Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Homer, The Great Story Teller

A long, long time ago—perhaps three thousand years or more—there was a man named Ho'mer. No one knows much about him; but there are legends that he was born on the island of Chi'os and that he was blind. He wandered about the land, homeless, but welcome wherever he chose to go, because he was a poet. He once described how a blind poet was treated at a great banquet, and probably that is the way in which people treated him. He said that when the feast was ready, a page was sent to lead in the honored guest. A silver-studded chair was brought forward for him and set against a pillar. On the pillar the page hung his harp, so near him that he could touch it if he wished. A little table was placed before him, and on it was put a tray spread with food and wine. When the feasting was at an end, he sang a glorious song of the mighty deeds of men. The Greeks liked to hear stories just as well as the people of to-day, and they shouted with delight. Then they all went out to the race-course, the page leading the blind singer carefully along the way. There were races and wrestling matches and boxing and throwing of the discus. After this, the poet took his harp and stepped to the centre of the circle. The young men gathered around him eagerly, and he chanted a story of A'res, the war god, and Aph-ro-di'te, goddess of beauty and love.

[Illustration] from Old World Hero Stories by E. M. Tappan


Homer composed two great poems. One is the Il'i-ad, which takes its name from Il'i-um, or Troy, a town in Asia Minor. For ten long years the Greeks tried to capture Ilium. They had good reason for waging war against the Tro'jans, for Par'is, son of the king of Troy, had stolen away the Grecian Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the wife of a Greek prince named Men-e-la'us; and the other princes of Greece joined him in attacking Troy. They took some smaller places round about and divided the booty, as the custom was. In the tenth year of the war, A-chil'les and Ag-a-mem'non, two of the greatest of the princes, quarreled about one of these divisions, and here the Iliad begins. Achilles was so angry that he took his followers, the Myr'mi-dons, left the camp, and declared that he would have nothing more to do with the war, he would return to Greece.

Now the Greeks were in trouble, indeed, for Achilles was their most valiant leader, and his men were exceedingly brave soldiers. They sent his friend Pa-tro'clus to beg him to come back. Achilles would not yield, even to him; but he finally agreed to allow his followers to return and also to lend his armor and equipments to Patroclus.

When the Trojans saw the chariot and armor of Achilles, they ran for their lives, as Patroclus had expected; but at length Hec'tor, son of King Pri'am, ventured to face his enemy; and Patroclus fell. Achilles was heartbroken. It was all his own fault, he declared, and he groaned so heavily that his wailing was heard in the depths of the ocean. He vowed that, come what might, he would be revenged. He went back to the camp and made up the quarrel with Agamemnon; and then he rushed forth into battle. The Trojans were so terrified that they all ran back into the city save one, Hector. But when Achilles dashed forward upon him, his heart failed, and he, too, ran for his life. Three times Achilles chased him around the walls of Troy, then thrust him through with his spear. He tied cords to the feet of his fallen enemy and dragged his body back and forth before the eyes of the Trojans; and when the following morning had come, he dragged it twice around the tomb of Patroclus.



The Greeks believed that if a person's body had not received funeral rites, he would be condemned to wander for one hundred years on the banks of the Styx, the gloomy river of the dead; but Achilles declared in his wrath that the body of Hector should be thrown to the dogs. Then King Priam loaded into his litter rolls of handsome cloth, rich garments, and golden dishes, and made his way to the tent of the fierce warrior. "Your father is an old man like me," he pleaded. "Think of him and show pity. I have brought a wealth of ransom. Take it and give me the body of my son." The fiery Achilles yielded and even agreed to a twelve-days' truce so that the funeral might be celebrated with all due honor. The tale ends with the building of an immense pyre and the burning of the body of Hector.

Homer's second poem is the Od'ys-sey. Troy finally fell into the hands of the Greeks, but U-lys'ses, or O-dys'seus, one of the leaders, was unfortunate enough to be hated by Po-sei'don, god of the sea. His home was on the island of Ith'a-ca; but before Poseidon would allow him to return to it, he drove the homesick wanderer back and forth over the Med-i-ter-ra'ne-an Sea for ten long years and made him undergo all sorts of danger. The Odyssey tells the story of his wanderings and his wonderful adventures. First, he was driven by a storm to the land of the Lo'tus-eaters. Whoever ate the lotus forgot his home and friends, and cared for nothing but to stay in the lotus country and idle his life away in vain and empty dreams. Some of Odysseus's men tasted this fruit; and he had to drag them on board the ship and even tie them to the benches to keep them from staying behind.



