We’re halfway through The Odyssey for Trish’s readalong. I’ve been listening to Ian McKellen read the epic to me on audio and using the Fagles translation in print as a supplement. This week, we read Books 7-12. If you’d like to read other participants’ thoughts, head over to Trish’s Week 2 post to see who’s checked in. There are some great posts so far!
I’ll repeat my warning from last week regarding the length of my summaries: I like how the story is split into books, which strike me as being sort of like individual episodes in the TV series of The Odyssey. I’m going to structure my summary in the same way. If it’s a little much for you, feel free to skip down to the “Thoughts” section. (There’s a bonus video this week!)
When we left off, Odysseus had washed up on the island of the Phaeacians. He had been fed and clothed by Nausicaa, daughter of King Alcinous, and she had led him to the city limits. For a full summary of previous events, please see last week’s post on Books 1-6.
Book 7: Phaeacia’s Halls and Gardens
Nausicaa heads into town with her maids and laundry, and Odysseus follows shortly after. Athena shrouds him in a protective fog, then appears to him in the form of a small girl and leads him to King Alcinous’ palace. The fog lets him walk through the palace unnoticed until he approaches Queen Arete and throws himself at her feet, pleading for passage home to Ithaca. They feast. Arete, noticing that Odysseus wears clothing she sewed herself, asks him where he got it. He explains about Calypso’s island, his voyage on the raft, and his encounter with Nausicaa. Alcinous says Odysseus is welcome to marry Nausicaa, but if he’d rather not, then Alcinous will provide him with a ship so he can go home.
Book 8: A Day for Songs and Contests
At an assembly the next morning, Odysseus is granted a ship and crew. They feast, and a bard begins to entertain them with a story about Odysseus and Achilles. Odysseus, though, starts weeping, so Alcinous suggests a physical contest instead. After the contest there is, of course, another feast. This time the story told is about Hephaestus catching his wife, Aphrodite, in her affair with Ares. After the tale, Alcinous calls his sons to dance, then showers gifts on Odysseus. At the evening’s feast, the bard sings of the Trojan horse, and Odysseus weeps again. Alcinous stops the bard’s performance and asks Odysseus, whose name the king does not yet know, who he is and what connection he has to Troy.
Book 9: In the One-Eyed Giant’s Cave
(Note: This is my favorite story, so I didn’t bother cutting it down much!)
At Alcinous’s urging, Odysseus reveals his identity and begins to tell his story, starting with his departure from Troy. After sacking the city of Ismarus, Odysseus’ men refused to “cut and run,” and while they waited, the city’s inhabitants called for backup and attacked. Most of Odysseus’ men escaped, only to be blown off course several days later. The next land they reached was that of the Lotus-eaters, who offered Odysseus’ men lotus fruits to eat. Those who ate the fruit lost all desire to return home. Odysseus had to force them back to the ships, and he and those who had not eaten the fruit got the ships away.
Next they came to the island of the Cyclops. Leaving most of the ships and men on a nearby island, Odysseus took one ship and some men to investigate the Cyclops’ island. They entered one of the caves, empty because its inhabitant had taken his sheep to pasture. The men wanted to take what they could and leave, but Odysseus decided to stay. The Cyclops Polyphemus returned, did his chores, settled the massive stone slab of his door in front of the cave’s entrance, and then noticed the strangers. He demanded to know who they were. When Odysseus stepped forward to ask for hospitality, Polyphemus grabbed two of the men and ate them. Odysseus longed to kill Polyphemus with his sword, but if he did, they’d be trapped in the cave, unable to move the rock at its entrance.
The next morning, Polyphemus had two more men for breakfast and then left with his sheep, replacing the massive stone to trap Odysseus and his men inside the cave. Odysseus and his men sharpened a huge shaft of olive wood they found in the cave. When Polyphemus returned, after they Cyclops had snacked on two more of the men, Odysseus offered him his finest wine, which the Cyclops drank copiously. Then Odysseus said:
“So, you ask me the name I’m known by, Cyclops?
