HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XII]

In Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew return from Hades to the island of Circe. There, Circe advises Odysseus about the dangers he will face on his journey home. With Circe’s instructions in mind, Odysseus departs from her island.

The first danger Odysseus and his crew encounter is that of the Sirens. The Sirens are creatures who lure sailors to death by their enchanting songs. Warned by Circe, Odysseus stops his men’s ears with wax and orders them to fasten him to the mast of the ship. While the ship passes the island, the Sirens sing to Odysseus that “he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” Like Circe herself, the Sirens represent the alluring temptations of bodily pleasures that ultimately lead to ruin.

After passing the island of the Sirens without incident, the crew sails into the strait of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed monster that dwells in a cave. No ship has ever passed her cave without losing at least six men to her snapping jaws. Close by her cave is the whirlpool Charybdis. Only one ship has ever passed through the whirlpool successfully. That ship was the Argo, captained by Jason and protected by Juno.

Circe advises Odysseus to pass near the cave of Scylla rather than Charybdis because it is better to lose six men than to lose the entire crew. Odysseus wonders whether it is possible to fend off Scylla. Circe responds that it is not possible and comments upon Odysseus’ headstrong personality – “You are always wanting to fight somebody or something; you will not let yourself be beaten even by the immortals.” Odysseus will never accept defeat, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances. Despite Odysseus’ attempt to save his men, Scylla eats six of them as they pass underneath her cave.

Having passed the strait of Scylla and Charybdis, the crew next lands on the island of the sun god Hyperion. On the island, Hyperion’s sacred cattle live. Circe warns Odysseus that he and his crew should not kill the cattle, otherwise the gods will kill the entire crew and Odysseus will undergo severe hardships before finally arriving home in Ithaca.

Unfortunately, the crew is stranded on the island due to unfavorable winds for one month, during which their food stores are entirely depleted. Against the command of Odysseus, the crew members kill and eat the cattle for six days. On the seventh day, the winds begin to blow favorably, and the crew sets out to sea. Zeus strikes the ship with his thunderbolt, thus drowning the entire crew. Odysseus clings to the mast of the broken ship and finally arrives on the island of Calypso. The events surrounding the cattle of Hyperion serve to reinforce the Ancient Greek belief that the gods severely punish impiety.

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