Book XII

The Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis

Return of Ulysses to the island of Circè⁠—Her counsels respecting his homeward voyage⁠—The sirens⁠—Escape from Scylla and Charybdis⁠—His arrival at Trinacria⁠—Slaughter of the oxen of the Sun by his companions⁠—A tempest, in consequence, by which his companions all perish, and he only escapes by swimming to the island of Calypso.

“Now when our barque had left Océanus
And entered the great deep, we reached the isle
Aeaea, where the Morning, child of Dawn,
Abides, and holds her dances, and the Sun
Goes up from earth. We landed there and drew
Our galley up the beach; we disembarked
And laid us down to sleep beside the sea,
And waited for the holy Morn to rise.

“Then when the rosy-fingered Morn appeared,
The child of Dawn, I sent my comrades forth
To bring from Circè’s halls Elpenor’s corse.
And where a headland stretched into the deep
We hewed down trees, and held the funeral rites
With many tears; and having there consumed
The body and the arms with fire, we built
A tomb, and reared a column to the dead,
And on its summit fixed a tapering oar.

“All this was duly done; yet was the news
Of our return from Hades not concealed
From Circè. She attired herself in haste
And came; her maids came with her, bringing bread
And store of meats and generous wine; and thus
Spake the wise goddess, standing in the midst:⁠—

“ ‘Ah, daring ones! who, yet alive, have gone
Down to the abode of Pluto; twice to die
Is yours, while others die but once. Yet now
Take food, drink wine, and hold a feast today,
And with the dawn of morning ye shall sail;
And I will show the way, and teach you all
Its dangers, so that ye may not lament
False counsels followed, either on the land
Or on the water, to your grievous harm.’

“She spake, and our confiding minds were swayed
Easily by her counsels. All that day
Till set of sun we sat and banqueted
Upon the abundant meats and generous wines;
And when the Sun went down, and darkness came,
The crew beside the fastenings of our barque
Lay down to sleep, while Circè took my hand,
Led me apart, and made me sit, and took
Her seat before me, and inquired of all
That I had seen. I told her faithfully,
And then the mighty goddess Circè said:⁠—

“ ‘Thus far is well; now needfully attend
To what I say, and may some deity
Help thee remember it! Thou first wilt come
To where the Sirens haunt. They throw a spell
O’er all who pass that way. If unawares
One finds himself so nigh that he can hear
Their voices, round him nevermore shall wife
And lisping children gather, welcoming
His safe return with joy. The Sirens sit
In a green field, and charm with mellow notes
The comer, while beside them lie in heaps
The bones of men decaying underneath
The shrivelled skins. Take heed and pass them by.
First fill with wax well kneaded in the palm
The ears of thy companions, that no sound
May enter. Hear the music, if thou wilt,
But let thy people bind thee, hand and foot,
To the good ship, upright against the mast,
And round it wind the cord, that thou mayst hear
The ravishing notes. But shouldst thou then entreat
Thy men, commanding them to set thee free,
Let them be charged to bind thee yet more fast
With added bands. And when they shall have passed
The Sirens by, I will not judge for thee
Which way to take; consider for thyself;
I tell thee of two ways. There is a pile
Of beetling rocks, where roars the mighty surge
Of dark-eyed Amphitritè; these are called
The Wanderers by the blessed gods. No birds
Can pass them safe, not even the timid doves,
Which bear ambrosia to our father Jove,
But ever doth the slippery rock take off
Someone, whose loss the God at once supplies,
To keep their number full. To these no barque
Guided by man has ever come, and left
The spot unwrecked; the billows of the deep
And storms of fire in air have scattered wide
Timbers of ships and bodies of drowned men.
One only of the barques that plough the deep
Has passed them safely⁠—Argo, known to all
By fame, when coming from Aeaeta home⁠—
And her the billows would have dashed against
The enormous rocks, if Juno, for the sake
Of Jason, had not come to guide it through.

