The Odyssey

The Odyssey Summary and Analysis of Books 9-12

Book IX Summary:

Odysseus reveals his name and homeland to Alcinous, and says Calypso held him against his will prior to his arrival. He traces his route after Troy. After his crew plundered Ismaros, a coastal town of the Kikones, they fought the army of the Kikones. They lost many men by the time his twelve ships sailed away, and suffered a great storm the next few days at sea. On their tenth day, they reach the island of the Lotos Eaters, a peaceful people who eat the sweet, pleasure-producing plant, the Lotus. Three of Odysseus' men eat the Lotus and wish to remain there, but Odysseus forces them back on to the ship and sails off again.

They next reach the land of the Cyclopes, a race of lawless, hermit-like, one-eyed giants. The next day, Odysseus' men feast on the plentiful goats on the deserted, fertile island across from the mainland of the Cyclopes. The day after, Odysseus and his crew cross to the mainland to meet the Cyclopes. They spot a huge brute of a man in a field, and Odysseus brings a goatskin full of sweet liquor as a gift. They reach his cave - he is still in the pasture - and Odysseus' men want to steal his cheeses and livestock. Odysseus refuses, wanting to meet the owner. They wait for him, then hide when he comes in and does his chores.

The Cyclops, named Polyphemus, notices them and asks who they are, and Odysseus introduces themselves and asks for any help he can provide, warning him not to offend Zeus, the god of hospitality. Polyphemus ridicules this idea; he does not care about the gods. Instead, he asks where Odysseus' ship is; the crafty leader lies and says it was wrecked and that they are the only survivors. Polyphemus grabs two of Odysseus' men, beats them dead, and eats them whole while the other men watch, powerless. Polyphemus then goes to sleep in his doorway, preventing Odysseus from killing him, as they would not be able to move aside his huge dead body to escape.

In the morning, Polyphemus eats some more men, then leaves and blocks the cave's entrance with a large stone. Odysseus hatches a plan to defeat Polyphemus. He chops a six-foot section out of the Polyphemus' large club, then hews it to make a sharp, pointed end, and finally holds it in the fire to toughen it. At night, Polyphemus returns and eats two more men. Odysseus offers him some of his wine; Polyphemus asks for more and for his name, promising him a gift. Odysseus says his name is "Nobody," and Polyphemus says his gift will be eating him next. But Polyphemus falls asleep, drunk, and Odysseus and four men reheat their spike in the fire and ram it in Polyphemus' one eye. They blind him and he howls for his fellow Cyclopes, who come to the outside of his cave and ask him if a man has tricked him. "Nobody," says Polyphemus, has ruined him. The other Cyclopes believe he means "nobody" has ruined him, and they leave him, telling him to pray to his father, Poseidon.

Polyphemus opens the cave door, hoping to catch anyone who tries to escape. Odysseus comes up with another idea. He ties the rams in the cave together and creates a sling under each ram in which the men can ride. They stay in their ram-carriages until morning, when Polyphemus lets the rams pass through the entrance. Odysseus' ram, the leader, goes last, and Polyphemus asks why it is not in its customary leading position. Once they are in the clear, the men drop out of their slings and drive the rams to their ship. Safely on the sea again, Odysseus shouts insults Polyphemus. Polyphemus breaks off a hilltop and throws it near the ship, tossing it off balance with a giant wave. Despite the pleas of his crew not to give away their position by again taunting Polyphemus, Odysseus gives the Cyclops the name and homeland of the man who blinded him. Polyphemus says he was once given a prophecy that someone named Odysseus, presumably a giant, would blind him; now he asks Odysseus to come back, as he will treat him well and pray for him to his father, Poseidon.

Odysseus rejects his offer, and Polyphemus prays to Poseidon that Odysseus lose his companions and never return home. Immediately, Poseidon sends a huge stone that nearly hits the ship. The crew rushes to meet its waiting fleet, and the men make a sacrificial offering of the rams to Zeus. However, Zeus has destruction and death in mind for the unwitting men. They feast that day, and the next morning they continue their journey home.


Nearly halfway through the story we get the full "backstory" (the background story) about why Poseidon has a grudge against Odysseus. But the Polyphemus episode is important beyond serving as a plot point; we learn much about Odysseus as a leader - both his strengths and his flaws.

