Book 12 Essays

By Thomas Van Nortwick


Odysseus and his crew return to Circe’s island and bury Elpenor. Odysseus recounts his adventures to Circe.

Bringing his hero back from Hades, the poet faces some challenges. After the extraordinary encounters with the dead, there might well be a letdown in dramatic tension and thus in the audience’s attention. We suspect that Ithaka cannot be too far in the distance at this point, and we might be getting eager to move on to the showdown with the suitors, which Homer has been dangling before us since Zeus’s reply to Athena in Book Five:

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My child, what is this word that has escaped your teeth?
Is this not your plan, as you have counseled it,
that Odysseus will return and take revenge on those men?

Odyssey 5.21–23

We also know that this poet likes nothing better than to delay fulfilling expectations he has stirred in us, keeping us engaged. So perhaps the homecoming is on the horizon, but probably not right away. Meanwhile, when Odysseus reaches Calypso’s island, he is alone. And we learned in the first few verses of the poem that Helios did away with the rest of the crew because they ate his sacred cattle. We have yet to discover how that happened.

The book begins with the soothing rhythms of familiar traditional language, as if to mark a return to the comfort of the human world as Odysseus and the crew left it when they went into the Underworld:

‘αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ ποταμοῖο λίπεν ῥόον Ὠκεανοῖο
νηῦς, ἀπὸ δ᾽ ἵκετο κῦμα θαλάσσης εὐρυπόροιο
νῆσόν τ᾽ Αἰαίην, ὅθι τ᾽ Ἠοῦς ἠριγενείης
οἰκία καὶ χοροί εἰσι καὶ ἀντολαὶ Ἠελίοιο,
νῆα μὲν ἔνθ᾽ ἐλθόντες ἐκέλσαμεν ἐν ψαμάθοισιν,
ἐκ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ βῆμεν ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης:
ἔνθα δ᾽ ἀποβρίξαντες ἐμείναμεν Ἠῶ δῖαν.
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς...

But when the ship left the streams of the Ocean,
and came to the waves of the wide-running sea
and the island of Aiaia, where lie the house of early Dawn
and her dancing spaces and the rising of Helios,
we landed there and drove the ship up on the sand
and jumped out on the edge of the sea,
drifting off to sleep to await bright Dawn.
But when early born, rosy fingered Dawn appeared…

Odyssey 12.1–8

Odysseus sends his men back to the “house of Circe” to retrieve the body of Elpenor (9) and we note the closing of the circle that began with the first ill-fated visit in Book Ten (10.203–243). Circe reappears as a boundary figure like Siduri the barkeep on the edge of the “waters of death” in The Epic of Gilgamesh, with each figure marking the entrance to and exit from the Underworld.

The next six verses cover the funeral and burial of Elpenor, a swift conclusion to that bifurcated episode. The poet seems intent on moving on, leaving the grim darkness behind, speeding toward the next part of the story. Vergil’s version of this episode in the Aeneid, the burial of Misenus, covers fifty verses (Aen. 6.156–182; 212–235), a somber recollection of the dead man’s life, followed by a meticulous account of the rites themselves. Comparing the two passages is a lesson in how tone and structure can influence our perception of character. While he is expansive in other descriptions of burial (Il. 23.108–153; 24.788–804; Od. 24.43–97), Homer’s style here is relatively spare and workmanlike: weeping, the crew members gather wood, burn the body, then heap up the funeral mound and plant an oar on top. Vergil’s style is much more lyrical, softening the stark reality of the death that occasions it. His full description of the rites adds a solemn air to the passage, while situating the burial in the Italian landscape. We get the impression that Homer is not interested in Elpenor, except as an example of the perils of low self-control. By bringing him back to our attention, however briefly, the poet tunes our ears for the crew’s much more catastrophic failure of self-control with the cattle of the sun and, with the final image of the oar, Odysseus’s own death far in the future. Vergil’s Misenus, on the other hand, comes alive for us in the affectionate biography that precedes his burial. The event itself celebrates the Trojans’ final arrival—after may false starts—at their new homeland and ends by focusing on the landscape again. Homer’s aims are structural and thematic, the man and his burial fixed economically in our minds by the planting of the oar. Vergil’s passage is all about tone and atmosphere, inviting us to admire the beautiful new land, which forms a poignant backdrop for the final celebration of a worthy man.

Circe arrives, laden with food and wine. Her greeting certifies the central fact of the katabasis:

σχέτλιοι, οἳ ζώοντες ὑπήλθετε δῶμ᾽ Ἀίδαο,
δισθανέες, ὅτε τ᾽ ἄλλοι ἅπαξ θνῄσκουσ᾽ ἄνθρωποι.

Hard men, you went down to the house of Hades alive,
Dying twice, when all others die only once.

Odyssey 12.21–22

As she did after her magic failed in Book Ten, she urges the Greeks to feast all day. Then at dawn they will sail for home. Any fears they may have had about Circe are quickly dispelled: This is the benign witch they left when they went to the Underworld. The soothing rhythm of familiar traditional language again helps us to see them gliding gratefully into the evening:

ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, ἡμῖν δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ ἐπεπείθετο θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ.
ὣς τότε μὲν πρόπαν ἦμαρ ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα
ἥμεθα δαινύμενοι κρέα τ᾽ ἄσπετα καὶ μέθυ ἡδύ:
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠέλιος κατέδυ καὶ ἐπὶ κνέφας ἦλθεν,
οἱ μὲν κοιμήσαντο παρὰ πρυμνήσια νηός…

So she spoke and our hearts were persuaded.
Then all day until the setting of the sun
we sat feasting on abundant meat and sweet wine.
And when the sun went down and dusk came on,
they laid down to sleep alongside the stern cables of the ship…

Odyssey 12.28–32

The men put safely to bed, Circe takes Odysseus by the hand and they go off by themselves so Odysseus can report. No sex this time, apparently, just business. The poem’s portrait of the crew as immature is reinforced here as Odysseus and Circe assume the role of parents to their sleeping children. That immaturity is about to cost them all dearly.

Further Reading

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.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 111–113. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 74–77. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Circe gives Odysseus advice about how to get back to Ithaca, describing the Sirens and the Wandering Rocks.

The Sirens will be Odysseus’s next challenge. Seductive singers who lure sailors to their doom appear frequently in folktales about the sea. Such creatures are bound to be useful to this poet and in fact their appearance here is the distilled essence of a pervasive motif in the story. Singing is a gendered pursuit in the Odyssey (see above on 9.161–192). Male bards, Phemios in Ithaka, Demodokos and Odysseus himself in the royal palace on Scheria, tell of the heroism and suffering of the Greeks returning from Troy. By their narratives they record the kleos that will preserve the nobility of the warriors for generations to come, models for masculine behavior. Female singers have quite a different function, inviting heroes to abandon their missions, to give in and rest. If they compose with words, we rarely hear them. Instead the music is usually mysteriously seductive, surrounding the hero with amorphous sound.

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Homer describes the power of the Sirens with θέλγω, “to charm, enchant,” (40, 44). As we might expect, Calypso too can enchant (Od. 1.57), as can Penelope (Od. 18.282). But the verb is not used only of beguiling females in the poem. Male gods have that power, of course: Hermes uses his magic wand to charm the eyes of humans (Od 5.47; 24.3) and Telemachus imagines that some god may have bewitched him into believing the ragged stranger before him is his father (Od. 16.195). But an artful human storyteller can also weave a spell with his words, like the duplicitous bard who leads Clytemnestra astray in her husband’s absence (Od. 3.264) or, of course, the most accomplished raconteur in the poem, Odysseus himself (Od. 17.514). It is among the many tantalizing ironies in the poem that the hero, who is constantly fighting against the seductive female forces that would keep him from his home, practices his own kind of enchantment.

