Dangerous Female Creatures And Odysseus
Michele R. Carroll
Professor John Tolbert
In book XII of the Odyssey, our hero Odysseus and his crew, are forced to confront several dangerous female creatures while out at sea. Odysseus is warned by his goddess lover Circe that he will encounter several ghastly female beings, and she guides him as to how he and his men should confront these terrible creatures. The dreadful female creatures: the Sirens, Scylla, and Charybdis, are used by Homer to personify the menacing and beguiling aspect of nature’s wrath, while highlighting the seductive nature of women.
Circe informs Odysseus of the Sirens seduction, “the Sirens… / those creatures who spellbind any man alive, / …whoever draws too close, / off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air / no sailing home for him, no wife rising up to meet him, / …The high thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him” (lines 45-50). The key word in this quote is “thrilling”. Certainly any man can be transfixed by a “thrilling” seductive female. Imagine several “thrilling” seductive female voices, and what we know of the weak nature of man. I believe that Homer uses these beings to convey that man is completely spellbound, trapped, and facing danger when he gives in to the seductive nature of women.
Odysseus wants to hear these songs of the Sirens, and he instructs his crew to tie him to the ship, to block sound from their ears with beeswax, and to tie him tighter if he pleads to be let loose. “So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer” (208-210). Odysseus is tempted to go towards the Sirens call, but his men tie him ever tightly to the ship. The Sirens tell Odysseus, “We know the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured” (205) like a beguiling woman who destines to have a man be hers. These Sirens work with the weakness of this man, knowing that the pains of the Trojan War and the war itself are the source of Odysseus estrangement from his family, the source of his unhappiness “all that comes to pass on this fertile earth, we know it all!” (207). I envision some kind of vixen, some illustrious female who tells a man what they want to hear for their own greater good. In essence, these Sirens are the vixens, soothing the heroic Odysseus by stating that they know what pains him. They tell him what he wants to hear, like a woman who will seduce a man for his money.
The personification of the wretched, wild waters that Odysseus must sail through comes to us in the female form of Charybdis. Circe tells Odysseus, “…awesome Charybdis gulps the water down, / Three times a day she vomits it up, three times a day she gulps it down, / that terror! Don’t be there when the whirlpool swallows down” (115-117). With this passage I can see in my minds eye the angry waters, the frothy churning, spinning, and the ever-powerful force of raging torrential swirling waters.
Homer has given this aspect of nature a female persona, and her name is Charybdis! “…her horrible whirlpool gulping the sea surge down, down / …all her churning depths would seethe and heave –exploding spray / showering down to splatter the peaks of both crags at once! / But when she swallowed the sea-surge down her gaping maw / the whole abyss lay bare and the rocks around her roared, / terrible, deafening” (254-261). I think that Homer is wise to give this powerful aspect of nature a female persona because, in my opinion, there is no greater rage or fury than that of a woman.
The devilish Scylla, “Scylla’s no mortal, she’s an immortal devastation, / terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense, / just flee the creature, that’s the only way” (128-130). Circe warns Odysseus not to try to fight this woman who, “…has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down / and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, / each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickest, / packed tight-and armed to the hilt with black death!” (99-102).The ghastly female is described to be more of a beast than the seductive Siren, or the whirlpool of Charybdis. In fact, she is more like the evil that lurks in the darkness of the cave. She is more like a magnificent mountain that stretches deep into the sea. She is the jagged peaks of rocks that jut out into the water, “a grisly monster…No one could look on her with any joy, / not even a god who meets her face to face” (96-98).
It seems as if both Scylla and Charybdis are working together as a team, to defeat Odysseus and his crew, “…ashen terror gripped the men. / But now, fearing death, all eyes fixed on Charybdis / now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship” (262-264). These female creatures spare no mercy for the men, “…so now they writhed, / gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there / at her cavern’s mouth she bolted them down raw- / screaming out, flinging their arms toward me, / lost in that mortal struggle” (275-279). Again, we have the symbolic nature of a woman’s fury depicted as plucking off Odysseus’ men.
Homer’s epic tale certainly gives a female face to the devastation that nature can create. With the enticing sounds or “Sirens” of the water’s rhapsody, the powerful churning water that is Charybdis, and the mountainous, jagged rocks of Scylla, we have given names and personalities to the science of nature. I find it interesting that Homer has Odysseus suit up with his armor to defeat these female creatures, “I donned my heroic armor, seized long spears / in both my hands and marched out onto the half deck, …hoping there to catch the first glimpse / of Scylla, ghoul of the cliffs, swooping to kill my men” (247-250). This is funny to me because you can’t fight natures fury, you can’t hide from her wrath. I think that Homer uses the persona of women instead of men because women are by nature, far more complex. It is our complexity as women, our emotions, and moods that give the personality to Homer’s characters. It seems that all men and women who read these passages can identify and appreciate the Homeric nature of woman.
Lawall, Sarah. “Odyssey.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. 8th ed. New York: WW Norton and Company, 2006. 206-483.