A sampling of comments on Odyssey Rhapsody 12

2017.06.15 / updated 2018.10.08 | By Gregory Nagy

The storytelling of Odysseus is about to confront three of its most mystical moments here: the Song of the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cattle of the Sun. The myths that shape these moments will become for Odysseus a set of powerful metaphors that drive his own odyssey. [[GN 2017.06.15.]]

"Ulysses and the Sirens" (ca. 1909). Herbert James Draper (English, 1863–1920). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Ulysses and the Sirens” (ca. 1909). Herbert James Draper (English, 1863–1920).
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Q&T via BA 206
subject heading(s): Aiaia; coincidence of opposites; Circe; name of Circe; “speaking name” (nomen loquens); Ōkeanos; khoros ‘place for choral singing / dancing’

(What follows is epitomized from H24H 10§§31, 36–38, 42.)

Part 1.
After his sojourn in Hādēs, which is narrated in Odyssey 11, here at the beginning of Odyssey 12 Odysseus finally emerges from that realm of darkness and death. As Odysseus now returns from Hādēs, crossing again the circular cosmic stream of Ōkeanos at O.12.001–002 and coming back to his point of departure, that is, to the island of the goddess Circe at O.12.003, we find that this island is no longer in the Far West: instead, it is now in the Far East, where Hēlios the god of the sun has his ‘sunrises’, an(a)tolai, O.12.004, and where Ēōs the goddess of the dawn has her own palace, featuring a special space for her ‘choral singing-and-dancing’, khoroi, O.12.003–004. Before the hero’s descent into the realm of darkness and death, we saw the Ōkeanos as the absolute marker of the Far West; after his ascent into the realm of light and life, we see it as the absolute marker of the Far East (GM 237). In returning to the island of Circe by crossing the circular cosmic river Ōkeanos for the second time, the hero has come full circle, experiencing sunrise after having experienced sunset. Even the name of Circe may be relevant, since the form Kirkē may be a “speaking name” (nomen loquens), cognate with the form kirkos, a variant of the noun krikos, meaning ‘circle, ring’ (DELG under κρίκος). As we will now see, this experience of coming full circle is a mental experience—or, to put it another way, it is a psychic experience.

Part 2.
The return of Odysseus to light and life replicates the mystical journey of the sun as it travels every night from the Far West to the Far East, and thus the hero’s return becomes a substitute for the mystical journey of a soul. This way, the nostos ‘return’ of Odysseus, as an epic narrative, becomes interwoven with a mystical subnarrative. While the epic narrative tells about the hero’s return to Ithaca after all the fighting at Troy and all the travels at sea, the mystical subnarrative tells about the soul’s return from darkness and death to light and life.

Part 3.
In some poetic traditions, the mystical subnarrative of the hero’s nostos can even be foregrounded, as in these verses of Theognis (1123–1128):

|1123 μή με κακῶν μίμνησκε· πέπονθά τοι οἷά τ’ Ὀδυσσεύς, |1124 ὅστ’ Ἀίδεω μέγα δῶμ’ ἤλυθεν ἐξαναδύς, |1125 ὃς δὴ καὶ μνηστῆρας ἀνείλατο νηλέι θυμῷ, |1126 Πηνελόπης εὔφρων κουριδίης ἀλόχου, |1127 ἥ μιν δήθ’ ὑπέμεινε φίλῳ παρὰ παιδὶ μένουσα, |1128 ὄφρα τε γῆς ἐπέβη δείλ’ ἁλίους τε μυχούς.

|1123 Do not remind me of my misfortunes! The kinds of things that happened to Odysseus have happened to me too. |1124 He came back, emerging from the great palace of Hādēs, |1125 and then killed the suitors with a pitiless heart [thūmos], |1126 while thinking good thoughts about his duly wedded wife Penelope, |1127 who all along waited for him and stood by their dear son |1128 while he [= Odysseus] was experiencing dangers on land and in the gaping chasms of the sea.

Part 4.
The return of Odysseus from Hādēs leads to a rebuilding of his heroic identity. Earlier in the Odyssey, the status of Odysseus as a hero of epic had already been reduced to nothing. As we saw in the tale of his encounter with the Cyclops, the return of Odysseus from the monster’s cave deprives him of his past identity at Troy. His epic fame can no longer depend on his power of mētis, ‘craft’, which had led to the invention of the Wooden Horse, which in turn had led to the destruction of Troy. After his encounter with the Cyclops, Odysseus must achieve a new epic identity as the hero of his own epic about homecoming, about his own nostos, but, for the moment, his confidence in his power to bring about this nostos is reduced to nothing. He has lost his confidence in the power of his own mētis, ‘craftiness’, to devise a stratagem for achieving a nostos. When he 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 we saw at O.10.189-202.

