Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII: Selections

Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_by_H.J._DraperThey arrive back at Circe’s island and bury Elpenor. Circe finds out from Odysseus what exactly Teiresias’ prophecy was, and then warns him of major dangers ahead of him on his journey home.

39-110
“You will reach first the Sirens, who enchant
All men, whoever comes to them.
For whoever in ignorance draws near and hears the voice
Of the Sirens, for him no wife and infant children
Stand by, nor are they gladdened by his homeward journey,
But rather, the Sirens enchant him with their sweet-toned song
To lie in the meadow, among bones in a great heap,
From rotted men, their skins shrivelled away.
But row past, and stop up the ears of your companions,
Kneading honey-sweet bees-wax, so that no one may hear
Of the others; but if you wish to hear them yourself,
Let them tie you in your swift ship, your hands and feet,
Upright in the mast-housing, and the rope ends fastened to the mast itself,
So that rejoicing, you may hear the voice of the Sirens.
And if you beg your companions, and order them to untie you,
Let them bind you further in even more bonds.

“And when your companions drive past them,
At that point I will no longer thereafter counsel you from beginning to end.
Your journey is certain go one of two ways, but you yourself must
Deliberate according to your own heart: but I will tell to you of both ways.
For one, between overhanging cliffs, against them
The great swells of darkly-guised Amphitrite1 dash, roaring;
The blessed gods call them the Planctae.
This place, no winged creature passes, not even pigeons,
The timorous things, which bring ambrosia to father Zeus,
But even from them, the smooth rock always takes,
But the father sends another to make up their number.
This place, no ship of men has ever escaped in any way, any that approach,
But the swells of the sea and hurricanes of destructive fire bear
The planks of ships and the bodies of men, smashed together.
One sea-faring ship alone sailed past,
The Argo, cared for by all, which sailed from Aeëtes.2
And the sea would have thrown even that against the mighty rocks,
Except that Hera sent it past, since Jason was loved.

“For the other, two look-out points approach the broad sky,
On pointed peaks, clouds gather round them,
Dark and blue; they never draw back, nor does the clear sky ever
Hold the peak of that place, neither in the Summer, nor in the Fall.3
And no mortal man could climb or even set foot upon it,
Not even if had he twenty hands and feet:
For the rock is smooth, seemingly polished.
In the middle of the lookout, there is a misty cave,
Turned toward the nether darkness, to Erebus, to this very place you
Will steer your hollow ship, resplendent Odysseus.
And not even a vigorous man from a hollow ship
Shooting arrows with his bow could reach inside the vaulted cave.
Within dwells Scylla, baying terribly.
Her voice is as that of a new-born puppy,
But nevertheless she is an evil monster, and no one
Who sees her would rejoice, not even if a god faces her.
She has twenty feet, all pendulous,
And six necks, very long, on each
A disfigured head, and within, teeth in three rows,
Close-packed and crowded, full of black death.
Her middle she sinks down into the hollow cave,
Her heads she puts forth outside that terrible pit,
There, she fishes, searching round her lookout,
For dolphins and dog-fish, in hope to perchance take some larger
Sea-creature, which howling Amphitrite herds in multitude.
This place, no sailor ever yet boasts unscathed
To have fled past with his ship; with each head she takes
A man, snatching him away from his dark-prowed ship.

“You will see the second lookout is lower to the ground, Odysseus.
It is close to the other, you could reach across them with a bow shot.
At this place there is a mighty fig tree, lush with leaves.
Under this place, divine Charybdis sucks down black water.
For thrice each day she sends it up, and thrice she sucks it down
The dread water, and may you not happen to be there when she sucks it down;
For no one could rescue you from that evil, not even the Earth-shaker.
But quickly approaching close to the lookout of Scylla,
Row your ship past her, since verily, it is much better
To long for six companions in your ship than all of them at once.

1. Amphitrite: A sea goddess and wife of Poseidon.
2. Aeëtes: son of Helius and Perse, brother of Circe, owner of the golden fleece taken by the Argonauts.
3. The word I’m translating as Fall is ὀπώρα (opora). Literally, it refers to the end of summer, between the end of July and the beginning of September. But it was a time of harvest in Greece and later became associated with Autumn.

At dawn Odysseus rouses his men and they sail off. Circe sends them a favouring wind, and he tells his crew that the dangerous Sirens are ahead, and he must be lashed to the mast so that he can hear their song, and they must add more ropes is he asks them to release him.

