Introduction “Sing to me, Muse”
If it had been practicable, I would have omitted the name “Homer” from the cover of this book. That’s because, as most modern scholars think, the Odyssey was probably composed by a different poet from the poet of the Iliad. He was someone who knew the Iliad very well and copied many lines and passages from it, and while it is conceivable that both masterpieces could have been composed by the same person, the many important differences of vocabulary, grammar, geographical perspective, theology, and moral values make that unlikely. Since “Homer” is the name that I use for the poet of the Iliad (he was almost certainly not named Homer), I will call the Odyssey poet “the Odyssey poet.”
We know almost nothing about the Trojan War, which is the theme or the background of the two poems and seems to have taken place around 1200 BCE. We know even less about the poets. There is no consensus about their dates, but there are good reasons to believe the eminent scholar Martin West, who places the Iliad somewhere between 670 and 640 BCE and the Odyssey between 620 and 600. It is remarkable that two geniuses flourished so close to each other in time, but no more remarkable than Aeschylus and Sophocles, Mozart and Beethoven, or Matisse and Picasso. Like Homer, the Odyssey poet was trained in the ancient tradition of oral poetry, and he used a language that had evolved over centuries, bearing signs of its history in its many archaic features and its mixed dialect. He went from town to town, or from noble house to noble house, to find new audiences and sang his poems to them in partly extemporaneous performance, accompanying himself on the phorminx (a four-stringed lyre), like the blind Demodocus in Book 8:
The herald approached then, leading the honored poet
whom the Muse loved beyond all others, granting him both
good and evil: She stripped him of sight but gave him
the gift of sweet song. The herald, Pontónoüs,
set out for him a large chair, studded with silver,
in the midst of the banquet and leaned it against a tall pillar,
and he hung the beautiful clear-toned lyre on a peg
a little above the singer’s head, and he showed him
how to reach up and take hold of it in his hands.
And he put on a table beside him a basket of food
and a cup of wine to drink when he felt the urge to.
And they helped themselves to the food that was set before them.
And when they had eaten and drunk as much as they wanted,
the Muse moved the poet to sing of the glorious deeds
At some point the Odyssey poet wrote down or dictated his material, and in the course of many years he composed a poem far longer than anything that could be sung in a few hours or days. Sometimes he spliced passages from one place in the poem to another or added passages to an earlier draft, without covering his traces; in addition, many lines were later added by the professional rhapsodes who recited the poem to an avid public. But compared to epics in other traditions, the Odyssey, like the Iliad, has come down to us amazingly intact, over more than two and a half millennia.
“Sing to me, Muse,” the Odyssey poet says in the first words of the poem. That is how he expressed what seems like the miracle of inspiration. Yet he wasn’t merely waiting passively, as if he were taking dictation. He had at his command a large stock of traditional phrases, and even whole prefabricated scenes, which could be inserted into his poem; these allowed him to feel his way forward as he sang and gave him time to anticipate his next moves. It took a great deal of training to become a voice for the god, but beyond what he had learned, there was something new and exciting that happened each time he sang, and he believed that he was a vessel for the divine, a medium through whom a vaster, clearer intelligence was able to speak. So it isn’t surprising that Odysseus says,
in perhaps the earliest blurb on record, that there is no man on earth he admires more than the poet Demodocus (this from a man who was a comrade-in-arms of the great Achilles). The Odyssey poet saw no contradiction between his own masterful autonomy and the impersonality, the transpersonality, of his song, as he shows us in the Phaeacian king’s praise of Demodocus:
“To him beyond any other
the god has given the gift of song, to delight us
in whatever way his spirit moves him to sing.”
The song is god-given, yet what the poet follows is his own spirit. His own spirit is the voice of the god, for as long as he is singing. The greater the poet, the more individual his song, the more distinguished from the run-of-the-mill performer who simply strings together traditional phrases, and thus the more inspired it is. In the same way, Phemius, the Ithacan poet, says,
“I am self-taught; in my mind the god has implanted
songs of all kinds.”
