BOOK XII – THE VOYAGE CONTINUES '
The Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Cattle of Hyperion
Odysseus and his men return to Circe again, who provides them with further
supplies and gives them more instructions regarding the final leg of their journey.
The first obstacle is the island of the Sirens. These women are
irresistible to men and attract unsuspecting sailors with their songs.
They are lured onto hidden reefs surrounding the islands where many have been wrecked over the years. Odysseus orders his men to plug their ears with wax so that they will be immune, but he wishes to hear the song and orders them to lash him to the mast. They pass the danger unscathed.
The next challenge is a two-fold horror of Scylla, a six-headed monster who
sits on a cliff at a narrow pass below which lies a fierce whirlpool called Charybdis. To avoid the whirlpool, the ship has to pass below Scylla, and despite a severe fight, six of the crew are lost to the
To recuperate from this ordeal, the ship lands on an island where Hyperion,
the sun god, keeps his cattle.
They are then becalmed and cannot leave the island, but Odysseus is unable to control his men who slaughter some of the cattle for a meal. Odysseus had received warnings from both Tiresias and Circe to leave the divine cattle alone, but the actions of his crew incur the wrath of all the gods, and when they finally leave the island, Zeus destroys the ship killing the entire crew.
Odysseus spends nine days adrift in the sea and is eventually washed ashore
on Ogygia, the home of Calypso. Here he remains for seven years until his release is ordered by Zeus.
This section of the book deals with Odysseus’ journey from Troy to Ithaca,
which takes ten years.
These Books represent the climax of the epic poem, but you will note
that Book 5 relates to a position three-quarters the way through Odysseus’ voyage. You must remember that in its original form, this poem was meant to be heard, not read, and that the audience would be well
aware of the plot. The reason for starting in the ‘middle’ of the voyage is to immediately gain the audience’s attention.
Odysseus is about to leave Calypso’s island and we do not learn what happens
before this time until many books later.
This method allows the use of flashbacks and, therefore, gives the story a more striking effect, which method is still used today in the motion picture industry. The emphasis is not so much on the content, but on its presentation, as the general outline of the story is already known to the audience. The poem, therefore, entertains us by the way it tells the story. The author is not able to develop suspense or provide the audience with a surprise ending. The focus is on the interpretation of the tale which is surrounded by known events and characters.
If we look at the episode with Circe where the enchantress has turned some
of Odysseus’ crew into swine, Odysseus is immune to her spells and she tries to tempt him. In Alexander Pope’s translation of 1725, we read
“Ill fits it me, whose friends are sunk to beasts,
to quaff thy bowls, or riot in thy feasts.
Me woulds’t thou please? For them thy cares employ,
and them to me restore, and me to joy.
With that, she parted: In her potent hand
She wore the virtue of the magic wand.
Then hast’ning to the styes set wide the door,
urg’d forth, and drove the bristling herd before;
unwieldly, out they rush’d, with gen’ral cry,
enormous beasts dishonest to the eye.
Now touch’d by counter-charms they change again,
and stand majestic, and recall’d to me.”
We obtain a flavour of the original poem from this translation, and this
represents more of a narration which spaces out the speeches made by the characters.
Again, remembering that this is a visual performance, when characters speak,
they do so in the form of a speech – full of drama and actions.
We also get an insight into the main hero, Odysseus.
He is a man’s man who has his faults that the common man can relate to. True, he is intelligent and transmits a strong physical presence, but he is still a man, and enjoys the vices that life provides. He wants to enjoy what the goddess has to offer, but his conscience prevents him doing so whilst his men are reduced to being swine. He tells the goddess that he will submit to her charms provided she restores his men.
When they are transformed back to human form, we read
“They saw, they knew me, and with eager pace
clung to their master in a long embrace:
Sad, pleasing sight! With tears each eye ran o’er,
and sobs of joy re’echo’d thro’ the bow’r:
Ev’n Circe wept, her adamantine (impenetrable) heart
felt pity enter and sustain’d her part.”
Homer uses two devices in his poem – the epithet and the simile, both
techniques provide additional description or identification.
The epithet is normally attached to a ‘thing’ or a ‘person’ to aid in its identification and description, e.g. ‘bright-eyed Athena’, ‘wine-dark sea’, ‘divine Calypso’ and so forth.
Sometimes it is used to bring irony or sarcasm to the dialogue, e.g. ‘brave
Antinous’, who is in fact a coward. This helps keep the audience’s attention and provides humour.
Modern works use this to less effect because the reader does not require the
same level of description, as most modern works are designed for reading.
The simile is used to liken one thing or an individual to something else, e.g.
“Laertes recognised his son and, weak at the knees
dizzy, flung his arms around the neck of great Odysseus
who drew the old man fainting to his breast and held him there
and cradled like driftwood the bones of his dwindling father.”
“Odysseus, seeing the need for whitewash and disinfectant,
fumigated the house and the outhouses, so that Hermes
like a clergyman might wave the supernatural baton
with which he resurrects or hypnotizes those he chooses,
and waken and round up the suitors’ souls, and the housemaids’,
like bats gibbering in the nooks of their mysterious cave
when out of the clusters that dangle from the rocky ceiling
one of them drops and squeaks, so their souls were bat-squeaks
as they flittered after Hermes, their deliverer who led them” (to Hades)
As you can see, some of these similes are quite long. They normally
start with ‘like’ or ‘as’, and you have to imagine what actions the actors make when delivering the speech.
We have touched on the part played in the poem by the gods and other
supernatural forces, but at the end of the day, it is the mortals who significantly influence the development of the plot.
Homer recognizes that Odysseus is no match for Poseidon, so to create a
balance, Athena takes a large role in the play, together with other characters such as Circe.
The main use of the gods by Homer is to respond to actions by the mortals
and in particular to punish them for misbehavior. The moral is that mortals will be punished when they show greed, avarice, jealousy, or if they disobey a particular rule laid down by the gods.
These are normally imparted to mortals through prophets and seers. It is when mortals ignore these visions of the future that they are in peril of retribution.
During these Books we also learn of the fate of Agamemnon and his murder at
the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegistheus. He was murdered while bathing and apparently his wife threw a large net over him twisting it round his body whilst her lover slew him with his axe.
There is conjecture that Homer composed an epic poem concerning this hero, but this unfortunately is lost to us. This story of Clytemnestra is specifically mentioned so as to provide a contrast with the virtuous Penelope. Although Agamemnon’s return home was far quicker than that of Odysseus, it is the latter that will enjoy a full and happy life, while Agamemnon is soon escorted to Hades. Clytemnestra was killed by her son Orestes.
At this stage, the reader now has an understanding of Homer’s style, which
is still clear despite the elapse of time and translation. Again going back to the fact that this would be a visual experience, Homer carefully constructs a distinct personality for each character. He
never judges the characters, leaving this to the audience. It is, however, noticeable that he provides each character with a sympathetic side. No portrayal is totally evil or totally good.
The poem is a true reflection of life as it was 2,500 years ago, and still
Homer presents a world where there is cruelty and barbarism, but also beauty and love. He does not overly romanticize this world and he does not feel the need to over-embellish the characters and locations.
The poem has stood the test of time because of its subject matter and its
ability to stir the imagination of the audience.
It is apparent that Homer held all life as sacred and even characters such
as Polyphemus arouse a sense of pity in the audience when he is left blinded and ridiculed by his peers.