I recognize the cheapness (as a blogger) and possible danger (as a student who’s heard warnings about plagiarism all his life) of posting here something I wrote for school. But blogging time is wanting, and I find myself compelled to somewhat venturesome (if not quite desperate) measures. At any rate, even though I wrote this for a lit class, it is a piece I would have shared even if I’d written it under different circumstances.
An unlikely parallel inspired this story.
The Odyssey is undeniably filled with celebration of man’s tenacity and cunning in the face of trial (as manifestly embodied by Odysseus); yet as I read it for class, I found that it did not glory in man alone. I was struck with a strong appreciation of Athena’s providential role throughout Odysseus’s many exploits and struggles, and this sparked a memory from the ending of Lewis’s classic, The Horse and His Boy. As I wrote, I saw additional parallels of Odysseus’s story with certain biblical characters; these I wove into the fabric of the Homeric world as best I could.
Below, you find the result of my work. Enjoy!
* * * * *
To the journal,
Many years ago, a stranger came to my home in sunny Ithaca. As a god-fearing man, I welcomed him in, fed him well, and bathed him. Then I asked him his name, his parentage, his homeland and how he came to Ithaca, for I hardly supposed he had come all this way on foot.
He called himself Sallapiddes, hailing from the broad island of Crete far across the sea. Though I insisted, he oddly refused to receive any gift from my hand, and left my palace as swiftly as he had come. Before he disappeared, however, he left me a gift of his own – a small book, or journal as he called it, bound with a rugged skin much tougher than a bull’s hide. A sturdy strap of leather hung from its binding, to fasten it securely to my thigh; for he said that were I ever to go roaming beyond the sea and over the lands of men, though passing through scorching heat and raging seawater, this small book would know neither ruin nor tatter. If I kept it with me, I would never be at a loss to record all that became of me – my adventures, thoughts, triumphs and hardships.
Not many days later, mighty Agamemnon and bold Menelaus came to my palace, and soon after we departed for Troy. Since then, I have had many opportunities to write in this journal, and even more of which to write. Long hours have been mine of late to look back upon what I have written, the path I have followed since leaving the battlefields of Troy.
And I long to curse Sallapiddes for giving me so fine and useful a gift.
Night and day, I weep here on the shore of this wave-washed island, sick at heart for my dear comrades – all of whom I have lost. I remember the fury of the Cicones we raided, the savage son of Poseidon, the lawless Laestrygonians, deadly Scylla and those fateful herds of the Sungod… and it sharpens the anguish of my heart. Each of my men, my friends-at-arms, has gone down to the House of Death in turn; I alone have escaped their fate.
And yet, what have I escaped to? I sit here on the rocks and beaches, my eyes blinded by tears as I strain for even a glimpse of hearth-smoke drifting up from my homeland… How shall this end? Luckless man that I am! Am I fated to die here, far from my people and loved ones? Must I remain to be tormented on this accursed island – I almost say god-forsaken, except that I grieve as the captive of a goddess, the seductive nymph with lovely braids – for the rest of my days?
Oh deathless Zeus who marshals the lightening! Mighty son of Cronus! Did I not win your favor with the sacrifices I burned to you besides the ships on the broad plain of Troy? Have you forgotten the many thighs I offered before you, the many strangers and wayfarers whose sacred rights I never neglected because I feared your name?
And Athena… Oh bright-eyed Athena… why have you forsaken me? Have you no care for me in your lofty heart? Has my wile and wit ceased to impress you? Were we not two of a kind, man and goddess, partners in intrigue and craft, the best alive among gods and men at spinning tricks and displaying our wisdom?
Dearest Athena, daughter of Zeus who knows all… you were so kind to me in those years during the war. We men of Achaea soldiered on against King Priam’s craggy city… and you were there. You strode along my decks, the very goddess of cunning and wile, in person! You kept my men safe from disaster, you cheered me with your words, encouraged my fighting spirit and strengthened my hands when I needed you most. And yet since then, I have caught no glimpse of you, no sign that you are still with me, no assurance that I am favored by you still.
