Ancient Greece’s Odysseus from Homer’s The Odyssey and ancient Troy’s Aeneus from Virgil’s The Aeneid are both heroes who struggle with identity and purpose, and these identities and purposes are tied up into the concepts and symbolism revolving around female versus male and pagan versus Christian-like influences. In comparing Odysseus’ travel to the underworld and Aeneus’ decent to the land of the dead, one can relate these journeys to the main philosophical plots of both works of ancient literature.
Although both men return from Hades alive, the two men’s initial approaches to the dead are slightly different, Odysseus performing sacrifices at the direction of the female goddess Circe and Aeneus praying to the male God Appollo and led to the gates by the priestess Sybil. The variance in how the heroes enter the spirit worlds lends significant insight into how their experiences in the underworld play out and mirror the entire themes of both tales.
The heroes’ experiences with the dead are not unlike the major plots of both works, Odysseus focusing more on a successful return to his wife and Aeneus centering more on a successful honoring of God and country.
The more mortal, pagan, and female experiences of Odysseus’ journey contrast to the more immortal, Christian-like, and male voyage of Aeneus. A main difference in the drive of the two men is that Odysseus is driven by the recommendations of the Goddess Circe and Aeneus is empowered by the guidance of the God Appolo.
Here one can see the divine gender differences and the contrast of abiding by the rule of an immortal woman or the power of an immortal man. Leadership positions are of great significance in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, because Ithaca and Troy were in bitter battles for power and influence during this time. In calling attention to modern day Christian theology, it can be stated that perhaps Aeneus displays the most leadership capacity, given that he takes heed of the influence of male figures.
However, in refuting modern day Christian mentality, one can suppose that Odysseus may be correct in placing his trust and ability to be guided in the hands of a woman, accepting the idea of womanly power and the feminine energy which can be useful to and benefit male figures. The fact that the tale of Odysseus was born several hundred years before Christian theology contrasts with the story of Aeneus, written only a couple decades before Christ’s birth, on the cusp of Christian influence.
The communication of the ghosts to both heroes gives insight to the similarities and differences of their experiences in the underworlds. At the River of Ocean in the land of the Cimmerians, the spirits themselves come to Odysseus, giving him a more rooted or female positioning, Elpenor one of the first to greet Odysseus, begging him to return to Circe’s island and give him a proper burial. In Dis, the land of the dead, Charon delivers souls to Aeneus from across the river Acheron, and Sybil explains to Aeneus that the souls of the dead must remain on the other bank.
However, upon showing his golden branch, Aeneus is able to be ferried across and he moves into the underworld, granting him an entering and more male positioning. Further communication with the spirits reveal to both men the end goals or purposes of their expeditions. For Odysseus, in the counsel of the ghost prophet Tiresias, he is informed that the Achaeans are being punished by Poseidon for the blinding of his son Polyphemus and foresees that Odysseus will have a successful journey culminating in the return to his wife, the banishment of her eager suitors, and the future engagement in another trip to appease Poseidon.
The goal for Aeneus is also revealed in the land of the dead by the spirit of his father Anchesis, that Romulus will found Rome, a Caesar will eventually come from the line of Ascanius, and Rome will reach a Golden Age of rule over the world. Here, one notes that for Odysseus, a return to Penelope is a large part of his purpose, while Aeneus appears to be on a mission revolving fighting solely for the fatherland. The relative physical nearness of Odysseus to the spirits contrasts the distance of Aeneus to the ghosts they both encounter, Odysseus seemingly swarmed by the souls and Aeneus travelling to the spirits throughout Hades.
The shades of the dead are immediately able to interact with and influence Odysseus, while Aeneus is separated from the spirits by the river and must be shuttled across by the gate keeper, Charon. Also, the concept of levels of purgatory is not readily apparent in Odysseus’ experience in the underworld, while Aeneus experiences the movement through stages of Hell, from the suicide victims in the Fields of Mourning to the innocent spirits in the Blessed Groves.
One can distinguish between the more ancient belief of Odysseus being directly submerged with the spirit world, souls coming to him directly, and Aeneus’ more Christian-like orientation of being classified in steps away from the divine or away from eternal joy according to the level of preoccupation with sin and death, journeying through the various areas of what could be termed a kind of purgatory in Hell, perhaps just short of divine life or mortality in Heaven.
Two former soldier spirits communicate to the men that they would like to be buried properly, which serves to align the tales of Odysseus and Aeneus more closely together. Both Elpenor’s plea to Odysseus and Aeneus’ spotting of Palinurus within the area for spirits having received improper burials bring sadness to the hearts of the heroes, perhaps knowing that the deceased did not receive the most appropriate and respectful honor from them.
The quick and dirty nature of battle is called to mind for both of the men as they express regret at their ineffectiveness in having paid proper respects to their lost friends. Here, Odysseus and Aeneus are seen as more similar, both either guilty or saddened by the lost chance to truly honor the dead at the time of their passing. This experience serves for both men a time of self reflection on their own actions, deliberating on whether or not they had made the right choices and calling to mind the concepts of sin and regret due to possibly mistaken actions.
In comparing Odysseus’ marriage to Penelope to Aeneus’ sighting of Dido in the land of the dead, one is struck by the sharp contrast in the men’s relationships with women. While Odysseus is faithful to Penelope and keeps her as a driving force in his quest, a goal and treasure to which he wants to return and defend, Aeneus is shocked by seeing his former love in the Fields of Mourning, having killed herself and married a ghost in the afterlife. Aeneus’ incapacity at sustaining a relationship is a very important point to consider in the comparison of both heroes.
