Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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How does Odysseus escape the sirens in The Odyssey?

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Odysseus escapes the sirens, mythological creatures who are often portrayed as marine women who lure men to their drowning death through their hauntingly beautiful songs, through having his men tie him to the mast of the ship. Rather than assume that because he is a strong and brave leader that he will be able to resist the temptation of the sirens's songs, Odysseus recognizes that he will not be able to resist their deathly calls, and he devises an intelligent and creative plan to save himself and his crew. His crew's ears are filled with beeswax so that they do not have to endure the temptation of the sirens's songs. Through this plan, Odysseus and his men are able to navigate through the waters of the sirens without harm.

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In Homer's The Odyssey, the Sirens are women famed for using their beautiful singing to entrance sailors and cause them to sail their ships into dangerous waters and drown. However, Odysseus is able to escape this treachery through a very simple method. Odysseus orders his men to seal their ears with beeswax, thus protecting them from the Sirens' alluring singing. Indeed, Odysseus alone hears the Sirens' seductive song, although he has his men tie him to the mast so that he is unable to respond to the enchanting singing. In successfully navigating this obstacle, Odysseus shows his wisdom and intelligence as a leader. He follows Circe's advice perfectly, and, in doing so, he helps his men escape a treacherous hazard. That said, his men are doomed to die later on in encounters with Scylla, Charybdis, and the cattle of the Sun, so the success of the encounter with the Sirens is somewhat short-lived. 

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How does Odysseus survive the dangers posed by the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis in Homer's Odyssey?

In the twelfth book of Homer's Odyssey, we hear about Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens, as well as his encounter with Scylla and Charybdis.

Odysseus manages to make it past the Sirens because of advice given to him earlier in Book 12 by the goddess Circe. She is the one who tells him about putting wax in the ears of his crew and about having them tie him to the mast of his ship:

Plug your comrades’ ears with softened beeswax lest they listen, and row swiftly past. And if you must hear, then let them first tie you hand and foot and stand you upright in the mast housing... (A.S. Kline translation)

Circe also provides Odysseus with information about how to avoid the dual threats of Scylla and Charybdis. The Charybdis is basically a whirlpool and Scylla is a really nasty multi-headed and multi-handed sea monster. Because it is impossible to avoid both of these dangers, Circe advises Odysseus to steer closer to Scylla than to Charybdis, "since it its better to mourn six men than your whole crew."

We should also note that near the end of Book 12, after Odysseus is shipwrecked, he is swept back to the location of Scylla and Charybdis. Luckily, he was able to hang on to a tree branch, avoid the notice of the Scylla, and then manage to find some timber from his ship to hold on to when the Charybdis spewed out some of the wreckage.

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How does Odysseus survive when his raft is swallowed by Charybdis?

What Odysseus described as “the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages,” the encounters with Charybdis and Scylla, occurs in Book XII of Homer’s epic The Odyssey.  Scylla and Charybdis are sea monsters that sit astride a narrow passage in the sea.  Sailors attempting to avoid one of the monsters by sailing wide of that point invariably fall victim to the other sea monster, and are eaten alive.  Such was the fate of six of Odysseus’ best men, who are grabbed and consumed by Scylla.  Having escaped these treacherous waters and transiting the narrow strait – controlled by the two monsters, kin of the god of the seas, Poseidon, who wishes ill of Odysseus – the great sailor and warrior is forced to endure the destruction of his ship as Poseidon causes massive winds and waves that destroy Odysseus’ ship.  The raft on which he is now confined is caught in the winds and forced back towards the reach of Scylla and Charybdis.  How Odysseus survived is related in his depiction of the event as follows:

“[Scylla] was then sucking down the salt sea water, but I was carried aloft toward the fig tree, which I caught hold of and clung on to like a bat.  I could not plant my feet anywhere so as to stand securely, for the roots were a long way off and the boughs that overshadowed the whole pool were too high, too vast, and too far apart for me to reach them; so I hung patiently on, waiting till the pool should discharge my mast and raft again . . . my raft [began] to work its way out of the whirlpool again.  At last I let go with my hands and feet, and fell heavily into the sea, bard by my raft on to which I then got, and began to row with my hands.”

Odysseus then credits Zeus for preventing another encounter with the sea monsters. 

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