Homer’s Odyssey: Greek Underworld & Afterlife

 

In Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, the nekyia (or nekuia), we get a glimpse into the Greek underworld, as it was perceived from Homeric times and before, around the beginning of the Archaic period. Homer’s writings are the first to be recorded on this topic, but they represent a long history of oral stories that were prevalent in Greek society many years prior. In the Odyssey, Homer describes more of the conditions of afterlife than the scenery or processes of the underworld. His depiction of Odysseus’s journey to the underworld is “a spiritual adventure and a moment when life and death are brought into contact” (Said, 175). The location of the underworld is far removed from the world of the living, at the edge of the river Oceanus. The dead live where the rays of the god Helios do not penetrate; instead, the House of Hades is forever shrouded in darkness (Homer, 11.18, 21). To get here, Odysseus must sail in a sturdy ship. For the dead to arrive, in contrast, their bodies must be destroyed by the “mighty power of blazing fire” so that their spirits may be released and fly to Hades’ underworld (Homer, 11.273-74).

Cartoon rendition of Odysseus summoning the dead.

In order to interact with the dead, Odysseus must pour libations and perform a ritual sacrifice. Following this sacrifice, “out of Erebus came swarming up shades of the dead” (Homer, Odyssey 11.43). This shows how the dead may move around in the afterlife and have a place to call their home. We can presume that these shades of the dead resemble who they were during life, since Odysseus is able to recognize and describe them. They may look like the living, but they do not immediately act like them. They “have no mental powers (noos) or strength (menos), and are no more than insubstantial shadows” (Said, 175). They may regain these mental powers and their memories, but are unable to speak the truth or remember their past lives until they drink the sacrificed sheep’s blood (Homer, 11.180-83, 187-88). Their strength, however, cannot be redeemed. This is further evidenced by Odysseus’ interaction with Agamemnon. He notes that Agamemnon “no longer had any inner power or strength, not like the force his supple limbs possessed before” (Homer, 11.495-97). Instead, they are fluttering shades, whose “sinews no longer hold the flesh and bone together” and whose spirits cannot be grasped or held, but instead slip through one’s embrace, “like a shadow or a dream” (Homer, 11.271-72, 257).

Teiresias foretelling the future to Odysseus

Homer’s depiction of the afterlife demonstrates the dichotomy of life and death. In life, one is full of strength and knowledge, but in death, this is essentially nonexistent (until some extent of knowledge is regained by the drinking of blood). Whether the dead may know what is occurring at that time in the world of the living is unclear (though some authors posit that the dead wholly do not know), as in some cases a few shades do seem to know while others do not. Their lack of strength or menos seems to suggest that they have no influence over the living, though they can threaten to call upon the gods to act on their behalf. We can see contrasts in the living and the dead directly in the text as well, as Homer writes, “Life-giving earth has buried them” and details how Achilles, a great hero of the Iliad, would rather “live working as a wage-labourer for hire by some other man, one who had no land and not much in the way of livelihood, than lord it over all the wasted dead” (Homer, 11.380, 624-28). Most of the people that Odysseus encounters and describes have some sort of relationship with the divine, so it may seem that Homer was showing that this afterlife was reserved only for beings of a special status. This is not totally clear, however, as Odysseus mentions “a thousand tribes of those who’d died,” but departs the underworld in fear immediately following this development (Homer, 11.818).

We also see examples of continuity rather than contrast in the case of some of the heroes (Said, 177). Ajax refuses to speak to Odysseus because of their previous squabbles in life. Odysseus also sees “Minos, glorious son of Zeus… holding a golden sceptre, and passing judgments on the dead, who stood and sat around the king, seeking justice, throughout the spacious gates of Hades’ home” (Homer, 11.733-37). In this way, Minos continues to be in a position of power and judgment, as he was a king in life. Though only mentioned in the Odyssey, this theme of judgment is prevalent in other Greek texts and Egyptian texts as well. Additionally, Odysseus recognizes Orion still as a hunter, and sees Heracles with his bow and armor, though he notes that it was just an image of Heracles, “for he himself was with immortal gods, enjoying their feasts,” further complicating how we may perceive the dead (Homer, 11.777-78). Finally, the punishments that sinners receive show that actions in life will affect you in death. These conditions again seem to be reserved for only the semi-divine, however.