After the Sirens comes a somewhat confusing passage which describes the way past two different threats to the crew’s survival. Circe says that she will not tell Odysseus which of two courses he should pursue. She will describe each and he must choose, either to try sailing by the “wave of dark blue Amphitrite” (60), which drives ships against overhanging rocks, called the Πλάγκται (Clashing Rocks, 61) by the gods, or threading their way between Skylla, a monster with six heads who eats sailors, and Charybdis, a whirlpool that sucks ships down (73–110). The first alternative gets a much briefer treatment and we get the sense that Homer is struggling to juggle two separate mythical traditions here. Homer’s mention of the Argo’s mission (69–72) has prompted scholars to suggest that the Wandering Rocks may be from a version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, earlier than the Odyssey and now lost. These moving rocks are apparently lethal to birds, crunching them as they fly over. One small detail prompts further thought: Every time one of the doves bringing ambrosia to Zeus perishes, the god replaces it, so that the total number of doves remains constant. As he did with the Elpenor episode, so here the poet seems to be introducing themes that will reappear in the cattle of the sun episode, which he has already singled out as particularly important (1.6–9). The cattle of Helios, we will be told, are divided into seven herds of fifty each and their number is neither increased by new births nor diminished by death. The total number (350) suggested to Aristotle that the cattle might correspond to the days of the year (appropriately for the sun god’s herd), in which case to kill any of the cows would be to attack time itself. No wonder the crew has to pay with their own lives.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 163–166. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 23–28. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 118-121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 113. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Page, D. 1973. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey, 85–90. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Further predictions. Scylla and Charybdis. Circe tells Odysseus he must sacrifice six men to escape Scylla.

As Odysseus approaches the ultimate test in Ithaka, he encounters challenges that have threatened his return ever since he left Troy, but in a highly concentrated, sometimes symbolic form. Circe’s predictions about Skylla and Charybdis check off most of the boxes: smothering clouds that cut off the sun, a dark cave, amorphous enveloping water, a powerful female force beyond human control. Behind all of these is the threat of complete oblivion, creating the need to sacrifice some of the crew to ensure the survival of the rest.

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Circe’s description of Skylla and her lair is resonant with telling associations. Like the entrance to Hades, the peaks where Skylla lives in her cave are perpetually dark in all seasons, shrouded by clouds. The epithet for her cave is ἠεροειδές, is used three times elsewhere in the poem of caves, three times with ζόφον, “gloom,” especially the darkness of Hades—as in the verse following—and eleven times of the sea. She is a female πέλωρ, “monster,” like Polyphemus and Circe’s enchanted animals, barks like a dog, waves twelve feet in the air, has six necks, each with its own head, and in the mouth of each holds not one row of teeth, but three, πλεῖοι μέλανος θανάτοιο, “full of black death” (92). She eats fish, large and small, but will gladly gobble up humans, one with each head. The image of enveloping darkness is repeated four times, in the clouds, the cave, her mouths, and finally, in her lower body inside the cave. The unlucky sailors she catches seem to recede further and further into a single devouring darkness, ending in her female genitalia, swallowed up by everything that threatens the male hero. If the sexual overtones of all this imagery were not clear enough, Circe insists that Odysseus could not shoot an arrow into that dark cave (84).

The name Skylla seems to come from σκύλαξ, “puppy,” and the poet makes the most of this etymology. Though she is an evil monster, Skylla’s bark is like a σκύλακος νεογιλῆς, “new-born puppy,” a particularly creepy juxtaposition. Not only does she devour sailors, but we imagine her doing so with a playful, yipping delight. (Do we also see a faint trace of spiders? All those legs…) Dogs appear frequently in the Odyssey and often reveal something about their masters. Telemachus, when he sets out to discipline the suitors, is accompanied by two dogs:

οὐκ οἶος, ἅμα τῷ γε δύω κύνες ἀργοὶ ἕποντο.

(He went) not alone, but two dogs followed with him.

Odyssey 2.11

The phrasing here is a variation on a more common motif, when a Homeric man or woman goes out in public, accompanied by two henchmen for the man or two handmaidens for the woman. In either case, the accompaniment signals that the principal is in his/her proper role or status. Men are accompanied when they in their rightful authority, women when they display the proper modesty or chastity. That Telemachus has not men but dogs signals that he is not quite ready to assume the full duties of masculine leadership (cf., 16.62; 20.145). The magical golden dogs outside the Phaeacian royal palace reflect the liminal status of the civilization on Scheria, not quite divine, but removed from the grittier aspects of ordinary human life (7.91). Eumaeus has fierce guard dogs, a projection of his own zealous guarding of his master’s herds (14.21). Finally, there is the splendid Argos, Odysseus’s longsuffering hound, who hangs onto life long enough to be the first to recognize Odysseus in Ithaka, a survivor like his master (17.290–323). Skylla seems to be a grotesque parody of these faithful canine companions. She is like a watchdog, barking when anyone comes too close. Odysseus feeds her but unwillingly, offering six of his crew to make his way past the cave.

The alternate way forward offers an even more dismal prospect. Charybdis (“the swallower”) belches up “black water” (104) three times a day, then sucks it back down three times. While Skylla comes to life for us in her grotesquerie, flapping feet, snapping mouths, barking like a puppy, Charybdis gets no characterization beyond her function as a kind of divine disposal, embodying economically the essence of fearful female power: dark, suffocating water, sucking sailors down. In any event, Skylla is the lesser of two evils, requiring the sacrifice of only six crewmen, whereas Charybdis will swallow everything, ship, crew, and captain.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 166–170. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 122. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 113–114. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 99-102.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 68–69. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Circe warns Odysseus about harming the Cattle of the Sun, then sends the Greeks on their way.Odysseus is not inclined to take Circe’s advice and resign himself to losing six of his crew. Couldn’t Circe tell him how to avoid Charybdis while keeping Skylla from killing any of his men? As she did when exclaiming over the return of the crew from Hades, Circe calls Odysseus σχέτλιε (116; cf., 12.21), the meaning of which ranges from “cruel” to “stubborn,” “enduring.” As Circe uses it here, the word seems to signal disapproval mixed with a certain grudging admiration.

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Despite Athena’s description of him as “sweet” (5.9, 12), when we see him at work in the story, Odysseus is seldom kind. What sparks admiration in others is rather his fierce determination to survive, to never give up. The tone of Circe’s response here is affectionate: “you won’t even back down from gods, you stubborn rascal.” Athena will sound the same way when she confronts him on Ithaka, admiring the way he lies to her (13.288–295). In both cases, the goddesses exhibit feelings toward Odysseus that smack of a mother’s exasperated love for her difficult son. This role for Athena is not new in the poem, but we note that Circe has come some distance from the would-be dominatrix of Book Ten. Though Antikleia is dead, others step forward to look after the hero. (We may include Calypso in this category. She takes the same tone with Odysseus after he refuses her offer of immortality, though using different adjectives [5.180–183].)

Thrinakia will be next, another test of the crew’s self-control. We have known since the poem’s opening verses that they will fail:

πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.

Many pains he suffered in his heart on the sea,
trying to protect his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
But he could not save his comrades, though he tried:
for they perished through their own blind folly,
fools, who ate the cattle of Helios, Hyperion’s son;
and he took away their homecoming day.

