When Odysseus leaves Troy, he leaves with 12 ships full of companions. These companions were to return to Ithaka with Odysseus. However, before Odysseus made his homecoming, he spent 10 years at sea. It was during this time that Odysseus began losing men. With every adventure Odysseus has on his journey home, he loses at least one companion. While in some situations, it may appear that Odysseus causes the deaths of his companions, Odysseus himself feels otherwise. In books 9-12 of Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus tells Alkinoös, king of Phiakia, his story of the misadventures he endured. It is during this retelling that Odysseus mentions what happened to his companions. According to Odysseus, while the gods are the cause of the suffering he and his companions endure, the companions are ultimately to blame for their own deaths.
In Odysseus’ eyes, his companions are the only ones to blame for their deaths, but he feels that he and his men would never be in the deadly situations if it were not for the gods. Odysseus feels that the main cause of the suffering leading to the deaths of the companions comes from the gods. After Odysseus leaves Troy, he makes several stops. One of these stops is on the island of the Cyclopes, where Odysseus meets Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Odysseus and his men are trapped inside Polyphemus’ cave until Odysseus blinds him with the help of his companions and escapes using Polyphemus’ sheep to conceal themselves. Although there was a prophecy that Polyphemus would be blinded, he prays to Poseidon for revenge, asking him to “grant that Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, / who makes his home in Ithaka, may never reach that home; / but if it is decided that he shall see his own people,/ and come home to his strong-founded house and to his own country,/ let him come in late, in the bad case, with the loss of all his companions,” (Homer. The Odyssey. IX. 530-534). Although Poseidon is outraged by Odysseus’ actions, he cannot prevent him from making his homecoming, as it is fate that Odysseus will return to Ithaka. However, Poseidon can postpone it and curses Odysseus to spend ten years at sea. It is during this time that Polyphemus’ prayers come true, as Odysseus loses all of his companions.
While Poseidon’s curse is the main cause of the suffering endured by Odysseus and his companions, Zeus, the king of the gods, also causes suffering for the men. Before leaving Circe’s island, Circe warns Odysseus about going to the island of Thrinakia and if he chooses to go, to avoid eating the cattle there, telling him that, “if you do harm them, then I testify to your destruction/ of your ship and your companions, but if you yourself get clear, you will come home in a bad case with the loss of all your companions” (XII. 139-141). Upon arriving in Thrinakia, Odysseus and his men are subjected to torment by a powerful storm created by Zeus, preventing them from leaving the island. The companions eventually run out of food and cannot hunt birds or fish due to the weather, so they eat the cattle against Odysseus’ wishes. The following day, the storm stops, allowing Odysseus and his companions to leave, however, as Odysseus later tells Alkinoös, “Zeus with thunder and lightning together crashed on our vessel” (XII. 415). Zeus destroys Odysseus’ ship and causes further suffering for Odysseus and his companions as all the men are thrown off the ship by the powerful force and killed. The only survivor is Odysseus, who is the only one who does not eat the cattle. The act of eating Helios’ cattle was not only an instance of the gods causing suffering for Odysseus and his men but also one where the companions themselves were responsible for their passing.
While Odysseus feels that the gods are causing him and his men to suffer, he never blames them for the death of his companions. Instead, he continues to blame the companions themselves. After leaving the land of the Cyclopes, Odysseus, and his men arrive at the Aiolian Island, where Aiolos, king of the winds, gives Odysseus a bag of winds to ensure their homecoming. However, Odysseus does not tell his companions about the bag, and when he falls asleep on the ship, his companions open the bag, and “the winds all burst out. Suddenly the storm caught them away and swept them over the water/ weeping, away from their own country” (X. 46-49). The companions believed that Odysseus was hiding gifts from them and opened the bag without his knowledge, resulting in the setback. Due to the waste of the gift, Aiolos refuses to help Odysseus and his men, and they are forced to find their way back to Ithaka on their own, bringing about an encounter with the Laistrygones, where all of the ships are destroyed except for the one Odysseus was on, resulting in a huge loss of men. The companions brought about their own death by going against Odysseus and his wishes.
While Odysseus knows that both Poseidon and Zeus cause the suffering that he and his companions face while they try to return to Ithaka, he fully blames the companions themselves for their tragic ends. While in Thrinakia, Odysseus’ men do not listen to him and eat the cattle, resulting in Zeus destroying their ship, leading to the deaths of all the companions. Those companions were the few that had survived the attack from the Laistrygones, where the men did not trust Odysseus and made a decision that would throw them off course and ultimately cause their demise. According to Odysseus, had his companions listened to him, not only would they have survived, but they would have avoided angering the gods, who would go on to cause the suffering that made the companions make the decisions that caused their own deaths.
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