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The Journey to the Land of the Dead in World Literature: Homer, Virgil, and Dante Essay

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Updated: Jan 6th, 2022

The journey to the Land of the Dead has had a gradually changing role for each of the poets that have used it. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus ventures to Hades, in Virgil’s The Aeneid, Aeneas goes to Orcus and in Dante’s Inferno, Dante ventures into the realm of Christian Hell. While Dante’s journey into hell serves the almost explicit purpose of painting a picture of the afterlife, Homer and Virgil’s depictions are shorter and reveal a different objective that is reflective of the time period in which they are written. However, each depiction of Hades, Orcus and Hell builds on the previous depiction and shows the poet’s perceptions of divine judgment.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus must travel to Hades in order to seek out information from the Thebian prophet Tiresias. After an already long journey back to Ithaca and many setbacks following the Trojan War, Odysseus is trying to find his way back. Following instructions of a witch-goddess named Circe, on whose island he had previously been living, Odysseus called spirits from Hades in order to get advice. Tiresias foretells Odysseus’ future path back to Ithaca and offers a couple of warnings in order to expedite his travels. Along with Tiresias, his mother, Anticleia, who tells him of her death from grief while awaiting his return, visits Odysseus. Elpenor, a crewman who had died from falling off Circe’s roof, also visits him and begs for a proper burial.

Odysseus also witnesses some of the punishments for the wicked souls in Hades. First is Sisyphus who was the first King of Corinth but was exceedingly deceitful and took pleasure in killing travelers and guests. His punishment in Hades is to repeatedly push a large boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down and have to complete the task again. The second is Tantalus who suffer from a hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied. Tantalus was initially welcomed at Zeus’ table on Mount Olympus, but was banished after stealing from the gods, revealing their secrets to his people and trying to offer his son as a sacrifice in a dinner.

Because of the nature of Homer’s work—its early date and its composition orally—it is often hard to decipher Homer’s words from that of mythological tradition. While the visit from Tiresias furthers the plot, the other visions do not necessarily do the same. For instance, when Odysseus meets Achilles they debate the merits of a short life of glory versus a long life of general anonymity. Odysseus argues of Achilles that “there’s not a man in the world more blest than you— / there never has been, never will be one. / Time was, when you were alive, we Argives / honored you as a god, and now down here, I see, / you lord it over the dead in all your power” (Homer, 11, 547). Wherein Achilles replies that he would “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, 11, 553).

Thus Homer provides a conception of justice in the afterlife that reflects the values of the ancient Greek culture. While those kings and tyrants who were immoral in life and committed atrocities are punished for the rest of eternity, the idea that conquerors are necessarily immoral is rejected. And while Achilles is still hesitant to accept his trade of life for eternal glory, he is a ruler of the underworld and still content to hear that his son has also become a great warrior.

In The Aeneid, Vigil tells of Aeneas who has been chosen by the gods to found a new city that will later become Rome. Aeneas’ trip to Orcus comes in the middle of the epic and is at a turning point in the poem. After reaching Italy Aeneas ventures to Orcus with the guidance of Sibyl of Cumae, a priestess who he meets at the Temple of Apollo. He is able to gain entrance after he finds a golden branch that is a symbol for the gods complicity in his attempt to reach Dis.

The beginning of The Inferno is loosely formatted in the same way as Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. First, he must be ferried across the river Acheron by Charon, the ferryman. In both Aeneas’ and Dante’s case, Charon challenges the visitor because they are still living and therefore would not be allowed to enter hell absent divine command, which both Aeneas and Dante possess. Aeneas observes souls on the bank of the river that are not allowed across on account of an improper burial. Similarly Dante witnesses souls on the banks, however there are slightly more theological reasons for their inability to cross. While the most obvious difference between Virgil’s Orcus and Dante’s Inferno is the Christian aspect (Virgil writing before the time of Christ) the system of justice that is prescribed within Virgil’s version provides some foundation for Dante’s own visions of the Christian Hell.

