HOMER
ODYSSEY

 

Translated by Ian Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.
Revised Edition 2019

 

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For a Rich Text Format Version of the entire Odyssey, please use the following link: Odyssey [RTF]

 

BOOK ELEVEN
ODYSSEUS MEETS THE SHADES OF THE DEAD

[Odysseus continues his narrative: Odysseus and his men sail to Oceanus, land there, and make a sacrifice; the shades of the dead come up out of the hole; Elpenor’s shade appears first and asks for burial; then Odysseus’s mother appears; Odysseus has a conversation with Teiresias, who prophesies his future and his death; Odysseus talks with his mother, who gives him news of his family; a series of female shades appears: Tyro, Antiope, Alcmene, Megara, Jocasta, Chloris, Leda, Iphimedea, Phaedra, Procis, Ariadne, Maera, Clymene, and Eriphyle; Odysseus interrupts his narrative to discuss his leaving Phaeacia with Alcinous; Odysseus resumes his story and tells of his encounters with Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax; Odysseus describes Minos and Orion and the punishments of Tityus, Tantalus, and Sisyphus; the final shade to appear and speak to Odysseus is the image of Hercules; Odysseus and his men return to the ship and sail away from Oceanus.]

 

“Once we had reached our boat down on the beach,
we dragged it out into the gleaming sea,
set up the mast and sail in our black ship,
led on the sheep, and then embarked ourselves,
still full of sorrow, shedding many tears.
But that fearful goddess with a human voice,
fair-haired Circe, sent us a welcome breeze,
blowing from behind our dark-prowed ship—
it filled the sail, an excellent companion.
When we had checked the gear all through the ship,                     10
we just sat—wind and helmsman held the course.                            [10]
All day long, the sail stayed full. We sped on
across the sea, until the sun went down
and all sea routes grew dark. Our ship then reached
the banks of the deep stream Oceanus,
where Cimmerians have their lands and city,
a region always wrapped in mist and cloud.
Bright Helios never gazes down on them,
not when he rises into starry heaven,
or when he turns again from heaven to earth.                                  20
Fearful Night envelops wretched mortals.
We sailed in there, then dragged our ship on shore,                          [20]
and walked along the stream of Oceanus,
until we reached the place Circe described.(1)

Perimedes and Eurylochus held the sheep,
our sacrificial victims, while I unsheathed
the sharp sword on my thigh and dug a hole,
two feet each way. I poured out libations
to all the dead—first with milk and honey,
second with wine, and a third with water.                                        30
Around the pit I sprinkled barley meal.
Then to the helpless heads of the departed
I offered many prayers, with promises
I’d sacrifice, once I returned to Ithaca,
the finest barren heifer in my home,                                                         [30]
and load the altar with fine gifts, as well.
To Teiresias in a different sacrifice
I’d offer up a ram, for him alone,
the finest in my flocks. With prayers and vows
I called upon the families of the dead.                                              40
Next, I held out the sheep above the hole,
slit their throats, and let the dark blood flow.

Then out of Erebus came swarming up
shades of the dead—brides, young unmarried men,
old ones worn out with toil, young tender girls,
with hearts still new to grief, and many men
wounded by bronze spears, who’d died in battle,                              [40]
still in their blood-stained armour. Crowds of them
came thronging in from all sides of the pit,
with amazing cries. Pale fear seized my heart.                                 50
Then I called my comrades, ordering them
to flay and burn the sheep still lying there,
slain by cruel bronze, and pray to the gods,
to mighty Hades and Persephone.
And then I drew the sharp sword on my thigh
and sat there, stopping the powerless heads
of all the dead from getting near the blood,
until I’d asked Teiresias my questions.                                                     [50]

The first shade to appear out of the pit
was my companion Elpenor, whose corpse                                        60
had not been buried in the broad-tracked earth.
We’d left his body back in Circe’s house,
without lament or burial—at the time
another need was driving us away.
When I saw him, I wept. My heart felt pity.
So I called out to him—my words had wings:

‘Elpenor, how did you come to this place,
this gloomy darkness? You got here on foot
faster than I did, sailing my black ship.’

I spoke. He groaned and gave me his reply:                                       70

‘Resourceful Odysseus, Laertes’ son,                                             [60]
and child of Zeus, some fatal deity
has brought me down—that and too much wine.
In Circe’s house, after I’d been sleeping,
I didn’t think of using the long ladder
to get back again. So I fell headfirst,
down off the roof. The impact broke my neck,
shattering the spine. My shade departed,
and went down to Hades. I beg you now,
in the name of shipmates we’ve left behind,                           80
the ones who are not with us, of your wife,
and your father, who reared you as a child,
and Telemachus, whom you left at home,
your only son. I know that your fine ship
will sail away from this home of Hades
and once more reach the island of Aeaea,                                       [70]
where, my lord, I ask you to remember me.
When you go from there, don’t abandon me,
unburied, unlamented. Don’t turn away,
or I may bring gods’ anger down on you.                                 90
Burn me with all the armour I possess.
Raise a mound for me by the gray sea shore,
in memory of an unlucky man,
for those in times to come. Do this for me.
And on the tomb there fix the oar I used
while I lived and rowed with my companions.’

