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Summary of Odyssey Book XII

What Happens in the Twelfth Book of Homer's Odyssey

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Odyssey Study Guide Contents

The men return to the island of Circe where they bury Elpenor's body, with an oar sticking out of the grave. Circe feeds the men and then lies down with Odysseus. She warns him of the dangers he will face.

  1. First there will be the Sirens who lure men. He should put wax in his men's ears and if he wants to listen, he should have the men bind him to a mast until they have sailed past the Sirens.
  2. He will then face dangerous rocks that the waves push ships against.
    • First are the Planctae. Not even doves flying can get past them. Only the Argo has successfully passed them, and that only with the help of Hera.
    • Then there are two facing cliffs.
      • One is very high and sheer as ice. There is a cave in the middle of it where Scylla lives and howls. Scylla has 3 rows of teeth in each of her 6 heads. She sticks her heads out in order to fish. No ship passes without losing men to each of her heads.
      • The other cliff is shorter, with a fig tree under which lives Charybdis. Charybdis, worse than a storm god, swallows so much water the land is revealed. She does this three times a day and three times a day she throws it up.
      Circe says Odysseus should stay close to Scylla because then he will lose only 6 men. Odysseus asks if there isn't some way to avoid losing the men. Circe advises him that Scylla is an immortal evil. If he tries to attack, she'll take the time to eat another six men.
  3. Next Odysseus will reach the island of Thrinacia where the cattle and sheep of the sun god, Helios (Hyperion), pasture. If Odysseus and his men leave them unharmed they will reach Ithaca. Otherwise, they may all die, or Odysseus alone will survive and return home but at a great delay.
At dawn Odysseus and his men board their ship. Circe sends a favorable wind.

When they approach the Sirens, wax is inserted in the companions' ears and Odysseus is tied to the mast, as Circe recommended.

Odysseus had warned the men about the Sirens, but didn't tell them about Scylla and Charybdis. It wouldn't have made any difference. As predicted, 6 men are snatched as they go by. They next approach the island of the cattle of Helios. Odysseus remembers the warnings of Tiresias and Circe to avoid the island. The men are upset when he tells them they should keep going. Eurylochus speaks up angrily. He says Odysseus may have superhuman strength, but not the rest of them. They need to rest. The other men agree. Odysseus says that it is okay to sleep and eat there, but only the food Circe has provisioned them with. The men agree.

They land, find good water, eat, and then mourn for their 6 recently lost comrades. The next morning Odysseus gathers the men and reminds them there is food on the ship, but the cattle on the island belong to a god. The men agree not to eat the cattle. The winds are wrong and they are stuck on the island for a month, during which time they eat all the food they have with them. The men hunt for fowl and fish. Odysseus goes inland to pray for guidance and falls asleep. Eurylochus, back with the comrades, says the worst kind of death is starvation. They should find the best cattle and make a sacrifice of them to the gods and make an oath to build a temple to Helios in Ithaca. The men agree, pick the best cattle, and pray to the gods. They slaughter and skin the animals. They roast the animals.

Odysseus wakes up and smells the burning fat. He cries out at Zeus for having lulled him to sleep. Helios is furious and tells the gods to make the comrades of Odysseus pay or else he won't shine. Zeus says he'll strike the ship with lightning.

Odysseus reproaches his companions. There are portents - crawling hides and mooing flesh. A week later, the wind is finally right and they set sail. They run into a storm and the man who steers is killed. Then Zeus sends a thunderbolt. All are tossed out of the ship. Odysseus binds together the mast and keel with the oxhide of the backstay and sits on it. The south wind returns carrying him back to Scylla and Charybdis. Odysseus grabs hold of the fig tree while Charybdis swallows and then regurgitates his mast and keel. Odysseus drops down on them and rows through with his hands. He is carried for 9 days and on the tenth night reached Ogygia home of the goddess Calypso.

Quiz on Odyssey Book XII

Book XI Summary|Book XIII

Read a Public Domain translation of Odyssey Book XII.

Next: Major Characters in Book XII, Notes Book XII

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