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The Odyssey: Visiting Hades

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

In one of his adventures, Odysseus dallies a whole year with witch Circe, who turned his men into pigs. Eventually, however, he indicates to his hostess that it's time for him to be on his way, whereupon she advises him to make a detour to the house of Hades so that he can consult the seer Teiresias about his future. "How do I get there?" Odysseus asks. "It's easy-peasy," Circe replies. "You just hoist your sail, and the north wind will carry you all the way." Accordingly, Odysseus summoned his men and prepared to set sail. It so happened, however, that one of his companions, a man called Elpenor, got drunk the previous night and fell asleep on the roof of Circe's palace. When he heard the summons, he got up, forgot that he was up on the roof, and fell to his death. O seems to have been completely indifferent to his fate. He gives his men the unwelcome news that they're going to have to make a detour to Hades before heading home, whereupon they all burst into tears. Then, without more ado, they sail off.

A few words about the Greek belief in the afterlife. There was no heaven and hell. Everybody suffered the same fate, good and bad alike – unless you had done something truly egregious like Tantalus, for instance, who killed his son Pelops and served him up in a stew to the gods. His fate was to be tantalised, to be perpetually tormented by standing in a pool of water so that whenever he leant forward to drink, the water receded. Odysseus will encounter Tantalus in Hades along with other egregious sinners like him, such as Sisyphus, who has forever to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill, only to see it perpetually roll down again, time after time. But most of us don't have to worry much about what happens to us once we're dead because we all suffer the same fate. Not that it's much fun being dead. Hades is a place of darkness. It's also dank and windy. The dead are a feeble lot. They have no substance, no strength. There's not much they can do. They think about their lives and the choices they've made. They don't have access to what is going on up on earth because the two worlds don't communicate, so they don't get any news, except on very rare occasions, like now, when they have a visitor.

In order to communicate with Teiresias, Odysseus sacrifices to the dead. The dead like blood. It restores their powers. But the first person who appears to Odysseus isn't Teiresias, it's Elpenor, whom Odysseus inexplicably left unburied when he departed from Circe's island. As everyone knows, you can't enter the house of Hades unless you get buried, instead you'll be confined to the banks of the River Styx, unable to cross the river that circles the realm of the dead. There's nothing to write home about in Hades but not getting to Hades if you happen to be dead is, well, a fate worse than death. Odysseus agrees to do so, and the next person or rather spirit that appears to him is his mother, whom he drives away because he wants to talk to Teiresias. After taking a swig of blood, Teiresias gives his prophecy. Well, it isn't exactly a prophecy because it's preceded by the word "if." "If you keep your wits about you… then you may return home." Teiresias also tells Odysseus that if he makes it back home and kills all the suitors, he must go on a long journey – another long journey – to a place far inland carrying an oar and when he encounters someone who has never seen an oar before, he must plant the oar in the ground and sacrifice to Poseidon and the other Olympian gods. "Death will come to you from the sea, a peaceful death, when you're very old." It's a strange prophecy. It presumably means that Odysseus will be drowned, and if you're drowned, you won't be buried, so the place where he sets up his oar will be his cenotaph.

Now, finally, he allows his mother, Anticleia, to drink the blood. This is a very poignant moment because Anticleia has died of a broken heart pining for her son. "It was my longing for you, for your quick-wittedness and your gentleness, that took the life from out of me." Odysseus tries to embrace his mother three times but fails each time. So Anticleia gives him a science lesson. All that's left to the dead is their spirit, the Greek word is psyche, which leaves the body at the moment of death.

Other dead pass before Odysseus' gaze, and then he sees Agamemnon, with whom he has the longest encounter. Agamemnon describes how he was murdered by Clytemnestra when he returned home. "Never trust a woman," is Agamemnon's life lesson – and the lesson that he passes on to Odysseus.

Then Achilles turns up, the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought at Troy. This, too, is a very poignant encounter. As Homer's audience knows, Achilles had a choice of destinies. He could either live a long life and perish without leaving a reputation behind him, or he could live a short life and be remembered forever. He chose the latter destiny. "You must be greatly honoured among the dead," Odysseus remarks. "Don't try to console me for being dead," Achilles replies. "I'd give anything to be alive again. I'd rather be a man who works for another than be lord of all the dead." What a very Greek sentiment, I always think. Death is nothingness. Life is everything. The tragedy is that Achilles only makes this realisation when it's too late. Incidentally, it's revealing that when he's reaching for the worst condition in life, he doesn't say I'd rather be a slave than a dead person. Being a slave wasn't as bad as working for someone else because at least a slave had some security.

After Achilles, Odysseus meets the ghost of Ajax. Ajax was his great rival of the armour of Achilles after Achilles had died. It was decided that his armour should go to the greatest of the warriors, a competition was held, and Agamemnon and Menelaus chose Odysseus over Ajax. Ajax went temporarily berserk and slaughtered some cattle in the belief that he was slaughtering the Greek chiefs. When he recovered his wits, he took his own life. Ajax turns his back on Odysseus and walks off. Can you imagine anything worse than feeling eternal rancour?

Odysseus meets a number of other dead, but eventually, he's had enough. Green fear took hold of him, Homer reports, lest Persephone, the queen of Hades, might send the head of the Gorgon to terrify him and turn him into stone.

Book 11 is an interlude. It doesn't really contribute to the narrative in any way. Yet it's one of the most memorable books of the Odyssey, not least for the light that it sheds upon the Greek view of the afterlife. In the next lesson, I'm going to talk about Odysseus' relationship with those who occupy the upper air, namely the gods.

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Written by

Robert Garland