Book 11 Essays

By Thomas Van Nortwick


Odysseus and his crew arrive at the entrance to the Underworld and perform animal sacrifices to the dead.

The long narrative arc that began with the Calypso episode ends as the Greek sailors sit dutifully in their ship, guided by the gods, heading for the land of the dead. Major themes have surfaced in various forms: the existential choice of Odysseus to forego timeless bliss with Calypso and plunge back into the world of death and change, the evolving threat of suffocating oblivion embodied by Calypso, Nausicaa, Polyphemus, and Circe, the repeated journey of Odysseus from anonymous stranger to glorious hero.

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Though probably already known from earlier myths and folktales, the hero who inhabits this poem has been created afresh from his encounters along the way, specific to this story and its rhetorical imperatives. He is a complex figure, articulated through various polarities: sometimes secretive and detached from others, sometimes glorying in heroic renown; masculine in his relentless self-control, feminine (as the Greeks saw it) in his wily, subversive behavior; fiercely determined to survive and reclaim his rightful place in Ithaka, determined to experience the unknown, sometimes at the expense of his mission and crew. Now the poet will put him next to other illustrious heroes, comparing his character and achievements with theirs.

True to her word, Circe sends a helping wind to fill the sails. She is, once again, δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα (11.8), as she was when the Greeks arrived on Aiaia (10.136). The rare epithet is used elsewhere only of Calypso (12.449), and Ino, “the White Goddess,” (5.334). All these figures seem to preside over the boundary between mortals and immortals in the poem, with αὐδήεσσα meaning in this context, “speaking to mortals.” In the background is Siduri, the barkeep who sends Gilgamesh on his way to the Land of Dilmun (The Epic of Gilgamesh X.iii; see the essay on 10.133–177). Circe will reappear when the Greeks return from the underworld in Book Twelve, telling Odysseus more about how he can reach Ithaka alive and thus framing the entire adventure from the land of the dead. The resulting structure, usually called “ring form,” is often used by early Greek poets to mark off significant sections of a narrative. Book Eleven becomes in this perspective an “epyllion,” a miniature epic, framed by encounters with Circe. And the adventures in Books Nine through Twelve are themselves framed in the same way by Odysseus’s encounter with the Phaeacians.

When we look at it from this larger perspective, the disarming of Circe and her transition from dangerous seductress to friendly helpmeet in Book Ten becomes part of the poet’s narrative strategy for a major part of the poem. The concentric forms of the story reinforce parallels between characters and situations, building meaning by repetition, a central feature of Homer’s poetic technique. Scholars have suggested that the use of repeated forms on various levels, words, phrases, and larger narrative structures, reflects the composition of Homeric epic without the aid of writing. That seems likely, but our grasp of the poems now, as fixed, written works of art, depends on being able to understand how the artist who created the versions we now have used that repetition to build meaning.

Sailing on through the day and into darkness, the Greeks reach the land of the Cimmerians,

ἠέρι καὶ νεφέλῃ κεκαλυμμένοι: οὐδέ ποτ᾽ αὐτοὺς
ἠέλιος φαέθων καταδέρκεται ἀκτίνεσσιν,
οὔθ᾽ ὁπότ᾽ ἂν στείχῃσι πρὸς οὐρανὸν ἀστερόεντα,
οὔθ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἂψ ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἀπ᾽ οὐρανόθεν προτράπηται,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ νὺξ ὀλοὴ τέταται δειλοῖσι βροτοῖσι.

smothered by clouds and fog; not ever on them
does the shining sun look down with its rays,
not when it makes its way across the starry heavens,
nor when it travels back again to earth from the sky,
but always grim night stretches over wretched mortals.

Odyssey 11.15-19

The participle κεκαλυμμένοι sets the tone: Odysseus is sailing straight into the oblivion he has been struggling to avoid. Calypso’s cloak, dragging him down into the dark sea (5.321–322), now reappears as a mantle of darkness that smothers him completely, no escape. The “Cimmerians” inhabit no place we can identify. The historical people with that name apparently settled in what is now Ukraine, while Homer’s Cimmerians live in the far West on the edge of the ocean that they imagined encircling the earth. As usual, the geography is mythical and largely symbolic. The entrance to the land of the dead is important as a physical manifestation of the nothingness that threatens Odysseus all the way home. It’s hardly surprising that the home of dead people should play this role. What is striking is how the poet links this darkness to those still in the world of the living.

The prayers and sacrifice in lines 22-33 reflect rituals found in Greek culture when mortals found themselves near the world of the dead. It’s often been noted that Odysseus does not, in fact, ever enter the underworld, but summons the ghosts to the blood-filled ditch on the edge. This detail should not keep us from thinking about the episode as an example of the katabasis motif with all its associations. The permanent, cloaking darkness in the land of the Cimmerians has already invoked the symbolism of the underworld and connected it to the oblivion that threatens Odysseus elsewhere. The energy in the episode comes from the encounters that Odysseus has with various figures. That these meetings happen on the boundary makes the episode a particularly momentous liminal experience, on the edge of the known and unknown, the living and the dead.

The ghosts crowd around the bloody ditch, a cross-section, in the language of early Greek poetry, of humanity: young and old, men and women, soldiers full of stab wounds. They rush back and forth, filling the air with θεσπεσίῃ ἰαχῇ, “a bewildering noise” (43). Still in control even in the underworld, Odysseus keeps them at a distance with his sword, waiting for Teiresias.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 133–140. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Edwards, M.W. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 61–77. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 75-79. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 103–104. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Nagler, M. 1996. “Dread Goddess Revisited.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 141–162.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 104–110.

Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: an epic of return, 88–93. New York: Twayne Publishers.


Odysseus meets the ghosts of Elpenor, Antikleia, and Teiresias.

As usual, Homer makes us wait for the big encounter with Teiresias. First, we meet the ghost (ψυχή) of Elpenor, his unburied body moldering on Circe’s island. He begs Odysseus for burial and we hear the story of his death again (cf. 10.352–360). With these verses, the poet forges a link between Books Ten, Eleven, and Twelve, giving a reason for the Greeks to return to Circe’s island. Elpenor is in a special category of ψυχή. He cannot yet cross over into the underworld because his body remains unburied, so he retains his memory, which will disappear when he enters. The other ψύχαι must drink the blood from the ditch to regain their memories and then only temporarily. (The exception here is Teiresias, who retains his prophetic powers even in the underworld.) Odysseus, true to his heroic status, can grant temporary human consciousness to the dead. The results will not always be happy for them.

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The language of Elpenor’s request recalls another famous supplication:

‘λίσσομ᾽ ὑπὲρ ψυχῆς καὶ γούνων σῶν τε τοκήων
μή με ἔα παρὰ νηυσὶ κύνας καταδάψαι Ἀχαιῶν,
ἀλλὰ σὺ μὲν χαλκόν τε ἅλις χρυσόν τε δέδεξο
δῶρα τά τοι δώσουσι πατὴρ καὶ πότνια μήτηρ,
σῶμα δὲ οἴκαδ᾽ ἐμὸν δόμεναι πάλιν, ὄφρα πυρός με
Τρῶες καὶ Τρώων ἄλοχοι λελάχωσι θανόντα.

I beg you by your life, your knees, and your parents,
do not leave me by the ships for the dogs of the Achaeans to eat,
but you take the abundant bronze and gold there,
gifts that my father and mother will give you,
and let my body go back home again, so the Trojans
and their wives can give me my portion of the fire.

Iliad 22.338–343

Mortally wounded and seconds from death, Hector hopes for a hero’s burial at Troy. Achilles brushes this plea for civility aside with a withering reply, then proceeds to kill Hector and drag his corpse around the walls of Troy as a trophy. The emotion raised in us by this brutality is reflected in the reactions of Hector’s parents and especially his wife, who loses consciousness at the sight, a symbolic death of her own (Il. 22.466–474). So begins a long meditation in the poem on the meaning of human life and death, focused on the treatment of Hector’s corpse, which will only end in the last scene of the Iliad, when his body is finally returned to Troy. In spite of the similar language in these two passages (cf. Od. 11.66–68, 73; Il. 22.355, 358), Elpenor’s delayed burial has a different impact than Hector’s. The Greeks will bury him properly when they return from the underworld, an occasion prompting relatively little emotion in the characters and in us. Achilles’ abuse of Hector’s corpse is painful because we feel that such a noble hero deserves better; Elpenor, by contrast, receives a hero’s burial in spite of his feckless lack of self-control.

