The Sirens; Scylla and Charybdis; Thrinacia
From Stories from the Odyssey, by H. L. Havell
Following the same course as on his outward voyage, Odysseus put in again at the island of Circe, where his first duty was to bury the body of the young Elpenor, whose ghost he had seen in an attitude of mute reproach at the threshold of Hades. They were again received with all hospitality by Circe.
After the evening meal Circe drew Odysseus apart, and questioned him on all that he had seen and heard on that strange journey, from which he had returned, as she said, like one ransomed from death. And when he had told his story she instructed him as to the course which he had to steer on leaving the island, and warned him against the manifold perils of the voyage.
"First," said she, "thou wilt come to the rocks of the Sirens, maidens of no mortal race, who beguile the ears of all that hear them. Woe to him who draws near to listen to their song! He shall never see the faces of his wife and children again, or feel their arms about his neck, but there he shall perish, and there his bones shall rot. Therefore take heed, and when thou drawest near the place stop the ears of thy men with wax, and bid them bind thee fast with cords, that thou mayest hear the song of the Sirens. And when that seducing melody fills thine ears, thou wilt beg and implore thy comrades to set thee free, that thou mayest draw near and have speech of the Sirens. Then let them bind thee more firmly to the mast, and take to their oars, and fly the enchanted rocks.
"This peril past, thou hast the choice of two different routes. One of these will bring thee to the Wandering Isles, which stand, front to front, with steep slippery sides of rock, running sheer down to the sea. Between them lies a narrow way, which is the very gate of death. For if aught living attempts to pass between, those rocky jaws close upon it and grind it to powder. Only the doves which bear ambrosia to Father Zeus can pass that awful strait, and one of these pays toll with her life as she passes, but Zeus sends another to fill her place. And one ship sailed safely through, even the famous Argo when she bore Jason and his crew on their voyage from the land of Æetes. All others when they essayed the task perished, and were brought to naught in a whirlwind of foam and fire.
"But if thou takest the other way thou wilt come to another strait, guarded day and night by two sleepless sentinels, Scylla and Charybdis. On one side thereof towers a lofty peak, shrouded, even in the noon of summer, in clouds and thick darkness. No mortal man could climb that steep and slippery rock, not though he had twenty hands and twenty feet; for the side is smooth as polished marble, and in the midst of the cliff is a shadowy cave overlooking the track by which thou must guide thy ship, Odysseus. Deep down it goes into the heart of the mountain, so that a man in his lusty prime could not shoot an arrow from his ship to the bottom of that yawning pit In the cave dwells Scylla, and yelps without ceasing. Her voice is thin and shrill, like the cry of a hound newly littered, but she herself is a monster horrible to behold, so that neither man nor god could face her without affright. Twelve feet hath she, and six necks of prodigious length, and on each neck a fearful head, whose ravening jaws are armed with triple rows of teeth. As far as her waist she is hidden in the hollow cave, but she thrusts out her serpent necks from the abyss, and fishes in the waters for dolphins and sea-dogs and other creatures whose pasture is the sea. On every ship that passes her den she levies a tribute of six of her crew.
"On the other side of the strait thou wilt see a second rock, lying flat and low, about a bowshot from the first. There stands a great fig-tree, thick with leaves, and under it sits Charybdis, sucking down the water, and belching it up again three times a day. Beware that thou approach not when she sucks down the water, for then none could save thee from destruction, no, not Poseidon himself. Rather steer thy galley past Scylla's cave, for it is better to lose six of thy men than to lose them all.
"Next thou shalt come to the island of Thrinacia, where graze the oxen of Helios and his goodly sheep—seven herds of oxen, and as many fair flocks of sheep, and fifty in each flock and herd. They are not born, neither do they die, and two goddesses have charge of them, fair-haired nymphs, the daughters of Helios. Take heed that thou harm not the sacred beasts, that it may be well with thee, and that thou and thy company may come safely home."
