The Odyssey

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The Odyssey Book 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The men returned to Aeaea, performed all the proper funeral rites for Elpenor, and buried his body. Before Odysseus and his men depart, Circe told Odysseus that he must pass the island of the Sirens, who will try to lure the men to their deaths with their songs. She advised that Odysseus put earwax in the men's ears, and that they tie Odysseus to the mast if he insisted on hearing the Sirens' songs.
The songs of the Sirens create pure, unmotivated desire, which overrides the listener's more particular desire for home, life, or anything. It is a dishonorable, selfish desire, lacking all self-restraint, that has no object but personal satisfaction. In contrast, the desire for home is directed outward toward family and friends.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
Next, she told him, the crew must pass between Scylla, a terrible six-headed monster, and Charybdis, who creates a whirlpool that sucks whole ships down into the sea three times a day. Only the ship Argo has passed between these monsters with no lives lost. Circe advised that Odysseus sail his ship past Scylla and sacrifice six men rather than risk getting sucked down into the whirlpool and sinking. Odysseus asked if he can escape Charybdis and fight off Scylla, but Circe chastised Odysseus for his stubbornness: Scylla is immortal and can't be defeated.
Circe advises him to choose Scylla's violence over the whirlpool of Charybdis, but Odysseus wants the glory of repeating the Argo's amazing achievement and fight them off: a plan that risks the lives of the crewmen and shows disrespect to the gods. Scylla may not be a goddess, but she is immortal: it is impious to pit mortal will against immortal will.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
The sun rose as Circe finished, and the men prepared their ship for departure. As the ship sailed away, Odysseus told the men Circe's advice, though he told them that Circe said he must hear the Sirens' songs, and didn't mention Scylla and Charybdis because he didn't want to paralyze the men with fear. As they pass the island of the Siren's the men put wax in their ears and lash Odysseus to the mast and they pass without incident. When they came to Charybdis they carefully sail around the whirlpool, and Scylla grabbed and ate six men. Filled with grief and pity, the men sail away as fast as possible.
Odysseus follows Circe advice exactly. He manages to the glorious achievement of hearing the siren's song, but does not pit his will against that song. He literally has himself restrained. And though he wants to fight Scylla and gain glory, he does not. His honorable sense of responsibility to his crew overrides his desire for glory.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
Next they reached the island of the Sun. Odysseus wanted to avoid the island altogether, but Eurylochus insisted that the crew needed rest. Odysseus made the men swear an oath not to eat any cattle, but they were trapped on the island for a month by an inopportune wind; eventually their stores ran out and the men began to starve. One day Odysseus fell asleep, and Eurylochus convinced the men to eat the Cattle of the Sun: it's better to die at sea from the wrath of the gods, he said, than to die of hunger. Odysseus woke up to find that the men had broken their oaths and killed some cattle.
The roles of Odysseus and Eurylochus are reversed. On Circe's island, Eurylochus had been the sensible one and Odysseus had been the risk-taker. On the island of the Sun, Odysseus is sensible and Eurylochus is careless and disobedient. When glory is not in question, Odysseus is more capable of exercising self-restraint. The episode is another instance in which the men make a fatal error while Odysseus is asleep.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
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The sun god Helios angrily asked Zeus and the other gods to punish Odysseus's crew for killing his cattle, and Zeus complied. Strange things began to happen to the cattle that had been killed: they bellowed and moved. But the men continue to feast for six more days before sailing away. As soon as they were out at sea Zeus sent down a storm that destroyed the ship and killed everyone aboard except Odysseus, who hung on to some pieces of wood. The wind drove him back toward Charybdis right when the monster made the whirlpool, but Odysseus saved himself by hanging on to the branch of a fig-tree. After the whirlpool spit back out his little raft he drifted at sea until he reached Calypso's island. Here Odysseus stops his tale: he had told the rest earlier.
The men show impiety when they ignore the bad omens sent down by the gods and continue to feast on the cattle. In this world, people must not only obey the direct orders of the gods but also try to guess their desires and intentions based on more or less ambiguous signs. Impiety or not, the crew is doomed. According to divine justice, their lives are less valuable than the lives of Helios's cattle. Justice in this world is not determined by the sanctity of human life but by rules of honor and piety.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon