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Homer’s The Odyssey remains one of the most popular classical texts, particularly due to its captivating narrative and the fact that the work allows expanding the readers’ understanding of the Ancient World. The roles of fate and prophecy are addressed throughout the story, whereas the detailed portrayal of the Greek concepts of death and the underworld provides an excellent insight into the culture that gave birth to the literary work. For instance, Retief and Cilliers argue that Book XI of The Odyssey largely shaped the perception of Hades, or the Greek land of the dead, as well as of the Ancient views on death and the afterlife, in the later centuries (45). Books VIII to XI of The Odyssey is also particularly interesting as they include both an overview of Odysseus’ adventures prior to his captivity on Calypso’s island and an account of his current adventures.
Such a variety of the time periods studied in the text allows for a deeper exploration of the issues of fate and the images of prophecy, as evident in Books VIII to XI. Gartziou-Tatti shows that fate is examined throughout the work, but Odysseus’ story of his wanderings, as well as his interactions with the deceased people in Hades, provide the poet with another angle for the exploration of these concepts (16-18). Finally, Odysseus’ tale, or the Apologue, represents a narrative structure that is characteristic of the Homeric poems (De Jong 221). However, De Jong argues that the Apologue is unique in its scale and examination of the themes and motives of The Odyssey: “This is by far the longest embedded story in the Homeric epics and, together with his many lying tales, forms the basis for Odysseus’ status as ‘singer’” (221). This paper aims to explore the narrative of Books VIII to XI, including the quest narration, as well as the representation of fate, prophetic images, death, and the underworld in this part of The Odyssey.
Fate and Prophecy
In The Odyssey, the nature of fate is rather interesting. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether Odysseus will return to Ithaca in the end. The resolution of the story is clear from the very beginning. However, Gartziou-Tatti argues that:
The total sum of the poet’s information can be generally demarcated into two categories: those events that have already taken place up to the specific moment of time within the narrative, and those events that will happen. (Gartziou-Tatti 12)
The fate of Odysseus is known to the audience and the poet; it is the hero who is not usually aware of what is coming next. The only characters that have the knowledge of the story and Odysseus’ fate are divine characters, including gods, half-gods, and deities. The cannot impact the outcome of Odysseus’ journey since it is predetermined; however, they can either act as prophetic mediums or influence the course of the story, by assisting Odysseus or, on the contrary, postponing his return home.
Book IX is an excellent example of how the divine knowledge of fate is used in the poem. At the end of the Book, Odysseus manages to escape the Cyclopes’ island by blinding Polyphemus. After the Cyclops learns his name, he cries out (Homer IX.566-570):
We once had a prophet here, a great tall man,
Telemus, Eurymus’ son, a master at reading signs,
who grew old in his trade among his fellow-Cyclops.
All this, he warned me, would come to pass someday –
that I’d be blinded here at the hands of one Odysseus.
Despite the fact that the Cyclops could not influence the outcome of the episode, being a half-god, he had complete and certain knowledge of the upcoming events before they occurred. Moreover, he acts as a prophetic medium by cursing Odysseus (Homer IX.588-595):
…Odysseus, raider of cities,
Laertes’ son who makes his home in Ithaca,
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never reaches home. Or if he’s fated to see
his people once again and reach his well-built house
and his own native country, let him come home late
and come to a broken man – all shipmates lost,
alone in a stranger’s ship –
and let him find a world of pain at home!
After the Cyclops’ curse is pronounced, it is evident to the audience that it is prophetic; Odysseus will indeed come back home a broken man on a stranger’s ship, and he will have to fight Penelope’s suitors who took residence in his home before he can return to his place as the rightful king of Ithaca.
Cyclops’ father Poseidon, on the other hand, is also an example of god’s influence on fate. Even though he is a god, he is unable to impact the known outcome of Odysseus’ story; however, he can still create obstacles that would postpone the hero’s return home, thus avenging his son Polyphemus. Poseidon’s curse is explained in another prophecy in Book XI when Odysseus speaks to the dead prophet Tiresias (Homer XI.113-116):
…a god will make it hard for you – I know
you will never escape the one who shakes the earth
quaking with anger at you still, still enraged
because you blinded the Cyclops, his dear son.
The dead prophet explains to Odysseus what is already clear to the audience: that the misfortunes in his travels are due to Poseidon’s wrath and the curse that Polyphemus has put on Odysseus. The fact that the prophet knows of the plot can be partly attributed to the fact that he is no longer part of the human world; he is somewhere between the divine and the human, which is why he is one of the characters who can explain the current event and predict the future. This is further highlighted by Tiresias’ further words (Homer XI.129-132):
And even if you escape, you’ll come home late
and come to a broken man – all shipmates lost,
alone in a stranger’s ship –
and you will find a world of pain at home
The words of the prophet mirror those of Polyphemus (Homer IX.592-595), which supports the parallel between a dead soul and a half-divine being, emphasizing that fate is only known to those outside the human realm.
Overall, throughout the story, the poet portrays fate as being the power above all else; in the world of The Odyssey, the fate is pre-determined, and neither the gods nor the humans can alter the hero’s destiny. However, the beings that are not part of the human world have a somewhat tighter relationship with future events, in that they can influence the course of the story without changing its outcome, like Poseidon who has made Odysseus’ journey more difficult, or enlighten the hero on his future, as Tiresias does in Book XI.
Death and the Underworld
To start with, it is necessary to underline that the topic of death and the underworld occupied the minds of many ancient poets. Homer was not an exception. Therefore, Book XI of The Odyssey is devoted to the main character’s descending to Hades and his communicating with ghosts.
