
I don’t have the means to give him a ship and sailors
to carry him home. Yet willingly, with good grace,
I promise to do whatever is in my power
to send him off on his way to his own dear country.”
Hermes answered her, “Good. See that you do it.
And don’t provoke Zeus—or you will be very sorry.”
With these words he left, and at once Calypso set out
to look for Odysseus. She found him sitting and weeping
on the shore; his sweet life was ebbing away as he mourned
for Ithaca. No longer did the nymph please him.
At night, it is true, he slept with her in her cave,
but there was no choice; she was passionate, and he had to.
But by day he would sit on the rocky beach and look out
over the restless sea and shed bitter tears.
The beautiful goddess came to him now and said,
“Poor fellow, don’t grieve anymore. Don’t weep your heart out;
I am ready at last to send you away. So come,
cut down some trees and make a boat with long timbers
and an upper deck, so that it can carry you safely
across the wide sea. And I shall stock it myself
with food and water and wine, enough for the voyage,
and clothing as well, and shall send a fair wind behind you
to take you all the way home to your own dear country,
if that is the will of the heavenly gods. It is in
their power, and not in mine, to decide what happens.”
When he heard this, noble, much-enduring Odysseus
shuddered and said to her, “Goddess, how can you tell me
to cross the vast gulf of waters in a small boat?
The sea is fearful and dangerous; even the largest
and fastest ships are not always able to cross it.
You must have some other purpose here, not my homecoming.
I shall not set out on a boat unless I am sure
of your good intentions—unless you give me your oath
that you aren’t plotting some further mischief against me.”
The goddess smiled and patted his hand and said,
“What a great rascal you are! No one with a mind
less cunning than yours would ever have thought such a thing.
All right; let Earth be my witness and heaven above
and the downward-flowing waters of Styx—the greatest,
most terrible oath that we immortals can take—
that I am not plotting the slightest mischief against you.
I am only considering what I should do myself
if I were in your situation. I really do
feel for you; my heart isn’t made of iron.”
With these words Calypso got up and led the way,
and Odysseus followed after her, in her footsteps.
And when they had entered the cave, Odysseus sat down
on the same chair that Hermes had just got up from,
and the nymph put before him the choicest of things that mortals
eat and drink, and she sat down opposite him,
and her handmaids brought out ambrosia and nectar for her.
They helped themselves to the meal that had just been served,
and when they had taken their pleasure in eating and drinking,
the beautiful goddess was first to speak, and she said,
“Noble son of Laértes, subtle Odysseus,
are you really going to leave me now and return
to your own dear country? Well, I wish you the best.
Yet if you had any idea of all the hardships
you will have to endure before you can ever reach home,
you would stay with me here and let me make you immortal,
however you long for that wife of yours, whom you think of
day in and day out. But I am not any less
attractive than she is, surely, in face or figure;
and indeed it would be unimaginable for a mere
woman to come even close to a goddess in beauty.”
And Odysseus, the great tactician, answered her, “Goddess,
don’t be angry. I know it as well as you do—
that Penelope isn’t as tall as you or as lovely.
And yes, she is only a woman, while you are immortal
and will never grow old. I know that. Yet even so,
I can’t help longing for home. And if some god does
wreck me during the voyage, I will endure it;
my heart knows how to endure great hardships. Before now
I have suffered many, both on the sea and in war,
and if I must suffer another hardship, so be it.”
As they were speaking, the sun set and darkness came on.
And they moved further into the cave, and they made love
with great pleasure, and then they slept in each other’s arms.
Nausicaa and her Handmaids Do the Laundry (from Book 6)
They came at last to the banks of a beautiful stream,
where the washing basins were always filled with clear water
welling up through them, to clean the dirtiest clothes.
Here they unyoked the mules from the wagon and sent them
along the stream to graze on the rich, sweet clover,
then lifted the clothes from the wagon and carried them down
into the basins, and each girl began to tread them,
making a game to see who could finish first.
And when they had washed off the dirt and the clothes were spotless,
they spread them neatly along the shore, where the sea
lapped at the land and washed all the pebbles clean.
After a swim, they rubbed themselves with the oil
and had their lunch on the bank of the eddying river
and waited there for the clothing to dry in the sun.