“ ‘Two are the rocks; one lifts to the broad heaven
Its pointed summit, where a dark gray cloud
Broods, and withdraws not; never is the sky
Clear o’er that peak, not even in summer days
Or autumn; nor can man ascend its steeps,
Or venture down⁠—so smooth the sides, as if
Man’s art had polished them. There in the midst
Upon the western side toward Erebus
There yawns a shadowy cavern; thither thou,
Noble Ulysses, steer thy barque, yet keep
So far aloof that, standing on the deck,
A youth might send an arrow from a bow
Just to the cavern’s mouth. There Scylla dwells,
And fills the air with fearful yells; her voice
The cry of whelps just littered, but herself
A frightful prodigy⁠—a sight which none
Would care to look on, though he were a god.
Twelve feet are hers, all shapeless; six long necks,
A hideous head on each, and triple rows
Of teeth, close set and many, threatening death.
And half her form is in the cavern’s womb,
And forth from that dark gulf her heads are thrust,
To look abroad upon the rocks for prey⁠—
Dolphin, or dogfish, or the mightier whale,
Such as the murmuring Amphitritè breeds
In multitudes. No mariner can boast
That he has passed by Scylla with a crew
Unharmed; she snatches from the deck, and bears
Away in each grim mouth, a living man.

“ ‘Another rock, Ulysses, thou wilt see,
Of lower height, so near her that a spear,
Cast by the hand, might reach it. On it grows
A huge wild fig-tree with luxuriant leaves.
Below, Charybdis, of immortal birth,
Draws the dark water down; for thrice a day
She gives it forth, and thrice with fearful whirl
She draws it in. O, be it not thy lot
To come while the dark water rushes down!
Even Neptune could not then deliver thee.
Then turn thy course with speed toward Scylla’s rock,
And pass that way; ’twere better far that six
Should perish from the ship than all be lost’

“She spake, and I replied: ‘O goddess, deign
To tell me truly, cannot I at once
Escape Charybdis and defend my friends
Against the rage of Scylla when she strikes?’

“I spake; the mighty goddess answered me:⁠—
‘Rash man! dost thou still think of warlike deeds,
And feats of strength? And wilt thou not give way
Even to the deathless gods? That pest is not
Of mortal mould; she cannot die, she is
A thing to tremble and to shudder at,
And fierce, and never to be overcome.
There is no room for courage; flight is best.
And if thou shouldst delay beside the rock
To take up arms, I fear lest once again
She fall on thee with all her heads, and seize
As many men. Pass by the monster’s haunt
With all the speed that thou canst make, and call
Upon Crataeis, who brought Scylla forth
To be the plague of men, and who will calm
Her rage, that she assault thee not again.

“ ‘Then in thy voyage shalt thou reach the isle
Trinacria, where, in pastures of the Sun,
His many beeves and fading sheep are fed⁠—
Seven herds of oxen, and as many flocks
Of sheep, and fifty in each flock and herd.
They never multiply; they never die.
Two shepherdesses tend them, goddesses,
Nymphs with redundant locks⁠—Lampelia one,
The other Phaëthusa. These the nymph
Naeëra to the overgoing Sun
Brought forth, and when their queenly mother’s care
Had reared them, she appointed them to dwell
In far Trinacria, there to keep the flocks
And oxen of their father. If thy thoughts
Be fixed on thy return, so that thou leave
These flocks and herds unharmed, ye all will come
To Ithaca, though after many toils.
But if thou rashly harm them, I foretell
Destruction to thy ship and all its crew;
And if thyself escape, thou wilt return
Late and in sorrow, all thy comrades lost.’