In the Odyssey the audience always responds to “the god-inspired poet” with intense emotion. As Odysseus listens to the tale of his own exploits at Troy, he can barely contain his sobbing. Penelope too, hearing a poet sing of Troy, is so powerfully disturbed that she begs him to stop. But for everyone else who hears them, the poems are an experience of unalloyed delight. The Greek word is terpein, “to have pleasure or joy, to delight in,” and it is the same word that is used in describing life on Olympus, where the gods “spend their long days in pleasure.” The Odyssey poet couldn’t imagine a greater human happiness than being at a dinner party where a gifted poet is performing. “It is a fine thing,” Odysseus says,
“to be listening to a poet
such as this, who is like the immortals in speech.
For I think that there is no more complete fulfillment
than when joy takes over an audience in the great hall,
and the banqueters are sitting next to each other
listening to the poet, and beside them the tables
are loaded with bread and meat, and the steward carries
the drawn wine around and fills their cups to the brim.
This seems to me the most beautiful thing in the world.”
There are two other Greek words that the poet uses to describe the effect of poetry; both come from verbs that mean “to enchant, bewitch, put a spell on.” The Phaeacian king compares Odysseus’s eloquence to a poet’s, and when Odysseus pauses during the long account of his wanderings, “throughout the shadowy palace / all who had listened were silent, seized by enchantment.” The nightmare version of this power to spellbind is the Sirens:
“Anyone who in ignorance hears their alluring
voices is doomed; he never goes home to find
his wife and beloved children rejoicing to see him,
for the Sirens bewitch him with their exquisite music
as they sit in a meadow, surrounded by massive heaps
of dead men’s bones with the flesh still rotting upon them.”
Only a people who were entirely susceptible to the beauty of words would think of projecting poetry’s negative image in such a hair-raising way.
Most of us read the Odyssey because we have to, as a school assignment, or because we think we should. (It is, after all, one of the foundational works of Western literature; Goethe called it and the Iliad “the two most important books in the world.”) What surprises many readers is that it still has the power to enchant. I discovered it as a ten-year-old, after my teacher had us trace Flaxman’s spear-carrying, helmet-and-negligee-clad Athena onto drawing paper. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, she told us, and while “wisdom” meant nothing to me at the time, I was impressed that the goddess had popped straight out of Zeus’s head, in a reversed form of the virgin birth that I had first heard about the Christmas before. The Odyssey wasn’t on our sixth-grade reading list, but I found a children’s version in the library and plunged right in. One-eyed man-eating
ogres, self-navigating ships, ghosts sipping blood at the entrance to the underworld, shipwrecks, nymphs, princesses, witches, disguises, recognitions, and, to top it all off, a wholesale slaughter of bad guys at the end! What could be more exciting?
Reading the Odyssey, we enter a world infused by the imagination, “cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set.” Everything becomes fresh and new; familiar objects light up with an inner radiance, as if we were seeing the sky or smelling the grass for the first time. And we are always carried along by the steady yet constantly varying rhythms of the meter, which serves as a counterpoint to even the most horrific events, so that everything we read is lifted up into the realm of the beautiful.
No detail is too small to escape the poet’s attentive gaze, no dream image too fantastic to be made humanly accessible. The six-headed, razor-toothed, tentacled monster Scylla, for example, might easily have seemed cartoonish in the hands of a lesser poet, but she is presented to us so clearly, and her murderous attack described with such elegant precision, that she bursts into existence, as appalling as we could wish:
“At that very moment Scylla rushed out and snatched
six of my comrades—beautiful, strong young men.
I looked up and saw their arms and legs thrashing above me,
and they shouted to me and called out my name for the last time.
And as a fisherman stands on a jutting rock
and casts the bait with his rod, and the bronze hook sinks
into the water, sheathed in an ox-horn tube,
and he catches a fish and reels it in quickly and flings it,
writhing, onto the shore: just so were my comrades,
writhing, pulled up toward the cliffs, and at the cave entrance
she ate them. They screamed and kept stretching their hands out toward me
in their hideous final agony. That was the most
sickening thing I ever saw on my travels.”
And here is a picture of the Phaeacian princess Nausicäa and her handmaids washing the royal laundry. (It’s a passage that shocked the sniffy
classicists of later ages, who thought that doing laundry was beneath the dignity of a princess.)
They came at last to the banks of a beautiful stream,
where the washing basins were always filled with clear water
welling up through them, to clean the dirtiest clothes.
