The Odyssey, Book X

Overview
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Circe

Next they came to the island of Aeolia where Aeolus, god of the winds, lived with his wife, six daughters and six sons, who were married to each other. Aeolus welcomed Odysseus and his men and entertained them for a month. Aeolus helped them to reach Ithaca by giving Odysseus a leather bag containing the winds, which were not to be released until he reached home.

Medieval tapestry of Aeolus handing over the winds to Odysseus.

Odysseus secured the top of the bag with wire and plαced it in the hold of his ship. Odysseus guarded this for nine days and nights but fell asleep exhausted on the tenth day when they were in sight of Ithaca. His men foolishly thought the bag contained gold which Odysseus was keeping from them. They undid the bag, out rushed the winds and blew all of Odysseus’ ships back to Aeolia. Odysseus explained to Aeolus what had happened and begged him to imprison the winds again but he refused, saying what had happened showed that Odysseus was hated by the gods.

After six days and nights they came to the island of Telepylus, which was inhabited by the Laestrygonians, giants of men who were cannibals. All the ships but Odysseus’ moored in a calm harbour. He sent three men to investigate who lived on the island. They met the daughter of the chieftain who took them to her parents. Her father, Amphitates, seized one of the men intending to eat him. Calling to the other Laestrygonians, they then began pelting Odysseus’ ships with rocks, wounding or killing his men and spearing them like fish ready to eat for supper. Only Odysseus and his crew managed to escape as they had moored their ship outside the harbour.

The Laestrygonians hurling rocks at Odysseus’ ships, the fourth panel of the so-called “Odyssey Landscapes” wall painting from the Vatican Museums in Rome, 60–40 BC.

Next they came to the island of Aeaea where the goddess Circe lived, a witch who was famous for her beautiful voice. Exhausted and grieving for their dead comrades, they lay on the shore resting for two days.

On the third day Odysseus climbed high rocks and saw Circe’s house. Returning to his men he killed a huge stag on which they feasted. On the next day he divided his men into two groups: Odysseus was the leader of one group and they stayed on the shore while Eurylochus, the leader of the other, set off with his twenty two men to investigate. When they reached Circe’s palace they saw wolves and lions but they did not attack them as they were men, who had been bewitched by Circe’s drugs.

Circe, painting by Wright Barker, 1889.

They heard Circe singing inside her palace as she wove. She invited them inside and all entered except Eurylochus who suspected a trap. The rest ate the meal Circe offered to them and were transformed into pigs. Eurylochus returned to Odysseus to tell him that his men had not reappeared after entering Circe’s palace. He pleaded that they all leave immediately but Odysseus refused and set off for the palace.

On the way Hermes met him, told him his men had been transformed into pigs and gave Odysseus a herb which would make him immune to Circe’s magic. He told him to draw his sword when Circe struck him with her stick and rush at her as if intending to kill her and then he must go to bed with her, making her swear an oath she will not harm or try to transform him. Odysseus did as Hermes said and found that, after the drugged meal Circe gave him, he was not transformed into a pig. Circe guessed that he must be Odysseus whom she had been told to expect. She swore the oath and they went to bed together.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus.jpg
Circe offering a cup to Odysseus, painting by John William Waterhouse, 1891.

At Odysseus’ request Circe turned his men back from pigs to human form but looking younger and more handsome. Odysseus then returned to the rest of his men, stored his belongings and ship in a cave and they all returned to Circe, although Eurylochus was reluctant to do so and still suspected a trick. Everyone was fed and bathed and massaged by Circe and her maids to recover from their long journey and sufferings. After a year his men asked Odysseus when they were leaving but when he asked Circe permission to return to Ithaca she told him he must first visit Hades in order to consult Teiresias, the blind prophet. She told him where the entrance to Hades was and which offerings to make to the ghosts of the dead and to Hades and Persephone. Teiresias would then come to him and tell him how to reach Ithaca. As they were getting ready to leave the next day one of Odysseus’ men, Elpenor, who had been sleeping on the roof drunk, forgetting where he was and not therefore using the ladder, fell off and broke his neck.

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