The Reading Room

Homer’s Odyssey: Blindness, Allegory, and Insight in the House of Hades

Homer’s House of Hades is a dark, unsightly place, but is part of the invisible nature of Hades due to the fact that one might understand it not literally, but allegorically? Let us look to the opening lines of Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey with its proto-Baroque contrasts of light and dark for insight.
All day long her sails were filled as she went through the water,and the sun set, and all the journeying ways were darkened.
 ‘She made the limit, which is of the deep-running Ocean.
There lie the community and city of Kimmerian people,
hidden in fog and cloud, nor does Helios, the radiant
sun, ever break through the dark, to illuminate them with his shining,
neither when he climbs into the starry heaven,
nor when he wheels to return again from heaven to earth,
but always a glum night is spread over wretched mortals.
(Ody.11.11-19; Lattimore translation; my emphases)
Just as one sees physical objects by light, so may light imagery help to illuminate an allegory or symbolic expression. In Homer’s dark and nebulous underworld, for example, it houses both physical darkness and mindlessness, but also the physically blind but mentally sighted Teiresias. Could Teiresias and his illuminating influence among the dark and indefinite shades make him an allegory for the human intellect among personal and cultural memories?Let’s continue down this caliginous path. Though Teiresias is blind and exists in darkness among insubstantial shades, he offers his vision of intangible things, or in-sight to Odysseus. And in so offering, he en-lightens Odysseus about his two possible futures. What does it mean, allegorically, to see one’s destiny? Allegorically, to see one’s future is to learn the entire (hi)story of one’s life: past, present, and future. And like with a story, in seeing the whole, one would fully understand not only the story itself, but also the characters within, including the protagonist, one’s self. 
There is evidence to support this perspective in those being rewarded and punished in Hades. The first of the two men being rewarded in Hades are Minos, king of Crete, step-father to the minotaur, and contractor of the great labyrinth of Daedalus. The second is Orion who is also there hunting animals he hunted during his lifetime. Unlike the rest of the perished dead who are mindless and flitting, these two men continue to do what made them famous during life: judge and hunt. The same reasoning can be applied to the three arch-sinners of Homer’s Hades: Tityos, Sisyphos, and Tantalos. What is Tityos doing but tearing himself apart just as he attempted to tear up the natural order by attempting to abscond with the goddess Leto (his literal punishment is to have two vultures forever eat his liver)? What is Sisyphos doing but lying to himself? Sisyphos was a famous liar and either progenitor of Odysseus' line or his direct father by some accounts. He is punished for lying to Thanatos (Death) after Zeus sent him to kill Sisyphos for revealing the location of one of his lovers. Now Sisyphos forever rolls a boulder up a mountain deluding himself into thinking it will someday go over the top. The final and likely most famous arch-sinner is Tantalos, who dangled his dismembered son in front of the gods, and now is forever being tantalized with water and food just outside his grasp. Each and every one of these men is doing precisely what he did during his life.

Is each shade, like the shades in Dante’s Comedy, offering exemplary virtuous and vicious paths that mankind can walk? This perspective has merit, and it is precisely what Teiresias teaches Odysseus, and what the underworld seeks to teach the reader. One must retreat within one’s self, sift through the countless vague and indefinite memories and experiences housed within one’s self, and use one’s mind in order to determine one’s life’s course or inner nature and destiny. One can then spend one’s life pursuing that destiny within its necessary and fated boundaries. And like Odysseus’ recently perished friend Elpenor teaches us: do not wait, for what would one be waiting for if in death all one does is mirror one’s own life? In this way Odysseus serves as something of an everyman, though he is apparently unique because of his willingness to listen to the wisdom of sages and gods, unlike his perished crewmates.