Here they unyoked the mules from the wagon and sent them
along the stream to graze on the rich, sweet clover,
then lifted the clothes from the wagon and carried them down
into the basins, and each girl began to tread them,
making a game to see who could finish first.
And when they had washed off the dirt and the clothes were spotless,
they spread them neatly along the shore, where the sea
lapped at the land and washed all the pebbles clean.
After a swim, they rubbed themselves with the oil
and had their lunch on the bank of the eddying river
and waited there for the clothing to dry in the sun.
And when they had finished the meal, they took off their head scarves
and played a ball game, tossing the ball and dancing
to the rhythm, while Nausícäa led them in song.
One more example. After ten years of war at Troy and ten years of further hardships, Odysseus is finally given voyage home in one of the magical Phaeacian ships.
And he went aboard, and at once he lay down in silence,
and the crew took their places along the ship by the oarlocks
and untied the mooring cable from the pierced stone.
And as soon as they leaned back and churned up the sea with their oar blades,
a profound sleep fell on his eyelids, sweet and unbroken,
the image of death. As when a team of four stallions
leap forward together, feeling the lash of the whip
and lifting their hooves up high as they race down the track:
just so did the stern of the ship keep leaping and plunging,
and the dark-blue waves surged thunderously in her wake
as she hurried to finish the journey. Not even a falcon,
the fastest of wingèd creatures, could have kept up,
so lightly did she run on and cut through the waves,
bearing a man whose wisdom was like the gods’ wisdom,
who for twenty years had suffered so many hardships
as he passed through the wars of men and the bitter sea.
But now he was sleeping peacefully, free from all troubles.
Like the Scylla passage, these lines contain one of those extended similes that are among the glories of the Iliad. (The Odyssey poet uses them much less often.) The compliment about Odysseus’s wisdom is a formulaic one, like the embroidered phrases that a courtier might address to a king. We aren’t meant to press the phrase too closely but to enter the sense of temporary fulfillment that the poet has kindly given his main character in an “infinite sleep” that ends the first half of the poem. This is a coda that brings us back to the tonic chord, and its combination of speed and deep calm is a marvel.
Longing for Home
Though the architecture of the Odyssey is subtle and elegant, its plot couldn’t be simpler. Here is how Aristotle describes it:
A man has been away from his country for many years; he is harassed by Poseidon and left desolate. Meanwhile his home is in danger—suitors are consuming his property and plotting to kill his son. Finally, battered by the elements, he comes home, reveals his identity to certain people, attacks the suitors and kills them, and comes through safe himself. That is the essence; the rest is episodes.
Folklorists call this type of story “The Return of the Husband” or “The Return of the Rightful King” and find it in many different cultures, from different ages, all over the world.
Odysseus is the hero, and we are on his side not only because the story is structured for that, but because in many ways he is really admirable.
We are told by Penelope that before he left home he was an exemplary king:
“Didn’t they [the suitors] hear from their fathers when they were children
how splendid a king Odysseus was, how he treated
everyone in this country? Never, in word
or in deed, did he act with injustice toward any man.”
This matters for everyone in Ithaca, because the welfare of a whole country depends on the righteousness of its king:
“. . . some virtuous king
who acts with justice and reverence for the gods,
and in his kingdom the soil yields wheat and barley,
and the trees are always heavy with fruit, and the flocks
bear young without fail, and the deep sea abounds with fish,
and the people flourish, because he knows how to lead.”
He has also been a good husband, if we judge by Penelope’s twenty-years-long devotion to him and by his own heartfelt experience of marriage, as expressed to Nausicäa:
“I pray that the gods will grant you your heart’s desire,
a good home and a good husband, and harmony
between the two of you. Nothing is sweeter than that,
when a man and a woman can live together as one,
with one mind and heart.”
