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Héros et héroïnes dans les mythes et les cultes grecs

 | 
Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge
, 
Emilio Suárez de la Torre

The katábasis of the hero

José Luis Calvo Martínez

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cf. Virg., Aen. VI, 129-132 where those men endowed with virtue are added.

10. The Katábasis understood as a transitory breaking of the laws of time and space in order to go down into the Underworld during lifetime seems to be, in ancient Greece, a characteristic trait of heroic biography. And so it is, indeed: Olympian gods never go down to Hades. It is a realm by which they swear with horror and repugnance, and if any of them goes there exceptionally, he leaves again as soon as possible. On the other hand, all men go to Hades and none return. Only heroes can go down and eventually come back again. This was thought to be a privilege reserved for the sons of gods1, but the very reason that explains this phenomenon we do not know. We might think of their essentially (and inconsistently) dual nature in many respects since their very birth: they partake of the human and the divine, they belong to this world and to the other, they are earthly as well as definitely non-terrestrial. But this could be only a plausible condition for it. For the ultimate reason we must look into each heroic biography.

  • 2 Esch., HF, 613 (τὰ μυστῶν δ’ ὄργι’ εὐτύχησ’ ἰδώυ) is our first witness, Cf. also Ps.-Plato, Ax. 13 (...)

2And, after all, this heroic feat is not a very common one. The heroes in whose biography we find a katábasis are important, but few: they form a closed catalogue which includes Heracles, Pirithous and Theseus, Orpheus and Odysseus. And moreover, these four katabaseis (Pirithous’ and Theseus’ is one and the same) are by all means similar: they have some traits in common and others that are very different, which sharply oppose one to the other. Such an interesting theme for song and tale was bound to develop several profound variations in the hands of poets and mythologists. And in those of theologians too: some of them were to adopt even mystical and religious values which were in fact originally alien to the myth itself. This is probably the case of Orpheus, but even the katábasis of Heracles was in some traditions related to cultic and mysteric rites2.

  • 3 Among the literature which deals specifically with the subject after 1900, cf. R. Ganschinietz, Ka (...)

3There would be many a point to be elucidated on a subject like this, for which, against all expectations, general bibliography does not abound and when it exists, tends to be rather misleading: it is not uncommon for an article or a book on the subject –whether or not it has the word katábasis in its title– to deal with the Greek conception of the Underworld and not with the katábasis as a specific theme of the heroic tale. On the other hand, the evidence which has reached us is scanty, generally late and, if it comes from the mythographic tradition, not too reliable because it represents contaminated traditions and, even worse, contains a good amount of theological speculation3.

4Nevertheless, the very first question we might raise is whether it is possible or not to find an elemental nucleus or, so to say, an ultimate narrative pattern from which all of them could have been derived; or, if there is not one, whether or not we must look for more than one.

  • 4 Sometimes it is represented as a serpent. As to its name, it is remarkable that Kerberos is not me (...)
  • 5 Cf. O. Gruppe, in Roscher, Lexicon, III 1 (1897), col. 1108, 60 sq.; E. Maass, Orpheus, München, 1 (...)
  • 6 Cf. Themis. A study in the social origins of Greek Religion, Cambridge, 19272, p. 523 sq.
  • 7 Cf. A. Winckler, Die Darstellungen der Unterwelt auf unteritalische Vasen, Breslau, 1891.
  • 8 Cf. Harrison, op. cit. (η. 6), p. 522, n. 2.