Odyssey 1.4–9

No suspense about the outcome of this encounter then, but the details of the episode signal its place in the larger plan of the poem. The first thing to notice is that the herd of cattle, at least, is all cows (πολλαὶ…βόες, 127–128) and their shepherds are also female. (The flocks of sheep do not figure in this recurring motif. The Greek sailors will eat only cattle.) Once again, we see the poet building his story by drawing on a recurring narrative pattern: Odysseus penetrating a feminized milieu and effecting his own rebirth from oblivion, in this case a place characterized by timeless immortality, like Ogygia. The series begins on Calypso’s island with Hermes in the role of male visitor, but thereafter Odysseus takes over, on Scheria, in the cave of Polyphemus, in the lair of Circe, and finally, in his own palace. The feminized nature of each place is marked variously, but the pattern remains the same.

The obvious sexual imagery implied in the motif will be particularly resonant in this episode. The herds of Helios, we’re told, never vary in number. Circe tells Odysseus to sail on by Thrinakia and no wonder: no births—or rebirths—allowed. Ithaka will present a yet more intense version of this potential conflict between generation and stasis. Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, will penetrate the precincts of his own palace, which is without the guidance of masculine authority and subject to the awakening intelligence of Penelope, then eventually effect his own rebirth as king, husband, father, and son. At the same time, it becomes clear that the kingdom Athena wants to restore in Ithaka is one founded on the insistence that everything that existed before Odysseus left for Troy can be brought back again. Odysseus can rule in his family and his kingdom just as he once did. But the pressures for change are also powerful, Telemachus’ growth into manhood and maybe even Penelope’s taking of a new husband. The tension from these competing movements permeates the last six books of the poem.

Dawn comes and Circe leaves with no apparent ceremony. The rest of the episode features familiar traditional language, as Odysseus and crew launch their ship and head out to sea. This seems a remarkably quiet end to the momentous interlude that began in Book Ten. Circe’s last gesture is from afar:

ἡμῖν δ᾽ αὖ κατόπισθε νεὸς κυανοπρῴροιο
ἴκμενον οὖρον ἵει πλησίστιον, ἐσθλὸν ἑταῖρον,
Κίρκη ἐυπλόκαμος, δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα.

But for us from behind the dark-prowed ship
Circe with lovely hair, dread goddess with human speech,
sent a following wind, an excellent companion, filling the sails.

Odyssey 12. 148–150

These verses repeat verbatim the send-off Circe gives to the crew when they head for Hades (11.5–7), marking the boundaries of the katabasis.

Circe will not appear again, and we should pause to admire the way the poet has used her mysterious presence to enliven and structure this part of his story. In creating his Circe, Homer modulates deftly through a series of mythical archetypes. When we first meet her, she exudes the dangerous, unchecked female sexuality that we have seen in Calypso. Her transformation of the first scouting party into pigs makes concrete the threats associated with the nymph in Book Five: emasculation, loss of personal autonomy and identity, subservience to female power. After the intervention of Hermes, she turns from a frightening witch into both a willing but subservient sexual partner and a nurturing, almost maternal presence. From then on, she plays the role of a boundary figure like Siduri in the Epic of Gilgamesh, marking the crew’s entrance and exit from the Underworld. By advising Odysseus about what awaits him in Hades, she resonates with what in a tragic narrative would be an anima figure, a female guide to the mysterious darkness awaiting the Greeks, a figure realized more fully in the Sibyl of Book Six of Vergil’s Aeneid. We trace the various sources for the character of Circe by thumbing through our mythological dictionaries and scholarly commentaries. That the poet of the Odyssey could marshal this rich and varied tradition so seamlessly to tell his story is one measure of the unfathomable mystery of the poem’s creative power.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 171–174. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press./p>

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 115–116. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Page, D. 1973. Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey, 78–83. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 61–62. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


The Greeks encounter the Sirens.

As they approach the dreaded Sirens, Odysseus decides to level with the crew about Circe’s instructions. It is not right for only one or two to know them; he and crew are in this together and will either escape or all die together. This newfound team spirit soon rings slightly hollow, however, since what the witch in fact urged was for only Odysseus to listen to the seductive voices. In one sense, this episode echoes others in Books Nine through Twelve where Odysseus’ restless curiosity, his desire to know things, was potentially perilous for the crew. There was no good reason for the Greeks to explore the island of the Cyclopes, but Odysseus insists because he wants to find out what kind of people live there (9.72–76); likewise, it is the captain’s urge to explore Circe’s island that puts his crew in danger (10.189–202).

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Here it will be useful to think about the two competing urges we see in Odysseus all the way through the poem, the centripetal drive for which he is best known, the relentless quest to return home to his accustomed roles in Ithaka and the centrifugal forces fueled by his restless curiosity and determination to know the world. The poem’s dominant rhetoric points us toward accepting the need for Odysseus to become himself again in Ithaka and reassume his glorious heroic ascendancy, the product of his fame. Anything that impedes that mission is fair game, not only monsters and alluring woman, but also the suitors and even, as it happens, his crew. On the other hand, sometimes not being known proves to be an advantage to the hero as he makes his way home. Knowledge is power in the Odyssey and knowing more about others than they know about you gives you leverage. When Odysseus arrives as an anonymous stranger at a new place, he does not immediately reveal his name, but bides his time while scouting the local scene and building trust with the inhabitants. The eventual revelation of his name, by him or others, is always a dramatic high point, marking his “return” to his former heroic self. The pattern persists from Scheria to the cave of the Cyclops, to Circe’s lair, coming to a triumphant crescendo after the slaughter of the suitors. The tension between the drive to reclaim his kleos, primarily associated with the centripetal hero, and the use of anonymity in the pursuit of knowledge and thus power, characteristic of the centrifugal adventurer, is a source of energy in the story from beginning to end. (See Introduction, para. 11-19)

In the encounter with the Sirens, these distinctions begin to blur. He will be able submit himself to the seductive powers of the Sirens and experience their dangerous knowledge (answering the call of the centrifugal urge to seek knowledge), but without anyone having to pay the price (the centripetal drive for home will not be sabotaged). The Sirens scramble other distinctions as well. Elsewhere, female singers are dangerous to men because their music surrounds them, blurring the boundaries affirmed in narrative songs that make meaning in a masculine world. The Sirens’ music, however subversive, is delivered in words and they promise Odysseus precisely the kind of knowledge that male bards deliver elsewhere in the poem. He who listens to them will gain special knowledge:

ἀλλ᾽ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.
ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ

Well pleased, he (who listens to them) goes on, knowing more than he ever did.
For we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in wide Troy, by the gods’ will;
we know everything that happens on the generous earth.

Odyssey 12.188–191

With her advice, Circe offers Odysseus an antidote to the ruinous power of the Sirens, a way of experiencing their power without penalty. In this way, the entire episode recalls the beginning of the Circe episode in Book Ten, where Hermes’s intervention gives Odysseus immunity from the magic of the witch, so he can enjoy her hospitality without being stranded, and perhaps the katabasis, where he can visit the land of the dead without paying the usual price of admission. As the adventures in Books Nine through Twelve progress, the gods or their agents sometimes seem to take a more active role in protecting Odysseus from the perils toward which that his curious nature might draw him. As his centripetal drive brings him ever closer to Ithaka, he is allowed to indulge his centrifugal urges without the usual consequences. He will survive the next adventures, but at great cost to his crew.


