Death is scary. For thousands of years, cultures have created explanations for why humans die, myths of what happens when we cross into the great beyond, and ways of living that will guarantee eternal happiness. The Christians have heaven and hell, and all stereotypes that come with those ideas. Buddhism and Hinduism believe in reincarnation where if you live nobly you will move up the caste system. The Ancient Greeks had Hades; one place where all souls go to wait out eternity. I have always found “Homer’s” description of the Underworld interesting. I think that we can accept “Homer’s” view as one that stands for the general Greek belief that the Underworld was not a happy place, no matter who you were in life.
Akhilleus (a.k.a Achilles), I think, represents this beautifully. Here is this man, a hero of the Greeks, who had money, a family, a goddess for a mother, and countless other blessings sitting desolate in the dark, creepy Underworld. (I mean, he comes to see Odysseus because he likes the smell of the blood in the pit. Gross.) Even Odysseus tells Akhilleus “here your power is royal among the dead man’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus: you need not be so pained by death” (Book XI, lines 572-4). One would think, according to the death mythologies observed in our modern world that Akhilleus would be happy. If he had been Christian, Akhilleus would have made it to Heaven (by Greek standards of good life. I do not think that Akhilleus would have made a very good Christian). So why do all of the dead Greeks seem so unhappy? Should we be scared of death simply because it is eternal nothingness, as described by “Homer”? Or are we frightened of death because we do not understand it? I personally tend to favor the second option, but the Greeks, I think, feared death because there was no chance at glory.
Akhilleus lived for glory. It defined him, and it is why he chose to fight at Troy, even though he knew he was fated to die there. He tells Odysseus “Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead” (Book 11, lines 579-581). Coming from Akhilleus, this is a strange response. To me, it made me wonder about what the Greek culture truly valued above all else. It can be concluded that, while the tales of heroes and immortal glory were indicative to the Greek cultural values of honor and glory, what they value as most precious is life. Akhilleus would rather be an unknown farm hand, the equivalent to some anonymous office worker today, than be dead.
This belief still holds some truth in our world today. It brings up contemporary themes, like you only live once (YOLO) and a little further back in history, the idea of carpe diem. The world of the Odyssey, then, is not so far removed from our own. Does this help us in our search for cultural understanding? Maybe it does. It sheds light on how the Greeks saw life, and why they placed such a high importance on living. Since “all mortals meet [eternal wandering] when they die” (Book 11, line 258), the understanding Odysseus, and the rest of us, must come to is that we have to get on with living before we are forced into nothingness.
One thing I have noticed throughout the poem is a plethora of references to legacy and glory, which Clare has eloquently noted in this post as important Greek cultural values. It seems as if all the Greek heroes are looking for a way to establish their kleos, or everlasting glory. As a small example, in Book IV, Menelaus offers Telemakhos “three chariot horses, and a polished car; / a hammered cup, too, so that all your days / tipping the red wine for the deathless gods, / you will remember me” (629-633).
If being remembered is this important to big shots like Menelaus, it seems like the Greeks felt that creating a legacy was the most important goal of life. With that in mind, I’m going to take a stab in the dark and throw out the idea that the very idea of the Underworld reflects this. No one, not even a great hero like Achilles, is going to be happy in the Underworld. Thus, maybe building a legacy that survives on Earth would be a sufficient substitute for meaningless existence in the Underworld. Everyone may end up in the same situation in the Underworld, but not everyone can achieve the kind of legacy that the likes of Odysseus and Achilles have the potential to achieve. I mean, ~3000 years later, we are still reading the Odyssey!
Yes, I do think that your point about death is well made. The Greeks, in all of their questing for glory, did concede that a similar fate awaited them in the dismal realm of Hades. That being said, some tales describe particularly gruesome forms of torment endured by some of the Shades– for example, Sisyphus was said to be condemned eternally to push a bolder up a cliff face as retribution for murdering his guests (that’s Greek hospitality for ya). So perhaps there were still different tiers of existence in the afterlife from a Greek perspective, though earth was still the place to be.
However, I find it interesting that a certain refrain is repeated in the Odyssey: “So we moved out, sad in the vast offerings, / having our precious lives, but not our friends”(IX. 617-618). The Greeks may have valued the luster of life, but to lose a friend was nearly as bad as dropping dead yourself. Even the great Menelaos says, “How gladly I should live one third as rich / to have my friends back safe at home!” (IV. 106-107). Much like Akhilleus, the “red-haired king” would gladly give up the splendor of life to cheat death for his friends. The quality of life, then, seems only a secondary concern– it’s the simple thrill of being alive that satisfies the Greeks. Much as you wrote, they wanted to seize the day for what it’s worth, regardless of whether they were a warrior or a serf.
