Odysseus returns to Aeaea, where he buries Elpenor and spends one last night with Circe. She describes the obstacles that he will face on his voyage home and tells him how to negotiate them. As he sets sail, Odysseus passes Circe’s counsel on to his men. They approach the island of the lovely Sirens, and Odysseus, as instructed by Circe, plugs his men’s ears with beeswax and has them bind him to the mast of the ship. He alone hears their song flowing forth from the island, promising to reveal the future. The Sirens’ song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter.
Once they have passed the Sirens’ island, Odysseus and his men must navigate the straits between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed monster who, when ships pass, swallows one sailor for each head. Charybdis is an enormous whirlpool that threatens to swallow the entire ship. As instructed by Circe, Odysseus holds his course tight against the cliffs of Scylla’s lair. As he and his men stare at Charybdis on the other side of the strait, the heads of Scylla swoop down and gobble up six of the sailors.
Odysseus next comes to Thrinacia, the island of the Sun. He wants to avoid it entirely, but the outspoken Eurylochus persuades him to let his beleaguered crew rest there. A storm keeps them beached for a month, and at first the crew is content to survive on its provisions in the ship. When these run out, however, Eurylochus persuades the other crew members to disobey Odysseus and slaughter the cattle of the Sun. They do so one afternoon as Odysseus sleeps; when the Sun finds out, he asks Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men. Shortly after the Achaeans set sail from Thrinacia, Zeus kicks up another storm, which destroys the ship and sends the entire crew to its death beneath the waves. As had been predicted, only Odysseus survives, and he just barely. The storm sweeps him all the way back to Charybdis, which he narrowly escapes for the second time. Afloat on the broken timbers of his ship, he eventually reaches Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus here breaks from his story, stating to the Phaeacians that he sees no reason to repeat to them his account of his experience on Ogygia.
The account of his wanderings now finished, Odysseus looks forward to leaving Scheria. The next day, Alcinous loads his gifts on board the ship that will carry Odysseus to Ithaca. Odysseus sets sail as soon as the sun goes down. He sleeps the whole night, while the Phaeacian crew commands the ship. He remains asleep even when the ship lands the next morning. The crew gently carries him and his gifts to shore and then sails for home.
When Poseidon spots Odysseus in Ithaca, he becomes enraged at the Phaeacians for assisting his nemesis. He complains to Zeus, who allows him to punish the Phaeacians. Just as their ship is pulling into harbor at Scheria, the prophecy mentioned at the end of Book 8 is fulfilled: the ship suddenly turns to stone and sinks to the bottom of the sea. The onlookers ashore immediately recognize the consummation of the prophecy and resolve to abandon their custom of helping wayward travelers.
Back in Ithaca, Odysseus wakes to find a country that he doesn’t recognize, for Athena has shrouded it in mist to conceal its true form while she plans his next move. At first, he curses the Phaeacians, whom he thinks have duped him and left him in some unknown land. But Athena, disguised as a shepherd, meets him and tells him that he is indeed in Ithaca. With characteristic cunning, Odysseus acts to conceal his identity from her until she reveals hers. Delighted by Odysseus’s tricks, Athena announces that it is time for Odysseus to use his wits to punish the suitors. She tells him to hide out in the hut of his swineherd, Eumaeus. She informs him that Telemachus has gone in search of news of him and gives him the appearance of an old vagabond so that no one will recognize him.
Odysseus finds Eumaeus outside his hut. Although Eumaeus doesn’t recognize the withered traveler as his master, he invites him inside. There Odysseus has a hearty meal of pork and listens as Eumaeus heaps praise upon the memory of his former master, whom he fears is lost for good, and scorn upon the behavior of his new masters, the vile suitors. Odysseus predicts that Eumaeus will see his master again quite soon, but Eumaeus will hear none of it—he has encountered too many vagabonds looking for a handout from Penelope in return for fabricated news of Odysseus. Still, Eumaeus takes a liking to his guest. He puts him up for the night and even lets him borrow a cloak to keep out the cold. When Eumaeus asks Odysseus about his origins, Odysseus lies that he is from Crete. He fought with Odysseus at Troy and made it home safely, he claims, but a trip that he made later to Egypt went awry, and he was reduced to poverty. It was during this trip, he says, that he heard that Odysseus was still alive.
