In today’s society, life and death coexist together; life is brought into this world at the same time that one departs. Our views about life and death change according to our religion, which in term connects, to past generations. It is logical to assume that our current believes and views are a reflection of past civilizations and they have been handed down to us through time. The Odyssey portrays a wonderful and unique view of the relation between life and death in the ancient world. Even more interesting is his “life after death” views. Does it relate to our beliefs of the subject, or does it take us into a different set of mind?
Book eleven tells us through the blind prophet Teiresias, what will happen throughout the rest of Odysseus’ “life journey”, making it an important event his stance there. At the entrance to the “Land of Death” we see the landscape of this land and immediately we can relate to the view. The following line explains the atmosphere of the place: “the realm and region of the Men of Winter, hidden in mist and cloud” (11.404.15). This tells us that the land of death is an island in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by darkness, fog, and with an inflicted coldness by the “dead”, which is the Men of Winter that chills our bones. Is a place where the sun does not shine: “Never the flaming eye of Helios lights on those men at morning…”(11.404.16), and the vegetation consists of nothing more than rotten vegetation in a swan. It is incredible how perfect this view has been kept throughout the years. In the movie What Dreams May Come we see the boat that drives you to the land of the dead, the image is given by the Odyssey is exactly the same. It is a darkness that surrounds you and sets the tone for what is coming next in the text.
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He then goes on into the “land of Death” and starts the rituals that Circe commanded. In this ritual, we see the first communication with death. Odysseus must sacrifice certain animals and take their blood together with some other condiments so the dead can drink from it and come to talk to him: “With my drawn blade I spaded up the votite pit, and poured libations round it to the unnumbered dead: sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last clear water…” (11.404.25-29). Why must he do this, why the blood? The answer can be found by going deeper into the text and observing that the book is titled a gathering of shades, which in turn tells us that the dead do not have a given image instead they are just a shape.
The blood that they drink fills their “emptiness”, and gives their shade an image and briefly some reasoning and “life”. This is how we communicate with them, this is how we can get answers from that realm. Odysseus continues on to meet the shades of famous women and famous dead heroes. In the latter, one encounter gives us a vivid lecture on how the land of Death is perceived for the ones who inhabit it. Odysseus is talking with Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War. Achilles, who we met in the Iliad, sacrificed everything in the war, even his life. We can ask ourselves how is his “life” in the land of Death? To this Homer gives us the following quote from Achilles:
“Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.” (11.418.43-47)
The greatest hero of that time directly tells us how bad is the realm of the dead, an answer that not a lot of people would have believed. If the above question was asked in today’s culture the majority would say that he must have been living a good life in heaven. Yes, he was a fighter, but as one he became a hero in mythology and heroes are always treated the best. Clearly, the text does not agree with our views, in fact, Achilles goes through a strong set of words to specifically tell us the way he feels. He prefers to be an immigrant farmer, working hard every day and barely eating, then being the king of the Dead. Homer describes the lowest and hardest life a man can actually have on earth, so we in turn could truly appreciate the message coming through.
Homer wants us to know that fame and heroism have no significance in the afterlife. Achilles wishes he had not died, his response was harsh and to the point: don’t talk to me about the dead let’s talk about the living, my son. The “ignorant” words by Odysseus filled him up with the passion that life brings. Every action, however mundane, is filled with the miracle of life and completes itself with the interaction between humans. There are a lot of themes that go through the whole story: loyalty, family, faith. Now we can include one more and that is death giving meaning to life.
The image is clear in Ancient Greece “hell” is death; “heaven” is now, in life, in the field of time and action. No afterlife would ever be as equal and as fulfilling as this life, no matter how much richness and pleasure we get in it we will always be a “shade”. This is totally different from what is written in the Bible, your current life will be the one to judge you at the time of death. It brings out the differences between a one-god religion, which widely practiced today, and the polytheistic views of that time.
It is clear that Homer does not contradict himself on the subject. Even though he does not tell us straight up at instances, you can easily extract the true content and relate them to the cultural beliefs. Odysseus suffers so much he nearly died of homesickness when Kalypso detained him on her island, wanting to make him her immortal husband. He was offered a potent drink, ambrosia, which will give him eternal life.
Accepting this will mean becoming a god, having a beautiful wife and a paradise island for a house. Why did he not accept it? The immediate answer would be the main theme of the Odyssey, loyalty to his wife. Looking at the response given to Kalypso a totally different answer can be argued. In my opinion, he did not accept it because as a human he knew that after a while his existence would have no meaning. No battle to fight, no other persons to interact with, in essence, no “life”. Homer brings it out to us in the following verse:
“Now the command is: send him back in haste.
His life may not in exile go to waste.
His destiny, his homecoming, is at hand,
when he shall see his dearest, and walk on his own land” (5.335.118-121).
For him immortality and the exile from his homeland was death. This relates to what Homer presents later in the books: try to leave the present and enjoy life if not you might as well be dead. The proposed answer can be defended even more by the interesting reaction of Hermes. This god couldn’t wait to get off Kalypso’s island–“who would willingly come here? There is no city of men nearby”. Clearly stated is the fact that we humans and the interaction of each other is what make the pleasures and meaning of life.
The Odyssey also comes to us as a teaching about how we should live our lives and learn about death. Our current views of life as a journey to the afterworld and the journey of our hero come closer together. Odysseus’ journey to Ithaka is about embracing one’s life, accepting the challenges, the dangers, pitfalls, and joys, with courage, tenacity and a keen sense of what it takes to maintain balance in one’s life. Homer suggests that keeping balance in your life is tough and one must learn to deal with the unsure world. A world made of the bad in society (lotus-eaters, Cyclops, Laistrygonians, murderers, rapists, etc). Having to remember to enjoy the journey home because the journey is the map of one’s life. The end of Odysseus’s journey was just the beginning of another beautiful challenge. Another trip, another homecoming, another “life” without “death” to look forward to.
To conclude let’s briefly analyze what Homer wants us to learn about the culture of his town on the subject of life and death. Life is the present and is the best that will ever happen to you. No matter how wealthy or poor you are, try to leave to the fullest always keeping in mind that your home and family complete your life as well. The gods play a role in your life but do not expect them to help you always, in fact, they would not ever help you once you are dead. Also, he has seen numerous examples where the images displayed by Homer still appear in our world today, indicating to us that the culture has not died and that it still educate us about the past, present and future.
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