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Ch. 22: Ulysses, Lotus Eaters, Cyclopes, Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, Calypso

The romantic poem of the Odyssey is now to engage our attention.
It narrates the wanderings of Ulysses (Odysseus in the Greek
language) in his return from Troy to his own kingdom of Ithaca.

From Troy the vessels first made land at Ismarus, a city of the
Ciconians, where, in a skirmish with the inhabitants, Ulysses
lost six men from each ship. Sailing thence they were overtaken
by a storm which drove them for nine days along the sea till they
reached the country of the Lotus-eaters. Here, after watering,
Ulysses sent three of his men to discover who the inhabitants
were. These men on coming among the Lotus-eaters were kindly
entertained by them, and were given some of their own food, the
lotus-plant to eat. The effect of this food was such that those
who partook of it lost all thoughts of home and wished to remain
in that country. It was by main force that Ulysses dragged these
men away, and he was even obliged to tie them under the benches
of his ship. (Tennyson in the Lotus-eaters has charmingly
expressed the dreamy languid feeling which the lotus-food is said
to have produced:

"How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other's whispered speech;
Eating the lotus, day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heaped over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass.")

They next arrived at the country of the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes
were giants, who inhabited an island of which they were the only
possessors. The name means "round eye," and these giants were so
called because they had but one eye, and that placed in the
middle of the forehead. They dwelt in caves and fed on the wild
productions of the island and on what their flocks yielded, for
they were shepherds. Ulysses left the main body of his ships at
anchor, and with one vessel went to the Cyclopes' island to
explore for supplies. He landed with his companions, carrying
with them a jar of wine for a present, and coming to a large cave
they entered it, and finding no one within examined its contents.
They found it stored with the riches of the flock, quantities of
cheese, pails and bowls of milk, lambs and kids in their pens,
all in nice order. Presently arrived the master of the cave,
Polyphemus, bearing an immense bundle of firewood, which he threw
down before the cavern's mouth. He then drove into the cave the
sheep and goats to be milked, and, entering, rolled to the cave's
mouth an enormous rock, that twenty oxen could not draw. Next he
sat down and milked his ewes, preparing a part for cheese, and
setting the rest aside for his customary drink. Then turning
round his great eye he discerned the strangers, and growled out
to them, demanding who they were, and where from. Ulysses
replied most humbly, stating that they were Greeks, from the
great expedition that had lately won so much glory in the
conquest of Troy; that they were now on their way home, and
finished by imploring his hospitality in the name of the gods.
Polyphemus deigned no answer, but reaching out his hand, seized
two of the Greeks, whom he hurled against the side of the cave,
and dashed out their brains. He proceeded to devour them with
great relish, and having made a hearty meal, stretched himself
out on the floor to sleep. Ulysses was tempted to seize the
opportunity and plunge his sword into him as he slept, but
recollected that it would only expose them all to certain
destruction, as the rock with which the giant had closed up the
door was far beyond their power to remove, and they would
therefore be in hopeless imprisonment. Next morning the giant
seized two more of the Greeks, and dispatched them in the same
manner as their companions, feasting on their flesh till no
fragment was left. He then moved away the rock from the door,
drove out his flocks, and went out, carefully replacing the
barrier after him. When he was gone Ulysses planned how he might
take vengeance for his murdered friends, and effect his escape
with his surviving companions. He made his men prepare a massive
bar of wood cut by the Cyclops for a staff, which they found in
the cave. They sharpened the end of it and seasoned it in the
fire, and hid it under the straw on the cavern floor. Then four
of the boldest were selected, with whom Ulysses joined himself as
a fifth. The Cyclops came home at evening, rolled away the stone
and drove in his flock as usual. After milking them and making
his arrangements as before, he seized two more of Ulysses'
companions and dashed their brains out, and made his evening meal
upon them as he had on the others. After he had supped, Ulysses,
approaching him, handed him a bowl of wine, saying, "Cyclops,
this is wine; taste and drink after thy meal of man's flesh." He
took and drank it, and was hugely delighted with it, and called
for more. Ulysses supplied him once and again, which pleased the
giant so much that he promised him as a favor that he should be
the last of the party devoured. He asked his name, to which
Ulysses replied, "My name is Noman."

