Ulysses Funmary # 9: Scylla & Charybdis

Ok– it is long past time for me to write this funmary, but admittedly I’ve been bogged down in the minutie of academia (not unlike our librarians here).  So, after far too much ado and many apologies, through the twin dangers we must sail.

Now, in The Odyssey, Odysseus knows what dangers await him.  He has advanced warning from Circe (remember her?) and chooses to lose a few crew members to the many-headed monster Scylla rather than to lose his entire ship to the whirlpool of Charybdis.  We see just an echo of this as Steven Daedalus sails cautiously into the librarian’s discussion: “A hesitating soul taking arms against a sea of troubles, torn by conflicting doubts” (184).  We also get our first hint of how heavily Shakespeare and Hamlet are going to feature.  Despite his hesitations, though, Stevie soon jumps into the argument with both feet (and several other body parts as well).

In fact, take a moment to Brush Up Your Shakespeare and your Hamlet, ladies and gentlemen.

Don’t we all feel better about things now?

Odysseus and his crew spend their time gawking at the revolving, churning, spewing, and generally attention-seeking Charybdis.  Meanwhile, Scylla sneaks up behind from her cliff and grabs up 9 of the sailors for a snack.  Our Joyce has pulled a similar trick with this section.  He has us all gaping agog as Stevie argues round and round about Shakespeare, Hamlet, Anne, and assorted other personages{few of Stevie’s arguments are new ones, and most are terribly outlandish, but doesn’t he describe them well!}, so we nearly fail to notice the crucial things happening in the background.

What exactly is happening behind the scenes, you ask?  Well…

I’m sensing a list coming on:

1. Our characters are all gathering: Stevie, Buck, and Leo are all together at the same time, and young Kinch has just been and gone.

2. We are finally getting to see Stevie away from the world that makes him so uncomfortable.  While firmly entrenched in his murky library, he feels like the master puppeteer– manipulating minds with his words.  It is only at the end of the section that he reemerges “into a shattering daylight of no thoughts” (215).

3. Stevie, though he claims not to believe in his own argument, is living proof of his own “ghosting” theories.  Having left Ireland as a young man, he has returned to its shores to act out his scenes without truely experiencing them.  He cannot connect with the world around him, and instead lives in foggy flashbacks of his mother, his father, and his regrets.

4. Though he feels most comfortable in their company, we get the distinct feeling that the librarians are mocking Stevie– winding him up and watching him go through his dance.

Yet, for all the foaming verbiage of this chapter, despite its hushed reading room setting, Our Hero (well… our boyo at any rate) navigates himself safely and ends the section in a peaceful place, free from any foreboding omens, and on his way to the nearest pub.

Up next… Our Namesake!

Odyssey Funmaries #12: The Sirens (Book XII.I-CCXVII)

“Keep that beeswax lodged in tight, boys!”*


The Sirens episode in The Odyssey is among its best-known, and even someone who has never read the epic poem likely still has a mental picture of Odysseus lashed to the mast, or has once referenced some beguiling temptation as “a siren song” which must be resisted. This episode is often cited as the crux for the argument that Odysseus possesses a superior moral fiber.** To reference Jonah Lehrer’s recent (fascinating) New Yorker article, Odysseus is a “high denier.” He passes the marshmallow test.

A very brief recap of the specifics: Circe informs Odysseus that when he and his shipmates sail past the island of the Sirens, their “high, thrilling song … will transfix him” unless his crew lashes him to the mast, rope on rope. (And stop the crew’s ears with beeswax, Circe adds.) Odysseus advises the crew of the plan with the caveat, “If I plead, commanding you to set me free, / then lash me faster, rope on pressing rope.”

Hmmmm. Where have we seen this before?

Beeswax-stoppered, the crew sails on and — sure enough — Odysseus pleads. (Presumably some variation on, “No, really, guys! When I told you not to let me go I said it on Opposite Day, so what I really meant was for you to UNTIE ME FROM THIS EFFIN’ MAST RIGHT NOW.”) The crew sticks with the tough love (possibly because it can’t even hear Odysseus through the beeswax).

We can appreciate the depth of Odysseus’s self-restraint (and self-preservation) by referencing artistic renderings of the Sirens in all their resplendent beauty. After all, they don’t just sell coffee! Consider:


Wait … is that the right slide? That’s a Siren? And this is really on display in the Louvre? Oh. Well, let’s see what else we can find.

Sirena de Canosa s. IV adC (M.A.N. Madrid) 01

Seriously? Is someone pulling my leg here? She looks like a toad. And those webbed feet! I mean, it’s ghastly.

What about —


GAHHHH! Please, make it stop!

Hasn’t anyone captured the rapturous beauty of the sirens? Anyone?


Ah, yes! That’s the ticket! John Duigan’s 1994 film, The Sirens! Featuring Elle Macpherson. (Now there’s a siren.)

Of course, the Coen brothers took a stab at The Odyssey with O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here’s the Sirens scene as envisioned by the Coens, the key difference being that no one is lashed, especially the poor, helpless Tim Blake Nelson, whose face at the end of the clip pretty much says it all.


