Summary and Analysis
Book 11 - The Visit to the Dead
The Land of the Dead is near the homes of the Cimmerians, who live "shrouded in mist and cloud" (11.17), never seeing the sun. Odysseus follows Circe's instructions, digging a trench at the site prescribed and pouring libations of milk, honey, mellow wine, and pure water. He ceremoniously sprinkles barley and then sacrifices a ram and a ewe, the dark blood flowing into the trench to attract the dead.
First to approach is Elpenor, one of Odysseus' men who died just before the crew left Circe's home. Elpenor had spent the last night in a drunken stupor on Circe's roofs, breaking his neck as he fell off when he arose at dawn. Because of the urgency of Odysseus' journey to the Land of the Dead, Elpenor was left unburied, and his spirit requests proper rites when the Greeks return to Aeaea. Others are drawn to the blood: Odysseus' mother, Anticleia; Tiresias the prophet; and old comrades Agamemnon and Achilles, among others.
The journey to the Land of the Dead — where the dead ("souls") receive reciprocity ("Justice") — is not so much a test for Odysseus as it is an epiphany. His mortality is put in context as he watches the shades of warrior comrades, legendary figures, and even his own mother. Following instructions, he must speak with Tiresias, the blind seer from Thebes, before he can allow his mother or any others to approach. Drinking the blood temporarily revitalizes the dead; briefly they can communicate with Odysseus and speak only truth.
Tiresias observes that one of the gods, the earth shaker (Poseidon), is angry with Odysseus for blinding his son (Polyphemus, the Cyclops) and will cause Odysseus and his men many problems. However, Tiresias reports, the Greeks can get home alive if they use proper judgment and control. Above all, they must not harm the cattle of Helios, the Sungod, no matter the temptation. If they do, Odysseus' men will die. Echoing the curse of the Cyclops (9.590-95), Tiresias warns that Odysseus himself might eventually arrive home, but he will be "a broken man — all shipmates lost" (11.130) and find his household in disarray. Furthermore, the prophet instructs Odysseus that he must eventually pursue yet another quest, carrying his oar inland until he meets a race of men who know so little about the sea that they think the oar is "a fan to winnow grain" (11.146). At that place, Odysseus is to make certain sacrifices to Poseidon. If he follows these and other instructions, Odysseus can live out his life and die in peace. (The journey inland, however, takes place after the events told of in The Odyssey.)
Odysseus' own mother, who died of grief and longing for him, is allowed to approach only after his audience with the seer. Until seeing her among the dead, Odysseus was unaware of his mother's death. She tells him of his father, Laertes, who still lives but similarly grieves and has lost his will. In one of the most moving scenes in the epic, Odysseus tries three times to hold his mother but cannot because she is no longer flesh and blood.
Agamemnon and Achilles, comrades of Odysseus at Troy, are among the many other dead who approach. Agamemnon tells the story of his murder by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her paramour, Aegisthus, a story referred to repeatedly throughout the epic, effectively contrasting the murderous infidelity of Clytemnestra with the dedicated loyalty of Penelope.
More controversial is Achilles' appearance because it contradicts the heroic ideal of death with honor, resulting in some form of glorious immortality. Here, Achilles' attitude is that death is death; he would rather be a living slave to a tenant farmer than king of the dead. His only solace is to hear that his son fares well in life.
The dead flock toward Odysseus. He is overwhelmed and welcomes his departure, feeling that, whatever his struggles in life might be, he prefers them to residence in the Land of the Dead.
Creon king of Thebes, successor to Oedipus.
Oedipus Abandoned at birth and raised by the king of Corinth, he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.
Leda a queen of Sparta and the mother, by Zeus in the form of a swan, of Helen and Pollux.
Crete an island in the Mediterranean off the southeastern coast of Greece.
Achilles famed warrior, hero of Homer's Iliad.
Tantalus a king punished in Hades by having to stand in water that recedes when he bends to drink it and beneath fruit that ascends when he reaches to eat it.
Sisyphus a cruel king condemned in Hades to the eternal, frustrating effort of rolling a huge stone uphill, only to have it always roll down again.