Perhaps Odysseus’ clinging to the more female part of existence and divine life lends power to his ability to hold his marriage together, giving support and honor to the idea of family life. Although both men are soldiers on journeys to defend their home countries, Odysseus does not make the complete break from home in the way that Aeneus does. The splitting of Aeneus and Dido is a deep and telling fracture which can lend insight into the Trojan way of thinking regarding marriage and family.
In this way, Aeneus’ masculinity works against him in that he is effectively separated from romantic love, and Odysseus’ pact with the feminine keeps him bound closer to family and home life. Also touching on the concept of family members as they relate to gender differences is the fact that Odysseus is visited by his mother in the underworld and Aeneus seeks out his father. The coming of Odysseus’ mother Anticleia is again a more female orientation visitation and perhaps another impetus for Odysseus to return home to his wife Penelope, as his mother confesses to have died of grief in waiting for his return to Ithaca.
Aeneus’ conversation with his father is again a more male oriented interaction. Anchises explains how the spirits move about in Dis, illustrating more clearly the Christian-like concept of purgatory and gaining insight on how the ghosts are able to reach the Fields of Gladness, as well as gaining insight on the future role of Trojans in Rome and the expansion of the Roman Empire, lending support to the ideas of hierarchy and patriarchy.
In paying attention to the sensation of what it was like to have been in the two underworlds, one notes that the experience of the souls in Odysseus’ underworld is nothing less than suffering and that the experience of the spirits in Aeneus’ land of the dead is more variable, some suffering and some happiness. Odysseus’ departure from the underworld in being swarmed by the souls is one of fright and fleeing, while Aeneus leaves the land of the dead courageously.
The distaste which Odysseus holds for the dead ghosts is apparent, and he expresses the fact that he wants nothing to do with knowledge of the dead. The encounter with his mother Anticleia may have also invoked fear in Odysseus that his wife Penelope may also surrender to sadness and death. Aeneus is more curious of the afterlife, the positive aspects and negative aspects being grouped separately, and he demonstrates a desire to learn about now to gain access to the nicer areas of the spirit world.
The energy he receives from the encouraging conversation with his father regarding the positive aspects of purgatory and the future goal of his triumph in Italy enables Aeneus to leave his visit to the land of the dead with confidence. The notions of judgment and peace are also themes in Odysseus and Aeneus’ visits to the afterworld. In Odysseus’ underworld experience, the dead are not really judged, yet they are all unhappy. In this case, there is no peace for the dead and no judgment of death other than a negative one.
To Odysseus, the underworld is black and unfortunate place, hopefully avoidable, yet certainly not avoidable for Odysseus given his own mortality. There is a blanketed negativity in Odysseus’ concept of the afterlife, no room for positive judgment and no room for peace. However, in looking at Aeneus’ experience in the land of the dead, one notes that there are various judgments of the spirits and various areas of suffering and bliss, correlating to the judgment of their life choices before death, Minos handing out judgments to the recently deceased.
Although there are suffering souls, there are also ghosts who enjoy happiness and peace in the afterlife, concepts resembling the purgatory of Christianity during this pre-Christian area. In Aeneus’ experience, one is able to glean a sense of hopefulness from the spiritual world, while Odysseus’ encounter with the dead is mostly frightful and perhaps even unhelpful. These two experiences can be viewed in two ways.
Perhaps it is positive that Aeneus sees joy in death, granting him extra courage to face the afterlife, however, perhaps this makes Aeneus closer to death, while Odysseus may be made safer by aiming to avoid death completely. In considering the two men and their two tales, it is illuminating to study the two midpoint travels of the heroes into the underworlds. Odysseus as a hero is somewhat more woman led, depending on Circe, interaction with his mother, and yearnings for Penelope, and this thread of female orientation is present throughout Odysseus’ journey.
He is even warned by Tiresias to not touch the flocks of the sun, a metaphor which rings a sense of warning to resist the urge of being overly male oriented. Odysseus’ fear of death can be viewed in two different ways. Perhaps he is cowardly, or perhaps he is more attached to life and desires to be in the land of the living. Odysseus’ desire to return to Ithaca and reclaim his wife Penelope is always a drawing factor, and Odysseus’ flight from the spirit world may simply correlate to his desire to return home to his family.
The hero Aeneus is more man led, valuing the prayers to Appollo, the conversation with his father, and letting go of his woman Dido, placing the voyage and battle ahead of his family life, remaining more male oriented. The letting go of his relationship with Dido and her subsequent death supports the idea that Aeneus is able to cut ties, however, one cannot be sure if the ability of Aeneus to cut ties is a positive ability or if he wrongly fractures his romance and family bonds.
The concepts of opposing and complimentary genders, divine mortal and immortal influence, and pagan and Christian-like theologies and belief systems all contribute to the development of the tales The Odyssey and The Aeneid as well as place meaning and focus on the heroes Odysseus and Aeneus and their travels down into the realm of the dead, giving each character definition and shape in the similarities and contrasts between the two men and their unique yet related voyages.
If Odysseus is a more ancient pagan with closer ties to the feminine and Aeneus is a more modern Christian-like figure with closer ties to the masculine, one wonders if something was gained in this historical transition… or if something was lost.