When Homer wove the characters of The Odyssey into a story, he undoubtedly leftroom for interpretation of their actions. The characters, most of whom aredynamic, colorful, and three dimensional, are used by Homer to give a fun buttruthful commentary on the Ancient Greeks and their way of life. The actions ofone figure, the man-eating monster named Skylla, are particularly interestingwhen viewed in the context of the rest of the story.
Though her contribution tothe plot is minor, Skylla’s actions are important in that they arecharacteristic of several themes found throughout the poem. These themes includethe role of the female in Odysseus’s struggle, the hunger (figuratively andliterally) of the characters in The Odyssey, and the commentary Homer makes onthe individuals who live lawlessly. In The Odyssey, Homer introduces many femalecharacters; some play significant roles, some are in the background. Regardlessof their importance, distinctions can be made as to their roles in the story:that is, some put forth effort to help Odysseus and the other men–Arete,Athena, Nausikaa, and Eurykleia are examples–and others (whom he encounters onhis voyages home) lead to the delay or destruction of them. Skylla plays therole of the latter, as do Kalypso, Kirke, and the Seirenes. Although none ofthese women actually harm Odysseus, each poses a deadly threat to him on hisvoyage.
Odysseus’s experience with Skylla is by far the most deadly anddisturbing. Whereas the other women succeed only in enticing and delaying thecrew, the encounter with Skylla has lethal consequences. Even though he decidesto take the sea route that passes near her lair, it seeming to be the leastdangerous of the three options, he wants nothing to do with the monster. Yet,instead of passing unscathed, six of his men are taken (XII, 294-7) as the boatsails through the channel. Homer uses an epic simile to help the readervisualize the macabre scene.
He compares Skylla to a fisherman who “willhook a fish and rip it from the surface / to dangle wriggling through theair” (XII, 303-4). The crewmen are the fish, of course, and seem helplessas Skylla whisks them from the ship. Describing the attack, Odysseus says,”and deathly pity ran me through / at that sight–far the worst I eversuffered, / questing the passes of the strange sea” (308-10). It seems thathe realizes that the losses were his responsibility and that he too could easilyhave been a victim of Skylla’s wrath.
Earlier in the story (Book V) we see thatCalypso poses a similar, though not as deadly, threat to Odysseus’s homecoming. Instead of literally grabbing for him as Skylla does, Kalypso tries to retainOdysseus by enticing him with the prospect of immortality and a life with abeautiful goddess. We are also told she has cast “spells” (198) on himto keep him docile and under her power. Kalypso says to Zeus, “I fed him,loved him, sang that he should not die / nor grow old, ever, in all the days tocome” (142-4). Despite her efforts and hospitality, Odysseus still longsfor home as he sits each day by the rocky shore “with eyes wet scanning thebare horizon of the sea” (165-6). He is quite happy when the day comes thathe is set free by Zeus’s will.
Without Zeus’s intervention, Odysseus would havebeen kept indefinitely. Book X, which contains the introduction of Kirke,provides another example of near fatal attraction. This time it is not amonstrous woman or an overly hospitable nymph that brings them near theirdownfall, but an immortal who entrances her visitors so that they forget theirmotives. Whether or not Kirke intended to eat Odysseus’s men, as Skylla does,after she turned them to swine we do not know, though it is certainly apossibility. What is known is their flaw–they are men who fall prey to thedesires of women. This fact is admitted twice by Odysseus in lines 440 and 503and is the reason they end up “feasting long / on roasts and wine, until ayear grew fat” (504-5).
Only after Odysseus is reminded of his homelanddoes he go to Kirke and plead for their release, to which she agrees. A point tomake is that in both cases, with Kalypso and Kirke, Odysseus plays the role ofthe mortal lover who has little resistance; and in all three cases, the femalescause only pain or delay. As already mentioned, six of Odysseus’s men were takenby Skylla as their ship passed through the channel. The incident seemsparticularly gruesome as Odysseus recalls it for King Alkinoos: Then Skylla madeher strike, whisking six of my best men from the ship. I happened to glance aftat ship and oarsmen and caught sight of their arms and legs, dangling highoverhead. .
. . . She ate them as they shrieked there, in her den, in the diregrapple, reaching still for me- (XII, 294-307) In another description, Kirkesays that she is a horrible monster who hunts “for dolphins, dogfish, orwhat bigger game” and that “Amphitrite feeds in thousands” (XII,103-4). What a murderous appetite! Without a doubt Skylla would have whisked sixmore men away had she the opportunity.
Though the action with Skylla isseemingly short, it is significant in that it reflects a quality found in malecharacters throughout the poem–a gluttonous appetite. Whether it is formaterial items or food, this is an attribute that many of the men in The Odysseypossess. Three examples of men who have great hunger for wealth and materialitems are King Alkinoos, King Menelaos, and Odysseus. All three have impressivepalaces filled with beautiful decor.
