July 1, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas
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[The Sirens][1]
By: Homer
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,
but listen closely to what I tell you now
and god himself will bring it back to mind.[2]
First you will raise the island of the Sirens,[3]
those creatures who spellbind any man alive, 5 (45)
whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air­[4]
no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him,
no happy children beaming up at their father’s face.[5]
The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, 10 (50)
lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses
rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones . . .[6]
Race straight past that coast! Soften some beeswax
and stop your shipmates’ ears so none can hear,
none of the crew, but if you are bent on hearing,[7] 15 (55)
have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship,
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast
so you can hear the Sirens’ song to your heart’s content.[8]
But if you plead, commanding your men to set you free,
then they must lash you faster, rope on rope.” 20 (60)

[ . . . ]

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,
“Friends . . . it’s wrong for only one or two
to know the revelations that lovely Circe
made to me alone. I’ll tell you all,
so we can die with our eyes wide open now 25 (170)
or escape our fate and certain death together.
First, she warns, we must steer clear of the Sirens,
their enchanting song, their meadow starred with flowers.
I alone was to hear their voices, so she said,[9]
but you must bind me with tight chafing ropes 30 (175)
so I cannot move a muscle, bound to the spot,
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast.
And if I plead, commanding you to set me free,
then lash me faster, rope on pressing rope.”

     So I informed my shipmates point by point, 35 (180)
all the while our trim ship was speeding toward
the Sirens’ island, driven on by the brisk wind.[10]
But then-the wind fell in an instant,
all glazed to a dead calm . . .[11]
a mysterious power hushed the heaving swells. 40 (185)
The oarsmen leapt to their feet, struck the sail,
stowed it deep in the hold and sat to the oarlocks,
thrashing with polished oars, frothing the water white.
Now with a sharp sword I sliced an ample wheel of beeswax
down into pieces, kneaded them in my two strong hands 45 (190)
and the wax soon grew soft, worked by my strength
and Helios’ burning rays, the sun at high noon,
and I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one.
They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast­ 50 (195)
and rowed and churned the whitecaps stroke on stroke.
We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry,
scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship
was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song:
“Come closer, famous Odysseus-Achaea’s pride and glory- 55 (200)
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song![12]
Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft
until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips,
and once he hears to his heart’s content sails on, a wiser man.[13]
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured 60 (205)
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”[14]

     So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free— 65 (210)
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder,
Perimedes and Eurylochus springing up at once
to bind me faster with rope on chafing rope.
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call­— 70 (215)
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.

Notes & Comentary

  1. From the Odyssey, Book 12 (Homer 1996, pp. 272–277).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Actually, this is not what she said, but she does give him the idea to listen on line 15 above.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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).
  13. 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).
  14. 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).

Works Cited

  • 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.