[By John Cooke, 1892]
THE writer of this book was Charles Lamb. He was born in 1775, in one of the quaint courts of the group of buildings belonging to the lawyers in London, known as the Temple. When a child of seven he was sent to Christ's Hospital, where the boys have to dress in long dark-blue coats, yellow stockings, and shoes, and go hatless, after the fashion of the time of Edward VI., who founded that school. When Lamb grew up he became a clerk, but he soon took to writing books. His sister was able to assist him, and with her he wrote several for children, as, Tales from Shakespere, and Poetry for Children. By himself he wrote, in the year 1808, this book, The Adventures of Ulysses, whose story is one of the oldest and best tales in the world. Lamb was very fond of our old English literature, and he wrote very clever essays on the plays written at the time of Queen Elizabeth. He wrote also many essays about himself, and the London world in which he lived and moved. They are so beautifully and truthfully told, that we know more about him than almost any other writer; and he is, in consequence, one of the most loved of all those who have made us wiser, happier, and better by their books.
Homer, who is generally considered the writer of the book from which the Adventures of Ulysses is taken, is called the "Prince of Poets," because he is the greatest epic poet--that is, writer about heroes, wars, and adventures--that ever lived. He lived in Greece, but so long ago that no one can tell exactly when, but probably about one thousand years before Christ was born. The place of birth too is not known, but he was so celebrated that many cities contended for the honour of having him as their citizen. Some say he was blind; but he could not always have been so. A blind man could never have sung of the sea and its foaming waves; of the beautiful scenery of rocky shores and sea-girt islands; of the sky, the fields, and the woods, unless he at one time had good powers of sight. His occupation was that of a wandering minstrel which was then considered a very honourable calling, and continued to be for very many centuries afterwards all over Europe. The greatest respect was shown to these minstrels. Kings and princes and other important persons gave them welcome, and listened as they sang of the deeds of great men, whether describing those of their ancestors, their relatives, or their own; and they showed their pleasure by giving presents of money or costly gifts. We owe a great deal of our knowledge of history and men to these singers. They put into verse the great deeds of heroes in wars, sieges, battles, and adventures, and they were handed down by word of mouth until someone put them into writing. Homer's poems were composed at a time in which there was, perhaps, no writing, or very little; but the singers had good memories, and were practised in the art of learning by rote.
We may safely assume that much of the great stories told by Homer existed before his time, but not in the beautiful form in which we have it from him. Just as a painter takes the colours scattered on his palette, and works them into a picture on his canvas, or a woman the many-coloured threads of silk from her basket, and produces a beautiful piece of needlework, so Homer took the mixed tales of gods, heroes, travel, battle, and war, and by the exercise of his great powers of language, fancy, and imagination, weaved them into the greatest poem ever written. His work is all the more wonderful since he had no model to follow; and although he had afterwards many imitators none have ever surpassed, or perhaps even equalled him. His knowledge of human nature was so great, that the best men in all ages have been glad to learn wisdom from him. In Greece boys learned his poems at school; many men could boast of knowing his poems by heart, and wherever a Greek went, he carried a love and reverence of the great poet with him. The ancients long after he was dead had such reverence for him, that they held festivals in his honour, raised temples and altars to him, offered sacrifices, and worshipped him as a god. The great charm in Homer lies in the artless and simple way in which he relates his story, and describes the varying incidents in the lives of his heroes. But his poems are chiefly valuable to us for the important lessons we learn of the manners, customs, and mode of life of the ancient Greeks, and the social conditions under which they lived. When he described all these, and sang of battles, sieges, deeds of arms, and of sacrifices to the gods, the people understood him because it related to their every-day life, and not to a time long gone by.