After his supper the giant lay down to repose, and was soon sound
asleep. Then Ulysses with his four select friends thrust the end
of the stake into the fire till it was all one burning coal, then
poising it exactly above the giant's only eye, they buried it
deeply into the socket, twirling it round and round as a
carpenter does his auger. The howling monster filled the cavern
with his outcry, and Ulysses with his aids nimbly got out of his
way and concealed themselves in the cave. The Cyclops,
bellowing, called aloud on all the Cyclopes dwelling in the caves
around him, far and near. They on his cry flocked around the
den, and inquired what grievous hurt had caused him to sound such
an alarm and break their slumbers. He replied, "O friends, I
die, and Noman gives the blow." They answered, "If no man hurts
thee it is the stroke of Jove, and thou must bear it." So
saying, they left him groaning.

Next morning the Cyclops rolled away the stone to let his flock
out to pasture, but planted himself in the door of the cave to
feel of all as they went out, that Ulysses and his men should not
escape with them. But Ulysses had made his men harness the rams
of the flock three abreast, with osiers which they found on the
floor of the cave. To the middle ram of the three one of the
Greeks suspended himself, so protected by the exterior rams on
either side. As they passed, the giant felt of the animals'
backs and sides, but never thought of their bellies; so the men
all passed safe, Ulysses himself being on the last one that
passed. When they had got a few paces from the cavern, Ulysses
and his friends released themselves from their rams, and drove a
good part of the flock down to the shore to their boat. They put
them aboard with all haste, then pushed off from the shore, and
when at a safe distance Ulysses shouted, "Cyclops, the gods have
well requited thee for thy atrocious deeds. Know it is Ulysses
to whom thou owest thy shameful loss of sight." The Cyclops,
hearing this, seized a rock that projected from the side of the
mountain, and rending it from its bed he lifted it high in the
air, then exerting all his force, hurled it in the direction of
the voice. Down came the mass, just clearing the vessel's stern.
The ocean, at the plunge of the huge rock, heaved the ship
towards the land, so that it barely escaped being swamped by the
waves. When they had with the utmost difficulty pulled off
shore, Ulysses was about to hail the giant again, but his friends
besought him not to do so. He could not forbear, however,
letting the giant know that they had escaped his missile, but
waited till they had reached a safer distance than before, The
giant answered them with curses, but Ulysses and his friends
plied their oars vigorously, and soon regained their companions.

Ulysses next arrived at the island of AEolus. To this monarch
Jupiter had intrusted the government of the winds, to send them
forth or retain them at his will. He treated Ulysses hospitably,
and at his departure gave him, tied up in a leathern bag with a
silver string, such winds as might be hurtful and dangerous,
commanding fair winds to blow the barks towards their country.
Nine days they sped before the wind, and all that time Ulysses
had stood at the helm, without sleep. At last quite exhausted he
lay down to sleep. While he slept, the crew conferred together
about the mysterious bag, and concluded it must contain treasures
given by the hospitable King AEolus to their commander. Tempted
to secure some portion for themselves they loosed the string,
when immediately the winds rushed forth. The ships were driven
far from their course, and back again to the island they had just
left. AEolus was so indignant at their folly that he refused to
assist them further, and they were obliged to labor over their
course once more by means of their oars.


The next adventure was with the barbarous tribe of
Laestrygonians. The vessels pushed into the harbor, tempted by
the secure appearance of the cove, completely land-locked;
Ulysses alone moored his vessel without. As soon as the
Laestrygonians found the ships completely in their power they
attacked them, having huge stones which broke and overturned
them, and with their spears dispatched the seamen as they
struggled in the water. All the vessels with their crews were
destroyed, except Ulysses' own ship which had remained outside,
and finding no safety but in flight, he exhorted his men to ply
their oars vigorously, and they escaped.

With grief for their slain companions mixed with joy at their own
escape, they pursued their way till they arrived at the Aeaean
isle, where dwelt Circe, the daughter of the sun. Landing here
Ulysses climbed a hill, and gazing round saw no signs of
habitation except in one spot at the centre of the island, where
he perceived a palace embowered with trees. He sent forward one-
half of his crew, under the command of Eurylochus, to see what
prospect of hospitality they might find. As they approached the
palace, they found themselves surrounded by lions, tigers and
wolves, not fierce, but tamed by Circe's art, for she was a
powerful magician. All these animals had once been men, but had
been changed by Circe's enchantments into the forms of beasts.
The sounds of soft music were heard from within, and a sweet
female voice singing. Eurylochus called aloud and the goddess
came forth and invited them in. They all gladly entered except
Eurylochus, who suspected danger. The goddess conducted her
guests to a seat, and had them served with wine and other
delicacies. When they had feasted heartily, she touched them one
by one with her wand, and they became immediately changed into
SWINE, in "head, body, voice and bristles," yet with their
intellects as before. She shut them in her sties, and supplied
them with acorns and such other things as swine love.

