A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 10

2017.06.01 / updated 2018.10.08 | By Gregory Nagy

This Rhapsody centers on the bewitching goddess Circe, whose mystical powers will lead Odysseus to make direct contact with the dead—and with the world of heroes who have already died.

"Circe Invidiosa," (1892). J. W. Waterhouse (English, 1849–1917).Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Circe Invidiosa,” (1892). J. W. Waterhouse (English, 1849–1917).
Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Circe, like her mystical island, is at first disorienting for Odysseus, but the goddess will in due course reorient the hero, making it sible for him to learn how he will ultimately make his way back home. Odysseus will find his reorientation in the realm of the unconscious. [[GN 2017.05.30.]]


subject heading(s): eastward and westward sailing

With the help of king Aeolus, keeper of the winds, Odysseus and his companions sail off from this king’s island, propelled by Zephyros, the West Wind, O.10.025. So, they are traveling from west to east. At O.11.0028–030, we see that they have already sailed for nine days, and then, on the tenth day, Ithaca finally comes into view. But now Odysseus falls asleep at the steering oar, and his companions make the human error of opening the Bag of Winds, so that their ships are blown back, east to west—all the way back to where they started, to the island of Aeolus, O.10.031–055. Aeolus now refuses to help Odysseus and his companions any further, O.056–076, and, as they sail on, O.077–79, it is no longer clear where they are headed. No longer will they be propelled toward Ithaca by the favoring West Wind that Aeolus had provided for them earlier. Their sea voyage is now directionless, and, by the time their ship reaches the land of the Laestrygonians, they have already lost their navigational compass, since this land appears to be a twilight zone, O.080–086. The disorientation will only intensify later, after Odysseus and some of his companions manage to escape from the land of the Laestrygonians and sail to the island of Circe: see the comment on O.10.189–202. [[GN 2017.05.30.]]


subject heading(s): endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’

See the anchor comment at O.07.256. Aeolus, keeper of the winds, had intended an uninterrupted voyage home for Odysseus, but human error has by now undone all the good intentions. [[GN 2017.05.30 via PasP 44.]]


subject heading(s): ásmenos ‘returning to light and life’

Odysseus and some of his companions have escaped from the land of the Laestrygonians, where most of them died, and now the survivors are sailing on, described as ásmenoi, which I translate as ‘returning to light and life’. See the anchor comment on O.09.566. [[GN 2017.05.31.]]


subject heading(s): Aiaia; coincidence of opposites

This name for the island of Circe will be a marker for a coincidence of opposites that reveals itself at O.12.001–004. [[GN 2017.05.30 via BA 206, GMP 237.]]


subject heading(s): disorientation of Odysseus; mētis ‘mind, intelligence’; biē ‘force, violence, strength’; Antiphates the Laestrygonian; Cyclops; androphagos ‘man-eating’; megalētōr ‘having a heart that is mighty’; Iliadic nightmares

Odysseus here at O.10.189–197 confesses to his companions that he no longer knows where the sun rises or where the sun sets, O.10.190–192, and, accordingly, he expresses his own despair by questioning whether there will be for him any further access to mētis ‘mind, intelligence’, O.10.193. So, the disorientation of Odysseus is linked with loss of mētis. Clearly, the mind of the hero is correlated here with the celestial dynamics of sunset and sunrise. See further the comment on O.10.190–102. (More on this subject in GMP 246.) In response to the hero’s expression of despair, his companions weep uncontrollably, O.10.198–202, and now all they can think about are the horrors they remember having experienced in their encounters with the Cyclops and with Antiphates the Laestrygonian, O.10.199–200. The epithet for one of these two monsters here, the Cyclops, is androphagos ‘man-eating’, O.10.200, which suits not only the cannibalistic Cyclops but also Antiphates the Laestrygonian, who as can see at O.10.115–116 is likewise a cannibal. These memories of cannibalism are most telling, since the name of the Cyclops is linked here with the biē ‘force, violence, strength’ of this monster, O.10.200. And the link surely extends to Antiphates the Laestrygonian. That monster too, like the Cyclops, is a negative exponent of biē ‘force, violence, strength’. And such memories evoke the worst moments of the story of the Trojan War as narrated in the Iliad, as when Achilles himself expresses the ghastly urge to eat the body of Hector raw, I.22.346–347. See the comment at I.22.346–348; also at I.23.001–064. So, Achilles as the primary exponent of biē ‘force, violence, strength’ in the Iliad can be seen in this context as a foil for Odysseus as the primary exponent of mētis ‘mind, intelligence’ in the Odyssey. Even the Iliadic contexts of biē ‘force, violence, strength’ are evoked here, since Cyclops at O.10.200 is described not only as androphagos ‘man-eating’ but also as megalētor ‘having a heart that is mighty’. Similarly at O.10.106, in an attested variant of that verse, this same description applies also to Antiphates the Laestrygonian. Beyond these two attestations, this epithet megalētor ‘having a heart that is mighty’ occurs nowhere else in the Odyssey, whereas it occurs regularly as a conventional description of generic warriors in the Iliad. That is why I propose to describe the horrific visions of cannibals in the Odyssey as Iliadic nightmares. [[GN 2017.05.30 via BA 320–322, H24H 10§41.]]