Escape from the Sirens. Odysseus makes a speech to encourage his crew.

A dramatic struggle ensues as the ship passes the Sirens. Odysseus, as Circe foresaw, is unable to resist the seductive allure of the Sirens’ voices. He strains to escape his bonds, signaling frantically with his eyebrows. (Am I the only person who immediately thinks of Groucho Marx?). But his trusted crewmen follow orders and tighten the ropes until the ship is out of range of the Sirens’ song.

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As is characteristic of these final adventures, recurring motifs we have seen earlier return in yet more vivid form. The image of Odysseus ravished by the voices of powerful women brings to a crescendo the series of threats that runs through Books Five through Twelve, in his encounters with Calypso, Nausicaa, and Circe. On Ogygia, he was restrained by magic; here, he is literally tied up. Nausicaa coyly hints at marriage in the future; the Sirens want him right now. Circe’s magic links men’s animal nature with sexual enslavement, equating the crew’s submission to her with the relinquishing of human form; an encounter with the Sirens can lead to death. Through all these episodes runs the dynamic of restraint and release, with a submerged sexual component. Homeric poetry is reticent about overt sexuality, but the associations implicit in this recurring motif are clear enough. A part of every man, it seems to suggest, secretly wants to submit to the power of women, to give up control. (James Joyce understood this feature of the Odyssean male psyche and brought it to life in Leopold Bloom.) Through this lens, power is sexy and sex is always about power. As in the katabasis, so here, Odysseus does what no ordinary person can do. He experiences total submission to the sexual power of women and emerges unscathed.

Having pulled away safely from the Sirens, the Greeks come immediately to their next challenge, Skylla and Charybdis. As the roar of the waves surrounds them, the sailors drop their oars, and once again the ship is becalmed. Odysseus bucks up his men with a pep talk:

ὦ φίλοι, οὐ γάρ πώ τι κακῶν ἀδαήμονές εἰμεν:
οὐ μὲν δὴ τόδε μεῖζον ἕπει κακόν, ἢ ὅτε Κύκλωψ
εἴλει ἐνὶ σπῆι γλαφυρῷ κρατερῆφι βίηφιν:
ἀλλὰ καὶ ἔνθεν ἐμῇ ἀρετῇ, βουλῇ τε νόῳ τε,
ἐκφύγομεν, καί που τῶνδε μνήσεσθαι ὀίω.

Friends, we are hardly without knowledge of evil.
Surely this is no greater evil than when the Cyclops
trapped us in a hollow cave with his mighty strength.
But by my courage and counsel and intelligence
we escaped and I think these things will be remembered too.

Odyssey 12. 208–212

This is just the speech we would expect from Odysseus, proud of his powers, confident that he can pull them all through again. These verses have a vivid afterlife in one of the most famous passages in Vergil’s Aeneid:

"O socii—neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum—
O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
Vos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopea saxa
experti: revocate animos, maestumque timorem
mittite: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit."

Friends, we have surely known evils before.
We’ve suffered worse things and the god will grant an end to these, too.
You have weathered mad Scylla and approached
the roaring rocks within and the Cyclopean boulders.
Recall your courage and put aside gloomy fear.
Perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember even these things.

Aeneid 1.198–207

Aeneas is speaking to his men after they have washed ashore in Libya, on their way to Carthage and the kingdom of Dido. Vergil’s hero is much less buoyant than his Homeric antecedent. When he finishes his speech, the Roman poet appends two telling verses:

Talia voce refert, curisque ingentibus aeger
spem voltu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem.

Such were his words, but sick with huge cares
he feigned hope on his face and pressed the sorrow deep in his heart.

Aeneid 1.208–210

The split between outward confidence and inner doubt is not typical of epic heroes, who may show anger, fear, disbelief, or doubt, but always genuinely. To feign in this way is new to the tradition. The thrust of Vergil’s coda to the speech is to suggest that though Aeneas has grasped the substance of what is required of him as a leader, he is not being true to his own nature: he is in the right place but is the wrong man. This incongruity is at the heart of Vergil’s complex realization of the traditional male hero. Looking back at Odysseus through Aeneas throws light on the Greek hero’s supreme confidence but also perhaps the extraordinary opacity of his inner self, coldly calculating and available only to him: He will win every battle, whatever it takes, whoever has to suffer for it.

That persona is on display in the next few verses. Odysseus, as he tells us, chooses not to alert his crew to the perils that loom, afraid that they will abandon their oars and cower below deck. His lack of confidence in his crew is nothing we haven’t seen before and reaffirms his chilly emotional detachment from his companions as men with ordinary human frailties: When the pressure is on, they will not come through. The rhetoric of the story urges us to see them this way, inferior creatures whose shortcomings will be costly to them, in need of managing by their superior captain. As if to underscore that point, Odysseus tells us he “forgot” Circe’s warning about opposing Skylla. The last picture we have before disaster strikes is of him, armed and standing in the prow of the ship, defying danger with his spears at the ready.

Further Reading

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 69–76.


Escape from Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus tells the crew they must avoid the island of Thrinakia.

The ship enters the channel between Skylla and Charybdis. We’ve already had a full rehearsal of all the frightening features of this place, but the poet dwells a bit longer. The sexual overtones of the space persist: the ship enters a “narrow passage” leading into the heart of female danger; when Charybdis, “The Swallower,” erupts, foam covers the rocks above; when she sucks the water down, the blue-black hole in the sea awaits. The extended description of Charybdis diverts our attention and, as it happens, that of Odysseus and his crew. By the time Odysseus looks back, it is too late. It is almost as if the two monsters work as a team, Charybdis drawing attention to herself, while Skylla snatches six sailors. There follow two grotesque images, the dangling feet of the sailors and the fishing simile.

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As the captured sailors ascend toward death, we see only their hands and feet, slowly disappearing into the darkness of the cave. The perspective is striking, reducing the men to their helpless, writhing limbs, while recalling the earlier description of Skylla’s twelve feet waving in the air while she yips like a newborn puppy. The poet folds that disturbing tableau immediately into a gruesome analogue, comparing the dying sailors to fish on the hook. Two other versions of this simile appear in the Iliad:

                         ὃ δὲ Θέστορα Ἤνοπος υἱὸν
δεύτερον ὁρμηθείς: ὃ μὲν εὐξέστῳ ἐνὶ δίφρῳ
ἧστο ἀλείς: ἐκ γὰρ πλήγη φρένας, ἐκ δ᾽ ἄρα χειρῶν
ἡνία ἠΐχθησαν: ὃ δ᾽ ἔγχεϊ νύξε παραστὰς
γναθμὸν δεξιτερόν, διὰ δ᾽ αὐτοῦ πεῖρεν ὀδόντων,
ἕλκε δὲ δουρὸς ἑλὼν ὑπὲρ ἄντυγος, ὡς ὅτε τις φὼς
πέτρῃ ἔπι προβλῆτι καθήμενος ἱερὸν ἰχθὺν
ἐκ πόντοιο θύραζε λίνῳ καὶ ἤνοπι χαλκῷ:
ὣς ἕλκ᾽ ἐκ δίφροιο κεχηνότα δουρὶ φαεινῷ,
κὰδ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπὶ στόμ᾽ ἔωσε: πεσόντα δέ μιν λίπε θυμός.

