The Iliad, Book XXV
Guide me, O Muse, that I may recount the tale of two enemies who crossed each other long ago, in an age when heroes walked the earth.
* * *
High atop Olympus, where mortal man dare not trek, the immortals held council. One figure stood above the rest as primus among peers, and he was not happy. "Am I not almighty Zeus, the cloud-gatherer? How is it then that men do not tremble at my name?" He paced back and forth before his throne, eyes burning red with anger. "Nearly a year has passed since Ilios fell and still the Achaeans pay paltry homage." The Olympian stared out across the earth which sprawled beneath his feet, and his mind wandered. "I am not to be trifled with. With a mere stroke of my arm I could wipe away the lot of them."
But one in attendance tempered by the gift of wisdom stepped forward and spoke. "Does Zeus require the worship of men at any cost? Force them into submission and you have slaves, not followers."
After careful reflection, the words of Athena softened his ire. "Alas, Pallas Athene, your reason is greater than my wrath. I will stay my hand for now."
A short while later, Hermes, the messenger, returned from roaming the earth, and came before the king, who was on his throne. "What news from the world of men?" said Zeus.
"Father, there is trouble stirring in the land of Thrace. A renewal of the war between the Achaeans and Ilians is nigh."
The god-king stood. "How so?" he asked.
"The remnant of the fallen city, led by Prince Aeneas, has fled. He takes what is left of his people to find a new home...and they wander...currently in the land north of the Achaean Sea."
This did not come as a surprise to the cloud-gatherer. "As any mortal man whose home has been destroyed would do," he said.
"Yes, lord, but at the same time, Odysseus king of Ithaca, one of the last of the Achaeans to find his way home, has also arrived in Thrace. His ship blown off course by your brother, Poseidon."
Zeus turned from Hermes and looked out across the horizon; his eyes narrowed and his face hardened once more. And this time Athena was not there to offer any words of wisdom. The Olympian's voice sank to a low rumble. "Poseidon..."
* * *
From over the eastern hills they came, a ragged band of travelers, tired from a long journey; one man walked in front. His eyes reflected a look of both emptiness and determination. As a prince, he was tasked with raising up his people from the ashes of a lost city. Tall in stature and deliberate in his stride. He was Aeneas of the House of Priam. "Palinarus," he said.
"Yes, prince," came a voice from behind.
"What town do we approach?"
Palinarus came forward and looked out ahead. "That is Abdera, my lord."
"Abdera?" Aeneas tried to recall the town in his memory. "Is it friendly to Ilians?"
"It is not hostile, lord."
"We will take refuge there and re-provision before moving on." They approached the city and pitched camp just to its north. After they had settled, Aeneas, Palinarus and a few others headed for the town's agora.
Meanwhile to the south, an Achaean ship struggled into port, sails torn and oars battered. That it had been beaten by storms was evident. At the helm stood Odysseus, King of Ithaca, guiding the craft toward the docks. Though weary, he showed no sign of fatigue in front of his men. As their leader, he had to maintain the appearance of strength in their company.
Onshore, a dock worker caught the rope thrown from the boat and tethered it securely to the pier. "Welcome to Abdera," he said.
"Where is the Temple of Athena?" answered Odysseus as he climbed from the ship. "I must make supplication before our next embarkation." After getting his answer, he turned to his officer and said, "Eurylocus, repair the ship, then find food and rest for the men. I go to see that the goddess of wisdom watches over us." He walked off the dock and headed for the temple.
* * *
Back on the mountain, a tempest was unleashed, the winds of which were dividing the Olympians into two camps once again. Those who supported Aeneas saw an opportunity to avenge his loss in the war. Those who supported Odysseus spoke of ultimate victory for the Achaeans. Zeus, as their king, had to be more diplomatic. "We will not interfere," he said.
Some did not. "We must!" blurted Hera, the white-armed goddess. In her anger, she could not have been diplomatic had she wanted to.
Zeus turned toward her. "Hera!" he said. "I know well of your hatred for Aeneas. We all know what the Fates have foreseen. You would cut him down as one cuts down a sapling were I to allow it. But we will wait...and watch."
Hera, Queen of the gods, was one of the few who dared challenge the word of Zeus. "Humanity are our playthings," she said. "If we don't..."