But he isn’t a hero in the Iliad’s sense of the word. His main virtues are cunning and self-control, a genius for survival, an uncanny ability to get out of a tight spot through his quick-wittedness. Many of the formulaic adjectives that the poet attaches to his name emphasize these qualities and mean more or less the same thing: polutropos, in the first line of the poem, literally means “many-turning, versatile, wily, ingenious” (I have translated it as “infinitely cunning”); polumētis means “many-counseled,
crafty, shrewd”; and polumēchanos, “many-deviced, resourceful, inventive, never at a loss.” In the Iliad, Odysseus’s gift for stratagems is what distinguishes him from the rest of the warriors. Though the Trojan Horse, his invention, isn’t mentioned in the earlier epic, it appears twice in the Odyssey and is even held up to him by Athena as a source of encouragement. Yet for some of the warriors rooted in the aristocratic code of honor, conquering Troy by subterfuge and not by valor would have been shameful, just as using a bow and not engaging the enemy with sword or spear was considered unmanly. The archers in the Iliad are mainly Trojans: Pandarus, who with a bowshot breaks the truce that would have honorably ended the Trojan War, and Paris, who is hated by all his people and considered by the Achaeans a weakling and a perfumed sissy. In the Odyssey, though, Odysseus is portrayed as a master bowman, probably because the poet has adapted a preexisting folktale in which the test of the bow is crucial.
There are a few other discordant notes in the poet’s portrayal of Odysseus as a great warrior and king. The Cyclops episode, the most famous example of his survival by the use of cunning, also shows his weaknesses as a leader; he takes a foolish risk in exploring the monster’s cave, and when he finally escapes he insists upon shouting out his real name, an imprudence that leads to Poseidon’s anger and many years of misery and delay. Later, after he is given the bag of winds by Aeolus, he falls asleep just as his ship is arriving home, with chaotic results. In the land of the Laestrygonians he moors outside the harbor but lets the rest of his fleet moor inside it, a decision that results in the destruction of eleven ships. He lets Eurylochus override his command to sail past the isle of Thrinacia, where the crew kill the sun god’s cattle and doom themselves to destruction. All these disasters happen because of his poor judgment. Or are the lapses inevitable in the world that Odysseus inhabits? You might say that this isn’t a question of character at all; it is a question of fate, and fate is the story that the poet had to tell. Odysseus loses all his men because he has to lose all his men in order to arrive in Ithaca alone on a foreign ship, as the ancient story required.
In the Iliad, Odysseus is a respected warrior, but people remember him more for his power of persuasion, a politician’s skill, not the eloquence of a man of honor. Achilles answers a long speech of his by saying,
“I am going to speak plain words and tell you exactly
what I am thinking and what I am going to do,
so that you won’t sit here cooing and trying to coax me
into agreement. I hate like the gates of Hades
the man who says one thing and hides another inside him.”
But in the Odyssey we aren’t meant to react to Odysseus’s cunning with this kind of heroic disdain and revulsion. We are meant to feel delight, and we do. We are seduced by his charm. He is a world-class liar, and the bravura of his invention is difficult to resist. Yes, he is lying for the sake of his own survival, but also because it gives him pleasure; he is lying spontaneously, heartfully, exuberantly, spinning out all the outrageous, how-can-you-doubt-me details under the inspiration of the muse of deceit, like another tactical and irresistibly charming liar, Huckleberry Finn. Odysseus’s most discerning listener, the goddess Athena, responds to him with the appreciation of a connoisseur. Wisdom, for her, means practical intelligence, and it is deeply amoral. (Later in the poem, she commands Odysseus to kill all the suitors, whether they have shown themselves to be lawless or decent men.) She couldn’t be more pleased with his blatant lies to her. She recognizes herself in a mortal who is “so superbly crooked”:
“Cunning, subtle, and tricky beyond all bounds
would a man have to be who hoped to outwit you; even
a god couldn’t do it. Swindler, daredevil, cheat,
king of the liars, remorseless in your deceptions—
even in your own country you are unwilling
to drop the tricks and tales that you love from the bottom
of your treacherous heart. But no more of this for now.
We are both clever enough—you are the greatest
of mortals in judgment and eloquence, and among gods
I am renowned for my subtlety and my wisdom.”
If we didn’t know it was Athena speaking here, we might think it was Hermes, the ultimate trickster, the seductive, devil-may-care god of liars and thieves. (In fact Odysseus has inherited the trickster gene from
his maternal grandfather, Autolycus, “who was the most accomplished liar and thief / in all the world, for he had been given these talents / by Hermes himself.”) Penelope, by the way, is just as tricky. With her subterfuge of the web and her alternately stern and coy attitude toward the suitors, she too survives as a faithful wife because of her cunning. She actually proves more cunning than Odysseus himself in one of the last scenes in the poem, in which she uses the secret of their marriage bed to confirm his true identity.
