By Thomas Van Nortwick
Aeolus lord of the winds befriends Odysseus. Folly of the comrades of Odysseus.
The Greeks sail off, leaving a blind and helpless monster in their wake. They arrive next at the kingdom of Aeolus, a venue that seems at first glance to differ markedly from the domain of Polyphemus: instead of a bloody, earthbound cave, we have an island that floats on the sea; instead of an isolated shepherd who claims he does not need to heed the dictates of the Olympian gods, we have a benign king, “dear to the gods” (2); the Cyclops has no family, while Aeolus has twelve children, divided evenly by sex, blissfully cohabiting in their lovely rooms; after the grotesque, parodic hospitality of the monster, we encounter a charming host, who entertains the Greeks for a month; Polyphemus presides over a cave full of excrement, while Aeolus commands the winds.
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At the same time, the Aeolus episode has some affinities to the Greeks’ more elaborate encounter with the Phaeacians. Like the settlement in Scheria, Aeolus’s airy kingdom is scrubbed clean and somewhat removed from the grittier realities of the Cyclopes’ existence, magical in (for the moment) a non-threatening way. Odysseus is again the purveyor of exciting stories about his journey home; again he speaks to an admiring audience.
This blend of thematic continuity and variation is, as we have seen, typical of the Odyssey. The style of Homeric and other early Greek hexameter poetry, based on repetition on the level of words, phrases, and larger narrative patterns, is thought to have been developed as a vehicle for composition without the aid of writing. From our perspective, encountering the poem as a fixed, written text, the challenge is to understand how the poet used the repeated elements to build meaning by accretion, while keeping the audience steadily engaged with a long and complex story. Sounding a strong contrast with the preceding Cyclops episode, reaching back to the Phaeacians and, as we will see, looking toward later adventures, the Aeolus episode performs both functions. The details, as usual, repay attention.
Once again, we find traces of a common folktale. The magical and/or religious figure in control of the winds appears in stories from all over the world. As in the other episodes drawn from this kind of material in Books Nine through Twelve, we see the impress of Homer’s particular vision, shaping the elements of the traditional tale to fit his purposes. First, the poet’s insistence on the hermetic, sealed-off qualities of this kingdom, sheer cliffs topped by bronze ramparts, not offering—like the islands the Greeks have just left—easy access. The familial arrangements are equally self-contained, siblings married off to each other, keeping outsiders at bay. This exclusivity suggests stasis, again reminding us of the isolated society on Scheria—and yet further back, the timeless world of Calypso—while anticipating the sun’s unchanging herd of cattle in Book Twelve. In the latter case, the unchanging number of livestock may have some cosmological significance, and we might wonder if the negotiations with Aeolus share similar overtones.
The connective tissue that runs through this peculiar episode is control. Aeolus’s desire for tight control of the winds is consistent with the tenor of his entire kingdom, kept from contact with disruptive outsiders. The crew’s lack of self-control, fueled by greed, is the immediate cause for disaster. But we should also note that Odysseus’s distrust of his men plays a part. Determined to control the mission, he refuses to give the helm to anyone else, eventually falling asleep and losing control of his men. The same thing happens in Book Twelve when the Greeks reach the island of the cattle of the sun, allowing the crew to kill and eat some of the sacred herd. In both cases, the centripetal version of the hero is on display, mirroring Athena’s insistence on controlling whatever might impede the mission.
Looking through a longer lens, we might find ourselves intrigued by the relationship between two polarities found in this episode and elsewhere in the poem: 1) divine will versus the potentially unruly forces of nature; 2) the tightly controlled world of the heroic return as against the more relaxed, expansive arena of ordinary, non-heroic life in the story. Aeolus has been entrusted by Zeus with the stewardship of the winds, so that his insistence on keeping the bag sealed has the implicit approval of the gods. And having the winds all blow at once would seem to be challenging for sailors. Still, the image of nature as bottled (bagged?) up seems to align the larger project of Zeus, Athena, and Aeolus with the unyielding control that the goddess exerts over the return story. As Zeus remarks in Book Five (and again at the end of the poem, 24.478-480), the outcome of this story is already arranged:
‘τέκνον ἐμόν, ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων.
οὐ γὰρ δὴ τοῦτον μὲν ἐβούλευσας νόον αὐτή,
ὡς ἦ τοι κείνους Ὀδυσεὺς ἀποτίσεται ἐλθών;
My child, what sort of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth?
Have you yourself not devised this plan,
that Odysseus would come back and punish those men?
Odyssey 5. 21-23
Keeping potentially disruptive natural forces in the bag, holding off sleep as he grips the tiller, the centripetal Odysseus is intent on overcoming all obstacles to his return home. This tenacity mimics the dominant paradigm in Greek culture for the making of civilization by channeling the chaotic forces of nature. The hero’s crew members are not so civilized, unable to contain their natural impulses. In this, as we have seen, they resemble none other than Odysseus himself in the Cyclops episode. The tug of war between divine control and human impulse will continue until the very end of the poem.
Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 110-111. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX-XVI, 3-11. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Page, D. 1973. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey, 73-78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 87-90.
Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: an epic of return, 74-78. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 51-59. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
They are driven back to the Aeolian isle, where they are roughly received. Odysseus pleads with Aeolus to help only to be sent back on his way.
The Greeks are tantalizingly close to Ithaka—they can see people on the beach—when the crew’s lapse sends them careening away, back to the floating island of Aeolus. This disaster causes Odysseus to contemplate suicide:
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I pondered deeply in my blameless spirit,
whether to throw myself overboard and die in the sea
or hold out in silence and remain among the living.
I endured and waited, and covering myself
I lay in the ship. All of us were carried by an evil blast
of wind, back to the Aeolian island, while my companions groaned.
Odyssey 10. 49–55
These verses take us back again to the Phaeacians. The hero’s grim resignation recalls his utter exhaustion as he washes up on the shore of Scheria. The participle καλυψάμενος (53) sounds the name of his would-be captor there, Calypso, and echoes both the brush with oblivion he undergoes after leaving her (5.535) and Athena’s tender compensating gesture as she tucks him in under the olive bush, ἀμφικαλύψας (5.493). Using a kind of poetic shorthand, Homer underscores Odysseus’s despair at coming so close to home, only to be denied by another failure to control his crew. As he sinks down into the bottom of the ship, he seems not only to emulate the erasure that Calypso threatens but also perhaps to sound a faint note of hope for his survival.
Bedraggled and disappointed, the Greeks end up on the floating island again. Odysseus’s plea for another chance receives a harsh response:
Away from this island, most hated of mortals!
It is not permitted for me to befriend or send on his way
a man who is hated by the blessed gods.
Out! Your return means you are hated by the gods.
Odyssey 10. 72–75
The force of this rejection, from one who has so recently a genial host, is surprising. The Greeks have failed to follow Aeolus’s instructions, but why their seemingly minor offense would make Odysseus the “most infamous of men” is not clear. The exchange jolts us out of the cozy atmosphere of the first visit, reminding us that Aeolus is not just the friendly king of a pleasant, sheltered realm. He is also the steward of powerful natural forces, which must be properly channeled for human civilization to exist. The Greeks stumble into what looks during the first visit like a non-threatening domesticity, then return to see the familiarly human facade peeled back to reveal something much more elemental and frightening. The crew’s later lapse with the cattle of the sun will produce the same kind of outsized cosmic response, this time from Zeus.
A closer look has shown us that the Aeolus episode, a seemingly minor encounter, encapsulates major themes in the poem. Woven into a complex tapestry of similarity and contrast, the encounter reaches back toward the Phaeacians and forward toward the final episode in Odysseus’s narrative, the crew’s fatal misadventures with the cattle of the sun. Beginning as a cozy stopover after the frightening interlude with Polyphemus, the episode concludes with a glimpse at the cosmic foundations of human civilization; what starts as an apparently minor failure to observe the customs of hospitality changes before our eyes into an offense with much graver implications. This latter perspective, in turn, touches on the ever-shifting interplay between various polarities through which the poem as a whole is articulated: centripetal and centrifugal forces in the hero, vastly cosmic and intimately human dimensions, divine control and the vagaries of human will, the rigid hierarchy of heroic values and the everyday interactions of ordinary people.
Odysseus and his men encounter the Laestrygonians, where King Antiphates make Odysseus’ men his dinner. As the men flee, the Laestrygoninas sink the ships with boulders. Only the ship of Odysseus manages to escape.
Chagrined by the cost of their carelessness, the Greeks press on, arriving next at the island of the Laestrygonians. The shape of the island’s harbor receives close attention:
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There we entered a splendid harbor, with
a towering cliff running all around both sides;
two thrusting promontories, facing each other,
jut out into the mouth, and the entrance is narrow…
Odyssey 10. 87–90
The setting reflects its inhabitants. Imagery suggesting female sexuality—the curving embrace of the harbor with its narrow entrance and deceptively welcoming calm—always signals potential danger for the Greek masculine hero. Like the caves of Calypso and Polyphemus—and the house of Circe to come—this enclosed space lures the Greeks sailors to their doom, all but Odysseus, who characteristically distances himself from his companions, anchoring outside the cliffs.