Once more they were afloat, and the brave little vessel bounded gaily over the waves, her canvas bellying in the wind. For some hours they sailed on thus, and Odysseus recited to his men all that he had heard from Circe. Then suddenly the wind dropped, and the sail hung idly to the mast. Having furled and stowed the sail, they took to their oars, while the sea went down, and at last sunk to a level calm. In the distance a low-lying coast appeared, which Odysseus knew to be the island of the Sirens, Forthwith he began to make his preparations to meet the danger which lay before them. Taking a ball of wax he cut it into small pieces, and having worked each piece in his hand until it was soft and plastic he carefully stopped the ears of all his men with the wax. Then two of the crew, to whom he had already given his orders, bound him hand and foot to the mast of the vessel. All being ready, they rowed forward until they came within full view of the island. And there, in a low-lying meadow hard by the sea, sat the Sirens; lovely they were of aspect, and gracious of mien; but all around them were piled the bones of men who had fallen victims to their wicked wit,20 fleshless ribs, from which the skin still hung in yellow shreds, and grinning skulls, gazing with eyeless sockets at the sea.
As the ship drew near, the whole choir lifted up their voices and began to sing a sweet and piercing strain, which thrilled the very marrow of Odysseus as he listened. The winds hovered near on flagging wing, the sea lay locked in deep repose, and all nature paused with attentive ear, to catch the SONG OF THE SIRENS.
"Mighty warrior, sage renowned,
Turn, O turn thy bark this way!
Rest upon this holy ground,
Listen to the Sirens' lay.
Never yet was seaman found
Passing our enchanted bay,
But he paused, and left our bound
Filled with wisdom from his stay.
All we know, whatever befell
On the tented fields of Troy,
All the lore that Time can tell,
All the mystic fount of joy."
It was a strain cunningly calculated to flatter a deep, subtle spirit like that of Odysseus. To know all! to read all secrets, and unravel the tangled skein of human destiny! What a bribe was this to this restless and eager mind! Then the voices of the witch-women were so liquid, and the music so lovely, that they took the very air with ravishment, and melted the hearer's soul within him. Odysseus struggled to break his bonds, and nodded to his men to come and loose him. But they, who had been warned of this very thing, rose up and bound him with fresh cords. Then they grasped their oars again, the water roared under their sturdy strokes, and soon they were out of hearing of that seductive melody.
They had not long lost sight of the Sirens' Rocks when they heard the booming of breakers, which warned them that the fearful strait between Scylla and Charybdis was close at hand. A strong current caught the galley and whirled her with appalling swiftness towards the point of danger. The water boiled and eddied around them, and the blinding spray was dashed into their faces. Then a sudden panic came upon the crew, so that they dropped their oars, and sat helpless and unnerved, expecting instant death. In this emergency, Odysseus summoned up all his courage, and strode up and down between the benches, exhorting, entreating, and calling each man by name. "Why sit ye thus," he cried, "huddled together like sheep? Row, men, row for your lives! And thou, helmsman, steer straight for the passage, lest we fall into a direr strait, and be crushed between the Wandering Rocks. We have faced a worse peril than this, when we were penned together in the Cyclops' cave; and we shall escape this time also, if only ye will keep a stout heart."
Circe had cautioned Odysseus on no account to attempt resistance when he approached the cave of Scylla; nevertheless, he put on his armour, and took his stand on the prow of the vessel, holding in each hand a lance.
So on they sped, steering close to the tall cliff under which Scylla lay hid, and gazing fearfully at the boiling whirlpool on the other side. Just as they passed, a huge column of water shot into the air, belched up from the vast maw of Charybdis, and the galley was half swamped under a fountain of falling water. When that ended, a black yawning chasm appeared, the very throat, as it seemed, of Charybdis, into which the water rushed in a roaring torrent.
Odysseus was gazing intently at this wondrous sight when he heard a sharp cry, and, looking back he saw six of his men, the stoutest of the crew, dangling high in the air, firmly clutched in the six sharklike jaws of Scylla. There they hung for a moment, like fishes just caught by the angler's hook; the next instant they were dragged into the black mouth of the cavern, calling with their last breath on their leader's name. This was the most pitiful thing that Odysseus had ever beheld, in all his long years of travel on the sea.
The last trial was now at hand, and if they could stand this final test a happy home-coming was promised to them all. By next day's dawn they ran down to the fair isle of Helios, and as they drew near they heard the lowing of oxen and the bleating of sheep. Then Odysseus remembered the warnings of Circe and Teiresias, and sought to persuade his men to sail past the island and fly from the reach of temptation. But they murmured against him, and Eurylochus, his lieutenant, gave voice to their feelings thus: "Thou man of iron, thou hast no pity on us, but thinkest that we are all as hardy and as strong as thou art. Hungry and weary as we are, wouldst thou have us turn away from this fair isle, where we could prepare a comfortable meal, and take refreshing sleep? Shall we add the horrors of night to the horrors of the sea, and confront the demons of storm that haunt the caverns of darkness? Nay, suffer us to abide here to-night, and to-morrow we will hoist sail again."
