Books X-XI: Revisiting Odysseus’s Descent into Hades

In recently considering other famous heroes descending into Hades, like Theseus, Herakles, Aeneas, and even Dante, we return to the first great written picture of Hades, as told through the recollections of Odysseus. To recount the story, Homer’s Odyssey begins with an account of Telemachus venturing forth in search of news of his father, Odysseus. It is not until Book V that we are given a glimpse into the circumstances of our hero. He has washed ashore after 18 days at sea, departing from the island of Calypso, arriving at the island of Scheria, home of the Phaeacians. He cleans himself up and reluctantly tells them his wandering tale beginning at Book IX.

It is not until the end of Book X that we are given Odysseus’s reason for descending into Hades. He and his men have been stuck at the home of the witch, Circe, and she explains that the only man who can help guide them home to Ithaca is the famous Theban and blind prophet, Tiresias. He dwells in Hades.

How will Odysseus find Hades? Circe advises him to let the ‘North Wind’ guide him over the stream of ‘Ocean’ until it leads to a shore of Persephone’s groves, tall poplars and willows. Who is Persephone? She is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, taken by Hades to rule the underworld. Because she ate the fruit of Hades she was bound to spend part of the year in Hades (the winter months), thus spawning numerous fertility cults in her honor -the Eleusian Mysteries, the Thesmophoria, and others.

Here, Odysseus must proceed on foot to the river Acheron, which the Pyriphlegethon and the Cocytus (a tributary of the river Styx) flow into at a rock. Odysseus is instructed to dig a hole, make sacrifices and pour libations, then turn his back into the river so the spirits will come forth out of Erebus (the “Darkness”). Odysseus says he is seized by “pale fear.” It is nightfall when they arrive to complete the propitiations.

The first shade he sees is Elpenor, one of his Achaean cohort who had just recently fallen off Circe’s roof after a night of drinking and snapped his neck. He asks Odysseus to properly treat his body by burning it, and to bury him with his oar.

Next, he sees Anticleia, his mother who died before he left for Ilium. He cries and pities for her. Third, he finally sees Tiresias bearing a golden staff. Tiresias asks why he has left the “sun” for such a “joyless” place among the dead. Odysseus sheaths his sword -a defense against the dead so they do not drink the dark blood from the ewe he slew as a sacrifice. Presumably the dead are not mere spirits, but are corporeal, and can be attacked with a sword.

A vase from around 346 BC depicting Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias

Tiresias acknowledges Odysseus’s desire to return home, but foretells of troubles as Poseidon (“Earthshaker”) is angry with Odysseus for blinding his son, Polephemos. He warns against harming the cattle on the island of Thrinacia (“thri-naak-eeya”) -these are the cattle of Helios the Sun. If he or his men harms these cattle, he will lose all his men and may return home, but only after long suffering.

Odysseus is somewhat dismissive of Tiresias -‘all that is as the gods have spun it’ -and he is more concerned with his dead mother who does not recognize him. Only those allowed to come drink of the blood of his sacrifice will speak truly to Odysseus, and then Tiresias vanishes back into Hades. So Odysseus stays to speak with his mother, Anticleia. Penelope has remained faithful to Odysseus, his son Telemachus still owns their lands, but his father tends to his vineyard but sleeps with slaves, having no bed of his own. Three times he tries to embrace her, and three times she drifts out of his arms, like a shadow or a dream. Upon death, the fiery spirit does not hold the sinews of the body together.

Next, he sees a procession of women sent by Persephone: Tyro, woman taken and raped by Poseidon and gave birth to Pelias (the hero-ruler of Iolcos’s grasslands) and Neleus )the hero ruler of sandy Pylos.

Then he sees Antiope, the woman who boasted about sleeping with Zeus and then bore Amphion and Zethus, founders of seven-gated Thebes.

Next Alcmene, Amphityron’s wife who bore Herakles with Zeus. He also sees Megara, wife of Herakles. Then he sees Oedipus’s tragic mother, Epicaste and then Neleus’s wife, Chloris and Tyndareus’s wife, Leda and Iphimedeia, Aloesus’s wife. The Phaedra, Procnis, and Ariadne, whom Theseus brought to Athens from Crete, to his own despair. Next: Maera, Clymene, and hateful Eriphyle. 

Here, Odysseus pauses and says to Arete and the Phaeacians that they should sleep -he could tell stories of everyone he saw in Hades all night. They don’t believe him to be a teller of tall tales, though he speaks like a “bard”, and they desire to know if Odysseus saw other comrades from Ilium in Hades. So Odysseus continues:

First he sees Agamemnon after Persephone scatters the women. Agamemnon tells the tale of betrayal at the hands of Aegisthus and his cursed wife, Clytemnestra. He warns Odysseus against returning home openly, as women cannot be trusted anymore. Odysseus calls his words “empty as the wind.”

Next he sees Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax – Achilles speaks of his lament for being dead, though Odysseus claims he is honored. His tone is as belligerent as he was on earth in the sun. Achilles regrets his choice to die in battle, as detailed in the Iliad. Odysseus reassures Achilles that his son is honored, as well, and the Achilles disappears. Ajax rejects communication with Odysseus in anger over his claiming of Achilles’s armor at Ilium.

Then Odysseus says he saw legendary heroes like Minos, son of Zeus, judging the dead in the wide-gated house of Hades. The Orion driving over the asphodel fields (a Eurasian lily plant). Then Tityos, son of glorious Earth, with two vultures eating his liver. Then Tantalus, standing in a pool of water up to his chin but every time he bent down to drink it vanished and became mud, and every time he reached up for fruit above him (apples, figs, treetop fruits, pears, pomegranates, and luscious olives -all fruits said to grow in the gardens of Scheria by the Phaeacians) the wind blew them away high up into the clouds. Then Sisyphus pushing a monstrous stone with his hands only for it to roll back down again. Then Herakles who dines with the gods -when he moves it looks like “midnight itself.” Herakles laments his time among the living, and his labors (including his own descent into Hades to recover the Hound of Hell, or Cerberus. Then he vanished back into the House of Hades.

Odysseus sticks around a moment longer, hoping to meet Theseus and his best friend Peirithous (they both once ventured into Hades hoping to abduct Persephone). Just then an errie noise arises from among the nations of the dead and Odysseus grew pale with fear again, thinking Persephone might have called the head of the monster, the Gorgon, from the depths of Hades. So Odysseus flees back to his ship and they sail along the river Ocean back into open waters, thus concluding Book XI.

Though the Phaeacians may not believe it, perhaps there are good reasons to suggest Odysseus is indeed a teller of tall tales, a spinner of yarns to get what he wants. The Phaeacians are noted for their hedonistic ways, including staying up all night, drinking, listening to music, and hearing the stories of adventure. They did not participate in the Trojan War. Luckily, Athena protects Odysseus, guiding his entrance into the Palace of Alcinous, and Odysseus throws himself at their mercy. Recall that he first arrives at Scheria naked but does not reveal his identity, they compete in games and here Demodocus, the court’s bard, as he performs a total of three songs: first an account of Odysseus and Achilles fighting in Troy, then a story of love between Ares and Aphrodite, and finally, at Odysseus’s request, the story of the Trojan Horse. Thus, Odysseus breaks down, revealing his story, or at least story, of who he is and how came to arrive at Scheria.

For this reading I used the Stanley Lombardo translation.

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