Vol. 36 No 3-4
Greek Poetry: New Voices and Ancient Echoes
From: Odyssey (Book V, lines 85-210)
In time they came to the lovely flow of the river-mouth,
which has always been the place of the washing-pools;
water tumbles by in plenty for laundry, no matter how dirty.
Here they let loose the mules from under their harness,
and shooed them to stray along the verge of the swirling waters
to champ the meadow clumps. Meanwhile all the women
carried clothes from the cart and dunked them in the dark eddies;
and they made sport of stamping in the wash-holes of the whirl-pools.
When they'd washed every shred and rinsed out the last stain,
they laid them all flat, side by side, high up on the shore,
where flat patches of pebbles were scoured clean by the sea.
Then they washed themselves and smoothed their limbs with the oil;
and they unpacked their picnic on the green verge of the river,
waiting for the warmth of the sunshine to dry the laundry.
When they'd eaten their fill, they undid their head-dresses,
and began to play at ball; and delicate Nausicaa called
the rhythm for them. As Artemis of the arrows ranges
the top of Taygetus or remote mount Erymanthus,
where boars are her sport and fast-running fawns,
and the Nymphs run with her, playing wild woodland games,
yet Artemis stands out a full forehead higher —
though all are lovely, she's easily the queen —
so the virgin princess stood out among her maids.
Now the hour was drawing near to think of heading home,
harnessing the animals and folding all the clothes;
but shining-eyed Athena had an idea how Odysseus
might wake up from his sleep, and see the lovely girl,
who would help him on his way to the town of the Phaeacians.
The princess lobbed the ball towards one of her women,
but missed, and it bounced down into a deep whirl-pool.
They all shrieked shrilly: Odysseus woke with a start,
and, sitting up, sent these ideas through his mind:
'What kind of folk have I come on this time? I wonder
whether they're wild, uncivilised and violent,
or hospitable hosts, fair-minded and god-fearing.
Some kind of female call encircled me just now,
as though of nymphs who keep the mountain-peaks,
or springs of streams or lush meadow-lands.
Or could I be close to humans who speak like me?
Well, the only way is to try, test, and see.'
So Odysseus issued from his protective thicket;
but first he twisted off a leafy branch of foliage
to hold so as to hide his exposed private parts.
Like some mountain lion, sure in his strength, he strode,
a wind-swept, storm-swept lion, who goes, eyes aglow,
to hunt down herds, whether cattle, sheep-flocks or wild deer —
but his empty belly tells him: go for the flocks in the fold.
So Odysseus advanced towards the honey-haired maidens
to join them, naked or not, so desperate was his need.
Encrusted with dried salt, he seemed a scarifying sight —
the maids scattered this way and that hiding behind the rocks.
Only Nausicaa stood (Athena made her heart brave),
alone she held her ground. And Odysseus considered:
should he advance and grasp the girl round the knees,
or should he hold his distance and win her with honeyed words
to help him to the town and give him clothes to cover himself?
And winning words from a distance seemed more sensible —
if he snatched at her knees the maiden might take offence.
So with these winsome and subtle words he spun his line:
'Show me mercy, mistress. Are you mortal or immortal?
If you were to be one of the Olympians, I suppose
you must be Artemis — so tall, stately and beautiful.
If, however, you're human and live on this level of earth,
then fortunate your father, and your much-loved mother,
and your brave brothers — all are more than fortunate,
warmed with pride and joy, happy on your behalf,
as they watch such a sapling planting her steps in the dance.
And that man should be most happy of all mortal hearts
who, having most to give, brings you home as his bride.
I tell you true: I've never known anyone, man or woman,
who struck me as much as you — I'm dazed in amazement.
Once on the island of Delos, close to Apollo's altar,
I gazed upon a palm, a sapling springing up
(I'd made my way there leading a large army of men
on a mission that would mean for me a flood of suffering)
long, long I looked on the trunk of that unique tree —
so, lady, I dread and stand hesitant in awe before
seizing you by the knees. Yet my troubles are terrible.
Only last night I landed after twenty desperate days
on the wine-like waves, while storm and tempest tossed me,
until fate lifted me here, where...what suffering have I to face?
for I fear the gods have still more in store for me.
So show pity, mistress, for you're the first person I've met
after terrible trials — there's no one else I know
of all the people in this country and its city: so
please help me find the town, and grant me a scrap to wrap
round me, if you brought any cloth with you when you came here.
And may the gods grant you whatever's your dearest dream:
a household and a husband with fine like-mindedness;
for there's nothing fairer than when a man and a woman
share their family life with minds that think alike —
to the annoyance of enemies but a delight to well-wishers.'
'Stranger, you strike me as no bad or brutal man;
but Olympian Zeus disposes fortunes as he sees fit,
whether a man be bad or good, Zeus does as he chooses;
so, since he's treated you as he has, you must endure it.
But now that you've arrived at our country and city,
you shan't go short of clothing or anything else
that should be given to greet a helpless suppliant.
And direct you to town, and tell the title of our people:
Phaeacians, stranger, inhabit this country and city.
And I myself am the daughter of their lord,
noble Alcinoos, who is first choice of the Phaeacians.
Here, my maids, stand by me. Where have you all flown off to
at the mere glimpse of a man? Do you think he belongs to a band
of violent invaders? There's no living being, nor ever will be,
who could come and attack this land and its special people,
the nation of the Phaeacians, for we have divine favour.
We live on the furthest fringe, set apart in the heaving sea,
so that others from elsewhere never come and mix with us.
This man is only some sad outcast stranded here;
we ought to take care of him, for Zeus especially watches
the poor and dispossessed, and a small gift goes far.
So, my maids, supply the stranger with wine and sustenance,
and wash him in the stream, where the water is out of the wind.'
Translated by Oliver Taplin
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