Sisyphus’s punishment depicted as described by Homer.

Homer’s Book XI is significant because it gives us the earliest written depiction of the Greek underworld. While not strictly intended to give direction as to how to get to the underworld, it implicitly does so by showing how others have ended up there and by mentioning how the spirit is released. It shows how the dead live on in the afterlife and gives us some imagery of their final resting place as well. There is no specific divide that separates those being punished from those simply living in the underworld as Homer describes it in the nekyia, but this appears in other parts of the Odyssey (Book IV, for example) or in later texts of Greek mythology, as does more imagery of rivers, fields, etc. The underworld, in this case, is more a general area where Hades rules and the souls of the dead reside.

In applying theoretical approaches to Homer’s conception of the underworld, we can come to at least a few conclusions about what his depiction meant. For one, there is the myth-and-ritual theory, which says that in creating myths (or writing them down, as Homer does), “ancients sought to explain religious rites [or rituals] that they did not understand” (Graf, 40). This may help to present one theory. Animal sacrifices in Greece have been traced back to the Bronze Ages, and possibly even earlier. Their meaning may not have been clear then or after, so this theory suggests that Homer may have been giving ritual sacrifices significance by showing that they were the process by which the living could interact with or more generally pay tribute to the dead.

Tityus 1549

Image of Tityus, who is suffering daily, eternal punishment in the underworld for assaulting Leto, Zeus’ wife.

Odysseus Tsagarakis, commenting on Book XI, suggests, “the theme of descent itself has its inception in this ritual [necromancy] which can be connected with Bronze Age burial customs” (43). As such, he pseudo-rejects this theory, noting that the purpose of the ritual was somewhat known. Because of this and similar critiques, this theory has appeared to drop out of favor in recent years, so different theoretical approaches may seem more appropriate. The semiotic model posits, “myth is a narrative structure whose sign- and symbol-systems are closely correlated with the central values of a culture” (Graf, 55). This is very similar to functionalism, suggesting more generally that poetry reflects on the culture of the poet’s society (Tsagarakis, 24). In this way, how Homer describes the underworld and afterlife functions as a reflection on the societal values of that time, rather than explaining the individual’s perspective. In this context, functionalism suggests that people may have believed that an underworld existed and that the purpose for burning their relatives’ corpses was to enable them passage into the afterlife and the House of Hades. Proper burial ensured their life after death, and Homer may have been showing the “true” results of such practices.

Finally, the structuralism model bases its theory on binaries in human existence and that each culture can be understood in terms of such opposites (Graf, 45). This theory may be helpful here, as evidenced before by Homer’s dichotomist depictions of the soul and its lack of strength and information in comparison to the body being full of life, agency, and knowledge. Additionally, the souls flutter about in the underworld, seemingly with little purpose. In contrast, Odysseus and his men are on a journey of intent and meaning in the land of the living, which itself is far removed from the land of the dead situated on the other side of the raging river Oceanus.

Hades & Cerberus

Overall, we should be cautious with regard to Homer’s underworld. Whether it was a true depiction of society’s beliefs at the time or was simply a story is uncertain. It is a topic that has received extensive study and scholarship, and further study and theory may be helpful. In the end, the exact purpose of the Odyssey may not be confidently discovered, but this should not diminish the exceptionality of the text itself.

 

Eli Walton

Sources:

Graf, Fritz. Greek Mythology: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. Print.

“Homer, Odyssey: Book 11 (e-text).” Trans. Ian Johnston. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013

Saïd, Suzanne. Homer and the Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Tsagarakis, Odysseus. Studies in Odyssey 11. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2000. Print.