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.