Classical Mythology: The Poseidon Adventures

The Poseidon Adventures

After the ships had left the shore, Odysseus shouted taunts at the giant, proudly revealing his true name. Polyphemus now recalled the prophecy of Telemus. Though he could not punish his tormenters himself, the Cyclops prayed to his father Poseidon for vengeance. Poseidon, who hated Odysseus from that day forward, would plague Odysseus again and again, transforming his return to Ithaca into a long, lonely, and costly journey.

Good Host, Bad Host

Fair winds carried the ships to Aeolia, a mythical floating island, where King Aeolus, keeper of the winds, welcomed them kindly, offering his weary guests a month of feasts and entertainment. Aeolus tied up all but the gentle west wind in an ox-hide bag as a gift to Odysseus. The free wind carried them within sight of Ithaca in just 10 days.

The More Things Change ...

Many of the fantastic elements in the story of Odysseus seem more akin to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm than to the lofty legends of Greek gods and heroes. The foul-tempered Cyclops is not unlike the troll who blocks the Billy-Goats Gruff or the giant who chases Jack down the beanstalk. In the tale of Aeolus, we see that “curiosity killed the cat”—a common theme found in folk tales from Pandora to Goldilocks.

Odysseus, happy to be almost home, slept soundly that night. But his curious crew wondered what treasure Aeolus had given their captain, and opened the bag to see for themselves. The rush of winds they released carried them all the way back to Aeolia. Aeolus, recognizing the handiwork of the gods in this twist of fate, turned them away, refusing to help again.

A week's rowing brought them to a harbor walled in by high cliffs. Odysseus alone kept his ship outside the harbor; the other 11 ships entered its narrow mouth.

Three scouts sent to explore the land met an apparently kind giantess who invited them into a palace to meet her father, Antiphates, king of the Laestrygonians. The king eagerly welcomed them—and immediately devoured one of his guests. The other two escaped and ran back to the harbor.

Odysseus immediately put his ship out to sea. But the Laestrygonians hurled boulders down upon the 11 ships trapped in the harbor. As the ships sank, the giant cannibals speared the crew like fish and carried them home for supper.

Pigging Out

Devastated by the loss of his men, Odysseus—now with just the one flagship—sailed for many weeks until he reached the island of Aeaea off the western coast of Italy. By now wary of unfamiliar places, the crew split into two groups of 22 men and drew lots. One group, led by the ship's first mate Eurylochus, had the bad luck to be chosen to explore the island. In the middle of a forest, the scouting crew came upon the house of the sorceress Circe, the daughter of Helius and Perse (a daughter of Oceanus). They were greeted by packs of apparently tame wolves and lions.

When Circe invited the scouts inside for a feast, only the suspicious Eurylochus remained outside. After waiting much longer than any feast should take, Eurylochus ran back to the ship and told Odysseus what had happened.

Odysseus immediately set out alone to try to save his men. Before he reached the house, however, he met Hermes, the divine helper of travelers in distress. The god told Odysseus that Circe had used her sorcery to transform his crewmen into swine. Hermes gave Odysseus a magical herb that he called moly, which would work as an antidote to Circe's drugs, then disappeared into the woods.

Odysseus sat down to a feast in Circe's hut. When her tricks failed to turn him into a beast, he drew his sword upon her. After being forced to swear an oath to the gods that she would try no more to harm him, Circe changed the swine back into men.

Circe became Odysseus's mistress, and the nymphs who attended her entertained and served Odysseus and his crew for a full year.

When at last Odysseus resolved to leave, Circe advised her lover to seek out the counsel of Teiresias, the famed Theban soothsayer. Unfortunately, Teiresias was dead. Odysseus and his crew would have to travel to the edge of the Underworld to speak to him. But Circe promised to conjure up a favorable wind to carry them there.

The night before they left, Elpenor—the crew's youngest member—got drunk and fell asleep on Circe's roof. Still groggy the next morning, he tumbled off the roof and broke his neck. But the crew hurried away without giving a proper burial.

A Ghost of a Chance

The ship sailed to the land where the sun never shines. When they came on foot to the juncture of the Underworld rivers Acheron, Periphlegethon, and Cocytus, the rivers that formed the boundaries of Hades, Odysseus dug a pit to honor Hades and Persephone. Into this pit he poured milk and honey, wine, water, and the blood that flowed from the sacrifice of a young ram and a black ewe provided by Circe.

From the pit arose a swarm of ghosts. As Circe had advised, Odysseus stood over the pit with his sword drawn to ensure that Teiresias got the first drink.

First Elpenor appeared, begging his captain for a proper funeral, which Odysseus promised him. Odysseus was shocked and saddened next to see his own mother, Anticleia, who had died of grief during her son's long absence—or had killed herself upon hearing a false report that he had died. Though it pained him to do so, Odysseus refused both of these shades a drink.

The ghost of Teiresias finally appeared carrying a golden staff. After drinking gratefully from Odysseus's libations, Teiresias foretold that Poseidon's wrath would continue to torment the crew on their long journey home. Despite hardships, however, Odysseus and all his men would arrive home safely—as long as neither he nor his crewmen laid a hand on the immortal herds of cattle or flocks of sheep tended by the daughters of Helius on the island of Thrinacia. Teiresias also told him to expect to find many suitors courting his wife and foretold further wanderings even after his reunion with Penelope.

Once Teiresias had drunk his fill, the other shades stopped to drink from the pit. Anticleia told Odysseus that Penelope had not lost hope. Agamemnon, recounting his own murder (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy), warned Odysseus to disguise himself until he discovered what dangers awaited him at home. Odysseus cheered Achilles with news of the heroics of his son, Neoptolemus, in the final battles of the Trojan War.

Odysseus saw Ajax, too, but the mighty warrior, still angry at Odysseus for winning the armor of Achilles, turned his back on him. Heracles—or the shade of his mortal life—sympathized with Odysseus's endless wanderings. Finally, the hordes became so thick that Odysseus fled back to his ship.

Returning to Aeaea, Odysseus and his crew cremated the body of Elpenor, buried his ashes, and planted the young man's oar in the mound of earth over his grave. Circe offered advice about the dangers still in store for Odysseus and his crew: the Sirens and either the Wandering Rocks or the strait between Scylla and Charybdis. She, too, warned him against harming the herds of Helius.

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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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