Odysseus sends out an advance party to scout, an assignment that never ends well for his sailors. They meet a stout (ἰφθίμῃ, 106) young woman drawing water from a well, the daughter of the king Antiphates, who directs them to her father’s house. Once inside, they meet not Antiphates but his queen. This sequence of events mirrors almost exactly Odysseus’s arrival at the island of the Phaeacians: a royal princess near water, who directs the traveler to the king’s palace (in Book Six the role is doubled, first Nausicaa and then Athena in disguise), there to encounter the queen first, then the king. This latter version is stripped down, with none of the characteristic Homeric elaboration that marks the earlier episode, the lively and informative exchanges with both Nausicaa and Athena, a full genealogy of the royal family, detailed description of the palace and its surroundings. The poet takes care to link this episode to the interlude on Scheria but seems disinclined to develop the situation beyond the bare bones.
Once the scouts reach the queen, things take a disastrous turn. Unlike the wise and commanding Phaeacian royal spouse Arete, this queen is gigantic, as “big as mountain” and the visitors are “horrified,” κατὰ δ᾽ ἔστυγον (113) at the sight of her. From this point on, the pace of the narrative speeds up even more, now echoing the Cyclops episode, with a crewman eaten by the king, then all the ships and their sailors inside the harbor destroyed by boulders hurled from the cliffs by more giants. Odysseus, having hedged his bets when arriving, now escapes with just one ship.
What are we to make of this curiously spare interlude? The pace of the story and lack of thematic elaboration create the feeling that Homer is in a hurry. Scholars have puzzled over details of the geography—what does Τηλέπυλον (82) mean? Where is this island, in the extreme west, the far north, or somewhere in the Euxine Sea east of Troy? The first option appears in an early Greek source, the pseudo-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, which places both the Cyclopes and the Laestrygonians in Sicily; the description of the shepherds who pass each other, one going out to the pasture, another coming in, where “the courses of day and night lie close together” (86), suggests a place with long northern nights; finally, the name of the spring, Ἀρτακίη (109) is thought to come from an early version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, which would put it in the east. However interesting, none of this speculation takes us very far in understanding the function of the episode. As we have said, the geography of the Odyssey between the time the Greeks pass Kythera until they reach Ithaka does not bear much inspection. Homer draws freely on various sources for his stories, without being too fastidious about whether the journey follows any recognizable path across the sea. The whole point, as we have said, is that these exotic places are not part of the everyday world of the audience.
The encounter with Laestrygonians does not particularly enrich the familiar themes it touches on, rushing through them with just enough detail to hold the audience’s attention. Rather, Homer seems to be working primarily to create a slightly longer pause between his big showpieces, the Cyclops and Circe episodes, where the poem’s major themes are richly elaborated. Coming upon Circe too soon after Polyphemus would diminish the impact of both encounters. One of Homer’s great strengths as a storyteller is his sense of pacing in the narrative. We are looking for the climactic duel between Hector and Achilles as early as the end of Book Eighteen of the Iliad, but the poet makes us wait for over 1,500 verses, teasing us with near misses, giving us a glimpse into the souls of both warriors, so when the great chase begins in Book Twenty-Two we are hanging on every syllable. Likewise, the slow approach of Odysseus to Penelope, from Book Eighteen to Twenty-Three, builds the suspense to a fever pitch. Given the origins of the Odyssey in a rich oral tradition, those in the audience of the earliest performances of the poem might well have known that Circe was lying in wait for the hero, making the Laestrygonians the same kind of tease.
Meanwhile, we should pause to consider that eleven of the twelve ships in Odysseus’s original fleet, plus all their sailors, are now gone. That the poet marks the sailors’ passing so cursorily reminds us of their minimal importance to the poem’s message. Like the suitors, they exist primarily to model their inferiority to Odysseus, marked by their inability to control their baser impulses.
Page, D. 1973. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey, 25–48. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The men arrive at the Aeaean isle of the sorceress Circe. On the island, Odysseus encounters a stag, saving his men from hunger.
One of the poem’s most famous episodes begins. The opening verses touch on a rich vein of myth and folktale. Circe is the daughter of Helios and the niece of Medea (136–137), the witch who saves Jason and then eventually destroys him. The phrase δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα, “a dread goddess who speaks” (136), is also used of Calypso (12.449), like Medea an example of dangerous female sexuality.
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The first adjective, δεινὴ, is familiar enough, meaning some thing or person inspiring not just fear or revulsion, but awe, often used of warriors or gods, suggesting some kind of transcendence. What αὐδήεσσα means in this context is less obvious. Its basic meaning, “voiced,” seems unremarkable. Surely all gods and goddesses have voices? A faint echo perhaps surfaces here, of Odysseus’s encounter with a friendly nymph as he struggles in the sea on the way to Scheria:
τὸν δὲ ἴδεν Κάδμου θυγάτηρ, καλλίσφυρος Ἰνώ,
Λευκοθέη, ἣ πρὶν μὲν ἔην βροτὸς αὐδήεσσα,
νῦν δ᾽ ἁλὸς ἐν πελάγεσσι θεῶν ἒξ ἔμμορε τιμῆς.
The daughter of Kadmos saw him, Ino with the lovely ankles,
called Leukothea, who once spoke as a mortal,
but now is honored as a goddess in the sea.
Once a “speaking mortal,” Ino has crossed the existential boundary into divinity. When Odysseus himself, with the nymph’s help, has himself crossed the same boundary but in the other direction, from the immortal, timeless island of Calypso to Scheria, he is anxious:
ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;
ὥς τέ με κουράων ἀμφήλυθε θῆλυς ἀυτή:
νυμφάων, αἳ ἔχουσ᾽ ὀρέων αἰπεινὰ κάρηνα
καὶ πηγὰς ποταμῶν καὶ πίσεα ποιήεντα.
ἦ νύ που ἀνθρώπων εἰμὶ σχεδὸν αὐδηέντων;
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἐγὼν αὐτὸς πειρήσομαι ἠδὲ ἴδωμαι.
Oh no! What sort of people are these, whose land I’ve reached?
Are they arrogant, fierce, and lacking in justice?
Or, kind to strangers, with intelligence like the gods?
That’s the voice of girls wafting around me,
or nymphs, who haunt the steep summits of the mountains
and springs of rivers and the grassy meadows.
Am I near people who speak my language?
Come now, I’ll try to see for myself.
The phrase ἀνθρώπων…αὐδηέντων (125) used in this context suggests that the epithet not only denotes the speaking of human language but also signals a web of associations between Calypso, Ino, and Circe, goddesses who not only speak to mortals but also mark the boundaries between human and divine.
One further parallel allows us to expand our discussion. In the wake of his friend Enkidu’s death, the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh sets out to discover “the secret of life and death” by crossing “the Waters of Death” to reach the Land of Dilmun, the poem’s version of the Underworld. Once there, he must question Utnapishtim, the only mortal to have achieved immortality, about how he too can escape death forever. On the edge of the sea, he encounters Siduri, a woman tavern keeper, who tries to discourage the hero from launching on his dangerous voyage:
Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?
The life that you are seeking all around you will not find.
When the gods created mankind
they fixed Death for mankind,
and held back life in their own hands.
Now you, Gilgamesh, let your body be full!
Be happy day and night,
of each day make a party,
dance in circles day and night!
Let your clothes be sparkling clean,
let your head be clean, wash yourself with water!
Attend to the little one who holds onto your hand,
let a wife delight in your embrace.
This is the true task of mankind.
The Epic of Gilgamesh x.iii.1-14 (trans. Kovacs)
The similarities to Circe are obvious, a female figure who meets the hero as he seeks the land of the dead and offers earthly pleasures, then helps the hero on his way to the Underworld. In Circe’s case, there is a second meeting, after Odysseus returns from Hades, underscoring her “liminal” (from the Latin, limes, “boundary”) presence and marking one of many parallels between Circe and both Calypso and the sea nymph Ino. Calypso and Ino are both liminal figures, living on the boundaries of human and divine, mortal and immortal; both help Odysseus on his journey to Scheria, one step closer to the fully human world of Ithaka.
Liminal figures can be useful to storytellers, drawing our attention to the limits that define human existence, prompting us to think about why the boundaries should be in one place rather than another. One of the ways we make meaning is to put limits around things, restricting their range of reference, so thinking about limits is thinking about meaning. Thus, we invest heroes like Achilles or Gilgamesh, both of whom have one divine and one mortal parent, with special meaning because they embody liminality and bring us closer to the boundaries—the thus meaning—of human existence. Teiresias, the illustrious prophet in Odysseus’s immediate future who lives first as a man and then as a woman, carries the same mythic charge. Circe seems to be one example of a common and very old Mediterranean liminal figure. That she appears to Odysseus on the boundary between life and death signals that she will have some big work to do in his journey.
Anderson, W.S. 1958. “Calypso and Elysium.” Classical Journal 54, 2–11.
Nagler, M. 1996. “Dread Goddess Revisited.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 141–162.
Page, D. 1973. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey, 51–69. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
After wailing over the trials they have faced thus far, Eurylochus and half of the comrades of Odysseus start off to explore the island.
For two days and nights the Greeks rest and refresh themselves on the beach of Circe’s island, feasting on the huge stag Odysseus has killed on the way home from a scouting expedition. During that foray, from his perch high on a hill, he sees smoke rising from Circe’s house, which is—perhaps not surprisingly—deep in a dark wood. He ponders whether to go himself to investigate, but, true to his past practice, decides to feed his men and then send them out to investigate, another fateful choice for his unlucky crew. After presenting the men with his hunting trophy, he reminds them they are not dead yet and urges them to dig in. (Vergil will make this brief and unremarkable pep talk the basis for a much more resonant speech by Aeneas to his crew on the shores of Libya [Aen. 1.198–209]).
