The Achaeans sail from the land of the Cyclopes to the home of Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus presents Odysseus with a bag containing all of the winds, and he stirs up a westerly wind to guide Odysseus and his crew home. Within ten days, they are in sight of Ithaca, but Odysseus’s shipmates, who think that Aeolus has secretly given Odysseus a fortune in gold and silver, tear the bag open. The winds escape and stir up a storm that brings Odysseus and his men back to Aeolia. This time, however, Aeolus refuses to help them, certain that the gods hate Odysseus and wish to do him harm.
Lacking wind, the Achaeans row to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of powerful giants whose king, Antiphates, and unnamed queen turn Odysseus’s scouts into dinner. Odysseus and his remaining men flee toward their ships, but the Laestrygonians pelt the ships with boulders and sink them as they sit in the harbor. Only Odysseus’s ship escapes.
From there, Odysseus and his men travel to Aeaea, home of the beautiful witch-goddess Circe. Circe drugs a band of Odysseus’s men and turns them into pigs. When Odysseus goes to rescue them, Hermes approaches him in the form of a young man. He tells Odysseus to eat an herb called moly to protect himself from Circe’s drug and then lunge at her when she tries to strike him with her sword. Odysseus follows Hermes’ instructions, overpowering Circe and forcing her to change his men back to their human forms. Odysseus soon becomes Circe’s lover, and he and his men live with her in luxury for a year. When his men finally persuade him to continue the voyage homeward, Odysseus asks Circe for the way back to Ithaca. She replies he must sail to Hades, the realm of the dead, to speak with the spirit of Tiresias, a blind prophet who will tell him how to get home.
The next morning, Odysseus rouses his men for the imminent departure. He discovers, however, that the youngest man in his crew, Elpenor, had gotten drunk the previous night, slept on the roof, and, when he heard the men shouting and marching in the morning, fell from the roof and broke his neck. Odysseus explains to his men the course that they must take, which they are displeased to learn is rather meandering.
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man . . .
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
Odysseus travels to the River of Ocean in the land of the Cimmerians. There he pours libations and performs sacrifices as Circe earlier instructs him to do to attract the souls of the dead. The first to appear is that of Elpenor, the crewman who broke his neck falling from Circe’s roof. He begs Odysseus to return to Circe’s island and give his body a proper burial. Odysseus then speaks with the Theban prophet Tiresias, who reveals that Poseidon is punishing the Achaeans for blinding his son Polyphemus. He foretells Odysseus’s fate—that he will return home, reclaim his wife and palace from the wretched suitors, and then make another trip to a distant land to appease Poseidon. He warns Odysseus not to touch the flocks of the Sun when he reaches the land of Thrinacia; otherwise, he won’t return home without suffering much more hardship and losing all of his crew. When Tiresias departs, Odysseus calls other spirits toward him. He speaks with his mother, Anticleia, who updates him on the affairs of Ithaca and relates how she died of grief waiting for his return. He then meets the spirits of various famous men and heroes and hears the stories of their lives and deaths.
Odysseus now cuts short the tale and asks his Phaeacian hosts to allow him to sleep, but the king and queen urge him to continue, asking if he met any of the Greeks who fell at Troy in Hades. He relates his encounters there: he meets Agamemnon, who tells him of his murder at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra. Next he meets Achilles, who asks about his son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus then tries to speak with Ajax, an Achaean who killed himself after he lost a contest with Odysseus over the arms of Achilles, but Ajax refuses to speak and slips away. He sees Heracles, King Minos, the hunter Orion, and others. He witnesses the punishment of Sisyphus, struggling eternally to push a boulder over a hill only to have it roll back down whenever it reaches the top. He then sees Tantalus, agonized by hunger and thirst. Tantalus sits in a pool of water overhung by bunches of grapes, but whenever he reaches for the grapes, they rise out of grasp, and whenever he bends down to drink, the water sinks out of reach. Odysseus soon finds himself mobbed by souls wishing to ask about their relatives in the world above. He becomes frightened, runs back to his ship, and immediately sails away.
