The voyage became a nightmare of increasingly surreal encounters. Visiting Aeolus, King of the Winds, Odysseus was given a leather bag in which were confined every wind except the benign westerly that would waft him safely home. But close to Ithaca – so close they could see the islanders tending their fires – his men (thinking that it contained riches) opened the bag while Odysseus slept, unleashing a squall which swept them back out to sea.
Bound to his ship’s mast, Odysseus alone hears the song of the Sirens and survives. (Attic red figure vase, c. 450 BC, from Vulci, Italy.)
They next came to the island of the Laestrygonians, a land of midnight sun and terrifying giants, who trapped Odysseus’ ships in a high-cliffed harbour, spearing his men like fish and carrying them off to their ‘bitter banqueting’. Only Odysseus and one ship escaped to reach Aeaea (its name linked to the Greek lament ‘ai ai’). Unaware that this was the island home of Helios’ daughter, the sorceress Circe, Medea’s aunt, Odysseus sent men to reconnoitre. Only one returned. Surrounded by tame lions and wolves, Circe had turned his comrades into pigs. As Odysseus ran to investigate, Hermes met him, giving him a magic herb called ‘moly’ as protection from Circe’s spells. Following Hermes’ advice, Odysseus made Circe promise not to harm him, and to restore his men. For some time they enjoyed her hospitality, but when they left she advised Odysseus to consult the soul of the Theban prophet Teiresias – in Hades.
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Across the boundaries of Ocean they sailed to a land of mist, where they poured libations, made sacrifice and summoned the spirits of the dead. Materializing, Teiresias warned Odysseus that to kill any cattle on Thrinacia, an island sacred to Helios, would bring disaster. It was a prohibition waiting to be broken.
Returning briefly to Aeaea, Odysseus sailed on to face fresh challenges. The first was to survive the half-bird, half-women Sirens, who ‘sit in a meadow, while all around lie heaps of bones from rotting corpses, whose flesh has shrivelled in the sun’. The Sirens sang a song so irresistible that: ‘whoever in his ignorance approaches them and hears their voice will never return home to bring joy to his wife and little children as they crowd around him, but the Sirens bewitch him with their ethereal melody’. Following Circe’s advice, Odysseus bade his men lash him to the mast, while they plugged their ears with wax. So the ship passed safely by, and Odysseus, though tormented by desire to leap on to the rocks, became the only man still alive to have heard their heavenly voices.
Next they reached straits bounded on one side by Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool, and on the other by the monstrous Scylla, who crouched in a cliff-face cavern feeding on passing sharks, dolphins -and sailors. Trying to avoid Charybdis, the helmsman steered towards Scylla’s jaws. Suddenly six dogs’ heads arcing with unerring aim hauled six crewmen high into her bloody lair. But the rest rowed on until from distant Thrinacia they heard the bellowing of oxen.
The weary crew insisted on making landfall, but that night a storm blew up. It lasted a whole month. Supplies dwindled. In the end, as Odysseus slept, his men slaughtered Helios’ finest oxen, but even as they cooked them ‘the skins crawled and the spitted meat, both raw and roasted, thundered like the bellowing of cattle’. A week later, the storm abated, and they set sail once again. But in midocean, as Zeus piled dark clouds above the ship, the tearing storm wind snapped the mast, and a thunderbolt exploded in the ship. Only Odysseus survived, clinging to the wreckage. Nine days later he was washed up on Ogygia, home to the nymph Calypso.