5In my opinion, of all the four alluded katabaseis we must, first of all, detach the one of Odysseus as a very specific one. From the rest perhaps we should just limit ourselves to deduce a very simple proto-structure according to which a hero transcends the insurmountable barrier between this and the other world in order to bring back with him something or someone –a purpose which he is not always able to accomplish. But this pattern of utter simplicity complicates itself in several ways resulting in different groupings according to different criteria: a) sometimes, as is the case with Heracles and Pirithous, the mere attempt is an act of open hybris, because it consists of breaking by brute violence the barrier between the world of the gods and the rest; while in the case of Orpheus and Odysseus, there is no violence, only the use of word and music in order to fulfill his purpose –a more civilised, and therefore, more “modern” way. b) Other criteria produce different associations: for instance, external compulsion assimilates the katábasis of Heracles with that of Odyssseus (none of them wants to go to Hades), while both Pirithous and Orpheus go willingly to the Underworld, c) Or they may differ in the nature of what they want to bring back. Heracles goes in search of “Hades’ Dog” (Αἵδου κύνα), who, besides being the guardian of the realm of the dead, is the pet of their god Hades4. The purpose itself is a supreme act of hybris and goes hand in hand with an act of utter violence: Heracles has to fight and conquer Hades himself. While in the katábasis of Pirithous and Orpheus the object of the descent is a woman. The latter might be, in origin, a variant of the former; and both, in turn, might be variants of one and the same pattern: the search and abduction of the Queen of Hades: the name itself “Eurydike” –“ample justice giver”– seems to be very appropriate for the chthonic goddess5. Nevertheless, to go farther back, as does J. Harrison, and carry it to the agrarian spring festival, seems to be mere guesswork –stimulating as it might be. According to her well-known theory6, Eurydice is but the vegetation goddess (like Persephone) who comes up in springtime from under the earth, by herself in a matriarcal society, although in a later patriarcal one she is given an (unnecessary) male companion. Now J. Harrison’s only evidence is a famous south Italian funerary vase from Ruvo in which a winged figure (with the word ΔIΚΑ or AIKA which she reconstructs as <ΕƳΡƳ>ΔΙΚΑ) can be seen leaving Hades through its door while she ignores and is ignored by Orpheus who is playing his lyre7. It is understandable that A. Dieterich, well endowed too with imagination as he was, told her privately that the theory seemed to him “unwarscheinlich”8; an opinion which we share. Nevertheless we do not need to go so far back in order to find a good relation between the tale of Pirithous who goes to Hades in search of the wife he should not, and that of Orpheus, who goes to search for his own wife, but returns empty handed because he does what he ought not to. On the other hand both stories have some traits which differentiate them: Pirithous‘ attempt is an aggresive act, a hybrisma similar to that of Heracles’ for which he suffers in Hades forever, while the hamártema of Orpheus is a purely formal mistake, the breaking of a taboo through an unfortunate irreflexive movement. But in these three katabaseis (Heracles, Pirithous and Orpheus) we might be dealing with a single pattern of identical origin, which in the hands of the poets, took different turns and ended up as three substantialy different tales.

  • 9 Cf. Orph. Argon., 40-42: ’’ Αλλα δέ σοι κατέλεξ’ ἅпƐρ εἴσιδον ἠδ’ ἐνόησα, Ταίναρου ἠνíκ’ ἒβην σκοτ (...)

6Still more different is the one of Odysseus. In the Odyssey both the katábasis of the Greek hero and the one of the popular tale hero are unified simply because the character of Odysseus himself results from the fusion of both, as is generally admitted. On the other hand, Odysseus shares with Heracles the trait of external compulsion, but his katábasis differs from the rest in that the hero does not go to search a person or an animal, but knowledge. Besides, Homer, the epic poet, uses the katábasis as a means of transmitting to his contemporaries a whole complex of ideas and imagery of the Underworld: geography of access, infernal topography and the condition of its inhabitants. The “orphists” will go even further with the one of Orpheus: in the voyage of this hero to Hades they will find the support for their conception of the infernal topography and the tortuous path which brings the orphic initiate to salvation; they base some of their conceptions about human origin and destiny on the things he saw there9.

1. The hybristiké katábasis. Heracles, Pirithous (and Theseus)

  • 10 W. Burkert (Greek Religion, Oxford, 1985 [engl. transi, from Griechische Religion der archaischen (...)
  • 11 Cf. Il. XI, 624
  • 12 Cf. Il. V, 395 sq.

7There is not much to be said about Heracles’ katábasis10. The evidence is scanty, though probably quite old because it is for sure that Homer knew about it: he tells us that the Theban hero went to Hades under the compulsion of Eurystheus to fetch the “dog of Hades” out of Erebos, and that this feat was the most difficult or exacting effort (κρατερότατον) of his labours11. According to one mythological tradition, this one was the last of the twelve; according to another, the last one was the Hesperides adventure –in fact there is not much difference: the Garden of the Hesperides is another eschatological place or representation of the after life. In another passage there is an isolated and obscure hint at his katábasis: according to it, Heracles wounded Hades himself “in Pylos in between the dead” –there is a clear play on words here: ἐv Πύλῳ means “in Pylos” of Messenia as well as “at the Gate” (of Hades). As it is Nestor who is speaking, he probably inserted the first meaning in this phrase, which originally had the second one, in his own interest12.

