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Charybdis and The Cattle of Helius

Odysseus shipwrecked. After meeting Charybdis, nothing remained of his ship except the mast and the keel. 3505: Drawing by Bonaventura Genelli, 1798-1868.

Charybdis was a sea-monster, who thrice a day drew up the water of the sea and then spouted it again, thus forming a whirlpool. She was on one side of the narrow Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy, and on the other side was Scylla 1, another sea-monster. The two sides are so close to each other that an arrow could be shot across them. So sailors, on trying to avoid Charybdis became the victims of Scylla 1, and vice versa. The ARGONAUTS were able to avoid both dangers because they were guided by Thetis, one of the NEREIDS.

Circe's instructions to Odysseus

Odysseus back in Aeaea

When Odysseus, having returned from the Underworld, reached once more the island of Aeaea, which was Circe's home, the sorceress gave him new instructions and made for him every landmark clear so as to avoid any disasters on his homeward journey, warning him about the many dangers that awaited him.

Scylla 1 and Charybdis

Among these, she mentioned Scylla 1 and Charybdis, who had their homes in the two rocks that are at each side of the strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy. Of these two rocks, Circe said, Charybdis' was the lowest, and upon its crag there grew a great fig-tree below which Charybdis sucked the waters down and then spewed them up again three times a day, turning the spot into a terrible place. For not even a god could save anyone who had approached near enough the devouring whirlpool that Charybdis' amazing activity formed. That is why Circe's advice was to sail past Scylla 1 at full speed, and to avoid Charybdis. For it was better, the witch explained, to mourn the loss of some comrades than that of the whole crew. She also insisted that there was no point in trying to tackle Scylla 1, being as she was a ferocious monster impossible to fight against. Instead, she said, valour was to be found in flight without wasting time.

The Cattle of Helius

Then Circe said that after having passed Scylla 1 and Charybdis, Odysseus and his crew would come to the island of Thrinacia, which some say it is Sicily and that was first called Trinacria because of its triangular shape; but some have said that Odysseus was never in the neighborhood of Sicily. In any case in Thrinacia, Circe said, they would find Helius' seven herds of cattle and seven flocks of sheep, which had fifty head in each and were shepherded by his daughters Lampetia and Phaethusa. These girls are otherwise said to be among those called the HELIADES 1, who shed the inconsolable tears that hardened into amber when their brother Phaethon 3 died, having fallen from the sky when he drove his father's chariot. According to Circe, these animals were not born into the world and were not subject to natural death, and belonging to the god, it was imperative that they were left untouched. For, Circe warned, if they were hurt, then the ship and its crew would be destroyed.

The Cattle of Helius and Return to Charybdis

Odysseus prepared to tackle Scylla 1

These were Circe's warnings. However, good advices are not meant to be followed, but to be defied. And that is why Odysseus, on seeing that trouble with Scylla 1 was inevitable, allowed himself to forget everything about them, and armed himself in an attempt to resist the monster. But as the whole crew turned pale with fear watching how Charybdis swallowed the water down with a roar, Scylla 1 appeared suddenly and, snatching six of Odysseus' comrades, she devoured them. After this they escaped the two monsters and arrived to Thrinacia, the island of Helius. Odysseus, who was aware of the danger lurking in this place, having been warned by both Tiresias and Circe, did not wish to land in the island. But his men, having rowed without rest and wishing much, for excess of labor and lack of sleep, to set foot on dry land, were heart-broken when they heard Odysseus' will. So when Eurylochus 3 made a speech against his captain, all men applauded; for instead of continuing the trip, as Odysseus wished, he proposed:

"... Let us make ready our evening meal, remaining close by our fast ship, and in the morning we can get on board once more and put out into the open sea." (Eurylochus 3 to Odysseus and the crew. Homer, Odyssey 12.291).

So they did; for being many they forced Odysseus' hand, but he then made them promise that if they came across a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep, not a single animal would be touched. They all agreed, taking even an oath.