Homer's two great poems are the Iliad, so called because it treats of the great siege of Ilios or Troy; and the Odyssey, because it tells of the wanderings, or adventures of Odysseus or Ulysses, the name by which he is best known. These two poems are divided into twenty-four books, being the same number as the letters of the Greek alphabet. The world as known to the ancient Greeks formed but a very small portion of the world as known to us. They knew the rocky shores, promontories, and islands of their own country, the coast of Asia Minor, the shores of Egypt, and the south of Italy, round which Homer leads Ulysses in his wanderings. They peopled strange lands with giants, monsters, and cannibals, and located the gods whom they worshipped in distant mountains, islands, woods, and caves. Their notion of the world was that it was flat; and that far beyond all known countries it was bounded by a great sea river called Oceanus, across which the souls of the dead passed and for ever dwelt in gloomy and misty regions, shrouded from the sweet light of heaven. The living could not cross this ocean and return; but by the interference of a goddess Ulysses was given this privilege, as Homer describes.
The gods of the Greeks were many, and they governed the destinies of men. Ruler of all was Jupiter, who is often described as sitting in his court with all the gods in council, on Olympus, a mountain of Macedonia and Thessaly, whose top the ancients thought touched the heavens and where reigned an eternal spring. Jupiter had power over the elements, and hurled his thunderbolts and lightning against offending men. Juno was his wife, the queen of heaven, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, his daughter, who befriended Ulysses and his son Telemachus. Neptune ruled the sea, and could shake kingdoms with his earthquakes. Pluto ruled over hell, and all that lay under the earth, and with his brothers, Jupiter and Neptune, shared the kingdom of their father Saturn. Æolus had power over the winds, and befriended Ulysses. Diana was the goddess of the chase, and is generally represented in a hunting habit attended with dogs. Venus was the goddess of love and beauty; Mars was the god of war; Apollo, the god of poetry; and very many others. There were also various classes of female deities, called nymphs, presided over mountains, hills, dales, the sea, rivers, fountains, streams, and lakes; living often in woods, caverns, or grottos, amid most enchanting scenes. The gods were gifted with like passions as men, and interfered in the most wonderful way in all human affairs. Homer tells of the constant interest manifested by many of them in the siege of Troy, and how they frequently took part in the battles, some siding with the Trojans, and some with the Greeks. Indeed it was not possible for one who had offended any of the deities to escape terrible punishment, unless protected by one mightier than they.
An examination of a map of Greece will show what a great extent of coast-line it has, no other country in Europe exceeding it in this respect. It is surrounded on all sides by the sea, except the north. Its shores are much indented, many bays and gulfs extending deeply inland, and far-reaching rocky promontories projecting into the sea. Most of the Greek states had easy communication by means of the sea. The inhabitants were great mariners, as Ulysses was, and fond of adventure. The country is highly mountainous, lofty ranges separating many plains where the principal cities were situated, and which became the centres of separate and independent states. The rocky shores of the sea-girt land, the rugged and broken outline of its mountain chains, and the beautiful atmosphere which clothes external nature, have made the scenery of Greece celebrated in all ages. Under such conditions would be developed a free and independent spirit in its people, attended with poetical and intellectual gifts; so that the Greeks became in time most highly civilized, and gave to the world the richest treasures of learning, science, and art.
Greece, at this early period, was not a united country ruled by one king. It contained as many monarchs, or princes, as there were towns, who united to fight common foes, but very often they engaged in petty warfare among themselves. Many of the cities in time became celebrated for the cultivation of art, science, learning, and civilization, such as Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Thebes, Delphi, and others. The ancient Greeks were remarkable for their bravery in time of war; they gloried to show their valour in the fight, and were indifferent to wounds, or death received in the field of battle. Their armour consisted of shields, helmets, spears, and swords, beautifully ornamented in gold and silver, and they wore greaves also upon their legs. A sword given to Ulysses, at the court of King Alcinous, had a handle of massive silver, and its sheath was of ivory. Much value was set upon the arms of a hero, as his life largely depended on them, and when he died they were often given to another, as we read of Ulysses getting those of Achilles, and for ever making an enemy of Ajax thereby.