Odysseus's second adventure was in the country of the Cy-clo'pes, monstrous giants, each having one huge eye in the middle of his forehead. One of these giants, Pol-y-phe'mus, found the Greeks in his cave when he drove home his sheep and goats. He devoured two of the men at once, and others on the following day. But Odysseus was planning revenge. He offered the giant a great bowl of wine, which pleased him mightily. "What is your name?" the Cyclops asked. "No man," replied Odysseus. Then Polyphemus promised him as a great favor that he should be the last of the company to be eaten. But when the giant was sleeping stupidly, Odysseus and his men took a stick of green olive wood as big as the mast of a ship, heated one end in the fire until it was a burning coal, and plunged it into the eye of Polyphemus. He roared with pain, and the other giants ran from all sides to his aid. "What is it? Who is murdering you?" they cried. "No man," howled the giant, "No man is killing me." "If it is no man," they said, "then your illness comes from Zeus, and you must bear it. We can do nothing," and they went their way.



The Greeks made their escape, but it was not long before they were in trouble again. They landed on the floating island which was the home of ∆'o-lus, god of the winds. He was kind and friendly, and when they departed, he gave Odysseus a leathern sack tied up with a silver cord. All the storm winds were safely shut up in this sack; but Odysseus's men supposed it was full of treasure. They were so afraid they would not get their share that while their leader slept, they tore it open. ∆olus had given them a favorable breeze, and they were so close to their own island that they could see men heaping wood on the fires, but now the storm-winds rushed out of the bag, and the vessel was driven back again over the waters.

They landed on the island of the enchantress Cir'ce, who had an unpleasant habit of changing people into the animals that they most resembled. They passed by the Si'rens, beautiful, treacherous maidens who sang so sweetly from a soft green meadow near the shore that no seamen who heard them could help throwing themselves into the water to make their way nearer to the marvelous music. The wise Odysseus had himself bound to the mast and forbade his sailors to free him, whatever he might say or do. Therefore he was able to hear the magical songs in safety. Neither did he lose his vessel, for he had stopped up the ears of the sailors with wax. They passed between the snaky monster Scyl'la and the horrible whirlpool Cha-ryb'dis; and after many long years of wandering and hardship Odysseus arrived on the shore of his beloved Ithaca.



Pe-nel'o-pe, wife of Odysseus, had been tormented by a throng of suitors, who for years had been feasting upon her food and wasting her property. Her son Te-lem'a-chus was only a youth and not yet strong enough to drive them away. Penelope never gave up the hope that Odysseus would return, and to gain time she put the suitors off by every device in her power. When everything else had failed, she began to weave a web in her loom, and promised that when it was done, she would choose among them. She worked at this for three years, and the suitors waited; but in the fourth year her maids found out the secret, that she was pulling out by night what she wove by day. In the very nick of time Odysseus appeared. He and Telemachus slew the wicked suitors and punished all who had been unfaithful in his absence. Then Telemachus and Penelope and the aged father of Odysseus rejoiced, for at last their lord had come to his own again.

These are bits of the stories that Homer tells in the Iliad and the Odyssey; but their greatest charm is in his manner of telling them. He seems to know just how each one of his characters feels. He understands the anger of Achilles, and he sympathizes with the sorrow of Hector's wife when the hero is going forth to battle. He knows how to use words so marvelously well that he can make one line sound like the tramping of horses on a plain and another like the beating of waves against the rocks. He describes every event as if he himself had seen it, and he never forgets to mention the little things which so many people pass over. Best of all, the stories are told so simply and naturally that, even after the many centuries, we can hardly help feeling that Homer is alive and is telling them directly to us.


Homer. — The treatment of a poet. — The Iliad. — The death of Patroclus and of Hector. — The Odyssey. — The Lotus-eaters. — The Cyclopes. — The storm-winds. — Circe. — The Sirens. — Scylla and Charybdis. — The return of Odysseus.