Next comes the ghost of Odysseus’s mother Antikleia, prompting a flood of tears from the hero and a potentially fraught encounter seems imminent, but Odysseus once again shows his self-control, denying his mother access to the blood until he can interview Teiresias. The prophet finally approaches, puzzled: Why has Odysseus come to see this cheerless place full of dead people? He advances to drink blood from the ditch so he can tell the hero “unerring truths” (96). This is the first appearance of Teiresias in extant Greek literature and we cannot know if earlier versions, now lost, of any of the stories about him that appear after the Odyssey lie in the background of this portrait. His blindness, which is noted without comment in Book Ten (492), is explained in two later stories. In the Hellenistic author Callimachus (c. 250 BCE), we hear of the young Teiresias being blinded as punishment for accidently seeing Athena bathing (Callimachus, Hymn 5). In a story first appearing in a fragment of Hesiod (fr. 275), perhaps from the Seventh Century BCE and in its complete form in the Library of Apollodorus 3.6.7, which probably dates from the Second Century BCE (see also Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.316–388), Teiresias comes upon a snake while walking through the woods and hits it with a stick. He is instantly changed from a man to a woman. Some years later, she walks through the woods again, hits the same snake, and is changed back into a man. His unique dual perspective makes Teiresias the ideal judge for settling a quarrel between Jupiter and Juno over which gender has more pleasure during sex. He votes for women and Juno strikes him blind. As compensation, Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy.

If Sophocles knew Hesiod’s version of the snake story, the gender ambiguity resulting from the encounters in the woods would play an important role in Oedipus Tyrannus (427 BCE). There the prophet is summoned from Delphi by Oedipus to help the Thebans escape the plague that has descended on the city in the wake of the former king Laius’s death. Much of the dramatic power of the scene between Oedipus and the prophet comes from the contrast of the king’s hyper-masculine bullying and Teiresias’ inward, mysterious knowledge, which the Greeks would have associated with the feminine gender. We will return to this aspect of Teiresias’ character when thinking about the overall impact of Odysseus’ trip to the underworld. Finally, we note one more antecedent for Teiresias’s role in the story, the sage Utnapishtim, whom Gilgamesh travels across the Waters of Death to consult about how to avoid the definitive trait of all humans, mortality (Epic of Gilgamesh XI).

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 140–144. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 73-74. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 104–106. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 110–116.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. The Unknown Odysseus: Alternate Worlds in Homer’s Odyssey, 58–60. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press


Teiresias tells Odysseus about his future.

Teiresias drinks the blood and gets right down to business. Poseidon hates Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus, so reaching home will be challenging no matter what. But he and his remaining crew have a chance to get safely back to Ithaka, if and only if they “control [their] desires” (105) and refrain from slaughtering the cattle sacred to Helios, who “sees all and hears all” (119), on the island of Thrinakia. If they do not, they and their ship will all be destroyed. If somehow Odysseus escapes alone, he will make it back much later in a stranger’s ship and will find there the arrogant suitors eating up his food and wooing his wife. He will, however, succeed in killing them all by force or trickery. Poseidon’s animus and the cattle of the sun are not news to us. Both appear in the first seventy lines of the poem (1.6–9, 68–79). The suitors’ fatal lack of self-control on Thrinakia is the only part of the adventures included in the poem’s introductory proem (1–11). Though Zeus declares in Book Five that Athena has already arranged Odysseus’s triumph over the suitors (5.22–27), Teiresias now confirms it. We arrive next at the heart of the encounter, as the prophet reveals to Odysseus how and when he will die.

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The hero’s trip to the underworld (katabasis) appears in various forms from stories all over the world. The particulars of each version may vary, but some elements persist. Because the hero is able to look death in the face and return to the world of the living, he is marked as extraordinary by any measure. The knowledge he gains is rare and precious, both universal and often deeply personal to him. After his friend Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh travels across the Waters of Death to the Land of Dilmun to consult Utnapishtim about how he can escape death. The sage, himself the only mortal to have escaped death, tells him bluntly that there is no escape for anyone else: All mortals must die. After failing several tests set by Utnapishtim to illustrate this fundamental truth, Gilgamesh returns to his kingdom, resigned to accept that he is defined as human by the inevitability of death (Epic of Gilgamesh X–XI). Achilles too must learn to accept that he is mortal, despite his divine mother Thetis’s fervent desire to exempt him from his fate. His katabasis is entirely internal, into a private hell created by his own arrogance. He can only reemerge and achieve some measure of peace when he accepts the death of his friend Patroclus and by implication his own mortality by releasing the corpse of Hector to Priam at the end of the poem (Iliad, Books 19–24). Virgil’s Aeneas travels to the underworld to consult his father Anchises about how to complete his mission and found a new home for himself and the Trojans exiled from their home by the Greeks. Anchises shows him the future, the part he will play in the eventual founding of Rome. The deep truth Aeneas learns about himself is that he will be one of the countless number of people whose lives and personal happiness will be sacrificed to make way for the founding of the Roman Empire (Aen. 6.679–892).

What Odysseus learns from Teiresias seems to fit the traditional pattern. Knowing when and how you will die is knowledge denied to ordinary mortals. The journey that will precede his death maps other aspects of his character. Traveling inland until he meets people who have no knowledge of the sea, then planting his oar and sacrificing to Poseidon signals a final settling up with the sea god and his domain. Like the one that Odysseus will plant on the funeral mound of Elpenor (12.8–15), this oar marks a burial, in this case of the part of him that needs to wander. When he can let go of the sea, the external site for his restless wanderings, he can quiet the centrifugal part of himself and finally find peace at home among those who love him.

The symbolism of the sea in this prophecy offers us a rare glimpse inside the character of Odysseus. His heroic reputation, with all the imperatives that accompany it, is defined in the poem by his assuming various predetermined roles, king, husband, father, son. The rhetoric of the return story, which Athena seems to have arranged beforehand (5.21–27; 24.478–480, see Introduction, para. 2), demands that Odysseus do whatever is necessary to reassume these roles, which he relinquished when he left for Troy. By doing so, he will return the kingdom in Ithaka to its proper order and, by implication, become the person he once was and is destined to be. The internal workings of his psyche, our modern gauge for measuring character, are hidden behind the requirements of these roles. Because he must always be on guard against threats to his return, he maintains a distance from others, closed off.

But the Odyssey, like all the works that have endured in our imagination, finds a way to expand our understanding of its dominant perspective. The wider world beyond Athena’s closed vision of the heroic kingdom in Ithaka finds expression in the people and places that Odysseus encounters while an anonymous stranger. These two perspectives exist side-by-side during Odysseus’s stay with his faithful swineherd Eumeaus in Books Fourteen through Sixteen, before entering the palace to deal with the suitors (see Introduction, para. 23–25). Athena has transformed Odysseus into a wrinkled old beggar, so Eumaeus does not recognize his master. We see the encounter that follows with a kind of double vision. As the two men share their experiences, we learn that Eumaeus reveres Odysseus, but is pessimistic about him being able to return alive to Ithaka. When that happy event occurs, we can be sure that the relationship between Eumaeus and Odysseus will be one of servant and master, with all the distance those roles imply. At the same time, as the beggar and the swineherd exchange stories—in the former case fictional, but often very close to what we know of Odysseus—a warm bond forms, unencumbered by considerations of class, just two old guys who live on the periphery of power sharing their lives. Though the nature of the Odyssey as a comic narrative requires a hero who is closed off from others, the structure of the story offers us a peek into parts of Odysseus that the role of hero demands be kept hidden in order to ensure his survival.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 144–148. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 84-86. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 68–70. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 28–32. New York: Oxford University Press.


Odysseus asks Teiresias how he should approach his mother. Antikleia and Odysseus begin to talk.

Odysseus’s mother Antikleia has been hovering nearby. After some prompting from Teiresias, the hero allows her to drink blood from the ditch and their encounter begins. The masculine hero’s mother in ancient hero stories has a consistent function, to support and protect her child no matter what he does, no matter the consequences for him or others.

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Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, clears the way for him to pursue Humbaba, monster of the Cedar Forest, an adventure that will eventually bring the hero much pain (Epic of Gilgamesh III.i–v). Achilles’s mother Thetis supports him in his thirst for vengeance against Hector, though it is clear to us at least that this rampage will be self-destructive. Only after Zeus commands her does she go to Achilles and urge him to release Hector’s corpse to Priam, thus signaling his (and her) acceptance of his mortal nature (Il. 24.77–119). The rare counter examples draw power from this established pattern. Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, must be spirited out of Argos as an infant, for fear that his frightening mother and her lover Aegisthus might kill him to protect themselves. Medea murders her children to spite her faithless husband Jason.