I agree with both of you. Charlie, I also noted the refrain of “our precious lives.” I guess my next question would be why is it important to know that the Greeks value life? Why does “Homer” continuously make reference to the fact that noble and glorious lives are important? Also, what does it tell us about ourselves? If it the countless references have an effect on us modern readers, what do you guys think the effect would have been on “Homer’s” contemporaries? Why would “Homer” have wanted this affect in his audiences?
I think the constant refences to the noble, glorious lives of the characters is a result of the fact that, to Homer or any other Greek bard telling the stories of The Odyssey, these stories not only represented epic tales of adventure but also their livelihood. Even today, tales of daring battles with heroic leads and vibrant homecomings are more “marketable” than simply average stories of average characters– we all want excitement and exuberance in our lives and so did the Greeks! Therefore highlighting the bravery and cleverness of Odysseus or the beauty and sedection of Calypso or even the newfound courage of Telemakhos pulled the bards’ audiences in, guarunteeing return patrons the next night. I mean, who could turn away when Odysseus is bravely venturing into the underworld… that doesn’t happen too much in literature and you’d be crazy not to stick around.
Kevin, I think that that’s a really interesting idea you have at the end of your comment. That the value the Greeks place on life and legacy is a way to balance out the Underworld. That could be a reason Homer makes those references about noble and glorious lives.
This could also become the beginning of an answer to your first question Clare, about why it is important to know that the Greeks value life. By knowing that they do, we are able to understand in part why they act the way they do. Now, we can fully understand their fight for life, as well as why some humans choose to take immortality when it is offered to them, like it is Odysseus. So this begs the question, if Odysseus knows what the Underworld is like through their religion, why doesn’t he take the immortality that Kalypso offers him? And also, why did Achilles choose to fight when he knew he would die, when he said in this book that he’d rather be a farmhand than dead?
Kaitlin, I think one reason Odysseus did not take Kalypso’s offer is due to fate. As Odysseus and his men escaped from Kyklops island, Kyklops shouted out, “Grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, never see his home…should destiny intend that he shall see his roof again…far be that day, and dark the years between” (161. 578-83). Even though Kyklops prayed to Poseidon, a mighty god, he acknowledged that fate (in this case, Odysseus’ homecoming) couldn’t be changed.
Teiresias also mentioned Odysseus’ fate: “Though you survive alone…under strange sail you shall come home” (188. 127-9). Maybe Odysseus denied Kalypso’s offer of immortality and valued his life so much because he knew that he was fated to return to his family and home one day.
Kaitlin and Lindsey, I also pondered why Odysseus decided to give up on immortality by not staying with Kalypso. Clare’s argument that the Greeks valued their lives above all else is solid, but I think that there are definite differences between mortal and immortal lives. For instance, as a mortal, one knows that his/her time on the world is limited, and can truly appreciate a life, even one with no glory, such as that of a serf. After all, life is scarce in a sense; you don’t have an unlimited supply of years, and scarce items, such as gold are valued in the Greek society. Perhaps it is this notion that mortal life is appreciated due to its limitations.
Furthermore, if Odysseus had chosen to be immortal, then how could he achieve glory? Didn’t the Greeks achieve glory through risking their lives? With an immortal life, there really is nothing to risk. If Akhilleus was guaranteed to keep his life, his actions wouldn’t have been courageous, and therefore, I don’t think that he would have achieved the glory that he did. This may also have been a factor in Odysseus’ decision to turn down immortal life.
Lastly, I think that “Homer” emphasizes the importance of glory in life to dissuade mortals from accepting immortality. Besides, an eternity of life and an eternity of death may begin to resemble one another with time.
I agree with Ivana that glory was a large, though maybe subconscious, part as to why Odysseus did not chose immortality with Kalypso. A great deal of glory would come from making the journey home and eventually slaughtering the suitors. The stories that he would tell could illustrate the hardships that he went through to achieve glory and return home and these stories would allow him to achieve glory for generations to come.
Along with Clare, I find this description of the Underworld interesting because it is such a different notion from what is thought of today when we die. It describes a place that can be visited by the living and used to make contact with those who have passed and that even those who lived marvelous/glorious lives do not enjoy. Their idea of the underworld and glory shows a different perspective of their culture, attitude towards death, and thinking.
Although I do agree that the Greeks valued their lives above all else, I think that their value and view of it was significantly different from ours today, more than just the difference between mortal and immortal lives. Throughout the journey, men were left behind to die and varying levels of grief for the dead or missing were shown. In our time, killed/missing soldiers are honored and deaths are generally accompanied with formal funerals and grief. In this reading, although there was grief, often times friends got left behind without a second thought. But as Charlie mentioned in his comment, losing a friend was a great hardship for them. Could it be that they were so focused on getting home that although it was tough, they fully realized the sacrifices that had to be made? Do their words and actions conflict? And how large of a role does glory play a part in their views of death?