Odysseus continues his story to the Phaeacians: The men's next stop was the Aeolian island, home to the god of the winds. They stayed with Aeolus for a month, and his parting gift to Odysseus was a sack holding the winds. Aeolus freed the West Wind to blow Odysseus's ship toward home, the men sailed for nine days, and on the tenth they caught sight of Ithaca's shores. Just then, Odysseus fell asleep from exhaustion. His crew became suspicious that the tied up bag Odysseus had gotten from Aeolus contained a great treasure he wasn't sharing, so they untied it to see what was inside and in doing so freed the winds. Odysseus woke and watched in despair as the winds blew them back out to sea and then to Aeolus's island.
Even gods like Aeolus follow the laws of hospitality: they welcome guests and give parting gifts. In this episode, the men themselves (rather than the gods) delay their homecoming. But there is still a sense of justice at play: one can say that fate punishes the crewmen for their dishonorable, unjustified suspicions of their captain, not to mention their inability to show some self-restraint. The episode also illustrates the dangers of sleep and forgetfulness.
Odysseus begged Aeolus for help, but Aeolus believed that Odysseus's misfortune proved that he was hated by the gods, and turned him away. There was no wind to help them, so the men had to row; after seven days, they reached the island of the Laestrygonians. Odysseus sent a few men to investigate – were the inhabitants civilized people or monsters? They met a princess at a well, and she sent them inside her father's palace. They saw an enormous queen, who called over her husband Antiphates; he walked in and ate one of Odysseus's men, but the other two fled. The Laestrygonians ate most of Odysseus's crew, but one ship escaped.
Aeolus's response shows the ways in which chance is conflated with fate, luck with justice. If someone is unlucky, he was believed to have wronged the gods: nothing is random, though most things seem random. And it seems that bad luck, in this world, attracts more bad luck: it seems quite improbable that Odysseus's ship should encounter two cannibalistic cultures in such quick succession.
Odysseus and his single ship sailed on, and anchored on Circe's island. They rested for two days, and Odysseus went out and killed a deer to feed his men. They feasted and slept. The next morning, Odysseus told the men that he saw smoke rising somewhere in the middle of the island, and the men cried out in fear of the inhabitants of the island. Odysseus responded that crying does them no good, and sends half his men to investigate. When the men came to Circe's palace, they heard her singing as she weaved. They called out to her and walked in – all but Eurylochus. She welcomed them to her table, but she mixed a potion into their food that erased their memories of home and turned them into pigs.
The men cry not in honor of absent or departed friends, but in fear for their own lives: as Odysseus points out, this kind of grief is neither useful nor honorable. When Circe erases the men's memories, she turns them into pigs at once: we might interpret this to mean that a person without memories, without desires and goals, is like an animal: a person stripped of the most important human qualities.
Eurylochus ran back to the ship and told Odysseus that the men vanished into the palace and did not return. Odysseus set off for the palace, but before he reached its doors he met Hermes, who was disguised as a young man. The god gave him a drug called moly that would make him immune to Circe's potion. When Circe touches you with her wand, the god advised, run at her with your sword until she backs away in fear and invites you to her bed. The god told Odysseus to accept the goddess's offer, but only after she swore a binding oath not to hurt him.
Odysseus's encounter with Hermes is another apparently random divine intervention. Earlier in the book, Hermes acted on behalf of Zeus; but Odysseus is not at this moment in Zeus's favor, so Hermes appears to be acting of his own accord. Again, the intervention is indirect: Hermes does not disable Circe or grant Odysseus magic powers – he uses the plant as an intermediary.
When Odysseus walked into Circe's palace, everything happened just as Hermes predicted, and Circe then guessed that the stranger must be Odysseus. When they retired to bed, Circe's maids prepared a bath and a feast. But Odysseus was too troubled to eat, so Circe transformed his crew from swine to men again. Odysseus returned to his ship to hide his cargo in caves and to call the rest of his crew back to the palace. Eurylochus urged the men to depart right then, instead of rushing into a situation that might be a trap; he reminded them of the men that died in Polyphemus's cave because of Odysseus's poor judgment. But the men followed Odysseus, Eurylochus included.
Though Odysseus acts honorably in following Hermes' advice, because it enables him to save his crewmen, it is an idea of honor that lies uneasily with our own: he threatens a woman with violence until she offers herself to him. (Odysseus's sleeping around also doesn't seem like the act of a man who is so desperate to return to his wife, but some things you just have to chalk up to different times.) As Eurylochus points out, Odysseus's decision to return to the palace is risky and unwarranted. Perhaps Odysseus is flattered by the goddess's attention: it is glorious to have a goddess for a lover.
The men stayed on the island for a year, living in luxury, but after a year the crew grew increasingly restless and finally convinced Odysseus that it was time to leave. Circe advised him to go down to the land of the dead to speak to the ghost of Tiresias, a blind prophet.
Odysseus, here, is guilty of the crime of forgetfulness in the pleasures of Circe's palace: the crew has to remind him of his desire for home. Again, here, we see that though the gods are powerful they are not all-knowing: Circe herself cannot tell Odysseus how to return home, so she sends him to see Tiresias. The limits to the power and knowledge of the gods perhaps allow some room for human free will.
Circe told him to find the spot where the River of Fire and the River of Tears meet, to dig a trench there, to pour milk and honey, wine, and water for the dead, to sprinkle barley; finally, she said, he must promise the dead to kill a heifer when he returned to of Ithaca and to slaughter a black ram for Tiresias. Afterwards, Odysseus must slaughter a ram and an ewe with his head turned away. Only then will the shades emerge. At that moment, Odysseus's crew must burn the corpses while Odysseus keeps the shades away from blood; then Tiresias will appear and advise him how to complete his journey home.
Though the men make the choice to leave the island, they must blindly follow Circe's bizarre advice. Their actions are a mixture of free will and obedience.
As Odysseus and his crew woke the next morning to depart, they discovered that Elpenor, the youngest member of the crew, had gotten drunk the night before, slept on the roof, and when he woke in the morning at the sound of the other men working he fell off the roof and broke his neck. Odysseus explained their coming journey to the underworld, and the men were disappointed to learn how complicated the trip will be.
Elpenor is an example of a lack of self-restraint—he gets so drunk he goes to sleep in a dangerous place and kills himself by waking up. The men's reaction to their journey shows how they don't seek glory any longer, they just want to get home.