The Odyssey By Homer Summary and Analysis Book 12 - The Cattle of the Sun

Summary

True to his word, Odysseus returns to Aeaea for Elpenor's funeral rites. Circe is helpful once more, providing supplies and warnings about the journey to begin the next dawn. First the Greeks must get past the Sirens whose irresistible songs lure sailors into their island's coastal reefs. Next they must avoid the Clashing Rocks (called "Wandering Rocks" or "Rovers" in some translations), which only the ship of the Argonauts ever escaped.

Choosing to go around the Clashing Rocks, Odysseus then must confront either Scylla or Charybdis. The first is a six-headed monster lurking in an overhanging, fog-concealed cavern. She cannot be defeated in battle, and she will devour at least six of the Greeks, one for each of her hideous heads that feature triple rows of thickset fangs. No more than an arrow shot away is Charybdis, a monster whirlpool that swallows everything near it three times a day.

If the Greeks survive these terrors, they will meet the most dangerous test of all: the temptation of the island (Thrinacia) of the Sungod Helios. Whatever they do, the seamen must not harm the sacred cattle of the sun. If they resist temptation, they can return home safely; if, on the other hand, they harm any sacred animal, the ship and men will be destroyed. Odysseus alone may survive, but he will return home late and alone, a broken man. This last caveat (12.148-53) echoes the curse of the Cyclops (9.590-95) and the prophecy of Tiresias (11.125-35). Circe's warnings prove to be a foreshadowing of the true events.

Analysis

Loyalty and keeping promises are two of the highest virtues in Homer's world. Despite the horrors of the Land of the Dead and the relief of escape, Odysseus' first thought is to return to Aeaea to bury Elpenor's corpse. The brief description of the burial rites tells us that the body is burned on a funeral pyre, along with the warrior's armor. The ashes are buried in a mound topped with a monumental stone and the seaman's oar that is "planted . . . to crown his tomb" (12.15). The ceremony is similar to that of the seafaring warriors at the end of the Old English epic Beowulf, composed almost 1,500 years later.

Like that of the Lotus-eaters, the section on the Sirens is surprisingly short (fewer than 40 lines), considering that it is one of the best known episodes in the epic. Once again, Homer has touched on a universal truth, mankind's struggle with deadly but irresistible appeal. Circe's solution is realistic and simple: Odysseus' men stop their ears with beeswax. Knowing Odysseus as well as she does, Circe realizes that his intellectual curiosity must be satisfied; he has to hear the Sirens' song. The solution is to lash him to the mast of the ship and, when he pleads to be set free, to tie him more securely. For any man who goes too close to shore, she warns, "no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, / no happy children beaming up at their father's face" (12.48-49). Thus warned and protected, the crew survives temptation, although Odysseus is nearly driven mad by his desire to submit to the Sirens' call.

Getting past Scylla and Charybdis calls for ultimate leadership on the part of Odysseus. Not only must he exercise proper judgment, but he must also recognize that, even if things go well, he still loses six good men. Following Circe's advice, he avoids the whirlpool (Charybdis) and tries the side of the six-headed monster (Scylla). Against his instincts, he pushes through the monster's attack without stopping for a fight, realizing that delay would only cost him more men. He loses the six to a writhing death, the most heart-wrenching experience for Odysseus in all his wanderings.

The final test of judgment in Odysseus' wanderings takes place at the island of Thrinacia, land of the Sungod Helios. Odysseus wants to bypass the island because of Tiresias' prophecy and Circe's warning. However, his men are tired and hungry. In addition, the night sea is especially dangerous. Eurylocus speaks for the crew and begs Odysseus to land on the island so that the men can rest and prepare a proper meal. He assures Odysseus that they have plenty of supplies onboard and that, therefore, Odysseys need not worry about his men raiding the island or harming the sacred cattle. Arguably showing more compassion than leadership, Odysseus gives in.

Initially, the decision seems benign. There is plenty of food and drink aboard ship. But for one entire month, the crew is stranded due to a lack of favorable wind. The ship's stores run low. Odysseus goes inland to pray for help from the gods but falls into a deep sleep, just as he did when approaching Ithaca with the ill winds contained in an ox skin pouch. And, as they did on that occasion (10.39 ff.), his men revolt. Led by Eurylochus, they slaughter the finest of the sacred cattle of the Sungod, ironically going through with a sacrificial ceremony, making libations with water because the wine is gone.

The gods are not appeased by the sacrifice, and Zeus himself is outraged but waits for vengeance until the ship sets sail a week later. As soon as land is out of sight, Zeus sends a monstrous storm that destroys the vessel and kills all the men, sparing only Odysseus. Quickly making a raft of the mast and keel, Odysseus survives the vortex of Charybdis and struggles ashore ten days later at Ogygia, the island of Calypso. There he is held captive for the next seven years.

Glossary

Argo ship of the Argonauts.

Hera sister and wife of Zeus.

Jason captain of the Argo and leader of the Argonauts in quest of the Golden Fleece; husband of Medea.

lowing mooing of cattle.

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