Odysseus saw by the looks of his men that it would be useless to strain his authority, and so he gave way, though with sore reluctance, only exacting a solemn oath from the whole company that they would keep their hands off the cattle of Helios. When each in turn had taken the oath they landed on the shore of a sheltered bay, and encamped by a fair spring of fresh water.
During the night it began to blow hard, and early next morning, as the weather was still stormy and the wind contrary, they hauled up their galley and bestowed her in a roomy cave, beyond the reach of wind and water. Odysseus repeated his warnings, and the crew then dispersed, to while away the time until the weather should mend.
For a whole month they had nothing but contrary gales from the south and east, and long before that time had run out they had come to the end of their store of provisions. For some time they contrived to live on the fish which they caught by angling from the rocks, though this was but poor fare for the robust appetites of those heroic days.
All this time Odysseus kept a careful watch over the movements of his men, fearing that they might be driven by hunger to break the oath which they had taken. But one morning he wandered away to a distant part of the island, that he might spend an hour in solitary prayer and meditation. Having found a secluded spot, he washed his hands, and prayed earnestly to the gods for succour: and when he had prayed, heaven so ordered it that he fell into a deep sleep.
Then the demon of mischief entered into the heart of Eurylochus, a factious knave, who had more than once thwarted the counsels of Odysseus. "Comrades," he said, "let us make an end of this misery. Death in any shape is loathly to us poor mortals, but death by hunger is the most hideous of all. Come, let us take the choicest of the herds of Helios, and feast upon them, after sacrifice to the gods. When we return to Ithaca we will build a temple to Helios, and appease him with rich offerings. And even though he choose to wreck our ship and drown us all, I would rather swallow the brine, and so make an end, than waste away by inches on a desert island."
The famishing sailors lent a ready ear to his words, and having picked out the fattest of the oxen they slaughtered them and offered sacrifice, plucking the leaves of an oak as a substitute for the barley-meal for sprinkling between the horns of the victims, and pouring libations of water instead of wine. When the vain rite was finished, they spitted slices of the meat, and roasted them over the glowing embers.
Meanwhile Odysseus had awakened from his sleep, and made his way, not without forebodings of ill, back to the camp. As he approached, the steam of roasting meat was borne to his nostrils. "Woe is me!" he cried, "the deed is done! What a price must we now pay for one hour of sleep."
Vengeance, indeed, was already prepared. Helios received prompt news of the sacrilege from one of the nymphs who had charge of his flocks and herds, and hastened to Olympus to demand speedy punishment for the transgressors, vowing that if they escaped he would leave the earth in darkness and carry the lamp of day to the nether world. Zeus promised that the retribution should be swift and complete, and Helios thereupon returned immediately to his daily round, knowing full well that the father of gods would keep his word.
When Odysseus entered the camp he rebuked his men bitterly for their impiety. But no words, and no repentance, could now repair the mischief; the cattle were slain, and in that very hour dire portents occurred, to show them the enormity of their crime. A strange moaning sound, like the lowing of kine, came from the meat on the spits, and the hides of the slaughtered beasts crawled and writhed.
In spite of these dreadful omens they continued for six days to feast upon the herds of Helios. On the seventh day the wind blew fair, and they launched their vessel and continued their voyage. The last vestige of the island had hardly been lost to view when the sky became black with clouds, and a violent squall struck the ship, snapping her mast, which fell upon the helmsman, and dashed out his brains. A moment after, a deafening peal of thunder broke overhead, and the avenging bolt of Zeus fell upon the ship, scattering her timbers, and strewing the charred carcasses of the crew upon the waves.
Odysseus alone escaped with his life from that tremendous stroke, and clinging to a spar floated all day, until he came in sight of the strait between Scylla and Charybdis. By the favour of heaven he was once more preserved from this great peril, and on the tenth day after the loss of his vessel he was thrown ashore by the waves on the island of Calypso.
20. Shakespeare, "Hamlet." (return)