“She spake; the Morning on her golden throne
Looked forth; the glorious goddess went her way
Into the isle, I to my ship, and bade
The men embark and cast the hawsers loose.
And straight they went on board, and duly manned
The benches, smiting as they sat with oars
The hoary waters. Circè, amber-haired,
The mighty goddess of the musical voice,
Sent a fair wind behind our dark-prowed ship
That gayly bore us company, and filled
The sails. When we had fairly ordered all
On board our galley, we sat down, and left
The favoring wind and helm to bear us on,
And thus in sadness I bespake the crew:⁠—

“ ‘My friends! it were not well that one or two
Alone should know the oracles I heard
From Circè, great among the goddesses;
And now will I disclose them, that ye all,
Whether we are to die or to escape
The doom of death, may be forewarned. And first
Against the wicked Sirens and their song
And flowery bank she warns us. I alone
May hear their voice, but ye must bind me first
With bands too strong to break, that I may stand
Upright against the mast; and let the cords
Be fastened round it. If I then entreat
And bid you loose me, make the bands more strong.’

“Thus to my crew I spake, and told them all
That they should know, while our good ship drew near
The island of the Sirens, prosperous gales
Wafting it gently onward. Then the breeze
Sank to a breathless calm; some deity
Had hushed the winds to slumber. Straightway rose
The men and furled the sails and laid them down
Within the ship, and sat and made the sea
White with the beating of their polished blades,
Made of the fir-tree. Then I took a mass
Of wax and cut it into many parts,
And kneaded each with a strong hand. It grew
Warm with the pressure, and the beams of him
Who journeys round the earth, the monarch Sun.
With this I filled the ears of all my men
From first to last. They bound me, in their turn,
Upright against the mast-tree, hand and foot,
And tied the cords around it. Then again
They sat and threshed with oars the hoary deep.
And when, in running rapidly, we came
So near the Sirens as to hear a voice
From where they sat, our galley flew not by
Unseen by them, and sweetly thus they sang:⁠—

“ ‘O world-renowned Ulysses! thou who art
The glory of the Achaians, turn thy barque
Landward, that thou mayst listen to our lay
No man has passed us in his galley yet,
Ere he has heard our warbled melodies.
He goes delighted hence a wiser man;
For all that in the spacious realm of Troy
The Greeks and Trojans by the will of Heaven
Endured we know, and all that comes to pass
In all the nations of the fruitful earth.’ ”

’Twas thus they sang, and sweet the strain. I longed
To listen, and with nods I gave the sign
To set me free; they only plied their oars
The faster. Then upsprang Eurylochus
And Perimedes, and with added cords
Bound me, and drew the others still more tight.
And when we now had passed the spot, and heard
No more the melody the Sirens sang,
My comrades hastened from their ears to take
The wax, and loosed the cords and set me free.

“As soon as we had left the isle, I saw
Mist and a mountain billow, and I heard
The thunder of the waters. From the hands
Of my affrighted comrades flew the oars,
The deep was all in uproar; but the ship
Stopped there, for all the rowers ceased their task.
I went through all the ship exhorting them
With cheerful words, man after man, and said:⁠—

“ ‘Reflect, my friends, that we are not untried
In evil fortunes, nor in sadder plight
Are we than when within his spacious cave
The brutal Cyclops held us prisoners;
Yet through my valor we escaped, and through
My counsels and devices, and I think
That ye will live to bear this day’s events
In memory like those. Now let us act.
Do all as I advise; go to your seats
Upon the benches, smiting with your oars
These mighty waves, and haply Jove will grant
That we escape the death which threatens us.
Thee, helmsman, I adjure⁠—and heed my words,
Since to thy hands alone is given in charge
Our gallant vessel’s rudder⁠—steer thou hence
From mist and tumbling waves, and well observe
The rock, lest where it juts into the sea
Thou heed it not, and bring us all to wreck.’

“I spake, and quickly all obeyed my words.
Yet said I naught of Scylla⁠—whom we now
Could not avoid⁠—lest all the crew in fear
Should cease to row, and crowd into the hold.
And then did I forget the stern command
Which Circè gave me, not to arm myself
For combat. In my shining arms I cased
My limbs, and took in hand two ponderous spears,
And went on deck, and stood upon the prow⁠—
For there it seemed to me that Scylla first
Would show herself⁠—that monster of the rocks⁠—
To seize my comrades. Yet I saw her not,
Though weary grew my eyes with looking long
And eagerly upon those dusky cliffs.

