Homer: The Odyssey

Book XII

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved

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BkXII:1-35 Odysseus tells his tale: Return to Aeaea

‘Leaving the River of Ocean, and crossing the wide sea waves, we came again to the Isle of Aeaea, where Eos the Dawn has her House and Dancing Floor: to the place where the sun rises. There we beached our ship on the sand and leapt to the shore, and there we slept until bright day.

As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, I sent my men to Circe’s house to recover Elpenor’s corpse. Then swiftly cutting logs of wood we performed the funeral rites, grieving and in tears, on the furthest point of the headland. When the body had burnt, and with it the dead man’s armour, we heaped a mound, and raised a stone on top, and at the summit we fixed his well-shaped oar.

Odysseus cremates Elpenor's body

‘Odysseus cremates Elpenor's body’

Circe was well aware of our return from Hades’ House, and while we were busy with our tasks she adorned herself and hastened to us, her handmaids bringing plenty of bread and meat, and glowing red wine. She stood there in the centre, and addressed us: “Resolute men, to have gone down living to Hades’ House, you who will meet death twice, while others die only once. Eat then and drink here today, but when Dawn comes set sail, and I will show the way and explain the course so you can avoid pain and suffering on sea or land for lack of a decent plan.”

To this our proud hearts yielded, and all day long till the sun set we feasted on ample meat and wine. When the sun went down and darkness fell, my men lay down to sleep by the ships’ cables, but Circe took my hand and led me apart from my friends, and made me sit down and tell the tale, as she lay there beside me. I related it all in proper sequence.’

BkXII:36-110 Odysseus tells his tale: Circe’s advice

‘Then royal Circe said: “So, it all came to pass. Well listen now to what I tell you, and let some god remind you of it. Next you will come to the Sirens who beguile all men that approach them. Whoever encounters them unawares and listens to their voices will never joy at reaching home, his wife and children to greet him. Instead the Sirens’ tempt him with their limpid song, as they sit there in the meadow with a vast heap of mouldering corpses, bones on which hangs the shrivelled skin. Plug your comrades’ ears with softened beeswax lest they listen, and row swiftly past. And if you must hear, then let them first tie you hand and foot and stand you upright in the mast housing, and fasten the rope ends round the mast itself, so you can delight in hearing the Sirens’ voices. And should you beg your crew to free you, let them only bind you more tightly.

Once your comrades have rowed you beyond those creatures I cannot advise you of the best course to take. I will tell you the choice, but you must decide. One leads to sheer cliffs, against which green-eyed Amphitrite hurls her vast roaring breakers, the blessed gods call them the Wandering Rocks. Not even birds can pass between them unscathed, not even the timorous rock-doves that bring ambrosia to Father Zeus. The slippery rock always takes one, and Zeus must send another to complete their number. Crews that reach the rocks can never escape, instead ships’ timbers and human corpses are tossed by the waves or in gushers of cruel fire. Only one ocean-going vessel has passed between them, the celebrated Argo fleeing from Aeetes, and the waves would have quickly broken her on the massive crags, if Hera had not seen her through, because of her care for Jason.

The other course leads to two cliffs, one whose sharp peak towers to the wide heavens. A dark cloud caps it that never vanishes to leave clear skies, even in summer or at harvest. No mortal could climb it and set foot on the summit, not though he had twenty hands and feet: the rock is smooth as if it were polished. In the centre of this cliff-face is a dark cave, facing West towards Erebus, on the path your hollow ship will take, glorious Odysseus, if you listen to my advice. Even a man of great strength could not shoot an arrow from your vessel as far as that arching cavern. Scylla lives there, whose yelp it is true is only that of a new-born whelp, yet she is a foul monster whom not even a god could gaze at with pleasure. She has twelve flailing legs and six long thin necks, each ending in a savage head with a triple row of close-set teeth masking death’s black void. She is sunk to her waist in the echoing cave, but extends her jaws from that menacing chasm, and there she fishes, groping eagerly round the cliff for her catch, dolphins and seals or one of the greater creatures that Amphitrite breeds in countless numbers in the moaning depths. No crew passing by in their ship can boast it has ever escaped her unscathed, since each head snatches a man, lifting him from his dark-prowed vessel.

