Sunday, June 1, 2008

First Journey

After his descent into the mysteries of death, the hero emerges with new insight and knowledge. Both Odysseus and Aeneas learn, through observation and direct dialogue, the fate of souls once mortal life ends. However, Aeneas discovers an afterlife that promises transformation, in contrast to the grey monotony found by Odysseus.

In the Odyssey the dead are a “blurred and breathless” procession of heroes and queens, wandering aimlessly until empowered to speak by sacrificial blood. Achilles describes their hopelessness. “Better to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over the exhausted dead” (XI, 544-546). The irony of these words, coming from a man he once urged toward glorious death in battle, was not lost on Odysseus. Nearby Tantalos reaches eternally for water he can never reach, a mirror of Achilles who also longs for unobtainable release. Thus confronted by the tragic similarities between the fate of heroes and sinners, Odysseus emerges from the Underworld terrified, but determined to manifest Teiresias’ prophecy of peaceful death at the hands of age.

Virgil’s epic, by contrast, presents a more diverse Afterlife, one profoundly affected by how a person lived and the manner of his death. Here the unburied are trapped on one side of the Styx, while suicides, heroes, and the damned are sorted into specified regions. The most striking difference between the two realms, however, is explained by Anchises. “For some the stain of wrong is washed by floods or burned away by fire. We suffer each his own shade” (VI, 602-604). In other words, death isn’t the end. In time, the soul is transformed into a new human incarnation or ascends into heaven, based on his character.

Aeneas emerges determined and enlightened, more aware of his role as Founder and as a spiritual work in progress. This knowledge is a kind of compensation for the fact he will die pitifully, before his task is complete. Odysseus, on the other hand, received no reassurance, only an affirmation of the preciousness of mortal life and his desire to return to those he loves.