                         He (Patroclus) next rushed
Thestor, son of Enops, who sat in his polished chariot,
cowering, stunned, and the reins slipped
from his hands. Patroclus came close and with his sword
stabbed through the right side of his jaw, driving through the teeth,
then hooked and dragged him over the chariot rail, as a fisherman
sitting on a jutting rock snags a fish
out of the sea with his line and gleaming hook.
So Patroclus dragged him gaping from the chariot with his shining spear
and let him fall facedown; the soul left him when he fell.

Iliad 16. 401-410


ὣς ἔφατ᾽, ὦρτο δὲ Ἶρις ἀελλόπος ἀγγελέουσα,
μεσσηγὺς δὲ Σάμου τε καὶ Ἴμβρου παιπαλοέσσης
ἔνθορε μείλανι πόντῳ: ἐπεστονάχησε δὲ λίμνη.
ἣ δὲ μολυβδαίνῃ ἰκέλη ἐς βυσσὸν ὄρουσεν,
ἥ τε κατ᾽ ἀγραύλοιο βοὸς κέρας ἐμβεβαυῖα
ἔρχεται ὠμηστῇσιν ἐπ᾽ ἰχθύσι κῆρα φέρουσα.

So (Zeus) spoke, and storm-footed Iris sprang forth
with the message; and in the black sea she plunged
between Samos and sandy Imbros and the sea groaned about her.
She dove into the deep like a lead sinker
that rides the horn of a field-dwelling ox
and comes bearing death for the flesh-eating fish.

Iliad 24.77–82

The arresting image of fishing in such disparate passages repays attention. Similes in the Iliad afford the poet a chance to expand the tightly focused lens of the battlefield, often conjuring the everyday activities of a world at peace, farmers ploughing, ants marching, shepherds watching their flocks. Lifted for the moment from the caldron of blood and death, we can take a breath and remember that there are other things in the world besides fear and adrenaline-fueled fury.

The two passages above take the technique one step further, inviting that relief then diving abruptly back toward death. Patroclus becomes a bloodthirsty angler, while Thestor is reduced to a helpless, gasping creature. The tone of the scene is especially grotesque, as the fisherman’s calm skill and practiced technique is laid over the brutal disposal of a warrior’s body. The description in Book Twenty-Four, comparing Iris to a “sinker,” a lead weight that pulls the fisherman’s hook down to the fish, seems less dark at first, but a small detail is intriguing. The disguised hook brings death for the “flesh-eating” fish. The adjective ὠμηστής is striking here, as it usually describes animals or men, not fish, suggesting an unusual blurring of the boundaries between the two worlds of the simile. Iris’s mission will bring Thetis to Olympus, where she will be convinced to let go of the desire to keep Achilles from death, resulting in the release of Hector’s corpse and his subsequent burial, leading in turn to Achilles’ death outside the scope of the poem’s story (24.97–140). Iris, like the sinker, brings death.

All three similes might well be versions of a “type scene,” part of the poet’s repertoire of traditional material, though the small number of examples make generalizations risky. In any event, comparing the Iliadic similes to our passage affords some insight into how this version of the figure functions. The initial dissonance between the peaceful world of the fisherman and the horrors of the battlefield is not part of our passage, which offers not a contrast but a grim parallel, the gasping fish echoing the gasping sailors. The ox horn sheathing the hook, also mentioned in the simile from Iliad 24, has a special resonance here. Once again, as we have seen earlier, the poet seems to preview the cattle of the sun episode, where eating the καλαὶ βόες εὐρυμέτωποι (12.262) will bring death for the sailors.

The Greeks sail on, finally reaching Thrinakia, where the cattle and sheep of Helios, previously unmolested, live under the protection of their two female shepherds. As this final deadly adventure, previewed in the poem’s seventh verse, finally comes into view again, the poet brings several recurring motifs to a climax. First, we notice that Odysseus hears the animals before seeing them:

δὴ τότ᾽ ἐγὼν ἔτι πόντῳ ἐὼν ἐν νηὶ μελαίνῃ
μυκηθμοῦ τ᾽ ἤκουσα βοῶν αὐλιζομενάων
οἰῶν τε βληχήν:

Then, while still on the water and in the dark ship,
I heard the mooing of the cattle in their pens
and the beating sheep.

Odyssey 12.264–266

Dangerous female voices beckon once again. Odysseus recalls the warnings of Teiresias and Circe, urging him to sail on by the island, and repeats them to the crew. The tension between centripetal and centrifugal impulses in Odysseus resurfaces, with the former holding sway. In contrast to the Cyclops and Circe episodes, Odysseus seems intent now on seeking home, not satisfying his curiosity and need to master the world through knowledge. This preference will hold from now until the suitors are dead, when the old yearning will reappear in the royal couple’s postcoital chat:

ὦ γύναι, ἤδη μὲν πολέων κεκορήμεθ᾽ ἀέθλων
ἀμφοτέρω, σὺ μὲν ἐνθάδ᾽ ἐμὸν πολυκηδέα νόστον
κλαίουσ᾽. αὐτὰρ ἐμὲ Ζεὺς ἄλγεσι καὶ θεοὶ ἄλλοι
ἱέμενον πεδάασκον ἐμῆς ἀπὸ πατρίδος αἴης:
νῦν δ᾽ ἐπεὶ ἀμφοτέρω πολυήρατον ἱκόμεθ᾽ εὐνήν,
κτήματα μὲν τά μοι ἔστι, κομιζέμεν ἐν μεγάροισι,355
μῆλα δ᾽ ἅ μοι μνηστῆρες ὑπερφίαλοι κατέκειραν,
πολλὰ μὲν αὐτὸς ἐγὼ ληΐσσομαι, ἄλλα δ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ
δώσουσ᾽, εἰς ὅ κε πάντας ἐνιπλήσωσιν ἐπαύλους.

My dear, already we both are sated with many trials,
you weeping here over my homecoming, fraught with troubles,
while Zeus and the other gods held me in pain
as I longed for my fatherland.
But now, since we both have returned to our beloved marriage bed,
you take care of my possessions here in the palace;
but as for my flocks, which the arrogant suitors have used up,
many of them I will replace by raiding, and others
the Achaeans will give me, until they fill all the pens.

Odyssey 23.350–358

The inner struggle, it seems, will never end.


Further Reading

Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 71–77. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 102–104.


Eurylochus convinces Odysseus to let the crew land on Thrinakia. Odysseus makes the crew swear an oath not to eat the cattle of Helios.

Odysseus reports to the crew about the advice from Teiresias and Circe and it breaks their hearts, as it did when he told them they would have to explore Circe’s island and travel to the Underworld (12.277 = 10.193, 566). As usual, Eurylochus speaks for the sailors. Odysseus is σχέτλιός, his “iron” limbs never wear out (279–280). The adjective once again signals amazement (see 12.116 with essay), but affectionate tone it carries when coming from one of the hero’s female protectors is decidedly absent.

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The adjective σιδήρεα (280) typically describes a hard, unbending heart or will in Homeric epic. Like σχέτλιός, its tone can vary according to the context. Priam’s determination to retrieve his son from Achilles earns this epithet from both Hekabe and Achilles (Il. 24.205, 521). His wife is frustrated by his stubborn insistence on putting himself in danger; his enemy can only wonder at the frail old man’s courage. When Penelope refuses to acknowledge Odysseus immediately after he has dispatched the suitors (23.172), his use of the adjective to describe her heart carries the rich and subtle crosscurrents of emotion that underlie their first meeting in twenty years, frustration, even anger, but also a grudging admiration for his wife, who like him has endured and suffered, who refuses to be fooled.