Though the hero’s mother usually offers comfort, her son, in order to reach maturity as a man, must eventually separate from her nurture and come to terms with his father’s world, process that often requires the acceptance of some hard truths about himself and his place in that world. Both Gilgamesh and Achilles struggle to accept the fact that they, like all mortals, must eventually die. Utnapishtim, a surrogate father, delivers this hard news to Gilgamesh (Epic of Gilgamesh To win release of his son’s body, Priam convinces Achilles to see in him a reflection of Peleus, the hero’s father, pining for his son back in Thessaly (Il. 24.486–506). The disastrous life of Oedipus plays out in the wake of his conspicuous failure to launch, as he kills his father and marries his mother (Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 771–833). Virgil plays against the expectations generated by previous hero stories to create a brilliantly perverse portrait of Aeneas’ relationship to his mother Venus. The goddess appears in the woods outside Carthage disguised as a sexy virgin huntress—thus firing up the Oedipal potential in the encounter—and then arranges for Aeneas to become entangled with Dido, with horrific consequences for both (Aen. 1. 305–417).

Odysseus’s mother is less prominent in her son’s story, appearing only here in the Odyssey. She is certainly devoted to him, having died from the pain of missing him (202–203). In response to his questioning, she reassures him that his father, son, and wife are all alive and protecting his estates, though Laertes is living a debased, hardscrabble existence (180–196). The hero’s mother, in her desire to protect him, often works against his need to assert himself in the world and win renown (kleos). Antikleia’s transparently allegorical name (“against kleos”) seems to put her in that role. Her interest is in getting him back home to his wife and family, not encouraging more adventuring. On the other hand, doing so will eventually require him to kill the suitors, a spectacularly heroic feat.

The crosscurrents here reflect the influence of Odyssey’s comic narrative form (see Introduction, para. 5). In tragic stories like The Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad, there is a tension between a mother’s desire to protect and nurture her son and his journey toward becoming the man he is supposed to be. The Odyssey, by contrast, requires not that Odysseus evolve into full manhood, but rather that he survive, at whatever cost, to restore order in Ithaka. He has finished whatever growing up he must do and so Antikleia has a different function in the story than she would in a tragic narrative. There is in fact a story in the poem about a male protagonist evolving toward maturity, the adventures of Telemachus, who is sent on a journey orchestrated by Athena to find out about his father and become a worthy helper for Odysseus if he comes home. He does not tell his mother his plans, for fear she will try to keep him from fulfilling his mission, which will bring into contact with his father’s world. The movement of Telemachus toward maturity could in fact create a problem for Odysseus’s mission. If Telemachus reaches maturity at the end of his journey, there would be two contenders for the role of king in Ithaka. That conflict is resolved when Odysseus successfully warns off his son as the latter is about to string the bow and win both the kingship and the queen (Od. 21.101–135).

Odysseus’s encounter with his mother ends with a striking vignette, as he tries unsuccessfully three times to embrace Antikleia’s ghost, which flies off each time “like a shadow or a dream” (207-208). The scene recalls a famous encounter between Achilles and the ghost of Patroclus:

ἀλλά μοι ἆσσον στῆθι: μίνυνθά περ ἀμφιβαλόντε
ἀλλήλους ὀλοοῖο τεταρπώμεσθα γόοιο.
ὣς ἄρα φωνήσας ὠρέξατο χερσὶ φίλῃσιν
οὐδ᾽ ἔλαβε: ψυχὴ δὲ κατὰ χθονὸς ἠΰτε καπνὸς
ᾤχετο τετριγυῖα: ταφὼν δ᾽ ἀνόρουσεν Ἀχιλλεὺς
χερσί τε συμπλατάγησεν, ἔπος δ᾽ ὀλοφυδνὸν ἔειπεν:
‘ὢ πόποι ἦ ῥά τίς ἐστι καὶ εἰν Ἀΐδαο δόμοισι
ψυχὴ καὶ εἴδωλον, ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν:
παννυχίη γάρ μοι Πατροκλῆος δειλοῖο
ψυχὴ ἐφεστήκει γοόωσά τε μυρομένη τε,
καί μοι ἕκαστ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν, ἔϊκτο δὲ θέσκελον αὐτῷ.

“But come closer; embracing, if only for a moment,
let us take pleasure in baneful grieving.”
Having spoken thus he reached out with his arms
but could not grasp the image; like a puff of smoke the spirit
went under the earth with a shrill cry. Achilles rose up astonished,
drove his hands together and spoke a sorrowful word:
“Ah wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something,
a soul and an image, but no wits are in it.
For all night long the spirit of wretched Patroclus
stood over me wailing and grieving,
and told me each thing to do, and the likeness to him was wonderful.”

Iliad 23.97–107

The absence of any verbal parallels between the two passages suggests that these are probably not two versions of a traditional type scene. The “three times” motif here does appear elsewhere in Homeric epic, but not in the same kind of context (cf. Il 5.436–437; 16.703–703, 784–785). Both encounters are intensely intimate and personal, full of frustrated affection. In both cases, we learn something about the nature of the psyche after death, both consistent with Homeric beliefs about the afterlife and the soul. Achilles’s outburst fits with the ongoing exploration in Iliad 22–24 of the boundaries of human experience, while Antikleia’s explanation, because it occurs during the katabasis, corresponds to the kind of deep wisdom that the hero characteristically encounters in the underworld. That the hero’s mother delivers it puts her in a role usually reserved for male authority figures in heroic epic, another sign of that this katabasis will not fit comfortably in the paradigm as we see it elsewhere in tragic stories. Women are central to the meaning of Odysseus’s adventure in Hades, but their function in the episode is particular to the Odyssey.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 149–151. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 86-88, 90. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 116.

Van Nortwick, T. 1992. Somewhere I Have Never Travelled: The Second Self and the Hero’s Journey in Ancient Epic, 46–47, 67–68, 95–100. New York: Oxford University Press.


Odysseus sees the ghosts of famous women.

The so-called Catalogue of Heroines, when Odysseus meets the ψύχαι of famous women from mythology (225–332), has long been considered suspect by some classical scholars, who have complained that the content does not seem directly relevant to the main themes of the underworld episode. Some have suggested that the verses were a later addition to the original Eighth Century BCE poem based on a Sixth Century BCE work attributed to Hesiod in antiquity, but now thought to be later, called the Ehoiai. This poem exists only in fragments found on papyrus and in some quotations from ancient authors, about 1300 whole or partial verses, maybe about one-fourth of the original. Given what we now understand about the oral tradition out of which all early Greek hexameter poetry seems to have come, it’s much more likely that both the Odyssey passage and the Ehoiai are descended from a third, earlier source. Though the pre-history of the Odyssey is not our concern here, the objections raised by scholars to lines 225–334 do challenge us to think about how the catalog fits into the poem as we have it now.

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The catalogue is probably one of the earliest forms of Greek hexameter poetry and some scholars have suggested that Homeric epic owes its origins to this kind of narrative. The “Catalogue of Ships” in Book Two of the Iliad (484–877) seems, for instance, to represent a much older geography for Greece than what existed in the Eighth Century BCE, when we think the Homeric epics came into the form we now have. Hesiod’s Theogony, probably composed about the same time or slightly later than the Odyssey, is an extended catalogue describing the origins of the gods and the rule of Zeus, with significant parallels to earlier Near Eastern myths. The form has persisted, from Virgil’s catalogue of the armies in the Aeneid (7.641–817) to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The examples from early Greek hexameter poetry suggest one reason why the form might have attracted poets. The frequency of place names and proper names, often lengthy and filled with more long syllables than usually appear in Greek, must have made composing these verses, in a relatively strict meter with few substitutions, very challenging. A catalog would be a virtuoso performance for an improvising poet. Perhaps the chance to show off this kind of mastery would be enough justification for including catalogues. At the same time, indulging too freely in lengthy show pieces would run afoul of the imperative to hold the audience’s attention at all costs. However absorbing the “Catalogue of Women” might be as a triumph of poetic skill, we still need to think about how it contributes to the overall plan of the Odyssey.