I will tell you. But you must give me a guest-gift
as you’ve promised. Nobody–that’s my name. Nobody–
so my mother and father call me, all my friends.” (p. 223)
Shortly thereafter, Polyphemus passed out. Odysseus and his men heated their spear in the fire, then drove it into the Cyclops’ eye. (What, exactly, happens to the eyeball is related in gruesome, graphic detail.) Polyphemus yowled, and his neighbors came running. But when, from outside his door, they asked who was trying to kill him:
“‘Nobody, friends’–Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave–
‘Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!’ (p. 224)
The other Cyclopses assumed that, if nobody was hurting Polyphemus, he must be suffering from some sort of plague, of which they wanted no part. They left.
Next, Odysseus had to figure out how he and his men could escape the cave. He lashed the Cyclops’ rams in sets of three and had each of his men cling below the center ram of each set. Odysseus himself took the biggest ram for himself, hanging beneath it. In the morning, Polyphemus felt the back of each ram to be sure no prisoner rode there, but he did not check underneath. The men escaped to the ship and returned to their worried companions on the neighboring island. As they sailed away, Odysseus couldn’t help but taunt Polyphemus, who hurled boulders at them from the shore. The Cyclops called out to his father, Poseidon, to see to it that, if Odysseus was fated to return home, that he should arrive there alone and after many delays.
Book 10: The Bewitching Queen of Aeaea
Next stop: the Aeolian island, where Aeolus, the king of the winds, lived. After Odysseus told told his tale, the king gave Odysseus the gift of a bag containing the winds and sent the crew on its way. As they neared home, his men, grumbling about how much treasure Odysseus had amassed, decided to loot the sack Aeolus had gifted their king while Odysseus slept. The squall that was released blew the ships off course again, this time to the island of the Laestrygonians. The giant inhabitants wreaked havoc on Odysseus’ crew; only a ship’s worth escaped.
From there Odysseus and his men sailed to Aeaea, Circe’s island. Odysseus sent a scouting party to explore, and they came across Circe’s house. Only Eurylochus waited outside; the other men hurried inside, drank what Circe offered, and were turned into pigs. When Eurylochus reported back, Odysseus set off to save his men from Circe’s magic. On his way, he met Hermes, who gave him an herb to counteract Circe’s drugs. When Odysseus failed to turn into a pig with her spell, Circe cowered before him. After forcing her to swear an oath she’ll not hurt him, Odysseus “mounted Circe’s gorgeous bed” with her. Afterward, Odysseus demanded his men be released, which Circe did. The men from the ship joined the men already in Circe’s house for feasting and bathing…for a whole year. Finally, Odysseus said he was ready to leave. Circe told Odysseus that before he could leave, he must visit the land of the dead and hear a prophecy from Tiresias.
Book 11: The Kingdom of the Dead
Odysseus and his men sailed into the night to reach “the Ocean River’s bounds” where they would perform the proper sacrifice and ritual. The dead come, and Odysseus speaks to Tiresias. The prophet warned Odysseus that Poseidon was angry and would make his journey home a rough one, because Odysseus had blinded Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops. Tiresias also warned Odysseus that, when he and his men encountered the cattle of the sun god, Helios, they must not harm the beasts. The seer declared,
“…harm them in any way, and I can see it now:
your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well.
And even if you escape, you’ll come home late
and come a broken man–all shipmates lost,
alone in a stranger’s ship–
and you will find a world of pain at home…” (p.253)
After returning home and killing the suitors, Tiresias said, Odysseus must walk inland until he encounters a people who do not know the sea. In this land, Odysseus must make sacrifices to Poseidon.
