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.
Odysseus in Hades by Russell Flint
But if this is theater—if Odysseus is not relating something that “really” happened—what are we to make of this tale?
The story of the underworld can be seen as an expression of the hopes, fears, and doubts of a man who has been away from home for a very long time. These feelings are the material around which Odysseus builds his story. The driving themes are laid out when he questions his mother in the underworld:
‘But tell me about yourself and spare me nothing. What form of death overcame you, what laid you low, some long slow illness? Or did Artemis showering arrows come with her painless shafts and bring you down? Tell me of father, tell of the son I left behind: do my royal rights still lie in their safekeeping? Or does some stranger hold the throne by now because men think that I’ll come home no more? Please, tell me about my wife, her turn of mind, her thoughts…still standing fast beside our son, still guarding our great estates, secure as ever now? Or has she wed some other countryman at last, the finest prince among them?’ (Odyssey XI.193-205)
Odysseus attempting to embrace the ghost of his mother in the Underworld, by Jan Styka, 1901
Anyone in Odysseus’ shoes would wonder if their aged parents were still living. The other concerns, also very natural, are reflected not only in these questions, but also in his conversations with the other shades. These concerns can be characterized as follows:
1) The faithfulness of his wife
2) The fortunes of his son
3) The honor of his house.
In the underworld, Odysseus is first confronted with a great crowd of wives and daughters of princes, whom he interviews one by one, reflecting his anxiety for the purity and success of the household. These women represent the theme of womanhood—some are faithful, some treacherous (unfaithfulness to the marriage bed receives much attention).
But Odysseus reassures himself about Penelope’s character using Agamemnon’s voice: “Not that you, Odysseus will be murdered by your wife. She’s much too steady, her feelings run too deep, Icarius’ daughter Penelope, that wise woman.”Yet doubt still remains, as is evident the circumspect way he deals with her upon his homecoming.
Agamemnon also enquires about his son, Orestes. Odysseus must be wondering what kind of man his own son Telemachus has become, and how he is faring. Odysseus’ words about Orestes could just as truly be spoken of his own son: “I know nothing, whether he’s dead or alive.” Achilles also asks after the fortunes of his son. In Odysseus’s response we may see his hopes for Telemachus—that he will take his place among great men, proficient in feats of war and good counsel.
The Shade of Tiresias Appearing to Odysseus during the Sacrifice (Book XI of the Odyssey), by Johann Heinrich Füssli (c. 1780-85)
Achilles brings up another concern likely to resonate with Odysseus: the honor of his father and house without him there to defend them. Odysseus has already asked his mother about such things, and in Achilles’ comments we catch a glimpse of the thoughts of a son who returned to find his father abused and the honor of his house diminished: “Oh to arrive at father’s house—the man I was, for one brief day—I’d make my fury and my hands, invincible hands, a thing of terror to all those men who abuse the king with force and wrest away his honor!”
A good story grows like a tree, upwards, seeking the sun and light. Its heavy branches, though substantial on their own, become stronger and more intriguing as plots and characters entangle. Additionally, deep below the bark and greenery, a parallel network of criss crossing roots holds up the story for all to see. The grander the legend, the larger and more intricate its backstory.
A tale on the scale of The Iliad, therefore, has an astounding myth to proceed it.
To know the roots of Homer’s epic poetry, one must dig very deep into Greek mythology… all the way to the first king of Gods and the ruler of Titans, Cronus. Despite his many attempts to prevent it, Cronus was eventually overthrown by his son, Zeus. In the process, Zeus was warned that one day he too would be replaced, just like his father.
At the same time another prophecy emerged, suggesting that the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph with whom Zeus was enamored, would become greater than his father. Zeus, therefore, ordered that Thetis should be betrothed to an elderly human king, Peleus son of Aiakos.
The judgement of Paris
And so there was a wedding, attended by all the glorious gods and goddesses, except one. Eris, the goddess of Discord was not allowed in, for fear she would cause her usual irreparable damage. Her discordance, however, was not to be limited by a gate. Upon her dismissal, she threw a golden apple into the festivities. On it was inscribed the following: καλλίστῃ, meaning “To the fairest”.
Naturally three gorgeous goddesses claimed ownership. Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all assumed that they were the most beautiful. The other gods and men, however, smartly chose to remove themselves from the decision making process, including Zeus himself. No one wanted to incur the wrath of the other two. Instead the unenviable task was placed on the shoulders of one Trojan prince, a man named Paris. The poor fellow was unable to make a decision and so the goddesses, keen on winning, resorted to offering bribes.
