Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI: Selections

Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_063On the advice of Circe, Odysseus has travelled to Hades to ask the spirit of the seer, Teiresias, how he might find his way back to Ithaca. He has dug a trough and poured into it milk, honey, barley, and sheep’s blood. The dead come to drink it, but as instructed, he allows only those he wishes to question to drink.

Up came the spirit of my mother, she had died,
Anticleia, daughter of great-hearted Autolycus,
She was living when I left her to go to sacred Troy.
I wept when I saw her, and felt pity in my heart;
But even so I did not permit her to be first, though grieving thick,
To come near the blood, not until I questioned Teiresias.

Up came the spirit of Teiresias of Thebes,
Holding his golden sceptre, he recognized me and said:
“Laertes-son, seed of Zeus, wily Odysseus,
At it again, you poor man. Why, pray tell, have you left behind the light of the sun,
why have you come, so as to look upon the dead and this joyless place?
But withdraw from the trough, hold off your sharp blade
From the blood, so that I may drink and I may speak to you unerring.”

Thus he spoke, and I withdrew my silver-studded sword,
I thrust it firmly in its sheathe. And after he drank the black blood,
Only then did the blameless prophet speak to me these words:
“You seek your homecoming, honey-sweet, illustrious Odysseus;
But a god shall make hardship for you. For I do not think you shall
Escape notice of the earth-shaker, who has laid away rancour in his heart,
Angered that you utterly blinded his own son.
But even so you may certainly still reach it, though you will suffer misfortunes,
If you are willing to restrain your passion, and that of your companions,
When first you draw your well-wrought ships near
The island of Thrinacia, in flight away from the violet-like sea,
You will find the grazing cattle and fat sheep
Of Helios, who oversees all and overhears everything.
These, if you permit them to remain unharmed, and are mindful of your homecoming,
You may certainly still come to Ithaca, though you will suffer misfortunes;
But if you do harm, then I calculate destruction for you,
And for your ship and companions. Even if you yourself avoid it,
You come in a bad way and late, after all your companions have perished,
On the ship of another man; you will meet with calamities in your home,
Arrogant men, who are consuming your livelihood
They court your godlike bedmate and give her bride-gifts.
But when you come, you shall surely repay the violent acts, at least of those men:
And the suitors in your halls, after
You kill them, whether by trickery or openly with your sharp copper,
Go then henceforth, taking a well-balanced oar,
Until you reach those who know not the sea,
Men who do not even eat food mixed with salt;
Nor even do they know red-cheeked ships,1
Nor well-balanced oars, which become wings for ships.
I shall tell you quite clearly a sign, nor shall it escape your notice:
Another wayfarer, falling in with you, when
He says you have a winnowing-fan on your glistening shoulder,
And then after you stick your well-handled oars in the earth,
After you make fine sacrifices to Lord Poseidon,
A young ram, and a bull, and a boar that mounts sows,
Go home and make sacrifices of a hecatomb2
To the undying gods, who occupy the wide sky,
To absolutely all of them in order. And for you yourself, death far from the sea
Shall come, of a very gentle kind, which strikes you
Worn out by a rich old age. The people around you
Will be blessed. To you I speak things without error.

1. A common epithet of ships. The bows were painted red.
2. A hecatomb is an offering of one hundred oxen.

Odysseus asks Teiresias how the soul of his mother can recognize that he is her son. The prophet tells him that any ghost which he allows to drink blood will speak to him and tell him the truth. Teiresias then goes back to the house of Hades.

And I remained there, steadfast, until my mother came
Upon and drank the cloudy-dark blood. She recognized me immediately,
And wailing, she addressed me with winged words:
“My son, how is it that you have come beneath the murky gloom,
Though you live? For it is difficult for the living to look upon these things.
For between there are mighty rivers and terrible flows,
Foremost the Ocean, which is not in any possible to traverse
If you are on foot, if one does not have a well-wrought ship.
Do you now, wandering from Troy, come to this place
With your ship and companions, after so long? Have you not yet gone
To Ithaca nor looked upon your wife in your halls?

