Odysseus Sirens

The Odyssey: Reflections on Books 9 – 12

Book 10 closes with Circe directing Odysseus to Hades in order to consult with Tiresias about his return to Ithaca. While there, Odysseus meets a cast of characters including his mother, Agamemnon, and Achilles. His conversation with Achilles offers deep insight into a consequential question from The Iliad—what does Achilles want?

Thetis, Achilles’ mother, has given him a prophecy that he will either gain glory in battle and die young, or live long in peace without glory. The promise is for a type of immortality brought about by worldwide and long-lasting renown. Achilles wavers in his decision to stay and fight gloriously in a war not of his making or returning to his hometown to ingloriously live out his days in peace. He decides to stay and that has enormous implications for the Greeks, the Trojans, the entire war, and for himself.

When Odysseus meets Achilles at the outskirts of Hades, he praises the warrior, highlighting the glory brought about by his life:

“In your life we Greeks respected you as we do gods, and now that you are here, you have great power among the dead. Achilles, you should not be bitter at your death.”

Odysseus focuses on what he assumed Achilles wanted. Achilles replies with his true desire:

“Odysseus, you must not comfort me for death. I would prefer to be a workman hired by a poor man on a peasant farm, than rule as king of all the dead.”

This is a startling statement that sheds a fascinating light on the entire Iliad. The promise to the brave warrior was glory forevermore in exchange for death. That trade was not worth it for Achilles, and he now has to contemplate that, forevermore.

Not only does this scene connect The Iliad and Odyssey, but it also exposes a similar choice for Odysseus. In Book 5, Calypso presents Odysseus with the option for immortality if he stays with her in a seemingly idyllic paradise. This is a tempting offer especially when it becomes clear that the scene in Hades takes place before Odysseus’ arrival on Calypso’s island. This means that Odysseus has been given a foretaste of the “glory” awaiting even the greatest of heroes in Hades. As Achilles says,

“Numb dead people live here, the shades of poor exhausted mortals.”

By turning down Calypso and immortality, Odysseus knows full well that he will become one of these inglorious shades in Hades. He chooses morality anyway to return to his wife, son, and kingdom. Perhaps the regret of Achilles played a part in this monumental choice.

While immortality is on offer from Calypso, something equally tantalizing is offered by the Sirens. Many retellings of the Sirens focus on their beautiful songs as the source of destruction by luring ships against the rocks. However, it’s not just the beauty of the songs (and perhaps the beauty of the Sirens themselves as painters love to highlight), but the content of their songs:

“The music brings them joy, and they go on their way with greater knowledge, since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth.”

The Sirens’ temptation is for access to greater/hidden knowledge. This Edenesque allurement is for Odysseus to know the full story of the war and his role in it. At a basic level, it’s for perfect knowledge, something not available to mortals, yet something alluring to all.

Adjective Update

I’m monitoring descriptors of Odysseus:

  • Book 9 – lord of lies (Wilson) / great teller of tales (Fagles)
  • Nohbdy – I love this translation by Fitzgerald of the name Odysseus gives to the Cyclops
  • Book 10 – O great contender

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The Odyssey: Reflections on Books 5 – 8
The Odyssey: Reflections on Books 13 – 16