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Ever since human beings started telling stories for entertainment or for edification, heroes have made incredible journeys against what seem like impossible odds. In the beginning, heroes often these journeys to reach a goal, often in defiance of the gods who, for whatever reason, had imposed limits upon the main character of the story. In Homer’s story, The Odyssey, this limitation is that the gods will block his way home until he speaks to the sage Tiresias.
By contrast, Dante Alighieri’s character of Dante primarily seeks to find answers to his questions; that is, knowledge, as a means to find salvation.
While both heroes interact with the underworld to accomplish their aims, the stories complement each other, rather than mirror each other. In many ways, Dante’s text “corrects” the story found in Homer’s work, making it suitable for Christian audiences. Careful examination of texts reveals how some of these areas differ significantly between them.
Some of these differences include the nature of the underworld itself and the hero’s interaction with it, the knowledge that Odysseus’ mother has of the living world, and the shared rule of the underworld.
The Nature of the Underworld and the Heroes’ Interaction with It Like Dante’s Hell, Homer’s underworld is not a pleasant place to spend eternity. It is dark and gloomy; the inhabitants have dulled senses. The underworld into which Odysseus looks is Hades, not the Elysian Fields, where heroes were blessed with eternal happiness.
Rather, the “unhappy dead” live there, cursed to bleak and boring existences for the rest of eternity.
The dead who exist in Hades are those who have died unburied, like Odysseus’ friend, Elpenor, who died falling from a ladder leading from Circe’s roof, as well as Tiresias and Odysseus’ unhappy mother. And yet, misery of the inhabitants is one of several similarities between the two underworlds. One interesting difference between the Homer’s Hades and Dante’s Hell is that the stories’ heroes find their entrances in extremely different locations.
Odysseus finds the entrance to Hades in a harbor at the “western edge of the world,” while Dante finds the entrance to Hell in the midst of a dark wood. While these differences might seem insignificant, they are, in truth, indicative of the different purposes behind the journeys that the heroes undertake. The harbor at the end of the world represents physical distance traveled; Odysseus is on a quest to return home to Ithaca, a goal that the gods have prevented him from attaining. It is an earthly goal, however, with measurable distances that must be traversed.
While the ocean that Odysseus travels provides room for a communal journey through which he attempts to bring his crew home, Dante’s dark wood provides a far narrower field. It is restrictive and personal, perhaps driven by the solitary nature of Dante’s quest for knowledge and redemption. The distance that Dante must travel, therefore, is not one of finite measurement; rather, it exists within himself. It is a spiritual journey with no physical boundaries. Ultimately, this difference is magnified by the many levels of Hell, with its myriad levels, terraces, and malboges.
In addition to the differing nature of the underworld as portrayed by each poet, the nature of the interaction that each hero has with the underworld and its inhabitants also varies. In order to interact at all with the inhabitants of the underworld, both heroes must make a rite of passage. Odysseus enters the realm of Hades by making a blood sacrifice of a ram, collecting its blood in a pit. Through this offering and by offering the appropriate supplications to the gods, Odysseus is able to call forth the souls of the dead.
Being surrounded by the dead causes him to become afraid; however, he regains sufficient courage to control them and to question them. The character of Dante, however, must actually pass through the gates of Hell, ‘abandoning hope’ in order to learn what he desires. Although Odysseus is in the world of the dead, he is sure enough of himself to regain control, as opposed to Dante, who relinquishes all of his control to Virgil as then enter the underworld realm. While less “heroic” than Odysseus’ actions, this submissive behavior is actually of great importance, which again is based in the heroes’ purpose in entering the underworld.
It is clear, that although both heroes must enter the realm of the underworld, each for his own purpose, Odysseus does not actually travel through Hades as Dante does through Hell. Rather, the dead approach Odysseus, coming “up in a crowd from Erebos: young men and brides, old men who had suffered much, and tender maidens to whom sorrow was a new thing; others killed in battle, warriors clad in bloodstained armor” (124) all surround his sacrificial pit in response to the ram’s blood that he has offered. This difference is also a significant one and related to the point made above it.
Although Odysseus immediately appears to be the supplicant, by making the blood offering that attracts the dead, he is also in control of it. The dead must do his bidding in order to feed and give him the information that he requires. By contrast, the character of Dante physically travels into the midst of the souls of the damned. While he is under his own volition, Dante is a pilgrim, who must make an effort to gain his knowledge. He follows Virgil as Virgil leads, interacting with the souls on their own level in their own environment. This difference would also make Dante’s tale more appealing to Christian audiences.
