Book XI--A Gathering of Shades
|Summary|Who is Seen and What They Mean|Literary Devices|Symbolism|Connections|Links & References|
Odysseus tells of his trip to Hades as per Circe’s instructions to speak with the spirit of the prophet Tiresias. He lands at the land of the Cimmerians. He has to first perform a ritual by tying a black ram and an ewe in a pit, pouring libations (milk and honey, wine, water), scattering barley, making a vow to sacrifice Ithaka’s best heifer upon return, makign a vow to Teiresias to sacrifice a black lamb, and the ram and ewe are killed and bits are burned for the gods. Elpenor showed up first. His body had been left at Circe’s home because he fell off her roof while he was intoxicated. He requests that he be cremated and have his mound be marked with an oar. Then Tiresias appeared and Odysseus allowed him to drink the blood in the pit. Tiresias says that Posiedon is out for his blood1 and he also says that when Odysseus goes home he mustn’t eat Helios’ cows2 or Odysseus would go home, his crew and ship destroyed, himself unrecognizable, and strangers would be wreaking havoc in his home3. Odysseus will continue on alone4 and return home and kill the suitors; when all is well, he will take an oar to a place that hasn’t harnessed the power of the sea and sacrifice to Poseidon and live to a ripe old age, then die. If the cows are left alone, his whole crew would arrive home safely.
After Odysseus heard this prophecy, he saw his mother, Anticlea, who had died from grief because Odysseus hadn’t come home. She told him his father, Laertes was at home, working and grieving himself to death. He shows the more “human” side of himself when he tries three times to embrace his mother.
Then Odysseus speaks with many women who have slept with the gods (which is ironic because that’s what Odysseus has been doing for the past 20 years).
Then he is interrupted by Alcinous (remember Odysseus is telling his story), they chat for a moment and give Odysseus gifts5 (not much important there).
Next Odysseus speaks to Agamemnon, who recounts the story of his wife’s betrayal, which has been told many other times and is really tiring to hear at that point. glory to the dead; it’s better to be lowly and alive then bragging to the dead about one’s great position. He subtly warns him not to waste life searching for fame. Aias refuses to speak with Odysseus, apparently holding a grudge from life. He sees the tortured souls sandwiched between the rewarded, including Herakles. After this point, Odysseus gets overwhelmed by the spirits, and leaves to return to Circe’s home.
Who is Seen and What They Mean
Conflict (man vs. self):
- Odysseus: The flawed, mortal hero and protagonist14. He travels to underworld, and hears of the troubles waiting for him at home and the risk of his crew’s demise (which in the end doesn’t help much really). He learns from this leg of the journey what he must be wary of in the future, what has happened at Ithaka, to be careful when he returns, and not to waste his life.
- Antikleia: She is Odysseus’ beginning+ and a reminder of his responsibilities to his family and Ithaka. She also shares with Odysseus the ultimate truth about death. She died despairing his delayed (to say the least), return home.
- Elpenor: A reminder of Odysseus’ recent past+ and another sign of the loyalty he shows to his men. He is also a symbol of respect for the dead.
- Agamemnon: He was also in Trojan War, returned to unfaithful wife who murdered him. His son avenged his murder. He is a piece of Odysseus’ now-distant past.+
- Akhilleus: (see Agamemnon) This shows more of the Odyssey as a sequel, presenting Akhilleus’ radically different views about death and glory in the Iliad and Odyssey. He is restless in Hades because he doesn’t know how his son is faring.
- Aiax: More of the sequel aspect. Also shows another time when Odysseus caused hurt with his pride.
- The Phaiakians: Flashes back to Odysseus’ present@. It’s also an opportunity to show what a “master of improvisation” he is.
- Teiresias: The voice of truth, fate and its irrevocable inevitability7. He maps out Odysseus’ future.+
- Herakles: Represents Odysseus possible position in death+.
- Women from mythology: They are all mothers of great men+. The juxtaposition of these women and Antikleia places the ordinary among the extraordinary. Their appearance is ironic because they did what Odysseus has been doing for the past 20 years.
