King of an island off the western coast of Greece; one of the heroes who fought in the Trojan War. On his trip home from Troy, Odysseus and his shipmates encountered a number of perils.
At one point their ship was blown far off course, and they fetched up on a small wooded island, where they beached the vessels and gave thought to provisions. Odysseus had noticed a larger island nearby, from which came the sound of bleating goats. This was encouraging to his growling stomach, and he detailed a scouting party and led it to the far shore. Here they found a huge goat pen outside a cave and, inside, all the cheeses and meat they could desire. They were lounging in drowsy contentment when the shepherd came home.
The sight of him brought the Greeks to fullest attention. He was as big as a barn, with a single glaring eye in the middle of his forehead. He was one of the Cyclopes, giant blacksmiths who had built Olympus for the gods. This particular Cyclops was named Polyphemus. He and his neighbors lived like hermits with their flocks. If the Greeks were shocked, Polyphemus was pleasantly surprised. For here before him at his own hearth was a treat that would nicely vary his diet.
Taking care to roll a boulder into the mouth of the cave – a stone so huge that even a full crew of heroes could not stir it – he promptly snatched up the nearest two of Odysseus’s men, bashed out their brains on the floor and popped them into his mouth. Then with a belch he curled up in a corner and drifted happily to sleep. Odysseus naturally was beside himself with concern. What had he led his men into?
There was nothing for it, though, but to wait out the night in terror, for the boulder blocked the door. In the morning the Cyclops rolled the massive stone aside, called his goats together and let them out, some to pasture and others to the pen in the yard. Then he sealed the entrance again. That night he had more Greeks for dinner.
Desperate, Odysseus conceived a plan. To begin with, he offered the Cyclops wine. This was especially potent wine, which he and his men had brought ashore in skins. The Greeks customarily mixed water with their wine to dilute its strength. But the Cyclops had never drunk wine before, diluted or not, and it went straight to his head. Before he conked out, he asked Odysseus his name.
“Nobody,” replied the hero.
“Well, Mr. Nobody, I like you,” said the Cyclops drowsily. “In fact, I like you so much that I’m going to do you a favor. I’ll eat you last.
” With these encouraging words he fell fast asleep. Odysseus jumped up and put his men to work. They put a sharp point on the end of a pole and hardened it in the fire. Then, with a mighty “heave-ho”, they rammed it into the Cyclops’ eye.
In agony Polyphemus groped about blindly for his tormentors, but the Greeks dodged him all night long. “Help, come quickly!” he shouted at one point, and his fellow Cyclopes came running.
“What’s the matter?” they called in at the mouth of the cave.
“I’m blinded and in agony,” roared Polyphemus.
“Whose fault is it?” they shouted back.
“Nobody’s,” said Polyphemus.
“Well in that case,” responded the Cyclopes as they departed, “you’ve got a lot of nerve bothering us.”
In the morning, as usual, Polyphemus called his flock together and rolled the boulder aside to let them out. He planted himself in the door to bar the Greeks’ escape. Muttering at great length to his ram, he sought sympathy for his affliction. “Whatever you do,” he told the beast, “don’t trust Greeks.”
So saying, he stroked the animal’s wooly back and sent him from the cave. Little did he know that Odysseus himself clung to the ram’s belly. And, in a similar fashion, his shipmates had escaped beneath the rest of the flock. When Polyphemus realized the deception he rushed to the seaside, where Odysseus and his men were rowing hard for safety. The hero could not resist a taunt.
“Just to set the record straight, the name’s Odysseus,” he called across the water. “But you have Nobody to thank for your troubles – nobody but yourself, that is.”
With a mighty curse Polyphemus threw a boulder which almost swamped the ship. But the rowers redoubled their efforts. They left the blinded Cyclops raging impotently on the shore.
And so it was that the next time Odysseus and his crew put in at a beautiful but slightly spooky island, the hero had second thoughts about who would go out and scout for provisions. Having himself led the shore party last time and almost been eaten by the Cyclops for his pains, this time Odysseus put someone else in command and sent him out with half the crew. The rest stayed in camp and alternately worried about the scouts and thanked their lucky stars that they hadn’t been picked.
Their worries were justified. The explorers had come upon a snug little house in a clearing, where a beautiful woman invited them in for tea. They’d already observed that the yard was full of lions and wolves of a surprisingly docile nature, but they chose to overlook this portent that something might be amiss. All but one of the sailors accepted the invitation and went inside. Whereupon their hostess, who turned out to be an enchantress by the name of Circe, turned them into swine.
The one crew member who hadn’t shared this fate reported back to Odysseus, who must have thought a grouchy thought or two about the responsibilities of captaincy before he set out to see what he could do for his men – or, rather, pigs. When he was approaching the house, he happened to run into the god Hermes. Or perhaps it was something more than happenstance. Those of the Olympians who weren’t trying to make Odysseus’s life miserable were bent on helping him, and they’d sent their herald with a timely bit of aid. This was in the form of a sprig of moly, a magical sort of plant which, Hermes assured Odysseus, would counteract the witch’s spells.
Sure enough, Circe had no sooner said hello to her latest visitor and raised her magic wand to turn him forthwith into a porker than Odysseus drew his sword as Hermes had instructed him to do. And holding the moly to his nose like smelling salts, he said:
“Drop that thing right now or your wand-waving days are over!” (Or words to that effect.)
