The Odyssey, Book XI

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The Underworld

Odysseus and his men boarded their ship with the sacrificial sheep and goats Circe had provided and having sailed to the River of Ocean, as instructed, Odysseus went ashore. He dug a trench, made the necessary offerings and then cut the throats of the sheep so that their blood poured into the trench. The ghosts of the dead appeared.

First was Elpenor who had been left unburied. At his request Odysseus promised to return to Aeaea and bury him. Next he saw his mother, Anticleia, whom he did not know was dead, but he was not allowed to speak to her until he had spoken to Teiresias. He gave Odysseus instructions on how to safely reach Ithaca: it would not be easy as he had upset Poseidon when he blinded his son, Polyphemus the Cyclops; on the island of Thrinacie they must not touch the flocks of the Sun God or they would all be killed. When he reached home he would find suitors wanting to marry Penelope and he must take revenge on them by killing them; he must then leave home again and, when he met a stranger describing the oar he is carrying as a ‘winnowing fan’ he must make a sacrifice to Poseidon; he could then return home; he would die peacefully in old age.

Map of the Underworld - Greek Mythology Link
A map of Odysseus’ journey in the Underworld.

His mother then drank the sacrificial blood and was surprised to see Odysseus there as he was not dead; he explained why he was there and asked how she had died and how his wife and son and kingdom were. She told him they were well although his father lived on his farm in poverty grieving for Odysseus and her longing for Odysseus’ return had led to her death. Three times he tried to embrace her but was unable to as she was now an insubstantial ghost.

Other noble women then thronged round them and Odysseus questioned them: Tyro, who had been seduced by Poseidon and gave birth to Pelias and Nereus; Antiope, whose sons by Zeus, Amphion and Zethus, founded Thebes; Alcmene, mother of Heracles, and Megare, his wife; Oedipus’ mother, Epicaste, also known as Jocasta, who hung herself after discovering she had married her son; Chloris, wife of Neleus, mother of Pero, whose suitors had to drive away the cattle of Iphicus from Phylace; Leda, mother of Castor and Polydeuces, also known as Pollux, who are alive and dead on alternate days; Iphimedeia, mother of the Giants, Otus and Ephialtes, who planned to wage war on the gods on Olympus but were killed by Apollo before they could do so; and many others.

Murder of Agamemnon, painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1817.

Odysseus was tired but was persuaded by Alcinous to continue with his account: Persephone drove away the women’s ghosts and Agamemnon approached Odysseus who asked him how he had died. Agamemnon told him how Aegisthus and Clytemnaestra had plotted his death and killed him and his companions together with Cassandra on their return home; Odysseus would have the satisfaction of returning to a loyal wife and a son who had reached manhood whereas he never saw Orestes, his son, on his return; Agamemnon advised Odysseus to return home secretly and asked whether he knew if Orestes was still alive but Odysseus did not know.

Next Odysseus met Achilles who asked the reason why Odysseus was there; Odysseus told him and described Achilles as the most fortunate of men because he was greatly honoured both when alive and dead, to which Achilles replied he would rather be alive working as a poor peasant than be king of the dead; Odysseus told Achilles how bravely his son, Neoptolemus, had fought at Troy, how he had hidden in the wooden horse with him and had survived the destruction of Troy; Ajax stood at a distance, still angry that Odysseus had beaten him in the contest for Achilles’ armour; Odysseus tried to placate Ajax saying his death was a great loss to the Greek army and Zeus was to blame for it but Ajax walked away without saying a word.

Ajax carries off the body of Achilles, Attic black-figure lekythos from Sicily, c. 510 BC. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.

Next Odysseus saw Minos administering judgement on the dead and witnessed the eternal punishment of Tityus having his liver plucked by two vultures in punishment for assaulting Leto, of Tantalus standing in a pool of water and destined never to be allowed to eat or drink, of Sisyphus pushing a huge rock to the top of a hill which then endlessly rolled down again.

He also saw the ghost of Heracles, frightening with his bow and arrow, wearing a belt depicting conflicts; Heracles sympathised with Odysseus for his sufferings; Heracles also had suffered on earth when forced to perform his twelve labours; he also had come down to the Underworld alive to capture Cerberus.

Heracles presenting a three-headed Cerberus to a frightened Eurystheus hiding in a giant pot. Caeretan hydria, c. 530 BC. Louvre.

When many other men gathered round him, Odysseus, fearing he might meet a terrible monster, returned to his ship and set sail.

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