It has even occurred to some readers that the whole long account of Odysseus’s adventures during the ten years after Troy may be a lie. Most of us read the story naively, like ten-year-olds, enjoying the venture into the world of folklore, which is so unlike the relatively realistic main tale of the Odyssey. But from the Cretan stories that Odysseus tells after his return to Ithaca, we know what a convincing liar he can be. What if the entire content of Books 9 through 12 is an elaborate, spur-of-the moment “stretcher,” as Huck Finn would have said—Lotus-eaters, Cyclops, Aeolia, Laestrygonians, Circe, underworld, Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the whole marvelous tale? After all, the only corroboration we have from the narrator of the poem is that Poseidon hates Odysseus for blinding the eye of his son Polyphemus. Might this one incident be true and the rest merely “outrageous lies [that] seem like the truth”? Perhaps the character Odysseus is one of the great poets of the world, nestled like a matryoshka doll inside the tale told by one of the great poets of the world. Indeed the poem does have a “tendency to incorporate itself, to reflect itself as in a mirror . . . especially at banquets when the bards sing,” as Italo Calvino has written. Calvino even imagines that the song of the Sirens “is nothing more or less than the Odyssey. . . . Who better than the Sirens could endow their own song with this function of magic looking glass?” Since the Sirens exist only within Odysseus’s story, this would be yet a third level of Russian dolls, a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting a mirror.
But however true or untrue his tales, beneath all Odysseus’s duplicity and cunning there is a desperate homesickness. This theme of going home is one reason the story of the Odyssey has such a universal appeal. “I know no place that is sweeter than my own country,” Odysseus says, and that is a feeling we can all recognize. He is “constantly yearning for home while Zeus and the other / immortals kept me away and steeped me
in sorrow,” and the thought of returning dominates his days and nights—with a couple of exceptions. Rather than sailing straight back from Troy, he stops to practice a bit of piracy on the Cicones. Later he spends a year feasting and making love with Circe, who, being a “cunning witch,” may have bound him with some kind of spell; in any case, he has to be reminded by his crew that it’s time to leave. (Both these diversions may originate in previously existing stories that the poet has adapted for his epic.) But throughout the rest of the poem, in spite of a flickering interest in exploration, he feels burdened by his wandering, and he keeps a one-pointed focus on returning home, not only to his wife, family, and estate but also to his proper place in the world as king of Ithaca.
Odysseus has been gone for almost half his life, and at the beginning of the poem, after ten years of the Trojan War, three years of misadventures in the dream- and nightmare-world of the voyage home, and seven years as captive on the island of the nymph Calypso, he is at a dead end. Calypso (her name comes from kalyptō, the Greek word meaning “to hide”) is in love with him and wants to make him her husband:
ceaselessly, with her soft, insidious words,
she tries to entice him and make him forget his homeland,
Ithaca; but Odysseus, heartsick to glimpse
even a wisp of smoke from his own chimneys,
longs to die.
Can homesickness be expressed more poignantly than this? Odysseus yearns for the bare minimum: not his house, not his wife or father or son, but a single wisp of smoke from his own chimneys. He could die in peace if he saw it, he thinks, because he would be in his beloved country at last.
When we first meet him, he is on the seashore of Calypso’s island,
sitting and watching the sea, as he often did,
racking his heart with groans and with bitter weeping.
He is depressed to the point of desperation, a helpless prisoner, though his prison is an earthly paradise. Our poet describes it, in loving detail, as a place so beautiful that even a visiting god has to gaze in wonder.
Not only is Odysseus surrounded by a dream-lush landscape and given all the physical comforts that a human being could hope for—superb meals, vintage wine, and the hot baths that were so dear to ancient Greek heroes—but he is also passionately loved by a beautiful goddess. Calypso is not shy about her good looks:
“it would be unimaginable for a mere
woman to come even close to a goddess in beauty.”
The gods of the Odyssey emit a radiance too intense for ordinary mortals; that’s why they usually disguise themselves as humans when they visit their favorites. But Calypso doesn’t hide herself by taking a human form, and Odysseus is allowed to enjoy the full force of her beauty every day and every night.
