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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 30: Thoughts on Book XII

As you may know, the East Coast of the United States was plagued by massive power outages after a freak storm tore through the area just under a week ago. I was without power for four days, which goes a long way toward explaining the delay in this post. I can't promise that it will compensate in quality for what it lacks in timeliness, however.

But, that being said--Wow! Thirty posts about The Odyssey, and we're halfway through. As I think about it now, though, I kind of want to be reading this poem forever--I may go back to the beginning again once we finish in December. The more you read it, the more the poem has to say--I don't know how it works, I just know it's true.

Anyway, after an entire book (the book divisions, I have neglected to mention until now, were later interpolations--like chapters and verses in the Bible), spent detailing Odysseus' profound experiences in the underworld, we return to the semi-travelogue of the earlier parts of Odysseus' first-person narrative. But it is the last of these, for Odysseus' story at the court of Alcinous is drawing to a close.

Odysseus details the journey of his ship, after returning to Circe's island and burying their comrade, as they avoid the Sirens and navigate between the twin terrors of Scylla and Charybdis, only to find first safety, and then doom, on the island of the cattle of Helios. There are three things, one about each episode, that jump out at me immediately.

Let's start with the Sirens. Circe tells Odysseus to stop up his men's ears with beeswax so they won't be lured to their deaths by the Siren's song, while he has himself tied to the mast. It's important to note here, I think, that this incident often gets changed in re-tellings in subtle, but I think important ways. First, Odysseus is often given credit for the beeswax idea. That's just wrong--Circe tells him what to do. Secondly, the Sirens are often described as transforming into monsters and devouring the men who come near them, or, alternately, of luring whole ships to crash themselves on rocks surrounding their island. Neither of these is the case in Homer; rather, men listen to the Sirens sing their beautiful song, and simply lose the desire to do anything else. No act of violence or active treachery; men listen to them sing, and, as with the Lotus Eaters, forget everything else--that is the power of their song.

Now, given that songs and poetry were essentially the same art form in Homer's age, and that the first word of this poem is usually translated as "Sing," this is clearly another of the many comments Homer is making throughout the text on his own art. Even more, Odysseus doesn't need to hear the Sirens' song; but he very much wants to. He doesn't run out of beeswax or anything so pedestrian. Rather, he has his men tie him up so he can experience the ecstatic beauty of the Sirens' song and be the first and only man to live to tell the tale--which he does. Just as Homer is the poet by whom we learn the story of Odysseus, so Odysseus is the poet (for it is he who is telling this portion of the tale, remember) who relates to the wider world the song of the Sirens. What's even more curious is that the Sirens' song seems tailored to the listener--the song that Odysseus would die listening to, were he not tied to the mast, is one the exploits of himself and his comrades on the field of Troy. He would die listening to himself be glorified in the most beautiful song--essentially, he'd die listening to Homer's Iliad. A wiser man with more time would do quite a bit with this, I think, but I am merely a humble blogger who's already behind schedule.

So, on to Scylla and Charybdis. What I find most interesting here is that this brief episode provides a nice example of both Odysseus' intelligence and his seeming indifference to the lives of his men. Odysseus, knowing that he must choose to lose either his entire crew, and himself, in the whirlpool Charybdis or to sacrifice six men to the foul monster Scylla, makes the only logical decision. However, he explicitly decides not to tell his crew of the danger they are to face. He believes there is no benefit to be gained from his men knowing what lies in store for them, and, indeed, Odysseus' foreknowledge does nothing to save his crew or to avenge their deaths. (Later stories claim that Odysseus sheared off two of Scylla's heads; that, again, is nowhere in Homer.) Still, it is haunting when Odysseus relates that the last thing he hears are his men calling his name one last time; I can't help but wonder if they were cries for assistance or if they had a more accusatory tone. In those last moments, did his loyal sailors realize that Odysseus had known what they were to encounter, and that he had sacrificed their lives so that he might get home to Ithaca?

Which brings us to the island of the cattle of the sun. Again, Odysseus knows exactly what is to happen here, and holds it off for as long as he can. However, after an extended period of a becalmed sea, his men, slowly starving to death, decide that a fast death in the wine-dark sea is better than a slow one on land. And sure enough, the entire ship is destroyed, and only Odysseus survives to wash up on Calypso's island, bringing the  story back to the beginning--both of Odysseus telling, and of the narrative as a whole, which began with Odysseus pining for home on Calypso's island. But what I find most peculiar here is that, for the second time in the tale, Odysseus is punished for falling asleep. Remember, he and his crew almost reached Ithaca, except Odysseus fell asleep at a pivotal moment, allowing his suspicious men to unleash the winds which blew them far off course. Here, he falls asleep and is unable to stop his men from killing the sacred cows. It's as if Odysseus is keeping his men in line, and his ship on course, by sheer force of will. He is struggling against his men, the elements, and seemingly his own fate, and as soon as he has a moment of human weakness, disaster strikes. It appears even Odysseus cannot escape his fate--he will see Ithaca again, but he will do so alone.

As I said, this is the point when the narrative loops back onto itself. The journey of Odysseus is essentially at its end, but the tale is only half told. From here until the end, nothing is a foregone conclusion as it was in the first half, where we joined a story well underway and were essentially brought up to speed; from now on, we shall be making our way with Odysseus at the same time as he does. And our next destination is Ithaca itself.


And now for some choice quotations.

"Must you have battle in your heart forever? / The bloody toil of combat? Old contender, / will you not yield to the immortal gods?" Fitzgerald translation, lines 136-8

Circe's rejoinder to Odysseus' hope of defeating the monstrous Scylla is a reminder that, though the war in Troy is long over, its spirit lives on in the heart of Odysseus. He is beaten down, but he is unbowed.

After Odysseus recounts the conversation which took place on Olympus after his crew had eaten the cattle of the sun he adds this:

"All this I heard afterward from fair-haired Kalypso, / and she told me she herself had heard it from the guide, Hermes." Lattimore translation, lines 389-90

I love this, mainly because it again reminds the reader/listener that this is a story being told and passed from person to person to person. The oral tradition kept this poem alive for hundreds of years before it was ever written down--and this line acknowledges that very cleverly.

Finally, it wouldn't be right to make such a fuss about it and then not quote, in full, the Sirens' song. This is the Fitzgerald translation, at lines 220-245. Fitzgerald actually makes their song a complete poem within the larger poem, and he does so beautifully.

This way, oh turn your bows,
Akhaia's glory,
As all the world allows--
Moor and be merry.

Sweet coupled airs we sing.
No lonely seafarer
Holds clear of entering
Our green mirror.

Pleased by each purling note
Like honey twining
From her throat and my throat
What lies a-pining?

Sea rovers here take joy
Voyaging onward,
As from our song of Troy
Greybeard and rower-boy
Goeth more learned.

All feats on that great field
In the long warfare,
Dark days the bright gods willed,
Wounds you bore there,

Argos' old treachery
On Troy beach teeming,
Charmed out of time we see
No life on earth can be
Hid from our dreaming.


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