"Wife! Enough!" Zeus shouted. "I have spoken!" The white-armed goddess stood silent, the anger still plain on her face. None of the others questioned him. After Zeus' decree, the council broke.
Later, while he was standing on the edge of the mountain, pondering events, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, approached him from behind. "Father..." she said.
Without turning, he responded. "Yes, Aphrodite."
"I have come to plead for the safety of my son, Aeneas." Her concern was apparent.
He tried to assuage her fear. "Daughter, there is no reason to be troubled. You know well the prophecies."
She nodded. "Yes, father. But cannot the gods alter the path of mortal man?"
Now it was Zeus who showed concern. He turned to Aphrodite and said, "Which immortal has done so? I have forbidden intervention."
"Your brother, Poseidon, directed the ship of Odysseus to Abdera where the last of the Ilians now gather. He is a mighty warrior. Perhaps your brother means to destroy them."
Zeus drew a heavy sigh and looked into the heavens. "Poseidon has dominion over the seas. Though I control the earth and the sky, I am powerless over the waters."
Aphrodite still tried to persuade the god-king. "Yes, but the feet of Odysseus now rest on the earth," she said. "You can..."
"Daughter, we will wait and see what happens." Her face was downcast, but he was unmoved. She departed on his words.
* * *
As a port town, Abdera's agora sat along the coast facing the sea. Aeneas and his small troupe sought food and wares among its markets. He had just purchased an amphora of fish, when his man Palinarus approached with a look of urgency upon his face. He grabbed Aeneas by the arm. "My lord, there is an Achaean ship down at the docks."
Aeneas turned and looked at Palinarus with piercing eyes. "What ship?" he asked.
"It is that of Odysseus."
A brief appearance of confusion came over Aeneas' face. He grabbed hold of Palinarus as though confronting an enemy. "You are certain of this?"
The officer nodded. "The ship bears the mark of Ithaca, the kingdom of Odysseus."
The prince scarcely believed what he was hearing. He turned his face toward the docks. "Is he there?"
"The dock master said that he went to the Temple of Athena for supplication."
Aeneas stood silent, for the moment stunned. Then he looked heavenward and offered up an invocation. "Apollo...deliver my enemy into my hands." He looked back at Palinarus. "Come...we will strike this Achaean down in the temple of his god."
* * *
The immortals gathered around the Pool of Olympus, their window into the world of men, and watched events as they unfolded; eagerly awaiting their outcome. Aphrodite, who was most unsettled, spoke first. "Lord Zeus, King of Olympus. Aeneas is mad with anger. I fear makes a grave mistake. Allow me to go to him that I might guide his steps."
"No!" replied Hera. "Let them do battle." She was anticipating an Achaean victory. "Should Aeneas die, it shall not be by any interference from us."
"That is not so," said Aphrodite, referring to the sea-god, Poseidon.
Zeus stared into the pool and watched as Aeneas marched toward the temple. In his heart, he wanted no harm to come to the Prince of Ilios; but he had already ruled non-interference from the immortals and felt bound by it. Aeneas was a powerful warrior, but was he strong enough to stand up to the likes of Odysseus?
While he was pondering these thoughts, there arose the voice of gray-eyed Athena, who offered Zeus the opportunity to act without breaking his word; like a door out of the labyrinth of the minotaur. "Lord Zeus, gatherer of cloud, my temple is no place for the shedding of human blood. It would be a desecration."
Her words lifted the heart of the god-king. "True, Pallas Athene," he said. "A temple makes a poor battlefield...save perhaps a temple belonging to Ares." He nodded and saw an opportunity. "So be it. You may intervene without violating my decree. See to it that neither one of them is harmed." Athena immediately left and took the guise of a mortal as she prepared to enter the world of men.
Hera stormed from the council. Unbeknownst to Zeus though, she too prepared to leave Olympus.
* * *
As he approached the temple, Aeneas drew his sword. Nothing save Athena herself was going to prevent him entering. Inside, Odysseus stood in reverence before the altar praying as the priestess prepared the sacrifice. She held aloft a golden cup and was reciting an invocation. Suddenly, the door swung open and Aeneas stormed in, shield in one hand and sword in the other. Odysseus turned round and had his sword drawn in an instant.
