HOMER: The Odyssey [Book XI]

In Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Cimmeria, a land of perpetual darkness where the entrance to Hades is. Odysseus performs the necessary sacrifices and rituals. Then, shades of the dead begin to appear. The shade of the prophet Tiresias tells Odysseus his future, which includes his arduous journey home and subsequent death at sea. Next, Odysseus sees the shade of his mother. He tries to embrace her, but sadly fails. Then he sees the heroines and heroes of Ancient Greek mythology.

Two of Odysseus’ encounters are noteworthy – that with Agamemnon and that with Achilles. Agamemnon relates to Odysseus the tale of his return home and his death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. “He asked me to his house, feasted me, and then butchered me most miserably as though I were a fat beast in a slaughter house, while all around me my comrades were slain like sheep or pigs for the wedding breakfast, or picnic, or gorgeous banquet of some great nobleman. You must have seen numbers of men killed either in a general engagement, or in single combat, but you never saw anything so truly pitiable as the way in which we fell in that cloister, with the mixing-bowl and the loaded tables lying all about, and the ground reeking with our-blood.

I heard Priam’s daughter Cassandra scream as Clytemnestra killed her close beside me. I lay dying upon the earth with the sword in my body, and raised my hands to kill the slut of a murderess, but she slipped away from me; she would not even close my lips nor my eyes when I was dying, for there is nothing in this world so cruel and so shameless as a woman when she has fallen into such guilt as hers was. Fancy murdering her own husband! I thought I was going to be welcomed home by my children and my servants, but her abominable crime has brought disgrace on herself and all women who shall come after – even on the good ones.” Contrary to the tone of the epic hitherto, Agamemnon’s speech betrays a deep-seated mistrust and disdain for women.

Odysseus’ conversation with Achilles is also different from the general tone of Homer’s Iliad. Odysseus hails Achilles as the most fortunate man to ever live and as the king of the dead. Achilles laments his death and gloomily responds, “I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead. O might the lamp of life rekindled burn, and death release me from the silent urn!” Achilles’ attitude in this passage is different from his attitude in the Iliad, where he chooses a short life and fame over a long life and obscurity. Thus, Achilles’ speech, Agamemnon’s speech, and Odysseus’ descent into Hades makes this book the strangest in Homer’s canon. Nevertheless, it is very entertaining.

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