Not only is he offered this life of ease, luxury, and lust; Calypso even promises him eternal life. She wants to keep him as her husband forever, and she has thought it out carefully, unlike the goddess Dawn, who asked Zeus to make her Trojan lover Tithonus immortal but forgot to ask for eternal youth as well, so that after a hundred years he withered into a squeaking mummy. Odysseus, on the contrary, will remain “unaging and deathless,” she says.
But he has refused her offer. He longs for his home and his wife more than he cares about immortality. This is not a case of nostalgia, which is a longing for a past that can never be and perhaps never has been, and therefore necessarily ends in disappointment. He is longing not for a past but for a future, in a place that is beloved beyond all others on earth or in heaven. Penelope was twenty when he sailed for Troy; she is forty now, and whether or not she has kept her physical beauty is beside the point. She may be “only a woman,” but she is the one he loves. Odysseus’s refusal of immortality is “surely the greatest and most moving tribute that any marriage has ever received in literature.” It is like Adam’s refusal in Paradise Lost: when Eve offers him the fruit, Adam bites into it, fully aware of the consequences, because he loves her so deeply that he can’t bear to remain in Eden without her.
There are other reasons that Odysseus is less than thrilled at Calypso’s offer. For one thing, he no longer finds her sexually appealing. Sitting
across the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table from her every day of every year, he has grown used to her beauty, then indifferent to it, and it has been a long time since the novelty of making love with a goddess has worn off. Now he is just going through the motions:
No longer did the nymph please him.
At night, it is true, he slept with her in her cave,
but there was no choice; she was passionate, and he had to.
He can satisfy Calypso’s desires, but the whole thing has become a chore and only deepens his depression:
. . . by day he would sit on the rocky beach and look out
over the restless sea and shed bitter tears.
Then, at last, after seven years, Calypso is ordered by Zeus to let her prisoner go. She is not happy about it, but she acquiesces, first with petulance, then with a truly admirable grace. After dinner she warns Odysseus of the almost insuperable hardships of his voyage home, and he answers,
“And if some god does
wreck me during the voyage, I will endure it.
My heart knows how to endure great hardships. Before now
I have suffered many, both on the sea and in war,
and if I must suffer another hardship, so be it.”
Our poet continues:
As they were speaking, the sun set and darkness came on.
And they moved farther into the cave, and they made love
with great pleasure, and then they slept in each other’s arms.
Suddenly he is no longer a prisoner. He is on his way home. The veils of powerlessness and resentment have been lifted from his heart. He is
grateful, and she is beautiful. This meeting of mortality and immortality is one of the most poignant moments in the poem.
However grief-laden it may be, memory is Odysseus’s lifeline, his connection to a life that he aches to retrieve. The poet who sings the past doesn’t need to remember it, since it is the Muse, daughter of Mnemosyne, who sings through him; he is able to tell the story of Troy as if he had been there himself. But Odysseus must keep remembering. Long after his visit to the land of the Lotus-eaters, he must be careful not to become one of them. These Lotus-eaters, he says,
“who had no intention of harming my comrades but gave them
the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus to eat. And those
who ate of the fruit lost all desire to come back;
the only thing that they wanted now was to stay
with the Lotus-eaters and feed on the fruit and never
go home again. So I had to drag these men back,
and they wept as I forced them to go.”
There is something to be said for mindless, bovine contentedness; it isn’t for nothing that the cow is worshiped in India. Odysseus’s men have to be dragged back into the pain of awareness, and we can easily understand why they weep. Yet ultimately there is no way out but through.
Odysseus is someone who can’t afford even temporary forgetting. For him, memory is the umbilical cord, the signpost to the future, the breadcrumbs scattered along the ground of the dreadful forest. Throughout the poem he must struggle against the seductions of oblivion. If he were to forget the past by listening too well to the Sirens or staying on Ogygia or Scheria, he would forget himself. He would lose everything dear to him, and however well the Phaeacians might treat him, he would still be a suppliant in a country somewhere at the edge of the world, alone, totally dependent on his host, and, for all he knows, stuck there forever in yet another version of paradise. He would delete the possibility of his return, the possibility of the Odyssey itself, and in its place his exploits at Troy would be followed by the looming question mark that has haunted the mind of Penelope for twenty years. His loss would be our loss as well.