  • 13 Cf. Od. XI, 630-631.
  • 14 Cf. Hes., fr. 280 M-W (= PIbscher): αὐτός] μὲν γάρ φῆσι κασίγνητος καὶ ὂπατρος ]εν’ Aΐδην δὲ ϕίλον (...)
  • 15 Cf. Paus. X., 29, 9: Πανύασσις δὲ ἐποίησεν ὡς θησεὺς καΐ Πειρίθους· ἐπἰ τῶν θρόνων παράσχοίντο σχῆ (...)
  • 16 Cf. Crit., fr. 6: θησεύς τῷ Πειρίθῳ κολαζομένῳ καὶ δεδεμένῳ / αỉδοῦς ἀχαλκεύτοισιν ἔζευκται πέδαις

8Homer also knew about the katábasis of Pirithous and Theseus. In Odyssey XI he takes it for granted that both are damned in Hades13. They had descended to the Underworld, according to all our testimonies, with the purpose of abducting Persephone for Pirithous to marry her. Theseus is only a companion and he is repaying his friend the favour of having abducted Helen before for him. In PIbscher, which seems to contain Hesiodic material –or perhaps part of the cyclic poem The Minyad according to its editors-, we find a dialogue between Theseus and Meleager: the former is apparently giving details of their katábasis, and he is asserting the rights of Pirithous to marry Persephone –that is, the incestuous customs of the Olympians: Pirithous is her brother, while Hades is only her uncle14. Even so, their purpose is an intolerable hybrisma and both remain held in Hades as everlasting sufferers. So say all our testimonies and it can be seen in many an ancient image –for instance the mentioned South Italian vase. Besides, they have broken the laws of hospitality and so remain stuck to the very seats where Persephone had just entertained them in what seems an oneiric image among those which abound in the imagery of the Underworld. Note that, although Heracles’ and Pirithous’ katabaseis are, naturally, independent in origin, they were soon contaminated. Maybe as soon as the fifth century B.C., if, as is probable, it is in his Heraclea where Panyassis wrote (ἐττοίησε) about Pirithous and Theseus with their bodies stuck to a stone chair in Hades. The reference of Pausanias15 should refer to the meeting of Heracles with both. At the end of the same century Critias (or Euripides) knew of a version in which Heracles goes down to Hades and there meets Pirithous and Theseus16.

  • 17 Cf. Serv., Ad Aen. VI, 617: nam fertur ab Hercule esse liberatus: quo tempore eum ita abstraxit, u (...)
  • 18 Cf. Virg., Aen. VI, 618: sedet aeternumque sedebit / infelix Theseus; Apol. Rhod., I, 101-104: θησ (...)

9Now, probably the very fact that Theseus became in the end the most powerful Greek state’s main hero, was a hindrance to his condition of a hybristes condemned in Hades forever. That is why later versions had him freed by Heracles as a special gift from Persephone, even if Theseus had to leave shreds of a certain part of his body on the chair17. But it was indeed a biased rectification: testimonies like those of Vergil and Apollonius18 do not relate anything about it. In any case, Pirithous, a hero of the less powerful Thessaly, remained in Hades together with his father Ixion, another sinner fixed on a wheel which turns eternally.

2. The “romantic” katábasis: Orpheus

  • 19 Cf. Virg., Georg., 484: quin ipsae stupuere domus atque intima Leti / Tartara caeruleosque implexa (...)
  • 20 I do not agree with the interpretation of R. Böhme (Der Name Orpheus, Minos, 18/19 [19791, p. 80) (...)
  • 21 Cf. Pind., ΡIV, 176: φορμιγκτὰς· ἀοιδᾶν πατήρ.
  • 22 Cf. W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 1925; F. Graf, Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung (...)

10Ixion’s wheel stoppped exceptionally the very day on which Orpheus played his lyre in order to persuade the infernal gods to give him back his wife alive19. When we talk about Orpheus in this context we should make an effort to dissociate from his figure many ideas we have on theology and ritual which were later associated with this hero. At least the etymology of his name leads us to his probably first and, in any case, primary function: that of a singer and, above all, a dancer –ὀρϕεύς· contains the o-grade of the IE root *ser-p– which means “moving in a certain way, for instance, slithering like a serpent” as is done in certain dances20. About this function, therefore, no doubt is possible: all our sources since Pindar’s “father of song”21 allude to his ability to literally move all Nature with his lyre. Mythical tradition is unanimous too in making women the immediate cause of his death, although there are many variants on the reason and not a little theological elaboration22.

11The darkest trait, though, in the history of Orpheus is precisely his katábasis. And there is more than one reason to suppose that here we have to deal with quite a recent episode in the form it has reached us. To begin with, Homer does not even name Orpheus in the Nekyia, and, although this argument ex silentio is not probatory, there are other reasons to support this idea. The most compelling one is, in my opinion, its “romantic” character –taking this concept cautiously and in the broadest sense.