Thus she spoke, and replying, I said to her:
“Dear mother, need has led me down to Hades’ realm,
To consult with the soul of Teiresias of Thebes.
For I have not yet come near Achaean land nor yet upon our
Soil have I stepped, but I endlessly wander, bearing sorrow,
From when I followed divine Agamenon at the very first,
To Ilios, rich in horses, so that I might fight Trojans.
But come, tell me this and say it straight:
What doom of death overtook you, that brings long woe?
Was it a long sickness, or did Artemis, shooter of arrows,
Slay you, attacking you with her gentle missiles?
And tell me of my father and my son, whom I left behind,
Whether my prize is still with those men, or already someone
Else of men holds it, and they say that I am no longer to return.
And tell me the plan and intent of my courted bed-mate,
Whether she remains with my son and guards everything steadfast,
Or she has already married one of the Achaeans, whoever is best.”

Thus I spoke and immediately my revered mother replied:
“Yes indeed, that woman at least, with her enduring heart, remains
In your halls; and for her, ever woeful,
The days and nights waste away while she sheds tears.
No one yet holds your fair prize, but without hindrance
Telemachus inhabits your domains and in equal measure at feasts
Is feasted, those which are fitting for a law-giving man to give heed;
For everyone invites him. But your father stays in one place,
In the country, and he does not go down to the city; nor are there for his bed,
Mattresses, or shining cloaks and blankets,
But during the winter he sleeps in the house where the bondsmen do,
In the ash near the fire, and he clothes his flesh in poor garments ;
And when the summer comes, and fruitful harvest,
All over along the slopes of the vineyard orchard,
A low bed of fallen leaves is strewn.
He lies there grieving, nurturing a great sorrow in his heart,
Yearning for your homecoming; he has come to a difficult old age.
For I too perished thus, and met my fate:
Neither in the halls did the keen-sighted one, the arrow-shooter
Slay me, attacking me with her gentle missiles,
Nor did any sickness come upon me, which often
By a loathsome consumption of the limbs destroys the spirit.
But rather, yearning for you and your counsels, radiant Odysseus,
And your kindliness robbed my honey-sweet spirit.”

Thus she spoke, and I wished, feeling anxiety in my heart,
To clasp the spirit of my mother, who had passed away.
Thrice I sprung forward, my heart urged me to take hold
Thrice from my hands, like a shadow or even a dream,
She flitted. I felt strongly a keen pain fill my heart,
And uttering winged words, I spoke to her:
“My dear mother, why do you not stay for me, since I am eager to hold you,
So that even in the house of Hades, by casting our arms around a loved one,
We might both have the enjoyment of chilly grief?
Or did glorious Persephone urge on a phantom
To me, so that lamenting, I might weep even more?”

Thus I spoke, and my revered mother immediately replied:
“Oh woe, my child, ill-fated above all men,
Persephone, daughter of Zeus, does not in any way cheat you,
But this is the way of mortals, whenever someone dies.
For no longer does sinew hold flesh and bone,
But rather the mighty strength of the burning flame
Consumes them, when first the spirit leaves behind the white bones,
And the soul, like a dream that flies away, flies about.
But do yearn earnestly lightward, quick as can be; and all these things
Do know, so that you may afterward tell your wife.”

Odysseus goes on to relate how Persephone sent a series of famous heroines for him to question, so that he could learn their stories. At this point his hosts, the Phaeacians, praise his eloquence, promise to send him splendid gifts and an escort home and urge him to tell more of his story. Odysseus moves on to his encounter with the ghost of Agamemnon.

Up came to me the spirit of Agamemnon son of Atreus,
Grieving, and around him others gathered, as many as with him
As in the house of Aegisthus had died and met their fate.
And that man recognized me immediately, after he drank the black blood;
He, at least, called out with a clear voice, letting fall an abundant flow of tears,
Spreading out his hands to me, with earnest desire to clasp me;
But no longer his was the steadfast strength and vigour
Which there formerly was in his limber arms.
And I wept to see him and felt pity in my heart,
And giving voice to winged words, I addressed him:
“Noblest Atreus-son, Agamemnon, lord of men,
What doom of death overtook you, that brings long woe?
Did Poseidon overtake you in your ships
Urging on the unenviable breath of troublesome winds?
Or did implacable men work mischief against you on dry land,
When you were intercepting cattle, or fine flocks of rams,
Or fighting over a city or women?”

