Odysseus in Hades
Few characters in literature have ever ventured into the underworld and returned back to earth. Odysseus’ trip to the underworld offers the reader an insight into Ancient Greek society and religion. The advice and requests made by the people he encounters show us how the people of the time viewed the afterlife Circe directed Odysseus to the kingdom of the dead in book 11 after he had spent a full year in her kingdom. Upon arriving to the underworld, Odysseus makes a blood sacrifice to the gods by ordering his men to flay sheep and then say prayers to the gods.
Odysseus then draws his sword and sat alert protecting the blood. The first man that he converses with is Elpenor. Elpenor was a member of Odysseus’ crew that had died in the kingdom of Circe after falling from her roof. When Odysseus first sees Elpenor in Hades, he cries and asks him how he arrived there and if there is anything he can do to avenge his death. Elpenor says that the only thing he asks is that Odysseus return to the house of Circe and burn his body in full armor, perform the rites on his body and place the oar that he rowed with his comrades on the tomb.
This section of Odysseus’ trip to the underworld reveals to the reader the funeral rituals that the ancient Greeks performed and their beliefs on how one’s body should be treated after death. The next person Odysseus speaks with in the kingdom of the dead is the Theban prophet, Tiresias. Tiresias is the man that Odysseus came to Hades to speak to. Circe tells Odysseus that he must first speak to Tiresias before he can go home. The first prophecy that Tiresias makes is that Odysseus will have his journey made difficult by the god that shakes the earth because he blinded his son, the Cyclops.
The god that shakes the earth, Poseidon, is the god of the sea in ancient Greek mythology. When Odysseus was in the land of the Cyclops, he blinded Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. At first Odysseus told Polyphemus that his name was nobody, but after successfully escaping the Cyclops’ cave, Odysseus’ hubris overcame him and he told the Cyclops his real name. This proved to be a terrible mistake when Polyphemus begs his father Poseidon to revenge his blindness. The next prediction that the prophet makes is that Odysseus and his men must ot harm the cattle of the sun or their ship will be destroyed and his men will be destroyed as well.
This foreshadows Odysseus’ trip to the island of Helios, the god of the sun. In this adventure, Odysseus and his men arrive at the island and at first are able to curb the urge to feast upon the forbidden cattle. After many days, however Odysseus awakes to the smell of burning fat. Once he realizes what his men have done, Odysseus rushes his men to the ships and they try to escape, unsuccessfully. Zeus raises a storm and one by one, the ships are destroyed and the men with them.
Tiresias then tells Odysseus that upon arriving home, he will have to face the suitors that have been trying to court his wife, Penelope, for years now. He tells Odysseus that he will pay the suitors back in blood. After killing the suitors and claiming Penelope, Odysseus must then go back and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a wild boar to Poseidon in hope of forgiveness. The last thing that Odysseus discusses with the prophet is how to speak with his mother. After Tiresias tells Odysseus that in order to make his mother know him for the man he is, Odysseus waited for his mother to approach him and drink the dark blood.
When Odysseus left Ithaca, his mother was still alive and well, but after years and years without Odysseus’ return, his mother died of unspeakable grief. Odysseus asks his mother many questions about life in Achaea. He asks if his wife is still noble or if she has gone with one of the suitors and about his father’s well being. His mother responded that Penelope’s life has been full of hardships but she still waits for his return, and that his son Telemachus has been able to keep his estate in peace. She also tells him that his father, Laertes still looks over his farm, never goes into town and sleeps with the servants in the winter.
He too waits for his son’s return in grief with old age taking its toll on him. After his mother tells him of the grief that drove her to Hades, Odysseus rushes toward his mother longing for her embrace, but three times she fluttered through his fingers. She then tells him that he is the unluckiest man alive and that mortals cannot embrace in the underworld. Odysseus then meets Achilles, the fearless warrior. Odysseus greets Achilles by telling him of his journey to Hades and then praising him as the most blest man in the world.
Odysseus tells him that there was a time when the Argives honored him as a god, and it seems that he is lording over the underworld. Achilles then says to Odysseus, “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god I’d rather slave on earth for another man- some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to stay alive- than rule down here over the breathless dead. ” In telling Odysseus how he feels on ruling the underworld, Achilles attempts to change Odysseus’ feeling on dying in battle. The ancient Greeks believed that dying at war was one of the most glorified ways of perishing.
This can be seen when Odysseus tells Achilles of his son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus boasts about how great of a warrior he has become, and how he has killed countless men in bloody combat. In conclusion, Odysseus’ journey into the underworld identifies the ethics and morals of the ancient Greeks. Discussions in Hades with various characters that Odysseus knew while they were alive played a part in changing his feelings on a glorified death. Though each of these characters experiences was different, they all spoke of a hopeless and miserable afterlife.