Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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How does Odysseus help his men overcome fear when approaching Scylla and Charybdis?

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Odysseus helps his men to overcome their fear of Charybdis, the whirlpool, by telling them that they were in more danger when the Cyclops had them imprisoned in his cave. He does not mention the existence of Scylla, the monster, so the men do not know there is anything to fear from her until it is too late. Odysseus pursues this course because he considers the whirlpool a greater danger and wants his men to concentrate on avoiding it.

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In Book Twelve, Odysseus departs from Aeaea after having conferred with Circe concerning the next stage of his journey. This is an important detail to be aware of: Odysseus did have forewarning about the challenges he would encounter moving forwards, and was working off of Circe's advice.

After escaping the sirens, Odysseus has to choose between sailing too close to Scylla, a six-headed monster that strikes from a cave, and Charybdis, a giant whirlpool. Circe advises him to sail close to Scylla and not offer any resistance, stating that it would be better to lose six crew members than his entire ship. Odysseus follows this counsel.

As they approach this stage of the journey, his crewmen are described as terrified. Thus, Odysseus tries to rouse their spirits, reminding them of the dangers they faced with the Cyclops; Odysseus had come through for them before, getting them past (what he presents to have been) greater dangers than what they are facing now.

At the same time, I think that Odysseus's actions in this moment are just as important as his words. We see him adorning his armor, with his spears in his hand, intending to spy a glimpse of Scylla. One can imagine the kind of disheartening effect that would have ensued if Odysseus had hidden himself away during this time of danger. Instead, Odysseus takes on great personal risk and, in the process, provides a heroic example for his men to follow.

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In Book XII of the Odyssey, Circe gives Odysseus detailed advice about the perils he is soon to face. These include the monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool, Charybdis. She advises Odysseus to steer his ship closer to Scylla, since she can only seize six men at a time. If he goes too close to Charybdis, he will lose the ship and everyone on it.

Odysseus, perhaps reasonably, does not place much trust in the courage or intelligence of his men. He tells them only what he thinks they need to know, and only tells them immediately before they need to know it. He waits until they are close enough to see the smoke Scylla emits and hear the roaring of Charybdis. At that point he commands them to sail close to the cliff and avoid the whirlpool. He tells them that they were in more danger than this when Polyphemus, the Cyclops, had them penned up in his cave.

Odysseus tactfully omits to mention the danger of Scylla, who like clockwork seizes six of his crew. This omission is as important as anything he actually says, since he wants the crew to concentrate on avoiding Charybdis—if not avoided, she would sink the entire ship. In the case of the monster, he helps the men to overcome their fear by the simple expedient of not telling them there is anything of which to be afraid.

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Circe sent Odysseus to meet with Tiresias, a prophet from the house of death who would provide him with a glimpse into his future and the challenges that would face him and how to overcome them. He also got an opportunity to speak to the dead, such as Achilles and his mother, while there. Odysseus later went back to Circe who promised to chart a safe path for him and his crew to ensure they reach home safely. Circe, in private, prepared Odysseus for his trip through the Island of the Sirens, then between Scylla and Charybdis. Circe warned Odysseus that Scylla had six heads and each devours sailors passing through while Charybdis is a whirlpool that would swallow and wreck the entire ship. Circe advised Odysseus to follow the path closer to Scylla who would devour six of his men rather that Charybdis who would devour them all. Odysseus did not mention Scylla to his crew but instructed them to avoid Charybdis to give them hope of surviving, but he knew he would lose six of his men to Scylla. To maintain their courage he kept information about Scylla from them and reminded them of his skills that saved them from the Cyclops.

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Odysseus talks to his men about how to avoid Charybdis, but he does not tell them about Scylla. He gives them a "pep talk" and reminds them how they were able to escape from the Cyclops.

He knows that if they get too close to the whirlpool he could lose the whole ship, so he wants the men to put all their effort into staying out of Charybdis. Unfortunately, in order to stay out of the whirlpool, they will have to sail close to the monster Scylla, which means that a few of them will be eaten by Scylla. Odysseus knows if he tells his men about Scylla, they will be overcome with fear and will not be able to navigate past Charybdis, so he only tells them about the whirlpool.

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