Among the Shadowy Dead
Of all the detours taken by Odysseus on his long voyage home, none goes farther off the map than his voyage to the underworld. This descent, which was imitated in the Aeneid and from there formed the basis for Dante’s Inferno, is a mini-epic in itself, a tragedy placed within a comedy, brilliant and separable. Its ostensible purpose is to have Odysseus seek a prophecy from the blind Theban sage Tiresias, but it would have been easy for the poet to put the instructions into the mouth of Circe, who later tells Odysseus how to navigate through the many dangers of his return. The episode, in all its splendid superfluousness, must have been as compelling to the poet who created it as it was to the spellbound audience listening to Odysseus at the Phaeacian court, and as it is to us.
When Odysseus hears that he has to make this journey, he bursts into tears. The whole thing seems impossible and pointless. But, as in life, what seems to be a detour turns out to be the journey itself. The way down is the way up; the roundabout route is the only direct one, though you didn’t realize that at the time. Odysseus may groan at the prospect, but unless he first descends to the realm of the dead, he won’t be able to return to his own life. “Other men die just once,” Circe tells him later, praising his boldness, “but you will meet death two times.” Without this twice-born quality, who is to say that he would be able to survive the obstacles that lie ahead of him?
He and his crew sail to the shore of Hades “weeping and sick with dread,” beach their ship, and take out a black ram and ewe for sacrifice. (Odysseus is the narrator here and throughout Book 11.)
“Perimédes and Eurýlochus held the victims,
while, drawing my sword from my thigh-sheath, I dug a pit
a foot or so square. Around it I poured a libation
to all the dead, with a mixture of milk and honey,
and then with wine, and finally with clear water,
and I sprinkled white barley meal over it, and with earnest
prayers to the shadowy dead, I vowed that as soon
as I came home to Ithaca I would slaughter for them
my best yearling cow, and that I would heap the pyre
with rich gifts and for Tirésias I would offer
an all-black ram, the handsomest one in my flocks.
And when I had finished my prayers and invocations
to the countless dead, I took the two sheep and cut
their throats and let the dark blood drain into the pit.
Immediately the ghosts came swarming around me
up out of Érebus—brides and unmarried youths,
old men worn out by suffering, tender young girls
with grief still fresh in their hearts, and a host of spirits
whose flesh had been mangled by bronze-tipped spears, men killed
in the crush of battle, still wearing their bloodstained armor.
From all directions they crowded around the pit
with unearthly shrieks that made me turn pale with terror.”
These ghosts aren’t vague unearthly creatures, though; from the outside they still retain their human identity as the tender young girls or the mangled warriors they had been when they died. They swarm around the pit of blood because they are desperate to regain their minds for a moment. Without drinking, they cannot think, cannot talk or make contact; they have to keep flitting “back and forth / aimlessly, mere shadows of what they were.”
Odysseus first speaks with his foolish young shipmate Elpenor, who got drunk the night before their departure from Circe’s island, climbed onto the roof, and fell off in the morning, breaking his neck. Next he receives his prophecy from Tiresias, and only then does he allow his mother’s ghost to sip the blood and tell him news about Ithaca. When she finishes, three times he reaches out to embrace her, and three times, poignantly, “she slip[s] through [his] arms like a shadow, a dream.” This encounter is followed by a hair-raising conversation with the bitter ghost of King Agamemnon, who tells Odysseus how his cousin Aegisthus murdered him at his homecoming, cutting him down “as a man fells an ox at its manger.”
Then comes the most deeply moving dialogue of all, with Achilles, the greatest hero of the Trojan War. After answering Achilles’ question about what he is doing in the land of the dead, Odysseus, the great tactician, the charmer of men and ghosts, says,
“ ‘But you, Achilles—
no man on earth has ever been more blessed than you are,
nor ever will be. Before, when you were alive,
we honored you equally with the immortal gods,
and down here, you are a great prince among the dead.
