Saturday 8 March 2014

The Odyssey Read-Along Book XI & XII

The Odyssey Read-Along @ Plethora of Books

Book XI

When Odysseus and his companions reach the city of the Kimmerian people, they make shore and find the place of which Circe had told them.  Digging a pit a cubit in each direction, Odysseus pours in honey-milk, sweet wine, water and then sprinkles barley over it all.  Promising a sacrifice when he returns home, he slit the throats of the sheep and lets the blood run into the pit as well.  Ghostly souls surrounded the pit, “up out of Erebos, brides, and young unmarried men, and long-suffering elders, virgins, tender and with the sorrows of young hearts upon them, and many fighting men killed in battle, stabbed with brazen spears, still carrying their bloody armour upon them.”  Odysseus gives the sheep to his men to finish the sacrifice, but he crouches with his sword by the pit, not allowing any of the ghostly apparitions to draw near until he has spoken with Teiresias.  The first soul to approach the pit is one of his men, Elpenor, who had falled off the roof of Circe’s palace just before they had set sail.  He laments that he was not buried or mourned, and pleads with Odysseus to return to Circe’s island to accomplish this task; Odysseus agrees.  
Tiresias appears to Odysseus
Johann Heinrich Füssli (1780-1785)
source Wikipedia

Next, he encounters the soul of his dead mother, before Teiresias the Theban appears before him and speaks a prophecy:  Poseidon will make his homecoming difficult.  If they do not eat the cattle & sheep of Helios, they may reach Ithaka, but if they do, only Odysseus will return, he will find troubles in his household and will have to punish with violence the men who have committed treachery there.  After Odysseus sets his household in order, he instructs him to go on a journey where he will meet unusual men and there make a sacrifice to Poseidon.  His death will be from the sea and “unwarlike” but in old age, and his people will be prosperous.  Odysseus, while he listens to the instructions, is more interested in gaining information about his mother, but Teiresias says any who he allows to drink the blood will give him answers and then he fades away.  When Odysseus inquires of his mother how she met her death, she reveals that it was from pining away for him and, greived, he tries three times to embrace her but is unable to do so because of her state in death.  After his mother, a catalogue of women come to him, Tyro, Antiope, Alkmene, Epikaste, etc. and the reader learns something of their history.  The end of this catalogue brings Odysseus out of his story and back to the court of Alkinoös and the Phaiakians, but they urge him to continue, completely enraptured with his tales.  He resumes his story of Hades, as Agamemnon steps up to the pool, lamenting the treachery of his wife and the untrustworthiness of women.  Yet he then compliments the virtue and loyalty of Penelope, but cautions Odysseus to go covertly to his homeland.  Achilles then comes, happy to receive information about his son.  The soul of Aias, however, will not speak or approach him, still angry over the loss of Achilles’ armour to Odysseus.  Odysseus tries to make restitution but Aias will have none of it and walks away.  There is another catalogue of souls of men such as Minos, Orion, Tityo, Tantolos, etc .  While Odysseus wishes to see more souls, a “green fear” comes upon him again and he returns to his ship.

Odysseus lands at the beach of Hades
by Theodoor van Thulden
source Wikipaintings


In the scene in Hades, in order to speak with Odysseus the shades must drink the sacrificial blood first, all except for Elpenor: he is able to speak without drinking  Why is this?  Is it because Elpenor was not properly buried and mourned and he is no longer of the earth, yet not able to reach Hades until someone rectifies the error?  It would explain his plea to Odysseus.

Faithfulness and Treachery

Agamemnon goes to great lengths to explain his murder and how it was brought about.  He is particularly caustic towards his wife, vilefying her as “treacherous”, “sluttish”,  “deadly” and “vile” and claiming that she would not even allow him a proper death ritual.  He then goes on to praise Penelope, calling her “circumspect”, “virtuous”, and that her mind “is stored with good thoughts.”  The comparison is striking, yet even so he warns Odysseus to return to his own country in secret.