The priestess put down the cup and rebuked the intruder. "Who dares defile the Temple of Athena?" she demanded.
Aeneas was unfazed. "One who would take vengeance for the destruction of my home," was his response.
Odysseus studied his enemy, who was staring at him with eyes of fire. After a moment of bewilderment, a name came to him. "Aeneas?"
The prince never took his eyes off the King of Ithaca. "Aye," he replied.
Ever the lighthearted warrior, the Achaean smiled and let loose a loud bellow. "Well met, Prince of Ilios. You are the last remnant of a fallen people," he said. He pointed his weapon at Aeneas. "And now you provide me with the opportunity to finish what King Agamemnon began eleven years ago. Your journey to find a new home ends here." Grabbing his shield, he approached the prince. Aeneas, in turn, tightened his grip on his sword.
But before the battle was joined, the priestess stepped between them and raised her arms . "Stop this madness!" she shouted. "Combat has never taken place in this holy temple, and it shall not now!" She stood like a pillar, unmoved by each warrior determined to kill the other.
Odysseus, a faithful follower of Athena, lowered his weapon; but Aeneas remained at the ready. Knowing this might be his only opportunity at revenge, he had no intention of relenting, and held his sword high. Seeing this, the King of Ithaca shook his weapon at the prince and said, "It is your choice, Ilian. Either I can strike you down or you can allow the goddess of wisdom do it for me."
Still Aeneas did not move. "You think you can wipe out an entire people and simply return to Ithaca as though nothing has happened," he said? "No. You must pay for your acts...and so you shall."
He took one step forward and would have struck the priestess in order to get to Odysseus except, in that moment, a band of soldiers, neither Ilian nor Achaean, but Thracian, came rushing into the temple and ordered the two men to stand down. "By order of King Stiacles, Archon of Abdera," said the head of the guard, "you are commanded to lower your weapons." Aeneas looked around at the force which now surrounded him and saw that he was hopelessly outmatched. He kept his eyes fixed on Odysseus, but at last put his sword away. Both men were led out and taken to the king's palace. There Aeneas was locked away, but Odysseus allowed to go free. For Athena, through her intervention, had made known the identity of Odysseus to King Stiacles, but had withheld that of Aeneas. And by drawing his weapon inside a sacred temple, he had violated Abderan law and ordered imprisoned by the king. Odysseus left the palace and headed to a nearby tavern for some food.
* * *
Along the ocean's shore, the white-armed goddess, Hera, stood, looking out across the water. In the loudest voice she could muster, she shouted, "Brother...I must speak with you!"
After a few moments of quiet, the waves started crashing furiously against the rocks. The wind whipped, and the sky grew dark. A short distance out, the water began to boil and up came a figure, towering above the surface. It was Poseidon, the earth-shaker. "What is it, sister?"
Though dwarfed by his massive stature, her imposing presence was nonetheless equal to his own. "I require your assistance," she said.
The sea-god knew it must be important for her to come down from Olympus and risk the anger of Zeus. "And in what way will my assistance benefit me?" he asked.
She smiled at his response. "Benefit you? Are we not like mortals in so many ways?" she quipped; but quickly turned serious once again. "It will complete your victory."
"My victory?" he asked puzzled.
Hera was puzzled in turn. "Was it not you who pushed the ship of Odysseus off course into the port of Abdera so that he might meet Aeneas and kill him?"
Poseidon considered her words carefully, before answering. "I blew his ship off course in answer to my son's prayer. That kretin, Odysseus, blinded Polyphemus, and he cried out to me that I might exact retribution."
This came as news to Hera, but she was undeterred. "Well then it is by the Fates that he now resides in the same town as our enemy, the Prince of Ilios."
"Is that so?" Poseidon appeared uninterested. "Hera, that war is over. The Achaeans were triumphant. He may live, but Aeneas is defeated. Now it is time to avenge my son."
But Hera persisted. "No. The spirit of Aeneas remains undaunted. You know the prophecies concerning him. That he will find a new home and found a great nation. You know that his descendants are destined to conquer the descendants of the Tyrians. The Tyrians who will build a mighty city on the shores of the Great Sea and call it Carthage. They will be a people of the sea and revere you, Poseidon. Their destruction must not come to pass. Assist me in this one task and take your vengeance on Odysseus after Aeneas is dead."