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The next eight verses describe the preparations for the feast, followed by a tranquil night’s sleep:
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ τάρπησαν ὁρώμενοι ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
χεῖρας νιψάμενοι τεύχοντ᾽ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα.
ὣς τότε μὲν πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
ἥμεθα δαινύμενοι κρέα τ᾽ ἄσπετα καὶ μέθυ ἡδύ:
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠέλιος κατέδυ καὶ ἐπὶ κνέφας ἦλθε,
δὴ τότε κοιμήθημεν ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης.
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
καὶ τότ᾽ ἐγὼν ἀγορὴν θέμενος μετὰ πᾶσιν ἔειπον:
But when they had enjoyed looking at the stag,
they washed their hands and prepared a glorious meal.
Then all day until the setting of the sun,
we sat feasting on the unlimited meal and sweet wine.
And when the sun went down and darkness fell,
we lay down to sleep on the edge of the sea.
But when rosy-fingered, early-born Dawn appeared,
I assembled the men and spoke to them:
The measured pace of these verses, with their high degree of coincidence between verse structure and sentence structure (that is, no harsh enjambment) and concentration of traditional, formulaic phrases (marked in bold typeface), give the passage a serene tone. We find a similar style in the last verses of the Iliad, as Homer describes the funeral of Hector, a soothing diminuendo after the tense and dramatic scenes in the hut of Achilles:
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
τῆμος ἄρ᾽ ἀμφὶ πυρὴν κλυτοῦ Ἕκτορος ἔγρετο λαός.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ἤγερθεν ὁμηγερέες τ᾽ ἐγένοντο 790
πρῶτον μὲν κατὰ πυρκαϊὴν σβέσαν αἴθοπι οἴνῳ
πᾶσαν, ὁπόσσον ἐπέσχε πυρὸς μένος: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
ὀστέα λευκὰ λέγοντο κασίγνητοί θ᾽ ἕταροί τε
μυρόμενοι, θαλερὸν δὲ κατείβετο δάκρυ παρειῶν.
καὶ τά γε χρυσείην ἐς λάρνακα θῆκαν ἑλόντες795
πορφυρέοις πέπλοισι καλύψαντες μαλακοῖσιν.
αἶψα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐς κοίλην κάπετον θέσαν, αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
πυκνοῖσιν λάεσσι κατεστόρεσαν μεγάλοισι:
ῥίμφα δὲ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεαν, περὶ δὲ σκοποὶ ἥατο πάντῃ,
μὴ πρὶν ἐφορμηθεῖεν ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοί.800
χεύαντες δὲ τὸ σῆμα πάλιν κίον: αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
εὖ συναγειρόμενοι δαίνυντ᾽ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα
δώμασιν ἐν Πριάμοιο διοτρεφέος βασιλῆος.
When early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared,
then the people gathered around the pyre of famous Hector;
but when they were gathered in one place and all together,
first they quenched the fire’s embers with gleaming wine,
all of it, as much as the force of the fire held; but then
Hector’s brothers and companions gathered the white bones,
grieving, and warm tears flowed down their cheeks.
And lifting them they placed them in a golden urn,
covered all around with soft purple robes.
Swiftly they set the urn into a hollow grave,
and over it they piled huge, closely-packed stones;
quickly they poured a funeral barrow; around it guards sat
all night, lest the well-greaved Achaeans attack too soon.
They piled up the grave barrow and went away; but then
coming together they enjoyed a glorious meal
in the home of Priam, the king nourished by Zeus.
So they buried Hector, tamer of horses.
Iliad 24. 788–804
In both cases, the rhythmic and linguistic modulation lowers the tension of the passages, a respite for the audience after the dramatic scenes that precede them. Like the variation in the scale of successive episodes, this stylistic variation is further evidence of Homer’s skill at keeping his audience engaged in his long and complex narrative.
Odysseus’s next words to his crew shatter the temporary calm:
ὦ φίλοι, οὐ γάρ τ᾽ ἴδμεν, ὅπῃ ζόφος οὐδ᾽ ὅπῃ ἠώς,
οὐδ᾽ ὅπῃ ἠέλιος φαεσίμβροτος εἶσ᾽ ὑπὸ γαῖαν,
οὐδ᾽ ὅπῃ ἀννεῖται: ἀλλὰ φραζώμεθα θᾶσσον
εἴ τις ἔτ᾽ ἔσται μῆτις. ἐγὼ δ᾽ οὔκ οἴομαι εἶναι.
O friends, we know neither where the darkness is nor the dawn,
nor yet where the sun, which brings light to mortals, goes down,
nor where it rises. Still, we must find out as quickly as we can
if there is still any way out for us. But I do not think there is.
Odyssey 10. 190–193
Not the speech one wants to hear from the captain of the ship. In the context, μῆτις (193) could mean “plan, or “strategy,” but after the Polyphemus episode, we inevitably think of the hero’s crafty triumph over that powerful monster. Insofar as that echo is in our minds, we might conclude that not only does Odysseus fear that a similar cleverness may be unavailable, but that given the punning wordplay in the episode, Homer is hinting that the trickster who embodied it will also be absent. In the event, the interlude on Aiaia will turn out to be much less threatening to the hero and his crew than they might fear. Though Circe resembles Calypso at first, with frightening consequences for some of the crew, a critical divine intervention will change the atmosphere in the witch’s domain radically, as Circe becomes part of the next big adventure, the trip to the Underworld.
But for the moment, the poet hints at a dark and threatening future for the Greeks. By the end of Odysseus’s speech, the crew is already filled with dread, remembering what happened when they went to investigate the Cyclopes and Laestrygonians. Undaunted, the hero divides his men into two groups, one led by Eurylochus, the other by himself. Though the choice of which group will go first to scout the house in the woods is decided by lot, we are perhaps not surprised to hear that Odysseus’s group will stay behind.
Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 55–60. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
____________. 2002. Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry, 1-37. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Eurylochus and the other men reach the palace of Circe. Circe turns all of the men, except Eurylochus, into swine. Escaping, he returns to Odysseus and explains what had happened.
Though Circe comes first in the chronology of the story (as opposed to the order of the poem), we inevitably see her through Calypso, whom we first glimpse as Hermes approaches her cave in Book Five:
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ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ τὴν νῆσον ἀφίκετο τηλόθ᾽ ἐοῦσαν,
ἔνθ᾽ ἐκ πόντου βὰς ἰοειδέος ἤπειρόνδε
ἤιεν, ὄφρα μέγα σπέος ἵκετο, τῷ ἔνι νύμφη
ναῖεν ἐυπλόκαμος: τὴν δ᾽ ἔνδοθι τέτμεν ἐοῦσαν.
πῦρ μὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐσχαρόφιν μέγα καίετο, τηλόσε δ᾽ ὀδμὴ
κέδρου τ᾽ εὐκεάτοιο θύου τ᾽ ἀνὰ νῆσον ὀδώδει
δαιομένων: ἡ δ᾽ ἔνδον ἀοιδιάουσ᾽ ὀπὶ καλῇ
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένη χρυσείῃ κερκίδ᾽ ὕφαινεν.
ὕλη δὲ σπέος ἀμφὶ πεφύκει τηλεθόωσα,
κλήθρη τ᾽ αἴγειρός τε καὶ εὐώδης κυπάρισσος.
ἔνθα δέ τ᾽ ὄρνιθες τανυσίπτεροι εὐνάζοντο,
σκῶπές τ᾽ ἴρηκές τε τανύγλωσσοί τε κορῶναι
εἰνάλιαι, τῇσίν τε θαλάσσια ἔργα μέμηλεν.
ἡ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ τετάνυστο περὶ σπείους γλαφυροῖο
ἡμερὶς ἡβώωσα, τεθήλει δὲ σταφυλῇσι.
κρῆναι δ᾽ ἑξείης πίσυρες ῥέον ὕδατι λευκῷ,
πλησίαι ἀλλήλων τετραμμέναι ἄλλυδις ἄλλη.
ἀμφὶ δὲ λειμῶνες μαλακοὶ ἴου ἠδὲ σελίνου
But when he finally came near to her faraway island,
stepping out of the dark blue sea he walked on land
until he could find the great cave where lived
the nymph with lovely hair. He found her within.
A fire burned in the great hearth, and the fragrance
of well-cut cedar and sweetwood burning spread
across the island. And the nymph was singing in clear voice,
weaving and working the loom with a golden shuttle.
The woods around the cave were bursting with blooms,
alder and black poplar and sweet-smelling cypress.
Long-winged birds made their nests there,
horned owls and hawks and chattering ravens,
sea birds, whose work is near the water.
A luxuriant vine spread around the opening
of the hollow cave, heavy with grapes.
And four fountains, all in a row, ran with clear water,
running side-by-side, turning one way and another.
And all around soft meadows bloomed with parsley
A delightful scene, fragrant and bursting with natural vitality. If we are familiar with the style of Homeric poetry, we sense some latent danger in the nymph’s singing and weaving, often the instruments of feminine seductiveness in the poem. But the threat is softened by the soothing flow of nature, birds swooping, water burbling, the hard edge of the cave’s opening wreathed in clustering grapes. There is, we feel, an order here, somehow driven by the nymph’s magical singing, but not a human order. Calypso welcomes Hermes with all the appropriate gestures of hospitality, food and drink before questions. The eerie mix of benign nature and vaguely threatening sexuality reflects the dynamic of the relationship—a mix of affection and compulsion—that we find between the nymph and her lover. Odysseus is under her control and must stay with her, even though he longs for home, but when Zeus commands the release of her captive, she does so under protest, in part at least because she has come to love him.