Circe was so taken aback that she not only spared Odysseus her spells but restored all his men to human form. She and Odysseus became great friends. The hero stayed with her for many a day, and when at last he set out again Circe gave him essential advice about the perils ahead.
It was Circe who told Odysseus that he would have to make a side trip to Hades. Only the blind prophet Teiresias could tell him how to find his way home at last, and Teiresias happened to be dead. So Odysseus sailed west until he reached the stream of Ocean, the broad river that encircles the earth (or so the ancient Greeks conceived their geography). And here he found the frontier of Hades. At the confluence of the infernal rivers Styx and Acheron, Odysseus dug a pit and poured sacrificial blood into it. At which the ghosts of the dead thronged up, eager to drink the vital liquid and regain their living strength.
Odysseus held them all at bay until he had talked to Teiresias, and then he decided to speak to various other deceased celebrities. Among these was the great hero Achilles. Achilles had been the best fighter of the Greeks besieging Troy. He had slain the Trojan hero Hector in single combat and was only brought down himself by the connivance of the god Apollo. Now he lived in paramount honor among the heroic dead. Odysseus hailed him as first among mortals while living and now virtually on a par with the gods, albeit consigned to Hades.
“Enough, smooth-talking Odysseus!” Achilles interrupted. “I’d rather be a lowly farmhand – and a living man – than king of these hollow dead.”
Then cheered somewhat by tidings of the prowess of his son, he went striding off across the fields of asphodel, a gray and ghostly flower. Such was the version of Hades sung of by the minstrel Homer. And though others sang of the fields of Elysium, where the likes of Achilles lived on in splendid company, in pleasant surroundings, in heroic pursuits of the hunt and banquet, Achilles’ words haunt the memory. Though the humblest toil await, how sweeter indeed the dawn’s pink light under an open sky than the strange paradise at the edge of the western world.
Now Odysseus faced an awesome series of challenges, the first of these in the form of the enchanting Sirens. There were two or three Sirens, who had the bodies of women with bird heads and bird feet, or bird bodies with women’s heads and voices. Some say that they acquired this form when, as attendants to the goddess Demeter, they witnessed the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, god of the dead.
Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow one day when a huge crack in the earth opened up and Hades emerged in his chariot. He snatched up Persephone and descended to his realm again. Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was heartbroken, and while she wandered the length and breadth of the earth in search of her daughter, the crops withered and it became perpetual winter. At length Hades was persuaded to surrender Persephone for one half of every year, the spring and summer seasons when flowers bloom and the earth bears fruit once more. The half year that Persephone spends in the Underworld as Hades’ queen coincides with the barren season.
The Sirens, meanwhile, had been punished with bird legs for not thwarting the abduction, or they were given wings to extend the scope of Demeter’s search for Persephone. In later years they settled on a rock in the west, off the coast of what is now called Italy. Here the sweetness of their singing, together with the strains of flute and lyre, lured sailors to their doom. Those who heard the haunting melody lost all thought of home and languished on the Sirens’ rock until they died. Or they forgot their sailorly craft and shipwreck ensued.
When the Argonauts passed by on their return from Colchis with the Golden Fleece, Orpheus saved his crewmates from this fate by his own singing and plucking of the lyre. Some claim that he simply drowned out the Sirens. Others say that he sang more sweetly.
Forewarned by Circe of the Sirens’ musical reputation, Odysseus also saved his ships when passing their lair. He plugged up the ears of his crew but, wishing to hear what all the fuss was about, he left his own unplugged. He took the precaution, though, of having himself tied to the mast. So he couldn’t grab the tiller and make for the rocks when, true to their reputation, the Sirens lured him on.
Next his route took him past two obstacles that have become proverbial in the expression “between Scylla and Charybdis”. Charybdis was a whirlpool in the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Many times a day this monster gulped down the larger part of the surrounding sea and then belched it up again. This constituted a serious impediment to navigation.
Odysseus had decided to risk it because the alternative was worse – the Wandering Rocks, which smashed together upon any ship that tried to shoot the gap between them. These weren’t the same as the Clashing Rocks, which were braved by Jason and the Argonauts as they sailed to Colchis, land of the Golden Fleece. To compound the confusion, Jason and crew encountered the Clashing Rocks on their way to Colchis and the Wandering Rocks on their return. The Nereids, daughters of the Old Man of the Sea, guided them through safely on the latter occasion.
Odysseus had been warned about the whirlpool by Circe, and he told his men to steer clear, keeping up against the base of the cliff opposite. What he didn’t tell the men was that the cliff harbored the dreaded Scylla. Scylla had started out as a beautiful maiden but had ended up a monster with six heads and an equal number of slavering maws.
Odysseus had been instructed to put up no resistance but felt honor-bound to don his armor and brandish his sword – for all the good it did him. Scylla promptly snatched up and gobbled six sailors simultaneously while their captain looked on in an agony of frustration. There was nothing for it but to row harder – to have changed course would have meant the whirlpool.
And so before you grab some oars and go boating westerly, beware if your course should take you ‘twixt the devil and the deep blue sea. Odysseus exults to return home at last.