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Free Study Guide-The Odyssey by Homer-Free Book Notes Summary
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BOOK 12

Summary

Odysseus continues his narrative and tells the Phaecians how he and his companions sail away and reach Circe's isle once again. They bury Elpenor and then feast by their ships. Circe gives Odysseus a careful forecast of the dangers that lie before him. Odysseus tells his men some of the prophecies, and they sail away.

First they pass the island of the Sirens, women who lure sailors to their deaths by enchanting them with their songs. Following Circe's advice, Odysseus plugs his crew's ears with wax. Wanting to hear the Sirens' songs, however, he leaves his own ears unplugged, but has his men bind him to the ship's mast, with orders not to set him free, no matter how much he begs, until the danger is past. Though Odysseus is enchanted by the Sirens' songs, his crew ignores his cries, and they pass the island safely.

Next they pass a narrow strait, on the one side of which is Scylla, a six-headed, man-eating monster, and the other side of which is Charybdis, a ship-destroying whirlpool. There is no way to pass this hazard without harm. As their choice is between losing six men to Scylla or having the entire ship destroyed by Charybdis, they sail close by Scylla, who, as forecast, eats six of the terror-stricken crew as they pass.

They reach the isle of Thrinacia, where Hyperion, the sun god, keeps his cattle. Odysseus makes his men take an oath that they will not harm the cattle, as Circe has warned that if they do so, none of them will get home alive. They stay there for a month, as the storms and winds are unfavorable for journeying ahead. While the food stocks on the ship last, the men keep their oath, but when the supplies dwindle and they are hungry, trouble begins to brew. When Odysseus falls asleep while praying to the gods, his men sacrifice the best of the cattle and eat the meat. Hyperion is outraged and asks Zeus to punish Odysseus' men. After six days of feasting, Odysseus and his men finally get onto the ship to sail away. A storm arises and the ship is destroyed by one of Zeus' thunderbolts. All the men perish except Odysseus, who lashes the keel and mast of the ship together and, sitting on them, is swept away. He manages to get past Scylla and Charybdis and finally reaches the isle of Ogygia, home of Calypso. Now Odysseus addresses his Phaecian hosts and tells them that there is no use in his speaking any longer, as he has already told them of his stay there.

Notes

This is the last Book in which Odysseus relates his adventures, for in the next he reaches Ithaca. The contrast between Books 12 and 13 is great; there is fantastic adventures in the first and domestic strife in the second.


The sources of The Odyssey are different from those of The Iliad, giving each work a different character. Both deal with marvels and monsters to some extent, and in both poems gods interfere with the course of human events. The Odyssey, however, belongs more to legend and folklore than history. The wind-bag of Aeolus, the transformations of Circe, and the monstrosity of Scylla are marvels of a greater order than those appearing in the strictly heroic world of The Iliad.

Odysseus conducts himself heroically here, but the monsters which he has to face are outside both human and heroic experience. The poet, however, creates a sense of realism through graphic descriptions; he also gives his monsters some human characteristics to make them appear a little less inhuman and supernatural. Polyphemus, for example, talks kindly to his sheep and appears almost pitiful when he implores his father, Poseidon, for revenge. In this Book, the poet employs a similar strategy. The Sirens, despite their luring songs and the bones of decaying bodies found around them, are careful to do no more than politely invite Odysseus to come and listen to them sing prophetic songs. Scylla is a grotesque horror, and yet one small touch brings her into the realm of living things. Her voice is like that of a puppy, which is quite unexpected, and the trait makes her tangible.

Eurylochus is one of the only members of Odysseus' crew whose character is clearly delineated. It is he who urges the men to slay and eat Hyperion's cattle at Thrinacia, rather than die of starvation. This act brings doom upon them. They all perish in the sea, and only Odysseus manages to reach Ogygia. While Odysseus acts resourcefully and wisely, a sign of his growing maturity, the impatience and greed of his men causes their downfall.

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