Compare the visits to the Underworld by Odysseus and Aeneas. How does each poet explain the meaning of life and death? What values are important to Homer, and what are important to Vergil?

The visits of both these heroes to the Underworld come almost exactly in the middle of the poems. In many ways they are extremely similar and yet, just as both poems are in their entirety, the differences in the purposes as to why they are composed and the societies for which they were created means that the visits are intrinsically different however many similar events may take place within them.

            Both men drew on older myths and legends when composing their epics, moulding them in their own fashion to suit their style and what they wanted to say and what they thought was important for their characters and message.

            The Odyssey was composed (so tradition has it) by Homer, a blind bard. Whoever the author was, he was probably writing in Ionia, about four hundred years after the events in the poem occurred, if they ever occurred at all. It was composed as entertainment for the wealthy of Homer’s time. The story, being in an oral tradition, could be changed to flatter any particular patron by the changing of the order of the catalogue of ships (in The Iliad) or by the names of those seen in the Underworld. However, this flattery did not interfere with the message of the plot.

            The story itself is about Odysseus as a man (and as a hero). It is about his struggle to win home. Once he is home, although there are further trials prophesised by Tieresias in Book 11 (the winnowing fan) that is really the end of the story. Indeed, many scholars argue that The Odyssey finishes with Odysseus laying down “blissfully” with his wife upon his bed. There is no mention of the greater glory of Ithaca, or Telemachus, because there is no need. The Odyssey is a human story about a man and focuses on the tangible, real and/or powerful things in life – love, home, war, sex, revenge, justice, wealth, maturing and getting the chance for peace. Homer’s character do not see themselves as some part of a great tapestry of glory that will last until the end of time. The Odyssey is a book about a man, and fate, the gods, greatness, heroism, hubris, religion and all the other themes of the book only come into it to tell his story – they are the accompaniment to the melody of his life.

            Conversely, The Aeneid was written down (and not quite finished). It was written for a sole great patron – Augustus, the first citizen of Rome. It has a further political agenda than just to entertain – it is a piece of propaganda, expounding the virtues of Augustus’ form of conservatism, or “back to basics”, designed to restore Rome after a long period of civil war. This praise of Augustus then, not only interferes with the plot, but it is the plot of the poem. The Aeneid is a book about fate, about the gods, about religion, about hubris, about the greatness of Rome. Aeneas is just a vehicle for this. To continue the metaphor, he is the accompaniment whilst the melody is played on the themes of the poem. Nowhere is this clearer than in Book 6. As Kat said when we discussed this a while ago – Odysseus is fated, Aeneas is a tool of fate.

            This is not to say that Vergil had no interest in his characters as pure fiction, and it is not to say that Homer has no deeper meaning to his works than their entertainment value, it merely points out that the primary focus of both books is different, which is to a large extent why their visits to the Underworld are as different, and as similar, as they are.

            To add weight to his poem (and to be seen as writing in the Homeric style) Vergil uses many similar scenes throughout his poem to those in Homer’s. For example, Odysseus meets his mother (who he does not know has died) in the Underworld. He tries to embrace her three times, and three times he folds his arms about nothing but air and begs her not to withdraw from his grasp. Aeneas meets his father in the Underworld and tries to embrace him three times, and three times folds his arms about nothing but air and begs him not to withdraw from his grasp. Aeneas cannot meet his mother in the Underworld, as she is a goddess. He also knows that his father is dead and is told to go and visit him in a dream. Odysseus may not be able to meet his father in the Underworld because he is still at home, on his farm, mourning for Odysseus and, if Homer did indeed compose Book 24 of the Odyssey, then Odysseus must meet him and there finish the reconciliation that must take place for the poem to be rounded off successfully. From a view to the composing of the poem, it would be too much for Odysseus to meet both his parents in the Underworld. Thus, Homer has made a conscious choice. He may have picked for Anticleia to die because Laertes, being a man, had more prestige in Homer’s time, and should therefore be alive and well to greet his son home. However, it may also be symbolic that Odysseus meets the woman who gave him life in the Kingdom of the Dead. Thus, the poems are similar, but also different. Aeneas’ meeting with his father may also be an attempt to show the Trojan hero as greater than the Greek (and this is another theme of the poem). Anchises would have more status that Odysseus’ mother (as he is a man, and has slept with a goddess). Aeneas also has more status than Odysseus, because he is half immortal, whereas both Odysseus’ parents are mortal. This ties in with the points made above – Aeneas has to be half-immortal to add prestige to the Roman race, whose story The Aeneid really is. Odysseus has to have mortal parents, because his is a story about a man and going home.

