The Underworld 

When Odysseus enters the Underworld for the first time, his initial illusion of death as repose is shattered much the same way Aeneas in Virgil’s The Aeneid is struck with grief at the sight of the tragic Dido roaming in the underworld. To better understand the differences and similarities between why Odysseus of The Odyssey and Aeneas of The Aeneid travel to the underworld, it is important to first understand the time period in which each great work was written, the social aspects from which Homer and Virgil came from, and the context of each masterpeices itself. Taking these three aspects into consideration, the reasons why these two different men went on such a perilous journey and their experiences there can be easily identified.

the concept of time between the publication of the two works is the first major difference that shaped The Odyssey and The Aeneid. The Greek poet Homer began with his greatest two masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey which date long before the beginning of the Greek literacy in the late eighth century B.C. (p. 96). Credit is given to this poet for becoming the architect that manipulated the vast wealth of oral tradition present in his time and “fused what he took with original material” (p. 96) to create the two poems. However, Homer was not “on the modern sense, the [creator of the poems] and [much] less an expression of his personality” (p.96). Still, the Italian poet Virgil of the 70th century B.C., “borrows Homeric turns of phrase, similes, sentiments, and whole incidents” (p. 636). Like the Homeric epic of The Odyssey, Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, must face various struggles in the search for home. Yet, unlike Homer, Virgil creates a hero who disregards his own personal gains unlike Odysseus who is told by the prophet in the underworld that he will achieve a peaceful death if he follows the prophet’s instructions. Aeneas states to Dido at the sight of her in the underworld, “The gods’ commands drove me to do their will, as now they drive me through this world of shades” (1. 245). That is to say, there is something greater than himself: The pre-bestowed purpose of finding a city from which in time, will spring the Roman state.

The Roman Empire had a solid foundation when it came to its social aspects and thus became a major influence in the Latin literature of that time. Something that creates a large gap between the Greeks and Romans is that the quality Romans most admired was “gravitas, seriousness of attitude and purpose”, and their highest words of commendation were “manliness, industry, and discipline”(p. 627). Aeneas is an exemplary figure of this Roman regiment because he becomes, in a sense, the “ideal Roman ruler; his qualities are the devotion to duty and the seriousness of [an organized government]” (p. 636). All the while, Aeneas does not satisfy the great passion of his life like Achilles had, nor, like Odysseus, does he find home and peace. As book six of The Aeneid states, his sole reason for traveling to the underworld was to find his father and see the vision of his people, which is to be his only reward, “for he will die before his people are settled in their new home [Rome]” (p.668). Having a closer look at the context of each voyage to the underworld in both The Odyssey and The Aeneid  reveals a more precise and obvious picture of why both these characters make such a perilous journey while still intertwining both Greek and Roman values in their respected aspects.

Even though Odysseus and Aeneas travel to the underworld for different reasons, comparisons can be made between the two journeys. Odysseus is on a long journey home from the Trojan War. throughout his journey he not only faces struggles but also temptations to test his ingenuity and will to return home. Odysseus comes to believe that death seems the only real escape from his struggles and so he is sent living to the world of the dead to see for himself what death actually means; which is anything but the illusion of repose. The main reason, however, why Odysseus travels to the underworld is because he is seeking the council of Teiresias, to guide him home with the help of his prophetic powers. Parallel to the Sybil in The Aeneid which guides Aeneas through the underworld, Odysseus too must seek the council of his father in order to see what his future holds and what to do next. Both Aeneas and Odysseus encounter the ghosts of their dead companions, but in each situation each character makes a different decision. At the clamor of his dead friend asking him to bury his remains in the world of the living in order for his soul to move on, Odysseus replies “I promise you the barrow and the burial” (1. 85). Whereas Aeneas when faced with the same situation is told by the Sybil to disregard his dead friend’s wish. Both characters are faced with ghostly figures of deceased loved ones that were close to them as well. Odysseus, unknowingly, discovers that his mother has taken her life out of loneliness for him (1. 215). They converse and Odysseus is overcome with such emotion that he tries to embrace the ghostly figure of his mother but to no avail. In contrast, Dido has taken her life out of heartbreak because of Aeneas’s departure from her. At the sight of her Aeneas is overcome by grief and calls out to her in an attempt to justify his leaving by saying, “I left your land against my will…the gods commands drove me to do their will, as now they drive me through this world of shades” (1. 245). However, just as he had left her without a word, Dido says nothing to him and leaves to join the ghost of her previous dead husband in sorrow.

The journey to the underworld in both The Odyssey and The Aeneid, although they come from different time period that strongly shape each work, along with different influential social aspects, parallel each other in various ways. By taking these three aspects into consideration, the reason why these two men made such a perilous journey and their experiences in the underworld can be easily identified. Understanding the background of each masterpiece sets the stage to understand the character’s motives and actions in a broader, culturally-infused, and in-depth view that is supported by each work’s context.

The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Maynard Mack, 1979.

Professor Monica Ayuso at California State University of Bakersfield