The previous part ended when Odysseus was about to depart the island of Circe, where he learned that, in order to find a way to reach Ithaca safely, he would have to visit Hades, the ancient Greek kingdom of the dead.
“The Odyssey” Books 11-12: Odysseus and The Souls of Hades
Odysseus sails away with his crew and lands on the region of Cimmerians, where the men of Winter resided. There he follows Circe’s instructions and performs a ritual that would open the veil that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, allowing him to talk to the ghost of the blind clairvoyant Tiresias.
The area was surrounded by thick fog. Odysseus performed the ritual, which involved sacrificing animals and offering milk and honey. He was warned that if he did not feed the souls of the dead, they would try to drink his blood. From the pit he had dug, countless souls appeared and started to consume the offerings. Odysseus came across many people he had met in his life, including his dead mother Anticleia. The Ithacan king had to sit far away from the pit until the fortune teller Tiresias appeared. He cried while watching his mother feast on the blood, without being able to talk with her.
All of a sudden, Theban Teiresias appears. “Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, what now, hapless man? Why hast thou left the light of the sun and come hither to behold the dead and a region where is no joy? Nay, give place from the pit and draw back thy sharp sword, that I may drink of the blood and tell thee sooth,” he said.
Teiresias tells Odysseus that he should not touch the flocks of Helios when he lands on Thrinakia and he predicts that he will manage to kill Penelope’s suitors when he finally reaches Ithaca. Teiresias also consoles Odysseus to make a sacrifice to Poseidon once he reaches a land where the people do not know of the sea. This is the only way to appease the god of the sea and live a trouble-free life.
Teiresias then allows Anticleia to drink from the blood and finally talk with her son. Odysseus had left Ithaca knowing that his mother was alive. He was unaware she was dead. Anticleia explains that she couldn’t bear waiting for her son’s return; her constant worries killed her. Odysseus tries to hug his mother at this point but she vanishes into thin air. The souls of the dead start surrounding Odysseus, telling him their stories of how they died. The king of Ithaca starts running away from the pit and sails away with his crew.
The Sirens | Odysseus’ Journey
They first stop at Circe’s island where they make a funeral pyre for the soul of Elpenor who had died there and whom they met when talking with the souls of the dead. Circe then warns them of a great danger they might face during their trip. On their way to the island of Helios, the Sun, the Ithacans might come across the Sirens, a group of dangerous creatures that lured sailors with their beautiful voices on the rocks they resided on. Contrary to the popular belief, the Sirens were not mermaids but gigantic birds that had women’s faces.
The Ithacans were advised to wear earplugs and therefore never listen to the irresistible song of the Sirens. And that is exactly what they did. However, Odysseus was very curious and wanted to have this experience before settling to Ithaca. Instead of wearing earplugs, he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and commanded them to not listen to him or untie him until they are far away from the Sirens.
The sailors soon noticed the rocky island of the Sirens in the horizon. They tied Odysseus to the mast, put some wax in their ears, and started paddling faster than ever. The blood-thirsty Sirens tried seducing the men with their beautiful voices, asking them to make a stop on their island. Odysseus was begging his men for mercy – he was asking them to untie him and let him swim towards these magical and seductive women. But his sailors could not listen to him. After some time that felt like an eternity, they were able to sail away from the Sirens and finally untie their leader.
Scylla and Charybdis |Odysseus’ Journey
The next obstacle they had to surpass was a pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two deadly sea monsters that had caused countless deaths in the sea. The narrow pass was located between Sicily and Calabria. On one hand, there was Scylla, a six-headed dog-like creature that would eat sailors that accidentally sailed closed to it and, on the other hand, there was Charybdis, a monster that lived under a small rock and created whirlpools that sank any nearby boats.
Odysseus had to make a difficult decision here. Which option was the least dangerous for him and his crew? He realized that by avoiding Charybdis and approaching Scylla, he would loose fewer men: Charybdis would sink the entire ship, whereas Scylla would only be able to grab and eat a few men. That was a sacrifice that had to be made.
The crew passed by Scylla and Odysseus tells his men to not fear – he didn’t want them to panic; panic could be deadlier than the sea monster. Scylla managed to eat six men to the horror of Odysseus and the rest of the men. The crew managed to stay focused and sailed away, approaching the island of Helios, mourning their dead friends.
Teiresias and Circe had warned Odysseus to not eat the animals that resided on the island, since this would enrage Zeus. However, the winds were not in their favor and the crew remained stranded on the island. There was almost no food left and some of the men decide to eat the cattle of Helios, without asking for Odysseus’ permission. That action enraged Zeus who conjured a storm and targeted Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt, wrecking it. The men fell into the water and the enormous waves managed to separate them from each other. Odysseus managed to grab onto a floating piece of wood and watched the waves take him towards the whirlpool of Charybdis. The lucky Ithacan managed to escape and, after passing by Scylla, he ends up in Calypso’s island.
And this is when Odysseus ends his story, thanking Alcinous for his hospitality. It is time for him to get on board and leave Phaeacia. What will happen next? Will Poseidon and Zeus allow Odysseus reach Ithaca?
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