Day 6: Aeaean Island, with a day trip to the worst beach resort ever. Who: Circe, “the nymph with lovely braids,” and a ghoulish cast of many. What: Odysseus’ men, “sick at heart for the dear companions” they had lost, sojourn in what they believe is a harbor “safe and snug.” Alas.
A party of Odysseus’ men encounters Circe, “skilled in spells,” at her mysterious home. Initially, she is quite friendly, as are the wild animals that live nearby. But she poisons a lavish banquet she lays out and literally turns Odysseus’ men “bristling into swine — with grunts, snouts.” One man escapes to tell the others and, armed with divine advice, an antidote for the poison and his own virility, Odysseus confronts Circe.
Of course, this isn’t her first rodeo. “Come, sheathe your sword,” Circe says, “let’s go to bed together.” And he does! And they do! All of sudden, Odysseus is in a Bond movie. Meanwhile, the muddy snouts of Odysseus’ crew peek forlornly out of the shadows. Odysseus finishes up. He has a bath. And then is served dinner. Finally, Circe restores his men to human form and — sets the table for dinner again! She demurely tells Odysseus to go back to his ship and bring back the rest of his men. And Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, finds himself being slowly twisted around her finger.
He goes back to his ship, and tells his men about the great party he just left: “the feast flows on forever.” And they’re, like, But isn’t she the one who turned the guys into pigs? And Odysseus is, all, What? No, she’s nice. They shrug, and all pile back to the palace. “And there we sat at ease,” Odysseus says, “day in, day out, till a year had run its course.”
That’s right. A whole year. At this point, the bard intrudes to remind us all that this is a nostoi, and not a mashup of “The Blue Lagoon” and “The Wild Bunch.” Odysseus’ killjoy crew persuades him to think of home again, but when Odysseus goes to Circe’s “luxurious bed” to break the news to her, he is told that he has to first consult a famous wise man named Tiresias.
The catch is, Tiresias is dead.
And so to the “moldering House of Death” we go. Odysseus performs a stomach-churning ritual on the beach to summon the shambling dead from whatever arcaded pool bar they have down there. Clever, brave Odysseus, who tells the Phaeacians later that he was gripped with “blanching terror,” in reality indulges his vanity and transforms the bleak landscape into a macabre receiving line* of Greek’s formerly rich and famous. (Oh, really? You’ve heard of me? All the way down here? And what was your name again?)
Through the gloom and insubstantial handshakes, he spies the every-thirsty Tantalus and the always-groaning Sisyphus. He meets his comrades who died at Troy, including Agememnon, who gives him a prescient warning — especially for a man who has been committing adultery for a year — about the perils of trusting your wife; Achilles, who sheepishly admits that he doesn’t know what good all that hero stuff did him; and the still-mad-at-him-for-something-that-happened-at-Troy Ajax. But the real shocker is a chance encounter Odysseus has with his own dear mother — he didn’t even know she was dead.
At length, Tiresias lurches out of the shadows and literally says, Hey, Odie, “What brings you here?” Thankfully, the necessary consultation is quickly forthcoming, and it serves as a kind of explication de texte. First, Odysseus is told that Poseidon, the earth-shaker, is out to get him because of what they did to that poor Cyclops; this explains a lot to Odysseus, but the reader is probably slapping his forehead in irritation. Then, Odysseus is warned, out of the blue, to not eat cows belonging to Helios, god of the sun; this isn’t the last warning he gets, either, and by now the reader knows to expect a barbecue before long.
And so back to the “long swells” of the open sea and Aeaea, where Circe has laid out the picnic tables once again. She has more advice for Odysseus, too, but we’ll get to that tomorrow.
Talking point: Odysseus does not want to go home as bad as everyone thinks he does. Death toll: 1 (one of Odysseus’ men — “none too sound of mind” — falls out of bed and cracks his head open).
* Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus (Sisyphus’ brother) and occasional lover of Poseidon; the Amazon warrior Antiope, daughter of Ares; Alcmena, mother of Heracles (Hercules); Megara, oldest daughter of King Creon of Thebes; Epicaste, mother of Oedipus; Chloris, wife of King Neleus of Pylos; Leda, mother of Helen (yes, that Helen); Iphimedeia, another occasional lover of Poseidon; Phaedra, daughter of King Minos of Crete; Procris, daughter of King Erechtheus of Athens; Ariadne, another daughter of King Minos of Crete; Clymene, perhaps the wife of the Titan Iapetus; Maera, perhaps the daughter of Atlas; Eriphyle, daughter of the Argonaut Talaus; Patroclus, boyfriend of Achilles; Antilochus, son of King Nestor of Pylos; King Minos of Crete; the well-known hunter Orion; the giant Tityus, son of Zeus; and, finally, Heracles himself.
- Greek mythology, Circe goddess of magic (wed-gie.com)