The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘This Wrenched My Heart the Most’

Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis ( Se...

Odysseus with Scylla and Charybdis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


‘Man of Misery, Whose Land Have I Hit on Now?!’ (Part I)

English: Head of Odysseus from a sculptural gr...

Odysseus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am MOOCing my way through Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which amounts to a fairly intensive first-time reading. With lectures, quizzes and whatever.

It is not my first time for Homer, though. I reread “The Iliad” with relish a few years ago, after struggling mightily with it in my teens. Schools are funny places. Books are a lot like food, I think; your taste and what nourishes you best can change over time. But teachers don’t seem to know it.

Anyway, even though I had not read “The Odyssey” before, and being still only through the first 12 “books,” I am nonetheless moved to make a few observations.

For one thing, I was prepared for a rollicking travelogue of gore and adventure. I had apprised myself of the chronological greatest hits of Odysseus’ trials, oddly repetitive though they may be, and was ready to tick them off my scoresheet. Of course, I realized “The Odyssey” is not about a journey, it’s about a return. But what I did not realize is all that running around and waking up in the surf — “Man of misery, whose land have I hit on now?!” — really is just a fraction (maybe an eighth) of the action.

Odysseus tied on the mast. Icon for the Greek ...

Odysseus tied on the mast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To wit, consider the Sirens. You know, the Sirens and their “high, thrilling voices.” Everyone knows that Odysseus had to be lashed to the mast of his ship to keep from swimming toward the seductively sonorous Sirens in rapture, there to forget about his home and family forever.

That is great, of course. And the whole thing could be quite gripping, in the hands of a Hollywood screen writer, perhaps. But the encounter with that spectacular choir consumes just 15 lines, in Robert Fagles’s translation, anyway. Fifteen lines! And Odysseus didn’t “have” to be lashed to the mast of his ship. His advice initially was to plug his ears, an entirely more manageable and sensible tactic, if you ask me. But clever, brave Odysseus is also something a self-indulgent, thrill-seeking douchebag, and curiosity drives him to resort to ropes.

Sirens, Cyclopses and the alluring Calypso, who with the best of intentions keeps Odysseus a prisoner on her island – they’re the things you hear the most about. But — and remember we are considering here only the first 12 books — more memorable is Odysseus’ attempt to leave Ogygia, where he was held in the seven-year conjugal embrace of Calypso. Poseidon, the earth-shaker and god of the sea, has it out for our hero: “I’ll give that man a swamping full of trouble!” says Poseidon, a man who it can be presumed knows from his swampings. Homer continues: “With that he rammed the clouds together — both hands clutching his trident — churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter” and like that. The reader’s heart races. Odysseus, clever, brave, self-indulgent Odysseus, knows he’s in trouble; he even rebukes himself: “Wretched man — what becomes of me now, at last?”

But never mind that. The whole of Book 11 describes Odysseus’ apparently superfluous, but definitely creepy journey to the underworld, where he performs a stomach-churning ritual to summon the shambling dead. Clever, brave Odysseus is supposed to be seeking advice, but his self-indulgent side transforms the bleak landscape into a kaffeeklatsch. Odysseus, always one to enjoy an advantage, chit-chats with a macabre receiving line of Greek’s formerly rich and famous, warming himself in the glow of their jealousy. He meets the comrades who died at Troy, including the still-mad-at-him Ajax, and — shock! — his own dear mother, who he doesn’t even know is dead.

It is all brilliant stuff.

That is why it is a classic, I suppose. But in the journalism business, we call that burying the lede.