And when they had finished the meal, they took off their head scarves
and played a ball game, tossing the ball and dancing
to the rhythm, while Nausícäa led them in song.
As when Ártemis races down from a high mountain,
the top of Täýgetus or of Erymánthus,
filled with the joy of hunting wild boars and deer,
and the nymphs of the countryside join in the chase, and Leto
exults to see her beloved daughter, who stands
magnificent, head and shoulders above the rest
and outshining them all, though all of them shine with beauty:
just so did the princess stand out among her handmaids.
The Palace of Alcinous (from Book 7)
With these words Athena departed and crossed the sea,
leaving the land of Schéria. When she came
to Márathon and then to the wide streets of Athens,
she entered the house of Eréchtheus. Meanwhile Odysseus
arrived at Alcínoüs’s marvelous palace,
and he stood there and looked in amazement, then crossed the bronze
threshold and walked through the high-ceilinged rooms, which shone
like the sun or the moon. The walls as well were of bronze,
and they stretched from the threshold out to the innermost rooms,
and on top of them was a frieze of dark-blue enamel.
The palace’s doors were of gold and had silver doorposts
set in a threshold of bronze, and the lintel above
was of silver too, and the door’s great handle was golden.
On either side there were golden and silver dogs,
which Hephǽstus had made with consummate skill, to keep watch
over the palace, sentries unaging and deathless.
In the hall itself there were chairs set on either side
along the walls, from the threshold down to the back,
and each one was draped with an elegant, close-woven cover
made by accomplished craftswomen. Here the Phæácian
nobles would sit as they feasted, for there was always
an abundance of good food and wine. And throughout the hall
golden boys stood on pedestals, holding torches
to light up the room for the banqueters all night long.
Fifty slave women worked there; some of them ground
yellow grain in the handmills, and others were weaving
or sat and twirled yarn on their spindles, and their hands fluttered
like poplar leaves in the wind, and the olive oil
dripped from the close-woven cloth. For just as the men
were skillful beyond all others at sailing their ships
over the wide sea, so the Phæácian women
excelled in the art of weaving. Athena had given
them, more than all other women on earth, the skill
and intelligence to make things of surpassing beauty.
Outside the gates of the outer court was a large
orchard surrounded on every side by a wall
and filled with luxuriant fruit trees: pears, pomegranates,
glossy apples, sweet figs, and flourishing olives.
Their fruit never failed or ran short in winter or summer;
it came in all seasons; the mild west wind made sure
that some fruits were budding while others were growing ripe.
Pear after pear matured, and apple, and grape,
and fig after fig—they were always coming to fullness.
There too was a rich vineyard, where on one side,
on a level surface, clusters of grapes were drying
in the sun, while others were being gathered or trodden;
and in front were the unripe grapes just shedding their blossoms
or showing a tinge of purple. Beyond the last row
was a garden with all kinds of vegetables in it, trim
and bright green the whole year round. And there were two springs;
one flowed in channels to every part of the orchard,
while the other ran under the ground of the outer courtyard
to the house, and from it the townspeople drew water.
Such were the sumptuous gifts that the gods had lavished
upon the king, Alcínoüs, and his people.
Scylla (Book 12)
At that very moment Scylla rushed out and snatched
six of my comrades—beautiful, strong young men.
I looked up and saw their arms and legs thrashing above me,
and they shouted to me and called out my name for the last time.
And as a fisherman stands on a jutting rock
and casts the bait with his rod, and the bronze hook sinks
into the water, sheathed in an ox-horn tube,
and he catches a fish and reels it in quickly and flings it,
writhing, onto the shore: just so were my comrades,
writhing, pulled up toward the cliffs, and at the cave entrance
she ate them, screaming and stretching their hands out toward me
in their hideous final agony. That was the most
sickening thing I ever saw on my travels.
Odysseus Sails Home (from Book 13)
He went aboard, and at once he lay down in silence,
and the crew took their places along the ship by the oarlocks
and untied the mooring cable from the pierced stone.
