In Book XII, what might the three trials Odysseus faces represent?

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sfwriter | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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In this Book, Odysseus and his crew face three daunting trials:  the lure of the Sirens, the horrible Scylla and Charybdis, and the dilemma over the cattle of the sun.  The symbolism, meaning, and relevance of these three trials have been debated for centuries; they certainly can represent several things, but, broadly, they can be held to represent the dangers to civilized man from women, (who were considered in those days closer to nature and potential sources of chaos), supernatural monsters (which can be seen now as monsters of the unconscious mind, or as natural disasters), and impiety.  As I've said, there are many interpretations of these events, but these meanings come up often in critical discussion of the Odyssey.

Odysseus and his crew begin this book by performing a civilized funeral for Elpenor.  This shows that they are still within the realms of order and civilization as they know it.  Even Circe, their sometime enchantress and a supernatural force, appears in the role a mortal woman would play in Odysseus' world; she brings meat, bread, and wine to the men down at the shore, so that they may feast.  At this point in the story, even though Odysseus and his men have braved Hades and, as Circe says, "have died twice, to other people's once", they have returned to the normal state of things, with proper rituals and gender roles restored.  Circe will give Odysseus directions, and it seems like the crew will reach home within the realm of normalcy.  Circe, who is a goddess and knows such things, even warns Odysseus about some of the dangers that lie on his way home.

When Odysseus is strapped to the mast and hears the Sirens, he is like any other man and greatly desires to be released and go to hear their song; even though he knows well that it will mean his death.  This can be thought to represent the dominance of men over women in the Bronze Age Greek culture (which may have overthrown an earlier matriarchal regime), which the men of Odysseus time would have thought a civilizing influence.  Men must stick together, the moral of this episode could be read, to keep order and dominance over women.  It could also be address men's darker natures (for self-destruction, addiction, violence, and other destructive tendencies) and show how the cooperation of a group can keep individuals from harm.

The story of the Scylla and Charybdis is a classical dilemma between the needs of the many and the few.  That it involves supernatural monsters shows that many people at this time still believed in and feared them; but the psychological and sociological truth is that Odysseus must sacrifice the few to save the many.  It is a dilemma every leader must face at some time or another, and Odysseus believes that he acted rightly by sacrificing the six men to Scylla rather than everyone to Charybdis, though he feels real and very human guilt.

The episode on the island of the sun can be another lesson in group dynamics.  The men all knew the danger of the impiety of killing the sun-god's cattle, but starvation forced them into an impious act.  Odysseus could not stop them, and this is a lesson to leaders about leading in extremity; nothing can stop starving people from taking ready food.  This may be a holdover warning against cannibalism (from the Greeks' distant past) but it is also a lesson about the cruelty of the gods, and the importance of piety even in the worst situations.