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Meaning of Underworld in the Odyssey and Aeneid Essay

In both Odyssey and Aeneid the protagonists visit the Underworld and for both this is a turning point of their life and the turning point of the plot. For Odyssey the unusual travel marks his symbolic “cleansing” from blood he has shed at Troy and from anger of gods, making it possible for him to return to Ithaca. Before traveling to the Underworld Aeneas is an expellee, who strives “in vain against the seas and wind” (Aeneid, 5: 21). After the travel he is a father of the new glorious people.

Both heroes receive new knowledge and rise to the higher level of personality. Visiting the world of the dead is important for Odyssey and Aeneas because it marks the choice of scenario for the future. For example, Aeneas’s fate as a leader of the newborn Roman people has been predetermined, yet to start walking this new way he has to go to the underworld. His father shows him many great souls who are to be reincarnated in future to become great Roman heroes, so future is predetermined not only by Aeneas’s effort, but by the spirit of those great heroes.

In contrast, Odyssey enters the kingdom of the dead in search of his friend Tiresias whom he has to speak to in order to return to Ithaca. His travel is not so fateful for the people, but it is fateful for Odyssey himself. Aeneas is told to go to the Underworld in a dream by the spirit of his dead father. Odyssey also has a kind of dream on Circe’s island where he spends seven years thinking that only seven days have passed. But when Circe learns that Odyssey has no love for her, she nobly explains him that the only man who knows the way to Ithaca is Tiresias who can be found only in the afterworld.

Odyssey is driven by “unhappy fate below the sunlight” (Odyssey 11:798-799), and his ultimate purpose is finding the way. He would perhaps never go to Hades, in case there was another way to Ithaca. He says that he “had to come down here to Hades’ home, to meet the he shade of Teiresias of Thebes, and hear his prophecy”. (Odyssey, 11: 199-201). In Hades he meets his mother of whom he did not know that she was dead. Her suicide and sorrowful events in Ithaca is a kind of punishment for Odyssey’s false pride.

In contrast to Odyssey, Aeneas’s purpose is choosing the way. Meeting his father he symbolically passes through the golden gate to become a recognized ruler, and a tool of destiny that has chosen to make Aeneas’s people great. Homer describes the underworld as a dull place of suffering, where warriors who died in battle have to continue carrying their wounds. In fact, for Homer living after death is just a continuation of earthly vain. For example, when Odyssey meets Trojan heroes like Patroclus, they run away frightened, as if the struggle for Troy still went on.

Odyssey’s dead friends the can only tell how they died and got to this dark kingdom. Homer has a gloomy idea of the underworld. Achilles says that he would rather be a living serf and a landless peasant than a King of the Dead. So Odyssey becomes aware of futility of war that sends heroes to this dark place. In contrast, Aeneas returns with the vision of the great future and he is now decisive to work hard for it. “Within the hero’s mind his joys renew’d” (Aeneid 5: 904) and so he eagerly sets sails for the new homeland.


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