Odysseus’ underworld experience is mainly set in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus is informed by the witch Circe in the previous book that he must journey to the Underworld and consult the blind Theban seer Teiresias about his homebound journey. This dramatic episode highlights both the general setting and atmosphere of Homer’s underworld and the Homeric attitude towards death. It is part of Odysseus’ account of his journey told to the Phaeacians, and therefore is narrated from his perspective, in the first person.
A krater depicting Odysseus as he waits to consult Teiresias. There are two sacrificed rams underneath his sword - dead souls must drink blood to speak (c. 380 BC)
Book XI of the Odyssey begins like a necromancy (the summoning of the shades of the dead) before evolving into a katábasis (a heroic journey to the Underworld by a mortal). Odysseus has to sacrifice sheep and offers his prayers and invocations to the communities of the dead in order to awaken Teiresias. This is a rather frightening episode as Odysseus himself describes: ‘From this multitude of the souls, as they fluttered to and fro from the trench, there came an eerie clamour. Panic drained the blood from my cheeks.’ But he stays on guard and waits until the dead souls are able to speak.
The first person that appears to Odysseus is his former comrade Elpenor, who took a fatal fall from a rooftop at Circe’s island, unbeknownst to his crewmates. He begs that they return to the island so he can be given a proper burial, imploring Odysseus, ‘burn my body there with all the arms I possess, and raise a mound for me on the shore of the grey sea.’
A pelike depicting Odysseus’ encounter with his comrade Elpenor (c. 440 BC)
Next, Odysseus encounters his mother, Anticleia. This is an emotional episode and Odysseus is driven to tears at the realisation that she died during his years away from Ithaca. He is keenly aware, however, of the importance of his mission, and so he decides to seek Teiresias before speaking to Anticleia. Teiresias warns Odysseus about the danger of Poseidon’s hostility towards him and advises him to pay close attention to his comrades so that they do not harm the cattle of Helios, the sun god.
Teiresias cautions Odysseus about what will happen if he fails to command his men, with his famous prophecy: ‘I predict that your ship and company will be destroyed, and if you yourself contrive to escape, you will reach home late, in a wretched state, upon a foreign ship, having lost all your comrades.’ Sure enough, Teiresias’ prophecy describes exactly what happens to Odysseus following his crew’s transgressions.
The later episodes of Odysseus’ experience in the underworld relates to the Homeric attitude towards life after death, which is reflected in the conversations between Odysseus and the apparitions. His mother, Anticleia, describes the underworld as a ‘murky realm’ and ‘no easy place for the living keys to find.’ She has a particularly pessimistic view and is really shocked to see her son there. Homer describes Odysseus’ emotion and his love for his mother, which drives him to reach out and attempt to embrace her: ‘Three times, in my eagerness to clasp her to me, I started forward. Three times, like as shadow or a dream, she slipped through my hands and left me pierced by an even sharper pain.’ In the underworld of the Odyssey, the dead can no longer hold their loved ones - they have lost the sinews keeping their bones and flesh together. Homer presents death as a mournful and painful existence.
Another key scene relating to the Homeric portrayal of the underworld and death is the interaction between Achilles and Odysseus. Achilles confronts Odysseus: ‘How did you dare to come below to Hades’ realm, where the dead live on as mindless disembodied ghosts?’ Achilles, arguably the greatest hero of Homeric epic, seems to despise the underworld. Later, he comments, ‘I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.’ The contrast between ‘serf’ and ‘King’ is significant and would speak volumes to the Greeks - death is so negative and unbearable to Achilles that he would even prefer to endure the pain of losing his freedom to a peasant than to exist within the underworld.
Odysseus later encounters Heracles, another famous Greek mythological hero. He similarly sympathises with Odysseus’ experience in the underworld: ‘So you too are working out some such miserable doom as I endured when I lived in the light of the sun.’ From Heracles’ perspective, the journey to the underworld is a terrible misfortune that one has to suffer in order to meet the wishes of the gods. According to these epic heroes, the journey is not a pleasant one.
Throughout the description of the underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey, Homer depicts the land of the dead as gloomy, frightening, dark and generally unpleasant for his heroes to endure. There is nothing rewarding about an existence there. Homer also raises the idea of the limitation of human mortality - once in the realm of Hades, all mortal flesh and bone diminishes to nothing, as evidenced by Odysseus’ unsuccessful attempts to embrace his mother. The darkness of the atmosphere of the underworld stands in direct contrast to the lavish and luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the gods on Mount Olympus.
Translations by E.V. Rieu (1991)