Odyssey: The Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis

After obtaining the information he needed from Teiresias in the land of the dead, Odysseus returns to Circe's island, and she gives him advice for how to evade the danger posed by the Sirens and then by Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus shares the information with his men: in order to escape the lure of the Sirens' song, Odysseus's men will stuff wax in their ears, but Odysseus wants to hear the song for himself, which means he will not use the wax. Instead, he will command the men to tie him to the mast. They manage to sail safely past the Sirens, but the encounter with Scylla and Charybdis is disastrous! Remember, Odysseus alone of all his men washed ashore on the island of Phaeacia, where he is telling this story of his adventures.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Odyssey unit. Story source: Homer's Odyssey, translated into English by Tony Kline. (2004).

Passing the Sirens

So I explained everything to my friends, while our well-built vessel, borne on a gentle breeze, quickly neared the island of the Sirens. Suddenly the wind dropped, and a breathless calm followed, as some god lulled the waves. My comrades rose and furled the sail, then stowed it, then sat to their oars and thrashed the water with the blades of polished pine.

I, in the meantime, sliced a large cake of beeswax with my sword-edge, and kneaded the slivers in my strong hands until the pressure and the rays of Lord Helios Hyperion heated it. Then I plugged the ears of each of my friends, and they tied me hand and foot and stood me upright in the mast housing, and fastened the rope ends round the mast itself. Then sitting down again, they struck the grey water with their oars.

We drove past swiftly, but when we were within hail of the shore, the Sirens could not fail to see our speeding vessel, and began their clear singing: “Famous Odysseus, great glory of Achaea, draw near, and bring your ship to rest, and listen to our voices. No man rows past this isle in his dark ship without hearing the honeysweet sound from our lips. He delights in it and goes his way a wiser man. We know all the suffering the Argives and the Trojans endured, by the gods’ will, on the wide plains of Troy. We know everything that comes to pass on the fertile Earth.”

This was the haunting song the Sirens sang, and I longed to listen, commanding my crew by my expression to set me free. But they bent to their oars and rowed harder, while Perimedes and Eurylochus rose and tightened my bonds and added more rope. Not till they had rowed beyond the Sirens, so we no longer heard their voices and song, did my loyal friends clear the wax that plugged their ears, and untie me.

Scylla and Charybdis

No sooner had we left the isle behind than I saw spray, and huge breakers, and heard their thunder. The oars springing from my crew’s grasp in their terror slid into the sea, and the ship lost way without my comrades’ arms tugging at the tapered blades. Still I paced up and down the deck encouraging them with calm words, speaking to every man in turn: “Friends, we are not unused to trouble: and this hardship is no worse than when the Cyclops used brute strength to pen us in his echoing cave. I used my courage, intelligence and tactics, to get us out of there, and some day these dangers too will be only a memory. Now listen to my orders and all obey. Stick to your oars and smite the deep sea breakers, and pray that Zeus may allow us to run from death. Steersman, here are my orders, and take them to heart, since the hollow ship’s steering oar is in your control. Keep the ship out of the surf and spray, and hug the cliff, or before you know it the ship will veer to the far side, and plunge us to destruction.”

They quickly responded to my words. I chose not to speak of the intractable problem of Scylla, lest gripped by terror they left the oars to huddle in the hold. And now I forgot Circe’s stern command not to arm myself, instead I donned my splendid armour and grasped two long spears in my hand. Then I ran to the foredeck, expecting to see rock-bound Scylla first from there bringing disaster to my comrades. But I could not sight her and my eyes grew weary searching the mist-draped cliff face.

So we sailed on through the narrow straits, crying aloud for fear of Scylla on the one hand while divine Charybdis sucked the sea in terribly on the other. Whenever she spewed it out again, it bubbled and seethed in turmoil like a cauldron on a vast fire, and high overhead the spray rained down on the crags on either side. When she swallowed the seas, her inner vortex could be seen, and the rock echoed savagely round about, while below the seabed showed its dark-blue sand.

My crew turned pale as we gazed at her, fearing destruction, but even as we did so Scylla seized six of my strongest and ablest men from the deck. As I looked along the swift ship towards my friends I saw their arms and legs dangling above me. In anguish they cried my name aloud one last time, then each of Scylla’s heads dragged a man writhing towards the rock, as a fisherman on a jutting crag casts his bait to lure small fish, lowers an ox-horn on a long pole into the sea, and catching a fish flings it ashore. There at the entrance to her cave she devoured them, as they shrieked and reached out their hands to me in their last dreadful throes. It was the most pitiable sight of all I saw exploring the pathways of the sea.

[If you want to keep on reading, you can find the complete Odyssey as translated by Kline at his Poetry in Translation website.]

(900 words)

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