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In Book Eleven of the Odyssey, Odysseus goes down to the underworld to see the Theban prophet Tiresias so that he may finally go home to Ithaca.  Once there, Odysseus meets many people, each of whom are important for different reasons.   However, it is key to consider the very first thing that happens once the sacrifices have been made, “ brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much and girls with tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow and great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears,men of war still wrapped in bloody armor—thousands swarming around the trench from every side—unearthly cries—blanching terror gripped me” (11.43-48).

All of the groups that Odysseus mentions in this first scene are parties that would have been affected by the Trojan War, in fact many of the characters that are mentioned in the Odyssey up to this point could be described by any one of these categories.  Notice that Odysseus mentions a trench. While he does have to let the milk and honey, blood of the sacrifices and barley mixture flow into a trench  made by his sword, this seems to be an allusion to the trench that was dug around the wall that the Greeks put up to protect their ships from the Trojans, and it too was swarmed by thousands from every side.  Odysseus also mentions that “blanching terror gripped” him,  this is also an allusion to the fear that he and the other Greeks felt in the Trojan War.  This allusion continues with “I ordered the men at once to flay the sheep that lay before us, killed by my ruthless blade,and burn them both, and then say prayers to the gods…” (11.49-51). The sheep that Odysseus mentions are the many innocents killed by the Greeks, some of whom were commanded by Odysseus, in Troy. The burning of these sheep symbolize burial rights given to the dead on both sides, while the prayers to the gods allude to the many times that either side prayed for favor from the gods during the war.

After this initial flood of people, Odysseus encounters his comrade Elpenor, who has died without the knowledge of his captain and mates. After being asked how he died, Elpenor tells his story, the last half of which details his wish to be buried in a proper manner and not be forgotten. It is very clear that the last half of Elpenor’s story is  a mirror image of how Odysseus feels,

“I beg you by those you left behind,so far from here, your wife, your father who bred and reared you as a boy, and Telemachus, left at home in your halls, your only son. Well I know when you leave this lodging of the dead that you and your ship will put shore again at the island of Aeaea—then and there my lord,remember me, I beg you! Don’t sail off and desert me left behind unwept,unburied,don’t or my curse may draw god’s fury on your head. No, burn me, in full armor, all my harness,heap my mound by the churning gray surf—a man whose luck ran out—so even men to come will learn my story” (11.73-85).

Odysseus feels this way about himself, he doesn’t want to be forgotten or left behind, leaving no one that knows what he’s been through. He is constantly afraid that his luck will run out after all these years. The journey that Odysseus has been on is his legacy, and if he is left behind no one will know that legacy.

The prophecy that Tiresias gives is also full of the hopes and fears of Odysseus.  After countless years away from Ithaca, “ a sweet smooth journey home, renowned Odysseus, that is what you seek but a god will make it hard for you” (11.111-113).  Since the sacking of Troy, Odysseus has been trying to get back to Ithaca, to Telemachus, to Penelope, but the building of the wall to protect Greek ships angered the gods, guaranteeing a troublesome voyage for Odysseus.  Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops, represents Odysseus’s obsession with glory during the Trojan War, his blinding of the Cyclops is a metaphor for how blind Odysseus became in his pursuit of glory, “ you will never escape the one who shakes the earth, quaking with anger at you still, still enraged because you blinded the Cyclops, his dear son” (11.114-116).   The next allusion is one of Troy, “…your good trim vessel first puts in at Thrinacia Island, flees the cruel blue sea. There you will find them grazing, the herds and fat flocks, the cattle of Helios…leave the beasts unharmed,your mind set on home, and you may still reach Ithaca—bent with hardship… harm them in any way and I can see it now: your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well” (11.120-128). The herds and fat flocks of Helios represent the Trojan people and all of their riches, and if Odysseus had “left the beasts unharmed” and kept his “mind set on home,” he never would have had the opportunity to enrage the gods in the way he did when fighting the Trojans.

The most interesting part of the prophecy that Tiresias gives is this, “ …sacrifice fine beasts to the lot god of the sea, Poseidon—a ram, a bull, and a ramping wild boar—then journey home and render noble offerings up to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies, to all the gods in order. And at last your own death will steal upon you” (11.148-153).  This simply means that Odysseus’s journey will kill him in one way or another. Odysseus is compared to a ram, a bull and a wild boar through the Iliad and the Odyssey, this means that Odysseus, himself, is the sacrifice to Poseidon.  This is proven further when he is asked to “render noble offerings up” and Odysseus is of a noble blood line. Tiresias also says in his prophecy that, “a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes to take you down…” this means that Poseidon will come from the sea to take Odysseus when he is “ borne down with the years in ripe old age” (11.153-155).

The entire episode of Odysseus going to the kingdom of the dead is essentially a metaphor for Odysseus’s life and death told in a sort of backwards way. Given his affinity for sleep this could also be looked at as a dream of Odysseus’s.  Either way, it is important for Odysseus to be aware of all these events and their consequences. It seems from the very beginning of the Odyssey that he knows these things, but this is the first time that he has put all of these things together with regard to his life.

20 Responses to “Lindsey Hawkins – Odysseus in the House of Death”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    Some very interesting points here. I am glad you mentioned the trench comparison, as that is something that has occurred to me before. I like the idea about the trench being an object of wrath, but we shouldn’t forget that Poseidon helps the Greeks during the war and that other Greeks (e.g., Nestor and Diomedes) make it back without a lot of trouble. It seems more likely that it is the wrath of Athena that is key, and I am not sure in the end that she can be traced to the wall / trench. But it is an interesting idea, nonetheless.

    It is surely strange that no one misses Elpenor being dead; wouldn’t they have had a roll call after a year on Circe’s island before they set out? And there were only sixty of them, maximum, presumably. Bizarre. Elpenor does serve to set up the prophecy, however (the oar in the ground, the restoration of hope, etc.).

    I really like the point about Odysseus himself being the sacrifice to Poseidon, especially with respect to the animal imagery (it would be worth tracking down these passages) and especially since the part about death coming “from from the sea” can also be translated “out of the sea.” One minor adjustment to your idea might be that Tiresias says to Odysseus that “all [his] people” will be around when he dies. This either implies that he will die back in Ithaca some time in the future or, provocatively, that he will establish a new regime / new cult of Poseidon inland. Thus, he would have new people…and thus Telemachus would be the new Ithacan king?

    KH

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