Last Updated on June 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1499
Odysseus and his men returned to Aeaea from the Land of the Dead. They gave Elpenor the proper burial rites, just as Odysseus had promised Elpenor’s spirit. Before they departed the island, Circe warned Odysseus of the dangers to come—the Sirens, the Prowling Rocks, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Sun god Helios’s island—and gave him apt advice.
Approaching the island of Sirens, Odysseus plugged his shipmates’ ears with beeswax. As he had instructed, his shipmates strapped him to the mast of the ship, where he listened to the Sirens’ song while his shipmates rowed on, deaf to the Sirens’ deadly calls.
The men rowed around the Prowling Rocks in order to avoid being crushed between them, and Odysseus then chose to confront the monster Scylla rather than the whirlpool Charybdis. Shrouded by fog in an overhead cavern, Scylla whisked six men from Odysseus’ ship—one for each of her six heads—and devoured them.
Grief-stricken, Odysseus and the other survivors rowed on until they come upon Thrinacia, where the sun god Helios kept his prized cattle. Despite Odysseus’s protestations, his weary shipmates insisted on making port. Odysseus relented but forbade them from touching Helios’s cattle. The men were stranded on the island for over a month for lack of favorable winds. With their stores completely depleted, the starving men slaughtered and feasted on one of the cattle while Odysseus was sleeping. Once they set sail again, Zeus struck their ship with bolt after bolt of lightning until all the men had perished except Odysseus. He washed up on Ogygia, the island of the nymph Calypso, where he spent the next seven years.
Odysseus finishes telling his tale, and King Alcinous sends him off to Ithaca in a ship laden with splendid gifts. On the ship, Odysseus falls into a deep enchanted slumber. When they land on Ithaca, the crew carry the sleeping Odysseus, along with his gifts, to a sheltered spot on the island and sail away.
Meanwhile, Poseidon is angered that the Phaeacians dared help Odysseus. After consulting with Zeus, he decides to turn to stone the ship they’d used to bring Odysseus to Ithaca. Fearing further retribution, the Phaeacians immediately sacrifice a dozen of their prize bulls to Poseidon.
Back on Ithaca, Odysseus wakes and does not recognize where he is, as Athena shrouded his surroundings in mist while he was sleeping in order to protect him. Disguised as a young shepherd, Athena engages in conversation with Odysseus and informs him that he is on Ithaca. Odysseus rejoices to hear this but does not give away who he is, instead inventing a false identity. Athena, commending Odysseus’s cautious nature, reveals her true form. She tells him that he must form a plan to take back his estate, as it has been overrun by the hot-blooded suitors. Transforming his appearance to that of a beggar, she bids him to go to Eumaeus, the swineherd, who has remained loyal to Odysseus all these years.
Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus visits the home of Eumaeus. The swineherd gives him a warm welcome, voicing his belief that strangers and beggars must be shown kindness.
Once again, Odysseus invents a false identity, claiming that he was born in Crete to a wealthy man and his concubine. He states that he fought with the Danaans in the Trojan War and voyaged to Egypt after the victory, where he was unable to stop his men from plundering and pillaging. The Egyptian army then sought retribution, capturing and enslaving his men. After staying in Egypt for seven years and amassing a great fortune, he planned to travel to Libya with a Phoenician man who secretly plotted to sell him into slavery. Fortunately, Zeus struck their ship with lightning bolts, leaving him adrift on a piece of the mast until he washed ashore on Thesprotia. There, King Phidon welcomed him, regaling him with tales of the hero Odysseus, whom the king had allegedly sent home with splendid gifts. He was then captured by sailors who planned to sell him into slavery. After escaping from these men, he claims, he stumbled into the home of Eumaeus.
Eumaeus believes this story—except for the news of Odysseus, as he does not want to give in to the false hope that his master might return. Odysseus then invents another tale, that of a cold winter’s night during the Trojan War, hinting that he is cold and needs to sleep. Eumaeus understands and lends Odysseus a cloak before they retire for the night.
