What did Odysseus' men do to anger the sun god?

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hoskinsp eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Book 12 of the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men land on the island of Thrinacia, the home of the sun god, with the understanding that they are not to harm or eat any of the sun god’s prized cattle:

“But at any rate each one of you must take his solemn oath that if he meet with a herd of cattle or a large flock of sheep, he will not be so made as to kill a single head of either, but will be satisfied with the food that Circe has given us” (XII).

When a raging storm keeps the men beached on the island for over a month, the crew is forced to eat all of their provisions stored on the ship and become increasingly hungry and restless.  While Odysseus is asleep, Eurylochus, a fellow sailor, circulates a plan among the men to kill the cattle for food and repay the sin by making a sacrifice to the sun god upon their return to Ithaca.  Eurylochus gives the following speech:

"All deaths are bad enough but there is none so bad as famine.  Why should not we drive in the best of these cows and offer them in sacrifice to the immortal Gods? If we ever get back to Ithaca, we can build a fine temple to the sun-god and enrich it with every kind of ornament; if, however, he is determined to sink our ship our of revenge for these homed cattle, and the other gods are of the same mind, I for one would rather drink salt water once for all and have done with it, than be starved to death by inches in such a desert island as this is." (XII)

Upon hearing these words, the men “drove in the best” cattle, prayed over them, and killed the cows, grilling the meat for everyone to share.  Lampetia, the daughter of the sun god, goes to her father and tells him about the killing of the cows.  The sun god flies into a “great rage” and cries to the heavens,

“Father Jove, and all you other gods who live in everlasting bliss, I must have vengeance on the crew of Ulysses’ ship: they have had the insolence to kill my cows, which were the one thing I loved to look upon, whether I was going up heaven or down again.  If they do not square accounts with me about my cows, I will go down to Hades and shine there among the dead” (XII).

Jove tells the sun god to not take actions into his own hands, but that he “will shiver their ship into little pieces with a bolt of lightning as soon as they get out to sea” (XII).

After seven days of feasting on the sun god’s cows, Odysseus’ men return to sea but are met with a horrible storm:

“Then Jove let fly with his thunderbolts, and the ship went round and round, and was filled with fire and brimstone as the lightning struck it.  The men all fell into the sea; they were carried about in the water round the ship, looking like so many sea-gulls, but the god presently deprived them of all chance of getting home again” (XII).