Wisdom and great skill in battle were Athena’s promised rewards.
Hera tried to lure Paris with power and control over all of Asia.
Aphrodite, however, used the best bait of all: The most beautiful woman in the world would be in love with Paris if he nominated the goddess as owner of the golden apple.
Meanwhile, the wedded sea-nymph Thetis and her elderly husband bore a child by the name of Achilles. The young boy was given an intriguing destiny. He had the choice to live a long and uneventful life or to die young in glory and live forever in poetry. Achilles would chose the latter.
Thetis wanted her son Achilles to be immortal and invisible and, depending on the version, used different techniques to make this so. One source claimed that she lifted the child by the foot and immersed him in a river which ran to the underworld. Wherever the water touched him, Achilles was made invulnerable, everywhere except where his mother held him… his infamous heel.
While Achilles was growing into a hero-worthy man, Paris was eagerly awaiting his award for crowning Aphrodite the fairest of them all.
The reader may be wondering, who was the magnificent creature that the goddess of beauty promised to the Trojan prince? It was none other than Helen, whose face would eventually launch a thousand ships. Helen was the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta and a woman named Leda, who had either been raped or seduced by Zeus when he was in the form of a swan.
Helen, in her radiance, had many suitors, and her father could not decide which one was best… plus those who who were not chosen might retaliate against him. Eventually one quick witted man came to his rescue, the famous Odysseus. In exchange for support of his own marriage, he offered the following advice: Require all of Helen’s suitors to promise to defend her marriage, regardless who the father chose. The suitors eventually, and with a certain amount of grumbling, swore the required oath.
Finally a man was decided for Helen: Menelaus. The decision was political, as Menelaus had wealth and power and was Agamemnon’s brother. Unfortunately for all, Menelaus then made a huge mistake. He had promised Aphrodite a grand sacrifice of a 100 oxen if he won Helen, a promise promptly forgot after he received his prize. Thus he incurred Aphrodite’s wrath.
Paris, however, did not forget Aphrodite, nor their agreement. He set sail for Greece under the pretense of a diplomatic mission in order to claim Helen. Before entering the palace, the goddess of beauty held up her end and ordered Eros to shoot Helen with his arrow. The moment she set her gaze on Paris, Helen was in love.
Paris didn’t think this kidnapping was really such a big deal. There were plenty of men before him who had stolen women from foreign lands without repercussion. Jason, for instance, took Medea from Colchis, and Heracles captured the Trojan princess Hesione without any issues.
This time, however, was going to be very different.
According to Homer, it didn’t go straight to war. Menelaus first journeyed to Troy to seek a more peaceful solution. When that didn’t work, Menelaus asked Agamemnon to uphold the oath that the Achaean kings and princes had sworn, to defend Helen’s marriage. Emissaries were sent to them all, to gather them in order to retrieve Helen.
Not all of them came willingly.
Odysseus, for instance, feigned madness in order to avoid the war. He tried to sow his fields with salt as proof, but Agamemnon’s man tricked him into revealing his sanity. He placed Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plough’s path, and the father could not fake delusion any more. He turned aside to save his child.
Achilles discovered by Ulysses – by Bray
Achilles, too did not readily join forces. His mother disguised him as a woman so he would not have to go to battle. When Odysseus, Telamonian Ajax, and Achilles’ tutor Phoenix came to fetch him from the island of Skyros, they could not immediately recognise him. Fortunately, they had a plan. The men pretended to be merchants bearing trinkets and weapons. They were then able to spot Achilles out the second he chose to look at the swords and spears rather than bracelets and beads.
The Achean army was almost ready. All of the suitors sent their forces to the city of Aulis, and one by one the commanders with their ships and men arrived. The last one to show up was Achilles, who was at the time only 15 years old.
An omen then occurred. A snake slithered from a sacrificial altar to a sparrow’s nest nearby. It ate the mother and her nine babies and was then converted into stone. Troy, apparently, would fall in the tenth year of war.
And just like that, with the twisting roots embedded, the bud of the story was ready to break through the soil and bloom.
