Talk of the Kingdom (March 1, 1177 BC)
Rumor Has It: Eurycleia of Parnassus Speaks from Grave
We have grown used to hearing tales and epics about the deeds of our highest born citizens. The great King Odysseus achieved renown for his triumphs in the Trojan war, his defeat of the hundred suitors vying for his Kingdom, and for his wise decision to leave his son, Telemachus in charge of his kingdom.
King Odysseus’s exploits were well known. His wife remained faithful during all of his time away. His son grew up to be strong and fair-minded. But what of those who took care of the daily tasks in the King’s household? We hear whiffs of the death of twelve treasonous maidens, and of a remarkable sounding woman who served three generations of Ithacan Kings: Odysseus’s father, Laertes, Odysseus himself, andTelemachus, until her death of old age. Her name is Eurycleia, and The Ithacan has obtained a transcript of some of her last words. We cannot independently authenticate this document or its claims, but we feel it to be an important piece of history nonetheless, and feel that it is better to share with our citizens than to keep hidden.
In what are purported to be Eurycleia’s own words:
You want to know if the rumours are true about the Queen? Which Queen? Which rumours? Which versions? Ah, you are not prepared. I expected as much.
If there is one thing that I have learned in my many, many years, rumours are the life’s blood among high-born people. It is almost impossible to sort out what is true and what isn’t.
Rumours? Yes I know a thing or two about them. I have heard a few in my day and been subject to a few myself. You look shocked. I was young like you once. Yes, indeed . . . Oh, but it does not much matter now, for most of the people about whom those stories have been told are dead or gone. Only two people remain on this island about whom the most slanderous falsehoods were spread, and one of them isn’t talking.
What’s that? Speak up, I am an old woman now and can’t hear you. Oh. What were the rumours? Silly question, really, for we all know that the best rumours are the most salacious. What does that mean? Sex, my dears, sex.
Don’t look so scandalized. You’re the ones who asked.
Are they true? Does it matter? I could tell you that Penelope was the most saintly and patient wife, second only to Hera, even without the mean streak. I guarantee, you wouldn’t remember that beyond one lifetime. No one is interested in faith and virtue anymore.
Oh very well, very well. You young ones are all bored. It has been quiet since King Odysseus left again. That boy was gone twenty years. Twenty! And then in half as many he develops itchy feet and is gone again. Poor Penelope. No, you are right. Telemachus is much, much better at governing than my dear Odysseus, but that doesn’t make it easier on Penelope, no siree it does not.
No, I don’t care if he has grey hairs now. I’ve known Odysseus since he was a babe in his mother’s arms. He is a boy to me always. And a good boy. Wily they called him . . . There you go with those rumours again. He knew how to get by in this world, is all.
Odysseus . . . He was a good boy, but a handful as you can probably imagine. Ctimene, his sister, was much much easier. I didn’t mind though. It was far easier than the life I was supposed to lead. And after my own son died – yes, I had a son when I was very young, around your own ages, in fact. When my son died, Odysseus and Ctimene became like my own. Telemachus, too, though he came much later..
No, my son was not the King’s son. See, this is how these rumours start. Oh, very well. Very well. Sit down. I will tell you what I know. You must swear this will not leave this room. May Zeus strike you down if you tell a soul.
Queen Penelope always would have had a hard time avoiding the rumours. With that many suitors around and her husband gone for twenty years . . . But the Ithacan rumours started long before Odysseus brought Penelope here from Sparta.
I never thought I would come west, you know. I thought I would live, die and marry all near Parnassus, where my father had his olive groves. When the time came, my father would arrange a nice marriage for me and then I would take up a position similar to my mother’s in my own home.
Then Heracles came.
No, not that Heracles. Don’t be starting more rumours, now. That Heracles was Theban, and how old do you think I am? That Heracles is also in Hades. Did you not read Odysseus’s account of it? Young people . . . If it had been that Heracles I wouldn’t have ended up here. I would certainly not have said no to that Heracles, no girl my age would have, even if it had been sensible to do so. Who needs a husband always off adventuring, though. Look at poor Penelope. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Heracles of Parnassus is not someone who will have epics written about him, though he was a sweet boy . . . A little too sweet, If I’m telling the truth. But we were both young, taken up by wedding fever (it was January after all), and the Dionysian celebrations were happening on Mount Parnassus. You don’t know anything until you’ve been around that lot . . . We were young Heracles and I, and it was unfortunate that my father found us, or so I thought at the time.