Eurylochus hurried back to the ship and told the tale. Ulysses
thereupon determined to go himself, and try if by any means he
might deliver his companions. As he strode onward alone, he met
a youth who addressed him familiarly, appearing to be acquainted
with his adventures. He announced himself as Mercury, and
informed Ulysses of the arts of Circe, and of the danger of
approaching her. As Ulysses was not to be dissuaded from his
attempts, Mercury provided him with a sprig of the plant Moly, of
wonderful power to resist sorceries, and instructed him how to
act. Ulysses proceeded, and reaching the palace was courteously
received by Circe, who entertained him as she had done his
companions, and after he had eaten and drank, touched him with
her wand, saying, "Hence seek the sty and wallow with thy
friends." But he, instead of obeying, drew his sword and rushed
upon her with fury in his countenance. She fell on her knees
and begged for mercy. He dictated a solemn oath that she would
release his companions and practise no further against him or
them; and she repeated it, at the same time promising to dismiss
them all in safety after hospitably entertaining them. She was
as good as her word. The men were restored to their shapes, the
rest of the crew summoned from the shore, and the whole
magnificently entertained day after day, till Ulysses seemed to
have forgotten his native land, and to have reconciled himself to
an inglorious life of ease and pleasure.

At length his companions recalled him to nobler sentiments, and
he received their admonition gratefully. Circe aided their
departure, and instructed them how to pas safely by the coast of
the Sirens. The Sirens were Sea-nymphs who had the power of
charming by their song all who had heard them, so that the
unhappy mariners were irresistibly impelled to cast themselves
into the sea to their destruction. Circe directed Ulysses to
fill the ears of his seamen with wax, so that they should not
hear the strain; and to cause himself to be bound to the mast,
and his people to be strictly enjoined, whatever he might say or
do, by no means to release him till they should have passed the
Sirens' island. Ulysses obeyed these directions. He filled the
ears of his people with wax, and suffered them to bind him with
cords firmly to the mast. As they approached the Sirens' island,
the sea was calm, and over the waters came the notes of music so
ravishing and attractive, that Ulysses struggled to get loose,
and by cries and signs to his people, begged to be released; but
they, obedient to his previous orders, sprang forward and bound
him still faster. They held on their course, and the music grew
fainter till it ceased to be heard, when with joy Ulysses gave
his companions the signal to unseal their ears, and they relieved
him from his bonds.

The imagination of a modern poet, Keats, has discovered for us
the thoughts that passed through the brains of the victims of
Circe, after their transformation. In his Endymion he represents
one of them, a monarch in the guise of an elephant, addressing
the sorceress in human language thus:

"I sue not for my happy crown again;
I sue not for my phalanx on the plain;
I sue not for my lone, my widowed wife;
I sue not for my ruddy drops of life,
My children fair, my lovely girls and boys;
I will forget them; I will pass these joys,
Ask nought so heavenward; so too too high;
Only I pray, as fairest boon, to die;
To be delivered from this cumbrous flesh,
From this gross, detestable, filthy mesh,
And merely given to the cold, bleak air.
Have mercy, goddess! Circe, feel my prayer!"


Ulysses had been warned by Circe of the two monsters Scylla and
Charybdis. We have already met with Scylla in the story of
Glaucus, and remember that she was once a beautiful maiden and
was changed into a snaky monster by Circe. She dwelt in a cave
high up on the cliff, from whence she was accustomed to thrust
forth her long necks for she had six heads, and in each of her
mouths to seize one of the crew of every vessel passing within
reach. The other terror, Charybdis, was a gulf, nearly on a
level with the water. Thrice each day the water rushed into a
frightful chasm, and thrice was disgorged. Any vessel coming
near the whirlpool when the tide was rushing in must inevitably
by ingulfed; not Neptune himself could save it.

On approaching the haunt of the dread monsters, Ulysses kept
strict watch to discover them. The roar of the waters as
Charybdis ingulfed them, gave warning at a distance, but Scylla
could nowhere be discerned. While Ulysses and his men watched
with anxious eyes the dreadful whirlpool, they were not equally
on their guard from the attack of Scylla, and the monster darting
forth her snaky heads, caught six of his men, and bore them away
shrieking to her den. It was the saddest sight Ulysses had yet
seen; to behold his friends thus sacrificed and hear their cries,
unable to afford them any assistance.