Odysseus, you will notice the other cliff is lower, only a bow-shot away, and a great fig-tree with dense leaves grows there. Under it divine Charybdis swallows the black waters. Three times a day, she spews them out, and three times darkly sucks them back again. No one, not even Poseidon, could save you from destruction if you are there when she swallows. Hug Scylla’s cliff instead, and row your ship past swiftly, since it its better to mourn six men than your whole crew.”’

BkXII:111-164 Odysseus tells his tale: Leaving Aeaea once more

‘So she spoke, but I replied: “Goddess, I beg you to tell me truly why I cannot both escape deadly Charybdis and yet defeat Scylla when she tries to attack my crew?” To this the Goddess answered: “Resolute man is your heart set again on the toils of battle? Will you not even bow to the deathless gods? Scylla is not mortal. She is immortal evil: a dire, ferocious thing of dread. You cannot fight her, there is no defence: the only course is flight. If you pause by the rock to arm yourselves, I fear she will dart out and strike you with all six heads again, and seize as many men as at first. Row past at full speed instead, and call to Cratais, Scylla’s mother, who bore her to be the bane of mortal men. She might keep her from darting out once more.

Journeying on you will reach the island of Thrinacia, where the Sun-god’s cattle and rich flocks graze: seven herds of kine and as many of sheep, with fifty head per herd. They bear no young, but never die, and the goddesses with lovely tresses, the nymphs Phaethusa and Lampetia, the daughters of Neaera and Helios Hyperion, are their shepherdesses. When noble Neaera had borne and nursed them, she sent them to remote Thrinacia, to tend their father’s sheep and spiral-horned cattle. If you avoid harming the herds, and head straight for home you will suffer yet still see Ithaca. But if you harm them, I prophesy shipwreck for you and your friends, and even if you yourself escape, you will come unlooked-for to your home, in sore distress, losing all comrades.”

As she finished speaking, golden-throned Dawn appeared. Then the lovely goddess left for home, but I went to the ship and roused my men, and ordered them to embark and loose the hawsers. They boarded swiftly and took their place on the benches then sitting in their rows struck the grey water with their oars. Circe of the lovely tresses, dread goddess with a human voice, sent us a good companion to help us, a fresh wind from astern of our dark-prowed ship to fill the sail. And when we had set the tackle in order fore and aft, we sat down, and let the wind and the helmsman keep her course.

Then, troubled at heart, I spoke to the crew: “Friends, it is not right that only one or two of us should know the prophecies of the lovely goddess, Circe. I will tell all, so that escaping fate and death or no, at least you are forewarned. First she advised us to evade the voices of the marvellous Sirens in their flowering meadow. She commanded me alone to listen. You are to tie me hand and foot and stand me upright in the mast housing, and fasten the rope ends round the mast itself, and if I beg you to free me, bind me yet more tightly.”’

BkXII:165-200 Odysseus tells his tale: Passing the Sirens

‘So I explained everything to my friends, while our well-built vessel, borne on a gentle breeze, quickly neared the island of the Sirens. Suddenly the wind dropped, and a breathless calm followed, as some god lulled the waves. My comrades rose and furled the sail, then stowed it, then sat to their oars and thrashed the water with the blades of polished pine. I, in the meantime, sliced a large cake of beeswax with my sword-edge, and kneaded the slivers in my strong hands until the pressure and the rays of Lord Helios Hyperion heated it. Then I plugged the ears of each of my friends, and they tied me hand and foot and stood me upright in the mast housing, and fastened the rope ends round the mast itself. Then sitting down again, they struck the grey water with their oars.