The first three women, Tyro, Antiope, and Alcmene, all bore illustrious children after sleeping with gods. In the patriarchal world of the Homeric epics, to be singled out by a god to bear his children is presented as a great honor. Today, these liaisons look too much like rapes for us to be comfortable rejoicing with the mothers. The children resulting from these sexual encounters are familiar to us from other stories: Neleus, son of Tyro by the river god Salmoneus, is the father of Nestor, king of Pylos, who entertains Telemachus in Book Four with stories of Odysseus; Antiope’s children by Zeus, Amphion and Zethus, were the founders of Thebes, the site of a cycle of myths that includes the sufferings of Oedipus and his children; Alcmene, another of Zeus’s chosen women, is the mother of Herakles. These women, then, are important because they give birth to male heroes. Their appearance here links them to Antikleia and like her, they fade away as soon as their contributions to the glories of male heroism are noted.

Further Reading

Beye, C.R. 1964. “Homeric Battle Narrative and Catalogues.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 68, 345-373.

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 151-154. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX-XVI, 90-91. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 106. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Ormand, K. 2014. The Hesiodic Catalog of Women and Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Page, D. 1955. The Homeric Odyssey, 21-51. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


The parade of famous women continues.

A darker mood descends with the appearance of Epikaste, mother of Oedipus, wife of Laius, known in later versions as Jocasta. Her story continues the Theban cycle that began with Antiope and is full of troubling details. She is an unwittingly dangerous wife, whose husband has unwittingly killed his father. Her suicide left him to rule while “suffering pains…through the destructive counsels of the gods” (275–276).

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Pero, daughter of Chloris and Neleus, was a woman besieged by suitors, whose father sets up a contest for her hand, one featuring cattle rustling and more constraints from divine will. Leda gave birth to Castor and Pollux, two young men whose death at Troy the poet commemorates with passages paralleled in the Iliad (cf. Il. 3.237, 243), whose days alternate between the living and the dead. What the poet’s audience does not hear but probably knows is that Leda is also the mother of Helen and Clytemnestra, two more faithless wives. The series concludes with Iphimedeia, whose sons planned to storm Olympus and presumably overthrow the rightful rulers.

The last section of the catalogue mentions two groups of three women, Phaedra, Procris, and Ariadne, then Maera, Clymene, and Eriphyle. Picking up speed as he heads for the interlude on Scheria, Homer tells us only the stories of Ariadne and Eriphyle, though some of the other heroines in this series are well known in other sources. The overriding message is that women can be dangerous, when pursuing their own goals (Helen, Clytemnestra, Phaedra, Procris, Eriphyle) or when caught up in the power struggles of others (Epikaste, Pero, Ariadne). They may wittingly or unwittingly threaten their husbands (Jocasta, Pero, Clytemnestra, Helen), or produce offspring who threaten their parents (Jocasta, Clytemnestra).

Despite the qualms of some scholars about the authenticity of the Catalogue of Heroines, the stories behind it are directly relevant to the mission of Odysseus in the poem. Women, as we have seen, are always potentially threatening to the heroic mission of a masculine hero, but the particular stories the poet touches on are especially resonant. Like Oedipus, Odysseus’s kingship brings him suffering and the unwelcome attentions of the gods. Otis and Ephialtes model the arrogant suitors, whose selfish excesses in Ithaka threaten to overthrow the established order. Pero, like Penelope, prompts a violent and eventually deadly struggle to win her hand. Both Clytemnestra and Jocasta give birth to children who will supplant their parents as rulers, reflecting the potential threat that Telemachus represents to Odysseus’s kingship. And most prominently, Phaedra, Helen, and Clytemnestra, as faithless and treacherous wives, set a dark precedent for Penelope, one that informs the entire story of Odysseus’s return and will surface again in his encounter with Agamemnon’s ghost. In the poem’s very first scene, Zeus points to the paradigm set by Clytemnestra’s complicity in the murder of her husband and Orestes’s revenge against her and Aegisthus (1.32–44). From then on, the story prompts urgent questions: Will Penelope remain faithful to Odysseus? Can Odysseus prevail over the interloping suitors for her hand? Will Telemachus be a worthy son who avenges wrongs against his father?


Interlude in the Phaeacian palace. Night falls and Odysseus breaks off his narrative, saying he needs to sleep. Arete and Alcinous urge him to continue.

At verse 333, we are suddenly back in the royal palace on Scheria. Jumps in the narrative are not unknown in the poem (cf. 4.620–621), but the phrase ὣς ἔφαθ᾽ (333) startles nonetheless, reminding us that the adventures in Books Nine through Twelve come to us mediated by the perspective of Odysseus. Questions about his reliability as a narrator may surface again.

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We have said above that we will consider the narrative voice in Books Nine through Twelve to be the same as the poet’s for our purposes, and there is no hint in the poem that the events in the cave of Polyphemus or Circe’s house are entirely fiction. And yet Odysseus is famous for his clever tongue. Are his stories part of a skillful campaign to win over the Phaeacians so they will give him a ride home, making him look good at the expense of his crew? Are the adventures the most prominent example of Odysseus’s skillful self-presentation, akin to the “false tales” that he later tells Athena, Eumaeus, Telemachus, and Penelope? In a poem so self-conscious about the making of its own art, we should be cautious about dismissing such questions too quickly. Perhaps we should consider all of Odysseus’s stories about himself as part of continuum, with the more verifiable events on one end, the “false tales” that the poet identifies on the other, and the adventures in Books Nine through Twelve somewhere in the middle? Definitive answers are not possible, given what the poem itself tells us, but one thing seems clear enough: The Odyssey is a poem focused on the role of storytelling in self-presentation, and that the line between “fact” and “fiction” is not always the best guide to the truth (see Introduction, para. 45).

The transition at verse 333 is eased slightly by the appearance of Arete, another heroine, who speaks for the royal family first, urging the Phaeacians to keep her impressive guest around and shower him with gifts. The order recalls Book Seven, when Odysseus bypasses Alkinous to supplicate Arete (7.139-166). Here, as there, a third party prompts the king to carry out his duties as host. In the earlier passage, Odysseus is following Nausicaa’s suggestion in approaching the queen first. But the earlier scene also seems to cast some doubt on Alkinous’s grasp of the duties of a host and also, perhaps, his command of the royal household. That the king of the Phaeacians might be lacking in masculine force is consistent with the tenor of the kingdom on Scheria, where warm baths and dancing are preferred to more manly and competitive activities (6.236–249). Odysseus’s time with the Phaeacians, whose miraculous kingdom might seem almost overly civilized by the audience for the poem, serves as a halfway point between Calypso’s island, a blissful existence outside of time and change, and the grittier realities awaiting Odysseus in Ithaka.

Focusing on questions of masculinity and kingliness provides a preview of the next section of the katabasis, Odysseus’s encounters with the ghosts of his former comrades at Troy. The transition back into Odysseus’s account of his journey is again abrupt, but not without some connective material. His last words, as he yields to the king’s request to continue, look back toward the Catalogue of Heroines while pointing toward his next theme:

οἳ Τρώων μὲν ὑπεξέφυγον στονόεσσαν ἀυτήν,
ἐν νόστῳ δ᾽ ἀπόλοντο κακῆς ἰότητι γυναικός.

[His companions] who fled the painful battle cry at Troy,
but perished on the return home for the sake of an evil woman.

Odyssey 11. 383–384

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 154–156. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 92–97. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 106–107. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Pedrick, V. 1988. “The Hospitality of Noble Women in the Odyssey. Helios 15.2: 85–104.

Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: an epic of return, 69–70. New York: Twayne Publishers.


Alcinous asks Odysseus about the Greek warriors who died at Troy. Odysseus resumes his story and tells about his meeting with Agamemnon.

Persephone scatters the ψύχαι of famous women, making way for the ghost of Agamemnon. (We will use proper names or personal pronouns for the Greek ψυχή in this section, to avoid the tedious “ghost of” formulation, though as we will see, the difference between their insubstantial existence and life in the world of mortals is an important theme in the underworld episode.) After he drinks the blood, Agamemnon tries to embrace Odysseus:

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κλαῖε δ᾽ ὅ γε λιγέως, θαλερὸν κατὰ δάκρυον εἴβων,
πιτνὰς εἰς ἐμὲ χεῖρας, ὀρέξασθαι μενεαίνων:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐ γάρ οἱ ἔτ᾽ ἦν ἲς ἔμπεδος οὐδέ τι κῖκυς,
οἵη περ πάρος ἔσκεν ἐνὶ γναμπτοῖσι μέλεσσι.

