By Jisoo Choi '22
Edited by Esther Reichek '23 and Judah Millen '24
A callused hand thrice extended—a pale specter thrice rebuffed. The corporeal reaching for the shade, fingers quivering with longing—the eternally intangible slipping from the living grasp, driven away by the laws that govern death. Parallel scenes of the failed embrace between epic hero and parent mark crucial moments in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Drawn to the prophetic dead for advice during their journeys home, both Odysseus and Aeneas sojourn in the underworld while still alive. But in spite of the similarities in the meetings of hero and parent, the two renderings of the afterlife differ significantly in structure (or apparent lack thereof), inhabitants, and interactions with the hero. For Odysseus, seeking Tiresias’ advice after being woefully stalled on his return to Ithaca, the afterlife appears an eerie desolation, full of hushed anguish and darkness. Aeneas’ visit comes as an answer to his father Anchises, who foretells the destiny of Rome when Aeneas reaches him after journeying along the realms of the dead.
The encounter with the afterlife occupies a central position in both epics, revealing the hero’s character and destiny. In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Virgil adopts and transmutes the Homeric afterlife that unfolds in Book 11 of the Odyssey, altering its scope and structure to reflect how the epic and its hero have changed between the two works. The two renderings of the afterlife reflect the degree of human agency possessed by each hero, and they suggest a reading of the epic tradition’s perpetual colloquy with the question of fate that extends beyond Homer and Virgil.
In both epics, the dead are merely shades of their past human selves, their eternal existence empty and aimless. The spirit of Achilles laments this degraded state upon seeing the living Odysseus in Hades:
Numb dead people
live here, the shades of poor exhausted mortals. […]
I would prefer to be a workman,
hired by a poor man on a peasant farm,
than rule as king of all the dead. (Homer 11.475-91)
Similarly, Virgil describes the shades as “empty images / Hovering bodiless […] / phantoms, empty air” (Virgil 6.400-02). This numb, empty death—a death which Achilles claims is even worse than a peasant’s life—is only animated and imbued with greater meaning in the presence of the living hero in both epics. Thus, the sole significance of the dead rests in their ability, acting as agents of fate, to direct the hero. This guidance influences the two characters’ stories to different extents.
Wily Odysseus—the “man of twists and turns,” as Robert Fagles translates—is unpredictable and inscrutable, favored by the goddess Athena for his cleverness. In Book 13, she assists him in his scheme to reclaim Ithaca in disguise, and translator Emily Wilson titles the book “Two Tricksters,” giving equal credit to Odysseus’ and Athena’s shrewdness. Though his destiny is always to return home and achieve nostos, Odysseus seems to challenge fate at every turn. The underworld of the Odyssey reflects his character in the amount of freedom and choice it grants to him. For instance, Odysseus conjures the underworld and brings the dead to him; its existence is contingent upon mortal summons. It is only when he digs a hole and invokes them that “the spirits came / up out of Erebus and gathered round” (Homer 11.36-37). And even his invocatory promise to the gods indicates significant human agency and authority:
[I] made a solemn vow that if
I reached my homeland, I would sacrifice
my best young heifer, still uncalved, and pile
the altar high with offerings for the dead. (Homer 11.28-31)
Odysseus’ glorification of the gods is conditional: only upon his successful return home will he offer burnt sacrifices to the gods. And this journey home, in turn, is comprised of his free choices and discretion, as Tiresias prophesies soon thereafter.
Odysseus’ experience of the afterlife contrasts strikingly with that of Aeneas: Virgil’s afterlife is more structured and sovereign, and Aeneas is compelled by the machinations of fate to enter it. Here the dead walk in pastures and shady groves, resting on riverbanks and meadows, all of which Aeneas traverses on his way to meet Anchises (Virgil 6.872-909). But before he enters, the Sibyl instructs Aeneas that he must pluck a bough from a golden tree to be granted passage across the Styx, which
will come willingly,
Easily, if you are called by fate.
If not, with all your strength you cannot conquer it,
Cannot lop it off with a sword’s edge. (Virgil 6.214-17)
Fate is the gatekeeper of the afterlife, its will standing between the dead and the living; no human strength or ingenuity will be strong enough to cut the bough if fate opposes it. Hence, when Aeneas procures the branch and shows it to Charon, the boatman’s “eyes fixed on the ancient gift, the bough / The destined gift, so long unseen, now seen” (Virgil 6.553-4). The coming of Aeneas was foretold and awaited, supplanting free will or agency on Aeneas’ part.