We drove past swiftly, but when we were within hail of the shore, the Sirens could not fail to see our speeding vessel, and began their clear singing: “Famous Odysseus, great glory of Achaea, draw near, and bring your ship to rest, and listen to our voices. No man rows past this isle in his dark ship without hearing the honeysweet sound from our lips. He delights in it and goes his way a wiser man. We know all the suffering the Argives and the Trojans endured, by the gods’ will, on the wide plains of Troy. We know everything that comes to pass on the fertile Earth.”

This was the haunting song the Sirens sang, and I longed to listen, commanding my crew by my expression to set me free. But they bent to their oars and rowed harder, while Perimedes and Eurylochus rose and tightened my bonds and added more rope. Not till they had rowed beyond the Sirens, so we no longer heard their voices and song, did my loyal friends clear the wax that plugged their ears, and untie me.’

Odysseus passes the island of the sirens

‘Odysseus passes the island of the sirens’

BkXII:201-259 Odysseus tells his tale: Scylla and Charybdis

‘No sooner had we left the isle behind than I saw spray, and huge breakers, and heard their thunder. The oars springing from my crew’s grasp in their terror slid into the sea, and the ship lost way without my comrades’ arms tugging at the tapered blades. Still I paced up and down the deck encouraging them with calm words, speaking to every man in turn: “Friends, we are not unused to trouble: and this hardship is no worse than when the Cyclops used brute strength to pen us in his echoing cave. I used my courage, intelligence and tactics, to get us out of there, and some day these dangers too will be only a memory. Now listen to my orders and all obey. Stick to your oars and smite the deep sea breakers, and pray that Zeus may allow us to run from death. Steersman, here are my orders, and take them to heart, since the hollow ship’s steering oar is in your control. Keep the ship out of the surf and spray, and hug the cliff, or before you know it the ship will veer to the far side, and plunge us to destruction.”

They quickly responded to my words. I chose not to speak of the intractable problem of Scylla, lest gripped by terror they left the oars to huddle in the hold. And now I forgot Circe’s stern command not to arm myself, instead I donned my splendid armour and grasped two long spears in my hand. Then I ran to the foredeck, expecting to see rock-bound Scylla first from there bringing disaster to my comrades. But I could not sight her and my eyes grew weary searching the mist-draped cliff face.

So we sailed on through the narrow straits, crying aloud for fear of Scylla on the one hand while divine Charybdis sucked the sea in terribly on the other. Whenever she spewed it out again, it bubbled and seethed in turmoil like a cauldron on a vast fire, and high overhead the spray rained down on the crags on either side. When she swallowed the seas, her inner vortex could be seen, and the rock echoed savagely round about, while below the seabed showed its dark-blue sand. My crew turned pale as we gazed at her, fearing destruction, but even as we did so Scylla seized six of my strongest and ablest men from the deck. As I looked along the swift ship towards my friends I saw their arms and legs dangling above me. In anguish they cried my name aloud one last time, then each of Scylla’s heads dragged a man writhing towards the rock, as a fisherman on a jutting crag casts his bait to lure small fish, lowers an ox-horn on a long pole into the sea, and catching a fish flings it ashore. There at the entrance to her cave she devoured them, as they shrieked and reached out their hands to me in their last dreadful throes. It was the most pitiable sight of all I saw exploring the pathways of the sea.’

BkXII:260-319 Odysseus tells his tale: Landing on Thrinacia

‘When we had left the cliffs behind, and Scylla and Charybdis, we came swiftly to Helios Hyperion’s lovely island, where the sun-god grazed his fine broad-browed cattle, and his flocks of sturdy sheep. I could hear the lowing of cattle as they were stalled and the bleating of sheep from my black ship while I was still at sea, and the blind seer Theban Teiresias’ words came to mind, with those of Aeaean Circe, who both warned me to avoid the isle of Helios who gives mortals comfort. Then troubled at heart I spoke to my men: “Listen, Friends, to words that will distress you. Let me tell you the prophecies of Teiresias and Aeaean Circe. They clearly warned me to avoid the isle of Helios, who comforts mortals: here the greatest danger would lie. So, row the black ship on past the island.”