He fell into shrill weeping, pouring down tears,
and stretched out his hands, longing to embrace me,
but there was no strength in them, nor any juice left
like there was before in his flexible limbs.

Odyssey 11.391–394

The great commander has been reduced to feeble inconsequence, another of the twittering horde of dead souls. Odysseus now arrives at the crucial set of encounters at the heart of his katabasis, as he confronts what remains of his former comrades at Troy. We have seen that this trip to the underworld departs in some ways from the tragic model for such an adventure. As Odysseus learns the fates of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax, we see his character measured against those of his fellow warriors, an occasion to reflect on the unusual nature of his heroism.

Agamemnon is surrounded by the ghosts of his henchmen, all of whom died with him. Overcome by sadness, Odysseus asks his friend how he died. Was it on the sea, braving a storm, or during a raid on another’s property, cattle, sheep, or women? No, he was slaughtered at the dinner table, undone by the treachery of a woman and her illicit lover—an ignominious end for a hero, especially in a poem that celebrates the virtues of proper hospitality. The poet forges a link to the catalogue of heroines, and beyond that, the adventures in Books Nine and Ten: In the moment of their death, Agamemnon’s men become “pigs with white tusks” (413) like the captives in Circe’s house; the banquet drenched in blood recalls the gruesome meals of Polyphemus. Given the prominence of stories about dangerous wives in particular, the import for Odysseus is clear enough: Beware the wife you’ve left alone at home. She may betray you.

Agamemnon’s description of his last moments offers fleeting echoes of the Iliad, with bodies strewn all over the ground and warriors facing imminent death. We hear the last pitiful cry of Cassandra, whose laments herald the return of Priam with Hector’s corpse in the earlier poem:

κώκυσέν τ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔπειτα γέγωνέ τε πᾶν κατὰ ἄστυ:
ὄψεσθε Τρῶες καὶ Τρῳάδες Ἕκτορ᾽ ἰόντες,
εἴ ποτε καὶ ζώοντι μάχης ἐκνοστήσαντι
χαίρετ᾽, ἐπεὶ μέγα χάρμα πόλει τ᾽ ἦν παντί τε δήμῳ.

She shrieked in sorrow then and cried out to the whole city:
“Come and see Hector, you Trojan men and women,
if ever you rejoiced at his return alive from battle,
since he was a great delight to the city and all the people.”

Iliad 24.702–705

In the Iliad, Cassandra’s voice summons the Trojans to the city walls, to honor communally the last journey of their great defender. Here her last cries echo through the halls of Agamemnon’s palace as she falls on his body, a grim, private moment, marking the king’s helplessness before his treacherous wife. From this pitiful tableau, Clytemnestra turns coldly away, denying her husband what heroes crave most, to be seen by others. In our last image of him alive, Agamemnon pounds the ground in frustration (perhaps a plea to the gods of the Underworld for vengeance: cf. Il. 9.568). After he dies, Clytemnestra withholds one last service to the dead, leaving the corpse with a gaping mouth and open, staring eyes.

The Iliadic tone of Agamemnon’s last moments increases the pathetic nature of his final moments. In a battle narrative, this might be a poignant conclusion to a heroic life. The Odyssey’s perspective marks his death not as noble but as a sign of failure, to control the potentially insidious power of a woman. Odysseus’s response to Agamemnon brings the king’s bitter memories into line with the overarching themes of the poem:

‘ὢ πόποι, ἦ μάλα δὴ γόνον Ἀτρέος εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἐκπάγλως ἤχθηρε γυναικείας διὰ βουλὰς
ἐξ ἀρχῆς: Ἑλένης μὲν ἀπωλόμεθ᾽ εἵνεκα πολλοί,
σοὶ δὲ Κλυταιμνήστρη δόλον ἤρτυε τηλόθ᾽ ἐόντι.’

“Oh for shame, that from the beginning Zeus of the wide gaze
has been terribly hateful to the family of Atreus through women’s schemes;
many of us have been destroyed because of Helen,
and Clytemnestra wove treachery for you when you were far away.”

Odyssey 11.436–439

We return to the origin of all the pain and death at Troy and afterward, the treachery of Helen. Zeus must hate the family of Atreus, whose generations he chooses to punish through womanly scheming. The two sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra, fall into place beside Calypso, Nausicaa, Circe, Scylla, Charybdis, the Sirens. The implications of these parallels are clear enough. The return of right order in Ithaka (itself a microcosm of the larger patriarchal order of the universe) depends on Odysseus regaining his status as king, husband, father, and son. To do so, he must survive all the challenges thrown in his way, many of which feature feminine trickery in one form or another. We have said that the katabasis brings a hero face to face with fundamental truths about himself and the larger universe. Odysseus has arrived.

Further Reading

Dimock, G. 1989. The Unity of the Odyssey, 156-161. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 107-109. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1942. “The Adventures in the Odyssey.” In Schein, S. 1996. Reading the Odyssey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 118-121.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 32. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.


Agamemnon warns Odysseus not to trust Penelope completely, then asks about his son, Orestes.

In case Odysseus has missed the import of his story, Agamemnon offers some advice: don’t be ἤπιος, (“sweet,” “kind,”) to your wife. According to Athena, one good reason for Odysseus to be released from captivity on Calypso’s island is that he was ἤπιος as a father (5.8), but according to Agamemnon standards for treating wives are different. Odysseus must not reveal everything he knows to his wife: Tell her some of it, hide the rest. In short, use the traits that have gotten him this far. Tragic heroes are not known for their skill at or affection for this kind of dissembling. In a famous reply to Odysseus from Book Nine of the Iliad, Achilles states the matter plainly:

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ἐχθρὸς γάρ μοι κεῖνος ὁμῶς Ἀΐδαο πύλῃσιν
ὅς χ᾽ ἕτερον μὲν κεύθῃ ἐνὶ φρεσίν, ἄλλο δὲ εἴπῃ.

I hate like the gates of Hades the man
who hides one thing in his mind and says another.

Iliad 9.312–313

Achilles is the epitome of the tragic hero, passionate, expressive, holding nothing back. The entire plot of the Iliad is launched by a furious argument between him and Agamemnon, neither of whom seems to hide anything. In this, both men embody the kind of hero that a tragic story needs, always pushing against constraints, regardless of the consequences for them or others, as the story urges them and us toward the goal of its narrative, the recognition that for mortals, death is inevitable. As we have seen, the Odyssey is not such a story. Its hero must serve the narrative goal of restoring right order. He cannot be reckless in pursuit of what his passion points him toward because he must survive at all costs. Each encounter in the underworld reinforces the need for Odysseus to be a different kind of hero.

Wives, then, cannot be trusted. But Agamemnon makes an exception in Penelope’s case: She, unlike other women, is too prudent and level-headed to murder Odysseus. Conjuring up a nostalgic memory, the commander paints a rosy tableau from twenty years before, Penelope as a new bride with Telemachus at her breast. And in Agamemnon’s imagination, that little child has grown up to take his place amidst the men of Ithaka, happy and blessed, ready to defer, rightly (ἣ θέμις ἐστίν, 451), to his father. No mention of the suitors here, or the chaos we have seen at the royal palace. As far as Agamemnon knows, right order persists in Ithaka, despite Odysseus’s absence. Now the tone shifts again, as thinking about Telemachus reminds Agamemnon that thanks to Clytemnestra’s betrayal, he will never see Orestes again, which in turn leads to more advice: return home in secret, not openly; there is no trusting women. Turning away from these thoughts leads him to safer ground, the prospect of his glory living on through his son: Has Odysseus heard anything about Orestes? Is he still living, and if so, where? Surely, he can’t be dead. But Odysseus cannot reassure him. He has heard nothing of Orestes.

Agamemnon’s words show a soul in torment, veering between anger at his own betrayal and wistful admiration for Odysseus’s apparent good fortune. Overcome by bitterness—and, we suspect, shame—he denounces all women as sneaky and treacherous, then seems to catch himself and exempt Penelope. But his obsessions crowd back in and he circles back to his sweeping condemnation of all women: οὐκέτι πιστὰ γυναιξίν (456). Finally, thinking of Orestes seems to pull him back from his rage. In this short passage, we see a vivid example of precisely the temperament that Odysseus must combat in himself if he is to survive: poorly-controlled, corrosive emotions that pull Agamemnon apart. This brief portrait shows the same subtle understanding of human behavior and its underlying causes that characterizes the portrait of Agamemnon in the Iliad. There, his pride and arrogance, fueled by insecurity about his status in relation to Achilles, lead him to disastrous choices. He was not a bad man, just not sufficiently self-aware, unable to distance himself enough from his emotions to exert steady leadership. The same traits emerge in his brief cameo here.