Both men also meet unburied friends. For Odysseus, it is Elpenor, who died falling off a roof on Circe’s island. This is a moment of light comedy, which makes the darkness all around seem more black, but also reminds us that Homer was performing for a live audience and could not afford to bore them with over long seriousness. It may also show an insight into the Greeks in Homer’s time – perhaps life was cheaper for them than it was for Vergil. For Aeneas, the friend is Palinaurus, sacrificed for their safe passage, and killed by vagabonds on the very shores of Italy. This is ironic, and raises a wry smile. Perhaps this is an attempt at a more sophisticated version of Homer’s anecdote, perhaps it also reminds us that Vergil’s work, although written, was intended to be read out loud and that Augustus asked for Book 6 in particular – Vergil as well as Homer could not afford to bore his rich patron.

            Both of these unburied friends beg for burial. Odysseus promises that he will indeed return to Circe’s island and bury his lost comrade. The Sybil (who accompanies Aeneas) scolds Palinaurus, but promises that he will be buried, not by Aeneas but by the locals, and that the areas will bear his name forever. Both souls are contented with this (if only for a while in Palinaurus’ case). The difference in the stories however, also highlights the differences between the heroes. Odysseus is a man, a leader and a friend – he will return to bury his comrade. Aeneas, however, is bound for higher things. His lost comrade’s funeral will be accompanied by miracles and portents which will frighten the locals into burying him.

            Odysseus also sees King Minos judging the dead, as does Aeneas. Odysseus sees the souls of “brides, old men, unmarried youths, once-happy girls with grief still in their hearts and warriors killed in battle, still bearing their wounds”. Aeneas sees the souls of women who had died for love, and even more importantly, meets Dido. She will not speak to him, and runs away. The story of Dido and Aeneas, and of their quarrel when he has to leave, and her subsequent suicide, take up all of Books 3 and 4. In The Iliad (also, if tradition is to be believed, by Homer), Ajax and Odysseus have a quarrel, and Ajax kills himself after realises that he has killed some sheep in a fit of madness, thinking they were soldiers (approximately). Odysseus meet Ajax, but Ajax will not speak to him, and runs away. Aeneas also meets Deiphobus, Helen’s second Trojan husband. He is covered in wounds given to him by the Greeks. Odysseus also meets and speaks with Agamemnon and Achilles, whereas they run away from Aeneas, frightened of his strength. This is again a piece of propaganda showing that the Trojans were defeated by fate, not the Greeks.

            Odysseus also meets many more women, the mothers and wives of great men, Patroclus and Antilochus, Herakles and Orion in happy places, which Aeneas does not. However, as well as meeting with many similar souls to Odysseus, Aeneas sees more – more people in the swamp of the suicides, the mourning fields, unborn babies, those in places reserved for heroes, Orpheus in the place beyond the Palace of Dis, and of course, the great pageant of those to be reincarnated. Both men also see the unhappy sides of Hell. Aeneas is told in immense detail about the punishment awaiting all “bad” souls, from those infamous enough to go down in legend to those who beat their fathers and cheat their brothers. The Sybil describes great and awful tortures. Odysseus sees some of these with his own eyes. Both men hear of/see Tityus, whose liver is eaten ever day by vultures and grows back at night. Odysseus also sees Tantalus and Sisyphus. Aeneas may not be able to visit Tartarus himself because he is “pius Aeneas” and to enter Tartarus would be to lose some of the piety and go down a dark path. He may hear of/ see many more souls than Odysseus because Aeneas has to be a greater hero than Odysseus, not only because he is a Trojan, but because the story is about him as a hero, and the city that his descendents will found that will rule for a hundred years, while Odysseus is an heroic man trying to get home. As well, Odysseus is the older hero, having only to live up to the harrowing of hell down by other Greek heroes. Aeneas has to prove himself better than any of those who have gone before, including Odysseus.

            To get in Hell, both men have to make sacrifices. However, Odysseus pours his into a trench, and waits for the souls to come to him. For Aeneas, the sacrifices are like a key, he opens the door and walks through Hell. This, too, may make him a greater hero than Odysseus.

            Aeneas needs the “pass” of the golden branch. Homer does not mention this. Again, this adds glory to Aeneas’ story, which is important, as the founder of the Roman race has to be as glorious as possible. It is perhaps to achieve this as well that Aeneas sees the monsters at the mouth of Hell – Cerebus, the Chimera, the Geryon etc. Odysseus fears that Persephone will send some such creature and runs away before she can.

