The Cicones in the Odyssey mark one of the times the crew’s disobedience nearly cost them everything. As Odysseus and his crew traveled, they needed to gain supplies and respite from life at sea.

Being warriors, they saw no harm in stopping on a small island and sacking it.

Though Odysseus urges his men to move on promptly, their greed and foolishness lead them to tragedy.

What are Cicones in the Odyssey?

As the crew travels, they pass through several lands. In some, they meet trouble; in others, they go ashore looking for supplies and find allies among gods and immortals. In Ciones, they find victims, and their hubris costs them dearly.

The crew has run into these people before. During the Trojan war, the Cicones came to offer support and protection to the Trojans. They are not mentioned again in the Iliad, but they are considered enemies of the greeks, so Odysseus has no problem with sacking their village. Should anyone attack his own home and take Odysseus’ family captive as they do to these island dwellers, they would take vengeance. As it is, Odysseus has no trouble attacking the Cicones. Odyssey includes this particular story to emphasize the dangers of hubris.

Oddly, in the tale of the Odyssey, Cicones’ story was not related as it happens, but rather told by Odysseus to King Alcinous. He is traveling alone, having escaped the clutches of Calypso, a nymph who held him for seven years, wishing him to be her husband. Poseidon has once again sent waves and winds to swamp him, but Odysseus, fortunately, washed up on the shores of the home of the Phaeacians. They are a fierce tribe of seafaring warriors who don’t take kindly to strangers.

Fortunately for Odysseus, though Poseidon is against him, Athena comes to his aid. She goes to princess Nausicaa in guise and convinces her to take her maidens to the shore. There, she finds Odysseus, recently shipwrecked and pleading for help. She gives him clothing and food and instructs him on how he can enter the palace and plead mercy for her mother, the queen, his only hope of surviving on this Odyssey Island.

Received kindly by the king and queen, Odysseus is set to a feast where he is entertained by minstrels singing songs of the Trojan war.

A Tale Fit for a King

Alcinous notes Odysseus’ grief at the songs of the war and asks the traveler of his adventures. Sharp and clever, Alcinous is a strong leader and suspicious of this stranger. His favor will mean Odysseus will have assistance when he goes on his way, but his disdain will likely cost the Hero his life. When pressed for detail of his travels and origins, Odysseus tells several tales of his history and adventures, including the story of the Cicones. The Odyssey ordinarily contains first-hand accounts of his adventures, but this story is told second hand.

He begins by mentioning his famous father, Laertes, and speaks of his own journey, building in Alcinous’ mind the picture of a Hero and Adventurer. As Odysseus came to the Cicones’ Island, the Odyssey is in its early stages. The raid happened before many of the other adventures. The unfortunate shore-dwellers of the island fall victim to Odysseus and his crew.

They slaughter the men and take the women as slaves, dividing the spoils among the crew. Odysseus sees nothing wrong in this behavior and relates it to the king as a perfectly normal and acceptable action of a captain leading a crew. Notably, he makes mention of the division of the spoils as an example of how fairly he tries to treat his crew so that “no man should have reason to complain.”

“There I sacked the city and slew the men; and from the city, we took their wives and great store of treasure, and divided them among us, that so far as to lay in me, no man might go defrauded of an equal share. Then verily, I gave command that we should flee with swift foot, but the others in their great folly did not hearken. But there much wine was drunk, and many sheep they slew by the shore, and sleek kine of shambling gait.”

Unfortunately for Odysseus, his crew is excited by their easy victory and want to enjoy what they’ve gained from the raid. They refuse to sail on as he orders but rather lounge on the beach, butchering some of the animals and feasting on meat and wine. They celebrate late into the night, getting drunk and filling their bellies with the spoils of their victory. Their celebration was short-lived, however. The Cicones who escaped the raid rushed further inland to seek help.

These people who were the Cicones in the Odyssey were not to be trifled with. They had come to the Trojans’ aid during the war and were known to be fierce and capable warriors. They soon routed Odysseus’ men, taking back the slaves and killing six crew members from each of the ships before they could escape.

Odysseus and his crew were forced to sail away empty-handed and suffering a sound defeat. It is only the first of several incidents in which his crew’s folly or disobedience cost Odysseus an opportunity to return home safely. Zeus is set against him nearly from the beginning, and he cannot reach home without the intervention of the other gods. In the end, the Ciconians in the Odyssey are avenged several times over by the struggles and losses Odysseus will face before he is allowed to return home with neither his ships nor his crew.

