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The Wine Red Sea:  Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 - 2018 by Peter J Ponzio

Among the Dead, Book XI

Throughout Book XI, Odysseus is called many names, but one is most striking and fitting - the man of pain.  The name Odysseus is commonly translated as the “man of hate,” “I hate,” or “the man of pain.”  It is therefore fitting that throughout Book XI, he is often referred to as the man of pain, and he is fated to endure more pain in his journey homeward. Perhaps the most surprising prophecy uttered by Tiresias does not concern his current journey homeward, but his last journey: Go forth once more you must. . . carry your well-plned oar until you come to a race of people whop know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all. . . And here is your sign- unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord 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. . . a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes. . .  (XI, 138-141; 143-154) Where is this place where men do not know the sea, and have not seasoned their food with salt? Before he departs, Tiresias tells the man of pain to give blood to the ghosts he wishes to speak with, and that the ones he does not wish to speak with, will turn away.  Why must the ghosts drink blood to become enervated?  Is this the foundational myth for vampirism? The first ghost whom Odysseus speaks with is his mother.  She asks him why he has ventured to the abode of the dead, and he tells her of his journey back from Troy, and the troubles he has faced along the way.  Anticlea then tells Odysseus about the events at home; she indicates that Penelope waits steadfastly for him, that Telemachus has reached manhood and that his father, noble Laertes, has retreated from public life, grieving for his lost son.  Anticlea then tells Odysseus that she died grieving for his return, not by some accident or bloody deed:  “No, it was my longing for you, my shining Odysseus-/you and your quickness, you and your gentle ways- t/hat tore away my life that had been sweet” (XI, 230-232).  Then, in one of the most poignant moments in the Odyssey, the man of exploits tries to embrace his mother three time; each time he is unable to grasp her spirit:  “Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,/three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away/like a shadow, dissolving like a dream. . .” (XI, 235-237).  Odysseus laments that he cannot embrace his mother, and wonders is her appearance a mere phantom, a trick played by Persephone. Anticlea replies to him with compassion and wisdom, as follows:  My son, my son, the unluckiest man alive! This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone, this is just the way of mortals when we die. Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together- the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit, rustling, flitters away. . . (XI, 247-253)