Our first encounter with Circe is equally revealing. The scouting party arrives at her house, sited in a clearing, built with polished stones. Wolves and lions—the two wild animals most often associated through similes in Homeric epic with the raw masculine force of human warriors—surround the crew, tamed by Circe’s drugs. Fawning like dogs, they wag their tails. Whereas Calypso seems to preside over a relatively benign realm, Circe’s environs reflect her control of darker forces, able to control the potency of the masculine warrior though the debilitating power of sexuality. When the hapless explorers call out to her, Circe “opens the shining doors” of her house (θύρας ὤιξε φαεινὰς, 230). The phrase—which is repeated at 256 and 312—elsewhere carries a strong flavor of sexual invitation (cf. Od. 6.18–19, 21.45–46, 22.201; Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 60, 236). And finally, of course, the subsequent porcine existence of the crew is a transparently allegorical reference to what sex can bring out in a man.
This aspect of Circe’s portrait aligns with a rich tradition of folktales that tell of a wicked witch who lives in the woods and turns humans into animals or birds. Homer tends to reduce the magical elements of folktales in his stories in favor of the more naturalistic tone of Greek epic. Thus, we hear no details about how the magic drug moly is supposed to protect Odysseus, only that it does so. A more apposite source for the poet would be the story in The Epic of Gilgamesh of Gilgamesh and the goddess of sexuality, Ishtar. The hero and his friend Enkidu have returned to Uruk from the Cedar Forest, flushed with triumph over the monster that lived there. Ishtar, perhaps attracted by all the testosterone in the air, invites Gilgamesh to be her consort and lover:
Come along, Gilgamesh, be my husband,
to me grant your lusciousness.
Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold
with wheels of gold and ‘horns’ of electrum (?).
It will be harnessed with great storming mountain mules!
Come into our house, with the fragrance of cedar.
The Epic of Gilgamesh vi.1.1–7 (trans. Kovacs)
Gilgamesh’s answer is rather blunt, and in the event, unfortunately so. He declines the goddess’s offer, citing the bad end to which all of her lovers have come, the shepherd she turned into a wolf that his dogs tore to pieces, the gardener who ended up as a frog. In response, Ishtar convinces the god Anu to create the Bull of Heaven, who wreaks havoc on the citizens until Gilgamesh and Enkidu conquer the beast. Enkidu, flushed with triumph, tears off a leg from the bull and throws it in Ishtar’s face. She retaliates by having Enkidu grow sick and die.
Ishtar, like Circe, can apparently turn humans into animals, but perhaps more importantly, that power seems to be associated with her sexuality. In this, both figures make concrete a crucial link in the portrait of heroic masculinity that we find in early Greek poetry. Odysseus’s need for control mirrors Athena’s, a parallel articulated precisely in the Aeolus episode, as we have seen: the agent of the gods insists on keeping the winds in a bag, while Odysseus’s failure to control his men weakens the channeling of natural forces that lies at the heart of the Greeks’ model for human civilization. And since mortal women were thought by the Greeks to be closer to the forces of nature than men, their impulses, if left unchecked, could undermine human order. In this paradigm, divine female figures represent a particularly dangerous threat, susceptible to tides of emotion but existing beyond the control of mortals. Calypso’s very name, καλύψω, “I will cover up, smother,” marks the erasure of Odysseus’s mortal life that staying with her represents; Circe’s magic makes it more explicit: the loss of control that men can experience during sexual intercourse with women represents an existential threat to their very being, and by extension threatens the foundations of human civilization. As Odysseus prepares to make his own journey through the dark woods to Circe’s house, the path ahead looks dangerous.
Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 152-153. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Scully, S. 1987. “Doubling in the Tale of Odysseus.” Classical World 80, 401-417.
Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: an epic of return, 75-78. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 64-67. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 8-38. New York: Oxford University Press.
_______________2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 53-55. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Odysseus heads towards Circe’s palace. Hermes appears to him, giving him advice and a powerful herb that will protect him from Circe’s tricks.
Having excused Eurylochus from further contact with the witch, Odysseus sets out alone through the dark wood toward Circe’s house, driven by a “powerful necessity” (273). Suddenly Hermes crosses his path, disguised as a graceful young man. The god is curious:
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πῇ δὴ αὖτ᾽, ὦ δύστηνε, δι᾽ ἄκριας ἔρχεαι οἶος,
χώρου ἄιδρις ἐών; ἕταροι δέ τοι οἵδ᾽ ἐνὶ Κίρκης
ἔρχαται ὥς τε σύες πυκινοὺς κευθμῶνας ἔχοντες.
ἦ τοὺς λυσόμενος δεῦρ᾽ ἔρχεαι; οὐδέ σέ φημι
αὐτὸν νοστήσειν, μενέεις δὲ σύ γ᾽, ἔνθα περ ἄλλοι.
Unhappy man, where are you going through these hills, alone,
ignorant of the land? Your companions are trapped here
in Circe’s place, shaped like pigs in their closed pens.
Do you come here to free them? I do not think
you will return home but must stay here with the others.
We might wonder how Odysseus knows the young man is Hermes, since nowhere in the encounter that follows do we see the god reveal himself. Nor does the hero seem surprised that this young man seems to know everything about him and his ill-fated crew. The encounter would make sense if we heard it from an omniscient third-person narrator, and we perhaps we are witnessing the imperfect join between our poem and a previous version of the story, where the poet recounts the story directly. Such minor
inconsistencies were leapt upon by scholars in the nineteenth century, as evidence that the Homeric epics as we now have them are a clumsy patchwork of earlier independent narratives. This approach has been largely obviated by the later work of Milman Parry and other scholars in the early twentieth century on the oral tradition out of which the Iliad and Odyssey seem to have come down to us, a process that envisioned poems emerging over time as oral poets created their stories by improvisation, drawing on a rich repository of earlier narratives.
Encounters with disguised deities can be fraught with danger in early Greek poetry, especially if the immortal chooses to shed the disguise and reassume divine form. The sudden revelation of divinity can be a charged moment, when we witness the infinite power of the god and its devastating effect on mortals, especially in tragic stories like the Iliad, where the fact of human mortality is a primary focus of the narrative. The Odyssey has a different emphasis, so the divide between mortal and immortal existence is not as prominent in the articulation of the poem’s meaning. Gods function there primarily as forces that help or hinder the hero as he struggles toward the restoration of order. Helpful disguised gods are a staple of Odysseus’s journey, but up until now the deity underneath has always been Athena. In Book One she arrives in Ithaka as Mentes the Taphian, in Book Two as Telemachus, in Books Two and Three as Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, in Book Seven as a young girl at the well who guides the hero toward town. Athena does shed her disguise once, as she departs from Pylos after guiding Telemachus, but the moment prompts no fear in the onlookers, only wonder (Od. 3.171–173).
Though Hermes does offer Odysseus crucial protection against the witch, his sudden appearance does not startle the hero, who listens to the young man’s instructions and sets briskly off again without comment. If he has any inkling that this stranger is a god, he does not show it. Hermes’s intervention in in Book Twenty-Four of the Iliad offers an illuminating parallel. Priam has set off on his own perilous journey through the dark, to ransom Hector’s body from Achilles. The old man and his herald are making their way across the plain of Troy at night, when a stranger suddenly materializes out of the dark:
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν μέγα σῆμα παρὲξ Ἴλοιο ἔλασσαν,
στῆσαν ἄρ᾽ ἡμιόνους τε καὶ ἵππους ὄφρα πίοιεν350
ἐν ποταμῷ: δὴ γὰρ καὶ ἐπὶ κνέφας ἤλυθε γαῖαν.
τὸν δ᾽ ἐξ ἀγχιμόλοιο ἰδὼν ἐφράσσατο κῆρυξ
Ἑρμείαν, ποτὶ δὲ Πρίαμον φάτο φώνησέν τε:
φράζεο Δαρδανίδη: φραδέος νόου ἔργα τέτυκται.
ἄνδρ᾽ ὁρόω, τάχα δ᾽ ἄμμε διαρραίσεσθαι ὀΐω.355
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε δὴ φεύγωμεν ἐφ᾽ ἵππων, ἤ μιν ἔπειτα
γούνων ἁψάμενοι λιτανεύσομεν αἴ κ᾽ ἐλεήσῃ.’
ὣς φάτο, σὺν δὲ γέροντι νόος χύτο, δείδιε δ᾽ αἰνῶς,
ὀρθαὶ δὲ τρίχες ἔσταν ἐνὶ γναμπτοῖσι μέλεσσι,
στῆ δὲ ταφών: αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἐριούνιος ἐγγύθεν ἐλθὼν360
χεῖρα γέροντος ἑλὼν ἐξείρετο καὶ προσέειπε:
‘πῇ πάτερ ὧδ᾽ ἵππους τε καὶ ἡμιόνους ἰθύνεις
νύκτα δι᾽ ἀμβροσίην, ὅτε θ᾽ εὕδουσι βροτοὶ ἄλλοι;
οὐδὲ σύ γ᾽ ἔδεισας μένεα πνείοντας Ἀχαιούς,
οἵ τοι δυσμενέες καὶ ἀνάρσιοι ἐγγὺς ἔασι;365
τῶν εἴ τίς σε ἴδοιτο θοὴν διὰ νύκτα μέλαιναν
τοσσάδ᾽ ὀνείατ᾽ ἄγοντα, τίς ἂν δή τοι νόος εἴη;
οὔτ᾽ αὐτὸς νέος ἐσσί, γέρων δέ τοι οὗτος ὀπηδεῖ,
ἄνδρ᾽ ἀπαμύνασθαι, ὅτε τις πρότερος χαλεπήνῃ.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐδέν σε ῥέξω κακά, καὶ δέ κεν ἄλλον370
σεῦ ἀπαλεξήσαιμι: φίλῳ δέ σε πατρὶ ἐΐσκω.