In those times the king had absolute power; he was the leader in battle, the judge in all disputes, the priest who offered sacrifices and prayers to the gods for the people. It was necessary for him to be brave and heroic in order to maintain his position and authority; otherwise he could not command the respect of his subjects, or prevent the invasion and plunder of his city or state by jealous or ambitious neighbours. He had to be an orator, too, and to cultivate the art of making eloquent speeches upon great occasions, such as the beginning of a battle; and the soldiers despised the leader who could not rouse up their passions to fight, in a stirring and spirited oration, or lead them with mighty voice to the onset.
The king had his council of chiefs, to whom he imparted his intentions, and consulted with on all important matters; but he was not obliged to follow their advice unless he liked. He was not above personal labour. Ulysses could build a ship, and navigate it with sails and oars; he made and fitted up his own bed; he could plough the land, and work in the fields. But war was more indulged in by kings and people than the arts ofpeace. They fought with great cruelty, and plundered and burned towns and cities without mercy. When a great foe was killed, his arms became the spoils of the victor. The Greek chiefs pierced the dead body of Hector, while Achilles tied it, by the feet, to his chariot, dragged it, in view of his father, mother, wife, and friends, three times each morning round the tomb of Patroclus, and kept it twelve days unburied. Human sacrifices were not unknown, and Achilles offered up twelve Trojan captive youths at the funeral rites of Patroclus, his friend and companion in arms.
The habits of the people were simple and temperate, and all ate of the same kind of food. Their meat was the flesh of oxen, sheep, goats, and swine; kings' sons were often shepherds, and their chief riches consisted in the flocks which they reared. Corn was grown, from which bread was made, and served out to the guests in baskets. Fruits were also used at meals, and they drank wine mixed with water. Before drinking, a portion was poured out as an offering to the gods. They were very hospitable to strangers, as we find Ulysses most kindly received by King Alcinous and Eumæus the herdsman, and entertained with the best food and drink they could place before him; for, as the latter says, "Poor men are all from Jove commended to our entertaining love." At their banquets the minstrel played on the harp, and sang; on festive occasions they danced skilful measures; and the youths engaged in friendly contests, in running, wrestling, throwing quoits, and shooting with the bow.
The members of the family were bound together by the closest ties. The authority of the father over all was complete, and the children dreaded giving him offence, or bringing upon them his anger or his curse. Though wives were bought in exchange for oxen, sheep, or other valuable things, they exercised much liberty, and were highly thought of; as will be gathered from the story of Ulysses' return to Penelope, after an absence of twenty years. They were skilful in spinning and needlework, as well as in all other domestic affairs; and even kings' daughters, with their maidens, washed the household clothes in the river, as we read of Nausicaa, the daughter of Alcinous, doing when she met Ulysses.
The people at this time lived mostly in towns, strongly fortified, surrounded with walls, amid gardens, palaces, and temples. The houses of the kings and chiefs were built of stone, and finely ornamented, furnished with beautiful vessels of gold, silver, bronze, and earthenware, and the walls hung with armour. Without was a great court in which games were played, having in the centre an altar for sacrifices. Carving in stone was done at this time; but the beautiful statues of gods and goddesses that we see in galleries and pictures, and which we read of in books, belong to a much later time than that of Homer. Though his description of buildings, and the style in which kings and chiefs lived, may at times be exaggerated, such as that of the palace of king Alcinous and his court, it is yet certain that great advances had been made in civilization at the time; and many beautiful things have been discovered amid the ruins of ancient Greece, showing the people to have expended much skill and industry in their production.
Now to understand how it came about that Ulysses had to set forth on his wanderings, it is necessary to relate briefly the events that preceded it. There was a king of Thessaly, named Peleus, who married a sea goddess named Thetis. All the deities were invited to the marriage festival except the goddess of Discord; and to show her envy at the slight, she threw an apple among them with the words "to be given to the fairest" written on it. There was a keen contention then over to whom it was to be given; but Juno, Venus, and Minerva were the chief claiments. The gods unwilling to become judges in so delicate a matter, appointed Paris, a son of Priam, King of Troy, in Asia Minor, then a shepherd on mount Ida, near that city, to decide who was the fairest of the three. Juno promised him a kingdom, Minerva great military renown, and Venus the fairest woman in the world for a wife, if he decided in their favour. He at last gave his decision in favour of Venus, which drew upon him and the Trojans the anger of the disappointed goddesses.
