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Book 12

The Odyssey – Book 12 Scylla and Charybdis (Context)


·        As promised, the Ithacans return to Aeaea, recover Elpenor's body, and go through the proper funeral rites.

·        Circe reappears and feeds the men. She makes them promise to stay for the full day of feasting while she gives further directions to Odysseus.

·        "Further directions" seems to be a euphemism for "more sex." Still, after the "further directions," she gives some actual directions on how to avoid the temptation of the Sirens who will try to lure him to death with their beautiful voices.

·        Circe tells Odysseus that no man has ever heard the song of the Sirens and lived to tell the tale. But he can! He should have his men plug up their ears and tie him to the mast so he can listen without jumping overboard.

·        Then she tells him about two different courses he can take to go home. The first one contains Rovers, moving rocks that are impossible for any ship to get through.

·        The second route holds two dangers: Scylla, a sea monster with six heads that eats men, and Charybdis, a whirlpool that sucks in and vomits out the sea three times a day.

·        Surprisingly, this is the better option. Circe advises Odysseus to hug the cliff of Scylla and sacrifice six men rather than risk losing his whole ship to Charybdis. Also, he should race through as quickly as possible instead of trying to fight her (the monsters are female, of course).

·        Odysseus hems and haws, since he'd rather not lose any men—but Circle essentially tells him to suck it up.

·        One more thing: don't' kill Helios's cattle, unless he wants to lose his entire crew.

·        The next day they set sail with the help of Circe's magical wind.

·        The Ithacans approach the Sirens and, following Circe's instructions, Odysseus plugs his men's ears with melted beeswax and then instructs them to tie him up.

·        Just as they successfully pass the Sirens, the men approach Scylla and Charybdis and promptly lose their oars in fear.

·        Odysseus tries to inspire courage in them while he arms up against Scylla. Clearly, he's forgetting Circe's instructions.

·        As foretold, Scylla takes six of Odysseus's best men.

·        He suddenly remembers that he's supposed to move quickly rather than fight the she-monster, so his ship makes it out.

·        They then see Thrinacie, land of Helios's cattle. Odysseus wants to sail past since he's been warned against it about twelve times.

·        But his men, led by Eurylochus, vote to stay there for a night to recover from losing six of their friends to a giant, hungry monster.

·        The next morning, they're getting ready to head off when … a storm begins which continues for a full month.

·        When their food runs out, the cows begin looking pretty tasty.

·        Odysseus goes off to pray to the gods one day and finally Eurylochus snaps. He persuades the men to kill the biggest cow they can find. It's cool, though; he'll atone for it by building a big temple to Helios once they get back to Ithaca.

·        Odysseus comes back, sees the cooking meat, and an angst, we're-going-to-die sort of way.

·        Helios is super ticked and asks Zeus for revenge. Sure thing; the King of the Gods promises to destroy Odysseus's ship with his thunderbolt.

·        When the storm ends, the Ithacans set sail and are promptly struck by Zeus's thunderbolt.

·        Everyone dies except Odysseus.

·        The sea floats him back towards Scylla and Charybdis, and he manages to survive only by jumping on the huge tree-island positioned above Charybdis. He clings to its trunk while Charybdis ingests his ship.

·        When she spits it back up again, Odysseus let go and lands on its flotsam. The gods help him evade Scylla as he rows past her using his hands as oars.

·        He drifts on the open sea for nine days before washing ashore the island of Ogygia, where Calypso rescues him.

·        But then she keeps him prisoner for seven years, which kind of negates her whole rescuer argument.

·        At this point, Odysseus ends his narrative.

Circe’s Advice Regarding the Sirens

1.      Drive the ship straight past the Siren’s island

2.      Plug the men’s ears with beeswax, so that they cannot hear the Siren’s song (they would have had wax aboard the ship, as it was used to water-proof joints between planks).

3.      If Odysseus himself wishes to listen to the singing, then he must be bound hand and foot and tied to the ship’s mast; the men must be under strict instructions not to release him under any circumstances.

Does Odysseus Follow This Advice?

a)     Odysseus initially seems keen to share Circe’s advice with his men; he tells them that it is not right that he should be the only one to know Circe’s prophecies, and that he is going to pass them onto his men so that they can be forewarned.

b)     Odysseus alters Circe’s words, claiming that she specifically instructed him to listen to the Siren’s song (she didn’t – she said “if you want to”), implying that a goddess has commanded him to do this (whereas he wants to listen out of his own curiosity and sense of adventure).


The Wandering Rocks

After going past the Sirens, Odysseus has two alternative routes. One of his options is to go through the Wandering Rocks (also known in Greek mythology as the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks) – but she warns him that only one ship has successfully done this. Note that Odysseus decides not to risk this route.

1.      Which is the only ship to have survived the Wandering Rocks and where had it come from on its journey?

a.      Jason, homeward bound from Aeetes’ coast.