Q&T via H24H 10§39
subject heading(s): mētis ‘mind, intelligence’

|190 ὦ φίλοι, οὐ γὰρ ἴδμεν ὅπῃ ζόφος οὐδ’ ὅπῃ ἠώς, |191 οὐδ’ ὅπῃ ἠέλιος φαεσίμβροτος εἶσ’ ὑπὸ γαῖαν |192 οὐδ’ ὅπῃ ἀννεῖται· ἀλλὰ φραζώμεθα θᾶσσον, |193 εἴ τις ἔτ’ ἔσται μῆτις· ἐγὼ δ’ οὐκ οἴομαι εἶναι.

|190 My friends, I am speaking this way because I do not know which place is west and which place is east |191 – which is the place where the sun, bringing light for mortals, goes underneath the earth |192 and which is the place where it rises. Still, let us start thinking it through, as quickly as we can, |193 whether there is still any craft [mētis] left. I must tell you, though, I think there is none.

(Epitomized from H24H 10§§38, 40, 42.) When Odysseus reaches the island of Circe and learns that this place, though it first seems familiar and reminiscent of his own island, is in fact strange and alien and antithetical to home, he despairs. As noted in the previous comment, the hero feels he has no intelligence or mētis left in him to devise a stratagem for a successful homecoming, and his despair is expressed as a feeling of disorientation. He is no longer able to distinguish between orient and occident. To restate in terms of two words used elsewhere in the Odyssey, the hero is experiencing a loss of orientation in his nóos or ‘thinking’, and this loss is presently blocking his nostos, ‘homecoming’. Despite such moments of disorientation for Odysseus, however, his nóos, ‘thinking’ will ultimately reorient him, steering him away from his Iliadic past and toward his ultimate Odyssean future. That is, the hero’s nóos will make it possible for him to achieve a nostos, which is not only his ‘homecoming’ but also the ‘song about a homecoming’ that is the Odyssey. [[GN 2017.05.30.]]


subject heading(s): adeukḗs ‘discontinuous, interrupting’

See the anchor comment at O.04.489. Again I note the use of this word adeukḗs in a context referring to an interrupted sequence. The potmos ‘fate’ of Odysseus’ companions is adeukḗs because they have been turned into swine and their journey home has thus been interrupted. [[GN 2017.05.30 via PasP 44.]]


Q&T via GMP 34
subject heading(s): polutropos ‘turning-into-many-different-selves’

In Point 2 of the comment on O.01.001–010, it was noted that the god Hermes, as the ultimate shape-shifter, is described as polutropos ‘turning-into-many-different-selves’ in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (verses 13, 439). Here at O.10.330, Odysseus is likewise described as polutropos ‘turning-into-many-different-selves’, and the description is happening in a context where the hero is explicitly being linked with the god Hermes. So, Odysseus too is a shape-shifter, like his divine model Hermes. The importance of this quality of Odysseus as polutropos ‘turning-into-many-different-selves’ is highlighted by the use of this epithet in the very first verse of the Odyssey. Only there at O.01.001 and here at O.10.330 is Odysseus described as polutropos ‘turning-into-many-different-selves’. [[GN 2017 via GMP 33–34.]]


subject heading(s): haptesthai ‘grab at’

The use of this verb here in the context of ‘grabbing at’ food is relevant to the wording in Pindar Nemean 8.22, with reference to the language of blame. [[GN 2017.05.30 via BA 226.]]


subject heading(s): endukéōs ‘continuously, uninterruptedly’

See the anchor comment at O.07.256. The ceremonial washing and anointing here is uninterrupted and therefore ritually effective. [[GN 2017.05.30 via PasP 44.]]


Q&T via H24H 11§34
subject heading(s): psūkhē ‘spirit’; phrenes ‘heart, thinking’; teleîn ‘reach an outcome; bring to fulfillment (in active forms of the verb)’

|490 ἀλλ’ ἄλλην χρὴ πρῶτον ὁδὸν τελέσαι καὶ ἱκέσθαι |491 εἰς Ἀΐδαο δόμους καὶ ἐπαινῆς Περσεφονείης |492 ψυχῇ χρησομένους Θηβαίου Τειρεσίαο, |493 μάντιος ἀλαοῦ, τοῦ τε φρένες ἔμπεδοί εἰσι· |494 τῷ καὶ τεθνηῶτι νόον πόρε Περσεφόνεια |495 οἴῳ πεπνῦσθαι· τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν.

|490 But first you [= Odysseus] must bring to fulfillment [teleîn] another journey and travel until you enter |491 the palace of Hādēs and of the dreaded Persephone, |492 and there you all will consult [khrē-] the spirit [psūkhē] of Teiresias of Thebes, |493 the blind seer [mantis], whose thinking [phrenes] is grounded [empedoi]: |494 to him, even though he was dead, Persephone gave consciousness [nóos], |495 so as to be the only one there who has the power to think [pepnûsthai]. But the others [in Hādēs] just flit about, like shadows [skiai].