Mañana postponed by a storm

But just as good advices are not there to be followed in the first place, the main idea with promises and oaths is not necessarily to fulfil them. For when circumstances change and difficulties arise, as it happened to Odysseus and his crew on the blessed island of Thrinacia, then what is in mind and heart changes accordingly, and promises fall into oblivion. And since mortals cannot anticipate what will happen, the day after the evening meal and the oath there was no putting out into the open sea, as they had intended. The reason was that an unexpected storm broke up, and the crew was forced to beach the ship and drag her into a cave. After that, an unfavorable wind blew without a pause for a whole month, preventing them to sail away. This is how "first thing in the morning" turned into a long wait, exhausting the food and wine that Circe had provided.

Ideas to placate a god ...

And since death by starvation is rightly regarded as one of the most miserable, the men turned their eyes, by necessity, towards the forbidden animals. Now, these things can be done with more or less delicacy, and that is why the same Eurylochus 3 suggested a method to avoid offending the gods. He said to the crew when Odysseus was away:

"... Let us cut out the best of Helius' cattle, and sacrifice them to the immortals." (Eurylochus 3 to the crew. Homer, Odyssey 12.343).

The crew thought that this idea was quite clever; for its attempt to reconcile necessity and devotion is easily perceived. Eurylochus 3 also added promises and good intentions for the future, saying:

2012: Helius. From the pediment of his temple, Rhodes. Hellenistic period.

"... and if we ever come back to Ithaca our first act shall be to build a rich temple to Helius, and store it with precious dedications." (Eurylochus 3 to the crew. Homer, Odyssey 12.345).

That seemed also reasonable; for most mortals understand that whoever suffers a loss is eager to receive compensation. And feeling that, in the worst case, the wrath of the god was to be preferred to starvation, they slaughtered the cows of Helius, making all the proper ceremonies and doing their prayers, but nevertheless turning the sacred animals into meals. When Odysseus returned from his siesta in the woods he could do nothing but pray and lament the cruel sleep, that possessing him at unexpected times, allowed his comrades to perform irrevocable deeds, as when they were sent back to Aeolus 2, the keeper of the winds. But pray could better Helius, who was promptly informed by his daughters of what had happened to his cattle. And having come to Zeus, he demanded compensation for the cattle that gave him such immense joy every day as he traversed the sky, adding a threat as well:

"If they do not repay me in full for my slaughtered cows I will go down to Hades and shine among the dead." (Helius to Zeus. Homer, Odyssey 12.381).

Zeus promises to avenge Helius

Now, the cows being dead and gone, it was difficult to see how matters could be mended, except for that promise of a temple which could or not placate the god. This is why Zeus promised Helius to strike Odysseus' ship with a bolt and dash it to pieces, exhorting him at the same time:

"Shine on for the immortals and for mortal men on the fruitful earth." (Zeus to Helius. Homer, Odyssey 12.385).

Destruction of Odysseus' ship

In the meanwhile, and despite Odysseus' reproaches, the crew feasted on the sacred cows for one week. But while they were still in Thrinacia, the gods, according to what Odysseus has told, visited them with portents: the skins crawled and the meat groaned, making a sound like the lowing of cattle. At last they embarked, and when they had left the island, a sudden wind brought the ship not far from where Scylla 1 and Charybdis were. And there Zeus, who keeps his promises, thundered and struck Odysseus' ship by lightning, breaking it to bits.

End of the Ithacan army

This was the end for all of Odysseus' comrades, and thereby nothing was left of the Ithacan army that years ago had joined, under his leadership, the alliance that sailed from Aulis against Troy in order to obtain, by force or by persuasion, the restoration of Helen and the property that the seducer Paris had stolen when he visited Sparta.

Return to Charybids

However, Odysseus himself, after having lashed the broken keel and the mast together as a raft, managed to stay afloat, and escape Charybdis' whirlpool. For when the monster sucked the water down, and with it the raft, Odysseus clinged to a branch of the great fig-tree that grew upon the crag of the rock under which the monster lived, until Charybdis spewed up the mast and the keel, several hours later. Then he dropped into the water, and bestriding the raft, he rowed away with his hands as fast as he could. After having drifted for nine days, Odysseus was washed up, in the night of the tenth, on the remote Island of Ogygia, and was there kindly received by Calypso 3, who looked after him with more love than he could take.

Related sections

Apd.Ep.7.20-21; AO.1254; Hom.Od.12.85ff, 12.124, 12.223ff.; Strab.6.2.1, 7.3.6.