The Lessons of Hell

From Gerald R. Lucas

Perhaps the darkest moment in Odysseus’ journey home is his visit to the Underworld. Here the dead speak, whether the literal ghosts in the Homeric version of the afterlife, or the metaphorical shades from Odysseus’ past; the hero must meet and learn from their experiences if he is to continue his journey and complete his tasks successfully. Hell, here, may be interpreted as Odysseus’ own descent into his troubled mind to search for meaning in his harried wandering and to figure out what is destination should be. At his lowest point as a man and hero, Odysseus looks inward — away from the living — in order to see just how he fits into the world of the living, how he got to the position he’s in, and what he can to extricate himself from hell.

Entrance to Hell

Appropriately enough for him, Odysseus finds himself in hell after he has been in one place for a year: on Aiaia with Circe. After prompting from his community, the men that are (un)fortunate enough to be on Odysseus’ journey with him, he realizes that he has been neglecting his responsibility not only to them, but to his larger community back on Ithaca, and to himself. Yes, the time with la belle dame sans merci has been pleasurable, but the journey must continue. The irony here is that Odysseus sees himself as the conqueror of the vile temptress, but in the end she turned him into a pacified lion that his men first encountered on Aiaia. In effect, she has rendered him as impotent as the wolves and mountain lions that lay “mild in her soft spell.”[2] In his idleness, perhaps a manifestation of his own lotus in his passion for Circe, he has forgotten his desires for home, family, and kingdom. For this, Circe is a witch as Calypso will soon become in her offer of immortality, perhaps Odysseus’ greatest temptation.

It seems the hero’s path does not include these women, but must be found within Odysseus’ troubled mind before he can return to the right women: Penelope. His quest for who he is must continue by first traveling out of the world of life and into the shades of his past. He has the answers, but he doesn’t yet have the ability to divine them. That takes the darkness.

He first encounters Elpenor in the underworld, a grim reminder of his neglect as a leader of his men. Odysseus lets Elpenor die alone on Aiaia, then left without seeing to the latter’s honor in a proper ritual of respect. Next, Odysseus meets the seer Tiresias, the very ghost he journeyed to see for some guidance, yet Tiresias’ advice seems a mixed blessing: “One narrow strait may take you through [Posiden’s] blows: / denial of yourself, restraint of shipmates.”[3] Does denial mean that Odysseus, the man skilled in all ways of contending, must deny the aspect of himself that is the trickster, the guileful Odysseus that seems to be his modus operandi, or that aspect of himself that might long to tarry with beautiful gods? Aren’t both aspects of the hero? Which is the true Odysseus that he must deny? Aren’t both equally part of himself? It seems that Odysseus’ desire to survive and return to set his lands in order dominates his personality, at least on a conscious level. Or must he deny that which he truly craves but would unman him in that to satisfy his own desires he must sacrifice his responsibility as a leader?

As a leader, Odysseus must speak for a community that he represents. A microcosm of that community travels with him in the form of his shipmates. Yet, this crew, like children, must be watched constantly — a task that Odysseus is not up to. In fact, they drive him to exhaustion at two crucial points on the journey: when they first approach Ithaca with the help of Aiolos’ bag of winds that Odysseus ties to the mast in order that he can sleep. The crew is suspicious of the bag — perhaps Odysseus hides some treasure — they open it, letting the maelstrom lose to set them back years on their journey. The second time proves more fatal: Odysseus falls asleep on the Isle of the Sun which gives his men the opportunity to kill and eat Helios’ cattle, thus dooming them to death. It seems that Odysseus fails in accomplishing Tiresias’ second directive while on his journey.

Perhaps the two directives are linked through one character flaw of Odysseus? In both instances, Odysseus does not inform his crew of the danger: he does not trust them enough to tell them about the bag of winds, nor does he warn them not to touch Helios’ beeves. In both cases, Odysseus is only concerned with Odysseus and treats his men like idiots. He does not consider his community, essentially condemning them to death. Had he trusted them — denying that part of himself that is the loner — he might have been able to save them. Odysseus seems to learn this lesson eventually. He returns secretly to Ithaca, and only by trusting others is he able to defeat the suitors and restore his house.

Drawing for Odysseus in Hades, William Russell Flint

Odysseus’ inability to rely on assistance other than his own polymetis (versatility) and polytropos (many twists and turns) distances him from the community that is his ultimate goal to rejoin. The warrior has to be self-sufficient, often having to make agile decisions in an effort to stay alive, yet during times of peace, one must maintain a relationship with others around him in order to function from day to day. During war, humans kill each other — no need for trust; during peace, one must trust in order to be a member of a thriving community. It seems that Odysseus’ trust only in himself is that part that he should deny. While it might have worked in the Iliad (and that too is debatable), it can no longer function in times of peace.

So, if war is the destruction of community, then peace must be the building of community. Where does this begin? Ah, back to women. After meeting the ghost of his mother who died during his absence from Ithaca, Odysseus encounters the shade of Agamemnon who tells about his wife’s (Clytemnestra) perfidy: her taking a lover while Agamemnon was away, and her lover killing Agamemnon while the latter was bathing. (It seems irrelevant that Agamemnon was an idiot who seemed to deserve what he got, but that’s an issue for another essay.) Agamemnon warns Odysseus about women: “Let it be a warning / even to you. Indulge a woman never, / and never tell her all you know.”[4] With this in mind, Odysseus should “Land your ship / in secret on your island; give no warning. / The day of faithful wives is gone forever.”[5] While Agamemnon’s advice is sound in avoiding the wrath of the suitors, his reasons for giving it do not apply. While Clytemnestra may have been an unfaithful wife, and perhaps for good reason, Penelope has remained faithful, something Odysseus’ mother has just told him. Here we have the parallel that has been maintained explicitly throughout the epic between Clytemnestra and Penelope: the unfaithful versus the faithful wife. A further comparison could be made with Menelaus’ wife Helen, who seems to be a cross between Clytemnestra and Circe, and book III vividly illustrates the contentious relationship that she has with Menelaus. It seems that a faithful wife should not cause her husband any grief (not to mention providing him with a male heir), something Odysseus does not seem concerned with.

Finally, in an expression that one might consider the motto of the Odyssey, Achilles gives Odysseus some final advice about life and death. When Odysseus tells Achilles that the latter should “not be so pained by death” because he is remember as the greatest Argive warrior, Achilles answers pointedly: “Let me hear no smooth talk / of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. / Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand / or some poor country man, on iron rations, / than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”[6] Life is what happens before one dies — one’s reputation means nothing in the face of grim death. Coupled with his mother’s advice about “craving sunlight soon” since all that exists in the underworld are insubstantial bones that the pyre consumed long ago, Odysseus leaves the underworld seemingly ready to embrace life once again.

If indeed Odysseus’ trip is a metaphorical descent into his own troubled psyche, the shades, then, must be memories, or allegorical projections of Odysseus’ character. Perhaps it’s ultimately these memories of the past, ghosts of those he used to know, shades of the person he used to be that he must deny. We are all shackled to our past by specters of who we were, but we shouldn’t let that keep us in hell, unable to live our lives, to travel the roads that lead to something more. Perhaps life’s lessons are accessible to us all, but maybe we have to be at those low points in our lives in order to realize them, yet we cannot stay there long. We might not know where we’re going, but we can’t do it alone for long. Home seems to be something that begins with two, and a responsibility to deny those parts of one’s self that will not let this happen, at least according to the lessons in Homer.


  1. Originally published on June 26, 2003.
  2. X.230–1
  3. XI. 118–19
  4. XI.513–15
  5. XI.433–35
  6. XI.577–81