2.      Who is Amphitrite?

a.      Amphitrite was a sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon.


3.      Which goddess helped Jason on his voyage to find the Golden Fleece?

a.      Hera


4.      What do Circe’s words tell us about the relative chronology of the stories of Jason & Odysseus?


On the alternative route form the Sirens’ island, Odysseus will reach two rocks standing opposite one another. One of these rocks is so high that it is permanently covered in black clouds, There is a murky cavern halfway up, with a passage that runs directly to the Underworld (Erebus). This makes the home of Scylla, a monster whose name means “puppy”.


5.      What noise doe Scylla make?

a.      Dreadful bark

The lower of the two rocks is a crag with a fig tree growing on top of it. Below this rock lies Charybdis the Whirlpool (who is also female, just like the Sirens and Scylla). Charybdis sucks water down three times a day, and spews it back up three times a day; there is so deep a vortex when she sucks it down, that the sea-bed itself is exposed.

In the ancient world the phrase “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” was used to describe a dilemma where you are caught between two equally unpleasant options. The modern day version of this is “caught between a rock and a hard place”.

Circe’s Advice Regarding Scylla and Charybdis:

1.      Stay close to Scylla’s rock and drive the ship past as quickly as possible.

2.      It is better to accept the loss of 6 crew members to Scylla than to risk losing the whole crew in Charybdis.

3.      She stresses that Odysseus cannot avoid both of them – he must choose one option or the other.

4.      Odysseus cannot kill Scylla, or successfully defend himself – “the best course of action is flight”. Odysseus should therefore not waste time putting on his armour, or he may risk losing another 6 men.

5.      He should call on Cratais, Scylla’s mother, who will prevent Scylla coming out again.

Does Odysseus Follow This Advice?

a)     Odysseus tells his helmsman to stay very close (to “hug”) Scylla’s rock.

b)     He suppresses the information about Scylla herself, “fearing that in their panic my men might stop rowing and huddle below decks”.

c)     He arms himself despite Circe’s warning that this would be useless and would waste time.

d)     He does not call on Scylla’s mother, Cratais.

Thrinacie, Hyperion’s Island

The next island Odysseus reaches will be Thrinacie which belongs to the sun-god Hyperion. He keeps his sacred flock of 350 cattle and 350 sheep on this island; shepherded by his own daughters, the nymphs Phaethusa and Lampetie (their names mean Shining and Radiant).

Circe’s Advice Regarding Hyperion’s Island

a)     Leave the animals untouched and concentrate on getting home; Odysseus and his men may then reach Ithaca, “although not without suffering”.

b)     If they harm the animals, then his ship and company will be destroyed; if Odysseus himself contrives to escape then he “will reach home late, in a wretched state, having lost all his comrades” (Note that Circe’s words are identical of Teiresias’ instructions about Thrinaciae in Book 11).

Does Odysseus Follow These Instructions?

a)     Odysseus does not want to even land on Thrinaciae, but he is outvoted by his men.

b)     He tells the men that “deadly peril” lurks on the island, and makes them all swear an oath that they will not harm any of the animals, but he does not really warn them exactly what will happen if they eat the animals.

The Encounter on Thrinaciae

Odysseus does not wish to land on Hyperion’s island; he tells the men that both Teiresias and Circe warned him very strongly to avoid the island “for there they said, our deadliest peril lurks”. But Eurylochus objects.

Extension Material: Other issues for consideration in analysis

1.      The Role of Hyperion. The sequence of stories in Book 12 is all taken from the earlier myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which causes Homer a problem in terms of his plot. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’ antagonist is Poseidon, but in the Argonautica, Jason’s antagonist is the sun god, owner of the Golden Fleece. This means that Homer has to somehow reconcile the two different stories. This seems to be why it is the sun god, Hyperion, who ultimately destroys Odysseus’ men (backed up by Zeus), not Poseidon, whom we might have expected to destroy the men (particularly as they die in a shipwreck). It has even been suggested that Homer calls Hyperion’s island Thrinacie (“Trident Island”) in a desperate attempt to link it subconsciously with Poseidon.

2.      The Role of Zeus. Zeus’ role in Book 12 is to punish Odysseus’ men for deliberately flouting a warning from the gods. This is highlighted right at the start of Book 1, when Odysseus’ men are linked with Aegisthus and the Suitors as examples of mortals who have disobeyed the divine warnings and have been subsequently punished. Note that Odysseus’ men were specifically warned not to eat the cattle; they swore an oath not to harm them; they were aware of the risks; and lacked the proper “kit” for conducting a sacrifice.

3.      Eurylochus. Odysseus’ kinsman (who was introduced in Book 10) plays a crucial role in Book 12. As in Book 10, he challenges Odysseus’ authority and questions his decisions, and appears to have the backing of the men. It is Eurylochus who forces Odysseus to land on Thrinaciae, and Eurylochus who convinces the men that it is acceptable for them to kill and eat Hyperion’s cattle.