Odysseus describes the palace at Phaiakiain Book VII, lines 85-140 as being breathtaking. The palace has “highrooms” which are “airy and luminous”, and “the posts andlintel / were silver upon silver; golden handles curved on thedoors”. Telemachus describes Menelaos’ home in a similar fashion in BookIV. He says “how luminous it is / with bronze, gold, amber, silver, andivory! / This is the way the court of Zeus must be” (74-7). Odysseus’sdesire for material wealth is reflected in his enormous estate, which is largeenough to support a large number (100+) of suitors helping themselves for years.
It is also seen in the treasure he brings home from the Phaiakians. They senthim home “with gifts untold / of bronze and gold, and fine cloth to hisshoulder. / Never from Troy had he borne off such booty” (XIII, 155-7). Isuppose it is only fitting that a great warrior and ruler as Odysseus shoulddesire to return home with such a treasure, after all; he and his men paid forit in blood. Not surprisingly, great feasts and sacrifices accompany the wealththese men have. Although women aren’t seen eating meat in the poem, the men haveexorbitant feasts of swine, steer, and wine in nearly every scene.
The mostobvious and outright example of man’s over indulgence of this kind is found inthe suitors, who are slowly devouring Odysseus’s wealth. A typical feast of thesuitors in Odysseus’s hall is described in Book XX: made a ritualslaughter, knifing sheep, fat goats and pigs, knifing the grass-fed steer. . .
. . Melanthiospoured wine, and all their hands went out upon the feast. (255-61) In sayingthat it was a ritual slaughter, the fact that the act has happened many timesbefore is reinforced to the reader. Homer also reinforces this idea byintroducing and destroying the suitors while in the act of feasting.
A finalexample of hunger in the poem reflects on the darker side of men. It is seenwhen Odysseus’s fleet comes upon Ismaros. Here, his men prove themselves not tobe a group of poor souls lost at sea, but rather a tyrannical army of pirates ina bloodthirsty rage. Odysseus says, “ killed the men who fought.
/Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women, / . . . . Sheep after sheep theybutchered by the surf” (IX, 45-50).
The men in this scene kill, plunder,rape, steal, and slaughter innumerable animals, for seemingly no reason! Thistype of extreme behavior, though rare in the story, can be explained as randomviolence, or the consequence of man’s insatiable appetite. I agree with thelatter. Homer depicts some characters in The Odyssey as living by lowerstandards and having fewer values than the rest of society-among them are Skylla,the Kyklopes, the suitors, and sometimes, Odysseus and his men (as mentioned inthe preceding paragraph). In each case, the outcome of their behavior is eitherdetrimental to themselves or others around them, leading the reader to believethat Homer himself frowned upon such people.
Looking at Skylla, the reader seesa displaced creature living solitarily, her only purpose is to feed and makeothers suffer. The monster has no resemblance to a human, except that she hasheads and legs, and is therefore exempt from human morality and values. She is aman-eater, a trait found in several people in the poem, and is looked down uponand dreaded by all for it. Homer paints a similar picture of Polyphemos, theKyklopes. He describes him as being “remote from all companions, / knowingnone but savage ways, a brute / .
. . . a shaggy mountain reared in solitude”(IX, 197-201). This description impresses upon the reader that Polyphemos is acaveman-a man who is uncivilized and lives by no rules-just like Skylla.
Otherthan having his sheep to watch, Polyphemos has no contact with other mortals. Aconsequence of his solitude is that he is ignorant as to the proper way tointeract with other beings similar to him and is apathetic to the feelings ofothers. This is illustrated when he disrespectfully makes a quick snack ofOdysseus’s crewmembers (300-305). The outcome of his actions, his only eye beingpunctured, can be seen as punishment for living a barbarous lifestyle, eventhough he is not to blame. Homer’s commentary on societal indecency is alsofound in Book XXII when the suitors meet their demise.
As already discussed, thesuitors are living freely off of Odysseus’s estate, which is against thefamily’s will. Even if some of their behavior is appropriate for the time, theextent to which they take it-eating and drinking everything in sight andsleeping with the maids-is inexcusable! Aside from those points, it is alsoproper to be polite to guests (despite their condition) and try to help them inany way possible. This type of hospitality is seen over and over again inOdysseus’s travels. With Skylla, Polyphemos, and the suitors, the unspoken ruleof being hospitable is broken repeatedly, and the price paid each time is deathor suffering. Like most of the other characters in The Odyssey, Skylla isthree-dimensional and can be looked at on several levels.
On the surface, herrole in The Odyssey seems to be only to cause pain and suffering to Odysseus andhis men. When examined more closely, she becomes a monster with twelve legs, sixheads and three themes. These themes-the threat women pose to a man’s motives,the “hunger” seen in the characters, and the disapproval ofincivility–are not pervasive in the story, but can be identified when Skylla isexamined in the context of the other characters and their roles. Regardless ofher importance in tying these themes together, she is a necessary part of thestory because she is one of the many characters-or threads-that Homer used toweave The Odyssey. BibliographyHomer. The Odyssey.
Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. 1961. Ed.
Maynard Mack. NewYork: W. W. Norton Company, 1995.