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One can find many similarities between the stories of the two goddesses, Calypso and Circe. Both hold great power, much more than the mere mortal, Odysseus, but both seem to fall under the spell of his courage and charm. Such attachment and admiration of a mortal is an odd thing to come find when examining Greek gods, and the two goddesses’ stories may have more alike than their agreed infatuation with Odysseus.
Both Calypso and Circe are described as attractive and specifically, both are referred to numerously as “the nymph with lovely braids”, but there are many more descriptions about the two that overlap. These similarities are noticed as early as the entrance to their homes. Homer describes both settings in great detail, focusing on the animals that are present. At the entrance of Calypso’s cave there are birds, “owls and hawks and the spread-beaked ravens of the sea, black skimmers who make their living off of the waves” (5.70). When Odysseus’s men approached Circe’s palace they were greeted by animals, “Mountain wolves and lions were roaming round the grounds-she’d bewitched them herself, she gave them magic drugs” (10.230). Woods surrounded both of the goddesses’ lairs, giving off a feeling that one would struggle to find a way out.
Homer’s introductions of Calypso and Circe are almost identical, both are singing and playing their loom. Hermes first sees Calypso, “lifting her breathtaking voice as she glided back and forth before her loom, her golden shuttle weaving” (5.70) and when Odysseus’s men see Circe she is, “lifting her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth at her great immortal loom, her enchanting web of a shimmering glory only goddesses can weave” (10.240). Everything said about the two goddesses thus far has a strong feeling of enchantment. The visitors of Calypso and Circe can sense elements of evil that lie within the goddesses, but the surrounding beauty that captivates them overshadows this notion.
Hermes comes to aid Odysseus in both books. When he visit’s Calypso, he tells her it is Zeus’s command that she release Odysseus and let him return home to Ithaca. When Hermes is on the island on Aeaea, he gives Odysseus a drug so that he will not fall under Circe’s spell. Without the necessary help of Hermes in both situations, Odysseus would have possibly never continued on his journey home, forever possessed by the goddesses. There is another factor that plays a part in Odysseus’s release from the nymphs, which occurs in both stories. That factor is a formal oath Odysseus makes with both Calypso and Circe, that promises freedom.
Odysseus does not believe Calypso when she tells him she will help him sail home. He thinks she is sending him out to die at sea. Odysseus says to Calypso, “I won’t set foot on a raft until you show good faith, until you consent to swear, goddess, a binding oath you’ll never plot some new intrigue to harm me!” (5.200). Calypso agrees and then fulfills her word by giving Odysseus all he needs for his journey. Odysseus demands a very similar oath when Circe tries to lure him into her bed, “Not until you consent to swear, goddess, a binding oath you’ll never plot some new intrigue to harm me!” (10.380). Because of his mortality, it is curious that the goddesses are so quick to give their word and agree with Odysseus. It would be very easy for Calypso to send Odysseus off her island without enough supplies to get him home. She was very bitter about him leaving her, and despite her anger, she obliged Odysseus. Circe could coerce any man on the island to sleep with her in the blink of an eye but was determined instead to persuade Odysseus. Both goddesses obey Odysseus as if he is a god himself, displaying vulnerability that they shield from so many.
Although the two nymphs’ stories follow similar paths, there are a few key differences worth noting. Odysseus stays on Calypso’s island for seven years and Circe’s only one. Odysseus cries in both stories, but for two opposite reasons. On Calypso’s island, he wishes to be home and reunited with his family. All day he sits and pines over his wife and son, wondering if they are still awaiting his return. When Hermes finds Odysseus he is not in Calypso’s cave, “Off he sat on a headland, weeping there as always, wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears”(5.90). He wishes with all his heart that Calypso would let him go home, she does not please him anymore and he is tortured by his captivity.
When Odysseus weeps in Circe’s palace, it is for a very different reason. He is overjoyed to be reunited with his crew and safe from harm, “Once we had recognized each other, gazing face-to-face, we all broke down and wept- and the house resounded now and Circe the lustrous one came toward me, pleading, ‘Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of action, no more tears now, calm these tides of sorrow” (10.500). Throughout his stay at Circe’s palace he never mentions his family and does not reminisce on Ithaca. It is not Odysseus’s choice to leave Aeaea, he approaches Circe for permission to leave at the strong persuasion of his crew.
There are many significant differences in both the goddesses’ stories, but these stand out above the rest. Perhaps by the time Odysseus had reached Circe’s palace, he had been so beaten down from all the trials he and his crew had faced, he forgot about his family and Ithaca. The trip to the House of the Dead could have snapped Odysseus back into reality and prompted past memories that he had lost. If this were the case, he then could have carried these memories with him to Calypso’s island, where all he could think about was his journey home.

15 Responses to “The Nymph with Lovely Braids”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Bridget,

    I think you do a pretty good job of comparing and contrasting the two scenes. Your points about the animals and about the wording of the oaths are particularly good; I hadn’t noticed the similarities in terms of the oaths. The point about weaving is good, too; it seems that all women of high station weave in the Odyssey. Or is there an exception that we have been overlooking?

    To add to your points: both live on islands and both have met Hermes before (5.100 and 10.366). One difference, as we mentioned in class, is that Circe has maids (10.386), whereas Calypso lives alone, as far as we know. This seems to either speak to the extreme isolation of Ogygia–Hermes says it is not within sight of any human city (5.113), whereas Aeaea is not that far from all sorts of things, like the Sirens–or to the superiority of Calypso. Or is there is a third alternative, as above, that we are overlooking?

    I think you are right to point out that Odysseus does not want to leave Aeaea and admits that he feels compelled by his crew. However, as Kathryn pointed out in class, he seems to once have been happy with Calypso, too (5.17)–though she “no longer” pleases, the implication is that she once did. So is the fact that he is miserable on Ogygia a function of the time he has spent there? Or is it that he has lost his crew and his lost ship by that point (and all of his plunder)? Is it just the last straw?

    Overall, I like what you did in terms of your analysis. I would have liked to hear a bit more about why the differences matter, though. Why are there two such women? Are each of the goddesses flawed versions of Penelope, so to speak? Are they versions of Penelope in which one aspect or another has been excessively refined? Or what? As some of the other papers suggest, there are perhaps flawed versions of Odysseus (or at any rate humanity) among some of the other “monsters” in the Odyssean phantasmagoria. So what are the women supposed to represent?

    KH

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