“Sadly we sailed into the strait, where stood
On one hand Scylla, and the dreaded rock
Charybdis on the other, drawing down
Into her horrid gulf the briny flood;
And as she threw it forth again, it tossed
And murmured as upon a glowing fire
The water in a cauldron, while the spray,
Thrown upward, fell on both the summit-rocks;
And when once more she swallowed the salt sea,
It whirled within the abyss, while far below
The bottom of blue sand was seen. My men
Grew pale with fear; we looked into the gulf
And thought our end was nigh. Then Scylla snatched
Six of my comrades from our hollow barque,
The best in valor and in strength of arm.
I looked to my good ship; I looked to them,
And saw their hands and feet still swung in air
Above me, while for the last time on earth
They called my name in agony of heart.
As when an angler on a jutting rock
Sits with his taper rod, and casts his bait
To snare the smaller fish, he sends the horn
Of a wild bull that guards his line afar
Into the water, and jerks out a fish,
And throws it gasping shoreward; so were they
Uplifted gasping to the rocks, and there
Scylla devoured them at her cavern’s mouth,
Stretching their hands to me with piercing cries
Of anguish. ’Twas in truth the saddest sight,
Whatever I have suffered and where’er
Have roamed the waters, that mine eyes have seen.

“Escaping thus the rocks, the dreaded haunt
Of Scylla and Charybdis, we approached
The pleasant island of the Sun, where grazed
The oxen with broad foreheads, beautiful,
And flocks of sheep, the fatlings of the god
Who makes the round of heaven. While yet at sea
I heard from my black ship the low of herds
In stables, and the bleatings of the flocks,
And straightway came into my thought the words
Of the blind seer Tiresias, him of Thebes,
And of Aeaean Circè, who had oft
Warned me to shun the island of the god
Whose light is sweet to all. And then I said
To my companions with a sorrowing heart:⁠—

“ ‘My comrades, sufferers as ye are, give ear.
I shall disclose the oracles which late
Tiresias and Aeaean Circè gave.
The goddess earnestly admonished me
Not to approach the island of the Sun,
Whose light is sweet to all, for there she said
Some great misfortune lay in wait for us.
Now let us speed the ship and pass the isle.’

“I spake; their hearts were broken as they heard,
And bitterly Eurylochus replied:⁠—

“ ‘Austere art thou, Ulysses; thou art strong
Exceedingly; no labor tires thy limbs;
They must be made of iron, since thy will
Denies thy comrades, overcome with toil
And sleeplessness, to tread the land again,
And in that isle amid the waters make
A generous banquet. Thou wouldst have us sail
Into the swiftly coming night, and stray
Far from the island, through the misty sea.
By night spring up the mighty winds that make
A wreck of ships, and how can one escape
Destruction, should a sudden hurricane
Rise from the south or the hard-blowing west,
Such as, in spite of all the sovereign gods,
Will cause a ship to founder in the deep?
Let us obey the dark-browed Night, and take
Our evening meal, remaining close beside
Our gallant barque, and go on board again
When morning breaks, and enter the wide sea.’

“So spake Eurylochus; the rest approved.
And then I knew that some divinity
Was meditating evil to our band,
And I bespake him thus in winged words:⁠—

“ ‘Eurylochus, ye force me to your will,
Since I am only one. Now all of you
Bind yourselves to me firmly, by an oath,
That if ye haply here shall meet a herd
Of beeves or flock of sheep, ye will not dare
To slay a single ox or sheep, but feed
Contented on the stores that Circè gave.’