The sea-god pondered Hera's words. Then he said, "Perhaps there is a way to do both."
"How so?" she asked.
He reached beneath the surface of the water and drew a sword from its depths. "With this."
* * *
Zeus was not pleased with Athena for telling King Stiacles of Odysseus, but not of Aeneas, which resulted in his imprisonment and Odysseus being set free. Even so, she did prevent a battle in the temple between the two and accomplished the task of keeping the them both alive. And now that he was alone in the king's jail, freeing Aeneas was simply a matter of the cloud-gatherer sending Hermes to Abdera in order to release him. The messenger-god was dispatched at once.
* * *
While Odysseus was enjoying a meal in the tavern, an old man with one eye and a noticeable limp approached and sat down. "Hello, young man. May I join you?" he said.
Always eager to talk with someone from whom he might learn, Odysseus invited the man to share his dinner and handed him a pan of roasted boar.
The old man accepted with appreciation. "Thank you, sir," he said. "My name is Hippias. I am a fisherman in these parts."
"And I am Odysse__"
"Odysseus, yes I know," said Hippias. "Your presence here in Abdera became known after the king's soldiers removed you and Aeneas from the Temple of Athena. You fought in the great war between the Ilians and the Achaeans. Some say it was your beguilement that won it for the Achaeans."
Odysseus had not been aware that his reputation had grown so quickly. He studied the old man's face. "What happened to your eye?"
After a pause, Hippias said, "Fishing is a dangerous business, lad. I have suffered many injuries in my years."
The Achaean nodded and seemed to accept the old man's response. "As one who lives on the seas, you must serve Poseidon."
Hippias smiled. "You might say that," he answered. He abruptly changed the subject though. "Odysseus, they say you were ready to strike Aeneas down, even in the temple of the goddess you serve."
Odysseus interrupted. "He was about to strike me. I was merely defending myself," he said in a raised voice.
Hippias remained calm. "I am not here to judge you, King of Ithaca. In fact, I am here to assist you...if you mean to finish the task."
This made Odysseus a little suspicious. "Why would I wish to do that? He is held by the king and can no longer harm me."
The old man leaned forward. "Perhaps he cannot harm you, but he can harm your people," he said.
The Achaean's look changed from one of suspicion ot one of curiosity. "How?"
Hippias saw that he had grabbed the king's interest. "Odysseus, I am not simply a fisherman and follower of Poseidon...I am...well, let us just say that I am also a prophet of the sea-god...and I see the future."
At these words, Odysseus did not know what to think. But his curiosity remained. "What do you see?" he asked.
"I see a great nation, born of the seed of Aeneas. One that will one day conquer the Achaeans."
Odysseus gasped. "My descendants...conquered by those of Aeneas?" Such a revelation arrested his mind. The eyes of the king never left the fisherman's face. "How can I trust what you say is true...prophet?" he said somewhat skeptically.
The fisherman rolled back his cloak. "Were it not true, would I be in possession of this?" He pulled a sword out and laid it on the table. Odysseus looked down and his eyes widened. It was unlike any sword he had ever seen before. Not bronze, but of a material of which he was unaware. So unique was it that it drew the attention of others in the tavern who looked at it in wonder.
"What is this?" the king asked in amazement.
"It is the Sword of the Sea," answered Hippias. "Wrought not from metal, but from the fang of the Ketos, creature of the deep; and blessed by Poseidon himself. If I did not possess the gift of insight from the earth-shaker, neither would I possess this glorious weapon."
Odysseus looked up at Hippias with renewed respect. He began to think that perhaps the gods had sent this man to him for a purpose. "You spoke of finishing the task against Aeneas," he said. "Is it the will of the gods that I kill him?"
Hippias smiled. "Has there ever been a time when all the gods agreed with each other? Let us simply say that it is at least one god's will."
This gave Odysseus pause. Doing the will of one god often meant violating that of another. "And how exacty can you assist me, prophet?" he asked.
