In 1991 I acquired the paperback edition of A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey by Stephen Huebeck, Stephanie West, and J.B. Hainsworth, which had first appeared in hardback from Clarendon in 1988. I spent two years doing my own translation. Since the publication of that three-volume work, there has been a plethora of translations of the Odyssey into English. I labored over many drafts. Here is my version of Book One.
Translated by Kevin T McEneaney
A man famous for subtle stratagems—
Muse, touch my tongue—he traveled so widely
after torching the tall towers of Ilios—
a wanderer skilled in tacking sudden gusts
who tramped through a multitude of cities,
and knew how men there thought about life
as he suffered much grief in his heart
while attempting to bring back home his companions,
though even he could not save them from folly,
for they butchered the oxen of Helios that pull the chariot
of the Sun through the dark days we inhabit.
I, too, want to know how it all happened,
how he breathed the same breeze we now inhale.
When Dawn rose from the white sheets of Tithonus,
She who brings light to mortals and gods,
calling to council great Zeus the High-Thunderer
and the councilors who advise his will,
Athena, who pitied shipwrecked Odysseus,
caught in the lithe arms of beautiful Calypso,
addressed the gathering at large:
“Our Father and all who are blessed in heaven,
I pray that there is not a ruler alive just and merciful.
I hope they are all cruel tyrants, governing with greed,
for there is not anyone who remembers Odysseus,
who once ruled men with fatherly kindness.
He now languishes in the hands of the nymph Calypso,
a prisoner in a cave, unable to sail home,
possessing neither jib nor mates
to ply the wide ocean’s chains.”
Turning to his favorite son, great Zeus said:
“Hermes, tell Calypso of the enchanting tresses
that her time with Odysseus is over.
Let him leave without help of men or gods,
storm-tossed on a log raft for twenty days
before touching the shore of prosperous Scheria
where dwell the near-godly Phaiakians
who will honor him—as if he were a god—
and return him by ship to the fields of his fathers,
giving him more tunics, weapons, gold rings
than he could have carried away from Troy:
for his noble destiny is to see once again
the sun glittering on the roofs of his ancestors.”
The Argus-slayer and Pathfinder immediately bent
to tie his golden-winged sandals with which he walks on water,
or surfs in air currents around mountain peaks.
Staff in hand—with which he puts to sleep or awakens men—
he stepped into sheer air and plunged down Pieria
to the salt-brine ocean, skimming over waves
like a cormorant hunting fish in the crests of waves.
He soared just above the swells until he spied the far-flung island
where Calypso hid her charms and careening over a breaker,
alighted on fine-grained sand, walking toward her grotto
to find the lovely Mistress before a hearth-fire burning cedar,
its scent tinged with thyme. She was singing at her loom,
her voice and shuttle both golden in dulcet tone.
Outside was an echoing wood of alder, poplar, fragrant cypress.
There peacocks boasted, unfolding their hundred eyes
while horned owls, hawks, falcons, pelicans, gulls
circled above, scanning the beach for nourishment.
Climbing the smooth walls of her cave, a vine twined
with purple bloom under an aura of green light.
Bubbling up from the ground were four close-clustered, clear springs,
their channels meandering through beds of violets and parsley.
Even a god who entered this grove would halt in astonishment,
feel his heart beat in wonder—as I did one sunny day in Samé;
so Hermes felt, but when he grew accustomed to the light,
he advanced into the cave. Calypso spotted him at once,
since every immortal knows the powers of another god,
no matter what culture or land they come from.
Yet Odysseus was not in the cave—he sat in exile
on the strand lamenting his fate, watching the waves break
on the shore, thinking of the distant rocks he called home.
Smiling Calypso seated her guest in a smooth stone chair
as watery reflections bounced about the walls of the cave.
“What brings Hermes and his golden staff to my humble cave?
You’ve come to visit me so little in the past.
What is it that I can do for you, and do it I will,
if it’s the proper thing to do. But first,
let’s have a drought of nectar before we discuss things.”
She pushed a golden platter of ambrosia toward him,
then mixed and poured a goblet of apricot-scented nectar—
the sprightly-winged Pathfinder took his fill.
“Face to face, goddess to god, we speak,
yet you pretend not to know what’s going on.”
“I do the will of Zeus and do not act on my own whim.
You live far away over boundless seas and no one here worships me
with sacrifice of heifers or even fruits of the garden.
But you, you cannot even think of evading the will of Zeus—
that is not possible for any immortal!”