My father had ideas above his situation in life. I think he thought I could have married that Heracles. He didn’t like my Heracles in any case, and insisted that I accompany him on a journey of several days that he was taking to meet Autolycus.
Who is Autolycus? Queen Anticleia’s father, of course.
What is my point, you ask? The Fates had a grand plan for myself, Queen Anticleia, and Queen Penelope, too. Now hush and listen.
Autolycus was notorious in our parts for being a thief and a liar. No one liked to deal with him if it could be helped. Ours had been a desperate winter, and it my father had already exhausted all other options. This is where the Fates step in, my dears. I have already told you that it was January, the time when most people married, if they had any control over things. And it so happens that King Laertes was there to marry Autolycus’s daughter Anticleia.
I don’t know how and why the King of Ithaca was at the Mountain. I have never been able to figure out why King Laertes would marry the daughter of a notorious thief and liar. Anticleia was always a bit distant, but if you believe all that business with Sisyphus, it explains why.
What’s that? What business with Sisyphus? Do you know nothing that goes on beyond Ithaca? Athena, help us all. Come close now, I will say this only once. The rumour is that Anticleia, before she was queen of course, had relations with Sisyphus. He seduced her after her father stole his cattle.
Rumours, of course, and if you believe that codswallop, it could be used to explain why Odysseus was so ‘wily.’ It would be the sort of thing her father would do, to give an already pregnant daughter over to a King, putting the legitimacy of any child born soon after the wedding into question. It hasn’t hurt Odysseus much, but it must needle him. I have never asked. I don’t give two hoots about those rumours.
I should tell you that I was not happy about being taken away from home to visit Autolycus with my father, and I was none too quiet about it. I think it was that which first caught the attention of the King, though I can’t be sure of that either. All I know is that one moment I was furious with my father, and the next I was being traded for twenty oxen.
I know! That is indeed a Kingly sum, even with today’s inflation.
A girl can hardly be expected to be happy about leaving her lover and being taken west to serve as a slave to a king, on an island she’s never seen. The boat ride did not help either. The other slaves and servants of the king spread the worst rumours, especially when I was around. They assumed. And I supposed I did the same, that I was to be the King’s concubine. Why else would he have paid such a goodly sum to my father? And when his new wife got pregnant, if she decided to breastfeed the child herself then she would not be available to her husband for several years. I would serve as a spare, so they said.
Anticleia was aware of the rumours and the situation as well as I was. I can forgive her now for her thoughts, but it did not make for a pleasant journey, or first years in the castle.
It was not until Odysseus brought Penelope to the island that I realized that Anticleia’s personality was icy at its core. I thought it had something to do with me. She was highly suspicious when she found out I was with child, something that did not come out until we were several months at Ithaca. She suspected the king was responsible. And why not? It would not be the first time that a king was bedding more than one woman at a time. I think she was relieved when my dear son died, but less pleased when the king insisted that I stand in for wet nurse.
This caused the usual uproar. The Queen used the doctors and their modern medicine to argue against my appointment as nurse to baby Odysseus. I had bad humours that led to my baby’s death, she said. King Laertes was not to be dissuaded. I choose to think the king a practical man. I was already bought and paid for, after all, why not use me. Then the queen could have another baby right away. Some of the more mean spirited servants thought that the king might have insisted on me nursing Odysseus, hoping the baby would get sick and die and that Laertes could have another son by the Queen who would unimpeachably be his own. He had affection enough for Odysseus, so I think that these were no more than bitter rumours.
Servants, especially good ones, are hard to come by on an island. The ones who served the King and Queen at Ithaca served for life. By the time Penelope came along, foreign, innocent and young, the rumour mongers were well practiced. She gave them nothing to feed on, except for her foibles and errors in our customs. It was not my place to step up and assist her with settling in to her role. That should have gone to her mother-in-law, but Anticleia remained as distant as ever, focused more on Ctimene who was newly married herself. I couldn’t stand to see the dear, sweet Penelope fumble around, and so I stepped up.
Hindsight tells me I shouldn’t have done so. I grew too involved with the new Queen and little Telemachus. Perhaps if I hadn’t have been so focused on the new child, I would have been more aware of what was happening with the suitors and the maids. I would have known about the Quoeen’s little trick. What can I say, I am as human as the next person, and as I get older things get fuzzier. I have only ever served loyally. Those maids looked guilty of treasonous acts. I was only doing what I thought was best to save the Queen’s good name. I have only done what I thought was best for the family. Why else would the King have given me the keys to his treasure house?
Oh, but don’t listen to me. I am an old, deaf and senile woman, and these are all rumours.