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

Among the Dead, Book XI

After uttering his famous words about life among the dead, Achilles inquires about his son, Neoptolemus.  Odysseus assured the hero that his son acted valiantly in the war, trailing only Nestor and Odysseus himself, in glory.  After hearing that his son acquitted himself well in war, Achilles left “with long strides across fields of asphodel,/triumphant in all I had told him of his son,/his gallant, glorious son” (XI, 614-616).  Once again, the theme of glory is presented in the Odyssey, for glory, and not the afterlife, was what mattered most to the Greeks of Homer’s time. Odysseus next saw Ajax the Great, who glowered at him from a distance.  Ajax, who committed suicide after Odysseus won the armor of Achilles after the great hero’s death, would not drop his grudge against Odysseus, despite the man of sorrows attempts to reconcile with him:  “’Ajax, son of noble Telamon, still determined,/even in death, not once to forget that rage/you train on me for those accursed arms?’” (XI, 632-634).  So Ajax, unrepentant, strove off into the blackness of Hades. Odysseus then encounters a number of famous men, a listing which is intended to act as a counterpoint to the parade of famous women that Odysseus saw earlier in his trip to the underworld.  The famous men included the following: o Minos, king of Crete and husband of Pasiphae, mother to the Minotaur o Orion, legendary hunter and lover of Eros; Orion was killed by Artemis o Tityus, son of Zeus, who attempted to rape Leto and was slain by Apollo and Artemis o Tantalus, son of Zeus who cut up his son Pelops, and served him to the gods.  He was consigned to Hades unable to eat the fruit which hangs from a tree near where he is chained, and is unable to drink water that he yearns for o Sisyphus, king of Corinth who killed visitors and lied to the gods.  He was consigned to Hades where he is compelled to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity o Heracles, son of Zeus who was both mortal and immortal at the same time.  His mortal aspect was in Hades; his immortal aspect lived on Olympus.  He was killed by his wife Deianeira, who, fearing that he loved another woman, induced him to put on a shirt soaked in the blood of the centaur Nessus, which was poisonous.  Unable to bear the pain of the poison, Heracles placed his body on a pyre and burned to death. There are several themes that are represented by the famous men whom Odysseus met in the underworld.  o Several of the men are sons of gods, and all of them met with an unhappy ending.  These include Orion, Tityus, Tantalus and Heracles o Two of the men were betrayed by their wives, Minos and Heracles. o Four of the men committed monstrous crimes, including Tityus, Tantalus, Sisyphus and Heracles. Notice that Heracles appears on all three listings.  In addition, Heracles was one of four men to enter Hades and come out again as a living man.  The others were Orpheus, Theseus and now, Odysseus. The appearance of Tantalus is especially significant in the Odyssey.  Tantalus, in cutting up his son Pelops and serving him to the gods in a stew, provides a key to understanding the fate of the house of Atreus, and the problems which beset Agamemnon.  The family of Agamemnon traces its roots back to Pelops, who was restored to life by the gods.  Unfortunately, the family was fated to carry out this cycle of death and revenge.   Pelops, after being restored to life had two sons, Atreus and Thyestes.  Atreus was made king of Mycenae and Thyestes was banished.  Thyestes, meanwhile, committed adultery with Atreus’ wife, Aerope.  When Atreus learned of this treachery, he slew Thyestes’ sons and served them in a stew to Thyestes, mimicking the earlier actions of his grandfather, Tantalus.  To further compound the familial discord, Thyestes’ oldest son was spared being slaughtered by Atreus.  This oldest son was none other than Aegisthus, and Atreus’ son was Agamemnon.  Finally, Agamemnon’s son, Orestes slew his uncle, Aegisthus, thereby bringing to an end the bloodshed of the house of Atreus.     
Heracles