The two of them drove out past the tomb of Ilos,
and stopped their mules and horses to water them
in the river, for dusk had by now fallen over the land.
The herald caught sight of Hermes, who came toward them
from close by. He spoke up and addressed Priam:
“Take thought, son of Dardanos, for this work needs a careful mind.
I see a man who I think will soon tear us to pieces.
Come, let us flee on our horses, or if not, then
grasp his knees and beg him to pity us.”
So he spoke, and the old man was confused and dreadfully afraid;
his hair rose straight up on his twisted body
and he stood amazed. But the helpful god came near him,
taking his hand, and spoke to him, asking a question:
“My father, where are you driving your horses and mules
through the immortal night while other mortals sleep?
Are you not afraid of the Achaeans who breathe fury,
who are your enemies and who are nearby?
If one of them should see you in the swift dark night
bringing so many treasures, what plan would you have?
You are not young and your companion is too old to
fight off a man when he comes to harm you.
But I will do you no harm, and would ward off
any man who would, for I liken you to a beloved father.”
The difference in tone between the two passages is instructive. Here the sudden appearance of a stranger sparks fear in both elderly travelers and the disguised god responds with reassuring kindness, taking the old man’s hand, and defusing tension by casting Priam in the role of surrogate father. In the warm exchange that follows, Hermes supplies a believable mortal persona for himself: he is a comrade of Achilles, a Myrmidon, the seventh son of Polyktor, who will escort the two travelers safely to Achilles’ hut. Priam responds gratefully, sure that “some god is holding his hand over me” (374), by sending such an escort. In contrast to this expansive tableau, the meeting of Hermes and Odysseus is stripped down to the essentials, with no backstory for the young man that would explain him appearing out of nowhere and no response of any kind from Odysseus. The entire episode is transactional, the moly and instructions delivered with no bond established between Odysseus and the young man. Homer declines to develop the emotional potential in this scene because he has other reasons for inserting it here, as we will see in the next passage.
Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 133-185. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. 1987, 15-54; 71-77. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Odysseus meets Circe, protected from the same potion that turned his men into swine. Circe learns of Odysseus’s identity and invites him to her bed. Odysseus makes her swear an oath that will protect him from any harm.
We might here pause to think about how the poet orchestrates this part of his story. Why two expeditions to Circe’s house? Looking ahead, we note that Odysseus is to meet Circe, an important boundary figure in his trip to the Underworld, but cannot be turned into a pig, since none of his crewmen appear to be powerful or resourceful enough to get him back to human form.
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The poet might have simply skipped the first expedition under Eurylochus and passed directly to the encounter with Hermes, which would still provide the hero with the requisite defense against the witch’s magic. But while this version would get Odysseus where he has to go, it would forfeit the shock of witnessing the crewmen’s transformation from human to animal. (Homer’s version of “show, don’t tell.”) Lost too would be the underlying message about the cost to men of giving over control of their bodies to a seductive woman, a concrete realization of the threat that we see Odysseus guarding himself against all through the story. His own meeting with the witch will focus on this peril.
Hermes harvests some moly for Odysseus but offers no instruction on how to use the magic herb. As the god wafts away toward Olympus, Odysseus makes his way through the dark woods to Circe’s house. In case we had any doubt about the nature of the coming encounter, the poet once again sounds the fateful phrase, θύρας ὤιξε φαεινὰς (312), as the witch welcomes the hero into her lair. Following the correct protocol for entertaining guests, the Circe offers refreshment before asking any questions. The next six verses take us to the heart of the encounter: moly blocks the witch’s potion, Odysseus whips out his sword, and Circe kneels, grasping the hero’s knees. The symbolism of these acts signals a straightforward power negotiation. Having offered herself by opening up her “shining doors,” a powerful female tries to negate the hero’s masculine force with magic; the hero responds with his own power move, wielding his phallic sword and reducing the dangerous witch to the position of supplicant; that she eventually invites him to bed makes the connection between power and sex explicit.
Hovering behind the overt symbolism of these verses lies another potent thematic paradigm. The offer of a seat and a drink is the first part of a traditional sequence of gestures in early Greek hexameter poetry associated with the representation of grief. The person grieving is shown to be refusing to accept the finality of her/his loss by abstaining from the tokens of participation in the ongoing processes of the life cycle, forgoing food, sleep, and sex. Those who would console the suffering person offer a seat and a drink. Acceptance of both tokens signals a readiness to let go of the dead and reenter the flow of life. The pattern plays a crucial role in the thematic resolution of the Iliad in Book Twenty-Four, when Achilles and Priam console each other for the death their loved ones, Patroclus and Hector (Il. 24.477–643). The full sequence also appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a hexameter poem probably composed soon after the Odyssey, focusing on the rape of Persephone by Hades and its cosmic repercussions (Hymn Hom. Dem. 188–211).
The sequence can also appear in a slightly altered form, while still carrying its core significance. When Zeus decides to prod Priam and Achilles toward reconciliation in Book Twenty-Four, he summons Thetis to Olympus. The goddess is given a seat and offered a drink, both of which she accepts. Here the symbolism of the gestures is proleptic—a preview of something that has not yet happened—since the loss she is prompted to accept is the coming death of her son Achilles, whom she has hoped would somehow escape the limits of mortality (Il. 24.93–140). When Hector returns to Troy in Book Six, the elements of the sequence are separated. First, he meets his mother, who offers him wine. He refuses, saying that wine would rob him of his fighting spirit and in any event, he could not offer a libation to Zeus with the blood of battle on his hands. Later, as he stands on the threshold of Paris’s bedroom, Helen urges him to sit and rest, a gesture carrying the fragrance of seduction (Il. 6.251–268, 342–362). He refuses, citing his need to return to the battlefield. Again, the symbolism of the sequence points forward. When Hector leaves his mother, his brother and sister-in-law, and his wife, each parting has an air of finality. As the consolation motif suggests, these will be his last goodbyes to those he loves. The death he refuses to accept for now is his own and by extension, Troy’s.
If we assume the consolation pattern is active in Odysseus’s negotiations with Circe, then what is the loss he is invited to accept? Given the fate of his crew members, what is at stake here is not only the hero’s masculine power, but his every existence as a human being. The orchestration of the exchange reflects the narrative goals of the Odyssey as opposed to the Iliad. In the latter poem, the acceptance of mortality generates the thematic synthesis that brings the story to a satisfying—if melancholy—conclusion. Here, the survival of the hero is prerequisite to the restoration of order, the ultimate goal of the poem’s narrative. Though Odysseus seems to accept Circe’s offer, with all it portends for his identity as hero and human being, Hermes’ preemptive intervention shields him from the outcome the narrative pattern usually forecasts.
The particular form of Odysseus’s brush with oblivion here once again prompts comparison with the Calypso episode. In both cases, a seductive goddess would control the hero, erasing his very identity as hero, Hermes plays the role of divine liberator, and a negotiation over power occurs that is represented as fundamentally sexual. The crucial difference between the two episodes is the order in which these elements appear. Calypso has already kept Odysseus for seven years when Hermes arrives to set him free. She reluctantly obeys Zeus’s command to release Odysseus, helping him build a boat and giving him supplies for the journey, including some “fragrant clothing” (5.264). Poseidon sends a storm that breaks up his boat, ripping off the sails and upper decks and throwing Odysseus into the sea. He struggles to surface again, because the cloak that Calypso gave him is pulling him down under the water. After he finally surfaces and grabs onto what is left of the boat, a friendly nymph, Ino, comes to him in the shape of a bird and gives him lifesaving advice: he should throw away Calypso’s clothing and instead tie the nymph’s κρήδεμνον, “veil” (346), around his chest. He does so and manages to survive another storm, struggling to the shore of Scheria (Od. 5.282–493).
Calypso’s clothing drags him down toward nameless oblivion, a concrete representation of the “covering up” her name implies, then Ino’s veil saves him. A woman’s veil is the symbol in Homeric poetry for her modesty or chastity. When Andromache sees Hector’s corpse being dragged around the walls of Troy, she tears off her veil and throws it over the walls, a symbol of her coming violation and the penetration of Troy’s battlements, κρήδεμνα, “head binders” (Il. 22.467–472). When Nausicaa and her maids decide to play catch by the shore, they throw off their veils, making themselves vulnerable to strange men (6.99–100). What we see, then, in Odysseus’s exchanges with Calypso and Ino the same kind of symbolic power negotiation as we find in Odysseus’s conquering of Circe: The sacrifice of Ino’s modesty counterbalances the sexual hold of Calypso.
In the Circe encounter, Odysseus is protected in advance from the erasure that we have witnessed him undergoing at the hands of Calypso. This preemptive strike sets the stage for the entire episode. Once the threat of being unmanned is removed, Odysseus and his men will spend an entirely serene interlude with Circe, a benign helper in the mold of Siduri the barkeep.
Nagler, M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer,174–198. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 76–77. New York: Oxford University Press.