And as soon as they leaned back and churned up the sea with their oar blades,
a profound sleep fell on his eyelids, sweet and unbroken,
the image of death. As when a team of four stallions
leap forward together, feeling the lash of the whip
and lifting their hooves up high as they race down the track:
just so did the stern of the ship keep leaping and plunging,
and the dark-blue waves surged thunderously in her wake
as she hurried to finish the journey. Not even a falcon,
the fastest of winged creatures, could have kept up,
so lightly did she run on and cut through the waves,
bearing a man whose wisdom was like the gods’ wisdom,
who in the past had suffered many great hardships
as he passed through the wars of men and the bitter sea.
But now he was sleeping peacefully, free from all troubles.
Melanthius the Goatherd Insults Odysseus (from Book 17)
“Look what we have here: garbage walking with garbage.
Like attracts like, as the saying goes. Where in the world
are you taking this filthy pig of yours, swineherd? And what
a revolting, hairless wonder he is!—a man
who will get on all fours to lick the plates at our table.
I know the type: he will wallow in any mud
and scarf up anything, begging for scraps that are only
fit to be thrown away. He could never imagine
receiving a sword or a cauldron, which any decent
guest would be given. But why don’t you hand him to me?
I would use him to clean my pens and sweep out the goat shit
and haul the fodder, and in return I would give him
a few cups of whey to fatten those scrawny thighs.
But obviously he is lazy and wouldn’t think
of doing a good day’s work; he would much rather go
groveling through the town and whining for handouts
of scraps to fill his bottomless pit of a belly.
Well, mark my words: If he goes to Odysseus’s palace,
there will be plenty of footstools hurled from the table
in his direction. His ribs will be sore for months.”
The Death of Argos (from Book 17)
Meanwhile Odysseus arrived, along with the swineherd.
They stopped in front of the palace, and all around them
echoed the sound of the lyre; it was Phémius striking
the chords of the prelude as he began his song.
Odysseus took hold of the swineherd’s hand, and he said,
“This house right here must be Odysseus’s palace.
How splendid it is, and how easy to pick it out
at a glance from a hundred others. One building leads
into the next, and the courtyard is very well-built,
with its corniced wall, and the double doors are so solid
that no enemy could break through. A crowd must be feasting
inside now. I can smell the roast meat, and I hear
the lyre, which the gods have made the crown of a banquet.”
Then, in response to his words, Eumǽus, you said,
“It is easy for someone as clever as you to notice
that kind of thing. But now we need to consider
what we should do. Either you enter the palace
first and approach the suitors, and I shall stay here,
or you stay here if you wish, and I shall go first.
But don’t be too long; someone may see you waiting
and throw a stone or a spear at you. Please be careful.”
Odysseus said to him, “All right. I understand.
You go in first, and I shall remain behind.
I am accustomed to being beaten and having
things thrown at me. My heart has endured. Before now
I have suffered great hardships, both on the sea and in war,
and if I must suffer another hardship, so be it.
But a man can’t hide the belly’s accursèd craving,
which causes so many evils and makes us sail ships
across the vast sea to bring war upon distant people.”
As they spoke, a dog who was lying there lifted his head
and pricked up his ears. It was Argos, Odysseus’s dog;
he had trained him and brought him up as a puppy, but never
hunted with him before he sailed off to Troy.
In earlier times the young men had taken him out
with them to hunt for wild goats and deer and hares,
but he had grown old in his master’s absence, and now
he lay abandoned on one of the heaps of mule
and cattle dung that piled up outside the front gates
until the farmhands could come by and cart it off
to manure the fields. And so the dog Argos lay there,
covered with ticks. As soon as he was aware
of Odysseus, he wagged his tail and flattened his ears,
but he lacked the strength to get up and go to his master.
Odysseus wiped a tear away, turning aside
to keep the swineherd from seeing it, and he said,
“Eumǽus, it is surprising that such a dog,
of such quality, should be lying here on a dunghill.
He is a beauty, but I can’t tell if his looks
were matched by his speed or if he was one of those pampered
table dogs, which are kept around just for show.”
Then, in response to his words, Eumǽus, you said,
“This is the dog of a man who died far away.
If he were now what he used to be when Odysseus
left and sailed off to Troy, you would be astonished
at his power and speed. No animal could escape him
in the deep forest once he began to track it.
What an amazing nose he had! But misfortune
has fallen upon him now that his master is dead
in some far-distant land, and the women are all too thoughtless
to take any care of him. Servants are always like that:
When their masters aren’t right there to give them their orders,
they slack off, get lazy, and no longer do an honest
day’s work, for Zeus almighty takes half the good
out of a man on the day he becomes a slave.”