The most beautiful woman in the world, at the time, was Helen, the daughter of Leda, wife of Tyndarus, King of Lacedæmon in the south-east coast of Greece. So celebrated was she, that the most noted of the Greek princes sought her in marriage, a compliment which alarmed rather than pleased Tyndarus. Among them was Ulysses, prince of Ithaca, a small and rocky island in the Ionian sea, east ofthe larger island of Cephalonia. He was known then for his wisdom, prudence, and eloquence; and, fearing that he would not be successful, he offered to advise Tyndarus how to get out of his difficulty, if he would grant him his niece Penelope in marriage. To this Tyndarus agreed, and Ulysses then advised him that he should bind all the princes to a solemn promise, that they would consent to Helen's own free choice, and to defend and protect her in future against any danger. The princes all agreed and made promise; and Helen selected Menelaus, King of Sparta, and married him. Shortly afterwards Paris visited Lacedæmon, on pretence of offering sacrifices to Apollo. He was most kindly received by Menelaus, and while the latter was on an expedition to Crete, Paris enticed Helen to fly with him to Troy; and thus he got possession of her whom Venus had promised as a reward for the decision in her favour. Menelaus, on his return, was enraged at the loss of his wife, and appealed to the Greek princes for help, and reminded them of their promise. They readily consented to avenge the outrage that had been committed, as they looked upon it as if it had been done to themselves. They first sent messengers to Priam, demanding back Helen, which the king refused. They then commenced preparations for war, fitted out a fleet of 1,200 ships, carrying 100,000 men, and sailed across the Ægean sea to Troy. Agamemnon, King of Argos and Mycenae, and brother to Menelaus, was selected leader of the expedition; but the kings and princes acted as counsellors on all important occasions. Among the celebrated Greek chiefs were Achil The siege of Troy lasted ten years, but the Iliad of Homer only deals with the events of the last year. A quarrel occurred between Achilles and Agamemnon; and Achilles retired from the siege, and a great pestilence seized upon the Greek camp. The Trojans beat back the Greeks, and then Achilles was prevailed upon to give his armour to his friend Patroclus, who charged the enemy at the head of the Myrmidons. Patroclus was killed in the contest, at which Achilles was filled with great grief and rage. He offered his services anew to revenge the death of his friend and companion, and he killed Hector in single combat, with whose burial the Iliad closes. Achilles was killed by an arrow shot by Paris, but directed by Apollo. It wounded him in the heel, the only place in which he was vulnerable. Paris, too, the cause of all the woe, was killed, and Troy soon fell by a strategem of Ulysses. By his device a wooden horse was built, inside which lay concealed a number of armed men. The Trojans brought the horse into the city; and at night the Greeks came out and opened the gates for their companions, who now put the inhabitants to the sword, and burned the city. Menelaus returned with Helen to his own city, but Agamemnon returned only to be murdered as Homer tells. Ulysses, alone of those who survived, had not returned to his rocky home, where his aged father, Laertes, Penelope, his wife, and his son Telemachus, whom he had left an infant, so long awaited him. Driven by storms from shore to shore, he and his companions encountered many misfortunes, and incurred the great anger of Neptune, for the injury inflicted on his son, Polyphemus the Cyclop. After suffering many distresses and losing all his companions, he remained for seven years in the enchanted abode of the goddess Calypso. Befriended by Minerva, he was at last released, and after enduring much further hardship, he found himself at last on the shores of Ithaca, after an absence of twenty years. All this Homer describes in the Odyssey, which has been put into prose in this book. The poem closes with the triumph of Ulysses over all his enemies, and his happy union with his wife and father, after so long and cruel a separation.