The Reading Room

Odysseus’s Descent into the Underworld

Approximately halfway through his journey home from Troy, Odysseus is told that he must descend into the Underworld. Curiously, when Odysseus is told this, his first reaction is to cry (Ody.10.496-500). One might interpret this as indicating Odysseus’s simple fear of death because truly "No one has ever yet in a black ship gone all the way to Hades" (Ody.10.502). 
However, if one thinks closely, Odysseus does not fear death so much as he fears what the Underworld must represent to him: inactivity. Recall Book V of the Odyssey; Odysseus cries on the shore of Calypso's island of Ogygia not because he fears death but ostensibly because he is bored and fears that his life is passing by while he spends it in meaningless leisure. What is it, then, which Odysseus is sent into the Underworld to learn? Discovering this will tell us that his descent into the Underworld, though it seems physical, is actually an internal descent into himself. 
First, Odysseus is told to journey to "the edge of the world", or some liminal space near the Kimmerian men. At that liminal space, he must then perform a sacrifice between the shore (the limit of land and water) and a forest (the limit of open-land and forest). The sacrifice requires honey, milk, wine, water, and the blood of a ram and sheep. Blood+water+honey+milk+wine seems to be the substance necessary to make the shades which approach Odysseus more substantial by giving them the ability to reason and speak again. While in the Underworld, Odysseus meets Teiresias, the famous blind prophet who foretold the corruption of Oidipodes (Oedipus). Teiresias tells him "the way to go, the stages of [his] journey, and tell [him] how to make [his] way home on the sea where the fish swarm" (Ody.10.538-540). Teiresias also tells Odysseus his fate in the dark Underworld. 
From the dark depths of Teiresias’ insubstantial shade, Odysseus turns from the physical light of the sun to the illuminating light of revelation. What is it that Teiresias specifically tells Odysseus? In Book XI lines 90-150, Teiresias foretells the dangers that Odysseus must face: starvation near the cattle of Helios, suitors plotting to disown him at home, and death either on the way home or among the enigmatic, purple-cheeked people. Why doesn't Odysseus get to stay home and live "happily ever after"? When Odysseus was living carefree in Calypso’s paradise, was he happy? Of course not. This is because Odysseus is meant always to be striving, tricking, pirating, and journeying! Like both Dante’s and Tennyson’s later portrayals of the Greek, Odysseus wants to journey until he dies.
Perhaps Teiresias is telling Odysseus something that he already knows about himself, that it is his own inner nature to involve himself in risky situations around the world where he must pit his craftiness and strength of determination against both internal and external dangers. Odysseus is thus opposite to Teiresias’s other victim Oedipus who physically sees but fails to observe “what is right in front of him.” Oedipus, upon learning how ghastly his fate is, cannot at first accept it, and, in a moment of symbolically charged madness, blinds himself to represent how blind he has always been. Odysseus, on the other hand, accepts what Teiresias says rather than bucking against it. This is because Odysseus accepts his own nature as it is represented through his revealed personal destiny. Is Odysseus’s future limited to these two paths, both of which involve his death? Yes, but Odysseus also has complete control over which one of these paths he traverses as long as he has the mental perspicacity and physical and emotional fortitude to endure what comes. Odysseus’s freedom is therefore real but limited by physical exigencies, his own choices, and the will of the gods. Can anyone else claim to be freer?