He finished. I answered him and promised:

‘You poor man, I’ll do this, complete it all.’                                    [80]

So we two sat in gloomy conversation,
I, on one side, with my sharp sword held high,                                100
above the blood, and, on the other side,
the shade of my companion speaking out.

Then appeared the ghost of my dead mother,
Anticleia, Autolycus’s child.
I’d left her still alive when I set off
for sacred Troy. Once I caught sight of her,
I wept, and I felt pity in my heart.
Nonetheless, in spite of my great sorrow,
I could not let her get too near the blood,
until I’d questioned blind Teiresias.                                                  110

The shade of Teiresias from Thebes appeared,                                        [90]
holding a gold staff. He knew who I was
and started speaking:

                                           ‘Venturous Odysseus,
Laertes’ son and Zeus’s child, what now,
you unlucky man? Why leave the sunlight,
come to this joyless place, and see the dead?
Move from the pit and pull away your sword,
so I may drink the blood and speak the truth.’

When Teiresias said this, I drew back
and thrust my studded sword inside its sheath.                              120
Once the blameless prophet had drunk dark blood,
he said these words:

                                           ‘Glorious Odysseus,                                  [100]
you ask about your honey-sweet return.
But a god will make your journey bitter.
I don’t think you can evade Poseidon,
whose heart is angry at you, full of rage
because you blinded his dear son.(2) But still,
though you will suffer, you may still get home,
if you will curb your comrades and your heart.
As soon as you’ve escaped the dark blue sea                           130
and reached the island of Thrinacia
in your sturdy ship, you’ll find grazing there
the cattle and rich flocks of Helios,
who hears and watches over everything.
If you leave them unharmed and keep your mind                         [110]
on your return, you may reach Ithaca,
though you’ll have trouble. But if you touch them,
then I foresee destruction for your crew,
for you, and for your ship. And even if
you yourself escape, you’ll get home again                             140
late and grieving, in someone else’s ship,
after losing all of your companions.
There’ll be trouble at home—insolent men
eating up your livelihood and wooing
your godlike wife by giving courtship gifts.
But when you come, you’ll surely take revenge
for all their violence. Once you have killed
the suitors in your house with your sharp sword,                    [120]
by cunning or in public, then take up
a well-made oar and go, until you reach                                 150
a people who know nothing of the sea,
who don’t put salt on any food they eat,
and have no knowledge of ships painted red
or well-made oars that serve those ships as wings.
I’ll tell you a sure sign you won’t forget—
when someone else runs into you and says
you’ve got a shovel used for winnowing
on your broad shoulders, then fix that fine oar
in the ground, and offer rich sacrifice                                             [130]
to lord Poseidon with a ram, a bull,                                         160
and a boar that breeds with sows. And then leave.(3)
Go home, and there make sacred offerings
to immortal gods, who hold wide heaven,
all of them in order. Your death will come
out of the sea, such a gentle passing,
when you are bowed down with a ripe old age,
and your people prospering around you.
In all these things I’m telling you the truth.’(4)

He finished speaking. Then I replied and said:

‘Teiresias, no doubt the gods themselves                                170
have spun the threads of this. But come, tell me—                      [140]
and speak the truth—I can see there the shade
of my dead mother, sitting near the blood,
saying nothing. She does not dare confront
the face of her own son or speak to him.
Tell me, my lord, how she may understand
just who I am.’

                                          When I’d finished speaking,
Teiresias quickly gave me his reply:

‘I’ll tell you so your mind will comprehend.
It’s easy. Whichever shadow of the dead                                  180
you let approach the blood will speak to you
and tell the truth, but those you keep away
will once again withdraw.’

                                 After these words,                                                       [150]
the shade of lord Teiresias returned
to Hades, having made his prophecy.
But I stayed there undaunted, till my mother
came up and drank dark blood. Then she knew me.
Full of sorrow, she spoke—her words had wings:

‘My son, how have you come while still alive
down to this sad darkness? For living men                              190
it’s difficult to come and see these things—
huge rivers, fearful streams, stand between us,
first and foremost, Oceanus, which no man
can cross on foot. He needs a sturdy ship.
Have you only now journeyed here from Troy,                              [160]
after a long time wandering with your ship
and your companions? Have you still not reached
Ithaca or seen your wife in your own house?’

Once she’d finished, I answered her:

                                                                           ‘Mother,
I had to come down here to Hades’ house,                             200
meet the shade of Teiresias of Thebes,
and hear his prophecy. I have not yet
come near Achaea’s shores or disembarked
in our own land. I’ve been wandering round
in constant misery, ever since I left
with noble Agamemnon, bound for Troy,
that city celebrated for its horses,
to fight against the Trojans. But come now,
tell me this—and make sure you speak the truth—                 [170]
what grievous form of death took you away?                           210
A lengthy illness? Did archer Artemis
attack and kill you with her gentle arrows?(5)
And tell me of my father and my son,
whom I left behind. Do they still possess
my kingship, or has another man already
taken it, because they now are saying
I won’t be coming back? Tell me of the wife
I married. What are her thoughts and plans?
Is she still there with our son, keeping watch
on everything? Or has she been married                                  220
to the finest of Achaeans?’

