For those of us who take the Odyssey literally, as a story full of wondrous adventures and traveller’s tales, Odysseus’ visit to the kingdom of the dead is yet another example of Odysseus’ heroism, not in the face of mighty storms or seductresses with evil intent or a race of one-eyed giants but this time in the face of death itself.
For those of us who prefer to read the Odyssey as a psychological drama about the journey of life and learning and psychological development as a person, there is a great deal that is of interest and much that is applicable to our lives today.
In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus journeys to the farthest Western edge of the earth, to the kingdom of the dead, in order to consult the blind prophet Tiresias about how he might return home. The land of the dead is a dark and gloomy place and there is no one and nothing there until Odysseus has made preparations, performed libations, sacrificed animals and promised to reward the dead for providing him with certain information. Then the ghosts come. Not just one, or ten or twenty but whole nations of the dead, brides, youths, old men, and wounded soldiers, flocking toward Odysseus, eager to drink the sacrificial blood so that they can converse with him. Odysseus is gripped by terror.
This is interesting in itself – since, for the Greeks of Homer’s time, there are critical features that distinguish the living from the dead – firstly, a corporeal form, secondly, living flowing blood, and thirdly, the ability to speak. In order to control this throng of ghosts, Odysseus must crouch beside the sacrificial pit, with his sword drawn, in order to prevent ghosts from drinking the sacrifice which allows them to speak with their human voice and to once again recognise the living.
The first shade to approach Odysseus is one of his companions named Elpenor. In a sense, Elpenor is in limbo. He is not ‘truly’ dead, since he has not received proper burial rites, and he is clearly suffering, because he makes Odysseus promise to bury him when Odysseus again passes Circe’s island. Elpenor is a reminder to Odysseus that he has responsibilities and things to properly attend to before he can return home. Odysseus promises to remember to give Elpenor a proper burial.
Then Odysseus sees an extraordinary sight. It is the ghost of his own mother, Antikleia, who was alive and well when he left Ithaca, but is now residing here, among the dead.
“I broke into tears to see her here, but filled with pity,
even throbbing with grief, I would not let her ghost
approach the blood till I had questioned Tiresias himself”.
Initially, I was irritated by this scene. Surely Odysseus should prioritise speaking to the ghost of his own mother over and above Tiresias, especially when he is so shocked to see her in the kingdom of the dead! But it occurred to me that if Odysseus has learnt anything in his journey up to this point, it is that he must not be diverted from his aim, no matter how tantalising, or alluring, or upsetting that diversion may be. At this point in the narrative, Odysseus has spent many years in ‘diversions’, with Calypso and Circe in particular, and he has come tantalisingly close to home only to be swept out to sea again, so he cannot afford to let any emotion, especially grief, cloud his judgement. The rational mind triumphs – Odysseus holds it together, and before he speaks to his own mother, he obtains the necessary advice from Tiresias. Tiresias foretells that Odysseus will return home but it will not be the easy, sweet or glorious homecoming that he expects or wants. And even after returning home and dealing with the suitors, Odysseus will have to propitiate the gods, and not just one or two of them but all of the gods, in order. Then Tiresias prophesies how Odysseus himself will die:
“And at last your death will steal upon you…a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with all your people there in blessed peace around you.”
This is a privileged insight indeed, for who among the living knows the time, place, or manner of his own death?
Having obtained this advice and knowledge, Odysseus allows his mother, Antikleia, to drink the sacrificial blood and she immediately recognises her son:
“Oh my son – what brings you down to the world of death and darkness? You are still alive!”
If ever there was a moment of great pathos in literature, this is it. Antikleia cannot believe that Odysseus has not yet made it home. What is he doing there, a living man in the land of the dead? Odysseus explains that he has come to consult Tiresias, but he is equally perplexed, and asks Antikleia about her death and about the state of things at home. There is a logical order to his questions, first about Antikleia’s death, then the wellbeing of his father and his son, and then the loyalty of his wife. One can read these questions as having a descending or ascending order of importance but, either way, Odysseus’ concern is clearly his status at home and whether he still has a place there.
Antikleia’s responses are similarly logical, but presented in reverse order. She describes Penelope’s faithfulness first, then Telemachus’ maturity and status, his father’s old age and grief, and her own death which was caused by a deep and painful longing for Odysseus. Antikleia’s responses work their way into Odysseus’ heart by degrees. In effect, she says, ‘your wife misses you terribly, your son is now a man and still guards your property, your father is aged and dying from grief, and I myself died from grief’. Odysseus’ concerns about his status at home are assuaged, but what will Odysseus do to repair the grief and longing he has caused?
At this point, all of Odysseus’ hard-earned heroic status and pride falls away. Odysseus is stripped bare to the core – as a child standing before his mother – there is no room for pretence, for emotional restraint or hesitation. With a child-like compulsion, and the most natural of instincts, Odysseus tries to physically embrace his mother not once but three times before he must accept the fact that she is now a ghost that has no physical form. With typically Odyssean suspicion, he accuses Persephone (the queen of the dead) of devising another trick to add to his burden of grief. Antikleia explains: it is no trick, this is just the way things are with the dead. The dead have no form and their spirits flutter away from the body after the body is burnt.
Antikleia’s parting words to Odysseus are magnificent because they re-orient Odysseus back to his aim and urge him on:
“But struggle to the light, quickly. Remember all these things so one day you can tell them to your wife”.
There is also a beautiful selflessness in Antikleia’s words, as she urges Odysseus to go, urgently, and get on with his life, and she shows empathy for Penelope in the injunction to Odysseus to get back to the land of the living and to share what he has learned with his wife.
Surely, this episode is a major turning-point in Odysseus’ emotional and psychological development. To ‘die’ to the foolishness of one’s past, to become aware of the reality of one’s inevitable death, and to reorient oneself toward the present and to the light and to living every day with one’s precious loved ones in the fullest and realest of embraces, seems to me to be at least one of the psychological lessons of this wonderful epic poem.
*Quotes are from the translation of the Odyssey by Robert Fagles, 1996. The last one is adapted slightly to better capture the sense of the original Greek text.
*Image: Sunset on Ithaca.