Tests of Odysseus’ Growth in Book XII
Throughout the progression of The Odyssey, Odysseus changes from a flaunting, jeering man on a journey for spoils and battle-credibility to a man whose main goal is to be with his family; from wearing king’s robes and armor to beggar’s rags; from easily seduced to showing some form of restraint; from rushing into a fight to gliding his ship past confrontational monsters. However, not all of these changes in Odysseus occur fully, and despite his different reactions to greater, destructive women-figures he still does not show complete compassion or equality to his men. Odysseus learns, with the help of the female monsters, that his immature actions for glory cause many of his men’s demise. The impermanence of his self-control seems to be directly affected by the final loss of all of his men, such as when it seems his leadership skills have finally passed the tests presented by the immortal and female monsters on his journey home and he is seduced into Kalypso’s Eden, perhaps weaker at this point because he is alone. After many years of reflection and him becoming jaded to paradise Odysseus fully realizes his main goal of getting home to his family and can progress on his own. It is these trials and the loss of his men that allows Odysseus to morph from fearless leader to faithful husband and father.
It is the immortal nymph Kalypso that keeps Odysseus away from his family for the majority of the time that he is gone, and it is nymphs that are his first challenge after shipping off from the shore of Aiaia. The Seirênês are seemingly more similar to the nymphs Kirkê and Kalypso than to Skylla and Kharybdis, who lack any physical human female qualities, but have stark differences from Odysseus’ earlier and later captors. Kirkê warns Odysseus of their enchanting voice that lure men to their death, saying “He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, crowding about him, home from sea; the Seirênês will sing his mind away on their sweet meadow lolling” (Homer XII. 51-4). This warning rings true to Odysseus’ experience with Kirkê herself, having been seduced into her bed by her warm invitation, gifts and feasts. Despite the lack of information about Odysseus’ sexual endeavors before his journey, it can be assumed that he neared Aiaia in innocence, later repeating this action with Kalypso, to not to see home again for a long time, and never seeing his wife or little child greet him in the same manner they did before he left. He has already experienced the seduction of a nymph in a fertile land and it can be assumed after Kirkê’s warning that Odysseus will not allow the pleasurable sound of their voices to seduce him from the current motivation he has grown for getting home to his family and Ithaca. Their physical characteristics are never in detail, but their surroundings are, and despite the meadow that encompasses the seductresses as sounding as pleasant as their voices, the ground is littered with the rotting corpses of men who could not resist them. Setting is important in the temptations of each of the immortal and monster females. The sensational, physical temptations of Kirkê, Kalypso and Nausikaa are depicted as at fertile, lush and beautiful- all important factors in reproduction. The horrific, violent temptations of Skylla and Kharybdis are described as the setting itself, such as creatures of a jagged cliff and a whirlpool, respectively- an important factor in choosing a path of journey quickest to get home. The Seirênês are a mix of both temptations, being both pleasing and deadly, therefore having the image of a thriving meadow juxtaposed by rotting corpses that present a great confusion of pleasure and fear, and, based on the favored excursions of Odysseus, could represent his biggest hurdle to pass.
The completeness of a lesson learned against temptation is clear when he still allows himself to experience the pleasure of hearing their voices and is the only one of the ship crew to do so, commanding the others to keep a watchful eye on him to make sure that he isn’t taken by the sea nymphs. He has realized that falling into seduction does not produce the best outcome, but still does not keep from enjoying himself, even telling the men, “Yet she urged that I alone should listen to the song,” exaggerating Kirkê’s orders before telling them to tie him up tight (Homer XII. 193-4). He allows himself a bit of indulgence, neglecting his men by using the word of another and not taking responsibility of what he wants in turning the situation to seem like repayment for his rescuing them from her swine spell earlier. This lack of complete communication is what caused their landing on Aiaia in the first place when Odysseus’ men are suspicious of the gift of wind given to him by Aiolos to be gold, and is what inevitably leads to their downfall when they disobey the orders against eating of the cattle of Lord Hêlios. It is clear his excursion with Kirkê has not changed him completely, and is also evident later when he is seduced by Kalypso after successfully avoiding the Seirênês. At that moment, however, he does not have his army to lead, or multiple men’s honor to defend, and when his title as leader is stripped from him after suffering the complete loss of his men he seems most susceptible and naïve, beginning new solely with the role of patriarch of his family. Regardless of his laying with Kalypso, Odysseus spends this time lamenting memories of Penélopê and Telémakhos, and shows his growth later when he is presented with Nausikaa in the land of Phaiákia and is not tempted even when in his most animalistic form as an unclothed castaway. Athena positions the beautiful daughter of ruler Alkínoös as an ambiguous situation, seemingly as a helpful hand to get Odysseus directions into town, but also by testing his will against temptation.