As we saw in Book VIII, in which Odysseus angrily reacted to an athletic challenge, he is prone to rash decisions. First, he makes the mistake of wanting to meet Polyphemus even as his men warn him against it. This action we can chalk up to Odysseus' faith in the goodwill of men (and even Cyclopes). But he makes a far more egregious error when he taunts Polyphemus not once but twice. This second mistake is what creates his problem with Poseidon, as he foolishly reveals his name and invites the wrath of the god of earthquake - and subsequently dooms his shipmates.

But for every lapse in judgment on his part, Odysseus devises an equally ingenious plan to escape trouble. Prior to the Polyphemus episode, he wisely steers his crew away from the land of the hedonistic, drug-addled Lotus Eaters, knowing that succumbing to temptation there will prevent them from the more authentic pleasures of home. With Polyphemus, he comes up with three brilliant ideas: crafting a spike to blind Polyphemus in his one vulnerable spot; calling himself "Nohbdy" so that the other Cyclopes will not know who blinded Polyphemus; and fashioning the slings under the rams for escape. In each instance, a man of lesser tactical ability would have gone for the simpler solution (killing Polyphemus when he was sleeping by the doorway; revealing his name right away; trying to run by Polyphemus) with destructive consequences.

Homer's recounting of Polyphemus' blinding is startling in its descriptive and poetic powers. The imagery is vivid and specific: "we bored that great eye socket / while blood ran out around the red hot bar. / Eyelid and lash were seared; the pierced ball / hissed broiling, and the roots popped" (420-423). Note that this entire chapter is in Odysseus' narrative voice as he recounts his tale to Alcinous, and is the most we have heard him speak so far. He (and Homer, of course) uses several occupational similes while describing the blinding: "I leaned on it / turning it as a shipwright turns a drill / in planking, having men below to swing / the two-handled strap" (416-419) and "In a smithy / one sees a white-hot axehead or an adze / plunged and wrung in a cold tub, screeching steamŠ / just so that eyeball hissed around the spike" (425-427, 429). Both similes remind us of the nearly mechanical work the men are engaged in - creating a weapon, hardening it through fire, and blinding Polyphemus - and of the collaborative effort required to mount such a task: only together, as a virtual shipwright and his workers, can they defeat the powerful Cyclops.

Book X Summary:

Odysseus continues his story for Alcinous. After the encounter with Polyphemus, Odysseus and his crew reach the island of the wind god Aiolos. Aiolos hosts them for a month, and then provides Odysseus with a bag containing storm winds to help them sail. They sail off with his westerly wind at their backs, and after ten days come within sight of Ithaca. But while Odysseus sleeps, his crew, mistakenly believing Aiolos' bag is full of silver and gold, greedily open it. All the winds rush out and the ship is sent off course in a hurricane.

They are sent back to Aiolos' island, and Odysseus explains to him what happened. Aiolos believes Odysseus' journey is cursed by the gods and refuses to help him further. Odysseus and his crew sail on without any wind and reach Lamos, land of the giant Laistrygonians. The king, Antiphates, and the queen eat one of Odysseus' envoys, and the crew barely escapes as the other Laistrygonians shoot boulders at the retreating ship.

The men arrive at the island of the goddess Circe. Odysseus kills a buck and boosts his crew's morale with a great feast. He tells his crew that he saw smoke rising from the forest, but his men, thinking back on the their last few encounters with strangers, are afraid to meet any new ones. But Odysseus, after a random selection, sends half of the weeping men under command of Eurylokhos off to investigate.

Outside Circe's house lie subdued and spellbound wolves and mountain lions. Inside, Circe sings while weaving on her loom. All the men - except for Eurylokhos, who suspects deceit - are reassured by this gentle behavior and enter. Circe fixes them a feast and adds something to their drinks; once they drink it, they are turned into pigs. She shuts them in a pigsty while Eurylokhos runs back to alert the crew.

Odysseus goes alone to her house despite Eurylokhos' protestations. The god Hermes stops him on his way and gives him a plant that will preserve him against Circe's own pig-poison. Then Odysseus should threaten her with death, at which point Circe will offer to sleep with him. Odysseus must accept, as it will break her spell over his crew.

