Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

Dangers of the Sea

Before Ulysses and his men reached Circe's island, they had stopped at the country where Æolus lived. He had charge of the wind, and could send out gentle breezes or wild storms as he chose. He was glad to see Ulysses and gave him a leather bag tied with a silver string. In it all the hindering and dangerous winds were safely shut up. The fair and favoring winds were free to blow the ships along to their home country.

Ulysses steered the boat for nine days and then, tired out, lay down to sleep. The foolish sailors had often looked at the strange bag and wondered what it held. They thought that it must be gold, and that they ought to have their share. They untied the string to get some of the money, but the angry winds rushed out, the ships were caught in a fierce storm, and were blown back to the island of Æolus. He was angry and would not help them again, so they had to row all the way, until they came to the enchanted island.

After spending some time in the palace of Circe, they set out once more upon their voyage. Circe gave them good advice and told them how to escape the Sirens. These creatures looked like beautiful women. They sat on dangerous rocks in the sea and sang so sweetly that every sailor who heard them was bewitched and let his boat drift until it was dashed among the rocks, and he was lost.

Circe told Ulysses to fill the ears of his men with wax so that they could not hear, and to have himself bound tight to the mast, with orders that no one should untie him until they had safely passed the island of the Sirens. This was done. As they drew near the place, Ulysses could hear the sweetest music. "Oh!" he cried, "home and joy are in those sounds. Row in that direction; we shall find our dear ones there, and every delight we have ever known or hoped for."

The rowers only stared at him. They heard nothing.

"Slaves!" he shouted. "Am I not your master? Do as I bid you! Dogs that you are, do you dare to disobey me? If you will not row toward those divine voices, at least unbind me and let me swim to them."

Two men rose up and went toward him. He thought they would untie him and said to them, "Brave fellows, thank you, thank you!" But they only took more cords and bound him tighter. He was furious and called them many hard names, but they rowed on. The voices of the Sirens died away. The danger was over, the isle had been safely passed. Ulysses was ashamed of his folly. "You did well to bind me," he said to his men. "Without that I should have gone to my death."

There were other dangers ahead. The ships had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla had once been a pretty girl, but Circe changed her into a horrid monster. She lived in a cave on the side of a cliff. The water passage below was very narrow, and she stretched down her six long necks, each with a head at the end, and with her mouths caught six sailors from every ship that passed within her reach.

On the other side of the strait was the whirlpool Charybdis. Three times every day the water rushed into a deep gulf and was cast out again. If the tide, while going in, caught a vessel, nothing could save her. She must certainly be wrecked.

Ulysses heard the roar of the whirlpool, and keeping far away from it, sailed close to the cliff where Scylla lived. She darted out her six heads, laid hold of six men with her teeth, and dragged them up on the rock to eat them. Nobody could help them. They were gone forever.

The wanderers came next to the island where the cattle of the sun pastured. Ulysses gave strict orders that the beasts should not be touched. But contrary winds kept the ship there for a month. All the food was eaten. The sailors caught birds and fish, but still were very hungry. One day, when Ulysses was absent, they killed some of the sacred cows and ate the flesh, first offering part of it in a sacrifice to the sun-god.

When Ulysses came back, he was frightened to see the skins of the cows creeping along the ground, while large joints of meat were roasting before the fire and mooing as they cooked.

The wind changed, and the wanderers left that dreadful shore. Soon a great storm arose. Lightning struck the mast and killed the pilot. The vessel was broken to pieces, and the crew sank in the waters. The keel and mast of the ship floated side by side. Ulysses tied them together with ropes and made a raft. On this he floated alone to an island where he found a friend and help.