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Odysseus and the Sirens

Tales beyond belief

The Myth of Odysseus and the Sirens
After the conflict with the Cyclops, Odysseus and his men sailed on and on till they came to Aeolia, where dwells the king of the winds, and here they came nigh to good fortune.

Aeolus received them kindly, and at their going he secretly gave to Odysseus a leathern bag in which all contrary winds were tied up securely, that only the favoring west wind might speed them to Ithaca.

Nine days the ships went gladly before the wind, and on the tenth day they had sight of Ithaca, lying like a low cloud in the west. Then, so near his haven, the happy Odysseus gave up to his weariness and fell asleep, for he had never left the helm. But while he slept his men saw the leathern bag that he kept by him, and, in the belief that it was full of treasure, they opened it. Out rushed the ill-winds!

In an instant the sea was covered with white caps; the waves rose mountain high; the poor ships struggled against the tyranny of the gale and gave way. Back they were driven, back, farther and farther; and when Odysseus woke, Ithaca was gone from sight, as if it had indeed been only a low cloud in the west!

Straight to the island of Aeolus they were driven once more. But when the king learned what greed and treachery had wasted his good gift, he would give them nothing more. "Surely thou must be a man hated of the gods, Odysseus," he said, "for misfortune bears thee company. Depart now; I may not help thee."

So, with a heavy heart, Odysseus and his men departed. For many days they rowed against a dead calm, until at length they came to the land of the Laestrygonians. And, to cut a piteous tale short, these giants destroyed all their fleet save one ship, that of Odysseus himself, and in this he made escape to the island of Circe. What befell there, how the greedy seamen were turned into swine and turned back into men, and how the sorceress came to befriend Odysseus, all this has been related.

There in Aeaea the voyagers stayed a year before Circe would let them go. But at length she bade Odysseus seek the region of Hades, and ask of the sage Tiresias how he might ever return to Ithaca. How Odysseus followed this counsel, none may know; but by some mysterious journey, and with the aid of a spell, he came to the borders of Hades. There he saw and spoke with many renowned Shades, old and young, even his own friends who had fallen on the plain of Troy. Achilles he saw, Patroclus and Ajax and Agamemnon, still grieving over the treachery of his wife. He saw, too, the phantom of Heracles, who lives with honor among the gods, and has for his wife Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Juno. But though he would have talked with the heroes for a year and more, he sought out Tiresias.

"The anger of Poseidon follows thee," said the sage. "Wherefore, Odysseus, thy return is yet far off. But take heed when thou art come to Thrinacia, where the sacred kin of the Sun have their pastures. Do them no hurt, and thou shalt yet come home. But if they be harmed in any wise, ruin shall come upon thy men; and even if thou escape, thou shalt come home to find strange men devouring thy substance and wooing thy wife."

With this word in his mind, Odysseus departed and came once more to Aeaea. There he tarried but a little time, till Circe had told him all the dangers that beset his way. Many a good counsel and crafty warning did she give him against the Sirens that charm with their singing, and against the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and the Clashing Rocks, and the cattle of the Sun. So the king and his men set out from the island of Aeaea.

Now very soon they came to the Sirens who sing so sweetly that they lure to death every man who listens. For straightway he is mad to be with them where they sing; and alas for the man that would fly without wings!

But when the ship drew near the Sirens' island, Odysseus did as Circe had taught him. He bade all his shipmates stop up their ears with moulded wax, so that they could not hear. He alone kept his hearing; but he had himself lashed to the mast so that he could in no wise move, and he forbade them to loose him, however he might plead, under the spell of the Sirens.

As they sailed near, his soul gave way. He heard a wild sweetness coaxing the air, as a minstrel coaxes the harp; and there, close by, were the Sirens sitting in a blooming meadow that hid the bones of men. Beautiful, winning maidens they looked; and they sang, entreating Odysseus by name to listen and abide and rest. Their voices were golden-sweet above the sound of wind and wave, like drops of amber floating on the tide; and for all his wisdom, Odysseus strained at his bonds and begged his men to let him go free. But they, deaf alike to the song and the sorcery, rowed harder than ever. At length, song and island faded in the distance. Odysseus came to his wits once more, and his men loosed his bonds and set him free.