“I spake, and readily my comrades swore
As I required; and when that solemn oath
Was taken, to the land we brought and moored
Our galley in a winding creek, beside
A fountain of sweet water. From the deck
Stepped my companions and made ready there
Their evening cheer. They ate and drank till thirst
And hunger were appeased, and then they thought
Of those whom Scylla from our galley’s deck
Snatched and devoured; they thought and wept till sleep
Stole softly over them amid their tears.
Now came the third part of the night; the stars
Were sinking when the Cloud-compeller Jove
Sent forth a violent wind with eddying gusts,
And covered both the earth and sky with clouds,
And darkness fell from heaven. When Morning came,
The rosy-fingered daughter of the Dawn,
We drew the ship into a spacious grot.
There were the seats of nymphs, and there we saw
The smooth fair places where they danced. I called
A council of my men, and said to them:⁠—

“ ‘My friends, in our good ship are food and drink;
Abstain we from these beeves, lest we be made
To suffer; for these herds and these fair flocks
Are sacred to a dreaded god, the Sun⁠—
The all-beholding and all-hearing Sun.’

“I spake, and all were swayed by what I said
Full easily. A month entire the gales
Blew from the south, and after that no wind
Save east and south. While yet we had our bread
And ruddy wine, my comrades spared the beeves,
Moved by the love of life. But when the stores
On board our galley were consumed, they roamed
The island in their need, and sought for prey,
And snared with barbed hooks the fish and birds⁠—
Whatever came to hand⁠—till they were gaunt
With famine. Meantime I withdrew alone
Into the isle, to supplicate the gods,
If haply one of them might yet reveal
The way of my return. As thus I strayed
Into the land, apart from all the rest,
I found a sheltered nook where no wind came,
And prayed with washen hands to all the gods
Who dwell in heaven. At length they bathed my lids
In a soft sleep. Meantime, Eurylochus
With fatal counsels thus harangued my men:⁠—

“ ‘Hear, my companions, sufferers as ye are,
The words that I shall speak. All modes of death
Are hateful to the wretched race of men;
But this of hunger, thus to meet our fate,
Is the most fearful. Let us drive apart
The best of all the oxen of the Sun,
And sacrifice them to the immortal ones
Who dwell in the broad heaven. And if we come
To Ithaca, our country, we will there
Build to the Sun, whose path is o’er our heads,
A sumptuous temple, and endow its shrine
With many gifts and rare. But if it be
His will, approved by all the other gods,
To sink our barque in anger, for the sake
Of these his high-horned oxen, I should choose
Sooner to gasp my life away amid
The billows of the deep, than pine to death
By famine in this melancholy isle.’

“So spake Eurylochus; the crew approved.
Then from the neighboring herd they drove the best
Of all the beeves; for near the dark-prowed ship
The fair broad-fronted herd with crooked horns
Were feeding. Round the victims stood my crew,
And, offering their petitions to the gods,
Held tender oak-leaves in their hands, just plucked
From a tall tree, for in our good ship’s hold
Was no white barley now. When they had prayed,
And slain and dressed the beeves, they hewed away
The thighs and covered them with double folds
Of caul, and laid raw slices over these.
Wine had they not to pour in sacrifice
Upon the burning flesh; they poured instead
Water, and roasted all the entrails thus.
Now when the thighs were thoroughly consumed,
And entrails tasted, all the rest was carved
Into small portions, and transfixed with spits.

“Just then the gentle slumber left my lids.
I hurried to the shore and my good ship,
And, drawing near, perceived the savory steam
From the burnt-offering. Sorrowfully then
I called upon the ever-living gods:⁠—

“ ‘O Father Jove, and all ye blessed gods,
Who live forever, ’twas a cruel sleep
In which ye lulled me to my grievous harm;
My comrades here have done a fearful wrong.’

