Day 7: A fantastical waterborne obstacle course. Who: The famous and thoroughly overhyped Sirens; a sneaky, six-headed monster named Scylla; and the sea-belching whirlpool Charybdis. What: Another classic demonstration of clever, brave Odysseus’ headstrong arrogance.
Remember, we are still on Aeaea with Circe, “the nymph with the lovely braids.” Odysseus has just returned from the House of the Dead, where he conducted a grim kaffeeklatch at Circe’s behest, seeking advice on the conduct of his much-delayed nostoi. Itching to be on his way, Odysseus learns that Circe has still more advice for him.
Basically, she ticks off the threats to come and prescribes a simple solution for evading them. First come the Sirens famous for their singing, “those creatures who spellbind any man alive.” But never mind that, Circe says, just use ear plugs.
Next comes a threat to navigation, the Clashing Rocks, which have smashed every vessel that ventured near — except for that snot-nosed Jason and the irritating Argonauts. The only way clear is to sail between two crags. On the right, “The yelping horror,” the six-headed Scylla, lurks inside a cavern “no rugged young archer could hit” and “shoots out her heads, out of that terrifying pit” to snatch prey like an angler lounging in a lawn chair. The left-hand crag is home to thirsty Charybdis, a terrible ship-eating whirlpool. Split the difference between the monsters, Circe says, and hope for the best.
So, off we go. Of course, Odysseus likes to change the play. There was no way he was going to pass up hearing the Sirens himself. And to be fair, Circe knows what she is dealing with in Odysseus’ swollen pride. So, she tells him: “If you are bent on hearing, have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship.” And Odysseus’ men do. And the ship sails past. In the epic, it’s only 15 lines. That’s it.
Thence to the crags. Where Odysseus changes the play again. First, he doesn’t tell his helmsman why it’s important to speed straight through. Then he puts on his battle armor and grabs a spear in each hand. “I cleared my mind of Circe’s orders — cramping my style.” Odysseus’ blood is up, and his ship comes abreast of Charybdis as she takes a big gulp of seawater — “the whole abyss lay bare.”
While Odysseus and his men gape in amazement to their left, from way up on the right come the six heads of Scylla. Six men are snatched off the decks; “I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,” Odysseus says with a mix of regret and surprise, “flailing, high, higher, over my head.” His ship sails on to relative safety, but for Odysseus, it’s the nadir:
“Of all the pitiful things I’ve had to witness, suffering, searching out the pathways of the sea, this wrenched my heart the most.” — Book 12:280-282.
Talking point: Clever, brave Odysseus isn’t very good at following advice. Death toll: 6.