The threats that Eurylochus foresees if the crew cannot land are familiar. Instead of a meal and rest, they will have to sail through the night on the dark sea, where winds and waves will overwhelm the ship. Odysseus sees the hand of a malevolent deity at work. His will overrode the qualms of the men earlier in the journey, but now he gives in. He acquiesces in Eurylochus’s plan to land on shore at Thrinakia but extracts an oath from the crew that they will abstain from eating any cattle or sheep they encounter. After they land the ship, eat dinner, and grieve for their companions, Zeus brings on the stormy dark anyway:

ὦρσεν ἔπι ζαῆν ἄνεμον νεφεληγερέτα Ζεὺς
λαίλαπι θεσπεσίῃ, σὺν δὲ νεφέεσσι κάλυψε
γαῖαν ὁμοῦ καὶ πόντον: ὀρώρει δ᾽ οὐρανόθεν νύξ.

Cloud-gathering Zeus stirred the stormy wind
with a supernatural gale, and smothered
land and sea. Night sprang from the heavens.

Odyssey 12.313–315

Threatened with drowning, eclipsed (Calypso-ed?) by clouds and darkness, the Greeks face what Odysseus will next encounter on Ogygia, the oblivion that has chased them across the sea.

The next morning Odysseus speaks again to the crew about eating from the local herds, this time raising the ante by mentioning for the first time that the cattle belong to Helios, who “sees all and hears all” (323). As he comes ever closer to the decisive event mentioned all the way back in the seventh verse of the poem, the poet draws out the action, slowing things down to make us wait. The perspective in this last adventure shifts, insofar as we have been told specifically that the destruction of the crew is near. Now all each meal, described with the familiar traditional phrases, might also be the crew’s last and the shadow of death creeps over these remaining scenes. The Odyssey is a comic story, driven by the need for restoration (See Introduction, para. 5). All will be well, we are told over and over, when Odysseus gets back home and kills the suitors. The lives of the other crew members, at the same time, are less important. Their deaths are certainly not welcome, but after all, they have brought destruction on themselves by failing to control their impulses. What seeps in here at the end of the adventures is a tragic undercurrent like the one that dominates the Iliad, nudging us toward a recognition that death finally defines the meaning of mortal life—for all mortals, even the weak-willed crew.


Adverse winds strand the Greeks on Thrinakia for a month. Odysseus goes to pray to the gods and falls asleep. Eurylochus convinces the crew to slaughter some cattle to eat.

The wrong winds blow for a month, food from the ship runs out, and the crew is forced to subsist on birds and fish. Enforced stasis never brings out the best in Homeric heroes (See Aulis), but trouble with winds evokes another, closer parallel. As we hear how the disastrous month plays out, a familiar rhythm surfaces: the Greeks are given a divine imperative, the ignoring of which will be fatal; having warned them sternly, Odysseus eventually falls asleep, leaving his crew on their own; they fail to control themselves; storms at sea and the death of many crew members follow.

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This pattern appears earlier, in the Aeolus episode just before the Greeks arrive at Circe’s island (10.1–79). Other similarities repay attention: like Thrinakia, the island of Aeolus has a magical quality, reflecting the inhabitants’ special status with the gods. Aeolus controls the winds as an agent for Zeus, while divine nymphs look after the herds for Helios. And in both cases, the transgressions of the Greeks interfere with elemental forces in the universe.

Aeolus’s outburst, when Odysseus asks for help a second time, seems somewhat harsh in the circumstances:

ἔρρ᾽ ἐκ νήσου θᾶσσον, ἐλέγχιστε ζωόντων:
οὐ γάρ μοι θέμις ἐστὶ κομιζέμεν οὐδ᾽ ἀποπέμπειν
ἄνδρα τόν, ὅς κε θεοῖσιν ἀπέχθηται μακάρεσσιν:
ἔρρε, ἐπεὶ ἄρα θεοῖσιν ἀπεχθόμενος τόδ᾽ ἱκάνεις.

Away quickly from this island, most shameful creature!
It is not sanctioned for me to help on his way
a man who is so hated by the blessed gods.
Away, I say! This return means you are hateful to the gods!

Odyssey 10.72–75

That the crew gave in to the ordinary human failings of envy and resentment does not seem to merit this condemnation of their captain. But the stakes here transcend the ethical realm of human behavior. By unleashing the winds and creating chaos, the sailors disturb something in the regular processes of nature, undermining Aeolus’s divinely sanctioned role as guardian of order on the sea. All the Greek sailors except those on Odysseus’ ship then die at the hands of the Laestrygonians. The disaster on Thrinakia disturbs another kind of order. There are 350 cattle and 350 sheep in the herds, numbers that are never supposed to be changed, by birth or death. The animals are sacred to the deity whose journeys across the sky measure out the days and months, and as we have noted, thinkers as early as Aristotle have seen the number of animals in each herd as reflecting the days of the year. The crew’s attack, then, could be seen as an attack on time itself and as a consequence everyone but Odysseus dies. In each episode, the price for Odysseus falling asleep and failing to control his crew triggers a descent into chaos on a potentially cosmic scale. We will revisit the implications of these parallel events for the overall structure of Books Five through Twelve in a broader discussion below.

Convinced by Eurylochus, who declares that he would rather drown than starve (350–351), the crew raids the cattle of Helios. The preparations that precede the meal include familiar language (359–361), but the crew’s dire situation forces some creativity in the ritual gestures that usually accompany a feast: instead of sprinkling grain over the meat, they drape leaves; for wine, they substitute water. While these changes seem reasonable enough in a naturalistic sense, symbolically they mark yet again the dangerously transgressive nature of the feast.

The ill-omened sacrifice of divine cattle had a second life in early Greek literature, in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, a poem from the Sixth Century BCE. On the day of his birth in a cave on Mount Cyllene in Central Greece, Hermes displays his astounding divine powers by inventing both the lyre and the method—known to future Boy and Girl Scouts—for starting a fire with friction, then stealing the cattle sacred to his big brother Apollo. The work is one of four longer extant hexameter poems probably composed between 700 and 550 BCE, each with a story or stories about a particular Olympian deity. The style of all these poems resembles that of the Iliad and Odyssey to varying degrees, but each closely enough to suggest that these works were part of a tradition of hexameter poetry that spread across the mainland of Greece and the coast of is what now Turkey between the Eighth and the Sixth Centuries BCE. The Hermes hymn is the latest of these narratives, perhaps dating to sometime in the early to mid-Sixth Century.

To what in the Odyssey might the hymn poet have been responding? The central act of transgression has an entirely humorous tone in this later work. The baby god uses clever tricks to escape being caught in the act of cattle theft, walking the herd backwards, wearing reversed sandals of his own invention. Though he does sacrifice twelve head of cattle, unlike the crew members in the Odyssey he does not eat any of them. (The ritual meaning of the sacrifice is obscure, though killing twelve from the herd as part of a plan to gain recognition among the Olympian gods seems significant.) Divine retribution in the hymn takes the form of Apollo tracking the baby down in his cave on Mount Cyllene and hauling him off to Olympus. The exchanges between Hermes and Apollo, in the cave and later on Olympus, highlight the precocity of the infant as opposed to his stolid big brother. Zeus finds the baby amusing and declares a truce, which in reality is a triumph for Hermes, who has had as his goal to gain recognition his father Zeus on Olympus for himself and his mother, who have been languishing in obscurity in Arcadia.

