Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 9-12

In my previous post about the Odyssey, I shared my thoughts on Books 5-8. Now we move onto Books 9-12, which contain the most well-known episodes of the poem, such as the incident of the Cyclops’ cave, the alluring song of the Sirens, or the sorceress Circe’s transformation of men into pigs—all narrated by Odysseus himself. These fantastic adventures are what people think of whenever the Odyssey is mentioned, and they are a significant part of why so many people—including myself—are fascinated by Homer.

Time for a quick recap of what happens in Books 9-12:

Book 9: Odysseus reveals his identity to the Phaeacians: he is Odysseus, son of Laertes, famous for all manner of cunning, who comes from Ithaca. Then, he begins his story, starting from when he and his men set sail for home after the fall of Troy:

  • Odysseus and his men, seeking plunder, raid the land of the Cicones, but are attacked by reinforcements. After suffering loses, they escape. Then, they are blown off-course into strange, unknown seas.
  • In the land of the lotus-eaters, the locals offer Odysseus’ men lotus-flowers to eat, which cause them to forget that they need to go home. Odysseus drags them by force back to the ships.
  • On the next island, Odysseus and a scouting party enter the cave of Polyphemus, a man-eating Cyclops. Odysseus uses his skill and cunning to escape, calling himself “No One” (Outis in Greek) so that the Cyclops will say to his friends that “no one” is attacking him. As they sail away, a boasting Odysseus taunts the Cyclops and reveals his name, but as a result Polyphemus is able to have his father, the sea god Poseidon, curse Odysseus and make his homeward journey long and miserable.

Book 10:

  • Odysseus and his companions arrive at the island of Aiolos, the god of winds, who gives them a fair wind to send them straight home. He gifts to Odysseus a bag filled with additional winds, but just before they would have reached Ithaca, the men, wanting to see the riches inside, open the bag, and the released winds send them back to Aiolos, who refuses to provide further aid.

    Circe offers a cup of wine to Odysseus. 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse
  • In the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of cannibalistic giants, Odysseus’ men are attacked by the locals, and most are killed. 11 of Odysseus’ 12 ships are destroyed; only his ship escapes.
  • On the island Aeaea, Odysseus sends a scouting party to Circe’s house, and she turns the men into pigs, using drugged wine and her magic wand. With the aid of a protective herb (moly) given to him by Hermes, Odysseus overcomes Circe and has her swear on the Styx not to harm him. The two then sleep together. Circe turns his men back into humans, and they remain feasting in her halls for a year.

Book 11: Circe tells Odysseus to visit the underworld to consult the ghost of the prophet Tiresias. After sailing to a land far across the Ocean, Odysseus follows Circe’s advice and uses a blood ritual to summon the ghosts of the dead. Tiresias tells him what to do to get home, as well as how to appease Poseidon’ wrath. Odysseus also speaks to his mother’ ghost, encounters many famous mythological women, and meets the shades of his fellow warriors at Troy: Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax.

Book 12: Odysseus receives last words of advice from Circe, before he and his men depart from Aeaea.

  • As they sail past the Sirens, Odysseus, according to Circe’s advice, has his men tie him to the mast, while they continue navigating the ship with wax in their ears. He is drawn in by the Sirens, who sing of the glories and sufferings of the Achaeans at Troy, but cannot reach them.
The Sirens approach Odysseus’ ship, with Odysseus tied to the mast. An 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse.
  • They sail between two cliffs: On one side is Skylla, a beast with multiple dog-like heads, but on the other side is Charybdis, who sucks down entire ships with her deadly whirlpools. Odysseus sails closer to Skylla, the lesser of two evils, and loses only a few men, instead of his whole ship.
  • Odysseus advises his men to avoid the island of Thrinacia, where the sun god Helios keeps his sacred cattle, because eating the cattle–according to Tiresias and Circe–will bring destruction down upon them. But they insist on stopping to rest, and they are trapped by adverse winds. Hungry, the men, against Odysseus’ orders, slaughter and eat the cattle. Angered, Helios has Zeus strike their ship with a lightning bolt as they are sailing away: all the men but Odysseus die. Odysseus then drifts until he reaches Calypso’s island.

As my Greek professor says, Homeric scholarship is endless. One could spend years filling entire books with innumerable observations about just Books 9-12 of the Odyssey and never run out material to discuss. But that is of course beyond the scope of a blog post! So, I’m going to list only a couple of general things I noticed about these sections:

1) Odysseus’ narration of his own adventures is aimed at convincing the Phaeacians to uphold the rules of xenia, or ancient Greek hospitality. According to xenia, strangers, travelers, and suppliants are to be welcomed as honored guests, given food, drink, clothes, and other necessities, and then speedily sent off toward their destination with gifts in hand.

To ensure that he will be treated well and granted safe passage to Ithaca, Odysseus in his account emphasizes disruptions of xenia within the wild places beyond civilization, as if to persuade the sophisticated and cultured Phaeacians that they ought to uphold xenia as a cornerstone of proper, civilized society.

Thus, the Cyclopes and Laestrygonians violently eat their guests, instead of feeding them. The Lotus-Eaters do feed their guests, but with a food that causes them to forget to go home: there is no swift send-off. Circe too detains her guests, by deceiving them with drugs and turning them into pigs. Even after Odysseus’ men become humans again, she treats them with endless feasts for a year and continues to sleep with Odysseus: still they are prevented from leaving.

2) Odysseus also attempts to portray himself sympathetically, so that the Phaeacians have no reason to deny him good treatment.

Think of it this way: Odysseus set sail from Troy with twelve entire ships filled with his companions, yet he appears in the city of the Phaeacians suspiciously accompanied by exactly zero of his friends. What happened to them? Was he responsible somehow for their deaths or disappearance?

Odysseus’ narrative is a chance for him to say that their fate was not his fault: the companions perished because Helios and Zeus punished them for their wrongdoings, not because of his shortcomings as a leader.

At the same time, Odysseus tries to emphasize his own skills and abilities: he escapes the Cyclops’ cave using trickery and intelligence. Even so, he admits that he does make mistakes, such as revealing his name to Polyphemus. But that too might be for his own advantage: he could be trying to earn sympathy from the Phaeacians, by emphasizing his own fallible human nature.

3) If Odysseus is able to manipulate his narrative for his own advantage, how can we as an audience trust anything that he says to the Phaeacians? There is no indication that Odysseus is outright lying about what happened to him, but it does seem odd that most, if not all, of the supernatural and fantastic occurrences in the Odyssey are contained only within these books.

Could it be possible that Odysseus has exaggerated or elaborated upon his adventures in such a way as to make them more exciting or fantastic? Perhaps he is trying to spread his own fame as a hero and adventurer by impressing the Phaeacians with his exploits. Certainly, it would not be entirely surprising if Odysseus, in trying to persuade the Phaeacians to treat him well, actually invents some of the stories about failures of xenia.

There is no other account of what happened to Odysseus which we can use to corroborate his story. Given his propensity for lies and deception, we must suspect that at least some of these tales have been altered or fabricated for his own purposes, but in the end, it is probably impossible to determine for sure what, if anything, within these famous sections of the Odyssey have been invented by Odysseus.

Alright, that’s it for today! Next time, we will discuss Books 13-16, in which Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca.


2 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 9-12

  1. “but it does seem odd that most, if not all, of the supernatural and fantastic occurrences in the Odyssey are contained only within these books.”

    I had not thought of it that way, but yes! My Iliad essay concerned much of this issue of how much we can trust the Homeric narrator. Once you take the Hesiodic dictum that the Muses lie, well, many more things are questionable.

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