Classical Mythology: Eeek! Sea Monsters!

Eeek! Sea Monsters!

The More Things Change ...

The way in which Odysseus resists the deadly pleasure of the Sirens recalls his own forbearance among the Lotus-Eaters. Odysseus not only faces the challenge of conquering giants and ogres in his quest to return to Penelope. The hero must also deny himself the delights of the lotus, Circe, the Sirens, and later Calypso—or he will never make it home.

What a Life!

Scylla was once a beautiful but aloof maiden, the beloved of Glaucus, a sea god. Glaucus asked Circe to prepare a potion to cause Scylla to fall in love with him. Circe, herself enamored with Glaucus, attempted to seduce him, but the sea god could think only of Scylla. So instead of a love potion, the jealous sorceress gave Glaucus a potion that transformed his beloved into a grotesque monster.

Approaching Anthemoessa, the island of the Sirens, Odysseus had his crew members fill their ears with beeswax and had himself bound tightly to the mast. This allowed him alone to hear the intoxicating song of the Sirens—the bird-women whose seductive singing had caused so many sailors to forget their purpose, abandoning all activity to listen to their song until they died of starvation.

Upon hearing their rapturous song, Odysseus cried out for release, but his crew steadfastly refused. The Sirens, distraught that any sailor might hear their song yet not succumb, threw themselves into the sea and were heard no more.

Unaware that the Argo's safe passage through the Wandering Rocks had stilled them forever (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts), Odysseus headed instead for the narrow Strait of Messina that separates Sicily from Italy. On the western side of the northern entrance to this strait, the mighty whirlpool Charybdis sucked down all the water around it three times a day—then later belched it out again. Above the roar of the whirlpool, Odysseus ordered his men to row with all their might under the cliff along the opposite side of the strait. To avoid raising alarm, he neglected to warn them about Scylla: the long-necked, six-headed beast that lived in a cave on that cliff.

Odysseus stood ready to defend his crew from the monster. But the roar of Charybdis made him turn his head for a moment, and in that instant the monster snatched six screaming men—one in each mouth—from their oars.

Don't Have a Cow

The crew emerged from their harrowing trip through the strait exhausted, scared, angry, and upset. So when Odysseus ordered his crew to row past the island of Thrinacia (perhaps Sicily) without stopping, the men nearly mutinied. In the face of their resistance, Odysseus acquiesced to their obvious need for a rest.

Before landing, Odysseus reminded them that Circe had provided them with plenty of food and ordered them not to eat anything from the island. For here grazed the immortal animals of Helius—seven herds of 50 cattle and seven flocks of 50 sheep—that both Teiresias and Circe had warned them not to touch.

For a full month after they landed, a strong south wind blew. Unable to depart without being carried back to Scylla and Charybdis, the crew remained on Thrinacia. Food stores grew thin. The men started fishing and hunting game, but with little success. Finally, while Odysseus slept, Eurylochus ordered some men to kill some of the cattle that grazed so tantalizingly nearby.

Odysseus was horrified. So were Phathusa and Lampetia, the daughters of Helius who tended the animals. When Lampetia told their father, Helius demanded that the gods punish the criminals. He threatened to light up Tartarus if the gods did not heed his demand. So after the crew set sail again, Zeus sent a violent storm that tore the ship apart and killed everyone onboard—save Odysseus himself.

Clinging to the floating mast and keel, Odysseus drifted helplessly. At daybreak, he found himself once again at the edge of the rushing whirlpool of Charybdis. For an entire day, Odysseus clung to the branch of a fig tree that overhung the whirlpool. At dusk, when Charybdis spit up the raft, Odysseus dropped down and paddled as hard as he could. For nine more days he drifted before washing up on the island of Ogygia.

The Hard Life of a Love Slave

Calypso, the daughter of Atlas, was smitten with Odysseus, and wanted him to remain forever with her in her cave on Ogygia. She offered not only herself, but immortality and eternal youth as well. But Odysseus refused her. Oh, sure, he slept with her, dined on fine food, and worked not a single day during the seven years (that's right, seven) he remained on the island—but he didn't want to stay there forever. He longed to return home to Penelope, and spent his days staring forlornly at the sea.

Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus, Athena took advantage of an absence by Poseidon to plead Odysseus's case with Zeus. After his many years of suffering and countless sacrifices to the gods, Odysseus deserved divine assistance. Zeus agreed, and sent Hermes to Ogygia to order Calypso to let Odysseus go. Calypso reluctantly complied, lending him materials to build a boat, filling it with provisions, and creating a breeze to carry him on his way.

Read All About It

Homer's epic poem The Odyssey detailed all of the wanderings of Odysseus as the hero tried to get home to Ithaca—and Penelope. The poem went on to narrate the hero's violent homecoming and ultimate reunion with his son, his father, and of course, his wife.

Upon returning to Olympus, Poseidon—furious that his brother Zeus had helped his enemy—sent a storm that destroyed Odysseus's tiny boat. But the sea goddess Leucothea—once the mortal Ino, loving aunt of Dionysus and unloving stepmother of Phrixus and Helle (see Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King)—saved him. She gave Odysseus her veil to buoy and protect him and told him to swim with all his might. Two days later, he arrived at the island of Scheria. Tossing the veil back into the sea, he collapsed from exhaustion.

Odysseus awoke to the delighted cries of girls playing ball: Nausicaa, a Phaeacian princess, and her servants were entertaining themselves while waiting for their laundry to dry on the shore. Nausicaa fed and clothed the castaway and brought him to meet her father. Approaching as a suppliant, Odysseus was welcomed to the court of Alcinous, a wise and generous king with a reputation for saving shipwrecked sailors. The king promised to have Odysseus taken safely to Ithaca—unless he wanted to stay and marry Nausicaa. Odysseus graciously declined.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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