“If I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me”
-Achilles, From The Iliad
The hero of The Iliad, Achilles is the central character and fiercest warrior in Homer’s epic. He is portrayed as being hot-headed, ferocious, and often filled with grief. Achilles as the mournful warrior is a theme that Homer recounts several times during the course of The Iliad. Combining the nature of a grieving Achilles with his supposed immorality and unrelenting rage on the battlefield makes for a complex and deeply human Greek hero.
Achilles was supposedly the son of the water goddess, Thetis, and the mortal king Peleus. Achilles’ mother is a recurring character in The Iliad and she attempts to aid her son in numerous ways. While Homer makes no reference to Achilles as an immortal; other variants of the stories, written by the Roman poet Statius, describe how Thetis held her infant son by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx to grant him everlasting life.
Achilles and Hector
As a young man Achilles was reared by the centaur Chiron, who was said to be kind, wise, and knowledgeable in the ways of medicine. While a disciple of Chiron, Achilles fed on the innards of lions and wild swines. In The Imagines, a work written by the Greek poet Philostratus of Athens, Chiron is said to have told the young Achilles:
“For although you have been taught by me thus gently the art of horsemanship, and are suited to such a horse as I, some day you shall ride on Xanthus and Balius; and you shall take many cities and slay many men.”
The prophecy would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad.
Xanthus and Balius were the names of the two horses that would drive Achilles’ chariot into battle. This prediction by Achilles’ teacher would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad.
Even those of you who have only recently taken an interest in the classical world will have a pretty decent idea about what to expect when picking up a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, his blockbuster sequel to the Trojan War epic, the Iliad.
This familiar tale of the eponymous Odysseus taking ten long years to traverse the breadth of Greece, from the ruins of Troy to his home on Ithaca (having already spent ten years fighting the war itself), can be roughly divided into four distinct sections:
Books I-IV deal with the adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.
Books V-VIII show Odysseus being released from the clutches of the nymph Calypso, to whom our hero has been a sex-slave for seven years. He then travels to Scheria, home of the noble Phaeacians.
Books IX-XII contain stories told by Odysseus to the Phaeacian king and queen about why it has taken him so long to get home. Here are recounted the most famous stories of Odysseus e.g. Circe turning his men to pigs, the descent into the underworld, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis.
Books XIII-XXIV show Odysseus back on Ithaca going about his heroic business of vanquishing a group of Suitors – uncouth local nobles who have taken up at his court, who are attempting to kill his son and marry his wife, Penelope (and with her take the throne of Ithaca).
So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring? Why does it unquestioningly rank as one of the greatest of all great works and retain a special place in the heart of academics and laymen alike?
Well, there’re plenty of obvious reasons – the very most obvious of which is that it is, of course, a very high quality piece of literature. That aside, there’s also the hugely important historical and cultural significance of the
So what is it about this story, this twenty-four book long epic poem, that captures the imagination? Why, when there is so much choice of literature from the classical world, is it still so popular, so enduring?
piece. Perhaps no other secular (i.e. non-holy) work has had a greater impact on the world than that of Homer.
Not only do the Homeric texts underpin so much of ancient Greek culture, but they, by proxy, have a similar such influence on Roman, European, and (if somewhat obliquely) New World cultures.
On top of this, the Odyssey can boast a great richness of language and would have been rhythmically (i.e. poetically) pleasing – even if this last aspect is somewhat lost on us today.
So, there’s plenty to shout about in terms of style and significance, but what about substance? What details of plot and character have managed to excite and amaze for the better part of three millennia?
Odysseus and the Cyclops
There are, of course, plenty of (what we would now call) dramatic staples, certainly enough to write a pulse-quickening blurb on the back of the dust-jacket: a sea-tossed hero, a family in danger, seductive femme-fatales, constant peril, fights, races, monsters, romance, sex, blood, noble peasants, evil aristocrats, a flawed hero, a long suffering wife, capricious gods… you can almost picture the cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul tripping over himself in a rush to buy the exclusive rights (despite complaining: “but the name’s no darn good. Odysseus!? Let’s call him… Buster MacNally”).
All this is well and good and certainly lends human interest and spectacular grandeur to the work, but one of the most intriguing things about the epic, one of the things that make its analysis and rereading so rewarding, is much more psychological and cerebral. In the words of eminent Homeric scholar P.V. Jones: “the rich interaction of past and present is one of the great glories of the Odyssey”.
Odysseus in the Underworld
Obviously, being a sequel, the Odyssey harks back to the Iliad and the entire mythology (more like a heroic history to the Greeks) surrounding the Trojan War. In particular, Book XI – the Nekyia (the book of the dead) – gives us a chance to indulge in a veritable smorgasbord of Trojan War heroes who spellbind the audience with their ghoulish cameos.