165-259
Thus I spoke to the companions, telling them each thing.
Meanwhile the well-wrought ship swiftly reached
The island of the Sirens, for a propitious wind drove it onward.
Immediately thereupon the wind ceased and a calm
Came on, a stillness, and some deity lulled the waves.
The companions, raising the sails of the ship, furled them
And put them away in the hollow ship, and at the oars
They sat and churned the water white with the polished pines.
And I, with my sharp bronze I cut into little pieces
A great wheel of bees-wax, and I pressed it with my strong hands.
The bees-wax quickly melted, since my great strength compelled it,
And the rays of Lord Helios, son of Hyperion.
One after another I stopped up the ears of all the companions.
And they tied me in my ship, my hands and feet together,
Upright in the mast-housing, and the rope ends fastened to the mast itself.
And sitting, they beat the grey sea with their oars.
But once we were as far away as a man can be heard by shouting,
Fleetly chasing, the sea-swift ship did not escape their attention,
Being urged near, they prepared a sweet-toned song:

“Come here, come, much-praised Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans,
Bring your ship to land, so that you may hear the two of us, our voice,
For no one yet has sailed past this place in his dark ship,
At least not before he heard the melodious voice from our lips,
But he departs rejoicing, and has greater understanding.
For we know everything, whatsoever in far-reaching Troy
The Argives and Trojans suffered by the will of the gods,
And we know whatsoever happened on the all-nourishing earth.”

Thus they sang, sending forth their lovely voices, and my heart
Desired to hear them, and I ordered my companions to free me,
Nodding with my brow, but they fell to rowing.
And straightaway Perimedes and Eurylochus stood,
And they bound me in more bonds, squeezed me tight.
But once they indeed sailed past them, and no more thereafter
Did we hear the voice of the Sirens, nor their song,
My faithful companions took out the bees-wax
With which I had stopped up their ears, and they loosed me from the bonds.

But when we left behind the island, immediately thereafter
I saw smoke and a great wave, and I heard a thudding.
The oars flew from the hands of the frightened men,
They boomed down on the stream; the ship was held
There, since their hands no longer pressed the pointed oars.
And I went through the ship encouraging the companions
With honeyed words, standing by each man:
“My friends, indeed we are no longer in any way ignorant of misfortune,
Surely no greater evil here follows than when the Cyclops
Penned us in his hollow cave with his mighty strength.
But even there, by my excellence, counsel, and intelligence,
We escaped, and certainly I think we will remember this, too.
But now, come, just as I would say it, let us all be obedient.
You, sitting in the rowing benches beat the deep
Surf of the sea with your oars, in hope that Zeus somewhere
Should grant that we flee from and avoid this destruction.
And you, pilot, I enjoin you thus: and cast it
In your heart, since you control the rudder of the hollow ship.
From that smoke and those waves, drive away
The ship, and make for that lookout, lest unknown to you,
Setting out thither you should cast us into harm’s way.”

Thus I spoke, and they were soon persuaded by my words.
But I did not yet speak of Scylla, intractable problem,
Lest, being frightened in any way, they should desist
From rowing, and they would shut themselves close up within.
Then indeed, the grievous command of Circe
I did forget, since she did not in any way bid me to arm myself,
But I got into my splendid harness, and two spears,
Long, I took in my hands, and I stepped onto the deck of the ship’s
Prow; for there I expected the first sight of
Rock-dwelling Scylla, who brought disaster to my companions.
But I was not in any way able to perceive her, I wearied my eyes
Searching everything along the distant rock.

We sailed up the strait, grieving.
Scylla was within one, and in the other, divine Charybdis,
Horribly sucking up the briny water of the sea.
And then she would vomit it out, like a kettle in a hot fire
Roiled up, boils violently, and the sea-foam on high
Falls upon the look-outs on both sides;
But when she again sucks down the briny water of the sea,
She reveals everything roiled within, and all around the rock
Howls terribly, she shows the earth beneath,
Gleaming dark with sand. And fresh fear seized them.
And we—we looked toward her, fearing destruction,
And meanwhile, Scylla from her hollow cave grabbed six
Companions; they who were best in strength and arms.
And looking to the swift ship and at after my companions
I perceived the hands and feet already above
Of those men taken aloft. They cried out calling me
By name, and then for the last time, lamenting their doom.
Like when a fisherman on a jutting crag, with his long, long rod,
Casting food as bait for small fish,
He sends forth into the sea the horn of the field-dwelling ox,
Then catching one he throws it out, writhing,
Thus were they taken, writhing, to the rock,
And there within its entrance, she devoured the screaming men,
Reaching out their hands to me in dreadful throes.
With my own eyes I saw the most pitiable fate
Of all, for as long as I toiled, seeking passages of the sea.

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