But they were close upon new dangers. No sooner had they avoided the Clashing Rocks (by a device of Circe's) than they came to a perilous strait. On one hand they saw the whirlpool where, beneath a hollow fig-tree, Charybdis sucks down the sea horribly. And, while they sought to escape her, on the other hand monstrous Scylla upreared from the cave, snatched six of their company with her six long necks, and devoured them even while they called upon Odysseus to save them.

So, with bitter peril, the ship passed by and came to the island of Thrinacia; and here are goodly pastures for the flocks and herds of the Sun. Odysseus, who feared lest his men might forget the warning of Tiresias, was very loath to land. But the sailors were weary and worn to the verge of mutiny, and they swore, moreover, that they would never lay hands on the sacred kine. So they landed, thinking to depart next day. But with the next day came a tempest that blew for a month without ceasing, so that they were forced to beach the ship and live on the island with their store of corn and wine. When that was gone they had to hunt and fish, and it happened that, while Odysseus was absent in the woods one day, his shipmates broke their oath. "For," said they, "when we are once more in Ithaca we will make amends to Helios with sacrifice. But let us rather drown than waste to death with hunger." So they drove off the best of the cattle of the Sun and slew them. When the king returned, he found them at their fateful banquet; but it was too late to save them from the wrath of the gods.

As soon as they were fairly embarked once more, the Sun ceased to shine. The sea rose high, the thunderbolt of Zeus struck that ship, and all its company was scattered abroad upon the waters. Not one was left save Odysseus. He clung to a fragment of his last ship, and so he drifted, borne here and there, and lashed by wind and wave, until he was washed up on the strand of the island Ogygia, the home of the nymph Calypso. He was not to leave this haven for seven years.

Here, after ten years of war and two of wandering, he found a kindly welcome. The enchanted island was full of wonders, and the nymph Calypso was more than mortal fair, and would have been glad to marry the hero; yet he pined for Ithaca. Nothing could win his heart away from his own country and his own wife Penelope, nothing but Lethe itself, and that no man may drink till he dies.

So for seven years Calypso strove to make him forget his longing with ease and pleasant living and soft raiment. Day by day she sang to him while she broidered her web with gold; and her voice was like a golden strand that twines in and out of silence, making it beautiful. She even promised that she would make him immortal, if he would stay and be content; but he was heartsick for home.

At last his sorrow touched even the heart of Athena in heaven, for she loved his wisdom and his many devices. So she besought Zeus and all the other gods until they consented to shield Odysseus from the anger of Poseidon. Hermes himself bound on his winged sandals and flew down to Ogygia, where he found Calypso at her spinning. After many words, the nymph consented to give up her captive, for she was kind of heart, and all her graces had not availed to make him forget his home. With her help, Odysseus built a raft and set out upon his lonely voyage, the only man remaining out of twelve good ships that had left Troy nigh unto ten years before.

The sea roughened against him, but (to shorten a tale of great peril) after many days, sore spent and tempest-tossed, he came to the land of the Phaeacians, a land dear to the immortal gods, abounding in gifts of harvest and vintage, in godlike men and lovely women.

Here the shipwrecked king met the princess Nausicaa by the seaside, as she played ball with her maidens; and she, when she had heard of his plight, gave him food and raiment, and bade him follow her home. So he followed her to the palace of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, and abode with them, kindly refreshed, and honored with feasting and games and song. But it came to pass, as the minstrel sang before them of the Trojan War and the Wooden Horse, that Odysseus wept over the story, it was written so deep in his own heart. Then for the first time he told them his true name and all his trials.

They would gladly have kept so great a man with them forever, but they had no heart to keep him longer from his home; so they bade him farewell and set him upon one of their magical ships, with many gifts of gold and silver, and sent him on his way.

Wonderful seamen are the Phaeacians. The ocean is to them as air to the bird, the best path for a swift journey! Odysseus was glad enough to trust the way to them, and no sooner had they set out than a sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids. But the good ship sped like any bee that knows the way home. In a marvellously short time they came even to the shore of the kingdom of Ithaca.

While Odysseus was still sleeping, unconscious of his good fortune, the Phaeacians lifted him from the ship with kindly joy and laid him upon his own shore; and beside him they set the gifts of gold and silver and fair work of the loom. So they departed; and thus it was that Odysseus came to Ithaca after twenty years.

The Legend and Myth of Odysseus and the Sirens

The Myth of Odysseus and the Sirens
The story of Odysseus and the Sirens is featured in the book entitled Old Greek Folk Stories by Josephine Preston Peabody, published in 1907 by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

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