Notes on Odysseus’s Tale to the Phaeacians

NM 7043
“Odysseus before Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians” by August Malmström in 1853

In Book IX, the “great teller of tales” responds to Alcinous’s request by first revealing his name as Odysseus (paralleling the tale of his venture with Polyphemus). He reminds the Phaeacians of his many troubles and woes after finally revealing his name, he recalls his story:

Upon leaving Ilium, Odysseus and his men were carried by the wind to Ismaras, to the stronghold of the Cicones’ stronghold where they sacked the city and shared the spoils. However, their neighbors came to help and forced Odysseus’s men to flee the island.

Next, they are blown off course to the land of the lotuseaters. Three men venture inland and mingle with the lotu-eaters who have intention of killing them. The men eat the sweet lotus fruit and forget their desire to return home -Odysseus had to drag them back to the ships, tie them down, and force them home.

Next, the crew smoothly runs into the sands of the island of the Cyclops. This island is savage, there is no farming, but only goat herding that takes place. Probed mainly by curiosity and intrigue to understand the giant men, Odysseus takes a group further inland into the cave of Polyphemus where they become trapped and he notices them by the light of the fire and begins to eat two at a time until on the third day Odysseus falsely reveals his name to be “Nobody.” He puts Polyphemus to sleep with wine and then gauges his eye with a scalding rod. He and his men, who can’t move the boulder at the cave entrance, escape undeneath the ribs of the sheep the next day. On leaving in his ship, Odysseus shouts taunts back to Polyphemus and reveals his true name to the giant, who then prays to Poseidon, his father, for either Odysseus’s death, or otherwise long and painful journey back home with the death of his comrades.

In Book X, Odyyseus recounts his story of Aeolian islands and Aeolus who harnesses the winds. He gives Odysseus a bag of the winds and releases the West Wind to send them home. On the way Home the men become curious and open the bag letting loose all the winds causing a squall. Odysseus says:

“And I woke up with a start, my spirit churning-

should I leap over the side and drown at one or

grit my teeth and bear it, stay among the living?

I bore it all, held firm, hiding my face…” (Book X 55-58)

Next, Odysseus is blown back to Aeolus who turns him away as cursed immeditately. They row on to the land of the Lastrygonians, led by Antiphates, who trap the men and skewer them to eat (giants). Odysseus quickly cuts the ropes of his ship and orders the men to flee.

Next, Odysseus sends his men inward at the island of Circe. All go in to hail the witch, except Eurlochus who senses a trap -he stays behind and watches as she turns them all into pigs and he returns to warn Odysseus at the ships. Odysseus ventures into her palace, much to the chagrin of the mutinous Eurylochus, and is given a gift from Hermes to prevent being turned into swine by Circe. She is amazed that he resists her spell. They eat and drink together with the crew until she instructs him to go forth to the land of the dead and consult Tiresias, the seer.

In Book XI, Odysseus ventures to the House of the Dead.They beach the ship, Odysseus with companions Perimedes and Eurylochus, and he makes a libation to the nations of the dead. Terror gripped him. First, his companion Elpenor who was not buried in the earth but left at Circe’s palace, approached Odysseus. He begs Odysseus to return to return and burn his corpse, which Odysseus vows to do.

Next he sees his mother, Anticleia, and it fills him with pity. Odysseus then sees Tiresias, the blind prophet, who drinks blood and tells hime that a god will make his journey home difficult. He tells him to not do harm to the sacred cattle of Helios, otherwise he may not make it home. Next, Odysseus’s mother drinks the blood and is relieved to converse again with her son. She died over longing for Odysseus to return home. Odysseus is unable to grab hold of her shade, though he tries three times – her ghostly shade is always “dissolving like a dream” (Book XI, 237).

Odysseus sees a long line of royal women, but he forbids them to drink the blood: Tyro, Antiope, Alcmena, Megara, Epicaste (other of Oedipus), Chloris, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phaedra, Procris, Ariadne, Clymene, Maera, Erphyle…

The night gets late and Alcinous interrupts Odysseus to offer him to stay and also wondering if he saw any heroes in the house of the dead.

Continuing, he sees Agamemnon who describes his gruesome betrayal/death as barbarism by his traiterous wife and he advises Odysseus neer to reveal the whole truth to his wife. Agamemnon does not know wheree his son Orestes is either. Next, Odysseus sees Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax.

Odysseus praises Achilles power over the house of the dead, to which Achilles responds:

“By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-

than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Book XI 556-558).

This passage is clearly mirrored by John Milton’s in his later proposition in Paradise Lost. Achilles then asks about his son and his father, Peleus. Odysseus tells of the sack of Troy to Achilles, who died before the end of the war. The giant Ajax, however, refuses to respond to Odysseus’s call. Angry, he skulks off toward Erebus, or “darkness.” Odysseus also sees Minos golden scceptre decreeing justice over the dead, Orion the hunter with his club, Tityus the son of the earth with the two vultures eating his liver, Tantalus who tries to drink water but it always disappears and tries to eat fruit -pomegranites, pears, and apples- but as soon as he would strain for them they be blown up into the lowering dark clouds, Sisyphus grappling his monstrous boulder and heaving it upward only to tumblr back down again. He speaks with Heracles as crowds of the dead scatter before him. Heracles speaks to him and compares his exploits, such as the venture to the house of the dead, to Heracles’s own. Odysseus says nothing to him. The hordes of the dead begin to surround Odysseus and he returns in fear to his ship.

In Book XII, Odysseus tells of leaving the Oceean River and head east to where Dawn rises the sun. They return to Circe’s island to retrieve the body promised to Elpenor. They eat with Circe and she explains to Odysseus the path he has ahead of him. Upon passing the Sirens, Odysseus ties himself to the mast and stuffs ears of the crew with beeswax. He, alone, needed to hear their tantalizing song.

Next they encounter Scylla and Charybdis and Odysseus disobeys Circe advice and arms himself for battle with them. From this enounter we get several popular idioms such as “between Scylla and Charybdis” or “between a rock and a hard place.” Odysseus chooses to pass by Scylla (the craggy monster) and risk losing some crewmen, rather than lose the entire ship by passing close to to Charybdis (the whirlpool).

Upon passage they arrive at the island of Helios, lord Hyperion. Odysseus warns the men, but Eurylochus wades inward with mutiny on his mind. Odysseus loses the argument to the many who wish to venture inward. They rest for three days and again Odysseus warns them that Helios sees and hears all things. Ater one month, their rations run dry and Odysseus prays to the gods to find safe passage home. He falls asleep and his men, particularly Eurylochus, convinces the men to kill the cattle because dying of hunger is the wrost way to pass. Without a leader guiding the people, be they Moses, Jesus, Odysseus, or another, the masses conduct monstrous acts. Helios threatens to Zeus that he will only light the house of the dead unless Odysseus’s men are punished -Odysseus steps back to say that he heard this from Calypso who heard it from Hermes.

Odysseus is sent railing back through Charybdis, though narrowly missing the vortex, and he floats along for ten days to Ogygia, Calypso’s island. Odysseus ends his tale here as a he refuses to tell a clear story twice.

“Port Scene with the Departure of Odysseus from the Land of the Pheacians” by Claude Lorrain in 1646

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

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