                                                    When I said this,                                      [180]
my honoured mother answered me at once:

‘You can be sure she’s waiting in your home,
her heart still faithful. But her nights and days
all end in sorrow, with her shedding tears.
As for your noble kingship rights, no one
has taken them as yet. Telemachus
controls the land unchallenged and can feast
in banquets with his equals, or at least
those which any man who renders judgment                         230
should by rights attend. They all invite him.(6)
As for your father, he stays on his farm
and never travels down into the town.
He has no bed or bedding—and lacks cloaks
or shining coverlets. In wintertime,
he sleeps inside the house beside his slaves,                             [190]
in the dirt close to the fire, and he wears
disgraceful clothes. During the summer months
and in fruitful autumn, he makes his bed
from fallen leaves scattered across the ground,                     240
here and there, all through his sloping vineyard.
He lives in sorrow, nursing in his heart
enormous grief, longing for your return.
A harsh old age has overtaken him.
That’s how I met my fate and died, as well.
I was not struck and killed inside my home
by gentle arrows of the keen-eyed archer,
nor did I die of some disease which steals                                      [200]
spirit from our limbs, as we waste away
in pain. No. It was my longing for you,                                     250
glorious Odysseus, for your loving care,
that robbed me of my life, so honey sweet.’

She finished. In my heart I thought about
how much I yearned to hold my mother’s shade.
My spirit urged me to clasp her in my arms.
Three times I moved towards her, but each time
she slipped away, like a shadow or a dream.
The pain inside my heart grew even sharper.
Then I called out to her—my words had wings:

‘Mother, why do you not linger with me?                                260   [210]
I’d like to hold you, so that even here
in Hades, we might throw our loving arms
around each other and then have our fill
of icy lamentation. Or are you
a phantom royal Persephone has sent
to make me groan and grieve still more?’

                                                               I spoke.
My honoured mother quickly answered me:

‘My child, of all men most unfortunate,
no, dread Persephone, daughter of Zeus,
is not deceiving you. Once mortals die,                                   270
this is what’s ordained for them. Their sinews
no longer hold the flesh and bone together.
The mighty power of a blazing fire                                                  [220]
destroys them, once our spirit flies from us,
from our white bones. And then it slips away,
and, like a dream, it flutters to and fro.
But hurry to the light. Do it quickly.
Remember all these things, so later on
you can describe the details to your wife.’

As we talked together, some women came,                                      280
all wives and daughters of the noblest men,
sent out by queen Persephone. They flocked
in a throng by the black blood. I wondered
how I could get to question each of them.
To my heart the best idea seemed to be                                                   [230]
to draw the sharp sword by my sturdy thigh
and stop them drinking dark blood all at once.
So they came forward one by one in turn,
and each of them described her lineage,
and I could question every one of them.                                            290
There I saw high-born Tyro first of all,
daughter, she said, of noble Samoneus,
and wife of Cretheus, son of Aeolus.
She’d loved the river god Enipeus,
most beautiful by far of all the streams
that flow on earth. She used to stroll along                                             [240]
beside the lovely waters of Enipeus.
But the Encircler and Shaker of the Earth,
taking on the form of Enipeus,
lay with her in the foaming river mouth.(7)                                        300
A high dark wave rose arching over them,
like a mountain, keeping them well hidden,
the mortal woman and the god. Poseidon
removed the virgin’s belt and made her sleep.
After he’d finished having sex with her,
the god then held her by the hand and said:

‘Woman, be happy about making love.
Before the year goes by, you will give birth
to splendid children, for a god’s embrace
does not lack power. Take good care of them,                         310   [250]
and raise them well. But now you must go home.
No word of this—do not tell anyone.
Know that I am Earthshaker Poseidon.’

That said, he plunged into the surging sea.
Tyro conceived and then gave birth to sons,
Pelias and Neleus, and they became
two stalwart followers of mighty Zeus.
Pelias lived in spacious Iolcus,
where he owned many flocks, and Neleus
made his home in sandy Pylos. Tyro,                                                  320
delivered other sons to Cretheus—
Aeson and Pheres and Amythaon—
who loved to ride a chariot to war.

