Vol. 36 No 3-4
Greek Poetry: New Voices and Ancient Echoes
From: Odyssey (Book XI, lines 139-227)
'Teiresias, I accept that the gods must have spun these threads.
But tell me another truth: I see the spirit of my mother here.
She's sitting in silence beside the pit of blood; she doesn't
seem to have the power to speak, or even see me. Can you,
great prophet, tell me how she might come to recognise me?'
'That is easy to answer: any spirit that you permit to sip
blood at the pit, will find the power to speak as its former self:
any that you deny, will revert to the world of vague shadows.'
After these prophesies the spirit of Teiresias retreated.
I stood my ground, until my mother came and lapped the livid
at once she recognised me, and said in deep distress:
'How can you have arrived, my son, in this mouldering gloom,
while you're still alive? It's difficult for the living
to look on this dead world — great and terrible rivers intervene.
Can you really have sailed here with your ship and companions
still on your long, long wanderings coming home from Troy?
Have you not yet set eyes on Ithaca, or your wife waiting there?'
'I had to come here, mother, to Hades to question the spirit
of the prophet Teiresias. I haven't once set foot in my own land,
since I first departed for Troy at the summons of Agamemnon —
forever I wander and wander, weighed down by gathering grief.
But tell me truly: what kind of death-blow brought you down?
Was it lingering illness? or eased from breath peacefully
by an arrow of Artemis? And tell me of the life of my father,
and the boy, left behind — do they still hold my heritage?
or has some other man taken over, thinking I'll never come home?
and what of my wedded wife? how is her mind inclining?
Is she loyal to my boy, maintaining our estates intact,
or has she remarried, taking her pick of the Achaeans?'
'Your wife is waiting at home, as patient as patient can be,
always weeping, as the fretful nights and days waste away.
No one else has your heritage; Telemachus keeps his estate,
(and already takes part in communal affairs and feasting).
Your father farms in the country, and doesn't come into the city.
He doesn't bother with beds, blankets or clean linen —
during the cold winter nights he sleeps like the servants
in the ash by the hearthside, clothed in filthy tatters;
but in summer and autumn, anywhere in his vineyards
or his rich orchards, he beds down on the bare ground,
enfolded in fallen leaves. There he lies accumulating misery,
pining, son, for your return — his old age a hard time.
And this is how I also ended my days. I wasn't eased peacefully
by an arrow of Artemis; nor did disease strike me down
(the most common cause of the body's weakness and wasting).
But a lingering longing for you, my splendid Odysseus,
longing for your intelligence and your mild-mindedness —
that's what faded away the delight in life from my soul.'
I was overwhelmed by a wish to embrace my mother's spirit.
Three times with a desperate hope I tried to hold her:
three times she flitted from my clasp, like some dream
or insubstantial shadow — and my pain grew sharper and
'Mother, my mother, why keep escaping from my embrace?
can't we clasp each other, even here in Hades' domains,
so as to satisfy the deep need for grief and mourning?
Or could you possibly be a mere phantom formed by Persephone?
and only sent to make my torture more terrible?'
'Son, my only son, first of men in misfortune,
no, I am not a deception or phantom formed by Persephone.
This is what has to happen to a mortal body when it dies.
Once the life has left the white bones, then the thews and sinews
no longer tie together the cold flesh and skeleton.
All these elements are consumed in the flames of cremation;
but the spirit flutters away, and dream-like flies round here.'
With that her spirit departed. But while we'd been talking,
ghosts had been gathering around in their thousands,
lured by the blood, and sent by fearsome Persephone.
Translated by Oliver Taplin
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