            But what really makes Aeneas a more glorious hero than Odysseus is what he sees with Anchises. His father shows Aeneas a vast array of souls, which will be reincarnated and become some of the greatest men in Roman history. The trials ahead are prophesised, not only for his life, but also for the lives of all the great Roman heroes to come. His death is prophesised, but against the backdrop of everlasting glory for his descendents (and Zeus’ promise to Venus is Book 1 that she would take Aeneas to live “in the stars” when he died). What other hero can boast of this?

            The visit to Anchises is the reason Aeneas visits the Underworld. He comes to see a vision of the future he will build. There are no such high and virtuous reasons for Odysseus’ visit; he comes to ask Tieresias the way home. He too has trials prophesised for his life, and a difficult homecoming; there will be wars in his Hall, for Aeneas there will be wars before he can even build a Hall. Odysseus’ death is prophesised as coming peacefully out of the sea. There is no more – no great line of Greeks whose descendants will be gods and rule all the world. But then, The Odyssey is not a book about that.

            The visit by both men to The Underworld is a chance for both authors to communicate some of their ideas of life and death. For Homer, death is not something to be welcomed, even those who have led good and virtuous lives – all, even the most wicked, are thrown together and all long for life (like the blood they drink out of Odysseus’ trough) and the sunlight again. Although there are heroes walking through “asphodel meadows” hunting, even the mighty Achilles would rather be alive and a serf in the employ of a landless peasant than King of the Dead. To Homer, there is nothing good in dying. And his heroes live like that. They live for the moment, for the glory of battle, for the glory of winning, and are willing to risk it all in order to be truly living. Aeneas has to conquer feelings like these (for example, Odysseus stays a while with Circe because it is fun, but Aeneas has to leave Dido, Odysseus courts adventure, like waiting in the Cyclops’ cave, whilst Aeneas has to leave Troy where he would like to die gloriously with his friends and journey to Italy) because he is in the hands of fate. He has to get to Italy and found Rome, and nothing must stand in the way. His father also shows him that he must be “pius” because such men achieve happiness in the afterlife and their afterlife is something to be welcomed after the trials and tribulations of their lives. However, for some, the after life is torment. If their lives were tormented (i.e. is they died for love) then their after lives will be little different. Only the pius will be rewarded. The suicides are consigned to a dank swamp, the sinners to Tartarus and the unrequited lovers to the Mourning Fields. Yet Anchises would not change as Achilles would, so for some the after life must be worthwhile.

            Aeneas also only really meets men, although there are some women in the Morning Fields, who died for love, which, you get the feeling, was frowned upon by people of the time, else their pain would be relieved in the after life. This, it would seem, shows that Vergil did not have a very high opinion of women, or at least their roles were or very low status in his world. He may even have been playing on this because Odysseus meets many women, and this contrast between them may make Aeneas seem a more glorious hero. This is not to say that women enjoyed in kind of equal status with men in Homer’s time. Rather, they are all described either by who their fathers, lovers, husbands or sons were. This shows that to Homer, motherhood and being a wife were important values of the day, and women who were good at them would be valued. Those who over stepped the mark, like Clytemnestra, brought disgrace on all their sex – or so at least says Agamemnon. 

            Thus, for Homer, the meaning of life is living, and the meaning of death is that there is a long wait of unhappiness as a spirit throughout eternity, except for Heroes like Herakles, who is taken up to Olympus. This is reflected in the values he holds dear – for men, fighting, having affairs, journeying and keeping on the right side of the gods so that you can do more of these things and die a peaceful or glorious death, for women, being a mother to fine sons, a wife to a great husband or the worthy daughter of a great father, keeping a well-ordered house and waiting patiently for your men-folk to return. For Vergil, the meaning of life is being “pius” enough to earn a place in the good places in the Underworld, so that, when all the sin is “washed out of you”, you will live forever in the Elysian Fields. From the way Vergil talks about the body being sinful, there is obviously something sordid in living in his mind – it should be got over as quickly and as quietly as possible except for those few who will be glorious even when they are living. This view is even reflected in the underlying themes in their books – Homer’s a poem about a man because there is little more to live than the living of it. Vergil’s is a poem about the greatness of Rome, the gods, religion, piety etc because there is a prize greater than life – the after life accorded to those who live “pius” lives. This is why Aeneas has to be a greater hero in every way to Odysseus, because he will live a greater after life in the Elysian Fields with Anchises and his descendents will rule the world until the end of time. There is nowhere that these differences (and the similarities which make both pieces an epic and gave such weight to Vergil’s work when he first composed it) than in both heroes’ visits to the Underworld, which are not by chance the centre of each poem – they encapsulate in many ways the whole meaning of the poems.

Helen McCabe - Blackburn College November 2001