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Skylla: Twelve Legs, Six Heads, and Three Themes
When Homer wove the characters of The Odyssey into a story, he undoubtedly left room for interpretation of their actions. The characters, most of whom are dynamic, colorful, and three dimensional, are used by Homer to give a fun but truthful commentary on the Ancient Greeks and their way of life. The actions of one figure, the man-eating monster named Skylla, are particularly interesting when viewed in the context of the rest of the story. Though her contribution to the plot is minor, Skylla’s actions are important in that they are characteristic of several themes found throughout the poem. These themes include the role of the female in Odysseus’s struggle, the hunger (figuratively and literally) of the characters in The Odyssey, and the commentary Homer makes on the individuals who live lawlessly.
In The Odyssey, Homer introduces many female characters; some play significant roles, some are in the background. Regardless of 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 on his voyages home) lead to the delay or destruction of them. Skylla plays the role of the latter, as do Kalypso, Kirke, and the Seirenes. Although none of these women actually harm Odysseus, each poses a deadly threat to him on his voyage.
Odysseus’s experience with Skylla is by far the most deadly and disturbing. Whereas the other women succeed only in enticing and delaying the crew, the encounter with Skylla has lethal consequences. Even though he decides to take the sea route that passes near her lair, it seeming to be the least dangerous 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 boat sails through the channel. Homer uses an epic simile to help the reader visualize the macabre scene. He compares Skylla to a fisherman who “will hook a fish and rip it from the surface / to dangle wriggling through the air” (XII, 303-4). The crewmen are the fish, of course, and seem helpless as Skylla whisks them from the ship. Describing the attack, Odysseus says, “and deathly pity ran me through / at that sight–far the worst I ever suffered, / questing the passes of the strange sea” (308-10). It seems that he realizes that the losses were his responsibility and that he too could easily have been a victim of Skylla’s wrath.
Earlier in the story (Book V) we see that Calypso poses a similar, though not as deadly, threat to Odysseus’s homecoming. Instead of literally grabbing for him as Skylla does, Kalypso tries to retain Odysseus by enticing him with the prospect of immortality and a life with a beautiful goddess. We are also told she has cast “spells” (198) on him to 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 to come” (142-4). Despite her efforts and hospitality, Odysseus still longs for home as he sits each day by the rocky shore “with eyes wet scanning the bare horizon of the sea” (165-6). He is quite happy when the day comes that he is set free by Zeus’s will. Without Zeus’s intervention, Odysseus would have been kept indefinitely.
Book X, which contains the introduction of Kirke, provides another example of near fatal attraction. This time it is not a monstrous woman or an overly hospitable nymph that brings them near their downfall, but an immortal who entrances her visitors so that they forget their motives. 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 a possibility. What is known is their flaw–they are men who fall prey to the desires of women. This fact is admitted twice by Odysseus in lines 440 and 503 and is the reason they end up “feasting long / on roasts and wine, until a year grew fat” (504-5). Only after Odysseus is reminded of his homeland does he go to Kirke and plead for their release, to which she agrees. A point to make is that in both cases, with Kalypso and Kirke, Odysseus plays the role of the mortal lover who has little resistance; and in all three cases, the females cause only pain or delay.
As already mentioned, six of Odysseus’s men were taken by Skylla as their ship passed through the channel. The incident seems particularly gruesome as Odysseus recalls it for King Alkinoos:
Then Skylla made her strike,
whisking six of my best men from the ship.
I happened to glance aft at ship and oarsmen
and caught sight of their arms and legs, dangling
?.She ate them as they shrieked there, in her den,
in the dire grapple, reaching still for me- (XII, 294-307)
In another description, Kirke says that she is a horrible monster who hunts “for dolphins, dogfish, or what bigger game” and that “Amphitrite feeds in thousands” (XII, 103-4). What a murderous appetite! Without a doubt Skylla would have whisked six more men away had she the opportunity. Though the action with Skylla is seemingly short, it is significant in that it reflects a quality found in male characters throughout the poem–a gluttonous appetite. Whether it is for material items or food, this is an attribute that many of the men in The Odyssey possess.