I saw Antiope, child of Asopus.                                                                  [260]
She boasted she’d made love with Zeus himself,
and borne two sons, Zethus and Amphion,
who first established seven-gated Thebes,
encircling it with walls—for all their strength,
they lacked power to live in spacious Thebes,
unless the place was fortified. After her,                                           330
I saw Alcmene, Amphitryon’s wife,
who had sex with powerful Zeus and bore
that great fighter, lion-hearted Hercules.
And I saw Megara, proud Creon’s child,
who married that son of Amphitryon,
a man whose fighting spirit never flagged.                                         [270]
The next I saw was Oedipus’s mother,
fair Jocasta, who, against her knowledge,
undertook a monstrous act—she married
her own son.(8) After he killed his father,                                         340
he made his mother his wife. Then the gods
showed everyone the truth. But Oedipus,
thanks to the fatal counsels of the gods,
for all his painful suffering, remained king
in lovely Thebes, ruling the Cadmeans.
But she descended down to Hades’ home,
the mighty gaoler. She’d tied a fatal noose
to a roof-beam high above her head and died,
overwhelmed with grief. But she left behind
enormous agonies for Oedipus,                                                          350
all that a mother’s Furies can inflict.                                                         [280]
Next I saw lovely Chloris, whom Neleus
married because she was so beautiful,
after he’d given countless courtship gifts.
She was the youngest child of Amphion,
son of Iasus, once the mighty king
of Minyan Orchomenus. In Pylos,
as queen, she bore Neleus splendid children—
Nestor, Chromius, Periclymenus,
and lovely Pero, a mortal wonder,                                                      360
so much so that all the neighbouring men
sought her hand in marriage. But Neleus
would not give her up, except to someone
who drove great Iphicles’s cattle herd                                                 [290]
from Phylace—broad-faced beasts with spiral horns,
and hard to manage. A trusty prophet
was the only one who promised he would try,
but a sad fate determined by the gods
ensnared him—those savage cattle herders
threw him in prison, a cruel bondage.                                               370
But as the days and months went by, bringing
a change in seasons, the new year rolled in,
and mighty Iphicles had him released—
after he’d told them all his prophecies,
and Zeus’s will then came to be fulfilled.(9)
I saw Leda, wife of Tyndareus.
She bore Tyndareus two noble sons,
horse-taming Castor and Polydeuces,                                                       [300]
the illustrious boxer.(10) Life-giving earth                                          380
has buried them, although they live on still.
Even in the world below Zeus honours them.
On every other day they are alive
and then, on alternating days, are dead.
And they have won respect reserved for gods.

After Leda, I saw Iphimedea,
wife of Aloeus. Poseidon, she said,
had made love to her, and she’d had two sons,
godlike Otus and famous Ephialtes.
Though neither one of them lived very long,                                    390
grain-giving Earth had raised them up to be
the tallest and handsomest men by far,                                                    [310]
after glorious Orion. They stood,
at nine years of age, twenty-two feet wide
and fifty-four feet high.(11) But they threatened
to bring the battle din of furious war
against the immortals on Olympus.
They wished to pile Mount Ossa on Olympus,
and stack Pelion with its trembling woods
on top of Ossa.(12) Then they could storm heaven.                            400
And if they’d reached their full-grown height as men,
they could well have done it. But Zeus’s son,
the one whom Leto bore, killed both of them,
before the hair below their temples grew
and hid their chins beneath a full-fledged beard.(13)                              [320]
I saw Phaedra, Procris, and Ariadne,
daughter of Minos, whose mind loved slaughter.
Theseus brought her once away from Crete
to the hill in sacred Athens. But he got
no joy of her. Before he did, Artemis                                                   410
on sea-girt Dia murdered Ariadne,
because of something Dionysus said.(14)

And then I saw Maera and Clymene,
and despicable Eriphyle, who sold
her dear husband’s life for a gift of gold.
I cannot mention all the woman I saw,
every wife and daughter of those heroes—
immortal night would end before I finished.                                            [330]
It’s time to sleep, in my swift ship or here.
How I am escorted from this palace                                                    420
is now up to you and the immortals.”

Odysseus paused. All Phaeacians sat in silence,
saying not a word, spellbound in the shadowy hall.
The first to speak was white-armed Arete, who said:

“Phaeacians, how does this man seem to you
for beauty, stature, and within himself,
a fair, well-balanced mind? He is my guest,
though each of you shares in this honour, too.
So don’t be quick to send him on his way,
and don’t hold back your gifts to one in need.                                  430   [340]
Thanks to the good will of the gods, you have
many fine possessions stored in your homes.”

Then old warrior Echeneus addressed them all—
one of the Phaeacian elders there among them:

“Friends, what our wise queen has just said to us,
as we’d expect, is not wide of the mark.
You must attend to her. But the last word
and the decision rest with Alcinous.”

Once Echeneus finished, Alcinous spoke out:

“The queen indeed will have the final word,                                     440
as surely as I live and am the king
of the Phaeacians, men who love the oar.
But though our guest is longing to return,                                              [350]
let him agree to stay until tomorrow.
By then I’ll have collected all our gifts.
His leaving here is everyone’s concern,
especially mine, since I control this land.”

Resourceful Odysseus then answered him and said:

“Lord Alcinous, of all men most renowned,
if you asked me to stay for one whole year,                                       450
to arrange my escort and give splendid gifts,
then I would still agree. It’s far better
to get back to one’s own dear native place
with more wealth in hand. I’ll win more respect,                                    [360]
more love from anyone who looks at me,
whenever I return to Ithaca.”

Alcinous then replied to him and said:

                                                     “Odysseus,
when we look at you, we do not perceive
that you’re in any way a lying fraud,
like many men the black earth nourishes                                          460
and scatters everywhere, who make up lies
from things no man has seen. You speak so well,
and you have such a noble heart inside.
You’ve told your story with a minstrel’s skill,                                           [370]
the painful agonies of the Argives
and your own, as well. Come then, tell me this—
and speak the truth—did you see your comrades,
those godlike men who went with you to Troy
and met their fate there? This night before us
will be lengthy, astonishingly so.                                                       470
It’s not yet time to sleep here in the halls,
so tell me of these marvellous events.
I could stay here until bright Dawn arrives,
if you’d agree to tell me in this room
the tale of your misfortunes.”