Part 5.
Despite such moments of disorientation for Odysseus, 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. For this song to succeed, Odysseus must keep adapting his identity by making his nóos fit the nóos of the many different characters he encounters in the course of his nostos in progress. In order to adapt, he must master many different forms of discourse. The epithet for this ability to adapt, as we will see, is poluainos, ‘having many different kinds of coded words’: that is how Odysseus is described by the Sirens when he sails past their island, O.12.184).

[[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 206, GMP 237, PH 236–237.]]

subject heading(s): Ēōs the dancer

Just as the Greek goddess Ēōs is a dancer, so too is the Vedic goddess Uṣas: her epithet sūnr̥tāvatī means ‘good dancer’. [[GN 2017.06.15 via GMP 150.]]

Q&T via H24H 11§46
subject heading(s): Elpenor; coincidence of opposites; the tomb of Odysseus revisited

|14 τύμβον χεύαντες καὶ ἐπὶ στήλην ἐρύσαντες |15 πήξαμεν ἀκροτάτῳ τύμβῳ εὐῆρες ἐρετμόν.

|14 We heaped up a tomb [tumbos] for him, and then, erecting as a column on top, |15 we stuck his well-made oar into the very top of the tomb [tumbos].

The story of Elpenor’s death was told at O.10.551–560. In the comment on those verses, I already noted that the relevance of this figure to the homecoming of Odysseus is signaled at O.11.051–083, and, further, here at O.12.014–015. Here we see Odysseus and his men making for Elpenor a tomb by heaping a tumulus of earth over the seafarer’s corpse and then, instead of erecting a stēlē or vertical ‘column’ on top, they stick his oar into the heap of earth. (What follows is epitomized from H24H §§47–50.)

Part 1.
The ritual procedure for making the tomb of Elpenor follows the instructions given to Odysseus during his sojourn in Hādēs, O.11.051-080; these instructions were given by Elpenor himself or, more accurately, by his psūkhē ‘spirit’, O.11.051, and the wording makes it explicit that the tomb to be made is a sēma, O.11.075.

Part 2.
In the light of this description, we can see that the ritual act of Odysseus when he sticks his own well-made oar into the ground at O.11.129 and sacrifices to Poseidon at O.11.130-131 points to the making of his own sēma or ‘tomb’, corresponding to the sēma or ‘sign’ given to him by Teiresias at O.11.126.

Part 3.
There are two meanings to be found in this ritual act of Odysseus, since he sticks his oar into the ground at the precise moment when the oar is no longer recognized as an oar, O.11.129. In this coincidence of opposites, the oar is now a winnowing shovel, O.11.128—an agricultural implement that is used for separating the grain from the chaff after the harvesting of wheat. You toss the harvested wheat up in the air, and even the slightest breeze will blow the chaff further to the side while the grain falls more or less straight down into a heap in front of you. The winnowing shovel looks exactly like an oar, but it is not an oar for agriculturists. Conversely, the oar looks exactly like the winnowing shovel, but it is not a winnowing shovel for seafarers. For Odysseus, however, this implement could be both an oar and a winnowing shovel, since he could see that the same sēma or ‘sign’ has two distinct meanings in two distinct places: what is an oar for the seafarers is a winnowing shovel for the inlanders. And, in order to recognize that one sēma or ‘sign’ could have two meanings, Odysseus must travel, as we see from the key wording he learned from the instructions of Teiresias. Odysseus himself is represented as the user of this key wording when he retells to Penelope a retrospective story of his travels, O.23.266–268. And, as we saw at O.01.003, the travels of Odysseus throughout ‘the many cities of mortals’ were the key to his achieving his special kind of heroic consciousness, or nóos.

Part 4.
Just as the implement carried by Odysseus is one sign with two meanings, so also the picture of this implement that we see stuck into the ground is one sign with two meanings. We have already noted the first of these meanings, namely, that the sēma or ‘sign’ given by Teiresias to Odysseus at O.11.126 is in fact the tomb of Odysseus, imagined as a heap of earth with an oar stuck into it on top, just as the tomb of the seafarer Elpenor is a heap of earth with his own oar stuck into it on top, as we just saw at O.12.14-15 and at O.11.075–078 respectively; in fact, as we saw O.11.075, this heap of earth is actually called the sēma of Elpenor, and the word here clearly means ‘tomb’.