This retrospective, however, may not tickle everyone’s fancy; indeed it may only pique the interest of Iliad lovers or Greek mythology nerds. Moreover, the fact that Homer’s depictions have become canonised means that the revelations from the lips of the deceased, though of interest, do not create the same wide-eyed wonder in a modern audience as they would have done in antiquity.
However, this orgy of nostalgia may only have been part of what Jones was referring to. A much more interesting notion (and here we pick up on the cerebral and psychological aspect) is that books IX-XII are a complete fantasy.
The Plot Twist of The Odyssey
These four books contain the tales told by Odysseus to his regal hosts on the island of Scheria/Phaeacia. However, unlike the other stories in the epic which are told to us by the poet, these tales are directly narrated by Odysseus himself; what is more, all of the characters who shared in these adventures with him (i.e. his crew) have died. Thus, so the theory goes, the Odyssey isn’t merely one of the earliest examples of folklore and epic poetry we have, but may also have given birth to a ‘Kaiser Soze’ style plot-twist.
This idea is given credence as more than merely a literary conspiracy-theory by the nature of the main character, a nature that is defined by the epithets Homer gives him: ‘master of stratagems’, ‘cunning’ and ‘nimble-witted’. Let’s not forget that Odysseus was the man to come up with the idea of the Trojan Horse in the first place; duplicity and lies are part of his make-up… and a noble and heroic part at that.
Odysseus and the Sirens
Okay, so maybe we’re happy to accept that our hero could do this, but why would he? Well, the two popular theories are as follows: the first is that he is doing it to enhance his kleos, the ultimate goal for every Homeric hero. Kleos is often loosely translated as ‘reputation’, but more accurately means ‘what people hear about you’. The key point is that it is not necessary for the things heard to be true, only that they are recounted through the ages. Thus, Odysseus has ten unaccounted-for years to fill up with fantastical stories that glorify his name.
N.B. An interesting, if slightly paradoxical, point is that it would not really matter if it became known that Odysseus had lied about his journey between Tory and Scheria, provided that he had managed to trick people into believing what he’d said was true. Either the actions themselves (i.e. defeating the Cyclops, etc.) or the brilliant lies about them are enough to elevate him to legendary hero status.
The other explanation is that the twenty years of war and storm-tossed seas (and whatever else he got up to if the stories he tells King Alcinous were falsified) have left our protagonist with a psychology that’s either inherently mistrustful, or perversely deranged. In other words, either he’s gotten so used to lying to protect himself that doing so has become an instinct, or maybe even a compulsion, or alternately he is suffering from some sort of trauma – perhaps PTSD – and fantastical deceit is one of its manifestations.
N.B. Obviously there was no such label as PTSD in ancient Greece, but, given Homer’s knowledge of war, we can assume he was either a fighter himself, or was in contact with soldiers. Thus, he would have observed the psychological effects of war, even if they had been dismissed as something more basic e.g. mischief from the gods or cowardice.
Odysseus fights Penelope’s suitors
This idea of compulsive behavior has its best evidence at the end of the epic after Odysseus has been re-established as king of Ithaca and his identity is commonly known. Known to all, that is, except his ancient father, Laertes, who is pining for his lost, possibly dead, son. Instead of revealing his identity and embracing Laertes, Odysseus claims to be called Eperitos, son of Apheidas, from Alybas. He only actually reveals who he is after his elderly father has some sort of panic attack.
If our hero cannot bring himself to be honest with his own frail father and feels the need to instantly concoct a rather pointless and hurtful falsehood, then surely we must question the authority of everything he says that Homer, as narrator, doesn’t corroborate?
Interestingly, if we do dismiss what Odysseus says to the Phaeacians as a pack of lies, then there is nothing overtly supernatural or otherworldly in the epic. Though gods do appear, speak and act in the present (as opposed to the past) passages of the book, their actions are only an extrapolation or interpretation of physically accountable things i.e. giving somebody strength, making someone more beautiful, planting an idea in someone’s head etc.
So did Homer want us to ask questions about the mental capacity or moral fibre of his hero? Well… possibly, possibly not. However, it does seem likely that the rich texture of the work and psychology of the characters is not something that happened by accident, but was devised by an author who was either instinctively in tune with the nuances of human nature, or the world’s first student of psychology!