Coming Home Crewless

Despite his focus on Greek deities, Homer followed many Christian storylines in his telling of the Odyssey. Disobedience (of the crew) is met with death and destruction. It could be argued that the Ciconians in the Odyssey parallel the Original Sin of Biblical storytelling. The crew wins a victory and gains access to resources and riches- much like Adam and Eve being given the Garden of Eden to wander freely.

When directed to seek moderation and leave while still having the spoils of their victory, the crew refuses. They want to stay and enjoy the food and wine and arrogantly ignore Odysseus’ warnings.

Their hubris is like that of Eve, who listens to the Serpent in the garden and takes the forbidden Fruit of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. Disaster follows, and Adam and Eve were driven from the garden, never permitted to return. The remainder of their lives, and the lives of their offspring, will be marked with hard work and trouble. They have lost the favor of God and will pay the price.

Likewise, Odysseus’ crew has ignored his wise guidance and chosen greed over wisdom. They thought they could have it all- the victory and the spoils and that no one could take it from them.

They were badly mistaken and paid for their hubris with a sound defeat. This early failure of obedience will follow and haunt them throughout the entire storyline. Each island they come to, each new contact they make, brings new dangers and new challenges—several times throughout the story, their failure to obey costs them.

The Point of the Story

Odysseus, by the time he reaches Alcinous’ household, is alone. He’s battered and has been chased from one adventure to the next by a vengeful Zeus. He’s desperately in need of the favor of the King. Should Alcinous turn against him, he’ll be executed. If he doesn’t acquire the help he needs, he has no hope of returning to his native Ithaca. All of the Odyssey has led up to this point. He continues to recount the story of the raid and goes on to tell other tales of his adventures.

By recounting his adventures, losses, and failures, Odysseus is painting a picture in the King’s mind. Throughout his speech, Odysseus is careful to balance his storytelling to cast himself in the best light. He cleverly does not berate his crew, emphasizing their courage in most encounters and caring for them. By so doing, he deflects suspicion of what he’s actually doing- building himself up to the King.

He presents his crew as being courageous and strong but understandably flawed and having lapses of judgement. Meanwhile, he himself plays the role of leader, protector, and savior. Without overplaying his role, he tells the stories of how he led them through each of their adventures.

At the island of the Lotus Eaters, he rescued his entranced crew members. When telling the cannibalistic cyclops’ story, he cleverly weaves the tale to show off his ability as a leader and emphasize overcoming the challenge.

A Master Storyteller

Odysseus goes on to relate the continuing tales of his adventures, talking about the witch Circe. His hapless crew was once again taken captive but saved by their brave captain. He does not take full credit, mentioning that Hermes intervened. By remaining humble while casting himself as the Hero of the tale, Odysseus creates a likeable character- himself.

As each tale is told, Odysseus starts to reach his goal, to build sympathy in Alcinous and gain both sympathy and support. By mentioning Ithaca’s distance from the Phaeacians, Odysseus reduces the threat a strong Hero might pose to them. At the same time, he builds himself up as a Hero who might prove to be a valuable ally. Like most of the time, Alcinous enjoys a good tale of heroism and will always seek to align himself with Heroes to strengthen his own kingdom.

Odysseus isn’t just telling a story and explaining himself. He’s building a case to gain the king’s support.

Fruits of Labor

Despite his abuse of the Cicones, for which he was well paid by being driven off and losing his crew, Odysseus manages to paint himself as a tragic hero to Acinous. Beset by vengeful gods and facing many challenges, Odysseus has lost nearly everything, but his ultimate goal has remained unwavering. He’s on the final leg of his journey, and this grand tale has culminated in his finally coming near his goal.

With Alcinous’ help, he can reach home.

He’s laid out the tale, shaped the story of himself as a hero, and invited Acinous to join the tale by helping him on his final journey home. He’s not only offered the king an opportunity to take part in an epic adventure, but he’s also cleverly presented him with a picture of a strong potential ally. The combination proves irresistible, and Acinous provides Odysseus passage back to Ithaca. Finally, the Hero will return home.

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