My Odyssey Journal 3The Odyssey Books 10-11
Odysseus in Hades
copyright 1998, 2008
by Tracy Marks (alias Torrey Philemon)
Tiresias Shades Drinking Blood
The Nature of Hades Elysian Fields
Meetings with Shades The Purpose and Learning
Tiresias, the Blind Seer
image at top of page: 5th century vase, southern Italy
Tiresias links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiresias
Tiresias was blinded by the gods for reasons which are debatable - because he disclosed their secrets, discovered Athena naked, or told Hera that women get more pleasure from sex than men. As an androgynous being, he had the opportunity to live both as a man or woman, and understand the experience of both.
What symbolism exists in Odysseus' encounter with Tiresias? What does Tiresias' blindness or androgynous experience mean in regard to Odysseus development? Perhaps Odysseus has been "blind", and is learning the lessons of both the masculine and the feminine.
Shades Drinking Blood
Why do the shades drink blood in Hades? Do they desire or need to feed off the living, incorporating the blood of life in order to make contact with those who are still alive?
The Nature of Hades
image captured from video at
What Dreams May Come web site
I am trying to understand the nature of Hades as portrayed in the Odyssey. Different Greek myths and epics portray it somewhat differently. According to the Greek Underworld site listed above, Hades consists of several realms - including Tartarus,
Hades proper, and the Elysian Fields. The former is akin to hell, a place of punishment, and the latter a kind of heaven, where a few select heroes get to reside in paradise.
Odysseus does not experience Tartarus, or meet souls residing in Tartarus, which is the "lowest abyss beneath the earth where all waters originate" and the place of punishment.... At the top of its tower of Iron sits the Erinye Tisiphone, with her bloody robe, and sleepless day and night, guards the entrance. Rhadamanthys, who rules in Tartarus, is sometimes said to be the one that, with severe rule, tries and chastises wrongdoers and forces confessions."
He also does not penetrate far into Hades, but only accesses its outer portal. Hades appears to be a kind of endless purgatory, closer to our concept of hell however than our concept of heaven.
Image created by Torrey Philemon in online art
program at What Dreams May Come website.
The Odyssey does not discuss the Elysian Fields, where some heroes (i.e. Orpheus) go after death. Heracles is known to exist in the Elysian Fields, but his shade also appears in Hades.
According to the http://home5.swipnet.se/~w-58907/GGGM-F/Underworld.html site,
"Some say that the soul receives judgement in the meadow (the Plain of Judgement) at the dividing of the road, whence are the two ways leading, one to the Isles of the Blest (or Elysium), and the other to Tartarus...
Elysium is a happy place which has a sun and stars of its own. The souls in Elysium cannot be grasped and are like phantoms . Those who dwell in Elysium exercise upon grassy playing-fields or wrestle friendly on yellow sands; some dance and others sing or chant poems. According to some in Elysium, which is considered to be ruled by Cronos, live also those who are not yet born. These souls swarm along the banks of the river Lethe (Oblivion)...
The souls who are destined for reincarnation drink from Lethe's stream and quench their troubles in forgetfulness so that they may return to corporeal existence on earth. This strange desire (some say perverse) for earthly existence appears to be a part of the laws governing the universe. Some of them, however, stay in Elysium, not needing to reincarnate in order to regain original purity, but the majority return to earth with their memories deleted after having drunk from the waters of Lethe.
I wonder: Why does Homer, in portraying Odysseus' descent, not refer to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields? Does he not believe in their existence? Is he being true to the epic he originally learned, which did not indicate that Odysseus experienced either of the two? Or is he selectively portraying parts of Hades in order to focus on a particular message - or some particular learnings that Odysseus gained as a result of his descent?
Meetings with Shades
In Hades, Odysseus receives guidance about his future. He also encounters the shades of his mother and other significant women ancestors from his past, and the male heroes he has fought with in the Trojan War, including Agamamenon, Ajax, and Achilles (who confesses that he is miserable in Hades).
Ajax can not forgive him and angrily confronts Odysseus, refusing to make peace. Odysseus also discovers that shades have no body, can not be touched, and live a very unhappy, insubstantial and meaningless existence.
Indeed, many shades grasp at him, in a desperate attempt to express their anguish and reach out to life.
I find myself wondering: What is the purpose of each of these encounters? How do these meetings impact Odysseus? How do their effects upon him differ? How have the heroes of the Trojan War changed since arriving in Hades?
The Purpose and Learning
What is the purpose of Odysseus descent into the Underworld? What does he learn as a result of these encounters, and how do these learnings affect him later?
According to most studies of the Odyssey, Odysseus learns that life after death is
an empty existence lacking in satisfaction. He comes to terms with the reality of death, and also realizes that immortality offers no more than what he has witnessed in Hades. As a result, he is not tempted later by Calypso's offer of immortality.
This latter interpretation is unclear to me, as the Odyssey includes no clear description of what immortality actually involves. Is it indeed ongoing existence in Hades, or does it involve life in the Elysian Fields, or up on Olympus? Scholars seem to interpret it, as portrayed in the Odyssey, as a promise of a threadbare existence in Hades, which would mean that immortality is not at all desirable. But my impression, reading the Odyssey is that immortality means more than this.....existence in the Elysian Fields or Olympus, not in Hades proper.
Jean Houston, The Hero and the Goddess
TO BE CONTINUED:
More Thoughts on the Odyssey
Back to page one: questions.htm
Back to page two: The Odyssey Questions 2
See also: Calypso's Isle by Tracy Marks
See also: The Odyssey Chat One transcript
The Odyssey Chat Two transcript
The Odyssey Chat Three Transcript (Hades etc.)
other transcripts follow