The mortal tendency to succumb to temptation manifests itself throughout Book 10. Just as Odysseus taunts the blinded Polyphemus in book 9 by boasting about his defeat of the Cyclops, the members of his crew prove unable to resist looking into Aeolus’s bag, and their greed ends up complicating their nostos, or homeward voyage. As important and illustrative of weak-mindedness, however, is that Odysseus lets a year waste away in the arms of the goddess Circe. While his crew certainly seems not to mind the respite, Odysseus particularly enjoys it, even though his wife is waiting for him. The drunk Elpenor’s death as the men are about to depart from home constitutes another instance of overindulgence in personal appetite.
Only when his crew “prod[s]” him and calls his delays “madness” is Odysseus persuaded to leave Circe’s realm (10.519–520). The crew members’ lukewarm feelings for the place are understandable—after all, they have to suffer the humiliation of being transformed, initially, into pigs and receive no recompense comparable to the love of a goddess. Indeed, in Book 10, for the first time we hear the crew criticize its leader. Refusing repeatedly to return to Circe’s halls after the other scouts are transformed into pigs, the crew member Eurylochus issues an especially stinging reproach of Odysseus for foolishly leading his crew to its destruction. He presents the death of their comrades at the hands of Polyphemus as evidence of Odysseus’s imprudence: “thanks to [Odysseus’s] rashness they died too!” (10.482). Though Odysseus checks his anger and restores calm, the unrest illustrates the holes in his authority.
With the appearance of the various heroes and lesser divinities, Book 11 gives the modern reader an extraordinary anthology of mythological lives. Homer’s audience would already have been familiar with the stories of such figures as Heracles, Minos, Achilles, Agamemnon, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, and people turned to them for authoritative versions of the Greek myths even in the later ancient period. For the modern reader, they provide invaluable insight into early Greek mythology. Again, by juxtaposing Odysseus’s wanderings to the woes of these legendary figures, Homer both broadens the scope of his poem and further entrenches his hero in his culture’s mythology. In even being allowed to enter Hades, Odysseus attains a privileged, transcendent status.
Odysseus’s conversation with Achilles reveals a nuanced view of warfare and kleos, or glory, which is harder to find in the Iliad. Achilles’ declaration, “I’d rather slave on earth for another man / . . . / than rule down here over all the breathless dead,” alludes to his dilemma, depicted in the Iliad, of choosing between earning glory on the battlefield but dying young and living out a long, uneventful life (11.556–558). Whereas the Iliad, which celebrates the glory of warfare, wholeheartedly endorses Achilles’ choice of glory over long life, Achilles’ lament in Book 11 of the Odyssey issues a strong caveat to this ethic of kleos. This change in Achilles’ sentiment from one poem to the next is understandable, given that, as we have seen with Odysseus, the Odyssey tends to focus on characters’ inner lives. Yet Achilles doesn’t wholly shun the idea of kleos. Though he turns away somewhat from his warrior ethos, he still rejoices to hear that his son has become a great warrior. Kleos has thus evolved from an accepted cultural value into a more complex and somewhat problematic principle.
Positioned near the very heart of the epic, the underworld segment ties together the poem’s various settings. Anticleia recalls those pining away for Odysseus in Ithaca. Agamemnon and Achilles shift our thoughts back to Troy. Elpenor ties in the near past on Circe’s island and the present responsibilities that Odysseus has to his crew. Finally, the interruption in Odysseus’s account reminds us of where he is now—in the palace of the Phaeacians. The interruption seems to have no other function, and it doesn’t make much sense within the context of the plot. It is hard to believe, for instance, that Odysseus would want to go to sleep before describing the most important conversations he had in Hades, and, in fact, he doesn’t go to sleep—the history of his wanderings goes on for another book and a half. The interruption is transparently used to break the long first-person narrative into smaller, more manageable chunks.
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Odysseus covered his mens ears with beeswax, because they would never want to go back home listening to the sirens.
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