Like much of the Odyssey, Book 12 generates excitement through the tension between goals and obstacles. Some of these obstacles are simply unpleasant: Odysseus would rather avoid Scylla and Charybdis altogether, but he cannot—they stand in his way, leaving him no choice but to navigate a path through them. But many of these obstacles are temptations. Unlike Scylla and Charybdis, the island of Thrinacia poses no immediate threat to Odysseus or his men. While the cautious Odysseus advocates resisting the urge even to land on Thrinacia, the crew’s instincts and desires drive them to slaughter the Sun’s flocks even after promising Odysseus that they wouldn’t do so. Even Odysseus’s experience with the Sirens is a study in temptation, a temptation that Odysseus keeps in check through foresight. The picture that Homer paints of Odysseus strapped to the mast, begging to be released, is symbolic of many of his and his crew’s experiences on the seas. Immediate, visceral desires distract him from his nostos, or homeward journey, but a deeper longing and a more intellectual understanding of his mission’s importance keep him tied to his course.
Some scholars believe that the straits between Scylla and Charybdis represent the Straits of Messina, which lie between Sicily and mainland Italy, as these straits are a prominent geographical feature and indeed treacherous to navigate. But Homeric geography is notoriously problematic. Separate efforts to map Odysseus’s wanderings often place the same destination in different hemispheres of the globe. Things become convoluted even on mainland Greece, as Homer often misjudges distances and even invents geographical features. Bearing these issues in mind, it is entirely possible that Homer neither knew nor cared about the location of the straits that inspired his Scylla and Charybdis episode—or that they were simply the creations of his and his predecessors’ imaginations.
Book 13 picks up where Book 4 left off: the setting quickly shifts back to Ithaca and the suitors again dominate the background of the story. No sooner does Odysseus forget the Phaeacians than he and Athena are conspiring to destroy the mob that has taken over his house, refocusing the poem from stories of misadventure in the past to the central tension in the present. Athena’s mention of Telemachus’s wanderings also gives the narrative a sense of continuity with the poem’s earlier books.
Athena’s description of this trip shows once again how significantly kleos, or glory, figures in Homer’s world. For if Athena knew of Odysseus’s plight and imminent return, it seems illogical, at first, that she would send Telemachus on such a risky trip. While Telemachus’s journey proves instrumental in the maturation already under way in Books 1 and 2, Athena states that the purpose of his going to Pylos and Sparta was for him to “make his name by sailing there” (13.482). She is more interested in how performing great deeds in faraway lands will elevate his reputation than in his inner, more personal growth. Throughout the Odyssey, Athena shows a steadfast devotion to Odysseus and the traits that he embodies; in risking his life to find his father, Telemachus stands to gain a measure of that same renown for which Odysseus and other Greek heroes risked their lives at Troy.
The destruction of the Phaeacian vessel raises an exception to xenia, the Homeric code of hospitality. As Bernard Knox argues in the introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey, the obligation of assisting and entertaining travelers and wayfarers is the closest the Odyssey comes to asserting an absolute moral principle. Zeus, king of the gods, is depicted as the enforcer of this code of hospitality. Yet he sanctions Poseidon’s punishment of the Phaeacians, who anger Poseidon precisely by following, even exceeding, this code in helping Odysseus to return home. This code, it seems, applies only as long as the egos of gods are not bruised. Zeus’s submission to Poseidon’s desire for revenge supports Fagles’s claim that the most powerful gods never allow human concerns—the interests of the people whom they favor—to precipitate conflict among themselves. The gods elect to use alliance, deceit, and diplomatic negotiation to play out their power struggles rather than allow them to degenerate into open conflict. For Zeus, preserving stable relations with his brother is more important than returning favors to one of his most suppliant peoples.
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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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