My soul weighs me down in anguish, I draw near to the grave. I long to die… and what then would come of all my cunning, my guile?
How long, O daughter of Zeus? Will you hide your grey eyes from mine forever? Where is your former favor? Will your displeasure rage like the foaming sea? O Athena, goddess of my past deliverance! Why so dead set against me? Why stand far off in my time of greatest need? Why… why abandon me?
I rend my heart, I blind my eyes
With tears of grief, I wound my soul.
I lift my prayer to the skies;
No answer comes to make me whole.
In vain I weep, an empty breath
Still pleading from my lips depart.
I live, and yet the House of Death
More happy stands than my own heart.
The thunder-lack, false eyes of grey
Confirm my purposed, wretched name.
Twas aptly giv’n that cursed day –
The Child of Wrath and Son of Pain.
* * *
I know not what to think, much less what to write… Can such fortune be true?
Several days ago, as I wept on the shore in my usual way, my lustrous captor approached me and bade me grieve no more. Without warning or reason, she claimed a willingness to send me off her island at last; she even promised bronze tools to construct a broad-beamed raft for myself, provisions for the long journey, and a stiff traveling wind to speed me homeward.
Naturally, I could not believe her at first. What had I ever known but capriciousness, unfaithfulness and trickery from the gods? Even after she swore a binding oath to not plot some new intrigue to harm me, I fed her smoothly spun words to assure her of her beauty as my desire to be with Penelope could not be contained. I even shared the nymph’s bed one final night to appease her, in case her mind took a turn for my destruction.
To cross the wine-dark sea afloat a raft is madness. Even deep-sea ships, well rigged and crewed by the best of men, cannot guarantee a safe journey across its vast gulfs, so full of peril and mortal danger. Neither have I forgotten that the god of the sea-blue mane, the lord of the sea, still seethes against me for having blinded his son.
Yet my heart pines for Penelope, mortal though she be… I long for the good, green earth of my native country, I yearn for the dawn of my return. My raft is nearly ready. Should the earth-shaker wreck my craft, I know that I can bear it. Already have I suffered much, in violent waves and raging war; my fighting spirit has learned to endure. Let the trial come! Let Poseidon do his worst – for I go to my native land at last!
* * *
Will I never learn the end of pain?
I departed from Calypso’s dark-wooded island dressed in her fine gifts and well-rationed with ruddy wine and choice meat. Seventeen days I sailed without incident, daring to hope that I might escape the notice of the earthshaking god who rules the seas.
On the eighteenth day, my peaceful voyage ended. The lord Poseidon of the sea, terrible in his power and might, saw my humble craft upon his domain… and unleashed his fury upon me. Fearsome thunderheads grew overhead, grey storm clouds rammed together with such force that the rain alone could have drowned me. From every corner of the earth, he stirred up the fiercest winds and roiled forth breakers that would have sent mountains cowering.
For all my brave talk to the nymph with lovely locks in the safety of her den, I knew fear then as I had never felt on the battlefields of Troy… Knees slack and heart paralyzed by terror, I would have gladly traded a death on those broad plains for the sure doom I was to suffer here.
With one resounding crash, a single wave as furious as Poseidon himself descended on my craft, hurling me into the sea. A nymph took pity on me… Even then, with the promised scarf immortal round my waist, I was sure of my death in those heaving waves.
Surely the god of the sea-blue mane could have ended my life then and there; then a new trick occurred. All at once, the raging winds ceased… but one remained, tossing me for two days. Again and again, I believed myself to be a dead man.
But on the third day – and I cannot explain why – this last wind died down as the rest had. I raised my head… and saw land. Never had I been so eager to plant my feet on solid ground. I swam for the coast as fast as my wearied limbs could take me.
