Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Homer’s Odyssey: Book 12

“As soon as Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone again” (12.8), Odysseus, who with his remaining men have returned to Circe’s island, retrieves Elpenor’s body and carries out the funeral rites. Circe is gracious and warns of the next dangers: the Sirens, whose singing transfixes sailors: “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses / rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones” (12.51-52). Then, if one makes it past them, one faces the Clashing Rocks: only the Argo escaped them due to Hera’s help. Next, ready to spring out from the crags, is Scylla: “She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down / and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, / each head barbed with a triple row of fangs” (12.99-101). Oh, and then Charybdis, a giant whirlpool that will swallow you and your ship with the water. “Three times a day she vomits it up, three times a day she gulps it down” (12.116). On the astronomically small chance one makes it through all this, then maybe one arrives at the island of Thrinacria (Sicily) where the Sungod’s cattle and sheep and oxen graze — the livestock one is forbidden to slaughter. Circe returns to her palace.

Odysseus instruct his men to plug their ears with wax as they pass by the Sirens, but he wants to hear; so he commands them to tie him tightly to the mast and to ignore his pleas to be released until afterwards. Next, he gives orders, but “No mention of Scylla — how to fight that nightmare? — / for fear the men would panic, desert their oars / and huddle down and stow themselves away” (12.242-244). Odysseus strains to catch a glimpse, but as the horror of Charybdis rivets the attention of the crew, Scylla snatches six men who scream Odysseus’ name before their grisly demise.

The remaining men reach the island of the Sungod, and Odysseus tells his men of what Tiresias had warned (and Circe) about not harming the livestock. Eurylochus is politely mutinous. For now, Odysseus convinces them to eat and drink what Circe provided. That evening, they mourn the loss of their companions. That night, and for a month, the winds compel them to remain on the island, and supplies run low. Behind Odysseus’ back, the men slaughter some animals. Odysseus is horrified, “and the gods soon showed us all some fateful signs — / the hides began to crawl, the meat, both raw and roasted, / bellowed out on the spits, and we heard a noise / like the moan of lowing oxen” (12.425-428). Yet the men keep feasting for six more days.

When they head out to sea, they end up in Charybdis, and Odysseus loses all the rest of his men and the ship, as foretold. He survives only by holding onto a fig-tree branch until the right vomit-moment of the whirlpool. He climbs onto some timbers, rows subtly past Scylla, and drifts for many days until being cast up onto Ogygia, the island of Calypso. And so Odysseus has brought his audience up to date.


Odyssey: Book 13
Odyssey Index