“Of those who fought nine years against King Priam,
my Father takes note of the most ill-starred of those heroes
who brought low the fabled fort of Troy.
It’s true that they were remiss in godly devotion
and Poseidon unleashed his tempests upon them—
they all perished but the one who arrived here.
Now Zeus claims him: release him immediately!
The fate of his homecoming is at hand
when he will claim his wife and family!”
She shivered, tossing her golden tresses,
and her silver voice turned leaden:
“You priggish gods, always laden with jealousy—
when a goddess chooses a man for her satisfaction
you find some nicety of objection in it.
When glorious Dawn took Orion to bed
you found their lovemaking blasphemous
and golden-arrowed Artemis hunted him down,
pinning him to the ground in Delos.
When long-haired Demeter fell for Iasion
in a thrice-ploughed open field,
Zeus could not bear the sight of their pleasure
and hurled a bolt of lightning into his loins.
So now, I, too, am begrudged a mortal lover,
even though it was I alone who rescued him
when I saw him astride the keel of a broken boat,
destroyed by a lightning bolt from the hand of Zeus:
he was drowning in the wine-dark sea,
but the currents and wind brought him here to me!
I grew fond of this castaway, fed him, loved him,
promised him the pleasure of eternal youth.
But I am no match for the will of Zeus….
If I must surrender my handsome mate,
I will let him go but I have not the means to help him—
neither crew nor ship nor provisions.
I can only offer advice with complete honesty,
no more can I do to bring him to his home.”
Curtly, the Pathfinder answered her:
“You will send him off then. In future
show more compliance, or bear the wrath of Zeus!”
Hermes quickly left. Calypso walked out, looking for Odysseus.
She found him on the beach, moored in self-pity,
looking thin, immersed in nostalgia for home,
displaying no pleasure at her arrival.
At night he would lie beside her willing body,
empty of any urge to satisfy his body,
yet, of necessity, he did her will in the dark,
but in daylight shunned her presence.
Calypso cupped his ear with her hand and whispered:
“No need to mourn anymore, I am sending you onward.
Get up, cut some trunks with a sharp bronze ax,
bind the beams with vine, make a raft with upper deck.
I will give you bread, wine, and water as well as clothing.
I will conjure a fair wind to shift you seaward
for your long voyage home, if the gods so will it—
they, not I, hold your destiny in their hands.”
Odysseus, at a loss for words, shrugged her off,
but when he spoke his words flew like an arrow:
“Suddenly, after seven months, you would help me?
Are you plotting my death at the bottom of the sea?
How can a mere raft cross the Western Ocean
when well-built ships often founder in tempests?
I’ll board no raft to Hades unless you swear a great oath
not to work any of your immortal magic against me!”
Calypso gave out her sweetest smile,
laying her hand on his shoulder, she said:
“You speak like a captain in peril, and perhaps you are right
in asking this oath from me.
I swear by sky and earth and the water
that runs below in the river Styx—
I can swear by no more than these sacred three—
that I will not cast any spell whatsoever against you,
but what I will do will only be what you yourself desire.
I speak honestly because my heart is not made of iron,
and I feel it is time that I should help you go home.”
She strode rapidly before him to the cave
and they entered, goddess and man.
Odysseus sat in the chair Hermes had left
and slender Calypso placed before him bread, fish, wine.
She sat facing Odysseus while her maids
brought her nectar and ambrosia.
Then each began to eat with pleasant cheer.
When they were finished she said:
“Odysseus, noble son of Laertes,
after all these months of pleasure with me,
do you really want to return home
and not be lord of my magic world?
If so, I freely grant your wish,
but if you could foresee the trials you will undergo,
you might well choose to stay here with me and be immortal.
That bride you pine for from dawn to sunset,
can she be more beautiful than I?
More interesting, fascinating, intelligent?
How can a mortal compare to a goddess?”
Odysseus, ever the strategist, replied:
“No mortal can compare to your beauty and stature.
My wife Penelope is but a shadow to your figure.
You cannot age, but wrinkles, decay, and death
will be our common fate. I cannot explain why,
yet I long for my home, the walls of my house.
If any god has singled me out for shipwreck,
that I could bear if I knew I would arrive back home.
What horrors have I not faced that could be worse—
either in battle or at sea? Let hardship come as it may!”
As he spoke, the sun set, twilit blue gave way to darkness,
and these two retired to the inner chamber of the cave
where they sported in love and mutual slumber.