Circe swears the oath, and Odysseus enters Circe’s household where he encounters her housemaids. Odysseus refuses Circe’s entertainment until she sets his men free.
Dumbfounded by the hero’s immunity to her drugs, Circe assumes that her guest must be Odysseus, the invader Hermes warned her about. She tries to lure him to her bed anyway, but he resists: He will not have sex with her while his men remain pigs, nor will he risk being naked and thus “unmanned” (ἀνήνορα, 341) by her. Being naked makes a man vulnerable in the Odyssey.
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Water is itself “feminine” in the Greeks’ gendered division of the world, amorphous, flowing across the clean boundaries that define things masculine. Athena twice intervenes to beautify Odysseus, making him look bigger, his hair gleaming with curls like hyacinth blossoms. In both cases, the hero has just emerged from a bath, and the goddess’s gesture adds extra allure at the moment when nakedness might make him vulnerable (6.229–237; 23.152–163). In two other moments when he is bathed but not pumped up by Athena, the peril of being recognized surfaces. When Telemachus visits Sparta in Book Four, Helen tells the story of how she bathed Odysseus at Troy and he revealed his true identity to her; when Penelope orders a young servant girl to bathe his feet in Book Nineteen, he demands that Eurykleia, his old nanny, be the one to wash his feet and even then she comes close to blowing his cover (4.252–256; 19.317–348, 467–490)
Behind this recurrent narrative pattern in the poem, we encounter the shadow of another widespread belief in ancient Greek culture, that having sex with a goddess will render a man impotent at best or even kill him. The author of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, a poem roughly contemporary with the Odyssey, makes excellent use of this anxiety. Anchises, a scion of the Trojan royal family, is out on Mount Ida herding sheep, when Aphrodite, disguised as a young virgin, timidly approaches. He hails her, asking if she is a mortal or a goddess, reeling off a list of deities she resembles. She replies that she is no goddess, just an ordinary girl, the daughter of Otreus, who has been snatched away by Hermes while playing with her girlfriends. The god told her that she is to be Anchises’s wife, and she is acting under a “powerful compulsion” (130). But before they consummate their marriage, he should take her back to his parents for their approval and send word to her parents, too. He responds forcefully: She will indeed be his wife, but first, no man or god could keep him from sleeping with her right now! The goddess shyly consents and after the lovemaking resumes her divine form, teasingly waking him. He is appropriately frightened:
ὣς φάθ᾽: ὃ δ᾽ ἐξ ὕπνοιο μάλ᾽ ἐμμαπέως ὑπάκουσεν.
ὡς δὲ ἴδεν δειρήν τε καὶ ὄμματα κάλ᾽ Ἀφροδίτης,
τάρβησέν τε καὶ ὄσσε παρακλιδὸν ἔτραπεν ἄλλῃ:
ἂψ δ᾽ αὖτις χλαίνῃ τε καλύψατο καλὰ πρόσωπα
καί μιν λισσόμενος ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα:
αὐτίκα σ᾽ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα, θεά, ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
ἔγνων ὡς θεὸς ἦσθα: σὺ δ᾽ οὐ νημερτὲς ἔειπες.
ἀλλά σε πρὸς Ζηνὸς γουνάζομαι αἰγιόχοιο,
μή με ζῶντ᾽ ἀμενηνὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἐάσῃς
ναίειν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐλέαιρ᾽: ἐπεὶ οὐ βιοθάλμιος ἀνὴρ
γίγνεται, ὅς τε θεαῖς εὐνάζεται ἀθανάτῃσι.
So she spoke. He heard and quickly woke up.
When he saw the neck and lovely eyes of Aphrodite,
he was frightened and turned his eyes away.
Covering his handsome face again with a cloak,
he beseeched her with winged words:
“Right away when my eyes fell upon you, goddess,
I knew you were divine! But you did not tell the truth.
Yet I beg you by Zeus who bears the aegis,
don’t let me be alive but strengthless among men.
Take pity on me, since a man is not potent
who goes to bed with an immortal goddess!”
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 180–190
However we may feel about the sexual power dynamics that underlie this story, the encounter between Anchises and Aphrodite is filled with delicious ironies, generated by reversed gender roles. The manly prince is seduced by a timid virgin, who is in fact the goddess of sexuality, all because Zeus, the number one philanderer in the universe, has taken revenge on the goddess for “making” him sleep with mortal women (Hymn. Hom. Aph. 36–52). Anchises, once he realizes his mistake, hides his face like a virgin with a veil.
The same themes appear in the Circe episode, without the light, comic touch of the hymn poet: the anxiety of mortals in the presence of gods, the male fear of emasculation by powerful female forces. Anchises is spared in the end, because Aphrodite—much to her chagrin—has become pregnant with his son, the hero Aeneas, and she has no interest in parenting (Hymn. Hom. Aph. 256–280). Odysseus escapes harm because Hermes supplies protection for the hero before he meets Circe. As we have seen, the timing of this intervention is integral to the tone of the entire episode. Once the threat of emasculation is removed, the sexual energy between Odysseus and the witch goes with it, leaving little basis for emotional connection between the two, beyond the hero’s gratitude for her help. In this sense, the witch stands in for Athena, a powerful goddess who can help Odysseus but asks for little in return. By contrast, although Calypso says she has come love to her captive, the intensity of their final exchanges is colored by energy from the nymph’s power over Odysseus.
The relative blandness of Circe’s relationship with Odysseus prompts comparison with—surprisingly enough—Penelope. Once the tension between the queen and the anonymous beggar dissipates with her acceptance of his identity as her husband, she becomes a much less vivid character than the resourceful wife who asserts her independence with the contest of the bow. In this sense, the entire Circe episode offers a microcosmic view of the Odyssey’s return story. First, the hero must assert himself in a way that brings recognition of his kleos, putting him in control of the situation in general and a woman in particular. Then he lives comfortably with a beautiful woman who provides him with the comforts of home. Penelope will prove to be far from a two-dimensional character and winning her over will take more than the brandishing of a sword, but the parallels between her and Circe are intriguing. Both are subject to divine influence that makes them easier for Odysseus to win over (Virgil puts this dynamic to a much darker use in his portrayal of Venus’s manipulation of Dido at Aeneid 1.657-694); after the testing of the hero, which results in the reaffirmation of his identity, both companions are affectionate, completely supportive, and—once subdued—not vividly interesting. That much of the energy goes out of the Circe episode once she is neutralized tells us something important about the role of sexual tension in the poet’s portrayal of masculine heroism. In any event, Homer has other uses for the character of Circe, as the parallels to Siduri indicate.
The consolation motif surfaces once more after the elaborate description of dinner preparation in the witch’s household. Odysseus, though seated at the table, will not touch any of the meal until his men are returned to their human form, which is to say, according to the paradigm, until their death as humans is reversed. Circe’s acquiescence marks the end of any existential threat to the guests and the beginning of their extended vacation from danger.
Carson, A. 1990. “Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire.” In Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient World. Ed. D. Halperin, J. Winkler, and F. Zeitlin, 135-169. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 126-128. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 57. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Circe restores the transformed comrades of Odysseus to human shape. Odysseus goes to the ships and reunites with his men, inviting them back to Circe’s palace.
Circe goes to release the crew and the poet teases us:
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ὣς ἐφάμην, Κίρκη δὲ διὲκ μεγάροιο βεβήκει
ῥάβδον ἔχουσ᾽ ἐν χειρί, θύρας δ᾽ ἀνέῳξε συφειοῦ,
So I spoke, and Circe went out of the hall,
holding the wand in her hand, and opened the doors of the stye…
We imagine the bard pausing slightly after the verb in line 389, as our ears, tuned by the repeated traditional phrase (cf. 10.230, 256, 312) wait for the adjective φαεινὰς. Beyond the humor, we hear echoes of the power struggle running through the entire episode, the doors of the stye standing in for the doors of the house, both enclosures metaphors for the suffocating emasculation that feminine sexuality threatens for the masculine hero. As it happens, Circe not only returns the crew to their human form, but also makes them younger, bigger, and more handsome than they were before. Here the parallel with Athena surfaces, as the once malevolent witch now plays the role of the hero’s protector, signaling that the struggle is quiet for now.
The reversal of Circe’s magic reflects the Odyssey’s overall narrative strategy, which moves toward restoration of the hero’s status in Ithaka. We have come to call this structure, “comic,” in contrast to the tragic form of stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, where the energy of the narrative urges us toward the recognition of the inescapable fact of human mortality. The outcome of Circe episode prefigures the world that Athena is determined to restore in Ithaka, where threats to the status of the hero are always reversible. There, as here, the hero will need to win over a formidable female who has been warned that he may be coming. The sword that subdues Circe will be deployed again, but this time against a crowd of usurpers. The crew, saved for now, will be long gone by the time Odysseus reaches Ithaka, victims of their own lack of self-control. But for now, the tranquility that settles over Aiaia, coming near the center of the poem, foreshadows the final triumph of the returning hero.