Ulysses and the Sirens
Pablo Picasso (1946)
source Wikipaintings

Book XII

Leaving Hades, Odysseus and his men return to the island of Aiaia to give Elpenor a proper burial.  Circe’s addresses Odysseus, revealing all the struggles which he will face on the way home, and what he must do to have a successful journey; then she gives them a fair wind to set them on their way.  The first terror they face is the Sirens, “enchanters of all mankind"; no one can resist their song, yet the reward is to become part of the boneheaps of men on the beach.  As per Circe’s instructions, Odysseus stops the ears of his men with wax and gets them to lash him to the mast.  When the lovely Melody of the Sirens drift into his ears, he begs his companions to untie him, yet they only lash him tighter.  After the crisis passes, their next challenge is to get past Scylla, and as Circe described her, she is a six-headed, twelve-footed monster with three rows of teeth and is “full of black death.”  As Circe prophesied, she grabs six men with each head as they row by, and Odysseus reveals that he did not tell his men about Scylla because six men had to be sacrificed to her; had the men realized the danger, they would have stopped rowing and sought protection inside the ship. On the other side of the channel, the monster Charybdis is sucking and vomiting water, yet they make it through with the loss of six, and come in sight of the island of Helios, where Hyperion, the Sun God resides with his sheep and cattle.  Odysseus counsels that they keep going but the men, led by Eurylochos strongly protest and he submits to their whining, making them swear an oath that they will not touch the sheep or cattle, knowing that if they do, as Circe foretold, that they will never make it home.  But to their dismay, a South Wind blows for longer than a whole month, and as the men eat up the supplies, Eurylochos finally convinces them to take one of Helios' cattle.  While Odysseus is away, they butcher a fat oxen, using the justification that they will kill it as a sacrifice and then build a temple to Helios when they return home.  Returning, Odysseus is horrified; his men all blame each other and, as Circe and the blind Teiresias prophecied, they are shipwrecked on their way out.  All the men perish but, as he is pulled towards Charybdis, Odysseus manages to hold onto a fig branch until she disgorges two long timbers and he rides on these until he reaches the island of Kalypso.

The Siren
John William Waterhouse (circa 1900)
source Wikipedia


More and more examples of faulty or non-existent leadership abound.  Why did they leave Elpenor without a proper burial?  Odysseus is deceitful towards his men by not telling them that six of them will die while passing by Scylla.  Is this strong leadership; is it the only way they will be able to pass this area and arrive home?  Did Odysseus sacrifice six to save many?  Is this right?  And finally the men not only break their oath to Odysseus by eating the cattle of the Sun god, but they then blame each other when he finds out.  As they struggle to find their homeland and attempt to emerge unscathed after numerous clashes with gods, monsters and fantastical creatures, are they losing some of the qualities that make them human?  Are they becoming more like the world they are inhabiting?

A 19th century engraving of the Strait of Messina, site
associated with Scylla & Charybdis
source Wikipedia

(While copying my post to my Blog, my Blogger font caused me grief and, not having the patience or the resourcefulness of Odysseus, I couldn't fix it without a struggle, so I apologize for the lack of uniformity in this post.)


  1. I started watching the DVDs from the teaching company on The Iliad, like you suggested, so the first Homeric epic should be coming my way soon enough. After that I can't wait to start The Odyssey. I read the children's adaptation long-long time ago, but I am book-marking your posts for future reference during my own journey through the poem.

    1. That's great! I must say, I still like The Iliad better than The Odyssey but both are wonderful epics. Afterwards you might want to delve into some of the Greek tragedies. I notice that in this poem, Orestes (Agamemnon's son) is identified a number of times as a hero who has cleaned the filth from his house (his mother and her lover), so perhaps you could start with The Orestia, as it would give be continuation from the Trojan War.

      The Greeks fascinate me. If I could time-travel, their era is the one where I would like to go!

    2. Oh, I totally thought I had Orestia on my tbr list... I guess I'll be adding that too! It's amazing how much Homer has been influencing literature for thousands of years. If there was indeed one author, I can't imagine how overwhelmed he's feel to know we still read it 3000 years later.

    3. I'm always so helpful in adding books to your TBR pile, aren't I? ;-)

      You're not kidding! I've just read two books that have either referenced Homer or Odysseus. Pretty amazing!

    4. Just in general, the references to many of the characters in Homer's work. Not only do we find Homer and Odysseus referenced, but the Greek gods appear frequently in literature. "We" certainly have a fascination, or obsession, with them as they have withstood the test of time well.

      I will find references to other work characters, Dicken's one will pop-up for example, but not nearly at the same rate.

    5. As a reader and when reading the classics, you have to be widely read to pick up all the different allusions to other works. I just read a post that recommended reading Ovid, different philosophers, Montaigne's essays, Greek epics & plays, etc. simply to get a better understanding of Shakespeare. Even Anne of Green Gables has numerous allusions to other works. I know that I'm missing many of them when I read, but it's so nice to be able to make more and more connections!