Homer’s Odyssey: Book 11
Odysseus and the remaining crew make it to “the outer limits, the Ocean River’s bounds” (11.1), that is, to the river that encompasses the entire earth. The geography alludes to the design on the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, Book 18. Odysseus pours out libations, and ram’s blood attracts thousands of the ghoulish spirits of the dead. Odysseus encounters Elpenor, the nitwit who fell of Circe’s roof, who urges Odysseus to have his corpse ceremoniously buried.
Odysseus heartbreakingly sees the ghost of his mother Anticleia (whose name means “opposed to fame”), “daughter of that great heart Autolycus — / whom I had left alive when I sailed for sacred Troy” (11.95-96). Not even she is allowed to approach the blood until Odysseus can interview Tiresias, who at last does come forth, drinks blood, and tells Odysseus that when he comes to Thrinacia Island not to harm Helios’ cattle. If harm comes to them, his ship and men will be destroyed. If Odysseus escapes, he’ll eventually arrive in Ithaca “a broken man” and “will find a world of pain at home” (11.130-132). Tiresias, though (spoiler!), does foretell of Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors, his additional adventure (Book 24), and that “at last your own death will steal upon you . . . / a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes / to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age / with all your people there in blessed peace around you” (11.153-156).
Odysseus asks Tiresias how to make the shade of his mother recognize him. It’s the blood-drinking: anyone he lets approach the blood and drink will speak the truth. Tiresias returns to the House of Death, and Odysseus lets mom drink. She recognizes him and wails. When questioned, she tells what she knew of matters at home: Penelope enduring, Telemachus, dad self-exiled to his farm. But what killed her? “No, it was my longing for you, my shining Odysseus — / … / that tore away my life that had been sweet” (11.230-232). Despite this guilt trip, Odysseus tries to embrace her, but she is a shadow and dissolves.
Odysseus sees the spirits of Tyro, Poseidon’s lover, and other women from myth, including Oedipus’ mother/wife, here named Epicaste, and Leda (except we hear about only one egg). Attention shifts from generally faithful women to bad ones. “And I saw Clymene [unknown], Maera [who broke her vow of chastity] and loathsome Eriphyle — / bribed with a golden necklace / to lure her lawful husband to his death . . .” (11.369-371). Here Odysseus’ breaks off his list — perhaps significantly. We’re back at the banquet of Alcinous and the Phaeacians, exchanging compliments.
Odysseus resumes his story with his encounter in the underworld with the spirit of Agamemnon, who informs Odysseus of his murder by his wife and her lover. Clytemnestra comes off as guiltier here than she seemed in Book 4, responsible for murdering Cassandra over Agamemnon’s dying body: “there’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these — what a monstrous thing / she plotted, slaughtered her own lawful husband! / Why, I expected, at least, some welcome home / … / But she — / the queen hell-bent on outrage — bathes in shame / not only herself but the whole breed of womankind, / even the honest ones to come, forever down the years!” (11.484-492). What must Odysseus be thinking about his own homecoming? Agamemnon doesn’t let up: “so even your own wife — never indulge her too far. / Never reveal the whole truth, whatever you may know; / just tell her a part of it, be sure to hide the rest. / Not that you, Odysseus, will be murdered by your wife” (11.500-503). Agamemnon preaches against women a bit more until Odysseus says it’s enough: what does Agamemnon know about Telemachus? Nothing.
Odysseus next sees the ghosts of Achilles and, uh, awkward, Ajax. Odysseus praises Achilles, who responds, “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! / By god, I’d rather 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” (11.555-558). Odysseus reports to Achilles about the latter’s son. Other ghosts swarm and question Odysseus, but Ajax keeps his distance, seething with anger at Odysseus still. Odysseus attempts a reconciliation, but the spirit of Ajax departs. Odysseus sees Minos, Orion, Tityus (with the liver-tearing vultures), Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Heracles. He longs to see Theseus and Pirithous, but being swarmed by the dead starts to get to him and he rushes back to his ship.