Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Just as the adventures described in Books 9-12 of the Odyssey are often the most-remembered episodes due to their fantastic character, so Odysseus’ account of the underworld is one of his most striking. But did it “really” happen? Are we meant to believe that, within the horizon of the poem, Odysseus actually traveled to the underworld—or is he telling another tall tale?
Of all the stories Odysseus tells the Phaeacians, his account of the underworld is the only one to contain an interruption, emphasizing that this is a story being told to an audience. Odysseus pauses to suggest that it may be time to break off story-telling and go to sleep. But King Alcinous urges him to continue: “The night’s still young, I’d say the night is endless. For us in the palace now, it’s hardly time for sleep. Keep telling us your adventures—they are wonderful.” Odysseus is spinning a yarn to please a king from whom he has much to gain, and the King wants more.
Alcinous prompts Odysseus by asking if he saw any heroes in Hades: “But come now, tell me truly: your godlike comrades—did you see any heroes down in the House of Death, any who sailed with you and met their doom at Troy?” His host and benefactor has indicated a subject he would like to hear about, and Odysseus obliges in style, dropping a great many well-known names to help set the stage.