Thus I spoke, and replying immediately, he said to me:
“Seed of Zeus, Laertes-son, wily Odysseus,
No, Poseidon did not overtake me in my ship
By urging on the unenviable breath of troublesome winds,
Nor did implacable men work mischief against me on dry land,
But rather Aegisthus fashioned my fate and death
And with my accursed bed-mate he killed me after he summoned me to his home,
And feasted me, as someone might kill an ox at the manger.
Thus I died a most pitiable death; And my other companions around
Were killed without pause, like white-tusked boars
For a sumptuous feast; a wedding, or potluck, or the private banquet
Of wealthy men of great power.
You have been present at murder of many men,
Of men killed singly and in cruel combat;
But had you seen that one in particular you would have lamented in your heart,
How around wine vessels and the crowded tables
We laid in our hall, all the ground steeped in our blood.
And I heard the most-pitiable voice of the daughter of Priam,
Of Cassandra, whom scheming Clytemnestra killed
Beside me. And I, on the earth, raising my arms,
I cast them, though dying, for a sword; and the bitch
Turned away from me and did not venture, though I went to the house of Hades,
To close my eyes with her hands and shut my mouth.
Thus there is nothing more dread or more craven than a woman,
Who casts deeds of this sort in her mind;
Just as indeed that woman contrived this unseemly deed,
Who prepared a murder for her wedded husband. And here I, at least, considered myself
Well-pleased, since to my children and to my bondsmen
I came home. But she, having known eminent bane,
Poured out shame after shame for those who will exist hereafter,
For females, for wives, even she who would be upright.”

Thus he spoke, and I replied to him, saying:
“Oh woe, thundering Zeus has indeed the offspring of Atreus especially
Hated, terribly, through womanly plans
From the start: for the sake of Helen, many have perished,
And for you Clytemnestra prepared a trap from afar when you went.”

Thus I spoke, and he replied to me immediately, saying:
“Now, therefore, never be kind, not even you to your wife,
Nor tell her the whole story, which you know well,
But say one thing, and the other is to be hidden.
But at least for you, Odysseus, there will not be murder, at least not from your wife;
For by her mind, she knows exceedingly well wisdom and good counsel,
She, the daughter of Icarius, very wise Penelope.
We left her behind, a young bride,
To go to war; and she had a child, still on her breast,
The gentle thing, who doubtless now, at least, sits among a number of men,
The blessed man; for surely his beloved father will see when he comes,
And that man will embrace his father, which is meet and right.
But my bedfellow, not even to have my fill of my own son
With my eyes, did she permit; before that, she struck me and him.
But I will tell you something else, and cast it into your mind:
Secretly, not openly, to your beloved ancestral soil
Do steer your ship, since nothing is any longer trustworthy for women.
But come, tell me this and say it straight,
If you have heard from my child, since he doubtless still lives,
Either somewhere in Orchomenus, or in sandy Pylos,
Or somewhere with Menelaus, in far-reaching Sparta.
For noble Orestes does not yet lie dead upon the earth.”

Thus he spoke, and I replied to him, saying:
“Son of Atreus, why do you say these things to me? I do not know in any way,
Whether he lives or has died; and it is evil to speak empty words.”

For our part thus, exchanging hated words,
We stood, mourning, shedding one fat tear after another.
Up came the spirit of Peleus-son, Achilles,
And that of Patrocles, and of blameless Antilochus,
And of Ajax, whose form and frame was best
Above all other Danaeans, after the blameless son of Peleus.
The swift-footed descendent of Aceaus recognized me,
And with a lament he spoke winged words to me:
“Seed of Zeus, Laertes-son, wily Odysseus,
Foolish man! How, pray tell, will you yet plot some greater deed?
How did you venture to come down to Hades, where the dead
Dwell insensate, the phantoms of weary mortals?”

Thus he spoke, and I replied to him, saying:
O Achilles, son of Peleus, by far the bravest of the Achaeans,
I came for need of Teiresias, in hope that he might tell me
A plan, so that I might reach craggy Ithaca.
For I have not yet come near Achaean lands, nor yet upon my
Soil set foot, but I ever have misfortunes. But as for you, Achilles,
No man before was so very blessed, nor any after.
For while you lived we Argives paid you honour equal
To the gods, and in turn you have great power among the dead,
Now that you are here. Do not therefore be grieved in any way that you died, Achilles.”