Circe describes for Odysseus what to expect when he sees Teiresias in Hādēs. Exceptionally, the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of the hero, O.10.492, will have consciousness: that is, his phrenes ‘thinking’ will be empedoi ‘grounded’, O.10.493. On phrenes in the sense of ‘thinking’, see the anchor comment at O.01.320, where I note that Homeric diction leaves room for the idea that you can think with your heart. But what is it that confers on the psūkhē ‘spirit’ of Teiresias the exceptional power to think even when he is dead, in Hādēs? The answer is given at O.10.494–495: Persephone, queen of Hādēs, has exceptionally given permission for Teiresias to have the nóos ‘consciousness’, O.10.494, that is needed for ‘thinking’, pepnûsthai, even in Hādēs. Here I translate nóos ‘mind’ as ‘consciousness’, referring to the mystical force that will reintegrate the consciousness of the self with the body after death. It is relevant that the nóos or ‘consciousness’ of the ‘spirit’ or psūkhē of the seer Teiresias is properly activated only after he drinks the blood of two sacrificial sheep that Odysseus slaughters in order to make mental contact, as we will see at O.11.095–098. I offer further analysis in H24H 11§35. But there is a complication that I did not note in that analysis: Circe instructs Odysseus to perform a libation for the dead when he is in Hādēs, O.10.516–520, and he is further instructed to promise in a prayer directed at these dead that he will perform a sacrifice for them if he succeeds in getting back home to Ithaca: there Odysseus will slaughter a barren cow for the dead in general, O.10.522–523, and a black ram for Teiresias in particular, O.10.524–525. When the right time comes in Hādēs, and Odysseus performs his libations for the dead, O11.024–028, he will follow through and make that promise to them, namely, that he will sacrifice in Ithaca a barren cow for the dead in general, O.11.029–030, and a black ram for Teiresias in particular, O.11.032–033. (At H24H 11§35, I leave it unsaid that this black ram to be sacrificed in Ithaca is different from the black ram and black ewe that Odysseus sacrifices in Hādēs: see the comment on O.10.521–537.) As we know from external sources, such as Pausanias 5.13.1-2, a black ram is the preferred sacrificial animal to slaughter for the purpose of making mental contact with a male cult hero (H24H 0§11). [[GN 2017.05.30 via GMP 219; see also GMP 92, 212.]]


subject heading(s): mantis ‘seer’

The description of Teiresias as a mantis ‘seer’ is relevant to his prophecy about a future for Odysseus that transcends the boundaries of the narrative that frames the Odyssey. [[GN 2017.06.08.]]


subject heading(s): Ōkeanos

For Odysseus to make his transition from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead, he must first sail his ship to the end of the sea, delimited by the cosmic river Ōkeanos, and then he must sail on by somehow crossing this river. The verb that I translate here as ‘cross’ is perainein, O.10.508. Then he must beach his ship on the banks of the Ōkeanos, O.10.511, before he can disembark and then proceed into Hādēs. [[GN 2017.05.30 via GMP 239.]]


subject heading(s): khoē ‘libation’; bothros ‘pit’

Circe instructs Odysseus to offer a khoē ‘libation’ to the dead after he enters Hādēs, O.10.518. This libation, to be poured into a shallow bothros ‘pit’ that he is to dig, O.10.517, will consist of three liquids, which will be poured in the following sequence, O.10.519–520: emulsified honey, water, wine. [[GN 2017.05.31.]]


subject heading(s): black ram for Teiresias; black ram and black ewe for all the dead[; bothros ‘pit’]

Circe’s instructions continue: in the course of offering his libation, in Hādēs, to the dead, Odysseus should also offer them a prayer, promising them that, if he succeeds in getting back home to Ithaca, he will then sacrifice there a barren cow for the dead in general, O.10.522–523, and a black ram for Teiresias in particular, O.10.524–525; then, having thus prayed, he should sacrifice to the dead a black ram and a black ewe together, O.10.526–527. It is understood that the blood of the black ram and the black ewe will flow into the bothros ‘pit’ mentioned at O.10.517—and that the dead will drink from there the blood of these sacrificial animals, O.10.536–537. [[GN 2017.05.31.]]


subject heading(s): [menos ‘mental power’;] nekuōn amenēna karēna ‘skulls of the dead, having no menos inside them’

The dead can be visualized as karēna ‘heads’, that is, ‘skulls’, as here, which no longer contain any menos or ‘mental power’. To be compared are kephalai ‘heads’ at I.11.055 and in the variant verse adduced by Zenodotus at I.01.003. [[GN 2017.05.30; see also GMP 88, 226.]]


subject heading(s): [menos ‘mental power’;] nekuōn amenēna karēna ‘skulls of the dead, having no menos inside them’

See the comment on O.10.521. [[GN 2017.05.30 via GMP 88, 226.]]


subject heading(s): Elpenor

The death of Elpenor will be most relevant to the homecoming of Odysseus, and this relevance will be signaled at O.11.051–083. [[GN 2017.06.08.]]


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ      = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM    = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a



See the dynamic Bibliography for AHCIP.


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for AHCIP.