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In Roman Mars's podcast, 99% Invisible, in Episode 79: Symphony of Sirens, Revisited, from 00:23-01:00, Mars recounts the Sirens scene in Homer's The Odyssey:

In Homer's Odyssey, there's a story where Odysseus and his men are traveling near an area where sirens are known to inhabit. And Odysseus knows that if he hears the sirens' song, his ship is going to sink. But he still wants to hear what they sound like, so he comes up with a plan: Odysseus has his men tie him to the mast so that he can't take control of the ship. Then Odysseus has his men fill their own ears with beeswax so they can't hear anything.

The plan works: Odysseus gets to hear the sirens' call, his men don't, and they sail on to safety, with Odysseus pleading with his crew to crash the boat the whole way.

What I'm confused about is that Mars says that

  1. Odysseus wanted to hear what the Sirens sound like.
  2. He told his men to put beeswax in their ears.

But I don't remember ever learning that he actually wanted to hear what the Sirens sound like, nor do I remember any beeswax being involved. Which is the original? Or, are there multiple versions of the Odyssey, all just as valid?

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There is but only one Odyssey, and I've reproduced below the relevant passages using Butler's accessible translation:

(Od. 12.39-54)

'First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men's ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross-piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope's ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

(Od. 12.158-164)

"First she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece half way up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope's ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.'

The essential logic is that Circe said ordered him to be bound if he wanted to hear it. Odysseus relayed these instructions to his men, and therefore he must have wanted to hear the song.

Secondly, the word for wax here is κηρός [kēros], which is bees-wax.

Just in case you had learned a different ancient version that was not the Odyssey, I checked Ps.-Apollodorus' version, and it merely summarizes Homer's version without any variants:

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotecha, E.7.19

Sailing by them, Ulysses [i.e. Odysseus] wished to hear their song, so by Circe's advice he stopped the ears of his comrades with wax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast. And being persuaded by the Sirens to linger, he begged to be released, but they bound him the more, and so he sailed past.

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    Yes, I thought that might have been the case. Plus, if there was beeswax, what's to have stopped the men from doing the same thing Odysseus feared he would have done? I probably did hear it as such, but forgot. Memory is a fickle thing, after all... – user450 Jun 18 '15 at 8:51
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    Indeed, it can be! – C. M. Weimer Jun 18 '15 at 15:29

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