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The way to Ithaca lies through Hades: Odysseus’ nostos and the Nekyia

George Gazis

By common consent, Odyssey 11 is one of the most fascinating books of the Homeric epics, yet it has puzzled scholars since antiquity. It has long been noted for instance that it is not perfectly clear why Odysseus has to visit Hades, the only trip of the Apologoi that Odysseus is told he must make (Od.10.490-1 χρή … ἱκέσθαι / εἰς Ἀίδαο δόμους) in order to learn from Teiresias the way back to Ithaca (Od.10.539 ὁδὸν καὶ μέτρα κελεύθου). As readers have rightly objected, Teiresias’ prophecy contains much information but he says nothing about the actual way back to Ithaca. Furthermore, Circe’s detailed description of the journey ahead (Od.12.36f.), with which she provides Odysseus when he finally returns from Hades, has made scholars wonder why she ordered the trip to Hades at all. For the analytic school these inconsistencies provided evidence that the Nekyia was a later insertion into the Odyssey, a view championed by Kirchhoff (1879), Wilamowitz (1884) and most eloquently Page (1955: 40f.).

Modern scholarship, however, has reclaimed the Nekyia as an integral part of the Odyssey. Thus, Segal (1962: 17-64) and De Jong (2001: 271-3) have argued for its authenticity whereas Doherty (1991, 1992) has demonstrated the book’s organic function in the plot of the Odyssey. Furthermore, Dova, in her recent study (2013: 9-28), stresses the poetic importance of the Nekyia in exemplifying the Odyssey’s antagonistic relationship with the Iliadic tradition.

In this paper I would like to highlight another aspect of the Nekyia, namely the implications that the trip to Hades has for the Odyssey both on a poetic and a meta-poetic level. I wish to make two points in particular. First, I argue that Hades, through its absolute invisibility, becomes inaccessible to the gods, but paradoxically not to the human traveller Odysseus; thus, the hero is temporarily allowed to acquire knowledge without fear of divine punishment or interference; hence Odysseus’ name, a taboo throughout the Odyssey (Austin 1972, Fenik 1974: 5-60) is repeatedly used in a fully developed formula (διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ): there is no need to conceal it in the Underworld. More generally, the seclusion of the Underworld provides, I argue, the motivation for Odysseus’ journey there since it is only in Hades that Poseidon’s wrath and the way to appease it can be revealed by Teiresias, ensuring Odysseus’ final homecoming to Ithaca.

My second point is of a poetic nature and focuses on the fact that, by entering Hades, the storyteller Odysseus gains access to a unique space where well-known conventions of epic storytelling are suspended. Meeting the shades in the seclusion of Hades thus allows for an alternative retelling of their stories. Thus in Hades Agamemnon is completely detached from the heroic tradition of the Iliad and can only remember Clytemnestra’s betrayal, while Achilles favours the simple life of a serf over his heroic timē. The great heroines of the past, finally, relate their well-known stories by placing themselves, instead of their male relatives, in the forefront.

Homer in the Nekyia, then, uses Hades as a privileged space of seclusion. At a basic level, it allows Odysseus to gain intelligence about the wrath of Poseidon without the risk of further angering the god. At a different level, Homer also exploits Hades as a poetic space in which the stories of the great heroes and heroines of the past can be told like they have never been told before: unmediated, fiercely personal and without the strictures of traditional Muse narrative.

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Homer: Poetics and Exegesis

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