Yet new dangers welcomed me as I neared the shore, perils more fatal than the first. I heard the boom of the boiling surf echoing as it crashed against the jagged reefs and ironbound coast, and my heart failed within me. My knees became as the water which surrounded them once more, and I choked with fright; for I knew to draw nearer would not be the embrace of safety, but to be flayed alive on the rocky coast. A steep, smooth rock face afforded no place for my two legs to stand, no foothold secure to guard me from death. Were I to clamber out, a heavy roller could well have dashed me to bits against the reefs – all that struggle for naught. And yet, I equally feared swimming further down the shore in search of some safe harbor, for a gale could easily snatch me up and hurl me back into the fish-infested sea, or some monster from the deep be set loose on me. Ready to retch in despair, I lingered in the waves that threatened to consume me, my mind tormented as the waters.
As I faltered, a colossal breaker swept me in towards the jagged cliffs of that grim coast; death was never more certain. I know not what could have inspired me then, but I lunged out and grabbed hold of a reef with the strength of desperation. Though the skin rubbed raw off my hands, I stayed on until the great wave’s fury had subsided. Yet even then I had not escaped death, for the backwash of the wave barreled into me full force, hauling me back into the heart of the sea!
A heavy wave fell over me, the billows enclosed my struggling body, and I went down, down into the watery depths… Weeds were wrapped around my head, and the deep surrounded me on every side. I had no will left to fight, no strength left to struggle, and I sank to the very threshold of that place where there can be no return.
And yet… I did not stay there. It is beyond my explanation how or why. All I know is that my dampened fighting spirit suddenly arose within me once more. Though tossed and beaten down on every side, I fought my way out of the depths and into the midst of the violent breakers. I struck out for the shore, scanning the shoreline for a sheltered seabeach, a sanctuary, a cove where I would be safe. By some great mercy, I found one…
I prayed to the god of the river, and he mercifully held back his surge and calmed the swelling tides. Washed ashore more dead than alive, my powerful body limp and swollen, my heart ready to burst, my mouth and nostrils filled with the brine of the sea… yet was I alive. I flung the goddess’s scarf back into the sea and forced myself to abandon the coast where I lay in search of a wooded shelter, bone-weary and fearful of becoming the quarry of some wild beast though I was.
Here I now lie. Exhausted, caked with brine, with nothing to cover me but the branches of this shady grove… Calypso’s gifts I forsook to the wine-dark sea. I have lost all but this infernal journal, which I found still stubbornly strapped to my side. Sallapiddes spoke truly, for it has fared through the seawater unharmed and with no sign of wear – a fate far superior to mine. Yet what has it become but a testament of my suffering? I yearn to hurl this wretched book back out into the fish-infested sea, as if that would drown my miseries! Instead, I pour my heart into its pages…
Already have I written too long. To think of writing after nearing death so frequently and terribly within the past few hours! But now… I feel a welcome sleep coming on.
Let the beasts have me if they will. Let me rest my weary self…
* * *
Can fortune be true? Can the lion change his mane, or the Son of Pain alter his title?
I awoke from my blessed sleep startled, unharmed by beats and yet fearful of what I would find. Too many times had I seen how violent and savage the lawless inhabitants of an isle could be. Yet it was the music of girlish laughter that woke me… Were they nymphs? Or people who eat bread and speak with a human tongue?
Compelled by my need, out I went in search of compassion. Only the modesty afforded me by an olive branch accompanied my steps. Soon, I came across the source of my awakening – a company of maidens, tossing a ball and laughing to their heart’s content on the rippling riverbanks. My heart sank; for though these were daughters of civilized men, how long could I hope to keep their audience in my current state? Legs made fleet by terror and shrieks of alarm would doubtless speed them down the jutting beaches to safety the moment they caught sight of me.
And so they did, scattering from my briny wolfishness like panicked sheep… all but one. The tallest and most shining among them stood her ground, petrified – her face told no lies – yet unmoving. Naked and terrible to behold as I was, she stood fast! I know not whether she is truly a daughter of man, or a goddess in glory, for she seemed almost too wonderful to behold; I cannot imagine what compelled her to remain while her maids fled. But she took pity, promising that for however long I abide on this soil, in the land of the Phaeacians who love their oars, never would I be wanting for food, clothing, or any other gift. She herself was a princess, the daughter of King Alcinous of the land.
