During the course of Odysseus’ journey from Troy to Ithaka, a representation of all meaningful lives, precisely in the middle of his journey, he must withdraw into himself after a year-long period of leisurely reflection and restoration on Circe’s Isle of Aiaia (modeled after the sound of a scream: Ayeee-eeeeyaaa). Curiously, when Odysseus is told about the the fact that he must descend, his first reaction is to cry (10.496-500). One might interpret this as indicating that Odysseus is simply afraid of dying because truly “No one has ever yet in a black ship gone all the way to Hades’.” (502) But if one thinks closely, Odysseus does not deeply fear death so much as he fears what the underworld must represent to him: inactvity. Remember when he is first met in Book V. What is he doing on the shore of Ogygia, Kalypso’s Island? He is crying–and not because he fears death but because he is bored and fears that his life is passing him meaninglessly by (so in a way, he is afraid of death.) What is it, though, which Odysseus is sent into the underworld to learn? Perhaps this will tell us whether his descent, which seems outwardly physical, is actually an internal journey.

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First, Odysseus is to journey to “the edge of the world”, or some liminal space near the Kimmerian men. On that liminal space, he must then perform a sacrifice between shore (limit of land and water) and a forest (limit of open-land and forest). The sacrifice is a three fold one of honey and milk (both of which come from animals and offer substance), wine, and then water. Then a ram and a sheep’s blood will be offered. Blood+water+honey+milk+wine=substance to make the shades more substantial. There Odysseus will meet Teiresias who will tell him this:

“Then, leader of the host, the prophet will soon come to you, and he will tell you the way to go, the stages of your journey, and tell you how to make your way home on the sea where the fish swarm.” (10.538-540)

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Teiresias, the blind prophet who foretold the corruption of Oidipodes (Oedipus), will be consulted to tell Odysseus his fate in the dark world of the underworld. What else could this mean but Odysseus, turning from the ironically “all-seeing” light of the sun (which sees all that is physical) to the underworld, a place of insubstantial shades, at the edge of the world, but that turning or returning to the underworld is not going to a physical place at all, but rather a turning within. Let us add to this: what is it that Teiresias tells Odysseus? He reveals to him his future, his destiny. In Book XI lines 90-150, Teiresias tells Odysseus the dangers he must face: the Cattle of the Sun, Suitors at home, and death, or planting his oar (marking his tombstone/digging his grave) among the purple-cheeked people. Now here students frequently become upset. They ask: why does not Odysseus get to stay at home and live “happily ever after”? Well, the answer is simple: when he was living “happily ever after” without a care in the world with Kalypso, was he happy? Of course not, because Odysseus is meant to, or is a destined to, always be striving, tricking, pirating, and journeying! He wants to journey until he dies!

So what Teiresias is telling Odysseus is something that perhaps he already knows: his own inner nature is to involve himself in risky situations in the world where he must pit his craftiness and strength against an internal (his own hunger on Thrinakia) or external (suitors) dangers. Teiresias, therefore, is the blind nature within all humans who sees “nothing under the sun”, nor external event, but does see one’s own inner nature and how one fits within this world at large. And this is precisely why Oedipus, who learns how ghastly his fate is, cannot at first accept it, and only after, blinds himself to represent how blind he always was, and this is why Odysseus accepts what Teiresias says, because Odysseus accepts his own nature. It is not for no reason that Teiresias along among the shades maintains his mind.

Just as one sees physical objects by light, so does light operate as a metaphor. For one says that one finally “sees” when one understands, and an answer or new thought just “dawns” on one (one might also notice that this is what the halo in Christian iconography means). So if one is asked, what does it mean that there is a “light in the darkness”, one would means this: in the underworld, a place of physical darkness and mindlessness, there exists blind Teiresias. And though he is blind and in darkness he offers a sight of intangible things, or in-sight, and so offering, he en-lightens Odysseus. So, in the darkness, he is the light, and by his light, Odysseus sees his own destiny. For it is truly Odysseus’ light that sees, and it is Teiresias who directs him. What does Odysseus learn, therefore, but his own inner nature? In learning one’s destiny, only a child would think the point is to see how one dies. The point is to see one’s entire story laid out in front of one: past, present, and future. And like with a story, in seeing the whole, then one fully understands not only the story itself, but the characters within.

And there is further evidence for this perspective in those being rewarded and punished in Hades. The two men being rewarded in Hades are Minos, king of Crete, and step-father to the minotaur, and contractor of the great labyrinth of Daedalus. Orion is also there hunting animals he hunted during his life-time. What are these men doing in the underworld but what they did while they were alive? It is the same for the three men being punished: Tityos, Sisyphos, and Tantalos. What is Tityos doing but tearing himself apart just as he attempted to tear up the natural order by atttempting to abduct/rape Leto (The punishment of Tityos is to have two vultures forever eat his liver). What is Sisyphos doing but lying to himseilf (he was a famous liar and either progenitor of Odysseus’ line or his direct father by some accounts; he is punished for lying to Death after Zeus sent him to kill Sisyphos for revealing the location of one of his lovers–Sisyphos forever rolls a boulder up a mountain deluding himself into thinking it will someday go over), and of course Tantalos, who dangled his dismembered son in front of the gods, and now is forever being tantalized with water and food just within his grasp when he looks upon them but forever beyond his grasp when he reaches for them. Each and every one of these men is doing precisely what he did during his life, and what else could they possibly do in the underworld? This is precisely what Teiresias teaches Odysseus, and what the underworld seeks to teach us: what you do during your life is who you are–do not wait, for what would you be waiting for if in death, all you do is mirror your own life? The time is now. Act.

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Is Odysseus here shooing away irrelevant thoughts, feelings, and memories as he deciphers his own inner nature by coming to realize who he is through the actions he commits and wishes to commit? Yes.


One thought on “Odysseus’ Descent into the Underworld as a Descent into Himself

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