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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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BOOK 11: A GATHERING OF SHADES

Odysseus follows all of Kirke's instructions. He sails to the proper place, digs a pit, sacrifices the ewe and ram, pours libations of milk, honey, and wine, sprinkles barley. He promises further sacrifices at Ithaka. The dead come and are kept at bay at sword's point. You were told all of this by Kirke in the previous book, but repetition in an oral story helps you keep track of things.

Elpenor appears first and pleads for a proper burning of his corpse and gear, and the building of a burial mound marked with his oar. The inclusion of Elpenor may remind you that not all soldiers die in glorious battle. Some succumb to the flu or fall off a roof because they are drunk. Odysseus weeps when he sees his mother, Antikleia. Then Teiresias comes.



Teiresias predicts more trouble from Poseidon. If the cattle of the sun god are eaten, all will perish but Odysseus. Teiresias describes the bad situation at home. He gives Odysseus his last assignment: from Ithaka he must travel inland with an oar over his shoulder until people take it for a winnowing fan. There, where people know nothing of the sea, he must make one final sacrifice to Poseidon. He will have a gentle seaborne death after a rich old age, leaving peace among his people. Through Teiresias, we get a glimpse of Odysseus as a tranquil old man.

This picture is quickly followed by one of a youthful Odysseus. After drinking the blood in the pit, Antikleia can speak and addresses Odysseus as "Child." He's probably about forty-five, but his mother's eyes remind you that he was once a boy. You have seen him as father, husband, son, military strategist, spy, lover, carpenter, beggar, athlete, sailor, captain, storyteller, mother to his men, liar-and here as a little boy.

NOTE: The meeting between mother and son is sad, for in his absence she died of loneliness for him, and though he cries and wishes to hold her and cry with her, he cannot because she no longer has a body. The Akhaians are sensuous people who delight in love, fine clothes, baths, oil rubdowns, good stories, fleecy beds, delicious meats, breads, and wines. Death means to be deprived of all these pleasures-and of the simple comfort of touching a person you love.

Here in Hades Homer doesn't pass up the chance to insert many legends into his narrative. After Antikleia comes a long procession of famous women of the past and their stories.

Watch for a break in Odysseus' story. He falls silent and you are reminded that he is telling all of this to Arete and Alkinoos. Arete is impressed by him. She and Alkinoos say he must stay another day and offer even more gifts. Odysseus is gracious about prolonging his stay, and happy to go home with riches instead of empty handed. Alkinoos admires the honesty of Odysseus' story and the art with which he tells it. He wants to hear more, and asks about Odysseus' friends from Troy. That question is the transition back into the world of the dead.

Now comes the parade of famous men, led by the person whose story is most pertinent to that of Odysseus, Agamemnon. You've heard it twice before, but this time Agamemnon himself gets to tell it. His version is more complete and powerful, coming from the murdered man himself. A painful detail is that his wife murdered him before he got to see his only son. He asks Odysseus for news of Orestes. But alas, Odysseus knows nothing.

The dead may have no bodies, but it seems they keep their interest in the living. When Odysseus tells Akhilleus of his son's bravery and his getting through the war unscathed, Akhilleus is pleased. The dead continue to nurse grudges, as well. Aias is still angry at Odysseus because Odysseus got the weapons that had belonged to Akhilleus. Aias won't speak. It's a funny, human touch.

The Greek heroes are followed by other famous inhabitants of the underworld: Orion, Tantolos, Sisyphos, and Herakles. Odysseus waits in the hope of seeing one or two more, but he is suddenly surrounded by thousands of shades "rustling in a pandemonium of whispers." This moment is worthy of a first-rate horror movie-whispers are much more eerie than shouts. Odysseus can't wait to get out of there.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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