Homer’s Odyssey: Book 10

Odysseus and remaining crew next reach a floating island: Aeolia, home of the master of the winds, Aeolus (whose name is related to “shifting”). When requested, Odysseus tells his story so far and begs to be sent on his way. Aeolus grants him an ox-skin sack filled with “the winds that howl from every quarter” (10.23). This sack is lashed and secured with complex knots aboard, and the West Wind speeds Odysseus on his way; but he acknowledges that this would all be ruined.

Ten days later “our own land hove into sight at last — / we were so close we could see men tending fires” (10.33-34). But Odysseus is exhausted and must sleep. His men begin grumbling about Odysseus’ rich plunder from Troy and assume Aeolus’ sack contains treasure. They open it, and the chaotic winds being released sweep them back to sea. Odysseus wakes up and has a momentary suicidal impulse.

They are driven back to Aeolus’ island. Odysseus reports, “A mutinous crew undid me — that and a cruel sleep” (10.74). He begs for help again, but Aeolus decides that Odysseus is cursed and it would be going against the gods to aid him. So they leave.

Seven days later they have rowed to the land of the Laestrygonians. They turn out to be cannibals: “Snatching one of my men, he tore him up for dinner” (10.127). Two others escape; the king howls; and hundreds of giants swarm from the cliffs, throwing boulders at the ships, smashing some, and spearing some of the crew to take back to eat. Odysseus has only one ship left now, and they row like hell to get away from there.

Next they reach an Aegean island that is the home of the sorceress Circe. She is “the true sister of murderous-minded Aeetes” (10.151), who is Medea’s father: so witchcraft runs in the family. Odysseus scales a crag and spears a deer, which he brings back for the crew to eat. The next day, they divide into two groups. Eurylochus and twenty-two comrades take off and end up in Circe’s palace, where solicitous wolves and lions roam about. Circe sings while she weaves. All but Eurylochus enter and are treated to “a potion — cheese, barley / and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine — / but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs” (10.257-259). (The recipe has been adapted from the Iliad.) This and a strike of her wand transform the men into swine. (Okay, but I mean literally.) Eurylochus runs back to Odysseus and the others. When he can get his story out, Odysseus insists on going to the palace while Eurylochus pleads with him not to have to return there.

On his way, Odysseus encounters the god Hermes, who gives him a protective herb to ward off Circe’s spells. Hermes instructs Odysseus step by step on how to succeed. Of course, part of it is that he’ll have to sleep with Circe. When Odysseus enters her halls and drinks her potion, Hermes’ herb works and he follows the instructions. Circe screams, cries, and says, “Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents? / I’m wonderstruck — you drank my drugs, you’re not bewitched! / Never has any other man withstood my potion, never, / once it’s past his lips and he has drunk it down. / You have a mind in you no magic can enchant! / You must be Odysseus, man of twists and turns” (10.3361-366). Odysseus, following Hermes’ instruction, agrees to sleep with Circe on condition that she swears an oath not to plot intrigues against him.

Handmaids make the place quite luxurious. Later, Odysseus sulks, refusing to eat or drink. He wants his men released from the spell, so Circe complies. The men are rejuvenated, and Odysseus is to haul his ship ashore and bring back the rest of his crew. The men are thrilled to hear of the luxuries, but Eurylochus is skeptical. He reminds all of what happened with the Cyclops: “with hotheaded Odysseus right beside them all — / thanks to this man’s rashness they died too!” (10.481-482). Odysseus checks an impulse to decapitate the guy, and Eurylochus tags alone reluctantly. Circe “enticed / and won our battle-hardened spirits over” (10.512-513). They all loll about for a year, until some of the men suggest to Odysseus that they return to their return. Circe says that Odysseus shouldn’t stay against his will, but that his journey will require a trip down to the House of Death where Persephone has renewed Tiresias’ gift of prophecy while “the rest of the dead are empty, flitting shades” (10.545). She provides Odysseus with instructions, landmarks, and procedures.

As all prepare to set sail, young Elpinor, who apparently fell asleep drunk on the roof, falls to his death. When the crew learn of the next leg of their journey, they pitch fits of grief.

Odyssey: Book 11
Odyssey Index