When Odysseus asked why his mother, who was present among the ghosts, did not look at him, Tiresias answered that she must be allowed to drink the blood from the sacrifice. Odysseus let her, and they caught up. He heard from many other ghosts as well. At one point, Odysseus pauses in his storytelling, and Alcinous urges him on. When Odysseus picks up his story again, he lists all the heroes he met in the land of the dead. Then the dead started to swarm him, so he fled to the ship and they left.
Book 12: The Cattle of the Sun
Back at Circe’s island, Odysseus and his men feasted with the goddess. Circe took Odysseus aside and warned him of the perils that awaited him: the Sirens and their deadly song, then a choice between the treacherous Clashing Rocks or the path between Scylla, the six-headed monster, and Charybdis, the massive whirlpool. Her advice was to hug Scylla’s cliff, thus losing only six men instead of the entire ship. The next day, the men set out for the Sirens’ island. Odysseus stopped his men’s ears with beeswax and had them lash him to the ship so that they could pass the Sirens unharmed by their song. Soon they reached Scylla and Charybdis, and while they watched the whirlpool, the monster snatched up and ate six men. Clear of these perils, the ship approached the island of the cattle of the sun.
Odysseus passed along Tiresias’s warning to leave the cattle alone, and he repeated it often over the many days they were trapped by storms on the island. Their supplies running dangerously low, the men eventually decided to slaughter a few head of cattle while Odysseus was off praying to the gods. Helios was furious and called on Zeus to exact revenge. When at last the storms died down and the ship could sail, the men set off, only to be struck down by a storm from Zeus. Only Odysseus, clinging to a makeshift raft, survived. After nine days at sea, he washed up on Calypso’s island.
These six books are the bulk of what I remember from The Odyssey: the actual story of Odysseus’ journey home. The encounter with the Cyclops is my favorite; I love Odysseus’ cleverness in calling himself Nobody. The Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis are familiar tales as well.
Like most everything else, though, I’d forgotten that Odysseus is actually narrating these stories, so they are told in the first person. We get to hear Odysseus’ own take on each situation. The only time I really heard him admit fault was in the Cyclops’ cave, when he admits it was he who wanted to wait for Polyphemus to return home. Other than that, he paints himself as a good, wise, just, compassionate leader who weeps a lot. I’ll be honest–with all his sleeping around and treasure hoarding and such, I’m not sure I buy this shining portrait he creates!
Most of the characters we met in Books 1-6 don’t appear much, if at all, in Books 7-12. This includes Athena, who is presumably helping Telemachus while Odysseus stays with the Phaeacians. In fact, the main gods appear only briefly: Hermes on Circe’s island, Zeus off the island of the cattle of the sun, Helios to whine about his cattle being eaten. Queen Persephone is mentioned while Odysseus visits the land of the dead, but she doesn’t actually appear. This section of The Odyssey seemed more focused on monsters and nymphs than divine intervention.
I appreciated that, with the exception of Book 11, this week’s reading involved a lot less reminiscing. I realize that telling other heroes’ stories was part of the oral tradition, that it established connections between characters and events and kept stories alive, but I got really tired of hearing everyone’s personal reminiscences. Overall, Books 7-12 were nearly reminiscence-free, with all the storytelling compacted into Book 11, in the land of the dead.
One thing I did not enjoy was the disgustingly graphic description of just what it was that happened to the Cyclops’ eye when it was stabbed with the red-hot spear. Odysseus gives a whole play-by-play, and it’s repulsive. I won’t repeat it here, because…eww!
I’m still enjoying listening to The Odyssey. I’m interested to see where the story goes from here (I’ve totally forgotten!), since Odysseus’ journey has been told and there’s still half the book to go!
Bonus: A Video!
Eddie Izzard is one of my favorite comedians because his humor is rather intelligent (most of the time). He also gets funnier each time you watch a particular shtick. Here, he takes on ancient Greek history! For those who don’t like long videos, the part concerning The Odyssey starts around 1:30, and the bit concerning the Sirens (my favorite) happens at 2:15. Enjoy!