                                    Adventurous Odysseus
then answered him and said:

                                                                  “Lord Alcinous,
most renowned among all men, there’s a time
for many stories and a time for sleep.
If you are eager to hear even more,                                                             [380]
I will not hesitate to speak to you                                                       480
of other things more pitiful than these.
I mean the troubles of those friends of mine
who perished later—they managed to escape
the Trojans’ fearsome battle cries, but died
when they returned, thanks to the deviousness
of a malicious woman.

                                                     Once Persephone
dispersed those female shadows here and there,
then the grieving shade of Agamemnon,
son of Atreus, appeared. Around him
other shades had gathered, all those who died                                490
and met their fate alongside Agamemnon
in Aegisthus’ house. He knew me at once,                                             [390]
and after drinking blood, he wept aloud,
shedding many tears, and stretched out his hands,
keen to reach me. But he no longer had
any inner power or strength, not like
the force his supple limbs possessed before.
I watched him and wept. Pity filled my heart.
Then I called out to him—my words had wings:

‘Lord Agamemnon, son of Atreus,                                             500
king of men, what fatal net of grievous death
destroyed you? Did Poseidon stir the winds                                  [400]
into a furious storm and strike your ships?
Or were you killed by enemies on land,
while you were cutting out their cattle herd
or rich flocks of sheep? Or were you fighting
to seize their town and carry off their wives?’

I paused, and he at once gave me his answer:

‘Resourceful Odysseus, Laertes’ son,
and Zeus’s child, Poseidon did not kill me                              510
in my ships by rousing turbulent winds
into a vicious storm. Nor was I slain
by enemies on land. No. Aegisthus
brought on my fatal end. He murdered me,
and he was helped by my accursed wife,                                        [410]
after he’d welcomed me into his home
and prepared a feast for me, like an ox
one butchers at the trough. And so I died
the most pitiful of deaths. Around me
they kept killing all of my companions,                                   520
like white-tusked pigs at some nuptial banquet,
communal feast, or fine drinking party
in a powerful and rich man’s palace.
You have encountered dying men before,
many of them, slain in single combat
or the thick of war. But if you’d seen that,
your heart would feel great pity. There we were,
lying in the hall with the mixing bowls
and tables crammed full of food, the whole floor                          [420]
awash with blood. The saddest thing I heard                         530
was Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, screaming.
That traitor Clytaemnestra slaughtered her
right there beside me. Though I was dying,
I raised my arms to strike her with my sword,
but that dog-faced bitch turned her back on me.
Even though I was on my way to Hades,
she made no attempt to use her fingers
to close my eyelids or to shut my mouth.(15)
The truth is, there’s nothing more disgusting,
more disgraceful, than a woman whose heart                         540
is set on deeds like this—the way she planned
the shameless act, to arrange the murder                                      [430]
of the man she married. I truly thought
I’d be warmly welcomed when I reached home
by my children and my slaves. That woman,
more than anyone, has covered herself
and women born in years to come with shame,
even the ones whose deeds are virtuous.’

Agamemnon finished. I answered him at once:

‘That’s appalling! Surely wide-thundering Zeus                    550
for many years has shown a lethal hate
towards the family of Atreus,
thanks to the conniving of some woman.
Many died because of Helen, and then
Clytaemnestra prepared a trap for you,
while you were fighting far away.’

                                                                            I spoke,
and he immediately replied, saying:                                                    [440]

‘That’s why you should never treat them kindly,
not even your own wife. Never tell her
the things you have determined in your mind.                       560
Tell her some, but keep the rest well hidden.
But in your case, Odysseus, death won’t come
at your wife’s hand, for wise Penelope,
Icarius’ child, is a noble wife,
with an understanding heart. When we left
to go to war, she’d not been married long.
She had a young lad at her breast, a child,
who now, I think, sits down among the men,
happy his dear father will notice him                                              [450]
when he returns back home. He’ll welcome him                    570
in an appropriate way. But my wife
did not let my eyes feast on my own son.
Before I could do that, she slaughtered me,
her husband. But I’ll tell you something else—
keep this firmly in your mind. Bring your ship
back to your dear native land in secret,
without public display. For there’s no trust
in women anymore. But come, tell me—
and speak the truth—whether you chanced to hear
where my son’s living now. He may well be                             580
in Orchomenus or sandy Pylos,
or perhaps in Sparta with Menelaus.                                               [460]
For brave Orestes has not yet perished
up there on the earth.’

                                       Once Agamemnon paused,
I answered him immediately and said:

‘Son of Atreus, why ask me that question?
I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead.
And there’s no point in prattling like the wind.’

As we two stood there in sad conversation,
full of sorrow and shedding many tears.                                            590
Achilles’ shade came up, son of Peleus,
with those of glorious Antilochus
and Patroclus, too, as well as Ajax,
who in his looks and body was the best
of all Danaans, after Achilles,                                                                     [470]
whom no one else could match. Then the shadow
of the swift-footed son of Aeacus
knew who I was, and with a cry of grief,
Achilles spoke to me—his words had wings:(16)

‘Adventurous Odysseus, Laertes’ son                                         600
and Zeus’s child, what a bold man you are!
What exploit will your heart ever dream up
to top this one? How can you dare to come
down here into Hades, the dwelling place
for the mindless dead, shades of worn-out men?’