It is up to us to put our faith in whatever Odysseus we prefer. If we decide to believe in the one who fabricated all of the weirdest and most wondrous tales from perhaps the most famous story ever told, then we can. If we prefer to take him on face value, then our hero is simply extraordinarily strong, courageous and intelligent. Indeed, he is these three things whichever view we take. However, if we take the former, more psychological, view—then a new and intriguing question comes to the fore, one that could barely be answered in all the pages of all the Odysseys that have ever been published: what exactly was Odysseus up to for those ten, lost years?
Conspiracy theories on a postcard to the usual address!
The first mistake many make when discussing the hero Ajax and his role in the Trojan war, is that they fail to realize that there are actually two men named Ajax. We are undoubtedly familiar with Telamonian Ajax, king of Salamis who would throw himself on his sword whilst under the weight of public shame. He is sometimes referred as “Greater Ajax” or “Ajax the Great”. This man was considered one of the largest and most ferocious Greek warrior of The Iliad; the one who would recover the corpse of Achilles after the fall of Troy. And while both Ajaxs eventually meet a tragic end; Ajax the great is often remembered with remorse, even respect. When we consider the fate of Ajax the lesser, the general consensus is… ‘he had it coming to him’.
Ajax, son of Oelius, was the king of Locris and the commander of the Locrian contingent during the Trojan war. He is referred to as “Ajax the lesser” in order to distinguish him from the intimidating Ajax the great. It has often been suggested that the name “Ajax the Lesser” also refers to his deficient moral character, as he is accused of a rather heinous crime according to some writers.
It was said that when Ajax the lesser arrived at Troy, he demonstrated himself as a capable warrior. Along with his men, Ajax killed many Trojan warriors and was considered to be the swiftest of all soldiers, second only to Achilles himself. Ajax was present at the funeral of Patroclus where he is described by the sophist Philostratus as possessing an unwavering sense of alertness. Ajax the lesser would compete in the funeral games of Patroclus, attempting to best Odysseus and Antilochus in a foot race. While the hero was swifter than either man, he had gained the hostility of Athena who made him trip and fall during the race, allowing Odysseus to win first place.
It is during the fall of Troy that Ajax encountersCassandra, the daughter of King Priam, who has taken shelter in the temple of Athena. Cassandra clutches to a statue of Athena, praying desperately for protection. Ajax grabs Cassandra and drags her away from the other captives. In The Taking of Ilios, by Tryphiodorus, it is said that Ajax rapes Cassandra within the temple and thus gains the hatred of the goddess Athena.
Accused of this terrible crime, the Greeks attempt to kill Ajax so as to appease the angry goddess. Claiming his innocence, Ajax takes refuge in a temple of an unknown deity. Fearing more divine hatred if they were to kill a man inside a holy temple, the Greeks allow Ajax to live and leave Troy without him. Despite the numerous sacrifices the Greeks offer, Athena remains furious with the man who defiled her temple and her supplicant in such an unforgivable way.
When the hero does finally leave Troy, he at last becomes vulnerable while traveling at sea. Athena strikes his ship with a thunderbolt, setting it ablaze, and Ajax is forced to abandon his ship as it sinks beneath the Aegean. Now lost at sea, Ajax clings desperately to several protruding rocks as his ship slowly sinks in the distance.Philostratus describes the scene…
“The rocks rising out of the water and the boiling sea about them, and on the rocks a hero glaring fiercely and with a certain proud defiance toward the sea” -Philostratus (Imagines Book 2)
Despite his grim circumstances, Ajax remains defiant of the gods and of his own fate. He boasts that he is unable to die and that even the all mighty gods can do nothing to kill him. Poseidon hears this boastful claim and becomes enraged with the mortal clinging to the rocks. Poseidon approaches Ajax, desperately clinging to life, and strikes the rocks with his mighty trident. Ajax is cast off of the stones and drowns beneath the Aegean, a punishment for his defiance and his disrespect.
“Ajax gazes out over the sea like a man emerging from a drunken sleep, seeing neither ship nor land; nor does he even fear the approaching Poseidon, but he looks like a man still tense for the struggle; the strength has not yet left his arms, and his neck still stands erect even as when he opposed Hector and the Trojans. As for Poseidon, hurling his trident he will dash in pieces the mass of rock along with Ajax himself…” -Philostratus (Imagines Book 2)