Homer, despite being the author of the hugely influential The Odyssey and The Iliad, remains a bit of a mystery. We know very little about his life, but what we can see is the huge legacy that he has left behind in art, music, philosophy, literature, and more. By examining both of his epic poems, we can begin to understand more about this mythical figure. In the extract below, Barbara Grazosi takes a closer look at Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld.
Of all his many adventures, Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld is his most extreme. He manages to reach the place most distant from home, and from life itself, yet return even from there. His nekyia in book 11, his ‘dialogue with the dead’, is arguably his greatest feat, and one that has been replayed again and again in literary history. Still, Odysseus is not the only ancient hero to have visited the Underworld: Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus also made their descents, and the Babylonian epic hero Gilgamesh learnt about that realm from the descent of his friend Enkidu. Conceiving of death as a journey to a darker realm is, in fact, a common trope in many different mythologies, and the possibility of returning to tell the tale, even from that ‘place of no return’ (as the Babylonians called it), has been explored in many different traditions.
Each visit to the dead offers its own specific insights and atmospheres. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu first visits the Underworld in a dream, and learns that our common fate of death erases secular differences of wealth and power: even those who could once share their banquets of meat with the gods now ‘eat dust’, while their discarded crowns are piled up in a corner of the Underworld. What matters to the dead, Enkidu discovers later on in the poem, is a proper burial and having had many sons in life. Gilgamesh himself crosses the waters of death in order to discover the secret of eternal life from the one man, Utnapishtim, who managed to avoid death altogether—but then falls asleep, and is therefore sent back to his mortal existence. Still, through that expedition he learns the crucial story of the flood from his antediluvian host.
There are also lessons to be learnt from other stories of travel to the world beyond. The myth of Orpheus, for example, offers a clear warning about the urgency of love, and the damage it can do: when Orpheus disobeys the orders of Hades, and turns to look at Eurydice as she follows him out of the Underworld, he consigns her to the murky world of the shades, and loses her. Odysseus’ own expedition seems, as ever, more ambiguous: he learns something specific about his own future, from Tiresias, but as for what we learn, the message seems less clear. The emphasis is squarely on storytelling—its pleasures and advantages, as well as any insights it might offer.
Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the dead while enjoying the hospitality of the Phaeacians, just before securing his passage home. Circe, he recounts, insisted that he needed to consult Tiresias before sailing home, so he and his men embarked on their mission, ‘weighed down by anxiety and shedding many tears’. They arrived at the murky land of the Cimmerians by the banks of the river Oceanus. There they pulled up their ship and walked upstream, until they reached a specific place indicated by Circe, dug a trench, and sacrificed to the dead. Immediately, the shades began to swarm up from the Underworld, eager to taste the blood of the slaughtered animals, and ‘pale fear’ gripped Odysseus.
Still, he managed to keep the shades at bay, and did not let them drink the blood. At that point, the shade of one of his companions stood before him: Elpenor could still recognize Odysseus and talk to him, because he had not yet been properly buried—indeed, he had fallen off Circe’s roof the night before, stone drunk, and broken his neck. Odysseus addressed himwith open curiosity, asking him how he had made it there so fast, faster even than his own swift journey by ship.
As ever, our ‘man of many turns’ does not seem to take death too seriously, and considers it almost an affront that Elpenor could travel to the Underworld faster than him. Elpenor himself, however, plaintively begs to be buried. Odysseus then spots his own mother among the shades, and yet she does not seem to recognize him. Finally, Tiresias appears, and delivers his prophecy. At this point, Odysseus has accomplished his mission and could therefore leave— but he is curious, wants to interrogate the dead. He lets his mother drink the blood of the sacrificial victims, and she suddenly recognizes him, asking how on earth he made it there while still alive. She then reassures him that Penelope is still faithful, and urges him to tell his wife some good stories when he gets home: ‘Go now, make for the light as quickly as you can, but remember | all this, so that some day you will be able to tell it to your wife.’