Achilles spoke. I answered him at once:

‘Achilles, son of Peleus, mightiest
by far of the Achaeans, I came here
because I had to see Teiresias
and hear his prophecy of my return                                          610    [480]
to rugged Ithaca. I’ve not yet reached
Achaean land. I’ve still not disembarked
on my own soil. I’m in constant trouble.
But as for you, Achilles, there’s no man
in former days who was more blest than you,
and none will come in future. Before now,
while you were still alive, we Achaeans
honoured you as we did the gods. And now,
since you’ve come down here, you rule with power
among those who have died. So Achilles,                                620
you have no cause to grieve because you’re dead.’

I paused, and he immediately replied:

‘Don’t try to comfort me about my death,
glorious Odysseus. I’d rather live
working as a wage-labourer for hire
by some other man, one who had no land
and not much in the way of livelihood,                                           [490]
than lord it over all the wasted dead.
But come, talk to me of my noble son—
whether he went off to war or not.                                           630
Did he became a leader? Talk to me
about great Peleus, if there’s something
you have heard. Is he still held in honour
among the many Myrmidons? Do men
disparage him in Hellas and in Phthia
because old age now grips his hands and feet?
I am not there, living in the sunlight,
to help him with the power I once had
in spacious Troy, when I fought their best men                            [500]
and kept the Argives safe. But if I came                                   640
back to my father’s house with strength like that,
though only for the briefest length of time,
those who act with disrespect against him,
denying him honour, would soon come to fear
my force, these all-conquering hands of mine.’

Achilles spoke. I answered him at once:

‘To tell the truth, I’ve heard nothing at all
of worthy Peleus. As for your son,
dear Neoptolemus, I can tell you
the entire truth, just as you requested.                                   650
I myself escorted him in my fine ship
from Scyros, to join well-armed Achaeans.
And whenever we discussed our strategies                                    [510]
around the Trojans’ city, I tell you,
he was always first to state his own ideas,
and when he talked, he never missed the mark.
The only ones superior to him
were godlike Nestor and myself. And then,
on the Trojan plain, when we Argives fought,
he never stayed back in the crowds of men                             660
with ranks of soldiers. No. He ran ahead,
far out in front. No soldier’s strength matched his.
In fearful battles he killed many men.
I can’t give you the names of all of them,
those he slew while fighting for the Argives.
But his sword cut down the son of Telephus,
brave Eurypylus. What a man he was!
Many of his comrades, the Ceteians,                                               [520]
also met their deaths in war around him,
because a certain woman wanted gifts.(17)                               670
He was the finest looking man I saw
after noble Memnon. And then, when we,
the noblest of the Argives, were sitting
in the wooden horse made by Epeius,
with me in full command, ordering men
to open up or close our well-built trap,
many other Danaan counsellors
and leaders, too, were brushing tears aside,
and each man’s legs were trembling—even then
my eyes never saw his fair skin grow pale                                680
or watched him wipe his cheeks to clear off tears.                        [530]
He begged me many times to let him loose,
to leave the horse, and he kept reaching for
his sword hilt and his spear of heavy bronze.
That’s how keen he was to kill the Trojans.
Once we’d ravaged Priam’s lofty city,
he took his share of loot and a fine prize,
when he went to his ship. He was unhurt—
no blows from sharp bronze spears or other wounds
from fighting hand-to-hand, the sort one gets                       690
so frequently in battle. For Ares,
when he’s angry, does not discriminate.’

I spoke. Then the shade of swift Achilles
walked away with massive strides through meadows
filled with asphodel, happy that I’d said
his son was such a celebrated man.                                                           [540]

The other shadows of the dead and gone
stood there in sorrow, all asking questions
about the ones they loved. The only one
who stood apart was the shade of Ajax,                                              700
son of Telamon, still full of anger
for my victory, when I’d bested him
beside our ships, in that competition
for Achilles’ arms. His honoured mother
had offered them as prizes. The judges
were Athena and captive sons of Troy.(18)
How I wish I’d never won that contest!
Those weapons were the cause earth swallowed up
the life of Ajax, such a splendid man,
who, in his looks and actions, was the best                                       710    [550]
of all Danaans after the noble son
of Peleus. I called to him and spoke
to offer him some reassurance:

                                                           ‘Ajax,
worthy son of Telamon, can’t you forget,
even when you’re dead, your anger at me
over those destructive weapons? The gods
turned them to a curse against the Argives,
when they lost you, such a tower of strength.
Now you’ve been killed, Achaeans mourn your death
unceasingly, just as they do Achilles,                                      720
son of Peleus. No one is to blame
but Zeus, who in his terrifying rage                                                [560]
against the army of Danaan spearmen
brought on your death. Come over here, my lord,
so you can hear me as I talk to you.
Let your proud heart and anger now relent.’

I finished. He did not reply, but left,
moving off towards Erebus, to join
the other shadows of the dead and gone.
For all his rage, he would have talked to me,                                    730
or I to him, but in my chest and heart
I wished to see more shades of those who’d died.