My men’s spirits fell at this, and Eurylochus replied at once, with fateful words: “Odysseus, you are stronger than us all, with limbs that never weary. It seems you are made of iron and would prevent your friends, exhausted with their efforts and lack of sleep, from landing and making a decent meal on this sea-encircled isle. Instead you order us to travel on through advancing night, driven from this island into the misty deep. Night bears the fierce winds that wreck ships. How would we escape total destruction if a southerly or a fierce westerly gale sprang up, those that most often sink vessels despite the omnipotent gods? No, let us give way to dark night, and take our supper on shore by the swift ship, then embark in the morning, and put out once more into the wide waters.”

Eurylochus spoke, and the rest of my crew concurred. Then I knew some god was set on working harm, and I replied with winged words: “Indeed, you have conquered my lone voice, Eurylochus. But let all of you swear me a solemn oath that none of you, his mind clouded with error, will kill a cow or sheep of any herd of cattle or flock we find, but only eat the food deathless Circe gave us.”

They quickly swore they would do as I commanded. And when they had sworn their oath, we moored our fine ship in a deep cove with a spring of sweet water, and the crew went ashore and swiftly prepared a meal. When they had quenched their hunger and thirst, they began to grieve for their dear friends whom Scylla snatched from the hollow ship and devoured, and as they grieved sweet sleep came upon them. But in the third watch of night, when the stars had begun their descent, Zeus the cloud-gatherer stirred a tempestuous wind, and veiled the land and sea with cloud, and all was darkness. As soon as rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, we hauled up our ship and made her fast in a flooded cave, where the Nymphs had their seats and a dancing place. Then I gathered the men together and addressed them.’

BkXII:320-373 Odysseus tells his tale: His crew break their oath

‘“Friends, since we have food and drink on board our swift ship let us keep our hands off those cattle lest we come to grief. They are the sturdy sheep and cows of Helios, a great god, who sees and hears everything.”

Their proud hearts conceded me this. But a southerly wind blew for a whole month, and then every breeze was from the east or south. As long as my crew still had bread and red wine they kept their hands from the cattle, valuing their lives. But when all the ship’s stores had gone and they had to hunt for whatever game they could find, even fishing with curved hooks their hunger gnawed them so: then I went inland alone to pray to the gods hoping that one would show us how to leave. And when I was far enough away from my crew, I cleansed my hands in a place on the island sheltered from the wind, and prayed to all the gods of Olympus. But they shed sweet sleep over my eyelids, while behind me Eurylochus was giving my comrades bad advice. “Listen to me, comrades in distress”, he said. “Every form of death is vile to us wretched mortals, but the most wretched way to die is by starvation. So, let us cut out the finest of Helios’ cattle, and sacrifice to the gods of the wide heavens. And if we return to Ithaca, our own land, let us build a fine temple to Helios Hyperion, and fill it with precious gifts. And if he is angered at the loss of his long-horned kine and chooses to wreck our ship, the other gods’ agreeing, well for myself I would rather die quickly in the waves, than waste away slowly on a desert island.”

The rest of my crew agreed with Eurylochus. They swiftly corralled the best of Helios’ cattle since the fine spiral-horned broad-browed cows were grazing not far from our blue-prowed ship. They gathered round them, and prayed to the gods, scattering the new leaves of a tall oak, since they had no white barley left aboard the oared vessel. And when they had prayed they slit the cows’ throats, flayed them and cut out pieces of thigh which they wrapped in a double layer of fat, laying raw meat on top. As they had no wine to pour on the burning sacrifice, they made libations with water, roasting the entrails on the fire. When the thighs were burnt, and they had tasted the inner parts, they carved the rest and spitted it on skewers.