Hippias lowered his voice as if to insure that his words were heard by Odysseus alone. "During the war, Aeneas fought and was nearly slain by Achilles. He was saved fom certain death by...Poseidon. And as the sea-god swept him from the battlefield, he told Aeneas that no Achaean could kill him save Achilles alone." The fisherman placed his hands on the sword and pushed it toward the King of Ithaca. "Well the man who wields this sword can fell not only Aeneas, but Achilles himself."
Odysseus was tempted to look at the sword again, but he kept his eyes fixed on Hippias. "Are you saying the sword is mine?"
The old man nodded. "The sword is yours."
After a long pause in which Odysseus considered all they had discussed, his lighthearted tone suddenly returned. He smiled and said, "You are surely a man of many talents, Hippias. Fisherman, prophet, sage...and now gift-giver. But there is yet one obstacle to overcome. Aeneas lies imprisoned in the king's dungeon. Even with all my men, I could not penetrate the walls of Stiacles' palace."
The old man dismissed his concern. "The camp of the Ilians lies on the north of Abdera. Wait until dawn and you will find him there."
Odysseus began to think there was nothing beyond the fisherman's ability. "So we can add smuggler to your list of talents? You are going to smuggle Aeneas from the king's jail?"
The fisherman stood up. "At dawn, Odysseus," he said, and limped off.
Odysseus took the sword and left the tavern.
* * *
Deep in the depths of the king's palace, Aeneas was lying on a bench staring at the walls. His fear was, that for the sake of revenge, he had failed his people. As their leader, it was his task to find a new home, and now he felt destined to die in prison. Then suddenly, from outside his cell, the sound of footsteps approaching came to his ears. He looked up, and standing at the prison door was an old man with only one eye. The stranger turned a key and unlocked the door. "You are free to go, Aeneas," he said.
This news came as a surprise to the prince. "By order of the king?" he asked.
The old man turned and left without answering. Aeneas sat on the bench for a moment, not quite sure what to make of this turn of events. Surely it was a trap, he thought. Finally, he got up and opened the door. The path was clear all the way down the hall; not even the old man was seen. Aeneas thought that strange since he could not possibly have walked the distance so quickly. But he put that thought out of his head and turned his attention toward escape. Even though he had been set free, he could not shake the feeling that he was escaping, not walking out a free man. He crept to the end of the hall and pushed on the door leading to the upper level. It too was unlocked. The way was clear, so he climbed the steps. At the entrance leading to the dungeon, a single guard was sitting on the floor, fast asleep. Aeneas was certain he would wake, but walked past without delay. The floor creaked beneath his feet and he looked back briefly expecting the guard to come after him. But still the king's man did not move. He found the palace exit and left without drawing anyone's attention. Outside the palace, his armor, shield and sword were lying on the ground. Aeneas gave thanks to Apollo whom he was certain was the one who had freed him.
* * *
Hermes returned to Olympus and went straight to the god-king. "Father, Aeneas has escaped without my assistance," he said.
The cloud-gatherer turned toward the messenger with a look of confusion. "How?"
He shook his head. "I do not know. I went to the king's dungeon and he was gone."
At first Zeus accepted this as good news. "Very well then. He is free. Does it matter how it came to be? Now he can continue his journey."
But Hermes had more disturbing news. "No, my lord. For Odysseus awaits his return to his camp and to his people."
"What?!" The confusion of Zeus was replaced by anger. "How did he become aware of...there is something strange at work here," he said. The god-king was not accustomed to having his plans foiled; nor did he like it. "Assemble the council," he demanded.
"Yes my lord."
* * *
Aeneas headed back toward his camp as the sun began to rise. He was still a good distance of, when without warning, a figure approached from the shadows.
"Hello, prince," came a strangely familiar voice. The figure stepped forward. It was Odysseus. "Did you think I was relieved when the king's men separated us in the temple?" He continued to walk toward his adversary. "No. I was disappointed." The King of Ithaca stopped and raised his shield. "We are no longer in the temple, Aeneas."