This I spoke and he immediately replied, saying:
“Do not speak lightly of death to me, glorious Odysseus.
I would prefer to be attached to the soil, a serf to another,
In the house of a man without portion, who has no great livelihood,
Than rule over all the wasting dead.
But come, tell me word of my noble son,
Tell me whether he was in the front rank in the war, or even if not.
Tell me of blameless Peleus, if you have learned anything,
If he yet has honour among the many Myrmidons,
Or if they dishonour him throughout Hellas, and at Phthia
Because old age grips his hands and feet tight.
For I am not there to be his helper beneath the rays of the sun,
Of the sort I once was in renowned Troy,
I struck the finest army, fighting for the Argives.
And if, such as this, I could come to the house of my father for just a short time,
I would make hateful to any man my might and invincible hands,
Who constrained and barred that man from honour.”

Thus he spoke, and I replied to him, saying:
“I have not learned anything of the blameless Peleus,
But of your son, at least, beloved Neoptolemus,
I shall speak the whole truth, as you bid me:
For I myself, upon my even, hollow ship,
I brought him from Scyros, to the well-grieved Achaeans.
Indeed whenever we considered our plans about the city, Troy,
He always spoke first, and words did not fail him.
Godlike Nestor and I alone excelled him.
And whenever we did battle with bronze on the Trojan plain,
He did not remain in a crowd of men or among a throng,
But rather he was far ahead, his might yielding to no man,
And he struck many men in the dread strife.
I could not tell you nor could I name everyone,
He struck so many warriors, defending the Argives,
But he killed such as the son of Telephus with his bronze,
The hero Eurypylus, and many companions around him
Of the tribe of Ketioi died for the sake of the prizes of women.
I thought him the most handsome after divine Memnon.
And when we went down into the horse which Epeius built,
We who were best of the Argives, and everything fell to me,
Both the open the crowded hiding place and close it,
The others within, leaders and counselors of the Danaeans,
Wiped away tears, and the legs beneath each man trembled.
But that man, with my own eyes, I never saw in any way
His handsome countenance turn pale, or from his cheeks
Wiping tears; and that man, at least, beseeched a great deal
To be permitted to exit the horse, and he gripped the hilt of his sword,
And his bronze-laden spears, eagerly desiring evils for the Trojans.
But after we consigned the city of Priam to sheer destruction,
He boarded the ship bearing his portion and a fine gift of honour
Unscathed, neither harmed by bronze sword
Nor wounded in the melee, as often
Happens in war: for Ares raged pell-mell.”

Thus I spoke, and the soul of the swift-footed seed of Aeacus
Roamed over the king’s-spear lily meadow, taking long strides,
Joyful that I was saying his son was glorious.

And other souls of the dead, of those who passed away,
Stood aggrieved, each asking after their cares.
Only the soul of Ajax, son of Telamon,
Stood away, aloof, angered on account of a victory,
Which I won over him, in pleading my case aboard the ships,
Over the arms of Achilles: his revered mother awarded it.
The sons of Trojans gave judgment, and Pallas Athena.
Would that I had not won in such a contest:
On account of this, the earth covers over such a man,
Ajax, who concerning form and concerning deeds had been well-wrought
Above the other Danaeans, after the blameless son of Peleus.
And I addressed him with honeyed words:
“Ajax, child of blameless Telemon, will you not,
Not even dead, forget your bile on account of the arms,
The accursed things? The gods set them as calamities for the Argives,
For such as you, a tower, was lost to us; for you the Achaeans
Equal to the head of Achilles, son of Peleus,
Were distressed by your passing for ever. But no one else
Is to blame, but that Zeus the army of Danaean spearmen
So terribly hated, he set your fate upon you.
But come hither, lord, so that you may hear our word and speech;
Subdue your rage and your headstrong heart.”

Thus I spoke, and he made no reply, but went toward other
Souls of the dead, those who passed away, into Erebus.
There, he might have spoken nevertheless, though angered, or I to him.
But a passion came into my very breast
To see the souls of others who had passed away.

Odysseus sees Minos (the judge of the dead), various sinners being punished and the wraith of Heracles, before leaving for fear that Persephone may send him the awful head of the Gorgon. He and his men sail off across the Ocean.

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