July 1, 2021
Odysseus and his crew return to Circe’s island after their trip to the Underworld. Odysseus tells Circe of his experiences, and she warns him of what lies ahead on his journey.
“Your descent to the dead is over, true,
[ . . . ]
Circe tells Odysseus about more trials, specifically Scylla and Charybdis and the cattle on the Island of the Sun which he must leave unharmed or their ship will be destroyed and all his crew will be lost. Odysseus and his men set sail the next day.
At last, and sore at heart, I told my shipmates,
Notes & Comentary
- From the Odyssey, Book 12 (Homer 1996, pp. 272–277).
- Circe’s warning parallels Hermes’ in book ten, where the god himself was able to help Odysseus arm himself against Circe’s magic.Hexter 1993, p. 160).
- Despite the many depictions of the Sirens as mermaids (a derivation of Siren) or other mythological, sometimes winged, creatures, they are never described by Homer (Scodel 2011, pp. 805–806). There are two of them, and they, like Circe, live on an island, later named Anthemoessa, or “flowery,” by Hesiod (Scodel 2011, p. 805). Also unlike popular depictions, they do not physically engage would-be victims, but attempt to lure them to their death. They might be best though of as “anonymous and shapeless Demons of High Noon” with “no exact mythology shape or nature” (Germain 1962, p. 92).
- Notice the qualifiers here, too close and off guard seem to suggest a limit to the Sirens’ song. Indeed, in order to be tempted, one’s guard must be down to some extent.
- As is clear repeatedly throughout the Odyssey and established by Odysseus himself in his recounting of “The Lotos Eaters,” their goal is to reach home, and anything that delays them from that task—especially those things that tempt their desires—would be evil. The Sirens represent a temptation, but of what?
These images of the wife and children should be particularly resonant for Odysseus, especially coming from Circe, the woman who kept Odysseus in thrall for a year in his flawless bed of love.
- Just how the transfixed men die is unknown: starvation, poison, drowning, sunstroke are all options, as none are specifically supported by the text (Germain 1962, p. 92). Regardless, the horror here is dying on an alien shore and never seeing home again. I like how this description ends with an ellipsis, suggesting that Circe trails off, emphasizing the true horror of the situation and leaving both Odysseus and the audience to speculate about the weight of her words. This is almost cinematic: image a camera panning over an island wasteland of bones shrouded in mist, the music threatening and lulling as something moves beyond the camera range.
- Here, Circe seems to be subtly encouraging Odysseus to listen, whether as revenge for leaving her or to give him some implied benefit. Indeed, one of Odysseus’ dominant characteristics is his curiosity, so she may know him so well, she anticipates his desire—heart’s content below.
- As Kafka reminds us, any traveler who came before Odysseus could have done the same, but the Sirens’ song would likely have pierced the wax and have broken the bonds that secured Odysseus to the mast (Kafka 1962, p. 98). I might disagree with Kafka here, as the key seems to be Circe’s warning to Odysseus so he would not arrive off guard.
- Actually, this is not what she said, but she does give him the idea to listen on line 15 above.
- The wind might be Poseidon’s doing, to push Odysseus into danger, as well as its falling—by some mysterious power—in an instant as soon as they are within ear’s shot of the Sirens’ island. Or, it could be an effect of the Sirens’ magic.
- Again, an ominous ellipsis that leaves the details to our imagination. The wind failing also presages the ship’s landing on Helios’ island later in the book. Yet, these men are not off guard and are ready for this encounter because of Circe’s and Odysseus’ warnings.
- The Sirens’ know Odysseus, just as they seem to know about the Trojan war below. Their song here is a temptation sung for him specifically, to make him betray his essential destiny (Germain 1962, p. 93).
- Greater knowledge or wisdom seems to be the Sirens’ temptation—at least for Odysseus. This desire is consistent with Odysseus’ character presented throughout the Odyssey (Hexter 1993, p. 160).
- There is it: they know it all—just what Odysseus seems to want. In another way, this could also be a promise of how to cope after war, or the way to bring a reconciliation to the devastation it wrought. This could also be an archetypal knowledge of the workings of the universe, something that was promised to Adam and Even in Eden by the Serpent (Germain 1962, p. 92).
Like the Muses, the Sirens claim to know everything, but in actuality, they are anti-Muses who do not permit their audience to do anything by listen (Scodel 2011, p. 805).
- Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to the Odyssey. New York: Vintage.
- Homer (1996). The Odyssey. Translated by Fagles, Robert. New York: Penguin.
- Germain, Gabriel (1962). "The Sirens and the Temptation of Knowledge". In Steiner, George; Fagles, Robert. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. pp. 91–97.
- Kafka, Franz (1962). "The Silence of the Sirens". In Steiner, George; Fagles, Robert. Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc. pp. 98–99.
- Scodel, Ruth (2011). "Sirens". In Finkelberg, Margalit. The Homer Encyclopedia. III. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 805–806.