Homer’s Odyssey: Book 5

“As Dawn rose up from bed by her lordly mate Tithonius” (5.1) — a reference to her mortal househusband — we join a counsel of the gods where Athena asserts that honor goes unrewarded if no mercy is shown Odysseus. Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to let Odysseus go: “the exile must return. / But not in the convoy of the gods or mortal men. No, on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains” (5.35-37). Then we have a major spoiler as Zeus briefly sketches what will happen between then and his return.

Calypso is singing with her “breathtaking voice” (5.69) and weaving at her loom while Odysseus “sat on a headland, weeping there as always, / wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears” (5.93-95). Calypso offers Hermes ambrosia and nectar. Hermes delivers his message, and Calypso pitches a fit, accusing the gods of jealousy and hypocrisy. She has offered to make Odysseus immortal with her but reluctantly buckles under Zeus’ authority.

Calypso seeks out Odysseus, who is still weeping. “In the nights, true, / he’d sleep with her in the arching cave — he had no choice — / unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing” (5.170-172). (Better stick with that story now that you’re going back.) Odysseus receives the word with suspicion. But Calypso will help as she can. She doesn’t get it: why would Odysseus prefer a mortal woman over an immortal goddess? “Ah great goddess, / … don’t be angry with me, / please. All that you say is true, how well I know. / Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you, / your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all / and you, you never age or die … / Nevertheless I long — I pine, all my days — / to travel home and see the dawn of my return” (5.236-243).

“When young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” (5.252), Odysseus gets to work on his raft with Calypso helping by showing him where the best wood is and bringing cloth for sails. Odysseus sets out, navigating by the constellations. But Poseidon, having finished his important business of being worshipped by the Ethiopians, sees that the other gods have defied him in letting Odysseus escape. He creates a sea-storm, and Odysseus wishes he had died with some glory in the Trojan War rather than lost at sea and drowned.

“Cadmus’ daughter with the lovely ankles” (5.366), Ino (whom Hera had driven mad as a punishment for helping to rear Dionysus), pities Odysseus and appears to him, instructing him to abandon raft and swim for land with the aid of a magic scarf that, once he reaches shore, he must fling into the sea. Odysseus suspects another trick and decides instead to cling to the raft until it is smashed. Poseidon sends an enormous wave, and Odysseus strips away his old clothes (the old outfit becomes a burden), ties on the scarf, and dives into the sea.

Athena calms the winds, and Odysseus is able to see the shore within reach. He worries he’ll be dashed against the rocks and prays to a river-god. He is safe and finds a space underneath olive bushes to scrape together some leaves and make a bed.

Odyssey: Book 6
Odyssey Index