The Odyssey | Study Guide


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Book 12

Course Hero’s video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Book 12 of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.

The Odyssey | Book 12 | Summary



Odysseus resumes his narrative. Because Odysseus promised Elpenor in the Land of the Dead that he would give him a proper burial, he returned to Circe's island to give him his funeral rites. Before he departed for home, Circe advised Odysseus on how to avoid the Sirens, who lure sailors into shipwrecks with their hypnotic songs. Odysseus followed her advice and had his men stuff their ears with wax so they would not hear the song. He was curious, though, and, instead of blocking his hearing, had his men bind him tightly against the mast so he could not break free. He was tormented by the song, but the ship got past the danger. After the Sirens they had to avoid the Wandering Rocks—which only one ship had ever survived.

The next trial forced a choice between two monsters: Scylla, a six-headed beast, or Charybdis, a monster in the form of a whirlpool. Scylla devoured six of the men, but the ship made it past the twin monsters and reached the island of the sun god Helios, home of the sacred cattle of Helios.

Odysseus made his men promise not to harm the cattle, but, after being trapped by a storm for a month, their supplies dwindled and the men grew hungry. When Odysseus fell asleep, his men left the ship to slaughter the sacred cattle. This act deeply angered Helios, who demanded punishment. After a few days, Zeus sent a fierce storm that killed everyone aboard except for Odysseus. The hero clung to a raft until washing ashore on Calypso's island.


Bound by his word to Elpenor, Odysseus doubles back to Circe's island in order to give Elpenor's body the burial he promised. This speaks to the theme of loyalty.

This book once again touches on the theme of temptation. Just as the men faced temptation on the island of the Lotus-eaters, they must resist the allure of the Sirens, who would cause them to wreck their ship if they listened to their bewitching songs. Odysseus's pride tells him that he can withstand the temptation but only because of his cleverness. He suffers greatly from hearing the alluring sound, but his strategy succeeds—he is wily Odysseus indeed.

His ultimate test of judgment comes when they arrive at the island of Helios. Warned by both Tiresias and Circe of the danger there, Odysseus wishes to avoid the place altogether, but that would entail sailing the sea at night, which is more dangerous. Odysseus fails the test once again by falling asleep—metaphorically dropping his guard—which opens the way for his crew to make their fatal mistake. Did Odysseus err in not giving his crew more information? Perhaps he did, or perhaps they would have fallen prey to hunger anyway.

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