Countdown to Bloomsday…

We read page 1 of Ulysses in a week!

 Wandering Rocks is one Siren song you shouldn’t resist!


* = “Ulysses and the Sirens,” John William Waterhouse.

** = Is it really superior moral fiber Odysseus demonstrates here, or simply his competency in ordering himself to be tied up?

Odyssey Funmaries #10: Circe (Book X.CXLVI-DCXXXI)


Have you ever had a relationship end with someone telling you to “go to hell”? Count yourself lucky they were only being metaphorical. But our hero Odysseus has a funny way with the ladies.  So when Odysseus’ latest ‘island girl’ turns his shipmates into groveling swine at the beginning of the relationship, you probably could guess it will not end with “I hope we can still be friends.”  That’s right kids! Odysseus’ ‘black-hulled’ ship, aka The Love Boat, is making another island-hopping run!* Next stop: Aeaea**, stomping ground of the beautiful goddess/witch Circe***:

Wow! Stop staring boys!! If you could move your eyes for a moment just slightly to the right you will see our hero reflected in the mirror behind Circe!

Ok. Sorry for starting in media res. Let’s backtrack.

After losing the rest of his fleet, Odysseus charts a course for the Aeaean island. With the help of a god, Odysseus and the boys land on the island. Odysseus scales a raggedy height or commanding crag, as he is wont to do, to take visual stock of the situation and spies Circe’s lair. And here we are treated to some of that wily Odyssean logic that has kept him alive long after Achilles:

Mulling it over, I thought I’d scout the ground –

that fire aglow in the smoke, I saw it, true,

but soon enough this seemed the better plan:

I’d go back to shore and the swift ship first

feed the men, then send them out for scouting.  (the first emphasis is mine; the second O’s)

The great tactician at his best! Well, at least he is going to feed them first. 

So Odysseus sends his crew under Eurylocus (ancient Greek for ‘Unlucky’) to Circe’s palace. Almost as soon as they get there, Circe turns them all into pigs save Eurylocus, who had sensed a trap. Eury hightails it back to the beach and gives Odysseus the story. So Odysseus sets off on his own to save the day. On his way he encounters Hermes in the woods who gives him the much bally-hooed ‘Holy Moly’ that will protect him from Circe’s spells. The Gods love this guy! So Circe tries to work her dark magic on Odysseus, but her spell is as effective as trickle-down economics in the ‘80s: No luck. Odysseus draws his sword and Circe falls at his knees, begs mercy, says Hermes told her he would come, then implores him:

Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together,

mount my bed and mix in the magic work of love –

we’ll breed deep trust between us.

But Odysseus knows better! Hermes has warned him, Circe will ‘unman’ him (Circe-umcision!) unless he gets her to swear a binding oath. No more lies. Circe complies. Now – ‘at last’ – Odysseus gets his wandering rocks off. Soon thereafter he is bathed and oiled-up by Circe’s nymphy handmaidens who ‘perform the goddess’ household tasks’ (What is ancient Greek for ‘Playboy Mansion’?) At any rate, post rub-down Odysseus is sat down on a throne for a feast. I guess it is at this point that he remembers that his crewmates are still swine.  Here Odysseus draws the line. No winey-diney until the boys are men again. Circe works her magic in reverse. The crew are pigs no more. And all is well.

So well, in fact, that Odysseus decides to hang with witchy Circe for a FULL YEAR. Eventually the crew brings him to his senses. It is time to move on.

So Odysseus begs Circe that he might take leave of her. But as the old song sayeth, breaking up is hard to do. Circe keeps good on her promise to help Odysseus get back to Ithaca, but she has one little errand for our hero; he needs to make a little stop in the port-of-call known as Hell to see the seer Tiresias.

Bet he wishes she had just kept his favorite t-shirt…

Countdown to Bloomsday…

We read page 1 of Ulysses in 9 days!

Holy Moly, indeed.

* = Poor Achilles! You spent your Homeric epic killing people and being taunted with epic epithets! Who knew you could have spent your 24 books knocking leather sandals with every goddess or virginal nymph in the Mediterranean?? Well, most likely wily Odysseus with his golden tongue convinced old blind Homer to make him the hero of the more ‘romantic’ epic….I guess the pen is mightier than the sword! (Amateur Freudians can remove one of the spaces in that last sentence for some hermeneutic fun!!)

** = For Andrew Cashmere, and readers of Fitzgerald’s translation, ‘Aioli’ and ‘Kirke.’ Homeric scholars and amateur adventurers have been trying to find the real places our hero visited for about 2000 years or more. I think one of the things that has thrown them off is everyone spells them differently. Isn’t aioli a type of garlic mayo?

*** = Circe or Kirke, has a long history in western culture, including both Homer and Joyce. What you may not know, is that one hot summer night in 1970, after eating too many lotus plants and reading book X of The Odyssey, Don Henley and Glen Frey came under her spell.