How important is Book 11 to the overall meaning of The Odyssey?

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Classical Civilisations        The Odyssey        Book 11

How important is Book 11 to the overall meaning of The Odyssey?

The overall significance of Book 11 to the epic is that it shows how things change over time (Anticleia’s death, the suitors at his home), which can be missed if someone is not around.  It also shows us that the Ancient Greeks believe in destiny and intervention from the gods.  The sacrifices and prayers from Odysseus and the attention he pays to Teiresias about returning to Ithaca show this.  If he did not pay attention to Teiresias he may have done something to displease the gods (such as killing the ‘Sun-gods’ cattle and sheep).  This could have lead to intervention from the gods to prevent Odysseus and his men from returning to their home.  Book 11 also shows that they believed greatly in the afterlife, but unlike modern religions they believed that everyone went to Hades (Hell), with the exception of those souls who were left to wander the earth for all eternity.  The afterlife was always thought to be a lot darker and bleaker than people now seem to think.

It is Circe who tells Odysseus of the trip which he and his men must take.  He then has to tell all of his men.  All of them are very distraught when they first find out that they must travel to the ends of the earth.  They know it is going to be a journey of many perils.  This is why Homer describes the men as ‘heart-broken’ telling us ‘They sat down where they were and wept and tore their hair.  But their lamentations achieved nothing.’ (Book 10, lines 566-568.)  This shows that they are greatly disheartened by the news, having thought that their next voyage would take them back to their homeland.  They know that there is nothing that they can do to avoid this risk filled journey, which makes it an even more arduous a task for them.

It is probable that the men were aware that their end was fast approaching.  Any journey to Hades made by a living mortal is going to be dangerous.  It would only usually be made by the souls of the dead, who would not need to sail, as Odysseus and his men did.  This would have most likely made the men think that they would not complete their trip to Hades or would not return from it.  At this point of the voyage I don’t think that anyone, with the probable exception of Odysseus, expects to see Ithaca or their family again.  It is more likely that knowing they are heading for Hades, they think they are unlikely to leave again.

When they reached ‘the furthest parts of the deep-flowing River of Ocean’ Odysseus was very ritualistic in his sacrifices.  He was very deliberate and precise in the order in which he poured the liquids for the dead, following precisely the instructions given by Circe.  ‘…first with a mixture of honey and milk, then with sweet wine, and last of all with water.  Overall this I sprinkled some white barley, and then began my prayers to the insubstantial presence’s of the dead,…’ (Book 11, lines 26-29.)  Once the sacrifices had been made, and the sheep’s’ blood drained into the trench, ‘…the souls of the dead came swarming up from Erelus -…’ (Book 11, lines 33-34), just as Circe had warned.  As Odysseus’ men ‘flayed the sheep’, he had his sword drawn to keep away all of the other souls until he spoke with Teiresias.  However, in the horde of souls was Elpenor, who had been one of Odysseus’ men.  He had died on Circe’s isle,  Aeaea, where he had fallen headfirst and broken his neck.  Odysseus promises to go back to Aeaea to bury Elpenor so that he is not left ‘…unburied and unwept, in case I bring down the gods’ curse on you.’ (Book 11, lines 73-74.)  It was not thought noble to be left unburied and unwept for; this was likely to be frowned upon.  The only way that Elpenor would have been able to cross the river Styx into Hades would have been to have a coin placed underneath his tongue to pay Charon, the ferryman.  Next to approach Odysseus was his mother, Anticleia, but before speaking with her he questioned Teiresias.  (He was told by Circe not to speak to anyone else before Teiresias.  I think that it is a great shock to Odysseus to see his mother.  

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He questions Teiresias first to get the answers that he came to Hades for, and needs to get back home, but also it is possible that he does this to avoid the actualisation that his mother will not be there to greet him on his return to Ithaca.  By postponing talking with her it is almost as if he is trying to delude himself that she isn’t really dead.

This series of events adds in extra components to the poem.  As well as bringing in Elpenor, who at this point is still awaiting burial, it brings in Anticleia, ...

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