Athena visits Telemachus at King Menelaus’s household in Sparta and tells him to return to Ithaca. She also warns Telemachus of the suitors’ plans, promising him protection and instructing him to visit Eumaeus as soon as he arrives. Before setting sail for Ithaca, Telemachus takes aboard his ship the seer Theoclymenus, who is on the run for killing a man in Argos.
Back on Ithaca, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, decides to test Eumaeus’s loyalty once more. He asks the Eumaeus questions concerning Odysseus’s father, Laertes, to which Eumaeus replies that Laertes spends his days mourning for his son. Odysseus then asks Eumaeus how he came to serve Odysseus’s household. Eumaeus informs him that he was born to a noble family on the island of Syrie, but his Phoenician nurse abducted him when he was a child and brought him aboard a Phoenician ship. The ship then made port at Ithaca, where Laertes bought Eumaeus from the crew.
Meanwhile, with Athena’s help, Telemachus evades the suitors’ ambush and arrives safely on Ithaca. Before he parts ways with his crew, he sees a falcon fly by with a pigeon in its talons. The seer Theoclymenus interprets this as a good omen for the house of Odysseus. Following Athena’s advice, Telemachus then goes ashore to visit Eumaeus while his crew sail toward town.
When Circe instructs Odysseus to let the immortal six-headed Scylla claim six of his men, he professes his desire to stand his ground and fight. Because of this, Circe scolds him and reminds him that there are some battles that cannot be won. Scylla’s abrupt abduction of his shipmates is subsequently described by Odysseus as one of the most heart-wrenching things to happen during his entire journey, as he is forced to do nothing about it, therefore making him feel like an unworthy leader.
This is one of the most significant moments in The Odyssey, as Odysseus displays traits uncharacteristic of the typical classical hero. In dealing with Scylla, Odysseus is forced to temper his “heroic” impulse and stand down. This is something Odysseus does (or is forced to do) repeatedly in The Odyssey, especially after he arrives on Ithaca. Self-control, therefore, is an essential virtue he practices time and time again, separating him from other classical heroes such as Achilles or Heracles, who are typically praised for their direct and aggressive nature.
Book 13 marks Odysseus’s long-awaited return to Ithaca. Athena shrouds the sleeping Odysseus in mist in order to protect him. That Odysseus doesn’t recognize his beloved homeland at first is a fitting beginning to the second half of The Odyssey, as books 13 to 24 are marked with deception and dissimulation. The mist is a telling symbol of how Odysseus must continually use deception in order to protect himself—in lieu of physical armor, he uses psychological defenses.
The false tales and backstories Odysseus invents on Ithaca contain glimmers of truth, as they mirror his own experiences. In the tale he spins for Eumaeus, for example, he talks of being unable to prevent his men from recklessly looting and pillaging in Egypt. This mirrors Odysseus’s experience with his men in the city of the Cicones. However, Odysseus’s deceptions do not merely contain truths, they also serve to uncover them. Through deception, Odysseus is able to extract essential information about his family and estate from Eumaeus. He is also able to discreetly verify if the swineherd has remained loyal to him in his long absence.
Eumaeus, for his part, is the only character in The Odyssey whom Homer addresses directly and in a loving manner. Most likely, this is because Eumaeus possesses the two qualities upheld by the poet as the best virtues—loyalty and hospitality. Hospitality, however, can also be overdone, as King Menelaus says so eloquently in book 15:
I’d think myself or any other host
as ill-mannered for over-friendliness
as for hostility. Measure is best in everything
To send a guest packing, or cling to him
when he’s in haste—one sin equals the other.
Telemachus, therefore, bypasses King Nestor on his hasty return to Ithaca, as he does not want to be delayed by ostentatious feasts or the bestowal of gifts. Finally, he witnesses a favorable omen before going to visit Eumaeus—the first of many which indicate that Odysseus’s imminent revenge upon the suitors is supported by the gods.
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