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The Underworld and How it Reflects the Goals and Realities of Virgil and Homer Two epic poems from two great civilizations depict their authors’ varying views of the Underworld: The Odyssey and The Aeneid. The Greek poet Homer describes the hardships of Odysseus and his struggle to return home to his beloved wife and family after the Trojan War in The Odyssey. The Roman poet Virgil composed The Aeneid for the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, in order to rebuild Rome after the civil war had ended.
The Aeneid portrays a demigod, Aeneas, whose mission is to create a grand city that will be known as Rome.
This paper analyzes the differences and similarities in how Virgil and Homer view the Underworld in The Odyssey and The Aeneid. These epic poems are similar in showing the authors’ customs and beliefs, but different in depicting the Underworld’s topography and how the plot in the Underworld represents the diverging values and goals of Homer and Virgil.
The Underworld expresses the paradox of being about the dead and the living at the same time, because The Odyssey and The Aeneid similarly explore the customs and beliefs of the Greeks and the Romans, as their heroes’ journey to the Underworld.
In the Underworld, Aeneas and Odysseus learn that many souls cannot enter the afterlife without receiving their proper burial. Odysseus is surprised when he meets Elpenor, his friend, who died after falling from a roof on Circe’s island, and was left to rot, while Aeneas is taken aback when he meets Palinaurus, a citizen of his town who was killed by a group of strangers in Italy and also not given the respect of a proper burial.
Both unburied friends begg for a proper burial, so that they can finally enter the Underworld.
Odysseus responds to the request by promising to return to Circe’s island to bury Elpenor’s remains, while in Aeneas’ case, his guide, the Sybil, promises to persuade the locals to do the task. These promises reflect the underlying customs and beliefs of the living about the dead. Both Greek and Roman cultures assert the importance of burying the dead, so that they can have a restful afterlife. Thus, these two societies share the same values that respect the dead. In addition, Odysseus and Aeneas try to show respect to their parents who are already dead.
Odysseus unexpectedly meets his deceased mother and tries to embrace her three times. He fails because she vanishes into thin air every time his fingertips touch her. In The Aeneid, Aeneas is led to the underworld to meet his deceased father. Similar to Odysseus, he reaches to embrace his father three times and fails each time, left embracing nothing but air. These acts of greeting depict the high regard for parents in Greek and Roman civilizations. For them, even when dead, one’s parents deserve utmost respect through upholding traditional greeting behaviors. The Underworld also reveals the heroes’ futures.
Odysseus and Aeneas both go to the underworld to learn more about their mission and how it will unfold. Odysseus seeks to see Teiresias, because he can reveal directions back to his homeland and give more information about his family. Circe is the one who advised Odysseus to look for Teiresias: “You must go to the house of Hades… to consult the ghost of the blind Theban prophet Teiresias whose reason is still unshaken. To him alone has Proserpine left his understanding even in death… ” (Homer 10). In The Aeneid, Aeneas wants to visit his father in the Underworld and learn more about his future.
A prophetess also helps Aeneas to speak to his father: “O goddess-born of great Anchises’ line,/ The gates of hell are open night and day;/ Smooth the descent, and easy is the way” (Virgil 6). The Underworld is portrayed in The Odyssey and The Aeneid as a source of information. The Roman and Greek cultures believe that their heroes can seek guidance from their ancestors and other dead personalities, especially the great ones who have also had legendary successful lives also. The Underworld in The Odyssey and The Aeneid have differences in topography.
The Odyssey emphasizes the barren and sad nature of the Underworld, showing that the Greeks believe that death is the end of life’s happiness. Odysseus’ mother explains to Odysseus why he cannot embrace her: “The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together;/ these perish in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has/left the body, and the soul flits away as though it were a dream” (Homer 6). From this statement, it can be inferred that the Greeks think that death is a great equalizer. The bad have it worse in Hell but they die like the good, feeling rather sad in not being able to live again.
Virgil, however, describes the Underworld in greater detail through its sequences and in much more glorified details (Leach 120). In The Aeneid, every seat in the Underworld is a product of judgment on people’s lives (121). Virgil depicts Pluto’s dome, which has the roman vestibulum where official and honorable guests congregate (121). Virgil also describes the differences between the people of honor and people of sin in the Underworld. Sinners suffer in the cliff guarded by Tisiphone, where vultures eat their livers and experience numerous other forms of suffering.
The Underworld also holds heroes who continually fight their legendary battles: “Here found they Tsucer’s old heroic race,/ Born better times and happier years to grace. / Assaracus and Ilus here enjoy/ Perpetual fame, with him who founded Troy” (Virgil 6). Virgil is saying that death is not the end of glory. He opposes the view of Homer that death ends life’s best moments. In addition, by focusing on rulers and soldiers of war, Virgil emphasizes the glory of the battlefield and united efforts of creating and protecting one’s homeland.
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