Moreover, Vigil’s conception of hell represents a bridge between Homer’s version and Dante’s version. While for Dante Christ was the intermediary sent by God to walk the Earth and save mankind, for Homer gods were a much more fluid convention, intervening regularly in human affairs, even to marry or have relations, and interaction between mortal and immortal was more ‘common.’ Warring between gods was commonplace and it was easy to be in the favor of one, while out of favor with another. Virgil’s explanation of Orcus thus presents a view of justice that is more universal, as mortal’s lives are judged based on their conduct while they were on Earth.

As Aeneas ventures into Orcus, he passes the Fields of Mourning and the fields of war heroes, a tribute to the celebrity status of warriors from Homer’s vision. Aeneas also passes Rhadamanthus who listens to the lives of souls who come forward and prescribes the punishments that they will be dealt for the remainder of eternity. This idea advances more than just the system of organization for the underworld; it is the foundation for the system of divine justice that fairly doles out levels of torture based on actions in life. Further into Orcus, Aeneas finds the Blessed Groves where his father is. This is Virgil’s equivalent of the Christian heaven and is where the good go to enjoy contentment after death. Aeneas’ father, Anchises, explains the significance of his journey and foreshadows the founding of the city of Rome that will one day rule the world. Thus, while still only a part of the epic that eventually advances the plot, the adventure to the underworld also provides a commentary on the afterlife by Virgil.

For Dante, the Virgil conception of the afterlife may not have been incompatible with his own Christian conception. When visiting the first ring of hell, known as limbo, Dante observes that the souls there are the ones that were not believers in life. However, prior to Christ’s death, this was also the place where Moses, Noah and other God-ordained Old Testament characters were sent. Then, upon Christ’s resurrection, he gathered those souls to be taken into heaven.

Dante’s epic is fundamentally different from The Aeneid and The Odyssey because the focus is on providing a framework for how souls are judged after death. Thus, while the conceptions of the underworld are tangential in the previous epics, Dante is focused on the transformation of his own views during the journey. Dante highlights his own compassion for the mortal soul that morphs as he establishes a universal conception of justice, with the help of his guide Virgil. In The Inferno, Dante is taken by Virgil on a journey through the underworld where he witnesses nine concentric rings of hell where the punishments and torture get progressively worse as the sins committed by the inhabitants get progressively worse: from the Upper Hell of self-indulgent sins, to violent sins, and finally to rings eight and nine of malicious sins.

Dante’s rings of hell provide a system of punishment that is proportional to the sins committed, rather than each sin being equal and receiving the same punishment. This vision offers an idea of a detached God that evaluates the mortal life based on a system of rules. Thus, as Dante’s understanding of the degree of the violation to God’s will each ring presumes, and with the guidance of Virgil, the character becomes less and less sympathetic to the suffering of the souls in hell.

As Dante ventures into hell Ulysses, Odysseus in the Greek, makes an appearance in the eighth circle. The eighth circle is reserved for malicious sins and Odysseus is relegated here because of the fraud perpetrated on the Trojans. In order to defeat Troy the Achaeans left a horse as a gift for the Trojans and then feigned sailing away. Once the horse was brought into the city, Achaean soldiers, hidden in the horse, broke out in the middle of the night and ransacked the city.

While scholars attribute several reasons for Dante to put Odysseus so deep within hell such as his reverence to Rome, the most consistent reason is Dante’s strict adherence to Christian morality. As witnessed in The Aeneid there has been a slow discounting of the absolute glory of warfare. Homer highlights the celebrity status of warriors in The Illiad that is then mildly contested in The Odyssey with the conversation between Achilles and Odysseus. In The Aeneid Virgil writes “Roman, remember by your strength to rule / Earth’s peoples—for your arts are to be these: / To pacify, to impose the rule of law, / To spare the conquered, battle down the proud,” (Virgil, VI, 1151) as a taming of the warrior ethic. In The Inferno this is tempered even more by placing the great Greek hero Odysseus in a high ring of hell as a result of his immoral means of warfare.

The journey to the Land of the Dead has played varying roles throughout the history of the epic, but through its use one can see the evolving idea of the underworld. From Homer to Virgil to Dante conceptions of divine justice become more solidified and the celebration of war heroes becomes more limited. Each depiction of Hades, Orcus or Hell builds on the previous version that culminates in the Christian Hell in The Inferno, solidifying the underlying themes and moral structures in each of the previous works.

Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Print

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006. Print.

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