Chapters 16–18 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499

Chapter 16

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Circe and Odysseus become lovers, and their romance is immortalized in song. Odysseus reveals to her that he is from Ithaca. He tells of his arduous journey from Troy: the storms he had to weather, the men he had lost, the cyclops he fought, and the vengeance he roused in Poseidon. He then speaks of how Athena, who guided him in all his wars, abandoned him after he failed to offer her prayers after spilling blood in her temple, a great sacrilege.  

Circe takes in this long history of bloodshed and survival and assures Odysseus that he will find nothing but comfort on her island. She transforms his entire crew back and welcomes them as well. They spend their days dining, drinking, and exchanging stories about the truths and horrors of battle. Circe cannot help but rejoice when Odysseus requests to stay longer, for he must fix his ship. This gives Circe time to tend to all his aches, rubbing salves to ease his pains. Gradually, his vitality returns.

Circe soon becomes acquainted with his men as well. They are more excitable, short-sighted, and prone to folly than Odysseus, but Odysseus commandeers them with authority. He indulges them in their games, but he is “prone to moods and tempers” and does not think twice about lashing out at them when he is upset. Circe smooths his anger and listens to him recount the stories of his travels and the Trojan War. His thoughts, however, always return to Ithaca, and he tells Circe about his upbringing, his lands, and his son, Telemachus.

Odysseus stays until after the winter. He shows a growing curiosity toward Circe and asks her about her life, but she does not answer—and Odysseus seems to enjoy the mystery. Rather than share her stories with him, Circe learns to cook his favorite meals, and Odysseus performs routine tasks around the island, hunting for food and mending structures. In this way, he and Circe form a domestic life together, even speaking of the crew as if they were their children. The nymphs and Odysseus’s men grow fond of each other as well. Yet Circe knows Odysseus will always yearn for Ithaca. When she asks him about Penelope, his wife, he says, “She is constant. Constant in all things. Even wise men go astray sometimes, but never her. She is a fixed star, a true-made bow.” Circe realizes that, for Odysseus, their life together on Aiaia is a kind of “rehearsal” for his return to Penelope, whom he will always love. Odysseus then tells her stories about Telemachus’s infancy, and Circe imagines how much Telemachus, now a teenager, must miss his father. 

Chapter 17

Spring approaches. A year has passed since Odysseus came to stay, and now it is nearly time for him to leave. Circe yearns for him to stay but, rather than beg him, lets “the island plead for [her] instead, speaking with its eloquent beauty” as she “unroll[s] all Aiaia’s wonders like a rug before him.” Odysseus’s men, restless and sensing their leader is losing his resolve, remind Odysseus of his real home: Ithaca, Penelope, Telemachus.

One morning, Apollo appears to Circe with a prophecy for Odysseus. The prophecy overtakes Circe in the form of a vision, and she learns that Odysseus will reach Ithaca, but he must first speak with the dead prophet Teiresias.

That night, Odysseus tells Circe he must leave, and she tells him about the prophecy and offers him advice. She instructs him to find the entrance of the underworld, where he must “dig a pit . . . fill it with the blood of a black ewe and ram, and pour libations all around.” This will draw out the souls of the dead. Odysseus seems to imagine encountering the souls of people he knew, or worse, people he would only then find had died. Circe tells him to “hold them off from the blood until Teiresias comes”; the prophet will drink the blood and then dispense his wisdom. After this, Odysseus must return to Aiaia for further help from Circe.

As Odysseus prepares to leave, they find one of his men, Elpenor—who had insisted upon sleeping on the roof—dead, having fallen from the roof in his sleep. Circe offers to take care of the body as Odysseus and the rest of his men hurriedly sail off. That night, Circe works with her herbs; she says that this month, she did not take the potion she has drunk “each moon since the first time [she] lay with Hermes.”

Odysseus and his men return from the house of death looking fatigued and aged. Odysseus finally speaks of Teiresias’s prophecy: Odysseus will reach Ithaca to find men pillaging his home and must find a way to eliminate them. Teiresias also says that Odysseus “will die of the sea” while he still walks on land, causing Odysseus to muse that the gods “love their riddles.” Odysseus continues with the prophecy, revealing the path he was instructed to take: he must pass Thrinakia, the island where Helios keeps his cattle. Odysseus must leave the cattle untouched or else suffer the wrath of Helios. Such a mistake will set him back years and cost him the lives of all his men. At this, Circe advises him to avoid landing on Thrinakia at all. If his crew is driven by the Fates to its shores, she says he and his men must keep to the beach to avoid being lured to the herds by their hunger.

Circe then draws his journey for him, warning him of the dangers that lie ahead, including the Sirens and Scylla. Soon, Odysseus’s ship sets sail.

Chapter 18

Circe is pregnant with Odysseus’s child. She sends all her nymphs away, for she desires to be alone in her vulnerability. She casts the spell of illusion over her island, making it appear desolate and dangerous to ward off any sailors.

Circe has a difficult pregnancy. She does not glow as goddesses should. Instead, she is riddled with misery, agony, and constant discomfort. Her childbirth is not any easier. With her “room torn apart as if by bears, tapestries ripped from the walls, stools shattered,” she prays to Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth, in desperation, but the goddess does not answer. Circe suddenly recalls her cousins long ago murmuring that “if a god did not wish your child to be born, they might hold Eileithyia back.” Circe only grows fiercer at the thought of someone wishing harm upon her son—in defiance, she cuts open her own womb to deliver her child. She names him Telegonus.

Circe must now face the onslaught of motherhood. Telegonus is a demanding infant and cries incessantly, but Circe tries her best to acquaint herself with his needs. Telegonus is not immortal like Circe, and his fragility frightens her terribly: “at last, I had met the thing the gods could use against me.” She is fiercely protective of him, even as he screams, seeming to hate everything that surrounds him. As Telegonus grows, his temperament calms; however, his development into a curious toddler only increases Circe’s paranoia that he may be accidentally hurt.

Telegonus experiences many close calls as a child: knives fall close to him, embers from the fire blow toward him, and wasps and scorpions seem to appear next to him the moment Circe turns her back. Remembering that a god held Eileithyia back at Telegonus’s birth, Circe realizes that these domestic mishaps are scarcely coincidences and seeks to identify the god who desires to harm her son. Travelling to a pool on her island, Circe asks whether a god wishes to harm Telegonus, but the pool only shows her a vision of the lifeless form of Telegonus. Circe returns home and lights a fire. Standing before the fire, she bravely challenges the divinity who wants her son dead to show themselves. 

Athena appears and wastes no time demanding that Circe give her the child. Circe realizes that Athena has resorted to using the environment to kill Telegonus because the Fates prevent her from killing him herself. When Circe refuses to give up her child, Athena threatens to harm Circe instead. Circe claims that her father, Helios, will be angered if harm comes to her, suggesting that such an act may even renew the war between the Titans and Olympians. Athena’s hand is stayed, for fear of angering her father Zeus by “destroying his hard-won peace.”

When questioned, Athena says that she seeks to kill Telegonus because she has seen what will come if he is allowed to live. She refuses to tell Circe what exactly she has seen but promises that Circe will be sorry if he lives. Athena appeals to Circe, promising to bless her and ensure she has many future children if she agrees to give up her son. Circe refuses, and Athena, furious, leaves empty-handed after vowing that she “will take him in the end.”

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Chapters 19–21 Summary