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The Underworld in the Odyssey

In order to complete his quest home, Odysseus explains that he must enter the underworld (at the advice of Circe) to speak to the wise man Tisereas.  Here he meets the spirits of the dead, notably his mother, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax.  The underworld is still a miserable place, and it is here that Achilles gives his famous line, “I’d rather be a slave on earth for another man--/some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive--/than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” (Book 11).  This is perhaps even more notable in that Achilles is prominent among the dead. While the rest of the deceased are witless shades, unable to do anything but speak (and only that after drinking the blood of the animal that Odysseus sacrifices to them), Achilles appears to be fully himself mentally, as self-assured and articulate as always.  (Possibly the reference of Achilles as being a Lord of the Dead is another comparison between him and Hades.)

Although she does not appear, Persephone is described as the queen of the women, and is feared as the terrifying Queen of Hell.  (So much for all those who seem to prefer her as a gently little corn maiden, huh?)  The mere thought of her seems to bring chills up people’s spines.

A sacrifice (complete with the correct slitting of the animal’s throat for a Cthonian God) is done, as well, complete in its glory. This sacrifice is later echoed in the Aeneid.

Helen, too, appears in the Odyssey, with new and improved talents from the Iliad. Not only is she still the most beautiful woman in the world with a sort of phantasmal radiance, she’s now a sorceress, druggist (probably with opium or some derivative thereof), prophetess, and perfect mimic.  She recalls the tale of her mimicking the voices of each of the wives of the heroes within the Trojan horse in hopes of luring them out.  She tells the story of how she guided Odysseus through Troy, fatally betraying the Trojans.  Like the Gods of the dead, Helen has no allegiance to either side.  In her fatal beauty and intoxicating potions, she is again linked to her half sister, Persephone.

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