Odysseus visits Circe, and the plant works its magic against her poison. He goes through with Hermes' plan, and by his fortitude she takes him to be the great Odysseus. As Hermes predicted, she asks him to sleep with her; he first makes her promise not to use any more enchantments. They retire to her opulent bedchamber, but Odysseus is concerned about his companions. Circe turns them back into men, now looking better than ever. She tells Odysseus to have his men bring their ships and gear ashore and come back with everyone. He does, and they all return but the still suspicious Eurylokhos.

The men are bathed by Circe's maids and given a dinner. Circe invites Odysseus to stay with her on her island. The men end up staying for a year in the paradise until they finally remind Odysseus of their mission. Odysseus asks Circe to help them sail home, but she says he must go to Hades, the land of Death, and speak to the blind seer Tiresias. She gives the dejected Odysseus detailed instructions for sailing to Hades and preparing rites to summon Tiresias. Odysseus tells his crew it is time to leave, but the youngest, Elpenor, having drunkenly slept on the roof, falls and kills himself.


Temptation hurts the men three times in this book. First, the crew greedily opens the bag of winds, even disloyally suspecting Odysseus of keeping his treasure from them. Next, the men foolhardily accept Circe's hospitality and drinks. Finally, everyone, Odysseus most of all, gladly spends a year basking in the luxury of Circe's domain, thoughts of home far from their minds. Indeed, despite his usual levelheaded decision-making, Odysseus' great character flaw is his occasional rash, emotional behavior - witness his unwise taunting of Polyphemus in Book IX, or, as Eurylokhos notes, his choice merely to see Polyphemus.

Circe, in some ways, is a double of the goddess Calypso. Whereas Calypso critiqued the gender double standard among gods, arguing against the unfairness of a system in which male gods can take mortal lovers as they please while goddesses cannot - and, by extension, it seems, applying this critique to Greek society - Circe turns the tables on the usual male/female power dynamic. She exploits the weakness and desperation of the men, turning them into the pigs she most likely thinks they resemble in behavior.

Interestingly, Circe is first paired up with another woman in the poem - Penelope. She is first shown weaving at her loom, the activity Penelope uses to ward off her suitors. Since Circe is another of the poem's examples of a symbolically castrating woman, and since Penelope has raised some doubts about the sincerity of her fidelity, further parallels are drawn with Penelope emerging as the lesser woman. Penelope, too, has a household of men who have turned her place into a sty, but she is not strong enough to shoo them away as Circe can do.

Perhaps it is Circe's strength, not to mention her divine beauty, which attracts Odysseus. As with Calypso, he does not seem to have any misgivings about committing an act of infidelity with her. Rather than think guiltily about his wife at home, he instead worries about the well-being of his shipmates.

Book XI Summary:

Odysseus and his crew sail to the region of the Men of Winter and, per Circe's instructions, make a ritual sacrifice for Tiresias. While waiting for Tiresias, Odysseus cuts down the other phantoms that emerge, including Elpenor, who had fallen from Circe's roof. Odysseus promises him a proper sailor's burial back on Circe's island. He also sees his dead mother, Antikleia. Finally, Tiresias appears and warns him that Poseidon seeks vengeance for the blinding of his son, Polyphemus. He warns Odysseus not to touch the flocks of Helios when he lands on Thrinakia, predicting doom for his crew if they do. He further predicts that Odysseus will make it alone to his house and slay Penelope's destructive suitors. Then he will take an oar to a place where men do not know of the sea, and when someone asks him about the "fan" on his shoulder, he should make a sacrifice to Poseidon; the sacrifice will ensure a rich life for him thereafter.

Tiresias leaves, and Odysseus allows Antikleia to sip the blood he has prepared and thus talk. He briefly tells her about the purpose of his journey, then asks what killed her, and then asks after the rest of his family. She relates Penelope's and Telemachus' lives, and says his father stays at home, pining for his son's return. She was like this, too, and her loneliness and longing for Odysseus is what killed her. Odysseus tries to hug her, but his hands pass through the air. After they finish talking, more shadows come and tell their stories to Odysseus.