Next I saw Minos, glorious son of Zeus,
sitting there, holding a golden sceptre
and passing judgments on the dead, who stood
and sat around the king, seeking justice,                                                 [570]
throughout the spacious gates of Hades’ home.(19)
After him I noticed huge Orion
driving on through a field of asphodel
wild creatures he himself had hunted down                                    740
in isolated mountains. In his hand,
he clutched his still unbreakable bronze club.

And I saw Tityus, son of glorious Earth,
lying on the ground. His body covered
nine acres and more.(20) Two vultures sat there,
one on either side, ripping his liver,
their beaks jabbing deep inside his guts,
for his hands could not protect his body.
He’d attacked Leto, Zeus’s lovely wife,                                                     [580]
as she was passing through Panopeus,                                              750
with its fine dancing grounds, towards Pytho.

Then I saw Tantalus in agony,
standing in a pool of water so deep
it almost reached his chin.(21) He looked as if
he had a thirst but could not take a drink.
Whenever that old man bent down, desperate
to drink, the water there was swallowed up
and vanished. You could see black earth appear
around his feet. A god dried up the place.
Some high and leafy trees above his head                                          760
were in full bloom—pears and pomegranates,
apple trees—all with gleaming fruit—sweet figs                                 [590]
and luscious olives. Each time the old man
stretched out his arms and tried to reach for them,
a wind would raise them to the shadowy clouds.

And then, in his painful torment, I saw
Sisyphus striving with both hands to raise
a massive rock.(22) He’d brace his arms and feet,
then strain to push it up a nearby hill.
But as he was about to get that stone                                                770
across the crest, its overpowering weight
would make it change its course. The cruel rock
would roll back down again along the plain.
Then he’d strain once more to get it up the slope.
His limbs dripped sweat, and dust rose from his head.                      [600]

And then I noticed mighty Hercules,
or at least his image, for he himself
was with immortal gods, enjoying their feasts.(23)
Hebe with the lovely ankles is his wife,
daughter of great Zeus and Hera, goddess                                        780
of the golden sandals. Around him there
shades of the dead were making noises, like birds
fluttering here an there, quite terrified.
And like dark night, he was glaring round him,
his unsheathed bow in hand, with an arrow
against the string, as if prepared to shoot.
The strap across his chest was frightening,
a golden belt inlaid with images—                                                            [610]
amazing things—bears, wild boars, and lions
with glittering eyes, battles, fights, murders,                                  790
and men being killed. I hope the craftsman
whose skill conceived the pictures on that belt
never made or ever makes another.
His eyes saw me and knew just who I was.
With a mournful tone he called out to me—
his words had wings:

         ‘Odysseus, you resourceful man,
son of Laertes and a child of Zeus,
are you now bearing an unhappy fate
below the sunlight, as I, too, did once?
I was a son of Zeus, child of Cronos,                                         800
and yet I had to bear so many troubles,                                          [620]
forced to perform those labours for a man
vastly inferior to me, someone
who kept assigning me the harshest tasks.
One time he sent me here to bring away
Hades’ hound. There was no other challenge
he could dream up more difficult for me
than that one. But I carried the dog off
and brought him back from Hades with my guides,
Hermes and glittering-eyed Athena.’                                       810

With these words he returned to Hades’ home.
But I stayed at that place a while, in case
one of those heroic men who perished
in days gone by might come. I might have seen
still more men from earlier times, the ones                                              [630]
I wished to see—Theseus and Perithous,
great children of the gods. Before I could,
a thousand tribes of those who’d died appeared,
with an astounding noise. Pale fear gripped me—
holy Persephone might send at me                                                     820
a horrific monster, the Gorgon’s head.(24)

I quickly made my way back to the ship,
and told my crew to get themselves on board
and loosen off the cables at the stern.
They went aboard at once and took their seats
along each rowing bench. A rising swell
carried our ship away down Ocean’s stream.
We rowed at first, but then a fair wind blew.                                          [640]

 

ENDNOTES

(1) No location on Odysseus’s voyage has been more discussed and disputed than the place where he meets the spirits of the dead. Suggestions range from Averneus (in Italy) to Gibraltar to mainland Spain and elsewhere. [Back to Text]

(2) This, of course, is a reference to Polyphemus, the Cyclops, whose story is told in Book Nine. [Back to Text]

(3) This curious journey seems to suggest that Odysseus must finally propitiate Poseidon by going somewhere far inland, where people have never heard of that god and, in effect, make him known with the oar planted in the ground and a sacrifice. The winnowing shovel is a device for separating grain from chaff. The fact that the person confuses an oar with such a device is an indication of just how ignorant he is about the sea. [Back to Text]

(4) This prophecy of the death of Odysseus has prompted much comment, especially the phrase “out of the sea,” which some interpreters wish to emend to “from the sea” (i.e., someone will arrive by boat and bring about Odysseus’s death—but that detail seems to counter the sense here that he will die calmly from old age) or “far from the sea.” It’s difficult to reconcile the idea of Odysseus being far from the sea with the mention of his people (i.e., those in Ithaca) living well all around him, unless, as some legends have it, he leaves Ithaca and becomes a ruler somewhere else. [Back to Text]

