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The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Second Edition
Richard W. Bulliet, Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, David Northrup
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

A Journey to the Underworld:
The Odyssey
(c. 1200 B.C.E.)

The Odyssey and the Iliad, both epic poems ascribed to a bard called Homer, are among the most significant works of early Greek literature. The ancients had no doubt there was a historical Homer who created both works. Modern scholars are less certain, and most would probably agree that we will never know the truth regarding Homer's identity.

The two epics tell us a good deal about life in the thirteenth century B.C.E. -- the age of the Trojan War. At the same time, the poems also reveal a lot of the values and modes of perception of Late Dark Age society, especially that of the ninth and eighth centuries. The problem facing the historian is to separate one from the other.

The Odyssey tells two intertwined stories. One traces the ten-year-long homeward voyage of the Achaean hero Odysseus.  The second story details the attempts of Odysseus's wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus, who with equal cunning and skill attempt to stall indefinitely the advances of a group of suitors who seek to marry the presumed widow.  The two story lines merge when Odysseus returns and, with the aid of his son and several loyal servants, wreaks vengeance on the suitors by killing them all. Unlike most epics, the story ends happily, with Penelope and Odysseus reunited and Telemachus assured of his inheritance. The following selection describes one of Odysseus's most daring adventures on his troubled homeward journey: a visit to the House of Hades, or the Land of the Dead. Here he consults Teiresias, the blind Theban seer, and also meets the shades of many famous women and men, including his old comrade-in-arms Achilles, the Achaeans' greatest warrior and the central character of the Iliad, who was killed prior to the fall of Troy.

On one level the poem celebrates such warrior virtues as personal honor, bravery, and loyalty to one's comrades, and on a deeper level they probe the hidden recesses of human motivation and emotion. On a third level the poems address the issue of the meaning of human suffering: Why do humans experience pain and sorrow? Are they captive to the whims of the gods? Are they and the gods subject to an overarching destiny that neither can avoid?

Questions to Consider
  • Why does Odysseus travel to the Land of the Dead? What is the biggest obstacle to his return home to Ithaca?

  • What does Odysseus's conversation with Achilles reveal about Greek notions of the afterlife?

  • Would it be accurate to describe the Land of the Dead as hell?

Now the spirit of Teiresias of Thebes came forward, bearing a golden staff in his hand. Knowing who I am, he addressed me: "Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus, known for your many wiles, why, unhappy man, have you left the sunlight to behold the dead in this cheerless region? Step back from the trench and put aside your sharp sword so that I might drink the blood and thereby prophesy the truth to you." Thus he spoke. I, stepping backward, drove my silver-studded sword into its scabbard. When he had drunk the black blood, this noble prophet addressed me with these words.

"Lord Odysseus, you seek a honey-sweet homeward journey, but a god will make your travels difficult. I do not think you can escape the notice of the Earth-shaker, who has set his mind in enmity against you, enraged because you blinded his beloved son. Even so, you still might be able to reach home, although in sorry circumstances, if you are willing to restrain your desires, and those of your comrades, beginning when your seaworthy ship leaves the deep blue waters and approaches the island of Thrinacie, where you will see the grazing cattle and fat sheep of Helios, who sees and hears everything. If you leave the animals untouched and concentrate solely on getting home, it is possible that all of you might reach Ithaca, although in sorry circumstances. If you injure these animals, however, I foresee destruction for your ship and its crew, and even if you yourself manage to escape, you will return home late, in a sorry state, in an alien ship, having lost all your companions. And even there at home you will find troubles. Overbearing men will be consuming your wealth, wooing your goddess-like wife, and offering her bridal gifts. Certainly, following your arrival, you will gain revenge on these suitors for their evil deeds. When you have slain the suitors in your halls, whether by stratagem or in an open fight with sharp bronze weapons, you must again set out on a journey. You must take a well-fashioned oar and travel until you reach a people who are ignorant of the sea and never eat food mixed with salt, and who know nothing about our purple-ribbed ships and the well-fashioned oars that serve as ships wings. And I say you will receive a sign, a very clear one that you cannot miss. When another traveler upon meeting you remarks that you are carrying a winnowing-fan across your broad back, plant your well-fashioned oar in the earth and offer Lord Poseidon the sacrifice of a ram, a bull, and a boar, the mate of the wild she-swine. Then return home and there make sacred offerings to all the immortal gods who inhabit wide heaven, and do so to each in order of rank. As for death, it will come to you at last gently out of the sea in a comfortable old age when you are surrounded by a prosperous people. This I tell you truly...."