The Iliad’s shadow continues to fall over the scene as Odysseus next meets the enfeebled residue of four more fallen warriors, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus, and Ajax. Characteristically, only the first will speak. Achilles, like Teiresias, wonders why Odysseus would want to visit the underworld:

διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
σχέτλιε, τίπτ᾽ ἔτι μεῖζον ἐνὶ φρεσὶ μήσεαι ἔργον;
πῶς ἔτλης Ἄϊδόσδε κατελθέμεν, ἔνθα τε νεκροὶ
ἀφραδέες ναίουσι, βροτῶν εἴδωλα καμόντων;

Zeus-born son of Laertes, clever Odysseus,
never weary, why do you plan a still greater deed?
How can you stand to come down to Hades’ house,
where the witless dead live, shadows of struggling men?

Odyssey 11.473–476

To the prophet, Hades is a dark and cheerless place, full of dead people. For Achilles, the issue is, not surprisingly, weakness. The remnants of great warriors lack minds to think with and bodies to hurl into the world. The treachery of women fades from view now, as Achilles laments his powerlessness. Odysseus explains that he has come for help from Teiresias so he can finally return home. But why is Achilles grieving? He is the “most blessed” (483) of all men, before or since, honored like a god, and now rules over the dead. Achilles’ answer will take us back to the central differences between tragic and comic heroes and the poems they inhabit.

Further Reading

Greenberg, N. 1990. “The Attitude of Agamemnon.” Classical 86, 193–205.


Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles, who asks about his father Peleus and his son Neoptolemus. Odysseus says he knows nothing of the former, then praises the latter for his bravery.

Achilles’s reply is characteristically blunt:

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‘μὴ δή μοι θάνατόν γε παραύδα, φαίδιμ᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ.
βουλοίμην κ᾽ ἐπάρουρος ἐὼν θητευέμεν ἄλλῳ,
ἀνδρὶ παρ᾽ ἀκλήρῳ, ᾧ μὴ βίοτος πολὺς εἴη,
ἢ πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσειν.’

Don’t console me for being dead, shining Odysseus.
I would rather follow a plow, a serf for another man,
who is allotted no land and has little to live on,
than to rule as king over all the wasted dead.

Odyssey 11.488–491

This is another man entirely than the one in the Iliad who chooses glory over a long life, who strives always to have the highest status, willing to let his fellow Greek warriors die in his absence rather than back down to Agamemnon. Now, he yearns for life at any cost. The Achilles of the Iliad values his τιμή, the honor given him by others that certifies his status among his peers, above all else. Now, he would gladly sink to the lowest rung on the social ladder, that of a day laborer working for a tenant farmer who owns no land. (A slave, though owned by another, is at least a part of a household.)

That Achilles would rather not be dead is hardly surprising—wouldn’t we all?—but the pointed rhetoric of his speech prompts further thought about the fit between a hero and the story he inhabits. Like the bitter reflections of Agamemnon, Achilles’s words here signal the dominant message of this katabasis, the superiority of Odysseus’s particular kind of heroism. He, not his former comrades, not even the great Achilles, is the hero this story needs. We are accustomed to describing famous characters in the Homeric epics as if their attitudes and behavior were consistent across both works: Achilles is always passionate in pursuit of what he thinks he deserves, regardless of the effects of his actions on himself and others; Odysseus exemplifies intelligent caution and self-restraint, in the service of manipulating others. But in fact, the portraits of both heroes in their respective poems reflect the interplay of those traits with the dominant rhetoric of each epic. The form of the story influences how characters, even the most famous ones, behave in it.

Achilles in the underworld reflects this interplay, valorizing with his speech the dominant values of the poem. Likewise, the version of Odysseus we find in the Iliad is not the man we’ve been prompted to admire in the Odyssey as he plots his homecoming. He is noted for his speech-making (Il. 3.204-224) and takes part in a secret night raid in Book Ten, but elsewhere he is honored for the same martial qualities as his fellow warriors. Faced with the prospect of imminent death at the hands of the Trojans, he ponders:

ὤ μοι ἐγὼ τί πάθω; μέγα μὲν κακὸν αἴ κε φέβωμαι
πληθὺν ταρβήσας: τὸ δὲ ῥίγιον αἴ κεν ἁλώω
μοῦνος: τοὺς δ᾽ ἄλλους Δαναοὺς ἐφόβησε Κρονίων.
ἀλλὰ τί ἤ μοι ταῦτα φίλος διελέξατο θυμός;
οἶδα γὰρ ὅττι κακοὶ μὲν ἀποίχονται πολέμοιο,
ὃς δέ κ᾽ ἀριστεύῃσι μάχῃ ἔνι τὸν δὲ μάλα χρεὼ.
ἑστάμεναι κρατερῶς, ἤ τ᾽ ἔβλητ᾽ ἤ τ᾽ ἔβαλ᾽ ἄλλον.

Alas, what will happen to me? A great evil if I should flee
in fear of the enemy throng; but worse still if I am taken
alone. The son of Kronos has routed the rest of the Danaans.
But why does my heart within me debate these things?
For I know that cowards run from the fighting,
but he who would win honor in battle must
stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another.

Iliad 11.404–411

This monologue is one of four in the Iliad that follow the same basic pattern (see also Il. 17.91–105; 21.553–570; 22.99–130). A soldier faces the prospect of imminent death on the battlefield at the hands of the Trojans. He pauses to weigh his options: Should he run and live to fight another day, or stand and fight, preferring an honorable death to the shame of being branded a coward? The common language in all four speeches is the opening exclamation, ὤ μοι ἐγὼ(ν), and the phrase ἀλλὰ τί ἤ μοι ταῦτα φίλος διελέξατο θυμός, when the speaker breaks off his rumination and resolves to either run or stand firm. The most famous by far of the four is the last, Hector’s monologue before the walls of Troy, as Achilles bears down on him relentlessly across the plain. Those anguished reflections could be taken as a supreme example of the warrior’s code in the Iliad, as far from the cautious calculations of Odysseus in the Odyssey as can be imagined.

Like Agamemnon, Achilles turns away from painful reflection about his powerlessness by asking about his son and father, both emblems of his masculine power. Their survival guarantees the continuation of his kleos. Thinking about Peleus leads him, however, to dark thoughts about his father’s own possible powerlessness before the attacks of his enemies. Is the old man still honored in Thessaly, or is he suffering because his son is not there to protect him? These gloomy thoughts recall verses from Achilles’s great speech to Priam in Iliad 24:

ὣς μὲν καὶ Πηλῆϊ θεοὶ δόσαν ἀγλαὰ δῶρα
ἐκ γενετῆς: πάντας γὰρ ἐπ᾽ ἀνθρώπους ἐκέκαστο
ὄλβῳ τε πλούτῳ τε, ἄνασσε δὲ Μυρμιδόνεσσι,
καί οἱ θνητῷ ἐόντι θεὰν ποίησαν ἄκοιτιν.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐπὶ καὶ τῷ θῆκε θεὸς κακόν, ὅττί οἱ οὔ τι
παίδων ἐν μεγάροισι γονὴ γένετο κρειόντων,
ἀλλ᾽ ἕνα παῖδα τέκεν παναώριον: οὐδέ νυ τόν γε
γηράσκοντα κομίζω, ἐπεὶ μάλα τηλόθι πάτρης
ἧμαι ἐνὶ Τροίῃ, σέ τε κήδων ἠδὲ σὰ τέκνα.

So the gods gave splendid gifts also to Peleus
from his birth, for he stood out among all men
in wealth and good fortune, and ruled over the Myrmidons,
and the gods gave him a divine wife, though was mortal.
But they also put evil upon him, because no
generation of strong children was born to him in his halls,
only one child, doomed to an untimely death. And I do not
care for him as he grows old, since far away from my fatherland
I sit in Troy, troubling you and your children.

Iliad 24.534–542

In the Iliad, Achilles’s concern for Peleus is evidence of his movement toward accepting his own mortality, the goal he must reach to be made whole on the poem’s terms. He has been led to thinking about his father by Priam, who urges him to see the parallels between himself and Peleus, two old men who have lost the protection of their sons, and thus show compassion toward him. The context in the Odyssey is different. Achilles’s worry is part of his sorrow over losing his own power, and compassion for others carries little weight in his lament.

