After the Trojan War was over [circa 1240 BCE], the majority of the victorious Greek commanders returned to their homes without incident … King Odysseus of Ithaka was not so lucky. After leaving Troy, Odysseus inadvertently incurred the wrath of Poseidon [lord of the sea]. Poseidon’s Cyclops son Polyphemos captured Odysseus and several of his men while they were looking for food and water on an unfamiliar island. Polyphemos was trying to devour the men when Odysseus blinded the one-eyed brute. Poseidon wanted to kill Odysseus but Zeus would not allow it … Poseidon had to be content with tormenting Odysseus and delaying his homecoming.
As Poseidon’s punishment continued, Odysseus and his desperate crew went ashore on the island of Aiaia hoping to find desperately needed supplies … Odysseus sent twenty-three men to explore the island. As the men walked from the beach they could hear sweet singing from Kirke’s home in a forest glen … they were greeted by docile lions and wolves wagging their tails … wild animals that had been drugged by Kirke. The goddess welcomed the sailors into her palace … her beauty and grace charmed the unsuspecting men and they gladly accepted the potions she offered as refreshment. As Kirke’s vile drugs took effect, she tapped each man with her wand and they began to change shape until they were fully transformed into swine. Kirke herded them into pens and fed them pig’s food.
One of the members of the shore party managed to escape before Kirke could transform him into a beast … his name was Eurylochos … he ran back to the ship and urged Odysseus to set sail immediately and not attempt to rescue the other men. He told Odysseus about the evil goddess who would surely turn them all into swine unless they left the island immediately. Unfortunately, his warning took on an air of cowardice and Odysseus almost killed him for showing such weakness. Odysseus was not frightened by Eurylochos’s story but it did make him cautious … he ordered the remainder of the men to wait with the ship while he went alone to investigate.
Along the trail, Odysseus met the god Hermes in the guise of a young man. Hermes told Odysseus that he would help save the men Kirke had bewitched but it would be necessary for Odysseus to act decisively and to carefully follow instructions or he too might be transformed into a beast. Hermes reached down and pulled a plant called ‘moly’ from the ground and said that mere mortals found it difficult to dig-up the plant but he, as a god, could do all things. Hermes explained that when Kirke offered Odysseus one of her dreadful potions he was to secretly put the ‘moly’ in the concoction to render it harmless … to complete the spell, it would be necessary for Kirke to touch Odysseus with her wand … at that moment, Odysseus was to draw his sword and hold the goddess hostage until she released Odysseus’s men from their animal forms.
Odysseus accepted the ‘moly’ from Hermes and went boldly into Kirke’s palace. She welcomed him with false sincerity and offered him one of her vile potions … Odysseus put the ‘moly’ in the goblet and to Kirke’s delight, drank it down. When Kirke thought the drug had taken effect, she tried to strike Odysseus with her wand but Odysseus drew his sword and sprang upon the goddess before she could defend herself. The astonished Kirke surrendered instantly. She released the twenty-two pig-men from their cage and ceremoniously anointed them with another one of her potions. The men were not only restored to their original forms, they were actually taller and more handsome than before they had been enswined.
To show her good faith, Kirke opened her doors to the dispirited sailors and gave them every comfort she could offer. After the entire crew had been rested and nourished, Kirke told Odysseus that his journey would now take him to the House of Hades [lord of the dead]. She said that Odysseus must consult with the soul of the seer Teiresias the Theban to find out how he could finally appease Poseidon and return to his home.
Kirke said that in order to reach the entrance to the Underworld, Odysseus and his crew would have to sail the treacherous waters between the precincts of the man-eating, six-headed Skylla and the ship-devouring whirlpool Charybdis. She warned Odysseus that he could survive the passage but she also warned him not to be too bold and accept whatever fatalities the two supernatural creatures inflicted on his crew.
A tragedy took place before Odysseus and his men could leave Aiaia. The youngest member of the crew was named Elpenor … he was not noted as a valiant or worldly man but he was a survivor of the Trojan War and had thus earned the respect of Odysseus and the other men. After drinking too much wine, Elpenor went to the roof of Kirke’s palace to sleep … when he awoke in a stupor he fell from the roof and broke his neck. Meaning no disrespect, Odysseus failed to give Elpenor a proper burial before leaving the island. When Odysseus was at the entrance to the Underworld, he encountered the ‘shade’ of Elpenor … the spirit of the young man begged Odysseus to return to Aiaia and perform the funeral rites that would allow his soul to be at rest.
Upon returning to Kirke’s island, Odysseus retrieved the body of Elpenor and prepared to resume his homeward journey. After her Naiad handmaidens had given food and comfort to Odysseus’s crew, Kirke warned him that he would face a new danger when he left her island. Kirke told Odysseus that he must avoid the island of Thrinakia, which is sacred to Helios [Sun], or his homecoming would be sadder than he could imagine. Kirke knew that Odysseus’s voyage would be one of hardship and sorrow but she had given him all the comfort and advice her divine prescience could offer. She gave Odysseus a favorable wind and sent him on his way.