Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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How did Odysseus' shipmates die in book 12 of The Odyssey and was it his fault?

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Odysseus is at fault only to the extent that he left his men alone on the island of the Sun God while he went on the other side to pray. The entire crew is starving because the ship has been becalmed for days, and they have used up their supplies. Despite being warned not to eat the sacred cattle of the Sun God, the men decide that if they must die, they'd rather die with full bellies so they eat the cattle.

Outraged, Helios demands that Zeus punish the crew severely, or he will take the sun to shine only in the Underworld. When the ship leaves the island, Zeus causes a great storm that violently tosses the ship about and then strikes it with lightning and destroys it, causing all of the men except Odysseus to drown. Only he survives because he didn't disobey the command; he clings to a makeshift raft until it is swallowed up by Charybdis. Luckily he manages to grab the branch of a fig tree until the whirlpool spits back up the raft and he can clamber aboard again. He drifts for nine days before reaching Ogygia, Calypso's island.

The crew's doom is largely their own fault because of their lack of prudence and hasty actions. However, notice that every time Odysseus leaves his men alone--whether he is literally gone or merely asleep--they get into mischief. This time their misdeeds cost them their lives.

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