Part 5.
Accordingly, I paraphrase the first of the two meanings as a headline, “the seafarer is dead.” As for the second of the two meanings, I propose to paraphrase it as another headline, “the harvest is complete.” Here is why: the act of sticking the shaft of a winnowing shovel, with the blade pointing upward, into a heap of harvested wheat after having winnowed away the chaff from the grain is a ritual gesture indicating that the winnower’s work is complete (as we see from the wording of Theocritus 7.155-156). And the act of sticking the shaft of an oar into the ground, again with the blade facing upward, is a ritual gesture indicating that the oarsman’s work is likewise complete—as in the case of Odysseus’ dead comrade Elpenor, whose tomb is to be a heap of earth with the shaft of his oar stuck into the top, as we see at O.11.075–078 and here at O.12.014–015. So also with Odysseus: he too will never again have to sail the seas.

[[GN 2017.06.15 via GMP 214 and PH 232.]]

Q&T via H24H 11§60
subject heading(s): mystical return to light and life

|21 σχέτλιοι, οἳ ζώοντες ὑπήλθετε δῶμ’ Ἀΐδαο, |22 δισθανέες, ὅτε τ’ ἄλλοι ἅπαξ θνῄσκουσ’ ἄνθρωποι.

|21 Wretched men! You went down to the House of Hādēs while you were still alive. |22 You are dis-thanees [= you experience death twice], whereas other mortals die only once.

Circe understands the mystical experience that Odysseus and his companions have undergone by entering Hādēs in the Far West and then returning from there in the Far East, just as the sun mystically travels from west to east during the night. That is why Circe, after Odysseus and his men arrive back on her island, addresses the whole group as dis-thanees, that is, ‘those who experience death twice’. (What follows is epitomized from H24H 11§61.) So, Odysseus together with his companions had died metaphorically when he went to Hādēs in Odyssey 11 and then he had returned to light and life in Odyssey 12. But Odysseus will die for real in a future that is beyond the limits of the story told in the Odyssey as we have it: just as the seer Teiresias had predicted it when he gave to Odysseus a sēma or ‘sign’ at O.11.126, Odysseus will die after he experiences another coincidence of opposites—while carrying the oar that becomes a winnowing shovel. [[GN 2017.06.15.]]

subject heading(s): thuella ‘gust of wind’

Here the thuella ‘gust of wind’ is linked with fire, and this link evokes a visualization of fire caused by the thunderbolt of Zeus. [[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 204, 322.]]

Q&T via Nagy 2016.02.11
subject heading(s): Argo; melein ‘be on one’s mind’

οἴη δὴ κείνῃ γε παρέπλω ποντοπόρος νηῦς | Ἀργὼ πᾶσι μέλουσα, παρ’ Αἰήταο πλέουσα

The only seafaring ship that has ever yet sailed past that [rock] was | the Argo, which-is-on-the-minds-of [μέλουσα] all [πᾶσι], and this was when it sailed away from Aietes.

(What follows is epitomized from Nagy 2016.02.11.) Homeric poetry is here telling a story by channeling Odysseus in the act of telling his own story, and the act of universalizing is immediately expressed. It happens at O.12.070 here: the wording says right away that the ship Argo, ‘which-is-on-the-minds-of’ (μέλουσα) humans, is an all-important subject, since it is on the minds of ‘all’ (πᾶσι) humans in the universe. The sailors of the good ship Argo faced the challenge of sailing past a most dangerous rock in the treacherous seas, and now Odysseus, admirer of the Argonauts, is faced with the same challenge in his own story. The verb melein ‘be on one’s mind’ is used here in the sense of referring to a song that is on the minds of all who hear it or want to hear it. See the comment on O.09.019–020. [[GN 2017.06.15.]]

subject heading(s): Krataiḯs (name for mother of Scylla)

This name Krataiḯs is parallel to the epithet krataiḯs at O.11.597, the meaning of which can be explained as ‘having a power that has violence’. See the comment on I.05.083. [[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 88-89, 349–350.]]

subject heading(s): Phaethousa and Lampetiē

The names for these two daughters of Hēlios the god of sunlight, Phaéthousa and Lampetíē, both refer to the radiance of the sun. These names are parallel to the names Phaéthōn and Lámpos as solar horses that draw the chariot of Ēōs the goddess of the dawn. See also the comment at O.23.246. These four names and the myths linked with them reflect mythological traditions that can be reconstructed by way of Indo-European linguistics. Of special interest is the morphology of Lampetíē. [[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 198-200, GMP 249–250, HC 1§147.]]

subject heading(s): Huperiōn

Whereas huperíōn ‘the one who travels up above’ can function as an epithet of Hēlios the god of the sun, it can also function as the name of the father of Hēlios. [[GN 2017.06.15 via GMP 235.]]