(5) The choice here seems to be between a long, painful ordeal and a more peaceful final fever. Artemis and her brother Apollo, both archers, are associated with death by fever. [Back to Text]

(6) The point here is that Telemachus, although young, is still being accorded royal honours in the social life of the palace, as if he is representing the king. Anticleia is not necessarily stating he’s actually performing the work of a king. Telemachus’s exact age is not known, but he must be in his mid to late teens, since he was a young child when Odysseus left for Troy about thirteen years previously. [Back to Text]

(7) These phrases (Encircler of the Earth and Earthshaker) are commonly used to indicate Poseidon. [Back to Text]

(8) The Greek text calls her Epicaste, which seems to be an alternative name for Jocasta, rather than a different person from another legend. The name Jocasta has been used here, since that name is better known from Sophocles’s Oedipus the King. [Back to Text]

(9) Commentators have suggested that this “trusty prophet” may have been Melampus. One of the stories of Melampus has him captured for stealing cattle and spending a year in prison. But he had the ability to communicate with animals and heard the worms in the roof beams of his prison talking about how the timbers were about to collapse. Melampus passed this information onto his captor (in this story Iphicles), who was so impressed he released him. [Back to Text]

(10) Leda is the mother of Helen of Troy and of Clytaemnestra, two twin sisters, but with different fathers. Castor and Polydeuces (also called Pollux) were similarly sons of Leda, with different fathers (Zeus was the father of Helen and Polydeuces; the mortal king Tyndareus was the father of Clytaemnestra and Castor). All four were born on the same day. When Castor died Polydeuces petitioned Zeus, asking if his could share his immortality with his twin step-brother. Zeus then allowed them both to live and die on alternate days. They also became the constellation Gemini. [Back to Text]

(11) The Greek says nine cubits wide and nine fathoms tall. A cubit was the length of a man’s arm from the elbow to the tip of his middle finger (the exact length varies somewhat), and a fathom was the length of a man’s outstretched arms (about six feet, but the exact length varies). [Back to Text]

(12) Ossa and Pelion are mountains in Thessaly. This attempt to scale the heights of heaven is part of the famous stories of the war between the Giants and the Olympian deities. [Back to Text] 

(13) The son referred to is Apollo, child of Zeus and Leto. [Back to Text]

(14) In the best-known version of this famous story, Theseus sails off from Crete with Ariadne, who has helped him escape from her father’s labyrinth, but then deserts her on an island (Dia or Naxos). She later marries Dionysus. It is not clear here just what Dionysus may have told Artemis to make her want to kill Ariadne. [Back to Text]

(15) These actions were made out of respect for the dead on their way to the underworld. The refusal to carry them out shows the greatest disrespect for the dead. [Back to Text]

(16) This is a reference to Achilles, who is not literally the “son of Aeacus,” since his father is Peleus. Aeacus was a son of Zeus and father of Peleus, hence Achilles’s grandfather. By the same form of reference, Odysseus is often called “child of Zeus,” although his literal father is Laertes. [Back to Text]

(17) Eurypylus was sent to fight for the Trojans by his mother Astyoche, who did so because her brother Priam promised to give her a golden vine. [Back to Text]

(18) When Achilles died there was a contest for his famous weapons. The two main claimants were Odysseus and Ajax. When Odysseus was awarded the weapons by the judges, Ajax went berserk and later killed himself. Different versions of the story provide different accounts of how the decision was made. In one version, the Achaeans asked their Trojan prisoners which Achaean leader they fear more, Achilles or Ajax. [Back to Text]

(19) This scene and the following details are a remarkable view of the underworld as a place of judgment, with eternal punishment inflicted on particularly grievous wrongdoers, a view of a moralized afterlife unknown anywhere else in Homer. Not surprisingly, this sudden description of such a different sense of Hades has given rise to charges that it is a later interpolation. [Back to Text]

(20) Tityus was a giant son of Zeus (or of Uranus). Hera persuaded Tityus to attack Leto, whose children, Apollo and Artemis, came to her help and killed him. The measurement describing his size on the ground is unclear. [Back to Text]

(21) Tantalus was a son of Zeus and a distant ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus. His punishment comes from some action he committed against the gods (stealing the gods’ food or murdering his son Pelops and serving him to the gods for dinner). [Back to Text]

(22) Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus and founder of Corinth, famous for his trickery. He gave away the secrets of the gods and once tricked the god of death, so that the dead could not reach the underworld. [Back to Text]

(23) Hercules had the rare distinction of being admitted to heaven, even though he was a mortal son of Zeus. Hence, Odysseus meets an “image” of Hercules. His later mention of serving an inferior man is a reference to the Labours of Hercules, work he had to carry out for king Eurystheus over a twelve-year period as punishment for having murdered his own wife and children in a fit of temporary insanity brought on by Zeus’s wife, Hera. One of those labours involved bringing back Cerberus, a dog belonging to Hades. [Back to Text]

(24) The Gorgons were three sisters (the most famous being Medusa, the only mortal of the three). Perseus killed Medusa, but her head retained its power to turn people and even some immortals to stone. [Back to Text]

 

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