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

Among the Dead, Book XI

Book XI literally marks the low point in the story, for Odysseus and his men descend into Hades.  In a sense, they die and are reborn when they make the trip to Hades and return again among the living.  Prior to Odysseus’ journey to Hades, the trip to the underworld was made by only a handful of men, including Orpheus, Heracles and Theseus.  Each of these men became legendary, in part, as a result of their exploits in the underworld. Making their way to the entrance of the underworld, Odysseus and his men enter and perform the rites as Circe detailed.  The first shade to approach Odysseus was that of Elpenor, the crew member who was killed prior to their departure on Circe’s island.  But first The ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came towards me. He’d not been buried under the wide ways of earth, not yet, we’d left his body in Circe’s house, unwept, unburied-this other labor pressed us. (XI, 56-60) It is significant that Elpenor came to visit Odysseus first.  Without a proper burial, Elpenor could not cross the river Styx and enter the land of the dead, or possibly the Elysian Fields.  For the Greeks, a proper burial was a fundamental way of honoring their dead.  The Antigone, by Sophocles, addresses this issue in a profound manner, pitting the requirements of a proper burial against the duty owed to the state. Elpenor requested that Odysseus journey back to Circe’s island after leaving Hades,, and the hero agreed to perform this service. The next person to appear to Odysseus was his mother, Anticlea.  But before he could address his mother, the hero must speak with the seer, Tiresias.  The seer addressed him as “Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits,/man of pain, what now, brings you here,/forsaking the light of day. . .” (XI 102-104).  Tiresias tells Odysseus that he seeks a smooth journey home, but instead tells him that his journey will be difficult and that he will “never escape the one who shakes the earth” (XI, 114); the lord Poseidon will not forget the harm done to his son, Polyphemus. Tiresias goes on to prophesy the following: There you will find them grazing, herds and fat flocks, the cattle of Helios, god of the sun who sees all, hears all things. Leave the beasts unharmed, your mind set on home, and you all may still reach Ithaca-bent with hardship, true-but harm them in any way, and I can see it now: your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well. And even if you escape, you’ll come home late and come a broken man-all shipmates lost, alone in a stranger’s ship- and you will find a world of pain at home (XI, 122-132)
Odysseus and Tiresias