Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Blogging the Odyssey - Book 12

First, the Sparknotes summary:

Odysseus returns to Aeaea, where he buries Elpenor and spends one last night with Circe. She describes the obstacles that he will face on his voyage home and tells him how to negotiate them. As he sets sail, Odysseus passes Circe’s counsel on to his men. They approach the island of the lovely Sirens, and Odysseus, as instructed by Circe, plugs his men’s ears with beeswax and has them bind him to the mast of the ship. He alone hears their song flowing forth from the island, promising to reveal the future. The Sirens’ song is so seductive that Odysseus begs to be released from his fetters, but his faithful men only bind him tighter.

Once they have passed the Sirens’ island, Odysseus and his men must navigate the straits between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed monster who, when ships pass, swallows one sailor for each head. Charybdis is an enormous whirlpool that threatens to swallow the entire ship. As instructed by Circe, Odysseus holds his course tight against the cliffs of Scylla’s lair. As he and his men stare at Charybdis on the other side of the strait, the heads of Scylla swoop down and gobble up six of the sailors.

Odysseus next comes to Thrinacia, the island of the Sun. He wants to avoid it entirely, but the outspoken Eurylochus persuades him to let his beleaguered crew rest there. A storm keeps them beached for a month, and at first the crew is content to survive on its provisions in the ship. When these run out, however, Eurylochus persuades the other crew members to disobey Odysseus and slaughter the cattle of the Sun. They do so one afternoon as Odysseus sleeps; when the Sun finds out, he asks Zeus to punish Odysseus and his men. Shortly after the Achaeans set sail from Thrinacia, Zeus kicks up another storm, which destroys the ship and sends the entire crew to its death beneath the waves. As had been predicted, only Odysseus survives, and he just barely. The storm sweeps him all the way back to Charybdis, which he narrowly escapes for the second time. Afloat on the broken timbers of his ship, he eventually reaches Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus here breaks from his story, stating to the Phaeacians that he sees no reason to repeat to them his account of his experience on Ogygia.

This is the last Book of the first half of the Odyssey, the part that deals with Odysseus' wanderings.  From this point onwards, the narrative turns to the circumstances of his return and reintegration into his household and family in Ithaka.

This Book contains the well-known story of Odysseus and the Sirens, with Odysseus using Kirke's famous trick in order to become the first man ever to hear the song of the Sirens and survive.

The question of what song the Sirens sang later became something of a metaphor for obscure or unknowable knowledge, but Homer is quite explicit about the lyrics of the Sirens' song, if not its melody:
Come here, much-praised Odysseus, great glory of the Greeks,
halt your ship, so that you may listen to our voice.
For no-one has ever yet sailed past this black island
before hearing the honey-sweet voice of our mouths -
indeed, he has joy in it and sails on with greater knowledge.
For we know everything that in the wide land of Troy
the Argives and Trojans endured by the will of the gods,
and we know everything that happens on the fertile earth.
Some scholars have argued that the Sirens (together with certain other characters in Greek mythology) are evidence of an association in the ancient Greek male mind between women and danger.  But arguably the most striking thing about the episode is that the Sirens try to tempt Odysseus not with offers of anything predictable - sex, or wealth, or even kleos - but with an offer of knowledge, expressed in beautiful music.  A difficult proposition indeed to resist.

The song also gives us a whiff of the past, in the mention of the Trojan War - another indication of the importance of memory and nostalgia in the poem.

The dominant theme of the Book is perhaps the power of the gods.  It is the anger of Hyperion, the sun-god, which seals the fate of Odysseus' remaining companions.  Zeus makes another appearance as the king of the gods, to whose authority the other deities are subject.