Aeneas drew his sword. "Indeed. There are no soldiers here to save you now, Achaean." He came straight at Odysseus with the fury of a god. Odysseus drew his sword and it shimmered in the morning light. The prince charged with such determination that he scarcely noticed there was something different about his opponent's weapon. In an instant, he was upon the king and the two swords struck with great force. Aeneas was thrown back while Odysseus stood his ground. The prince was dazed, only for a moment; but he shook it off and charged again. He was a valiant warrior, and under equal terms, would be a fierce opponent for the King of Ithaca. But in this battle, they were not under equal terms. Odysseus wielded the Sword of the Sea, and it had a power all its own. Try as he might, Aeneas could not force Odysseus back on his heels.
* * *
The immortals returned to the Pool of Olympus just in time to see the two heroes engage in battle. Aphrodite was fearful, while Hera was hopeful. The god-king himself was oblivious to their concerns as he focused on the mortals. As the fight raged, suddenly something caught Zeus' eye. "What weapon does Odysseus wield?" he said.
Athena, the warrior-goddess of wisdom spoke up. "It appears to be the Sword of the Sea."
"Sword of the Sea?" said Zeus. At last his confusion was replaced with clarity, and his anger burned within him. "Poseidon. So this is his meddling. He infringes on my domain and tips the scale of battle in favor of the Achaean."
"Nay, my lord," said gray-eyed Athena. "For the Sword of the Sea is double-edged, both blessed and cursed. After it kills its opponent, it will turn on its bearer and kill him as well."
A look of dread came upon Zeus' face.
"I do not know your brother's scheme," Athena continued, "but both their lives are in peril."
Hera, the white-armed goddess, quietly looked at her husband, eager to learn his next move.
His next move was to intervene. "Hermes," he said. "Fly to Abdera in haste and end this battle at once."
"Yes, father." Hermes lept from Olympus on winged sandals and sped to the earth below.
* * *
Aeneas was beginning to tire. Despite his skill as a warrior, he was unable to find a weakness in his opponent. He had never met Odysseus in battle during the war, but he knew the king's ability could not match that of Achilles. And yet, today his strength did seem to match that of the Champion of the Myrmidons, whom he had battled in the war. But he would not give up. His thoughts turned to his home, Ilios, destroyed by the Achaeans; and to his wife, Creusa, who was killed. He looked to his anger to sustain him. But even that was failing him. For the first time since he had faced Achilles, he began to doubt. Odysseus saw his opponent weaken and sought to finish the fight.
But before he could deliver the killing blow, suddenly a divine wind blew through the trees with such force that it separated the two warriors. They stopped the fight and looked around, perplexed, trying to understand its origin. In an instant the messenger-god was upon battlefield and came between the two men. "I am Hermes and I come with the authority of Zeus himself," he said.
Odysseus and Aeneas stood in shock and lowered their weapons. Hermes walked over to Odysseus and took the sword from his hand; the Achaean too stunned to offer any resistance. "This sword was given to you by the sea-god, Poseidon, Odysseus," he said. "It would have killed you as it would have Aeneas had I not come." Both men looked at the sword. "Know this, Odysseus. Poseidon is no friend of yours. He seeks revenge on you for blinding his son, Polyphemus." Hermes stepped away from the two heroes and the wind began to swirl around him as prepared to leave. "Go now, both of you. You each have destinies which must be fulfilled. And they do not involve either of you killing the other."
Aeneas, who had gathered his wits, was unwilling to accept the words of Hermes. "He is a soldier in the Achaean army, which destroyed my home. He must die."
Odysseus was equally determined to continue the fight. "His descendants are foretold to conquer my people. I cannot allow that to happen."
Upon hearing this, the prince looked at Odysseus in amazement.
"Would you defy the will of Zeus?" said Hermes. "I said go. Should either of you try to pursue the other, you will find your efforts thwarted by the gods themselves."
Aeneas became content to learn of the future of his people. It brought a renewed sense of purpose to his task. He left the battlefield and returned to his camp. Odysseus too went to his boat, unwilling to risk opposing the gods. He ordered his men to ready the ship to set sail and warned them to beware of Poseidon's wrath.
With the two of them safely apart, Hermes flew from there and landed at the edge of the sea, sword still in hand. With the strength of a god, he flung it back into the water to be swallowed up by the waves. He then returned to Olympus.
* * *
Epilogue: The Fates proved the gods correct; for in 146 B.C., the Romans, who were the children of Aeneas, conquered both Carthage, as Hera had feared, and Greece who were the descendants of Odysseus.