Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer
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In book 12 of The Odyssey, what type of leader was Odysseus?

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Odysseus demonstrates leadership in Book XII in several ways. When he and his crew were preparing to set sail from Aeaea, Circle warned him of the dangers they would soon encounter. These are the Sirens, who lure men to their death; Scylla and Charybdis, with their respective ravenous appetite and...

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Odysseus demonstrates leadership in Book XII in several ways. When he and his crew were preparing to set sail from Aeaea, Circle warned him of the dangers they would soon encounter. These are the Sirens, who lure men to their death; Scylla and Charybdis, with their respective ravenous appetite and whirling vortex; and—as he had already heard from Teiresias—the temptation to eat the cattle of Helios, the Sun God.

Although Odysseus was intellectually prepared to surpass those obstacles, he had to prepare himself psychologically as well, always keeping in mind his responsibility to his crew and his ship, not just to himself. His effective leadership demanded that he maintain a distance from the men, just reassure them of his involvement so that they would follow his instructions and not resent his authority.

The Sirens’ danger came from their irresistible singing. Once men heard them, they were compelled to continue listening. Therefore, the safest course of action was not to listen. Odysseus, however, had to be alert and aware. Therefore, following Circe’s advice, he ordered all the men to stop up their ears with wax, but he himself did not. Instead, he had them lash him to the ship’s mast. Circe, he tells them,

bade us avoid the voice of the wondrous Sirens, and their flowery meadow. [160] Me alone she bade to listen to their voice; but do ye bind me with grievous bonds, that I may abide fast where I am, upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself; and if I implore and bid you to loose me, then do ye tie me fast with yet more bonds.

The strategy succeeded; he alone heard the song but was safe from temptation.

Scylla and Charybdis were two beings that controlled huge rocks on either side of a narrow passage, through which ran a fierce current. The crew had to keep the ship on an exact path between them. On one side, Scylla was a six-headed monster with an insatiable appetite; with her long necks, she could gobble up the men on deck if the ship came too close. Getting too close to the other side also meant certain death, as there was no escape from the raging whirlpool of Charybdis’ whirlpool. Concerned that the men will be petrified by fear, Odysseus decides that one hazard is enough to warn them about, and he chooses Charybdis. As they safely pass the whirlpool and are almost clearing Scylla, she scoops up six men at the ship’s stern. Scylla

devoured them shrieking and stretching out their hands toward me in their awful death-struggle. Most piteous did mine eyes behold that thing of all that I bore while I explored the paths of the sea. [260]

Odysseus berates himself for their deaths even though he knows that the survival of the entire ship had been the paramount concern, and his decision had ensured that.

Urging on his distraught men, Odysseus tells them to avoid Helios’ island. As Eurylochus entreats him to let them spend one night on shore, he gives in but tells them not to take any animals they might find.

"Eurylochus, verily ye constrain me, who stand alone. But come now, do ye all swear to me a mighty oath, to the end that, if we haply find a herd of kine or a great flock of sheep, [300] no man may slay either cow or sheep in the blind folly of his mind; but be content to eat the food which immortal Circe gave." So I spoke; and they straightway swore that they would not, even as I bade them.

Although they pass the night without incident, in the morning Eurylochus convinces the men to sacrifice some of the cattle in memory of their lost comrades, and take others onto the ship. They did this while Odysseus was asleep, and when he finds out in the morning, he pleads with Zeus for forgiveness, but it is not forthcoming. For six days they feast on the cattle, and it seems they escaped, but on the seventh day Zeus blasts them with a storm, which destroys the ship and kills the men. Odysseus tried to keep them safe, but their hunger and grief made the men disobey his orders, and they paid the price. Odysseus himself was spared, although he had to face Charybdis once again.

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