The underworld of the Odyssey materializes around Odysseus, making him the center of it as the crowd of summoned spirits surrounds him: “From every side they crowded / around the pit, with eerie cries […] / They thronged and clustered round the blood” (Homer 11.42-43, 229). Odysseus controls even their speech and movements: as Tiresias explains,
Whenever you allow one of these spirits
to come here near the blood, it will be able
to speak the truth to you. As soon as you
push them away, they have to leave again. (Homer 11.146-49)
Odysseus uses this power to hear from each what he needs; by his mediation “they took turns coming forward, and each told / her history; [Odysseus] / questioned each” (Homer 11.233-34). Though Circe’s divine involvement led him to visit Hades, Odysseus ultimately controls the information he receives. He decides which stories of the grieving dead to hear, and remains focused on obtaining instructions for his voyage. and even those directions, given by Tiresias, apparently leave the most critical decisions to Odysseus and his men to make. As the prophet speaks about the cows of Thrinacia, he warns,
If you leave them be,
keeping your mind fixed on your journey home,
you may still get to Ithaca, despite
great losses. But if you hurt those cows, I see
disaster for your ship and for your men. (Homer 11.110-14)
Though trouble ultimately does befall his men because they do not heed this advice, Tireasias’ words do not predetermine the outcome of their time at Thrinacia; that is left entirely to the free actions of mortals.
In the Aeneid, Anchises relates to his son the multigenerational destiny of the Roman Empire, leaving nothing to imagination or choice. “I’ll tell you, not to leave you mystified,” he says, before “father and son / Wandered the airy plain and viewed it all” (Virgil 6.971, 1203-04). This was Anchises’ plan since his first apparition to Aeneas, when he told his son to visit him in death in order to “hear of your whole race to come / And what walled town is given you” (Virgil 5.959-60). Anchises, though a relic of the past, reveals Aeneas’ future to him, his voice becoming that of Virgil as the poet writes a history of Rome as a prophecy for the hero. Virgil, refashioning in his writing both the epic form and the narrative of Rome’s founding, borrows the authority of Anchises to make his novel retelling appear the inevitable consequence of the past.
Even the characters’ last moments in and departure from the underworld draw a distinction between the extents of their free will. Book 11 of the Odyssey closes with Odysseus and his men sailing out of Hades “first with the help of oars, and then fair wind” (Homer 11.640). The first cause, the primary impulse that sets Odysseus on his journey again, is the action of his men at the oars. And only after human work has taken effect does the “fair wind” of the gods move the ship, just as with Tiresias’ prophecy about the Sun God’s cows, wherein it is only after the men’s violence that the gods cause them shipwreck. Human agency precedes and decides the action of the gods in the Homeric afterlife and epic. However, Aeneas’ stay in the underworld ends as “Anchises now, his last instructions given, / Took son and Sibyl there and let them go / By the Ivory Gate” (Virgil 6.1216-18). Even the gates by which he leaves—those of false dreams, which raise doubt about the Empire’s true greatness even before it has been founded—are predetermined by fate and shown to Aeneas by his father, and he has no choice but to go forth faithfully from this revelation and live out the realization of the prophecy.
Nonetheless, the authorial hand of fate does not diminish Aeneas as an epic hero in his own right; rather, it makes sense that his journey is more strictly predestined than that of Odysseus, because Aeneas travels with the weight of the whole Roman Empire on his shoulders. Odysseus is a venerable war hero, but the Odyssey is merely a story of one man’s peripatetic return to his native land. The Aeneid, meanwhile, is a national epic, the origin story of a people. The consequences are much more monumental and devastating if Aeneas makes a mistake than if Odysseus does, and hence the grip of fate on the former must be stronger. Between these two works of the epic tradition emerges a relationship between the magnitude of the epic, the structure of the afterlife, and the agency of the hero: as the scope of the epic and the realm it aims to explain expands, the underworld becomes more rigidly designed and the hero more subservient to fate. It is into this tradition that, over a millennium after Virgil, Dante writes his Inferno, the most intricate and specific vision of the underworld for a living pilgrim’s descent. And where Homer wrote the story of one war hero and Virgil the story of a nation, Dante attempts to encompass the entire Christian world and its pagan history into his Commedia—it is then only fitting that his afterlife is as impossibly detailed as it is.
Homer, Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. New York, W.W. Norton, 2018.
Virgil, Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York, Vintage Classics, 1990.