Odysseus has no news of Peleus but delivers a lengthy encomium to Achilles’s son Neoptolemus. Handsome, brave, and a ruthlessly effective killer of Trojans, he was the best speaker among the Greeks after Nestor and Odysseus himself. The praise ends with an anecdote about the Trojan horse, as Odysseus recalls how Neoptolemus agitated to be released from the horse’s belly, so he could kill more Trojans. What goes unsaid is that the success of that gambit depended on Odysseus restraining Neoptolemus’s impetuous urges. There, as everywhere in the Odyssey, self-control is the key to victory, not unrestrained emotion. Odysseus, not Achilles.

Further Reading

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 96–112. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Edwards, A.T. 1985. Achilles in the Odyssey. Beitrage zur klassischen Philologie 171.

Pache, C.O. 2000. “War Games: Odysseus at Troy.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 100, 15–23.


Odysseus sees the ghost of Ajax and tries to speak with him. Ajax refuses.

Achilles recedes into the distance, taking “big strides” (539) and rejoicing in the good news about his son. It is hard not to hear a poignant undertone in these verses. The great warrior marches across the asphodel, a denatured ghost of his former self but clinging to the reflected glory of his son. His ψυχή and Agamemnon’s will reappear briefly in Book Twenty-Four, conversing in the underworld. Their exchange adds nothing to what we learn about their characters here, though Agamemnon does give an elaborate description of Achilles’s funeral at Troy (Od. 24.24–97).

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Ajax is the last of the major Homeric heroes whose ghost Odysseus meets. He is always a vivid presence in Homeric epic, physically imposing, brutally effective on the battlefield. When he, Odysseus, and Phoenix are sent to persuade Achilles to return to the battle in Book Nine of the Iliad, he dismisses Achilles’ attempts at self-justification:

‘διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ
ἴομεν: οὐ γάρ μοι δοκέει μύθοιο τελευτὴ
τῇδέ γ᾽ ὁδῷ κρανέεσθαι: ἀπαγγεῖλαι δὲ τάχιστα
χρὴ μῦθον Δαναοῖσι καὶ οὐκ ἀγαθόν περ ἐόντα
οἵ που νῦν ἕαται ποτιδέγμενοι. αὐτάρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
ἄγριον ἐν στήθεσσι θέτο μεγαλήτορα θυμὸν
σχέτλιος, οὐδὲ μετατρέπεται φιλότητος ἑταίρων
τῆς ᾗ μιν παρὰ νηυσὶν ἐτίομεν ἔξοχον ἄλλων

Zeus-born son of Laertes, resourceful Odysseus,
let us go. For I think nothing will be accomplished
with words on this mission. We should go back quickly
and tell the Greeks this story, though it is not good.
They sit there now, waiting. But Achilles
has made savage the great-hearted spirit in his chest,
unyielding. Nor does he care for the love of his companions
wherein we honored him above all others by the ships,

Iliad 9.624–632

Coming after Odysseus’s and Phoenix’s carefully calculated appeals to Achilles’ need for personal honor, Ajax is characteristically blunt. What finally matters to him is not whether Achilles is right in holding out for a suitable apology from Agamemnon, but whether he cares enough about his friends, who are dying in his absence. Ajax is unique among all the heroes in the Iliad for his unlikely combination of stubborn independence and self-sacrificing devotion to his companions. Patroclus also epitomizes the need for human connection amid the rampant self-regard of the Iliad’s warriors, but exists for the most part in the shadow of Achilles. Ajax defers to no one.

The origins of Ajax’s implacable hatred of Odysseus lie in a story that seems to have circulated before the composition of the Odyssey, about the contest arranged by Achilles’s mother Thetis to decide which hero will inherit the arms of Achilles after his death. No details of the contest survive, except that it was not a trial of physical strength but perhaps one involving some of Odysseus’s famous eloquence. We only know that Odysseus was chosen over Ajax, who committed suicide in shame over his failure. His proud isolation continues even death:

οἴη δ᾽ Αἴαντος ψυχὴ Τελαμωνιάδαο
νόσφιν ἀφεστήκει,

The ghost of Ajax, son of Telamon
stood apart, alone.

Odyssey 11.543–544

The adjective οἶος, οἴη, “alone,” carries significance beyond its denotative meaning in Homeric epic, especially in the first position in the verse. For all their proud independence, characters in Homer are not often alone. For male heroes, one sign that they are in their customary status is the phrase οὐκ οῖος, as when Achilles finally acts to end his isolation from his fellow warriors and return the body of Hector to Priam:

οὐκ οἶος, ἅμα τῷ γε δύω θεράποντες ἕποντο
ἥρως Αὐτομέδων ἠδ᾽ Ἄλκιμος;

Not alone, but his two henchmen followed him,
the hero Automedon and Alkimos;

Iliad 24.573-574

For a woman, the corresponding phrase, οὐκ οἴη, appears when she is accompanied in public by her maids, signifying an appropriate modesty, as when Penelope descends the stairs to face the suitors (Od. 18.207). When the adjective appears without οὐκ, its meaning can be emphatic, Nausicaa is οἴη—and thus potentially vulnerable—when she faces Odysseus after he emerges nearly naked from behind the bushes (Od. 6.139); Poseidon is the only god who is angry at Odysseus (Od. 1.79).

Ajax, unlike Achilles, does not change in the underworld, but remains just as he is in the Iliad, unbendingly alone. Odysseus is ready to put aside their quarrel, eager to talk, but Ajax cannot let go of his anger. Like Agamemnon and Achilles, Ajax models for Odysseus traits that he must avoid. He continues to be isolated because he cannot control his emotions, in particular, his anger. As we have seen, self-control at all costs is the key to success for Odysseus, if he is to make it home. We might add one other aspect of Ajax’s character, which is prominent in the Book Nine of the Iliad: considering the welfare of his comrades a prominent part of his calculations when making crucial choices. The ever-thinning ranks of Odysseus’ crew suggest a different calculation for him. As Ajax strides away, Odysseus makes his choice:

ἔνθα χ᾽ ὅμως προσέφη κεχολωμένος, ἤ κεν ἐγὼ τόν:
ἀλλά μοι ἤθελε θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισι
τῶν ἄλλων ψυχὰς ἰδέειν κατατεθνηώτων.

All the same, he might then have spoken to me in his anger,
and I to him; but the heart in my chest wished
to see the souls of other dead men.

Odyssey 11.565–567

If, Odysseus seems to be saying, I cared a little bit more about Ajax, we might have overcome the anger. But curiosity, the desire to seek out knowledge, trumps the need to preserve his connection to a former companion.

Further Reading

Nagler, M. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: The Oral Art of Homer, 97–111. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press.

Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 77–79. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.


Odysseus sees but does not speak to the ghosts of Minos, Orion, Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus.

Aristarchus of Samothrace (217–145 BCE), a Hellenistic scholar whose marginal comments on the Homeric epics have come down to us, thought that verses 568–627 were added to the main composition of the Odyssey by a later poet and some modern scholars have agreed with him. Though our purpose here is to understand the version of the poem that we have now, rather than entering into scholarly controversies about the history of the poem’s composition, looking briefly at some of the objections to these verses can help to us to clarify their function in the overall structure of Book Eleven.

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At first glance, the passage describing six figures who follow Ajax recalls the earlier catalogue of heroines: the language, with variations on the verb εἴδω (568, 576, 582, 593; cf., 235, 261, 266, 281, 298, 306); the parade of mythical figures with identifying details. But this latter group stands apart from the heroines, in that none of them has any meaningful connection to Odysseus outside the poem. As a group, they represent no threat to him, unlike the women, who always embody danger for the hero. With the exception of Herakles, they appear only at a distance from Odysseus, inside Hades itself. None of the six drinks blood from the trench. Though Herakles does speak to Odysseus, he receives no answer. The immediacy of the encounters with Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax is missing here, as the poet seems to be lowering the dramatic intensity at the end of the katabasis. The ongoing implied comparison between the lives of the dead heroes and Odysseus’s different kind of heroism fades away.

Despite the differences between this last section and the earlier encounters, we can see a larger structural symmetry in Book Eleven: three figures who have significant exchanges with Odysseus, Elpenor, Tiresias, and Antikleia, are echoed by Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax; then comes the catalogue of heroines, mirrored by the catalogue of male figures from myth. This kind of structural interpretation can also be applied to the last scenes of the poem, after the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, which also show a marked fall-off in dramatic intensity and were also found unsatisfactory by Aristarchus. We might account for the second underworld scene (24.1-240) by noting that, though quite dreary, it corresponds to the katabasis and rounds off the story of the suitors, while the remainder of the book tidies up loose ends with Laertes and the families of the suitors.