- Tortured souls: These are the fates of people that opposed the gods and those beloved by them. Presumably, this will be the fate of Odysseus enemies. This also represents, once again, the unforgiving nature of the gods.
Odysseus finds himself faced with his dead mother and friends. He must
be suffering from some inner turmoil
Antikleia kills herself because she is overtaken by grief and loses the will to live after she believes her son is dead. She meets him in the underworld, absolutely alive.
Odysseus makes several references to Persephone, women from myths, heroes, and punished souls that would have been easily recognizable to most Greeks of the time12
Milk and Honey
Milk and honey
symbolize fertility, creation, motherhood, a beginning. Milk specifically symbolizes a mother, the fluid of eternal life, and the gods. Honey specifically symbolizes sweetness, purity, and goodness.
Wine symbolizes blood of life, temptation, and the mysteries of life. It was used to clean babies a long time ago for immunity against alcohol.
Water symbolizes purification and clarity. After all, we can’t live without drinking it.
The sacrifice of black animals
In order to embrace and contact death, it must occur. The color represents something entirely silent and motionless. It is the color of the Underworld and also represents death and mourning. The lamb symbolizes a baby, being part of a herd, and ultimate sacrifice. The ewe symbolizes a mother and is also the ultimate sacrifice. A sheep symbolizes innocence.
Blood symbolizes life. Ghosts had to drink the blood to act as if they were alive again. Only life has the power to reanimate the dead
Barley is the universal grain, used for bread, drinks etc. in ancient times.
A pit symbolizes a hole or a problem that someone needs to dig themselves out of.
In every other sacrifice spoken of in the book, the meat from the animal is always eaten after the “choice bits” have been burned as an offering to the gods, but this time the meat is left alone. This is a sign partly of missed opportunity8
, but we would be led to believe that even if they had had the chance, they wouldn’t have taken it. Dead people, some familiar to them, partook of the blood from that animal. This is indicative of the slight revulsion Odysseus seems to have for death: he greatly values his life9
and continually comes closer and closer to death but always seems to escape, but naturally would not be eager to willingly allow something that could be contaminated by it into himself or his men.
The Procession of the Dead10
Each ghost represents a certain stage of life11
and the times come up in a specific order: Recent past, future, beginning, present, distant past, end. This says something about how Odysseus is currently thinking. His main thoughts reside with his family, when he was with them and when he expects to be with them, more than the in the moment.
The views of the gods of the Underworld and the afterlife itself are very similar to those of other cultures
. In many religions there is some form of Hell or the Underworld or Heaven, some place where people who have lead both good and bad lives will go after death. In this case, Odysseus traveled to Hades.
were also seen in Viking mythology
How one was buried and what one was buried with were marks of status as well as how you spent your life13
, something that remains true today.
Antikleia’s grief is very realistic and relates to this woman’s
experience. Like Antikleia, people can die of grief from the loss of a loved one, some people just can’t live without another person, and Alcmene couldn’t live not knowing where her son was. Some people will even commit suicide. In some translations, Odysseus’s mother actually killed herself because it was prophesied that she would see him in Hades, so she thought he’d be dead. Instead, she was the one who died.
Some people believe in spirits and that they can see them and even that they can speak to them, maybe not exactly the way Odysseus spoke to the spirits but still, some people believe in them.
Links & References
1Not really a news flash
2But you know they won’t: foreshadow
3Funny how that always happens
4As he is loved and hated by the gods, he surely can’t be destroyed
5Riches solve all the worlds ills
6Loyal loving wife not so loyal? Or loving?
7Cue white-robed women spinning thread
8Odysseus and his men run away from shadows as fast as they can (Don’t be so cynical, it’s creepy there!)
9As well he should, there’s a hefty price on it
10a.k.a. The Map of Odysseus’ Life
11Refer back to “Who is seen…” section
12 a.k.a. Not Us
13Often indications of profession (Elpenor and his oar)
+Indicates symbolic significance
@Has symbolic significance but also serves as a reminder of the present situation. Simple-minded Greeks couldn’t keep up otherwise.
This Section By: Rachael F., Erin N.