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

Among the Dead, Book XI

Shortly after Odysseus told the Phaeacians about the women he saw in Hades, he paused in the telling of his tale and Queen Arete reminded her subjects that the man of sorrows was in need.  She asked them to be generous with their parting gifts to Odysseus.  Her call for gifts was seconded by King Alcinous, who then praised Odysseus for telling his tale with “a singer’s skill;” high praise indeed for the traveler.  Odysseus then picked up his story after the spirits of the women faded away.  He then related how Agamemnon walked up to him, drank the blood that was in the trench, and greeted the man of sorrow.  In vain Agamemnon tried to embrace Odysseus but could not.  Odysseus, moved at the sight of Agamemnon in Hades, asked the great general how he was killed.  For the first time, Odysseus learned of the treachery of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus: Aegisthus hatched my doom and my destruction, he killed me, he with my own accursed wife. . . he invited me to his palace, sat me down to feast then cut me down as a man cuts down some ox at the trough!  (XI, 462-465) Although angered at Aegisthus, Agamemnon reserves his worst comments for his wife, Clytemnestra: But she- the queen hell-bent on outrage-bathes in shame not only herself but the whole breed of womankind, even the honest ones to come, forever down the years! . . . Never reveal the whole truth, whatever you may know; just tell her a part of it, be sure to hide the rest. Not that you, Odysseus, will be murdered by your wife. She’s much too steady, her feelings run too deep. Achilles Icarius’ daughter Penelope, that wise woman.  (XI, 489-492; 501-505) Agamemnon’s example is not lost on Odysseus.  In this scene the hints and foreshadowing about Agamemnon and Clytemnestra are brought into stark relief.  Additionally, Agamemnon’s advice about keeping secrets from his wife is not lost on Odysseus.  Although Agamemnon tries to downplay his suspicions about Penelope, they still remain, and must have had some effect, no matter how slight, on Odysseus.  The man of sorrows, in his return to Ithaca will come home unannounced and in disguise.  While still talking to Agamemnon, the ghost of Achilles appeared before Odysseus.  Achilles began speaking at once; no need for blood to animate that great spirit:  “What daring brought you down to the House of Death?/where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home” (XI, 539-540).   Odysseus attempts to provide solace to the great warrior, but Achilles rejects Odysseus’ attempts to comfort him, uttering perhaps the most famous words in the Odyssey:  “By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man-/some dirt-poor farmer who scrapes to keep alive-/than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (XI, 556-558). Later, Milton would echo these words with a twist, in Paradise Lost, when Lucifer made this reply to Beelzebub in Hell:  “Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce/To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:/Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” (I, 261-263).