The cattle of Helios

‘The cattle of Helios’

Only then did sweet sleep leave my eyes, and I headed back to the swift ship and the shore, but as I drew near the curved vessel the rich scent of hot fat wafted to me, and I groaned aloud and called to the deathless gods: “Father Zeus, and you other gods, immortally blessed, you lulled me with cruel sleep to bring about my ruin, so my friends left behind could plan this monstrous crime.”’

BkXII:374-453 Odysseus tells his tale: Punishment from Zeus

‘Now Lampetia of the trailing robes sped swiftly to Helios Hyperion with the news we had killed his cattle, and deeply angered he complained to the immortals: “Father Zeus and you other gods, immortally blessed, take vengeance on the followers of Odysseus, Laertes’ son. In their insolence, they have killed my cattle: creatures I loved to see when I climbed the starry sky, and when I turned back towards earth again from heaven. If they do not atone for their killing, I will go down to Hades and shine for the dead instead.”

At that Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, answered: “Helios, don’t stop shining for us immortals, or for mortal men on the fertile Earth. As for those culprits I will quickly strike their swift ship with my bright lightning bolt, and shatter it to pieces out on the wine-dark sea.” This is what I heard from Calypso of the lovely tresses, who said that she herself had heard it from Hermes the Messenger.

When I reached the ship and the shore, I rebuked my men one by one, but things were beyond remedy, the cattle were already dead. The gods at once showed my men dark omens. The ox-hides crawled about, raw meat and roast bellowed on the spit, and all around sounded the noise of lowing cattle. Nevertheless my faithful comrades feasted for six days on the pick of Helios’ cattle they had stolen. And when Zeus, Cronos’ son, brought the seventh day on us, the tempest ceased, and we embarked, and, raising the mast and hoisting the white sail, we put out into open water.

It was not till the island fell astern, and we were out of sight of all but sky and sea, that Zeus anchored a black cloud above our hollow ship, and the waves beneath were dark. She had not run on for long before there came a howling gale, a tempest out of the west, and the first squall snapped both our forestays, so that the mast toppled backwards and the rigging fell into the hold, while the tip of the mast hitting the stern struck the steersman’s skull and crushed the bones. He plunged like a diver from the deck, and his brave spirit fled the bones.

At that same instant Zeus thundered and hurled his lightning at the ship. Struck by the bolt she shivered from stem to stern, and filled with sulphurous smoke. Falling from the deck, my men floated like sea-gulls in the breakers round the black ship. The gods had robbed them of their homecoming. But I ran up and down the ship till a surge ripped the sides from the keel, and drove her on naked, snapping the mast close to the keel. The backstay of ox-hide rope lay across the mast, and with it I lashed the keel and mast together, and sitting astride I was carried before the driving wind.

Then, would you know, the westerly wind dropped, and a southerly rose swiftly, galling me to the heart lest I retrace our course to meet the whirlpool’s terror. All night I was swept along, and at sunrise was back at Scylla’s rock, and dread Charybdis, who swallowed the water round me, but I leapt up, caught at the tall fig tree, and hung there like a bat. I could find no foothold, nor climb the tree as its roots were far below me, and its great solid branches that cast shadows on Charybdis were out of reach above. There I clung grimly, till she spewed out mast and keel again. She did, to my delight, but not till that time of day when a judge who handles young litigants’ endless quarrels rises from court to find his supper. At that hour the timbers emerged from Charybdis. Then I let go with hands and feet, and plunged into the water clear of the long spars. Then clambering astride them I paddled along with my hands. The Father of men and gods prevented Scylla noticing me, or I would never have escaped utter disaster.

I drifted from there for nine days, and on the tenth night the gods washed me ashore on Ogygia, the home of Calypso of the lovely tresses, that dread goddess with a human voice, who cared for me and loved me. But why repeat the story? Only yesterday it was I told it, here in the hall, to yourself and your noble wife. It’s a tedious thing to re-tell a plain-told tale.”