Odysseus stops his story. The Phaeacian king, Alcinous, asks him to spend another day with them so they can furnish him with gifts, then asks if he met any of his fellow warriors among the shadows. Odysseus relates how he saw Agamemnon, who tells him how Aigisthos and his wife Klytaimnestra killed him, and warns him about the wickedness of women; he should return home secretly, without warning to his wife. Odysseus talks with other shadows, including Achilles, about whose son, Neoptolemos, he tells him. He sees Tantalos, tortured by food and drink always just out of reach, and Sisyphus, perpetually pushing a boulder up a hill. The shadows mass in the thousands and frighten away Odysseus, who sails away with his crew.


It is appropriate that the cause of death for Odysseus' mother is loneliness and longing - the central emotions in a poem about a relentless search for home and its attendant isolation. This book also casts light on four other defining themes in the poem: fidelity, obeisance to the gods, temptation, and endurance.

We finally hear directly from Agamemnon after hearing his story so many times through other retellings. The story of his death at the hands of his wife and her lover has continually reinforced Odysseus' parallel story, and Agamemnon explicitly spells out the story's underlying message: "The day of faithful wives is gone forever" (535).

Odysseus is also reminded not to touch the oxen of Helios and to make a sacrifice to Poseidon once he is safely installed in Ithaca - in other words, to pay his due respects to the gods. The temptation of raiding the oxen will prove too great for his crew, and temptation is, indeed, the continuing blind spot of both Odysseus and his sailors. The punishment of Tantalos epitomizes temptation; his temptation is all the worse since it can never be satisfied.

Sisyphus, too, recalls an important and also unrewarding character trait for Odysseus: persistence. Forever pushing a heavy boulder up a hill, Sisyphus slogs along much like Odysseus does in his seemingly never-ending journey home.

Book XII Summary:

Odysseus and his crew sail back to Circe's island, where they make a funeral pyre for Elpenor. Circe gives them a feast, and at night warns Odysseus of the dangers his ship will face tomorrow. The next day, the crew follows her instructions, plugging their ears so the song of the Sirens will not tempt them away from their course; Odysseus listens to it but has his men lash him to the mast. Next, the men must sail between Scylla, a six-headed sea monster that devours sailors, and the treacherous whirlpools of Charybdis. Odysseus does not tell them of the imminent death, as they would panic. Indeed, Scylla seizes and eats six men.

The crew passes by the dangers and reaches the island of Helios, the Sun. Odysseus passes on Tiresias' and Circe’s counsel not to eat the oxen or even land on the island. Tired and hungry, they want to sleep on the island, but Odysseus makes them promise not to touch the oxen. They moor, eat, and mourn their dead mates.

Winds prevent them from leaving for a month, and their store of food thins. While Odysseus prays to the gods in isolation one day, Eurylokhos incites the others to sacrifice the oxen. Odysseus returns and sees what has happened, and quickly Lord Helios asks Zeus to punish them. After the crew feasts for six days, they set sail. Zeus whips up a storm for punishment and shoots a thunderbolt at the ship, wrecking it. The men fall in the water, and Odysseus grabs on to floating pieces of the ship. He drifts back to Charybdis, from which he barely escapes. With protection from above, he squeaks by Scylla and drifts to Calypso’s island. Odysseus reminds his audience that he has already told them of this.


Temptation again takes center stage in this book. Odysseus' crew falls victim to temptation, sacrificing and feasting on the oxen of Helios, and earning the wrath of the gods in return.

The song of the Sirens tempts Odysseus too. However, by lashing himself to the mast, he exercises self-control when he knows he would otherwise have none. In this regard, he indulges in a fantasy of temptation: he can enjoy the beauty of the Sirens' song without any attendant punishment. This unscathed brand of temptation is similar to his infidelities, in that he is able to sleep with other women under the guise of his mission's necessity.

The opposite of temptation, one might argue, is fear; instead of looking forward to melting temptingly in guilty pleasures, the fearful person has anxiety about future punishments. Odysseus wisely withholds information about Scylla from his crew, who have shown themselves to be vulnerable to both temptation and fear. Were he to tell them about Scylla, they might have panicked and lost more than six men.

Yet Odysseus is far from heartless, and he mourns the men's deaths along with his surviving mates. His crew has slowly been losing men here and there (and, finally, everyone but Odysseus at the end of this book) and a certain indifference to death seems to have been built up, but Odysseus refers to the sight of Scylla eating his men as "far the worst I ever suffered" (334).