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The Wine Red Sea:  Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 - 2018 by Peter J Ponzio

The First Journey Ends, Book XII

Having left the land of the dead, Ulysses and his men journeyed back to the island of Circe, to perform the proper burial procedures for their comrade, Elpenor.  After burning Elpenor’s body and his armor, Ulysses and his men were greeted by Circe, who declared: Ah my darling reckless friends! You who have ventured down to the House of Death alive, doomed to die twice over - others die just once. . . I will set you a course and chart each seamark, so neither on sea nor land will some new trap ensnare you in trouble, make you suffer more. (XII 22-24; 28-30) Circe not only prepared the voyagers for their journey, but acknowledged their unique fate; few others had ever died twice and lived to tell about it.  She then listed the places they would encounter in their journey back home: o The island of the sirens o The Clashing Rocks o Scylla, the monster with six heads and twelve legs o Charybdis, the vortex that swallows ships whole o The island of the sun god, where dwell the cattle of the sun As she described each destination, Circe provided guidance on how to proceed and what to avoid.  She advised the men to plug their ears, so as not to hear the beguiling song of the sirens.  Knowing the heart of Odysseus after all those years, she advised him as follows:  “but if you are bent on hearing/have them tie you hand and foot in the swift ship,/erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast/so you can hear the Siren’s song to your content” (XII 55-58). She gave the crew advice on how to avoid the dangers of the Clashing Rocks, admonishing them that the only ship to pass the rocks unscathed was the Argo, the first ship ever created, and populated by the greatest collection of heroes ever assembled prior to the Trojan War.  Next, Circe advised them not to trifle with Scylla, and warned that no sailors passed through the waters between Scylla and Charybdis without some loss of life.  When Odysseus asked if he could fight off these twin dangers, Circe replied, “’So stubborn!’ the lovely goddess countered/’Hell bent yet again on battle and feats of arms?/Can’t you bow to the deathless gods themselves?” (XII 125-127).  Once again, Circe demonstrates her knowledge of the heart of Odysseus, for she focuses on his primary shortcoming:  his pride.  Circe knows that the lure of the Sirens is that they sing men’s praises.  She also knows that Odysseus’ pride will not allow him to accept fate unopposed. Finally, she warns the crew not to eat the cattle of the sun god, Helios, lest they fail to reach their journey: Leave the beasts unharmed, your mind set on home, and you may still reach Ithaca-bent with hardship true-but harm them in any way, and i can see it now: your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well! And even if you escape, you’ll come home late, all shipmates lost, and come a broken man (XII 148-153)
Odysseus and his men encounter the Sirens