After Circe reverses her magic and the crew members joyfully greet their captain, the witch urges Odysseus to fetch the rest of his men from the ship so they can join the feast. The simile that Odysseus uses to describe the men’s ecstatic response to his return seems striking at first: Sailors, hardened by an exhausting and dangerous trek across the sea, are compared to young calves gamboling out of their pen to greet their mothers. But this view of Odysseus’s companions should not surprise us, since the crew has been essentially infantilized throughout the poem, unable to exhibit the control of their impulses that marks a mature male in the Odyssey. In this, they resemble the suitors, notorious for their gluttonous appetites, for food and sex with the maids in Ithaka. In both cases, the parent in the room is Odysseus, father to his wayward children, finally unable to keep them from harming themselves. The parallel continues as the crew by the ship crowd around:
σοὶ μὲν νοστήσαντι, διοτρεφές, ὣς ἐχάρημεν,
ὡς εἴ τ᾽ εἰς Ἰθάκην ἀφικοίμεθα πατρίδα γαῖαν:
We are as happy to see you returned, cherished of Zeus,
as if we had come back home to Ithaka, our fatherland!
The participle νοστήσαντι is used elsewhere exclusively in the poem of Odysseus returning home. We, like the crew, are urged to see this pleasant interlude as a rehearsal for Odysseus’ ultimate return to his rightful status in Ithaka.
If we conclude that Circe foreshadows the queen who offers pleasure and respite in Ithaka, we should also note the potential in Penelope for realizing the darker aspects of witch’s nature. Both are deceptive weavers, whose tricks can lead a man to ruin; both must be won over by the hero—with the help of divine intervention—before their allegiance is assured; each offers Odysseus vital information that will eventually secure his homecoming. And finally, when Penelope tells the beggar her dream about geese (19.535–553), do we not hear a faint echo of the “mistress of animals” who controls the wolves and lions in Aiaia?
Eurylochus fails to persuade them to leave. Circe welcomes them all, and Odysseus and his men remain with Circe for a whole year.
Odysseus persuades the crew left behind at the ships to head to Circe’s house—all except Eurylochus, who asks what seem like reasonable questions: Why would they want to go to Circe’s house, where she will turn them all into pigs, wolves, and lions, prisoners like their friends? Do they want to suffer what happened to the men who died in the Cyclops’s cave, destroyed by Odysseus’s recklessness? This insubordination is too much for Odysseus, who contemplates decapitating Eurylochus:
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ὣς ἔφατ᾽, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ γε μετὰ φρεσὶ μερμήριξα,
σπασσάμενος τανύηκες ἄορ παχέος παρὰ μηροῦ,
τῷ οἱ ἀποπλήξας κεφαλὴν οὖδάσδε πελάσσαι,
καὶ πηῷ περ ἐόντι μάλα σχεδόν: ἀλλά μ᾽ ἑταῖροι
μειλιχίοις ἐπέεσσιν ἐρήτυον ἄλλοθεν ἄλλος:
So he spoke, but I pondered in my mind
as I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh,
whether to chop off his head and throw it on the ground,
even though he was a close relative; but my companions
restrained me, one after the other, with soft words.
The hero’s violent impulse is somewhat startling amid the rejoicing, and we wonder what Homer is up to. We recall a similar moment of decision in Book Nine, when Odysseus contemplates killing the sleeping Polyphemus (Od.9.299–306). There, the hero decides to hold back without prompting from his companions, a decision that shows him in his role as master strategist, foregoing the immediate pleasure of punishing the monster to serve his larger purposes as a leader of the crew. Here, the emotion he must overcome is apparently more personal, rage at Eurylochus for daring to oppose him. The difference is slight, but instructive. The Cyclops episode aims us toward the triumph of μῆτις, put in the service of both the captain and his men; the encounter with Circe gives a glimpse of the potential conflict between what Odysseus demands and the welfare of the group, something that last appeared appear in the final scene of the Greeks’ escape from Polyphemus.
The emergence of Eurylochus as the representative of the crew’s anxieties focuses our attention on a fundamental problem inherent in the Greeks’ ideas about masculinity, the potential danger for the community in the hero’s power: if trained on the community’s enemies, no force is more welcome; but if the hero’s desire for glory and the good of the group are in conflict, nothing could be more threatening. We might suppose that Achilles in the Iliad is the most extreme example of the destructive (and self-destructive) force of Greek masculine heroism. But that poem is persistently focused on the trade-offs between individual glory and the good of the community and ends with a glimpse at what might have been if the latter had prevailed. No such softening occurs in the Odyssey or its hero. Odysseus remains, as we have said, the hardest, most unrelenting example of heroic masculinity of Greek literature.
The chaos in Ithaka as the Odyssey opens is the dark specter that drives the rhetoric of the poem. Nothing good can happen until the vacuum in male leadership is filled by a worthy king, preferably Odysseus or if he is dead, a mature version of Telemachus. Right order must be restored, and no sacrifice is too great to achieve that goal, including the death of every single crewman, very single suitor and the maids who slept with them. Until the slaughter of the suitors, the dynamic between the hero and his community in the Odyssey is on display almost entirely in the relationship between Odysseus and his men, where we often see the captain’s will overriding the good of the crew, always to their detriment. By the time Odysseus reaches the island of Scheria, he is alone.
Viewed from this perspective, the figure of Eurylochus offers a fleeting glance at what is honored at the end of the Iliad. He becomes a kind of double for Odysseus, the version of the hero that would have hung back in fear for the lives of the crew and avoided exploring the Cyclops’s island and the lair of Circe. Perhaps that captain would have lacked the requisite cunning and boldness to get even himself back home alive, but we might also imagine more than one Greek sailor returning safely to Ithaka. But the Odyssey is not the kind of story, and the weight of the poem’s rhetoric pushes us to scorn caution in the service of the hero’s survival. That his first impulse is to kill Eurylochus for urging second thoughts seems to us somewhat extreme but not out of the question shows how thoroughly we have accepted the poem’s assumptions about means and ends.
The Greeks head back to Circe’s house and a joyous reunion with their comrades, now back in human form. The witch, having washed, clothed, and fed them, speaks in the voice of Siduri, the woman who keeps a tavern on the edge of the Waters of Death in Epic of Gilgamesh: no more grieving; they have suffered much on their journey, time now to take care of themselves; eat, drink, and pursue pleasure while they can. At this point, Homer signals that any threat that Circe might have posed for Odysseus and his crew is gone. The men allow themselves to be bathed by women, always potentially perilous for a man in the Odyssey, and then feast happily with a witch, which leads to eternal captivity in many folktales. It is a measure of how far Odysseus has strayed from his characteristic heroic vigilance that after a year of partying the crew must urge him to push on: Has he forgotten his homeland? That the hero has been willing to delay his quest for Ithaka this long underscores the persistent duality in his character, one part centripetal, always pushing toward home, and one part centrifugal, reaching for new knowledge and experience as a bulwark against the numbing effects of oblivion.
The remainder of the Circe episode shows the witch as a benign ally of the Greeks, helping them prepare for his frightening trip to the land of the dead. During this idyllic interlude, the island of the witch has offered the hero and his crew respite from the unrelenting danger that has surrounded them since they left Troy. The rigid self-control modeled by Odysseus is not for the moment necessary. They may weep, eat and drink, sleep in their beds. For the captain, this luxurious emotional expressiveness also takes the form of sex with the witch, we suppose. Curiously, the place that Aiaia most resembles in this moment is, as we have said, the idealized Ithaka Odysseus has been struggling toward all along, safe, and comfortable, with a supportive, loving woman at its center. There will be much more suffering and loss before he arrives.
Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 1–15. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Odysseus begs Circe to fulfill her promise to send him home. Circe tells Odysseus of his visit to Hades.
The crew’s embassy to their captain becomes the pivot around which the rest of the episode turns. From now on, the paradigm of the dangerously seductive woman, with all of its dark implications for the psychic integrity of the hero, will give way to preparation for the next big adventure, a journey to the land of the dead.
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When Odysseus goes to Circe, he kneels in supplication, begging for her to allow them to continue toward Ithaka. This gesture recalls Circe’s response to the failure of her drugs to subdue Odysseus (10.321–324) and forms a frame around this part of the episode, an example of “ring form,” a structural device frequently found in Homeric epic and elsewhere in archaic Greek literature. Now the power dynamic between Odysseus and Circe that Hermes’s intervention created is reversed. The witch is back in control, holding special knowledge that will help the hero reach home.
The next adventure finally comes into view as Circe breaks the news to Odysseus that his journey home will have a detour to Hades, to consult the sage Teiresias about how to reach Ithaka. The news shatters Odysseus’s heart and he falls on the bed, weeping and again contemplating suicide, as he did when discovering that his men had opened the bag of winds and blown them away from Ithaka. The gesture is certainly understandable in both cases: being within sight of home after twenty years, only to be denied at the last minute, would be shattering for anyone, while visiting the land of the dead is the most perilous adventure a hero can pursue. On another level, the hero’s physical and emotional response to both situations is proleptic, symbolically enacting the terrible events to come, moving downward toward death. We see something similar when Antilochus brings the news of Patroclus’s death to Achilles in Book Eighteen of the Iliad:
ὣς φάτο, τὸν δ᾽ ἄχεος νεφέλη ἐκάλυψε μέλαινα:
ἀμφοτέρῃσι δὲ χερσὶν ἑλὼν κόνιν αἰθαλόεσσαν
χεύατο κὰκ κεφαλῆς, χαρίεν δ᾽ ᾔσχυνε πρόσωπον:
νεκταρέῳ δὲ χιτῶνι μέλαιν᾽ ἀμφίζανε τέφρη.
αὐτὸς δ᾽ ἐν κονίῃσι μέγας μεγαλωστὶ τανυσθεὶς
κεῖτο, φίλῃσι δὲ χερσὶ κόμην ᾔσχυνε δαΐζων.
So [Antilochus] spoke, and a black cloud of pain covered [Achilles].
