Gateway to the Classics: The Odyssey by Jeanie Lang
The Odyssey by  Jeanie Lang

How Odysseus Escaped From The Sirens, And How His Ship Was Wrecked

In an island in the blue sea through which the ship of Odysseus would cut its homeward way, lived some beautiful mermaids called Sirens.

Even more beautiful than the Sirens' faces were their lovely voices.

In the flowery meadows of their island they sat singing their sweet songs, and the sailors whose ships were passing could not forbear to go on shore, and there were they slain by the wicked mermaids. All around them in the meadows where the Sirens sat were the bones of the men they had slain. But these the foolish sailors did not see. They only saw the bright-coloured flowers, and the mermaids' lovely faces and long, golden hair. And the songs, whose melody mingled with the sound of the little white-fringed waves that swished up on the yellow sand, stole their hearts away.

Against these mermaids Circe had warned Odysseus, and he repeated her warnings to his men.

A gentle breeze sped the ship of Odysseus quickly on its way, but as they neared the island the sirens by their spells sent a dead calm and the waves were lulled to sleep. Not a breath of air filled the white sails, so the men drew them in and stowed them in the hold, and rowed with their long oars until the green water grew white.

Meantime Odysseus, as Circe had bidden him, took a great piece of wax, cut it in pieces with his sharp sword, and quickly moulded it with his strong hands.

Soon the wax grew warm and soft, and with it he then filled the ears of each one of his men. He himself used no wax, but made his company bind him hand and foot upright to the mast.

If, when I hear the voices of the mermaidens, I struggle and sign to thee to set me free, then bind me with yet more bonds, said Odysseus.

'Drive thy ship swiftly past the island,' Circe had said. So the men bent to their oars and smote the grey sea-water.

Past the island drove the dark-prowed ship, but the sirens seeing it began their sweet song. 'Come hither, come hither, brave Odysseus,' they sang. 'Here stay thy black ship and listen to our song. No one hath ever passed this way in his ship till he hath heard from our lips the music that is sweet as honeycomb, and hath had joy of it, and gone on his way the wiser. All things are known to us. We will sing to thee of thy great fights and victories in Troyland. We shall sing of all the things that shall be hereafter. Come hither, come hither, Odysseus!'

So sweet and so full of magic were their voices, that when Odysseus had heard their song, and seen them smilingly beckoning to him from amongst the flowers, he tried to make his men unbind him.

Frowning and nodding, he signed to them to set him free, but Eurylochus and another rose from their places and bound him yet more tightly to the mast. The men themselves, deafened by the wax, heard none of the song and wished not to stop, but stoutly rowed on-ward.

When the island was left behind, and Odysseus no longer heard the silvery voices, but only the moan of the waves far away and the rush of the water off the oars, the men took the wax from their ears and unbound their captain.

Soon they heard a sound far different from the song of the Sirens.

'Thou shalt pass the Wandering Rocks,' Circe had said. 'There great and furious waves dash themselves up on the rugged cliffs. Even the wild birds cannot fly past them, but are beaten down by the force of the spray. The whirlpool beside them tosses up and churns about continually the planks of the ships and the bodies of the men it has destroyed.'

When Odysseus heard the thunder of the sea and saw mighty waves rushing and roaring against the rocks, and the smoke of the spray dashing up into the sky, he knew that they had reached the Wandering Rocks.

So terrible were the sights and sounds that the men let the oars slip from their hands, and stared and listened in horror.

But Odysseus paced along the ship and spoke cheering words to them.

'This is no greater woe,' he said, 'than what we bore when we were penned into his cave by the cannibal giant. From that cave we escaped, and some day I think we shall be able also to talk of this adventure. Only do now as I say. Ye oarsmen, drive thine oars deep and strongly into the angry surf and row with all thy might. And thou at the helm, keep the ship well away from the great waves and the spray, and hug the rocks. So may we escape even from this peril.'

But the Wandering Rocks were not the only danger there for the ship. Beyond them were yet two huge rocks between which the sea swept.

One of these, a dark and dreadful peak, ran straight up to the sky. Over it hung a black cloud even in the fairest summer weather. No mortal could climb it, not even if he had twenty hands and feet, for it was smooth and slippery as glass. In this cliff was a dark cave in which lived a horrible monster called Scylla. All day and all night she yelped like a savage dog. She had twelve feet and six heads, each head with three rows of sharp teeth. Up to her waist she was hidden in the darkness of the cave. Her six heads, with their long necks, constantly swooped and craned and darted out like great fierce birds, and seized all the dolphins and sea-dogs, and big fishes that came within reach. When ships passed near her cave Scylla had a feast, for with each head she would seize a sailor and crunch him up with her horrid teeth.

Opposite this cliff was another rock, on which grew a great fig-tree in full leaf. Beneath it dwelt another monster, Charybdis. Three times a day did Charybdis suck down the salt sea-water, and three times a day did she force it out again from her black cave under the sea. If a ship passed while she sucked, it was drawn down into the dreadful gulf where the monster lived, and only its fragments were tossed up in the boiling surf.

Odysseus spoke to his men of the Wandering Rocks, but he dared not tell them of Scylla and Charybdis lest, in their terror, they should cease to row, and hide themselves in the hold.

When Circe warned him of the dangers he would meet, he asked her how he could best escape from Scylla and Charybdis.

'Scylla is no mortal,' Circe had said. 'She cannot be fought with, and against her there is no defence. Tarry not to put on thine armour and to fight. Drive past her with all thy force.' But when the noise of the furious sea, and the hideous yelping of Scylla were in his ears, Odysseus forgot what Circe had said. He hated Scylla so much that he longed to slay her. Hastily he put on his shining armour and caught up two long lances, and stood at the prow, ready to fight with the monster of the rock.