It is acknowledged that Odysseus could not return to Ithaka since he was followed by Poseidon’s wrath. Therefore, so as to clarify his further route, Odysseus had to get a prediction from Tiresias’s ghost that was to be found in Hades. Odysseus’s ship was taken to the far north. This was the place where the sun did not rise, and three rivers met and went to Hades. The goodness of magic Circe had given Odysseus two black sheep in order to attract ghosts with sacrificial blood. Odysseus put some honey, wine, and grains to the sacrificial hole. Then he poured some blood and called the gods of the Underworld – Hades and his spouse Persephone. Ghosts started to fly together over the holes, but Odysseus had to keep them off with his sword. He needed Tiresias’s ghost to be the first to taste the blood in order to get a prediction. It is critical to point out that Tiresias managed to preserve his diaphragm, which was considered as the reservoir of the mind. So, he was the only one not to lose his consciousness:
The great blind prophet whose mind remains unshaken.
Even in death – Persephone has given him wisdom,
Everlasting vision to him and him alone…
The rest of the dead are empty, flitting shades (Homer X.115-119).
So, Tiresias’s ghost tasted the blood and revealed to Odysseus that Poseidon’s wrath would cause much trouble to Odysseus and his companions. However, Odysseus would be able to return to the motherland upon the sacrifice to all the gods. Next, Odysseus saw his mother’s ghost. As a matter of fact, when Odysseus was leaving home, she was alive. His mother did not recognize him until she tasted some blood. Nevertheless, afterward, she told Odysseus what was going on in Ithaka. He tried to hug her but in vain since she was unbodied. Then, Odysseus met the heroes’ ghosts. He was sorrowful to find out about Agamemnon’s death. The greatest hero Achilles was glad to see the story of his son’s feats under Troy. Despite this, in reply to Odysseus’s praise he pronounced his famous utterance about ghosts’ unhappy life in Hades:
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 (Homer XI.356-359).
Ajax was the only one who failed to forgive Odysseus and did not reply to his reconciliatory speech. Odysseus witnessed the last judgment of Minos, who was sitting with his gold scepter in front of a crowd of ghosts in the palace of Hades. Besides, Odysseus happened to see the giant Orion who had dared to compete with Artemis in the art of hunting. Hence, Orion was sentenced to his everlasting hunt in Hades. After that, Odysseus saw the shadow of Heracles. However, it was difficult to understand whether it was just a phantom or the hero himself who was enjoying his immortality among the Olympic gods. Odysseus was willing to see other heroes. In spite of this, the ghosts’ cry brought a terrifying thought to his mind: Persephone could send the phantom of Gorgon to turn Odysseus and his crew into stones. So, they decided to leave Hades immediately.
Taken into account the above said, it is possible to arrive at the conclusion that, at the times of Odysseus, the dead had the power to cause harm to them alive. Therefore, the alive had to be careful when descending to Hades. The underworld was considered as a dull place where it was boring even to be a king. The dead would have preferred being alive and having a lower status in the world of them alive. However, it was not possible anymore. Besides, it is essential to note that the description of the underworld happens to appear full of controversies. Phantoms in Hades were unbodied and soulless, as well as they were deprived of their mind and memory. However, unbodied ghosts were scared of a sword. What is more, Tiresias was the only one to possess his mind and memory. However, he needed to taste sacrificial blood to use his gift of a foreteller. Apart from that, in Hades, ghosts continued their secular activities. Nevertheless, these activities tended to be devoid of any sense. Moreover, it is reasonable to point out that, contrary to many other poems of those days, the visit to the underworld in The Odyssey was not motivated (De Long 164).
The Quest Narrative
Odysseus’s narration contains the story of his adventures. These are mainly Books VIII-IX. The character speculates on the events which have happened to him and gives their evaluation.
Odysseus started speaking about his adventures. He outlined his departure from the shores of Troy. Besides, he dwelt upon the destruction of the city of Ciconians and touched his companions’ death. He continued speaking about the storm which entrained his visit to lotus-eaters. Afterward, his ship reached the area where Cyclopes lived. Odysseus decided to leave his ships by one of the islands and took one ship to the Cyclopes’ shores. He chose twelve of his companions to go to the cave of Polyphemus. In the course of this visit, six of Odysseus’s companions died. However, the hero himself was rather brave and skillful enough. Odysseus managed to inebriate Polyphemus. Next, he pierced his eye with his sword, and, thus, he rescued his companions and himself. They purloin the Cyclope’s herd and came back to their ships. However, Polyphemus was so furious that he addressed to his father Poseidon and asked him to take revenge on Odysseus and his crew for the deed:
Hear me –
Poseidon, the god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth!
If I really am your son and you claim to be my father –
Come, grant that Odysseus, raider of cities,
Laertes’ son who makes him home in Ithaka,
Never reaches home (Homer IX.136-142).
Therefore, Odysseus was doomed to the everlasting travel in the kingdom of Poseidon, who was furious with his son’s offender. In his narration, Odysseus sounded confident when he described the events. He did not seem to have anything to regret. However, it is obvious that he was willing to come back home to Troy and that he would continue struggling for this.
In conclusion, it is necessary to state that this paper has been devoted to the concepts of fate, prophecy, death, and the underworld in Books VIII-XI of The Odyssey by Homer. The paper has analyzed these notions. Besides, the paper has considered the narration by Odysseus where the character describes his adventures.
Gartziou-Tatti, Ariadni. “Prophecy and Time in The Odyssey.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, vol. 96, no. 3, 2010, pp. 11-28.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics, 1997.
Retief, François P., and Louise Cilliers. “Burial Customs, the Afterlife and the Pollution of Death in Ancient Greece.” Acta Theologica, vol. 26, no. 2, 2006, pp. 44-61.
De Jong, Irene J. F. A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey. Cambridge University Press, 2001.