Odyssey for Boys and Girls - Alfred J. Church

Of the Sirens and Other Wonders

The first place they came to was the Island of Sirens. The Sirens were women of the sea, such as mermaids are, who sang so sweetly, and with such lovely voices, that no one who heard them could pass on his way, but was forced to go to them. But when he came near the Sirens flew upon him and tore him to pieces, and devoured him. So they sat there on their island, with the bones of dead men all round them, and sang. Now Circé had warned Ulysses about these dreadful creatures, and told him what he ought to do. So he closed the ears of his companions with wax so tightly that they could hear nothing. As for himself, he made his men tie him with ropes to the mast of the ship. "And see," he said, "that you don't loose me, however much I may beg and pray." As soon as the ship came near to the island the wind ceased to blow, and there was a great calm, and the men took down the sails, and put out their oars, and began to row. Then the Sirens saw the ship, and began to sing. And Ulysses, where he stood bound to the mast, heard them. And when he understood what they said he forgot all his prudence, for they promised just the thing that he wanted. For he was a man who never could know enough, he thought, about other countries and the people who dwelt in them, what they think and how they spend their days. And the Sirens said that they could tell him all this. Then he made signs with his head to his men, for his hands and feet were bound, that they should loose him. But they remembered what he had told them, and rowed on. And two of them even put new bonds upon him lest he should break the old ones. So they got safely past the Island of the Sirens.

And now Ulysses had to choose between two ways. One of them was through the Wandering Rocks. Circé had told him of these; that they were rocks which floated about in the sea, and that when any ship came near them they moved very fast through the water, and caught the ship between them and broke it up. So fast did they move that they caught even the birds as they flew. And Circé told him that only one ship had ever escaped them, and that this was the Argo, when the heroes went in it to fetch back the Golden Fleece. "This," said Circé, "was by the special favour of the gods, and because there were many children of the gods among the crew." So Ulysses thought it better not to try that way, though the other way was dreadful also.

After a while they saw what looked like smoke going up from the sea, and heard a great roar of the waves dashing upon the rocks, for they were coming near to another dangerous place which Circé had warned them about. This was a narrow place between the mainland and an island. On the one side there was a cave, in which there dwelt a terrible monster, Scylla by name, and on the other side there was a dreadful whirlpool. If a ship ever got into that, it was sucked down to the bottom of the sea and never came up again. Now, Circé had told Ulysses all about this place, and had told him what he should do. "It will be better," she had said, "to go near Scylla than to go near Charybdis; one or other of these two thou must do, for there is no room in the middle. It is true that Scylla will pounce down upon your ship when it comes within her reach, and will take out of it six men, one for each of the six heads which she has. But if you go too near to Charybdis then will your whole ship be swallowed up; and it is better to lose six men than that all should be drowned." And when Ulysses had said, "May I not take shield and spear and fight with this monster?" Circé had answered, "Thou art wonderfully bold; thou wouldst fight with the gods themselves. But be sure that thou canst not fight with Scylla; she is too strong for any man. And while you linger she will take six other men. No: fly from the place as fast as you can." So had Circé spoken to Ulysses, and he remembered what she had said; but he did not tell it to his companions, lest they should lose heart.

So now he bade the steersman steer the ship as near as he could to that side of the strait on which was Scylla's cave. Nevertheless, they went very close to the whirlpool. And a wonderful sight it was, for at one time you could see to the very bottom of the sea, and at another the water seemed to boil up almost to the top of the cliffs. Now, Ulysses had said nothing to his men about the monster on the other side, for he was afraid that if they knew about her they would not go on with their voyage. So they all stood and watched the whirlpool, and while they were doing this there came down upon the ship Scylla's dreadful hands, and caught up six of the crew, the bravest and strongest of them all. Ulysses heard them cry to him to help them, but he could do nothing to help them. And this, he used to say afterwards, was the very saddest thing that happened to him in all his troubles.

After this the ship came to the Island of the Three Capes, which is now called Sicily. And while they were still a long way off, Ulysses heard the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle. As soon as he heard these sounds he remembered what Circé had told him about the last of the dangers which he and his companions would meet on their way home. What Circé had said was this: "You will come, last of all, to a beautiful island, where the Sun keeps his herds and flocks. There are seven herds of cattle and fifty in each, and seven flocks of sheep of fifty also; and each has a nymph to look after it. Now, I advise you to sail by this island without landing. If you do, you will get safe home; but if you land, perhaps your men will kill some of the Sun's cattle and sheep for food. And if they do this, something dreadful is sure to happen to them." So Ulysses said to his men: "Listen to me. Circé told me that this island was a very dangerous place, and that we had better sail by it without landing, and that if we did we should get safe home. Think, now, how many of our companions have been lost, and that we only remain. Take my advice, I pray you, for some of us at least will be saved." But Eurylŏchus said: "Truly, Ulysses, you seem to be made of iron, for you are never tired, and now you would have us pass by this beautiful island without landing, though we have been working for days and nights without rest. And, besides, it is not safe to sail at night. Perhaps some storm will fall upon us, or a strong wind will spring up from the south or west, as it often does in these parts, and break our ship to pieces. No; let us stay for the night, and sleep on land, and to-morrow we will sail again on the sea till we get to our home." And all the others agreed with what he said. Then Ulysses knew that he was going to suffer some terrible thing. And he said: "You are many and I am one; so I cannot stop you from doing what you will. But swear all of you an oath, that if you find here any flock of sheep or herd of cattle, you will not touch them; no, however hungry you may be, but that you will be content with the food that Circé gave us."