The white-armed princess called back her maids. Teasing each other on in awkward obedience, they laid down a cloak and shirt for my shoulders, and oil to rub myself down once I had bathed in the river. I reassured them of my modesty, asking them to retreat a ways down as I bathed, scouring the brine from my hair and the brackish scurf from my shoulders and back.
As daughter and maidens of the king’s court, the princess and her maids with lovely braided hair have doubtless seen many impressive men before, those who excel in strength and beauty. Yet as I emerged from my bath, refreshed and glistening, they regarded me with such awe that I wondered if my stature and manliness had suddenly increased in their eyes. The princess herself – lovely in form and wise beyond her tender years – praised me as a deathless god! Surely a simple bath and rubbing of oil could not have changed my appearance so drastically? No matter, for then came that highest gift of the gods, of which it seemed I had been deprived for years: food.
Blessed princess, with bearing and grace that rivals those of the immortals who rule the vaulting skies above… In my hideous state and direst need, you drew near! Your face will I ever adore, and all my gratitude is due your name.
Already has she driven back to the city, for in good sense, she recognized the scandal it would cause were a stranger like me to return by her side. But before her mules felt the touch of her shining whip, she gave me clear instructions, entreating that I wait for a time in a sacred poplar grove nearby. Then, once she and her shining maidens had reached her generous father’s palace ahead of me, I was to walk to the city and journey there myself. As for directions, she assured me the place so unmistakable that an innocent child could guide me there.
I write this now as I linger among the poplars, gazing on the bubbling spring and wide meadows as I ponder my turn of fortunes. Neither is it not lost to me whose sacred grove I walk in; these fine trees and spacious meadows belong to no other than the clear-eyed daughter of Zeus herself. I meander among Athena’s blessed forests, and yet… she does not come to me. Again, I see no sign of her presence, no assurance of her favor, even as I walk through her holy place.
With each pondering step, I long to lift my prayer to the vaulting skies in the hopes that her ear shall hear me at last. Yet I cannot help but burn with this ever-growing question: Athena, where have you been? Where were you as my craft was shattered by the famed earth-shaker out in the brine-filled sea? When I drifted on the surface of the deep, battered by the waves and awaiting my death for three weary days? Why did you stand afar? Poseidon is a mighty god, terrible and not to be trifled with; yet even so, could not your cunning have rescued me aright or spared me of a portion of my misery? Do you mean to hone the suffering and anguish I bear within me?
I do not neglect the assistance I received from the sea-nymph of the immortal scarf, nor from the river god in whose cove I took refuge. But I ask not what they have done; what of Athena? She is the one I long to see and hear. Is she not, in some fashion, my goddess? Where then has she been in the midst of all this turmoil and fortune?
But these questions have escaped my lips often enough since my trials began. Instead, I offer the following for the grey-eyed goddess’s consideration:
Dearest Athena, daughter of Zeus who wields the thunderhead, my helper and shield in times past – though bitter to my mouth and heavy to my stomach, I have learned to swallow the reality of your absence while I stood stranded in the embraces of Calypso. I have accepted that you abandoned me to the watery depths and the wrath of the fearsome earth-shaker while adrift on the broad back of the sea… Yet still I remember your kindness to me in the years of Troy. So as I have done so many times before, I turn to you with a strong plea – grant now that I shall find a vestige of compassion and mercy in this land, amongst the oar-loving people of Phaeacia!
Athena… heard you my prayer at last? Or is your face still hidden? Have my pleas finally turned your bright eyes in my direction? Or do I stand alone?
No matter; I have prayed. Even if Athena has truly left me, the time now is for action, not supplication. The princess of grace and compassion has surely reached the palace by now, and it is time I followed the route she has set. I only hope no trouble will spring up from amongst the old sea-dogs and coarser sailors tending their trim ships in Phaeacia’s fine harbor. I shall have to pass through their midst as a stranger garbed in the king’s laundry, and they cannot but notice me. May I find the compassion I seek among such a people!