The most significant traits that Odysseus himself shares with Hermes are those of the trickster, a figure found in folktales from all over the world. We will learn in Book Nineteen that Odysseus is the maternal grandson of Autolycus, famous for his skill in thievery and clever oaths, qualities that the god Hermes bestowed on him (19.395–398). Later tradition makes Autolycus the son of Hermes, tying Odysseus yet more closely to the god. Certain features of the trickster paradigm are especially relevant to Odysseus in the Odyssey. The trickster is always an outsider, always transgressive in some way and usually a subversive force. Hermes is a typical trickster in that, as the god of boundaries, he is necessarily transgressive. In Greek literature and myth, he is the guide of souls to the Underworld, the agent for crossing the most permanent of thresholds. In the hymn, he crosses over all kinds of boundaries, from childhood to mature mastery in one day, from Arcadia to Olympus. He drags the divine cattle of Apollo out of their pasture and by killing twelve of them, brings them across the boundary between immortal and mortal.

The trickster always has the potential for effecting change by penetrating worlds usually closed to him and shaking up the regular order of things. Hermes, by entering the magical world of Calypso in Book Five, thwarts the nymph’s plan to keep Odysseus with her, out of human time. Likewise, Odysseus, every time he enters a new place as an anonymous stranger—including Ithaka, where he gets inside the palace disguised as an old beggar—carries the potential for change. In fact, we could say that he is the principal agent of permanent change in the poem. When the Phaeacians return Odysseus to Ithaka on their ship, they are punished by Poseidon, who turns the ship to stone in the harbor and threatens to bury their city under a mountain (13.128–187). Polyphemus, who had been living a settled life on his own, is rendered helpless when Odysseus blinds him (9.407–414).

In general, we would expect the trickster to show up when the centrifugal elements of Odysseus’s character are prominent, the restless, rootless wanderer who seeks out new experiences. In the cattle of the sun episode, this alignment is altered. It is the crew, who by transgressing against the injunction of Helios, imperils the return to Ithaka. Odysseus, by trying to enforce the divine imperative, appears in his centripetal persona, working to get back home.

Further Reading

Austin, N. 1975. Archery at the Dark of the Moon, 137. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brown, N. 1948. Hermes the Thief. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Hyde, L. 1998. Trickster Makes This World, 203–225. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 99–102.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 83–90. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Odysseus is awakened by the smell of cooking meat. Lampetia tells her father Helios of the Greeks’ transgression. He complains to Zeus, who promises punishment for the crew.

Awake from his nap, Odysseus heads back to the ship, only to encounter yet another dangerously seductive fragrance. The temptation that overwhelmed his crew seems to be carried by the savor of cooking cattle. These are female cows (καλαὶ βόες,12.262), tended by nymphs. The savor “surrounds” Odysseus, like the female voices (θῆλυς ἀυτή, 6.121) that swirl around him on the beach at Scheria. Once more before the final destruction of his ship and crew, a seductive female force wafts around him, threatening to blur the clear outlines of his heroic resolve.

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The nymph shepherdess Lampetia, “Sunny,” tattles to Helios, who complains to Zeus, threatening to move his sunshine to the land of the dead, another cosmic dislocation that the crew’s transgression could bring on. Zeus assures Helios that he will take care of the situation. In his role as sky god, he will unleash yet another destructive storm on the hapless sailors. The exchange takes us back once more to the beginning of the poem, where the crew’s folly and consequent destruction are announced (1.7). As we near the end of Odysseus’s story, the poet circles back to its beginnings. Homer has not drawn attention to any of the inconsistencies, from a naturalistic point of view, that pop up in the course of Odysseus recounting of the adventures in 9–12—for instance how he knows what Eurylochus says to the crew when he (Odysseus) is sleeping—so it is somewhat surprising that Odysseus fastidiously tells his audience that he knows of the conversation between Zeus and Helios because Calypso told him later. As the story of Odysseus’s adventures ends, Homer gently reminds us that there are layers of narrators guiding us and that the present storyteller will relinquish control to the poet again soon.

Once discovered by their captain, the crew members blame each other halfheartedly, but there is no remedy now. A resigned mood seems to hang over their feasting, as if they know these will be their last meals together. Distortion of the natural order continues as the gods send creepy portents, rippling flesh on the spits, bellowing like the mooing of cows.

Further Reading

Segal, C. 1992. “Divine Justice in the Odyssey: Poseidon, Cyclops, and Helios.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 191–199.


The crew feasts for six days, the weather changes and they set sail for home. Zeus sends a storm that destroys the ships and all the crew drowns. Odysseus survives by lashing the keel and mast together and riding them in the sea.

After six days of gloomy dining, the crew sets sail and darkness envelopes them one more time (403–406). The next eight verses cover in great detail the destruction of the ship: forestays snapped, mast flattened, the helmsman’s head crushed as he goes overboard like an acrobat—this last a variation on the earlier gruesome simile of the crew yanked out of the ship by Skylla like fish on the hook (12.251–256). Then Zeus finishes them off, leaving all but Odysseus to die, bobbing like crows in the sea.

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The long, exciting journey home ends for the crew with this grim simile. As the poem’s opening lines foretold, their lack of self-control finally catches up with them. Odysseus notes their fate but expresses no particular sadness over it, even though we might see reasons for him to feel some remorse for the times when his curiosity cost lives. Odysseus is the right hero for this story, emotionally closed off from others, relentlessly self-disciplined, ready to lie at any time to anyone if it will give him leverage over others. The rhetoric of the poem always urges us to valorize any act, no matter how callous, that ensures the survival of its hero. Emotional entanglements are only a hindrance in this perspective and the crew members become interchangeable with the suitors, immature men who are unable to control their impulses and die for it at Odysseus’s hands. We may think of the Iliad, with its many violent, graphic deaths, its heroes vaunting cruelly over their victims, as the darker of the two Homeric epics. But that poem, for all its violence, bends finally toward forgiveness, compassion, and healing, forces rarely present in the Odyssey or its hero.

We might be surprised to find that part of this dramatic shipwreck, with all its vivid relevance to the particular place in the story, appears again, almost verbatim, in a false tale that Odysseus delivers in Book Fourteen to Eumaeus, describing a shipwreck off Crete:

ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ Κρήτην μὲν ἐλείπομεν, οὐδέ τις ἄλλη
φαίνετο γαιάων, ἀλλ᾽ οὐρανὸς ἠδὲ θάλασσα,
δὴ τότε κυανέην νεφέλην ἔστησε Κρονίων
νηὸς ὕπερ γλαφυρῆς, ἤχλυσε δὲ πόντος ὑπ᾽ αὐτῆς.
Ζεὺς δ᾽ ἄμυδις βρόντησε καὶ ἔμβαλε νηῒ κεραυνόν:
ἡ δ᾽ ἐλελίχθη πᾶσα Διὸς πληγεῖσα κεραυνῷ,
ἐν δὲ θεείου πλῆτο: πέσον δ᾽ ἐκ νηὸς ἅπαντες.
οἱ δὲ κορώνῃσιν ἴκελοι περὶ νῆα μέλαιναν
κύμασιν ἐμφορέοντο: θεὸς δ᾽ ἀποαίνυτο νόστον

Odyssey 14.301-309

Lines 301–304 replicate 403–406 in our passage verbatim, with one small change: Κρήτην μὲν (14.301) replaces τὴν νῆσον (12.403). The next eight verses in Book Twelve, describing in detail how the ship is destroyed, do not appear in Book Fourteen. Then the parallels resume, with 14.305–309 echoing 12.415–419, again with one small change to accommodate the differing circumstances: ἅπαντες (14.307) replaces ἑταῖροι—the shipmates in the beggar’s false tale are not his companions, only fellow travelers.