Three examples of men who have great hunger for wealth and material items are King Alkinoos, King Menelaos, and Odysseus. All three have impressive palaces filled with beautiful decor. Odysseus describes the palace at Phaiakia in Book VII, lines 85-140 as being breathtaking. The palace has “high rooms” which are “airy and luminous”, and “the posts and lintel / were silver upon silver; [with] golden handles curved on the doors”. Telemachus describes Menelaos’ home in a similar fashion in Book IV. He says “how luminous it is / with bronze, gold, amber, silver, and ivory! / This is the way the court of Zeus must be” (74-7). Odysseus’s desire for material wealth is reflected in his enormous estate, which is large enough 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 sent him home “with gifts untold / of bronze and gold, and fine cloth to his shoulder. / Never from Troy had he borne off such booty” (XIII, 155-7). I suppose it is only fitting that a great warrior and ruler as Odysseus should desire to return home with such a treasure, after all; he and his men paid for it in blood.
Not surprisingly, great feasts and sacrifices accompany the wealth these men have. Although women aren’t seen eating meat in the poem, the men have exorbitant feasts of swine, steer, and wine in nearly every scene. The most obvious and outright example of man’s over indulgence of this kind is found in the suitors, who are slowly devouring Odysseus’s wealth. A typical feast of the suitors in Odysseus’s hall is described in Book XX:
[the men] made a ritual slaughter, knifing sheep,
fat goats and pigs, knifing the grass-fed steer.
?.Melanthios poured wine,
and all their hands went out upon the feast. (255-61)
In saying that it was a ritual slaughter, the fact that the act has happened many times before is reinforced to the reader. Homer also reinforces this idea by introducing and destroying the suitors while in the act of feasting.
A final example of hunger in the poem reflects on the darker side of men. It is seen when Odysseus’s fleet comes upon Ismaros. Here, his men prove themselves not to be a group of poor souls lost at sea, but rather a tyrannical army of pirates in a bloodthirsty rage. Odysseus says, “[we] killed the men who fought. / Plunder we took, and we enslaved the women, / ?.Sheep after sheep they butchered by the surf” (IX, 45-50). The men in this scene kill, plunder, rape, steal, and slaughter innumerable animals, for seemingly no reason! This type of extreme behavior, though rare in the story, can be explained as random violence, or the consequence of man’s insatiable appetite. I agree with the latter.
Homer depicts some characters in The Odyssey as living by lower standards 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 in the preceding paragraph). In each case, the outcome of their behavior is either detrimental to themselves or others around them, leading the reader to believe that Homer himself frowned upon such people.
Looking at Skylla, the reader sees a displaced creature living solitarily, her only purpose is to feed and make others suffer. The monster has no resemblance to a human, except that she has heads and legs, and is therefore exempt from human morality and values. She is a man-eater, a trait found in several people in the poem, and is looked down upon and dreaded by all for it.
Homer paints a similar picture of Polyphemos, the Kyklopes. He describes him as being “remote from all companions, / knowing none but savage ways, a brute / ?.a shaggy mountain reared in solitude” (IX, 197-201). This description impresses upon the reader that Polyphemos is a caveman-a man who is uncivilized and lives by no rules-just like Skylla. Other than having his sheep to watch, Polyphemos has no contact with other mortals. A consequence of his solitude is that he is ignorant as to the proper way to interact with other beings similar to him and is apathetic to the feelings of others. This is illustrated when he disrespectfully makes a quick snack of Odysseus’s crewmembers (300-305). The outcome of his actions, his only eye being punctured, can be seen as punishment for living a barbarous lifestyle, even though he is not to blame.
Homer’s commentary on societal indecency is also found in Book XXII when the suitors meet their demise. As already discussed, the suitors are living freely off of Odysseus’s estate, which is against the family’s will. Even if some of their behavior is appropriate for the time, the extent to which they take it-eating and drinking everything in sight and sleeping with the maids-is inexcusable! Aside from those points, it is also proper to be polite to guests (despite their condition) and try to help them in any way possible. This type of hospitality is seen over and over again in Odysseus’s travels. With Skylla, Polyphemos, and the suitors, the unspoken rule of being hospitable is broken repeatedly, and the price paid each time is death or suffering.
Like most of the other characters in The Odyssey, Skylla is three-dimensional and can be looked at on several levels. On the surface, her role in The Odyssey seems to be only to cause pain and suffering to Odysseus and his men. When examined more closely, she becomes a monster with twelve legs, six heads and three themes. These themes-the threat women pose to a man’s motives, the “hunger” seen in the characters, and the disapproval of incivility–are not pervasive in the story, but can be identified when Skylla is examined in the context of the other characters and their roles. Regardless of her importance in tying these themes together, she is a necessary part of the story because she is one of the many characters-or threads-that Homer used to weave The Odyssey.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans.
Robert Fitzgerald. 1961. Ed. Maynard Mack.
New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1995.
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