So they all swore an oath that they would not touch sheep or cattle. Then they moored the ship in a creek, where there were little streams falling into the sea. And they took their meal upon the shore. After the meal they mourned for their companions whom Scylla had carried off from the ship, and when they had done this, they slept.

The next morning Ulysses told them again that they must not touch the sheep or cattle, but must be content with the food that they had. And he told them also the reason: "These creatures," he said, "belong to the Sun, and the Sun is a mighty god, and he sees everything that men do over all the earth."

But now the wind blew from the south for a whole month, day after day, except some days when it blew from the east. Now, neither the south wind nor the east wind was good for their voyage, so that they could not help staying on the island. As long as any of the food that Circé had given them remained, they were content. And when this was eaten up they wandered about the island, searching for food. They snared birds and caught fishes, but they never had enough, and their hunger was very hard to bear. And Ulysses prayed to the gods that they would help him, but it seemed that they took no heed of him.

At last Eurylŏchus said to his companions: "Listen, my friends, to me, for we are all in a very evil case. Death is a dreadful thing, but nothing is so dreadful as to die of hunger, and this we are likely to do. Let us take some of these oxen and make a sacrifice to the gods, and when we have given them their portion we will eat the rest ourselves. And after the sacrifice we will pray to them that they will send us a favourable wind. Also we will promise to build a great and fair temple to the Sun when we get to our home. And if the Sun is angry on account of the oxen, and is minded to sink our ship, let it be so; it is better to be drowned than to die of hunger."

To this they all agreed; and Eurylŏchus drove some of the fattest of the kine down to the shore, and the men killed them, and made sacrifice according to custom. They had no meal to sprinkle over the flesh, so they used leaves instead; and they had no wine, so they used water. And when they had done this, and were now beginning their feast, Ulysses, who had been asleep, awoke, and he smelt the smell of roast flesh, and knew that his companions had broken their oath, and had killed some of the beasts of the Sun.

In the meantime, two of the nymphs that kept the cattle had flown up to the sky, and had told the Sun what had been done. And when the Sun heard it, he was very angry, and said to the other gods: "See now what these wicked companions of Ulysses have done. They have killed the cattle which it is my delight to see, both when I climb up the sky and when I come down from it. Now, if they are not punished for this evil deed, I will not shine any more upon the earth, but will give my light to the place of darkness that is underneath it." And the king of the gods answered, "Shine, O Sun, upon the earth as thou art wont to do. I will break the ship of these sinners with my thunderbolt while they are sailing on the sea."

[Illustration] from Odyssey for Boys and Girls by Alfred J. Church


Ulysses was very angry with his companions, and rebuked them for their folly, and because they had broken their oath. But he could not undo what had been done, for the kine were dead. And the men were greatly frightened by what they saw and heard; for the skins of the cattle that had been killed crept along the ground, and the flesh bellowed on the spits as if the beasts had been still alive. Nevertheless they did not leave off feasting on them. For six days they feasted, and on the seventh day they set sail.

For a time all seemed to go well, for the wind blew as they desired. But when they were now out of sight of land, suddenly all the sky was covered with a dark cloud, and a great wind came down upon the ship, and snapped the shrouds on either side of the mast. Then the mast fell backwards and broke the skull of the man that held the rudder and steered the ship, so that he fell into the sea. Next there came down a great thunderbolt from the sky, and the ship was filled with fire and smoke from one end of it to the other. And all the men were blown out of the ship, some on one side and some on the other. Only Ulysses was left. He stayed on the ship till the ribs were broken away from the keel by the waves. And when only the mast and the keel were left together, Ulysses bound himself by a thong of leather to them, and sat on them, and was driven by the wind over the waves. All night long was he driven, and when the day dawned he came to the passage where there was Scylla's cave on one side and the great whirlpool on the other. Now, there was a fig-tree that grew at the top of the cliff that was above the whirlpool. Circé had told Ulysses of this same tree, for she knew all things, and Ulysses remembered her words; and when the keel and the mast were carried up to the top, he caught hold of the branches. But he found that he could not climb any higher, so he waited till the keel and the mast should come again, for they had been swallowed up. For four hours or so he waited, and when he saw them again, he loosed his hold on the fig-tree, and caught hold of them, and sat upon them as he had done before. Now after the water had risen to the top, there was calm for a little time before it began to sink again, and Ulysses paddled with his hands as hard as he could, and so got away. By good luck Scylla did not see him, for if she had, he would most certainly have perished.

For eight days and nights Ulysses was carried by the winds and waves over the sea, and on the ninth day he came to a beautiful island where there dwelt a goddess, by name Calypso. There he lived for seven long years. Long they seemed, for though he had all that a man could wish for, yet he would gladly have gone home. "Oh!" he would say to himself, "if I could but see the smoke rising up from the chimneys of my own home!" But the island was far away in the midst of the sea, and no ship came near to it. So he could do nothing but wait.