In both Book Eleven and Book Twenty-Four, the falling-off of dramatic tension has been a let-down for many, with the structural patterns seeming inadequate compensation for the lowered energy. But this kind of arc is not in fact unusual in Greek literature, where often a story will reach a dramatic climax some distance from the end of the work, with the remaining scenes devoted to realizing the implications of that climax. The death of Hector is followed in the Iliad by the funeral games for Patroclus and the ransoming of Hector; Oedipus’ shattering realization in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus comes well before the play’s end, leaving the survivors to cope with the wreckage. All that being said, it is hard to see how this last part of the katabasis addresses the implications of encounters with the Iliadic warriors, the dramatic high point of the Book.

Herakles, the last of the parade of heroes, makes an impressive entrance at the end of Book Eleven:

ἀμφὶ δέ μιν κλαγγὴ νεκύων ἦν οἰωνῶν ὥς,
πάντοσ᾽ ἀτυζομένων: ὁ δ᾽ ἐρεμνῇ νυκτὶ ἐοικώς,
γυμνὸν τόξον ἔχων καὶ ἐπὶ νευρῆφιν ὀιστόν,
δεινὸν παπταίνων, αἰεὶ βαλέοντι ἐοικώς.
σμερδαλέος δέ οἱ ἀμφὶ περὶ στήθεσσιν ἀορτὴρ
χρύσεος ἦν τελαμών, ἵνα θέσκελα ἔργα τέτυκτο,
ἄρκτοι τ᾽ ἀγρότεροί τε σύες χαροποί τε λέοντες,
ὑσμῖναί τε μάχαι τε φόνοι τ᾽ ἀνδροκτασίαι τε.

Around him was a clamor of the dead, like birds,
scattering, frightened, and he came on like black night,
holding a bare bow, an arrow notched in the string,
glaring dreadfully, always ready to strike.
A terrible belt crossed his chest, a golden
baldric, where marvelous works of art were figured,
bears and fierce boars and lions with eyes that glared,
and battles and quarrels, murders and slaughter.

Odyssey 11.605–612

Here is a compelling spirit Odysseus would surely want to follow and question. But he is not interested:

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν αὐτοῦ μένον ἔμπεδον, εἴ τις ἔτ᾽ ἔλθοι
ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων, οἳ δὴ τὸ πρόσθεν ὄλοντο.

But I remained there, in case any other of the
heroes would come, who were killed before.

Odyssey 11.628–629

The inertia that kept him from following Ajax seems to have grown. There he at least questioned the great warrior. The repeated rhythm of the two encounters, each ending with Odysseus turning away from a famous hero, brings the katabasis to an end in a fitting way. Typically for him, restless curiosity pushes him onward. Perhaps this conclusion also reflects the poet’s own restlessness?

Further Reading

Clay, J. 1983. The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, 94–96. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Heubeck, A. and Hoekstra, A. ed. 1989. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, vol. II, Books IX–XVI, 110-114. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrison, J. 2003. A Companion to Homer’s Odyssey, 109–110. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Thalman, W. 1992. The Odyssey: an epic of return, 73–75. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Tracy, S. 1990. The Story of the Odyssey, 72–73. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Odysseus sees the ghost of Heracles, who complains about his labors. Odysseus breaks off his search for other dead heroes and returns to his ship.

Conclusion: A Different Kind of Katabasis

Given the unusual nature of Odysseus’s heroism and the story it animates, sending his hero to the underworld creates unusual challenges for the poet, who cannot aim his narrative toward the same goal as he would if telling a tragic story (see Introduction, para. 4). Confronting death and the implications of that experience, the central event in a tragic katabasis, will not carry the same weight in a comic narrative. How then, was the episode to be shaped?

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Homer sets the scene at the edge of the underworld, with the hero and his crew “smothered,” κεκαλυμμένοι (15) in darkness, already a sign that the episode will feature feminine forces threatening to Odysseus and his crew. The requisite rituals performed, the poet brings forth the ghost of Elpenor, who begs his captain to give his corpse a proper burial back on Circe’s island. With this opening, Homer creates the narrative ring that will mark the boundaries of his episode, with Circe at the beginning and end. Putting off Antikleia until he can interview Teiresias, Odysseus reaffirms that he has already made the break with his mother’s nurture that marks a mature male in Greek hero stories. He is not in the midst of an evolving journey of self-discovery, as are many tragic heroes. His mission aims at restoration, not the acceptance of limits.

Next comes Teiresias, whom Circe has named as the keeper of information crucial to a successful homecoming. The prophet does deliver one piece of advice about the return trip—stay away from the cattle belonging to Helios—but the most important news is about how Odysseus can die a peaceful death. This kind of discovery is entirely in keeping with the goals of a traditional katabasis: knowledge, and often self-knowledge, that the hero could only gain in the underworld. By settling up with the sea, the medium for his wanderings, Odysseus can quiet the restless curiosity that has driven him. This window—for the hero and for us—into Odysseus’ fundamental nature is important part of his exchange with Teiresias. The rest of the strategizing about his return voyage can wait until he meets Circe again.

The catalogue of heroines sounds celebratory at first, but on closer inspection is more cautionary. After the first group of “fortunate” women who have been abducted by the gods, many of the other heroines portend danger for Odysseus, appearing elsewhere in stories that highlight the kind of threat that feminine forces have posed to the hero all along the way. Their potentially dangerous power in turn makes a natural segue to the interlude in Scheria, where Arete takes the lead in speaking to Odysseus, upstaging Alkinous once again, as she did when Odysseus first arrived on the island of the Phaeacians.

The end of the interlude takes us to the heart of the katabasis, where Homer’s innovative use of the traditional episode becomes clear. In the encounters with Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ajax, with their focus on the powerlessness of the once mighty heroes of the Iliad, the poet drives home his point: To save the royal family and kingdom in Ithaka, Odysseus must forsake the tragic obsession with kleos at any cost. He must instead survive, no matter what it costs him and those around him (in the latter case, their lives). Both Agamemnon and Achilles put it succinctly: Do not be like me. Control, of oneself and others, especially women, must be the primary goal. Ajax and the famously excessive Herakles show the dire consequences of failing to control one’s appetites, for revenge, for glory. The underworld is always a useful laboratory for a storyteller, where the true consequences of a hero’s acts in the world of the living, however that world is portrayed in the story, are tested against the ultimate reality that awaits all mortals. In the world of the Odyssey, only heroes like Odysseus can ultimately triumph. It is fitting that Odysseus can reanimate the twittering ghosts in Hades, so they can talk to him. He is all about living on, however that can happen.

The smothering darkness, Antikleia’s prominent appearance, the catalogue of women, the enfeebled heroes from the Iliad (and perhaps the sexual ambiguity of Teiresias), all signal that the underworld, as the Greeks would have seen it, is a feminized milieu, a land of women. This is not a place where heroes can win kleos, claiming a place in the stories that live on after death. Like the island of Calypso, Hades exists in a kind of stasis, out of time. For Odysseus in particular, Hades is his mother’s home, whereas his mission is to restore his father’s home in Ithaka, something Achilles cannot do for Peleus. In this sense, the underworld episode repeats a dominant theme in the return story of Odysseus, as a masculine hero penetrates a feminized milieu and effects the release of Odysseus: Hermes invades Calypso’s island and gets Odysseus released; Odysseus then arrives on Scheria as an anonymous stranger, works his way into the good graces of the effete—and in the view of the Greeks, femininized—Phaeacians with his athletic prowess and beguiling storytelling, and wins a ride home to Ithaka; he visits the island of Polyphemus, enters the womblike cave as “Nobody,” wields the phallic stake and emerges as Odysseus; with the help of Hermes, he avoids becoming another of Circe’s pet animals, then enters Hades, a feminized realm, and emerges unscathed; finally, Odysseus, in disguise, will penetrate the royal palace in Ithaka, a chaotic place lacking in masculine authority, and release the true version of himself by killing the suitors.

Further Reading

Bassi, K. 1999. “Nostos, Domos, and the Architecture of the Ancient Stage.” South Atlantic Quarterly 98, 415-449.

Suggested Citation

Thomas Van Nortwick and Rob Hardy, Homer: Odyssey 9-12. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 20122. ISBN: 978-1-947822-17-7