With these words he entered the palace and went to the hall
where the suitors were assembled at one of their banquets.
And just then death came and darkened the eyes of Argos,
who had seen Odysseus again after twenty years.
Odysseus Strings the Bow (from Book 21)
These were his words, and the suitors all burst out laughing,
and their anger at Telemachus turned to amusement.
So the swineherd picked up the bow and quiver and took them
to Odysseus and put them into his hands, and then
he summoned the nurse Eurycleía and said to her,
“Telemachus has this command for you, Eurycleía:
Bolt all the doors to the hall. If the women should hear
the sound of men screaming in pain or the uproar of battle,
they mustn’t come out from their quarters but must remain
just where they are and continue their work in silence.”
When she heard this, Eurycleía nodded and left,
and she bolted the doors that led to the women’s quarters.
And in silence Philoé tius hurried out of the palace
and bolted the doors of the courtyard, fastening them
with a ship’s cable made of papyrus, which had been lying
under the colonnade. And when he had done this,
he returned and sat down on the stool he had just got up from,
with his eyes fixed on his master. Odysseus was turning
the bow in his hands, pressing and testing, in case
worms had eaten into the layers of horn
in his absence. And some men turned to their neighbors and said,
“The tramp is a connoisseur.” “Oh yes, a great expert
in the art of bow-making.” “Maybe he has one just
as splendid at home.” “Or else he intends to make one,
with such a professional eye does the old scoundrel
examine it.” “Well, I wish him as much success
in his life as he has in trying to string that bow.”
As they were speaking, Odysseus examined the bow
thoroughly, and just as a poet well-skilled
in playing the lyre will easily stretch a new string
around a peg as he fastens the twisted sheep-gut
at both its ends: so effortlessly did Odysseus
string the great bow. And, as a test, with his right hand
he plucked the string, and it sang out under his touch
with a sound as beautiful as the voice of a swallow.
The suitors were deeply mortified, and their faces
paled, and at the same moment there was a loud
thunderclap sent by Zeus. And Odysseus rejoiced
as he heard the sign that the son of devious Cronus
had given him, and he picked up a loose arrow
that was lying there on the table—the rest, which the suitors
were soon to taste, were still packed inside the quiver—
and he set it against the bridge of the bow and pulled back
the arrow’s notched end and the bowstring, farther and farther,
without getting up from his stool, and sure in his aim
he let go of it, and the arrow flew straight through the holes
of each of the twelve axes, from first to last,
not missing one of them. And he said to his son,
“Telemachus, look, your house guest hasn’t disgraced you!
I didn’t miss, nor did I take a long time
in stringing Odysseus’s bow. I still have my strength,
however the suitors taunted me with their insults.
But now it is time for supper to be prepared
while there is still daylight, and after the meal we shall have
the entertainment, and then we shall all enjoy
singing and music, which are the crown of a feast.”
As he finished he gave a nod, and Telemachus
slung on his sword and grasped his spear, and he stood
by the chair near his father, armed in glittering bronze.
“Stephen Mitchell’s faithful translation of The Odyssey has great vigor and a plain eloquence that is quite free of pedantry. It does not plod. Its narrative drive is so compelling that the reader will find himself speaking the lines aloud, as I did.”
—Richard Wilbur, former Poet Laureate of the United States and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
“Stephen Mitchell is one of the great translators, and his version of The Odyssey is a masterpiece of clarity, directness, and a kind of blunt musicality that catches perfectly the pitch of the true Homeric voice.”
—John Banville, author of The Sea, winner of the Booker Prize
“This latest incarnation of The Odyssey leaves no doubt that Stephen Mitchell has made a deep connection to the tale’s spiritual power, which he has managed to express with propulsive cadence and in exquisite detail. The bard sings again, this time at the banquet of Mitchell’s ardent labor.”
—Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States
“Yet again, one of today’s gifted, knowing scholars and writers embraces one of the masterpieces of yore, and in so doing offers us The Odyssey as a wise and stirring companion for our own personal voyage through time and life’s many stirring, worrying, enabling moments.”
—Robert Coles, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard, Winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Pulitzer Prize