Comparing these two passages offers a window into the mysterious creative process whereby Homer builds his story, using repeated traditional words, phrases, or larger narrative units to compose scenes that are unfailingly fresh in their context. In Book Twelve, we witness the final obliteration of Odysseus’s crew, men who have been with him since Troy. The horrific events in 12.407–415 vividly mark this terrible conclusion. In Book Fourteen, such detail is not necessary for the story to be exciting to the beggar’s audience of one. Likewise, the identical language in the two passages has a different impact in each. The darkness that falls on Odysseus and his crew in Book Twelve is the crescendo of a long series of potentially obliterating events, stretching back as far as Odysseus’s suffocating existence on Calypso’s island in book Five. In the beggar’s tale, which we know is false, the story is merely entertainment to get the two men through the night. We do not care about the lost sailors because we’ve been told they are not real.

Alone again, Odysseus lashes together the keel and mast and floats onward in the storm. The South Wind picks up and he is carried back toward Skylla and Charybdis, establishing the circular rhythm of the story here, foreshadowing the “return” to Calypso. This time through, he avoids Skylla, but Charybdis swallows his makeshift boat, one last encounter with the dark, suffocating forces he has faced all along the way. He escapes that oblivion by clinging like a bat to a tree trunk jutting out over the whirlpool. The unusual simile Odysseus uses to measure how long he has to wait for the timbers to surface breaks through the magical folktale milieu we have been in for most of the adventures, perhaps signaling imminent the arrival back on Ithaka, a world far removed from sucking whirlpools and alluring Sirens.


Odysseus is carried back to Scylla and Charybdis. He barely escapes Charybdis and after ten days washes up on the shore of Calypso’s island, where his narrative to the Phaeacians concludes.

Conclusion: Repetition as Creativity

Book Twelve ends by circling back both to the beginning of Book Nine in the poem’s structure and at the same time to the beginning of Book Five in the chronology of the story. As if emerging from a dream, we suddenly remember that everything Odysseus has told us in Books Nine through Twelve had already happened not only by the time he reaches Scheria but even before we first met him on Ogygia.

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Calypso appears here as δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα (449), the epithet that ties her to Circe and Ino as a liminal figure on the boundary between human and divine (see above on 10.133–177). When we last heard of Calypso, she was sending Odysseus off to sea from her timeless world to the island of the Phaeacians, itself home to an ultra-refined civilization that serves to mediate between the nymph’s non-human realm and the entirely human world of Ithaka. Her reappearance at the end of Book Twelve reminds us that we in fact stand on several overlapping boundaries in the poem, which mark not only differing modes of existence but also the temporal elisions that the poem’s structure creates. We have emerged with Odysseus from the nightmarish gauntlets that punctuate his first years after leaving Troy, full of monsters and dangerous female forces, yet that journey had already happened before the events in Book Five, so we are simultaneously back in the past and on the cusp of the future in Ithaka.

These circles within circles in the poem’s structure serve Homer’s methods as a storyteller, as we have seen. Though Circe comes first in the chronology of the story, in the poem’s structure we learn about her after we have encountered Calypso, Nausicaa, and Arete, the commanding queen of the Phaeacians. The danger she represents is already well-defined by Book Ten, not only embodied in those four different versions of the feminine, but even by Polyphemus, whose peculiar mode of existence resonates in various ways with the witch’s world. By the time Odysseus meets the Sirens, the threat they embody for him is immediately resonant and carefully defined. Likewise, the imagery of the Skylla and Charybdis episodes, on the surface all about monstrous creatures, is powered by the undercurrents of sexual threat. Finally, when the crew encounter the cattle of the Sun, their transgression—cosmic in its reach like the earlier releasing of the winds—is freighted with all their previous failures.

The complex structure of the Odyssey challenges us to keep track of where Odysseus—and we—are in the story at any given time. We might ask ourselves what the poet gains by this elaborate circular architecture. Character in Homeric epic is always a product of analogies generated by parallels between different figures. Repetition, what critics in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries saw as a sign of multiple authorship, is in fact the backbone of the poetry’s meaning. The full significance of Penelope’s character and actions when Odysseus returns in disguise to Ithaka only emerges if we see her as the sum of all the female figures, human and divine, in the story. Odysseus himself emerges from his exile in oblivion with Calypso and evolves in our understanding as against many other male characters, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax—even Telemachus, whose adventures in Pylos and Sparta show him anticipating traits we later see in his father.

In our Odyssey, when Odysseus finishes his story, we are likely thinking ahead to Ithaka. But suppose that Homer had created a linear narrative—as some modern adaptations have done—with the adventures of Books Nine through Twelve coming first, in the third person voice, then Calypso and the Phaeacians, then back to Ithaka? Calypso’s relatively benign affection for Odysseus and Nausicaa’s youthful, charming naivete would appear against the backdrop of life-threatening encounters and would be colored by a much darker undertone. Both of these early episodes are appealing precisely because the poet uses a lighter emotional palette to create Odysseus’ potential paramours. Likewise, the Phaeacians’ warm hospitality would be much more suspect in the wake of the adventures with the dangerous hosts of Book Nine and Ten. When Odysseus wakes up on Ithaka, the emotional weight of the harrowing adventures in Books Nine through Twelve would be distant in our memories, altering our perception of the hero’s eventual triumph.

The implied contrasts between Odysseus and the dead heroes in the Underworld point to the unique qualities that carry him through the dangers of the journey home. Of the heroes returning from Troy, only Odysseus has the requisite intelligence and self-control to survive. The loss of the entire crew foreshadows the death of the suitors, both groups conspicuous for their inability to rein in their impulses. Odysseus himself will need these qualities in abundance once he reaches Ithaka, where he will endure insults, verbal and physical, from the suitors and their allies. The darker aspects of his character have also emerged, his emotional isolation and estrangement from his crew, his insistence on pursuing knowledge and experience not strictly necessary to the success of the mission, which puts his crew in danger, costing many of them their lives. His survival is of paramount importance; theirs, it sometimes seems, is not.

All of these traits, positive and negative, come to a crescendo in the most charged and important encounter of the poem, Odysseus’ campaign to win Penelope back. The dark paradigm of Clytemnestra, which hovers over the entire poem, beginning in Book One and reinforced in the Underworld, seems to inform Odysseus’ decision—backed by Athena’s machinations—to stay undercover and leave Penelope in the dark as he plans his revenge on the suitors. He cannot trust her to keep his secrets. But in fact, her intelligence and self-control are a match for his, as we observe the delicate course of action she pursues in Books Eighteen through Twenty-Three. It is never clear—perhaps not even to her— whether she has decided to give up and choose a new husband or keep waiting for Odysseus’ increasingly unlikely return. Even when the suitors are dead, she holds out, outsmarting Odysseus and making him lose his legendary self-control with the ruse of the bed, before finally giving in and acknowledging his identity as her husband. Their joyous reunion, which they and we have looked forward to for so long, is enriched by the continuing presence, reinforced by the poet’s use of repeated patterns of character and action, of all the characters who embody aspects of them both: Calypso, Nausicaa, Arete, Circe, Menelaus, Telemachus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax. There is only one Penelope, only one Odysseus, but they come into being before us as the richly layered and deeply human creations of a poet working within a thoroughly traditional medium.

Further Reading

Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: An Epic of Return, 65–69. New York: Twayne Publishers

Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 5–12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2024. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7.