Next came the spirits of Achilles, son of Peleus, of Patroclus, of noble Antilochus, and of Aias, who surpassed all the Danaans in beauty of physique and manly bearing, except for the flawless son of Peleus. The spirit of swift-footed Achilles of the house of Aeacus recognized me, and mournfully spoke in winged words: "Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus, known for your many wiles! Rash man, what greater deed than this remains for you to devise in your heart? How did you dare to descend to Hades' realm, where the dead dwell as witless images of worn-out mortals?"

Thus he spoke, and I answered in return. "Achilles, son of Peleus, by far the mightiest of the Achaeans, I came to consult with Teiresias in the hope of his giving me a plan whereby I might reach rocky Ithaca. For I have not yet come near the land of Achaea, nor yet set foot on my own island, but have been constantly beset by misfortunes. How different from your situation, Achilles, you who are more fortunate than any man whoever was or will be. For in the old days, when you were alive, we Argives honored you as though you were a god, and now that you are here, you rule nobly among the dead. Therefore, grieve not, Achilles, that you are dead."

So I spoke, and he immediately answered, saying: "Do not endeavor to speak soothingly to me of death, Lord Odysseus. I would rather live on earth as the hired help of some landless man whose own livelihood was meager, than be lord over all the dead who have perished. Enough of that. Tell me about my son, that lordly young man. Did he follow me to war and play a leading role in it? And tell me about noble Peleus. ... I am not there in the sunlight to aid Peleus with that great strength that was once mine on the broad plains of Troy, where I slew the best of the enemys army in defense of the Argives. If, but for an hour, I could return to my father's house with such strength as I once had, I would give those who do him violence and dishonor him cause to rue my might and my invincible hands."

So he spoke, and I answered: "I have heard nothing about noble Peleus, but I will give you all the news you desire of your dear son, Neoptolemus. It was I who brought him from Scyros in my well-fashioned, hollow ship to join the ranks of the well-armed Achaeans. Whenever we held a council meeting during the siege of Troy, he was always the first to speak, and his words never missed the mark. Godlike Nestor and I alone surpassed him. As often as we fought with bronze weapons on the Trojan plain, he never lagged behind in the ranks or crowd, but would always run far out in front, yielding first place to no one, and he slew many men in mortal combat. I could not name all whom he killed in defense of the Argives. ... Again, when we, the best of the Argives, were about to enter into the horse that Epeus made, and responsibility lay solely with me to either open or keep closed the door of our stout-built ambush, the other Danaan leaders and chieftains were wiping away tears from their eyes and each man's limbs shook beneath him. But never did my eyes see his fair face grow pale, nor did I see him wiping away tears from his cheeks. Rather, he earnestly begged me to allow him to sally forth from the horse, and he kept handling his sword-hilt and his heavy bronze spear in his eagerness to inflict harm on the Trojans. Following our sack of the lofty city of Priam, he boarded his ship with a full share of the spoils and his special prize. And he was unscathed, never cut by a sharp sword or wounded in close combat, as often happens in war, since Ares rages in a confused fashion."

So I spoke, and the spirit of the son of Aeacus departed with long strides across the field of asphodel, rejoicing that his son was preeminent among men.

Source: Homer, "A Journey to the Underworld:The Odyssey," in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The Human Record: Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998): 47-51.

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