“Lampetia, of the trailing robes, in haste
Flew to the Sun, who journeys round the earth,
To tell him that my crew had slain his beeves,
And thus in anger he bespake the gods:⁠—

“ ‘O Father Jove, and all ye blessed gods
Who never die, avenge the wrong I bear
Upon the comrades of Laertes’ son,
Ulysses, who have foully slain my beeves,
In which I took delight whene’er I rose
Into the starry heaven, and when again
I sank from heaven to earth. If for the wrong
They make not large amends, I shall go down
To Hades, there to shine among the dead.’

“The cloud-compelling Jupiter replied:⁠—
‘Still shine, O Sun! among the deathless gods
And mortal men, upon the nourishing earth.
Soon will I cleave, with a white thunderbolt,
Their galley in the midst of the black sea.’

“This from Calypso of the radiant hair
I heard thereafter; she herself, she said,
Had heard it from the herald Mercury.

“When to the ship I came, beside the sea,
I sternly chid them all, man after man,
Yet could we think of no redress; the beeves
Were dead; and now with prodigies the gods
Amazed my comrades⁠—the skins moved and crawled,
The flesh both raw and roasted on the spits
Lowed with the voice of oxen. Six whole days
My comrades feasted, taking from the herd
The Sun’s best oxen. When Saturnian Jove
Brought the seventh day, the tempest ceased; the wind
Fell, and we straightway went on board. We set
The mast upright, and, spreading the white sails,
We ventured on the great wide sea again.

“When we had left the isle, and now appeared
No other land, but only sea and sky,
The son of Saturn caused a lurid cloud
To gather o’er the galley, and to cast
Its darkness on the deep. Not long our ship
Ran onward, ere the furious west-wind rose
And blew a hurricane. A strong blast snapped
Both ropes that held the mast; the mast fell back;
The tackle dropped entangled to the hold;
The mast, in falling on the galley’s stern,
Dashed on the pilot’s head and crushed the bones,
And from the deck he plunged like one who dives
Into the deep; his gallant spirit left
The limbs at once. Jove thundered from on high,
And sent a thunderbolt into the ship,
That, quaking with the fearful blow, and filled
With stifling sulphur, shook my comrades off
Into the deep. They floated round the ship
Like seamews; Jupiter had cut them off
From their return. I moved from place to place,
Still in the ship, until the tempest’s force
Parted the sides and keel. Before the waves
The naked keel was swept. The mast had snapped
Just at the base, but round it was a thong
Made of a bullock’s hide; with this I bound
The mast and keel together, took my seat
Upon them, and the wild winds bore me on.

“The west-wind ceased to rage; but in its stead
The south-wind blew, and brought me bitter grief.
I feared lest I must measure back my way
To grim Charybdis. All night long I rode
The waves, and with the rising sun drew near
The rock of Scylla and the terrible
Charybdis as her gulf was drawing down
The waves of the salt sea. There as I came
I raised myself on high till I could grasp
The lofty fig-tree, and I clung to it
As clings a bat⁠—for I could neither find
A place to plant my feet, nor could I climb,
So distant were the roots, so far apart
The long huge branches overshadowing
Charybdis. Yet I firmly kept my hold
Till she should throw the keel and mast again
Up from the gulf. They, as I waited long,
Came up again, though late⁠—as late as one
Who long has sat adjudging strifes between
Young suitors pleading in the marketplace
Rises and goes to take his evening meal;
So late the timbers of my barque returned,
Thrown from Charybdis. Then I dropped amid
The dashing waves, and came with hands and feet
On those long timbers in the midst, that they
Might bear my weight. I sat on them and rowed
With both my hands. The father of the gods
And mortals suffered not that I should look
On Scylla’s rock again, else had I not
Escaped a cruel death. For nine long days
I floated on the waters; on the tenth
The gods at nightfall bore me to an isle⁠—
Ogygia, where Calypso, amber-haired,
A mighty goddess, skilled in song, abides,
Who kindly welcomed me, and cherished me.
Why should I speak of this? Here in these halls
I gave the history yesterday to thee
And to thy gracious consort, and I hate
To tell again a tale once fully told.”