Q&T via H24H 10§19
subject heading(s): Song of the Sirens

|184 δεῦρ’ ἄγ’ ἰών, πολύαιν’ Ὀδυσεῦ, μέγα κῦδος Ἀχαιῶν, |185 νῆα κατάστησον, ἵνα νωϊτέρην ὄπ’ ἀκούσῃς. |186 οὐ γάρ πώ τις τῇδε παρήλασε νηῒ μελαίνῃ, |187 πρίν γ’ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ’ ἀκοῦσαι, |188 ἀλλ’ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς. |189 ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ’, ὅσ’ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ |190 Ἀργεῖοι Τρῶές τε θεῶν ἰότητι μόγησαν, |191 ἴδμεν δ’ ὅσσα γένηται ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ.

|184 Come here, Odysseus, you of many riddling words [ainoi], you great glory to the Achaean name, |185 stop your ship so that you may hear our two voices. |186 No man has ever yet sailed past us with his dark ship |187 without staying to hear the sweet sound of the voices that come from our mouths, |188 and he who listens will not only experience great pleasure before homecoming [néesthai] but will also be far more knowledgeable than before, |189 for we know everything that happened at Troy, that expansive place, |190 —all the sufferings caused by the gods for the Argives [= Achaeans] and Trojans |191 and we know everything on earth, that nurturer of so many mortals—everything that happens.

Part 1.
The two Sirens—there are only two of them in the Odyssey—declare here that they know everything in general—but they also declare that they know everything about the Trojan War in particular. By knowing everything, they are like the Muses. The repeated word idmen ‘we know’ at O.10.189/191 is comparable to what the Muses say to the Narrator in Hesiod Theogony 27/28, idmen ‘we know’. Also comparable is what the Narrator says to the Muses at I.02.485: iste te panta ‘you know everything’. By knowing everything about the Trojan War, the Sirens are like the Muses of the Iliad, as at I.02.485. It may be said that the Sirens are the false Muses of the Iliad.

Part 2.
The Song of the Sirens is relevant to I.09.413, where Achilles says he will have to choose between a nostos, which is a safe ‘homecoming’, and the kleos or ‘glory’ of the poetry that will be his if he dies young at Troy. See the comment on I.09.410–416. Achilles will have to forfeit nostos in order to achieve his kleos or ‘glory’ as the central hero of the Iliad. By contrast, Odysseus must have both kleos ‘glory’ and nostos ‘homecoming’ in order to merit his own heroic status in the Odyssey (BA 36-40). For him, the nostos is not only a ‘homecoming’ but also a ‘song about a homecoming’, and that song is the Odyssey. It is the kleos or ‘glory’ of that song that will be his—if his quest for a homecoming is to succeed.

Part 3.
(What follows is epitomized from H24H 9§14.) The narrative of the kleos or ‘glory’ of song that Odysseus earns in the Odyssey cannot be the Iliad, which means ‘tale of Troy’ (Ilion is the other name for Troy). The Iliad establishes Achilles as the central hero of the story of Troy, even though he failed to destroy the city—while Odysseus succeeded, by devising the stratagem of the Wooden Horse. Because of the Iliad tradition, “the kleos of Odysseus at Troy was preempted by the kleos of Achilles” (BA 41). Thus the kleos that Odysseus should get for his success in destroying Troy is elusive, by contrast with the kleos that Achilles gets in the Iliad, which is permanent. So, Odysseus cannot afford to dwell on his success at Troy, because the kleos he may get for that success will become permanent only if it extends into the kleos that he gets for achieving a successful homecoming. Odysseus, then, must get over the Iliad.

Part 4.
As we see from the wording of the Sirens’ Song here in the Odyssey, O.12.184–191, the sheer pleasure of listening to a song about the destruction of Troy will be in vain if there is no nostos, no safe return home from the faraway world of epic heroes; and, by extension, the Iliad itself will become a Song of the Sirens without a successful narration of the Odyssey (BA [1999] xii).