Odysseus also shows constraint when approached with the challenge of riding past the cave that contains the hideous Skylla, with her six heads full of razor sharp teeth that Kirkê says, “God or man, no one could look on her in joy” (Homer XII.105-6). This time the challenge is not Odysseus being seduced by physical attraction or song, but for a fight like he had with Kyklopês. After Kirkê’s lengthy description of both Skylla and the nearby threat of the gigantic whirlpool that is Kharybdis, Odysseus asks the advice of slipping away from the whirlpool and fighting Skylla after she inevitably takes some of his men into her cave with her long necks. To this Kirkê replies, “Must you have battle in your heart forever? Old contender, will you not yield to the immortal gods?” (Homer XII. 136-8). Kirkê exclaims that with the time it would take him to get his armor on, or get a shot ready with his bow, Skylla will have killed another dozen of his men. Her complete disbelief of his incompetence and disregard for his men’s lives is an indication of his need to change. Odysseus’ experience with the Kyklopês is similar to what Kirkê predicts would happen with Skylla, and proved to be a lesson learned. The Kyklopês’ cave was a place to be avoided, such as the boat-wrecking whirlpool of Kharybdis, but because of Odysseus’ wish to adventure into the one-eyed monster’s dwelling place he cost the life of several of his men. Skylla would normally prove a challenge to the adventurer and would be someone to taunt and yell his title and address to as he passed by after the battle was won, but Odysseus seems to have learned (with a helpful reminder from Kirkê) that having the last word is not necessary to complete the objective of getting home, which is slowly becoming more important to him.
In the article, “Les Femmes Fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek Art” by Jenifer Neils in the book The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey, Neils discusses art of the time period that portrays the Seirênês, Skylla and Kharybdis as natural disasters of the sea, with the Seirênês being calm waters without wind, Kharybdis as the whirlpool, and Skylla as a variation of seal, octopus or shark. Neils writes of the importance of Odysseus’ being able to face these common sea disasters on his own, saying that “Although the hero needs the help of the gods, Hermes and Athena, to escape the clutches of Kirkê and Kalypso, he is left to his own devices in dealing with these life-threatening female monsters” (Neils 175). Ultimately he has been given an example, and the true test comes when it is time to return home for good. The issues that have been reckoned with earlier in the epic can be utilized now as a growing experience to further the point that family and homecoming are of the utmost importance. Another article in The Distaff Side entitled “Female Representations and Interpreting The Odyssey,” by Seth L. Schein describesthe time Odysseus spends on his journey as rarely spent with mortal women, and with the tales of the challenging female creatures a contrast enhances the positivity and helpfulness of the mortal women in the story, such as Nausikaa, Arete and Penélopê, and provides a greater motivation to return to the land of mortals (Schein 21). The challenges he faces present issues of pride, sex and fertility, which are factors important to reproduction and Odysseus’ familial role, which is one he cannot assume living in lands of immortal women and monsters.
The antagonists and challenges faced by Odysseus in book XII draw a parallel to those he has previously faced, defeated and surpassed, whether by the loss of his men, by the help of gods and goddesses, or by the motivation and abandonment of personal pleasure and domination. Odysseus first begins to show he has grown from the challenges of the immortal and monstrous women he comes across on his way home by not falling into sexual or pleasurable temptation with the Seirênês and by avoiding his natural inclination to fight or confront head-on the dangers of Skylla and Kharybdis. All of these setbacks and achievements, however, had not gotten him to his goal of reaching home safely to rule Ithaca once again. It is when he is able to recognize the importance of not only being a leader or winner, but an equal and a mortal with limitations that he is able to fully solidify the results of his lessons learned while on his journey.
Homer, "The Odyssey." Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.
Neils, Jenifer. "Les Femmes Fatales: Skylla and the Sirens in Greek Art." The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey. Ed. Beth Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Schein, Seth L.. "Female Representations and Interpreting the Odyssey." The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey. Ed. Beth Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.