Through many dangers, toils, harms
And violent sea god’s mighty wrath
A princess bold with whitest arms
Now bids me to a kinder path.
She trades my cloak of filth and brine
For oil smooth and modesty.
O Nausicaa! Perhaps divine
I give my thanks and praise to thee.
Again – though not from wine-dark sea
My prayers to Olympus rise.
I see no sign in poplar tree
Yet still I seek grey Wisdom’s eyes.
* * *
Most blessed journal,
Much has happened since last I wrote.
As I strode to the Phaeacian’s welcome city, I naturally feared that some swaggering islander would cross my path, rouse my fighting blood with taunts and end his life. Such an incident would greatly impede my journey to the palace, and even put me into a state of disfavor that would end all hopes of finding compassion. Yet none challenged me. I know not how often the Phaeacians encounter strangers in their land, but they acted as though they never even saw me.
As I entered their gates, a young girl came to greet me. A perfectly ordinary little girl, holding her mother’s water pitcher, no doubt… I asked for her guidance, and with a sparkle in her eye, she promptly replied that she would gladly lead me to the halls of wise King Alcinous and his good queen, Arete. She then sped down the streets with me in pursuit; no one accosted us, all ignored us.
Soon, we reached the resplendent palace. Here the girl rapidly related to me more of her beloved queen, and declared that with her favor would come hope that I might see my native land again. Then, as quickly as she had come, the girl sped away.
That vitality, that brightness in that young girl’s eyes… I have seen it before. And now I remember, the color of her eyes… that familiar color. Could it be?..
I quickly entered the magnificent palace court, and after gazing my fill, sought the queen. It was not difficult to find her, as the white-armed princess had assured me. Still, none took note of me; not until I had grasped the knees of my princess’s mother. Then did all marvel as though none had seen me until that moment. Regardless, I made my plea to her, entreating her mercy and begging her compassion in light of all I’d borne.
I shall spare the details; except to say that truly, truly have I found compassion among the kind people of Phaeacia. Even before I proved to them my strength in the contests or made known to them that I was Odysseus, man of exploits and raider of cities, they looked upon me as though I had the bearing of an immortal. They have embraced me warmly, treating me ever so kindly…
As I write, I board their swiftest convoy, loaded with more plunder than ever I might have gained from sacking Troy and manned by the best of oarsmen, ready to speed me homeward. I know not what I shall find there, what new trials and worlds of pain await my return. Yet at long last, I shall be in sunny Ithaca once more, the land I love and the land of my loved ones…
Again, I feel the strangest sleep coming on, as if that of death… These crewsmen know their craft, and my treasures are safely stowed. For now, I shall sleep, though I know not what lies before me. Perhaps Athena shall be merciful… perhaps I shall see her face at last. Her eyes, I may have glimpsed already…
* * * *
At long last is my mission complete. The man of exploits, Odysseus, has reached his native home at last. I was there to welcome him myself.
He could not recognize me of course, nor his beloved land; not until I had stripped away my clever mist and unveiled my winning disguise. Oh that wily man… How suspicious he was! How careful and exacting! He trusts me above all the other gods and goddesses of the vaulting heavens, yet still he asked if things were truly as I said, if this land shrouded in mist was truly his cherished homeland. Even after I revealed my face, my long-sought face… he could not allow himself to lower his guard. Ever the cool tactician, he hid all signs of wonder and joy at seeing my face and form, the signs he strove after so frequently and so fervently all his years of trial.
Joy and wonder were not the only affections he sought to hide. The thinly masked bitterness of his voice did not escape me as he quietly accused me of all he has believed true since the fall of Troy – that I had abandoned him, left him in time of greatest need, forsaken him to survive by his own strength and cunning alone. I know he feels all this; have not his questionings and prayers reached my ears all along?
For all his cunning and cleverness… Odysseus is a mortal after all. I understand that he is so. I understand his questioning and his doubt; yet he fails himself to see how little he understands. For I have not been deaf to his prayers as he supposes, or blind to his journal’s woeful tales. Neither have I ever left his side or abandoned him to a cruel fate.