Therefore you shouldn’t be sad about dying, Achilles.’ ”
Here is Achilles’ famous answer:
“And he said, ‘Don’t try to smooth-talk me into accepting
death, Odysseus. I would much rather be
above ground as the most destitute serf, hired out
to some tenant farmer with hardly enough to live on,
than to be king over all the shadowy dead.’ ”
It is hard to overstate the force of this statement, especially for a reader who knows the Achilles of the Iliad. In that poem his whole life was about glory; he chose a short life with glory over a long, peaceful life without it. But now, he says, he would give anything to be alive again, even as a man without fame, honor, or the bare necessities—even as the lowest of the low. He can imagine nothing worse than being what he is now: one of the shadowy dead.
The dead don’t seem to feel that way in the Iliad, where we hear from the ghost of Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus when he returns to him in a dream:
“Bury me quickly,
so I can pass through the gates of Hades. The spirits—
the phantoms of those who have died—are keeping me out;
they won’t allow me to cross the river and join them.”
This implies that the dead, once they cross the river Styx, have some kind of rest and fellowship. The Hades of the Odyssey, on the other hand, is more like the underworld in Gilgamesh, a dismal place where the stultified dead spend eternity eating dirt and squatting hopelessly in the darkness.
Achilles’ rebuke of Odysseus, in its pride and despair, resonates throughout the Odyssey. Yet rather than spreading a gloom over the rest of the poem, it is a constant background reminder. We are moved, as the poet describes them, by the simplest of things human life has to offer: a bath, a meal, a courteous welcome to a stranger, a conversation by the fire. There is a radiance that surrounds our brief human actions, a beauty that makes even the life of a beggar or a slave, from Achilles’ perspective, seem like a privilege. These simple things are the givens longed for by him and the other ghosts,
those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed . . .
The conversation goes on for a while longer, and once he hears the news about his son’s brave exploits during the war, Achilles too laughs, after a fashion:
“When I had finished, the ghost of Achilles departed
with long strides across the meadows of asphodel,
exulting in what I had said about his son’s glory.”
But we know that this emotion will last only for a short while and that after the effect of the blood wears off, he will lapse back into an existence that is unworthy even of his contempt, in a world “where the dead live on as phantoms—bodiless, mindless.”
After a final encounter with the silent and unforgiving ghost of his
comrade-in-arms Ajax, Odysseus is swarmed by shrieking multitudes of the dead and hurries off to his ship. Once he and his crew embark,
“the current carried us down the vast stream of Ocean.
We rowed at first, but before long we had a fine breeze.”
With this simplest of details, a fine breeze, the poet brings Odysseus back to the land of the living and on his way.
A Deep-Founded Sheltering
“Revenge is a kind of wild justice,” Francis Bacon wrote. The whole shape of the story points toward a bloody solution. In spite of the sputtering finale of Book 24, our sense at the end of the poem is of wrongs redressed, confusion moving back into order, and the rightful master of the house returning to claim what is his. The story itself isn’t entirely finished, just as at the end of the Iliad the destruction of Troy looms in the near future, never happening, forever about to happen. Odysseus has to leave once more, soon after the end of the poem, on the mysterious journey prophesied by Tiresias, with an oar on his shoulder, and travel until he reaches
a country where people have never heard of the sea
and eat their food without salt and are unacquainted
with sailing ships and don’t even know what an oar is.
Once he has gone off and sacrificed to appease the anger of Poseidon, he can come home and rule his country, manage his farm, and delight in his wife and family. Unlike Dante’s damnably adventurous Ulisse, he has no desire to continue his wandering. He is happy to regain his everyday life, and he will end it old and full of days:
“and later, an easy death
will come to me from the sea. It will take me gently
in my ripe old age, with my people dwelling around me
in peace and prosperity.”
The direction of the story keeps bringing Odysseus back to Penelope, whom he has never stopped loving. That is why the ancient Alexandrian scholars Aristophanes and Aristarchus thought that the telos of the Odyssey—its goal, endpoint, fulfillment, or, as some modern scholars think, its actual end—is the wonderful scene in Book 23 in which Penelope finally recognizes Odysseus and throws her arms around him as passionately and gratefully as a shipwrecked sailor steps onto dry land. And even though it is satisfying to have some of the loose ends of the story resolved in Odysseus’s meeting with his father, Laertes, and the squaring of the vicious circle of retribution, we may find ourselves, as we finish the book, returning to the scene of the great re-union, when Odysseus and Penelope lie in each other’s arms in the prolonged night that Athena has arranged for them, “two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.”