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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 12: SEA PERILS AND DEFEAT

Odysseus and his men return to Aiaia and take care of Elpenor's body as requested. While they rest, eat, and drink for a day, Kirke describes to Odysseus everything that will happen next and tells him what to do. Skylla is described as a yapping dog with twelve legs and six heads each with three rows of teeth. What do you think of Odysseus when he says he wants to fight Skylla? Notice Kirke's reaction and her advice: to fight Skylla is foolish; just row fast. Later, watch to see if he follows her advice or does what he wants to do.

By now you've heard so much about not eating the cattle of the sun god that you know for sure they will be eaten. The men have been warned. Odysseus has been warned. Why do mortals do the very things they have been told not to do?

Odysseus' curiosity shows itself again when he alone gets to hear the song of the Seirenes. He is not invulnerable to their enticing song, and cries out to be let loose from his protective bonds. The men keep rowing, with wax in their ears, and Eurylokhos and another man tie Odysseus with more rope to the mast. This time, although he exposes himself to danger because of his curiosity, he does not endanger his men as he did with the Kyklopes. When he confronts Skylla, he says he "forgets" Kirke's advice. Do you believe him?



NOTE: Since the temptation to eat the cattle of the sun god is so great a risk for these men, it would seem smart to stay away from them altogether. In many stories of ancient Greece there is a strong theme of fate as being something you cannot avoid. Remember in the famous Greek tragedy that Oedipus tries everything he can think of to avoid his fate of killing his father and marrying his mother, but it happens anyway. So, too, it seems as though Odysseus and his men cannot not go to the home of Helios. Everyone promises to stay clear of the cattle. But then they have a month of onshore gales, they eat all of their barley, and they are reduced to eating fish and sea birds: they're hungry. "Belly must be fed," Odysseus said earlier.

Of course Odysseus should not pick this moment to go inland to pray. Why couldn't he pray on shore? Of course he shouldn't fall asleep. Didn't you see this happen when the bag of winds was opened? Of course Eurylokhos should prevent the men from slaughtering the cattle, not lead them into it-but you have seen him oppose Odysseus' leadership before. The cattle are killed in a properly sacrificial manner, but that doesn't help. Odysseus knows he's in trouble the minute he smells roasting meat. Helios wants revenge. Zeus promises to strike the ship (they're down to one now, from twelve) with lightning.

An especially ghastly omen predicts what's coming. The hides crawl. The meat, raw and roasted, "moos" on the spits. When the men do set out, the ship is of course hit by lightning and all but Odysseus perish. He lashes the mast and keel together. He escapes Kharybdis, the whirlpool, by grabbing onto the fig tree over it. He washes up at Kalypso's island, Ogygia. Fate has played itself out. No one can escape what life has in store. The flashback is over.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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