His eyes grew weary with peering into the darkness of the cave from whence he expected her hideous heads to dart, but he saw nothing, and turned away at last to gaze at the black whirlpool of Charybdis.

White-faced with the terror of it the men rowed steadily, while Charybdis gulped down the water and threw it up again in swirling surf and spray that dashed to the tops of the cliffs. Past the Wandering Rocks they rowed their ship in safety. Almost past the black cliff of Scylla they had pulled, almost past the fierce whirlpool, when six monster heads swooped out from the blackness of the cave. In a moment six of the men were seized and borne aloft, struggling in the greedy jaws of Scylla, and crying pitifully to Odysseus for help.

But no help could Odysseus give. The monster had her meal, and evermore Odysseus remembered the sight of the death of his six brave men as the pitifullest thing he had ever seen.

At last, when the rocks were left behind, the ship came to a fair island where grazed the sacred cattle of the god of the Sun.

'Hurt not the cattle on that fair island,' Circe had said, 'for if thou hurtest them ruin shall come on thy ship and thy men, and even though thou shouldest thyself escape, thou shalt return home in evil plight, with the loss of all thy company.'

The lowing of the cattle, as the ship neared the fair island, made Odysseus think of the evils that might come, and he begged his men to row on past the isle.

Then Eurylochus spoke: 'Surely thou art made of iron and thy limbs are never weary, Odysseus,' he said. 'Thy men are worn out, yet instead of letting them land and allowing them to prepare a good supper, thou drivest them on. Thou bidst us row blindly through the black night, and go wandering on the misty deep. In the night blow the winds that wreck ships. How shall we weary men escape if a sudden fierce blast should blow? Let us rather rest here and sup. In the fair morning light we will start again and row homeward across the sea.'

The tired men gladly agreed with Eurylochus.

Then said Odysseus—

'Promise, then, that none of ye will slay any of the sacred oxen of the Sun, but that ye will be content to eat of the food we have with us.'

Straightway they promised, and the ship was anchored in a little harbour near where was a well of sweet water, and soon they had supper ready on the shore.

As darkness fell, they talked much of the dear friends that Scylla had devoured, and, weeping for their loss, they fell asleep.

A great storm raged through the night, but dawn broke rosy and clear. When it was morning they dragged the ship ashore and hid it in a hollow cave.

All that day a strong south wind blew, and every day for a month it never ceased.

And they dared not go afloat again because of the fierceness of the gales.

At first the men had plenty of food and were well content. But presently the food began to fail, and they had to try to catch fish, and to wander in the island and try to kill birds to eat, for hunger gnawed them.

One day when they were all very hungry Odysseus left his men by the sea, and went away to the middle of the island by himself that he might think what to do, and how they might best return home.

But he was so hungry and so tired that he fell asleep while he was thinking, and while he slept Eurylochus made mischief, as was his wont.

'Shall we die of hunger?' he said to the others, 'and yet have good food so near us? Let us slay some of the best of these straight-horned cattle, and when we are home at Ithaca let us build a splendid altar to the god of the Sun and give him many rich gifts. But if he should be angry at us for slaying the cattle, and should wreck our ship, far better that we should so die than that we should slowly starve to death on this desert island.'

The men quickly did as Eurylochus advised. The finest of the cattle that were feeding near were slain, and soon savoury pieces of their flesh were roasting on spits at the fire which had been kindled.

While they feasted Odysseus awoke and hurried down to the shore. As he drew near, the smell of the roasting flesh met him, and he groaned aloud with horror.

One by one he rebuked his men, but it was too late. The cattle were dead and gone, and the evil could not be mended.

Already the men rued what they had done, for strange and fearful things befell. The skins of the dead beasts were creeping, the flesh bellowed upon the spits as it was being cooked, and a sound as of the lowing of many cattle filled the air.

Yet they hardened their hearts, and for six days their feast went on.

On the seventh day the wind at last ceased to blow heavy gales, and Odysseus and his men launched their ship and hoisted its white sails, and soon had left the island far behind.

When they were out of sight of all land, and saw only sky and sea, a dark cloud appeared over the ship, and the water darkened beneath it.

Then, on a sudden, with a shrill scream, a great tempest burst upon them. The mast snapped before its furious rush and fell with a crash on the pilot, crushing in his head, so that he dropped, like a diver, into the sea.

At that minute a mighty thunderbolt smote the ship, filling it with flame and sulphur, and making it reel over to one side. The men fell from it into the sea, and for one moment Odysseus saw them, like sea-gulls, borne aloft on the great waves round the ship. Then they sank, and he never saw them more.

Still Odysseus paced his ship, till the storm and the sea had smashed her into pieces. Then he lashed the keel and the mast together, and, sitting on it, was driven onward by the furious winds.

All night he was carried swiftly on, and when the sun rose he found that the winds and the waves had carried him close to Scylla and Charybdis.

The black whirlpool of Charybdis gaped to swallow him, but as the piece of wreckage to which he had clung went down into the gulf Odysseus made a mighty leap and seized hold of the fig-tree that grew on the cliff. He held on to it like a bat until Charybdis had cast up again the piece of broken mast.

The moment it appeared Odysseus let himself drop into the sea just beyond it, and, clambering on to it, he rowed hard with his hands. Scylla was not on the outlook, or it would have gone ill with him, but he safely escaped from her and from Charybdis.

For nine days and nights he was tossed by the waves. On the night of the ninth day the mast drifted to the shores of an island, and Odysseus, little life left in him, crawled on to the dry land.

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