Gathering the grimy dust in both hands,
he poured it over his head, fouling his handsome face,
and the dark ash blackened his immortal tunic.
He himself lay stretched out in his might in the dust,
tearing his hair with his hands to defile it.
Hearing the terrible news mortifies Achilles, pulling him toward death. He tries to bury himself, covering his face with dirt, stretched out like a corpse. When his mother comes to comfort him, she holds his head, creating a tableau that mimics a loved one grieving over a dead man. When Patroclus dies, something of Achilles dies too; when the specter of failing to reach home surfaces for Odysseus, it feels like death to him.
In this crucial moment in the larger structure of the story, we might pause to reflect on how Homer controls his narrative and our response to it. Looking at the Books Nine through Twelve as a whole, we can see that the material is shaped around a few major episodes, each of which reflects major ongoing themes in the poem, the conflicting forces at work in and on the hero, the imperatives in the story’s rhetoric that shape our response to the characters and events. In between are smaller episodes, each preserving and advancing the major themes of the story but with its own particular cast of characters. Homer must consistently engage his audience—who are hearing the poem recited rather than reading a fixed text—with the details of each episode, while continuously laying the foundation for the poem’s larger structure.
Looking at Book Ten from this perspective, we note that once Hermes intervenes and arranges for Odysseus to be invulnerable to Circe’s magic, the witch ceases to be a threat to the hero’s mission and the poet has a problem: when the motif of the dangerously seductive woman fades away, it takes with it the energy generated by our investment in the hero escaping her wiles. Eurylochus’ anxiety and distrust do keep the motif of the dangerous seductress alive for a little longer—another explanation for this curious interlude—but when Odysseus leads his men from the ship to the witch’s house, Homer turns toward the next big adventure. Circe now functions entirely as the benign boundary figure, whose advice points the Greeks toward the future. When Odysseus collapses on the witch’s bed, a new source of energy appears, crippling fear of the unknown. The serenity and joy of the Greeks’ yearlong party, which also gave us some respite from the continuous dramatic tension of the adventures, are now swept away by new fears:
ὢ Κίρκη, τίς γὰρ ταύτην ὁδὸν ἡγεμονεύσει;
εἰς Ἄϊδος δ᾽ οὔ πώ τις ἀφίκετο νηὶ μελαίνῃ.
Oh Circe, who will lead us on this journey?
For no one has ever arrived in Hades in a black ship.
Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad. 1987, 61–69. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Circe informs Odysseus that he must speak to the seer Tiresias, who will explain how to reach Ithaca.
Circe reassures Odysseus that he will not need anyone to guide the ship to the edge of Hades. The voyage will proceed on autopilot—presumably with supernatural aid—while he and his men sit in the ship. Once they have arrived, they will need to carry out various specific tasks to appease the gods and summon the prophet Teiresias, who will show them the way to get home. Detailed instructions follow, a three-part a mix of ritualized actions from various sources, which seems to reflect festivals of the dead when spirits are summoned from the underworld to mingle with the living.
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But Homer’s version differs in one important respect from those occasions: the Greeks will first go to Hades and then call up the dead. Thus, the entire episode also draws on perhaps the most common and most important heroic adventure, the katabasis, or journey downward to the land of the dead, where the hero typically confronts deep knowledge about the future and about himself only available there and returns to the world of the living. The function of this momentous episode in the Odyssey will differ in some ways from that in many other stories, as we will see.
The principal aim of the mission for Odysseus will be to consult Teiresias about how to get back to Ithaka. This straightforward goal seems decidedly less mysterious and profound than what Gilgamesh learns by confronting the inescapable fact of his own mortality or what Achilles, after being trapped in his own self-created hell, comes to realize in his encounter with Priam. (Or, much later in the epic tradition but equally relevant, what Aeneas’s father reveals to him: his role in the eventual founding of Rome and a preview of the next thousand years of Roman history.) But if the knowledge that Teiresias will offer to Odysseus seems more prosaic than the prize offered to other heroes, it is in fact what he needs to know to reach his fullest potential as a man, as the Odyssey presents it. As the heroes of tragic stories, Gilgamesh and Achilles can only evolve into the men they must be by accepting that they must die. The Odyssey’s comic form requires not acceptance from its hero, but survival. He must win back his rightful status, no matter what the cost to others along the way. The knowledge of how to do this is what Odysseus must gain when he encounters the land of the dead.
We can explore this way of understanding Odysseus’s katabasis further by looking at the encounter with the nymph Eidothea and her father Proteus that Menelaus describes in Book Four. There and here, a female figure with special powers tells a stranded hero how to approach a wise adviser, who will rise from some deep, dark place and tell him the way to sail home across the sea (4.389–390 = 10.539–540). In both cases, the hero is crushed to hear what he must do before he can achieve his homecoming (4.538–541 = 10.496–499). Menelaus must ambush Proteus and control the creature’s shape-shifting to get secret knowledge, while Odysseus will draw the prophet to him with special rituals. Each hero will receive some general information about how to get home and learn the fate of his comrades who have died at Troy or on the homeward journey; each will also hear how he will die.
Tracing these parallels show us Homer characteristically building Odysseus’ katabasis on earlier narrative patterns. Menelaus ambushes Proteus and learns that he must return to Egypt and sacrifice to the gods in order to reach home safely. He then hears about the deaths of Ajax and Agamemnon, the former punished for angering Athena, the latter killed treacherously by his cousin Aegisthus. Pressing Proteus further, he learns of Odysseus’ captivity on Calypso’s island. Finally comes the most important information, his own fate after he dies. Because he is Helen’s husband, he will live on after death in the Elysian Fields, where there is no snow, no rain, only soft breezes (Od. 4.465–570).
What we learn of Menelaus and his ultimate fate will in fact resonate twice in the portrait of Odysseus. When the nymph Ino saves him from being pulled under the waves by Calypso’s cloak in Book Five (333–353), we hear a clear echo of Menelaus and Eidothea. The implied parallels between the two heroes are instructive for our understanding of Odysseus’s character. By declining to stay with Calypso, he refuses the easy existence that awaits Menelaus, choosing to fight on toward Ithaka. He reclaims his identity by refusing the fatal allure of the nymph’s timeless oblivion and returning to the world of death and change. This choice is fundamental to Homer’s portrait of his hero and will be echoed in each of Odysseus’s triumphant returns from anonymous stranger to famous hero along the way to Ithaka.
The Menelaus paradigm surfaces again in Books Ten and Eleven, with Eidothea’s role as rescuer and the prophecies of Proteus divided between Circe and Teiresias. Like Menelaus, Odysseus will hear about the deaths of his former comrades and receive detailed instructions about how to proceed on his journey home. He, like Menelaus, will eventually learn about the end of his life: one last trek inland, where a “gentle death” that will come from the sea in “comfortable old age.” Unlike Menelaus, who is given eternal bliss because he married the right woman, Odysseus will struggle to earn his gentle ending. And finally, the parallels imply the question that will come to dominate the last third of the poem: Will Penelope turn out to be another Helen?
Anderson, W.S. 1958. “Calypso and Elysium.” Classical Journal 54, 2–11.
Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 71–72. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 28–29; 134–138. New York: Oxford University Press.
Odysseus and all the men, except Elpenor, get ready to leave the island of Circe. Odysseus informs his men of their journey to Hades.
Odysseus wakes his crew as they have roused him the day before. The slumber they are all to shake off has lasted not just one night but a whole year, a magic vacation from the grim realities of the journey home. Now Circe has “shown him the way” (μοι ἐπέφραδε, 550) and they must be off. Ironically, their return to life, which echoes Odysseus’s escape from Calypso’s timeless island, must begin with a visit to the land of the dead.
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But first, we hear the story of the hapless Elpenor:
τις ἔσκε νεώτατος, οὔτε τι λίην
ἄλκιμος ἐν πολέμῳ οὔτε φρεσὶν ᾗσιν ἀρηρώς
who was the youngest sailor, not too
stout in battles nor sound in his wits.
In other words, the antithesis of Odysseus. In death, he assumes the role of the sacrificial victim, the price for the journey to move forward. He may also be a kind of surrogate for Odysseus, leading the way to the Underworld. For now, he becomes an unburied corpse like Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad, the latter two embodying something of Achilles, the hero who has survived. But here the differences between the Achilles and Odysseus and the poems they inhabit come to the surface. The unburied remains of his friend and his enemy hang like a heavy weight around Achilles’s neck. Each holds a piece of his essential self and until they receive the γέρας θανάντων, “gift of honor for the dead” (Il. 16.457), their souls cannot find rest and neither can his. Elpenor, though a kind of negative image of Odysseus, holds no part of him and will fade away after the Greeks bury him in Book Twelve (8–15). Odysseus too carries a heavy burden, but one that demands that he put himself first before all others. On his survival depends the rightful order of things in Ithaka, by which the lives of all those who depend on him and love him are encompassed. To save his world, he must keep his distance, even from his family, as we will see at the end of the poem. To fulfill his mission he must finally be alone.
Odysseus gives the crew the bad news about their detour to the Underworld, and they collapse in dismay. While they sit weeping hopelessly on the shore, Circe passes by unseen to deliver a ram and a sheep, prompting these final words from the poet:
τίς ἂν θεὸν οὐκ ἐθέλοντα
ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδοιτ᾽ ἢ ἔνθ᾽ ἢ ἔνθα κιόντα;
For whose eyes can see a god passing
one way or another, if she does not wish it?