Although Odysseus’ cunning and strength were admired by the audience that lived at his time, the lesson of humility that the character of Dante both learns and teaches would be considered more acceptable to Alighieri’s audience. Although he is taking the initiative to learn on his own, like a proper pilgrim he is taking instruction from a master and listening to the moral lessons set before him. For those in the audience who recognize that he might have been contemplating suicide, Dante is also in the process of repenting. Knowledge of the Living World
Odysseus seeks not merely wisdom from Tiresias, but he also seeks knowledge of his future in the living world. In truth, both Tiresias and Odysseus’ mother have clear knowledge of the living world, which they freely share with him in their turn. What is more, it is accurate knowledge, which allows him to prepare for his future, should he ever arrive at his destination. In a sense, both Tiresias and Odysseus’ mother are as living beings that have merely been transported to a new existence on an alternate plane, in that they can take initiative to see what lies ahead and then share it with him.
Given that in other myths inhabitants of Hades are able to travel freely between the worlds with the gods’ permission, it seems apparent that the ancient Greeks saw the underworld as a place from which people could escape to return to the living if they had enough virtue or if they had a hero to aid them. This kind of belief is opposed to both Dante’s belief and to the belief of the Christians who formed his audience. Dante’s souls, perpetually trapped in their state of torment, must continuously atone for their actions on earth.
They are surrounded by the reminders of their sins, perhaps tormented by the very things that they desired in life. At times, their appearance is dramatically altered to match their crimes. The only hope for the souls in Hell is Judgment Day, at which time they may be redeemed–or they may find themselves condemned to suffer throughout eternity. Even then, redeemed souls would not interact with the living; instead, they would pass into Heaven. Once again, the difference between the two realms and their inhabitants may be explained by virtue of the perception of the audiences for which the poets were writing.
To the Greeks, life in the underworld was not necessarily a punishment. Certainly, the inhabitants of the underworld could experience punishment, even that of a perpetual nature. One good example of this kind of punishment would be Sisyphus, condemned to roll a boulder to the top of a hill for eternity, only to have it escape him and roll to the bottom again before it reaches the peak. However, the underworld is a plane of existence to which all humans will eventually travel. The underworld itself is divided into sections that provide reward or punishment or which simply continues the miserable existence that people had when on earth.
This difference is, once again, quite different from the perspective of the Christian audience served by Dante, which viewed the underworld for punishment only. It is this understanding of the underworld being for punishment that would also limit the dead’s interaction with the living. Dante’s dead are unable to access the living world and, when encountering the character of Dante, are unable to learn from what he tells them. They have no minds and no insight, unlike the dead that Odysseus encounters, who know that they are suffering and why and yet are unable to interact with the world of the living in order to minimize their experiences.
The Shared Rule of the Underworld In The Odyssey, both Hades and his wife, Persephone, rule the underworld. Although Hades has control over the underworld as a whole, Persephone is the Queen of the Women, with the ability to overrule even her husband in control of that group. In terms of importance, while this difference might seem trivial to some readers, it is perhaps of greatest significance of all of these points. Hades is not omnipotent, in that Persephone has equal control, if not greater control in some aspects of ruling the underworld.
She strikes fear in Odysseus’ heart equal to that of her husband, in that Odysseus describes Hades as “mighty,” but Persephone as being “awful,” which would be synonymous with her being terrifying. This kind of rule would be unsurprising to the ancient Greeks, who lived in a world ruled by many gods. It also paralleled the arrangement of the gods on Mount Olympus, to a certain extent: Hades and Persephone, who ruled the world of the dead, mirrored Zeus and Hera, who ruled the world of the living. To the Christians that formed Dante’s audience, this arrangement would have been more than just a little shocking.
Christians worship a single God who, while He might have different and while He may employ different helpers in the angels and the saints, has dominion over the living and the dead. As with the ancient Greek deities, God and Satan somewhat mirror each other. Despite Satan’s impressive appearance in The Inferno, however, he is as much a prisoner of Hell as its other residents. In addition, Satan does not mirror God’s power; rather, he is only capable of destruction, not creation. Conclusion In many ways, Dante’s Inferno complements and corrects Homer’s The Odyssey.
Both are tales that bring a hero into contact with the underworld in order to achieve a particular goal. In the case of Odysseus, this goal is worldly and finite, while in the case of Dante, the goal is spiritual and may lead to eternal salvation. Several differences, among others, that indicate the complementary and corrective nature of Dante’s work are those of the nature of the respective underworlds and the heroes’ interaction with the inhabitants, the knowledge that the dead have of the living world, and the shared rule that Hades and Persephone have over the ancient Greek underworld.
The story of heroic travels through the underworld is not a new one, neither was it new when Homer wrote The Odyssey. In the days of passing history and learning through oral means, such stories were necessary teaching tools. However, each culture imposed its morals and beliefs on this kind of tale. The different between these two stories provide an excellent example of how this cultural influence stamps this kind of heroic story with differences throughout history.
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