Part 5.
(What follows in Parts 5 and 6 is epitomized from H24H 10§§19–20.) So, to repeat, Odysseus must get over the Iliad. But, to get over the Iliad, he must sail past it. His ongoing story, which is the Odyssey, must be about the seafarer who is making his way back home, not about the warrior who once fought at Troy. The kleos of Odysseus at Troy cannot be the master myth of the Odyssey, since the kleos of Achilles at Troy has already become the master myth of the Iliad. As I already noted, the kleos or poetic ‘glory’ of Achilles in the Iliad has preempted a kleos for Odysseus that centers on this rival hero’s glorious exploits at Troy. For the hero of the Odyssey, the ongoing kleos of his adventures in the course of his nostos is actually threatened by any past kleos of his adventures back at Troy. Such a kleos of the past in the Odyssey could not rival the kleos of the more distant past in the Iliad. It would be a false Iliad. That is why Odysseus must sail past the Island of the Sirens. The Sirens, as false Muses, tempt the hero by offering to sing for him an endless variety of songs about Troy in particular and about everything else in general.

Part 6.
The sheer pleasure of listening to the songs of the Sirens threatens not only the nostos, ‘homecoming’, of Odysseus, who is tempted to linger and never stop listening to the endless stories about Troy, but also the soundness of his ‘thinking’, his nóos. And it even threatens the ongoing song about the hero’s homecoming, that is, the Odyssey itself (BA [1999] xii). Accordingly, the use of the verb néesthai ‘return, have a homecoming’ at O.12.188 signals what is at stake for both the nostos ‘homecoming’ and the nóos ‘mind’ of Odysseus, and it is no accident that these two nouns are actually both derived from that verb.

[[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 271; see also PasP 64n23 on patterns of negativizing poetry and metaphors for poetry.]]

subject heading(s): poluainos ‘of many riddling words; of many fables; fabled’; Polyphemus [; ainos ‘coded words; fable’]

The translations ‘of many fables’ or more simply ‘fabled’ reflect the specialized meaning of ainos as ‘fable’. In addressing Odysseus this way, the Sirens are recognizing the hero’s fame as a master of ainos, which is a form of speech that can more generally be described as a coded message (on which see the comment on I.09.524–599). So, Odysseus is recognized as ‘able to speak about many things in code’. Such coded speech is by nature ‘riddling’, as we see from the meaning of ainigma ‘enigma, riddle’, which is a derivative of ainos. In order to survive, Odysseus must master many different forms of discourse, many different kinds of ainos. That is why he is addressed as poluainos ‘having many different kinds of ainos’ by the Sirens here when he sails past their island, O.12.184. (What follows is epitomized from H24H 10§43.) Even the transparent meaning of Polyphemus, Poluphēmos, which is the name of the Cyclops blinded by Odysseus, foretells the hero’s mastery of the ainos. As an adjective, poluphēmos means ‘having many different kinds of things said’, derived from the noun phēmē, ‘thing said’, as at O.20.100 and at O.20.105. See the comment at O.20.098-121, [HR]3§23. This adjective poluphēmos ‘having many different kinds of things said’ is applied as an epithet to the singer Phēmios, O.22.376, portrayed as singing songs that have many different meanings: see the comments at O.01.342 and O.02.035 (see also BA 17). In the case of Polyphemus, the very meaning of his name, which conveys the opposite of the meaning conveyed by the false name of Odysseus, Outis, ‘no one’, foretells the verbal mastery of the hero who blinded the monster. [[GN 2017.06.15 via BA 240, PH 236–237.]]

subject heading(s): Calypso revisited

(The following is epitomized from H24H 10§28.) At O.07.241–266, Odysseus told the story of his liaison with the goddess Calypso, and that part of the story ended there with the releasing of Odysseus from the cave of the goddess. Here at O.12.447–450, the storytelling comes full circle as Odysseus revisits that story about the liaison, which had led into the story of his arrival in the land of the Phaeacians. The hero’s arrival as revisited at the end of the storytelling in Odyssey 12 is implicitly a return to light and life from the cave of Calypso, comparable to the return of the hero to light and life from the darkness and death that were linked with the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus at the end of the storytelling in Odyssey 9. Similarly at the end of the storytelling in Odyssey 11, Odysseus was ready to emerge from the darkness and death of Hādēs and return to light and life at the beginning of Odyssey 12. [[GN 2017.06.15.]]

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.