Does he not know?
It was I who persuaded my father Zeus, he who loves the lightening, to set him free from lustrous Calypso’s captivity. My winning words liberated him from pining away all the days of his life on that rocky beach, and allowed him to turn homeward once more, as Fate had decreed…
It was I who calmed the winds when the god of earthquakes destroyed his craft at sea, who silenced all but the boisterous northern gust that drove him to the Phaeacian’s land, and I who stilled it on the third day.
It was I who inspired him to take hold of the jagged reef when death was most imminent, and I who filled his fighting spirit with courage when the roiling breakers swept him back into the open sea, little better than dead… Contrary to the will of Fate, he would have perished then and there had I been absent.
It was I who sealed his eyes with welcome sleep in his bed of leaves amongst the olive trees, where no beast did touch him…
It was I who sent the white-armed princess to the shore. It was I who stayed her heart and dissolved the fearful trembling of her limbs, though a naked man caked in brine stood before her – I gave his cunning the chance it needed to calm her fears and sway her compassion. I made him taller, more massive to the eyes once he had taken his bath to further the motion. I was the reason she saved his life.
It was I who cloaked him in a hidden mist as he walked through the Phaeacian’s city, allowing him to reach the king’s palace and the queen’s very knees unseen. I was the chattering, eager, bright-eyed girl who showed him the way to wise Alcinous’s palace. I lead him on, and by my craft did I incline the people of Phaeacia to embrace him with such warmth and reverence, encouraging their sympathy and awe and creating opportunity for him to display his marvelous strength. I heard his prayer amidst my sacred groves, and did not put him to shame.
I know that he is not fully ignorant of what I have done; our meeting on Ithaca’s beach seals this truth. This alone did I tell him, that I had prepared the Phaeacians to accept him so amiably – that I had answered his prayer – and this alone did he show me, that he knew the identity of the grey-eyed girl who had lead him to their city. Yet still is his knowledge a mere bud, a beginning of the perfect reality.
Through all his struggles, I preserved him. I protected him. I was his helper when all his best efforts and cunning were powerless to deliver him. Elsewhere, I aided him – crafting careful details to ease the way, setting his feet securely in a place of honor. Still have I strengthened him in a thousand ways he does not know.
And it was I who gave him the journal.
He does not yet know truly how I have helped him. But he will look back upon what he has written, over all the woes and hardships he has recorded. When he reads this journal over, he will not forget the inkwell of tears that flooded from his soul, nor the quill of sharpened anguish with which he wrote. Yet he will also see the many, many happenings and instances that have preserved and aided him, both in his times of most dire need and in the most minor of challenges. He will see that his path has been riddled with the strength of deliverance, and shielded by the might of steadfast protection. And perhaps… perhaps he will one day see that I never did abandon him. Not once did my grey eyes fail to trace his steps, or my wisdom falter to defend and strengthen his way. Not once did I forsake him. Perhaps when he speaks to his son Telemachus, with whom I made my role much more manifest, he will see it at last.
Odysseus sleeps peacefully now in the swineherd’s hut – clad in the disguise of my making. As I have shared with him, I plot with him now to ruin those suitors who bleed his house white. No longer will I walk in shadows behind and before him; now, he shall have me by his side, my thunder and form as ready proof.
There is much to be done still. As before, many things lie at hand which his own strength and cunning must accomplish if he is to succeed, even with my aid. Even here will he find a world of pain to endure and hardships to overcome. Even here must I hone the anguish within him once more.
But I am here to help him. I will be with him to the very end, and though it take him yet another twenty years at last to see… he will know.
Though stranded long in nymph embrace
In pain conveyed o’er sea and land
The man of sorrows flints his face
Yet ne’er forsaken did he stand.
Through stormcloud sea, in forest green
O’er sandy beach, pavilioned yards
A helper steadfast, yet unseen
Thy every footfall safely guards.
Though visioned not in poplar tree
Though futile seemed the anguished cries
Yet e’er my ear received their plea
Nor vainly did thee seek mine eyes.