Circe had warned him of another danger. After passing Scylla and
Charybdis, the next land he would make was Trinakria, an island
whereon were pastured the cattle of Hyperion, the Sun, tended by
his daughters Lampetia and Phaethusa. These flocks must not be
violated, whatever the wants of the voyagers might be. If this
injunction were transgressed, destruction was sure to fall on the

Ulysses would willingly have passed the island of the Sun without
stopping, but his companions so urgently pleaded for the rest and
refreshment that would be derived from anchoring and passing the
night on shore, that Ulysses yielded. He bound them, however,
with an oath that they would not touch one of the animals of the
sacred flocks and herds, but content themselves with what
provision they yet had left of the supply which Circe had put on
board. So long as this supply lasted the people kept their oath,
but contrary winds detained them at the island for a month, and
after consuming all their stock of provisions, they were forced
to rely upon the birds and fishes they could catch. Famine
pressed them, and at length one day, in the absence of Ulysses,
they slew some of the cattle, vainly attempting to make amends
for the deed by offering from them a portion to the offended
powers. Ulysses, on his return to the shore, was horror-struck
at perceiving what they had done, and the more so on account of
the portentous signs which followed. The skins crept on the
ground, and the joints of meat lowed on the spits while roasting.

The wind becoming fair they sailed from the island. They had not
gone far when the weather changed, and a storm of thunder and
lightning ensued. A stroke of lightning shattered their mast,
which in its fall killed the pilot. At last the vessel itself
came to pieces. The keel and mast floating side by side, Ulysses
formed of them a raft, to which he clung, and, the wind changing,
the waves bore him to Calypso's island. All the rest of the crew

The following allusion to the stories we have just been relating
is from Milton's Comus, line 252:

"I have often heard
My mother Circe and the Sirens three,
Amidst the flowery-kirtled Naiades,
Culling their potent herbs and baneful drugs,
Who as they sung would take the prisoned soul
And lap it in Elysium. Scylla wept,
And chid her barking waves into attention.
And fell Charybdis murmured soft applause."

Scylla and Charybdis have become proverbial, to denote opposite
dangers which beset one's course.


Calypso was a sea-nymph. One of that numerous class of female
divinities of lower rank than the gods, yet sharing many of their
attributes. Calypso received Ulysses hospitably, entertained him
magnificently, became enamored of him, and wished to retain him
forever, conferring on him immortality. But he persisted in his
resolution to return to his country and his wife and son.
Calypso at last received a command from Jove to dismiss him.
Mercury brought the message to her, and found her in her grotto,
which is thus described by Homer:

"A garden vine, luxuriant on all sides,
Mantled the spacious cavern, cluster-hung
Profuse; four fountains of serenest lymph,
Their sinuous course pursuing side by side,
Strayed all around, and every where appeared
Meadows of softest verdure purpled o'er
With violets; it was a scene to fill
A god from heaven with wonder and delight."

Calypso with much reluctance proceeded to obey the commands of
Jupiter. She supplied Ulysses with the means of constructing a
raft, provisioned it well for him, and gave him a favoring gale.
He sped on his course prosperously for many days, till at length,
when in sight of land, a storm arose that broke his mast, and
threatened to rend the raft asunder. In this crisis he was seen
by a compassionate sea-nymph, who in the form of a cormorant
alighted on the raft, and presented him a girdle, directing him
to bind it beneath his breast, and if he should be compelled to
trust himself to the waves, it would buoy him up and enable him
by swimming to reach the land.

Fenelon, in his romance of Telemachus, has given us the
adventures of the son of Ulysses in search of his father. Among
other places at which he arrived, following on his father's
footsteps, was Calypso's isle, and, as in the former case, the
goddess tried every art to keep him with her, and offered to
share her immortality with him. But Minerva, who, in the shape
of Mentor, accompanied him and governed all his movements, made
him repel her allurements, and when no other means of escape
could be found, the two friends leaped from a cliff into the sea,
and swam to a vessel which lay becalmed off shore. Byron alludes
to this leap of Telemachus and Mentor in the following stanza:

"But not in silence pass Calypso's isles,
The sister tenants of the middle deep;
There for the weary still a haven smiles,
Though the fair goddess long has ceased to weep,
And o'er her cliffs a fruitless watch to keep
For him who dared prefer a mortal bride.
Here too his boy essayed the dreadful leap,
Stern Mentor urged from high to yonder tide;
While thus of both bereft the nymph-queen doubly sighed."

Thomas Bulfinch

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