  • 23 Cf. Eur., Alc, 357 sq.
  • 24 Cf. Plato, Symp. 179d. 15:’Оρϕέα δέ ατλῆ ἀπέπεμψαν έξ ῎Αιδου φάσμα δείξαιντες τῆς γυναικός... ότι (...)
  • 25 Epithaphius Bionis, 123-124: ά μολπά, χώς ᾿Оρϕέι πρόσθεν ἔδωκεν ἁδέα / ϕορμίξοντι παλίσσυτον Εὐρυδ (...)
  • 26 Herm., fr. 7, 1 sq.: Οἵην μὲν ϕίλος υίòς ἀνήγαγεν Οlάγροιο ᾿Aργιόττην θρῆσσαν στειλάμενος κιθάρην (...)
  • 27 Cf. RE, XVIII (1939), col. 1200-1316, 1321-1417.

12It is true that even in the Homeric poems there are moving and outstanding cases of conjugal love –Odysseus and Penelope, for instance, to go no further. But we do not find –and it seems to me hardly possible– a case in which this love occupies the very centre of the main story. In this sense it is not strange if Euripides is the first author to refer to Orpheus’ descent to Hades in order to bring back his wife. Indeed, Euripides is the first Greek author who incorporates the “romantic” element in a well known category of his work –the so-called “melodramas” and/or “tragicomedies”– although he creates romantic “heroines” rather than heroes. Even a tragedy like Alcestis has been interpreted as a peculiar remake of Orpheus’ myth. In this “tragedy” Euripides makes a passing reference to this episode –Admetus would like to have the tongue and song of Orpheus in order to get his wife back-, but the name of the wife is not mentioned23 –another fact which has been adduced in support of the hypothesis that sees the episode as a late creation. Nor does Plato tells us the name of the wife –our second earliest witness24. In a personal interpretation, and not a very favorable one to the hero at that, Plato links to the scorn for Orpheus because of his cowardice, the fact that the gods of Hades did not show Orpheus his real wife, but only a ghost, that is, the ghost of a ghost –it is the mytheme of Helen which appears in Stesichorus for the first time. The name Eurydice is not documented until the first century B.C. in Epitaphius Bionis25 and in the latin poets Virgil, Ovid and Seneca –all following a Hellenistic model. But not even the Hellenistic poets agree: it is not the fact, strange enough, that Apollonius Rhodius ignores the episode, but the erudite poet Hermesianax26 names her “Agriope”, the “One of ferocious look” which could be a mistake for “Argiope”, the “One of the shining look”, the moon. Ziegler’s efforts to explain away all these inconsistencies and gaps in the tradition do not seem very convincing –at least not in all cases27.

  • 28 Diod. Sic, IV, 25: την δὲ Φερσεφόνην διὰ τῆς εὐμελείας ϕυχαγωγήσας ἔπεισε... συγχωρῆσαι τὴν γυναίκ (...)
  • 29 Plut., Amat., 76le: δηλοῖ τά περί ῎Αλκηστιν καἰ Πρωτεσíλεων καí Εὐρυδίκηυ τὴν ᾿Оρϕέως, ὅτι μόνῳ θε (...)
  • 30 Luc, Dmort. 28, 3: ᾿Aναμνήσω σε, ὦ Πλούτων ᾿Оρϕεῖ γὰρ δι’ αὐτήν ταὐτην τὴν αίτίαν τὴν Εὐρυδίκην πα (...)
  • 31 Virg., Aen., VI, 119: si potuit manis accersere coniugis Orpheus Threicia fretus cithara fidibusqu (...)
  • 32 Schol ad Eur., Ale., 357: ᾿Оρφέως γυνὴ Εὐριδίκη... τῇ μουσικῇ θέλξας τòν Πλούτωνα καὶ τὴν Κόρην, α (...)
  • 33 Man., V, 324-328: (Lyra) qua quondam somnumque fretis Oeagrius Orpheus / et sensus scopulis et sil (...)
  • 34 Cf. Isoc, Bus., 8, 1: ό μέν ὲξ ῎Aιδου τοὺς τεθνεῶτας ἀνῆγεν, ò δὲ πρò μοίρας τοὺς ζῶντας ἀπώλλυεν.

13If to all this we add the confusion of our sources about the success or failure of Orpheus’ expedition to Hades, everything would lead us to the conclusion that we are in the presence of a myth recent enough for every poet to freely introduce variants which are, as we have seen, essential aspects of the story. Indeed, authors such as Diodorus Siculus28, Ps.-Plutarch’s Amatorius29, Lucían30, the above-mentioned Hermesianax and Virgil31, besides the scholion to Alcestis32 and probably Manilius33 give complete success to the expedition. As to the testimony of Isocrates34 it is rather doubtful: ἀνῆγην is a conative imperfect, and, therefore, it could refer to a failed attempt.

  • 35 Cf. Virg., Georg., 486-496: restitit, Eurydicenque suam iam luce sub ipsa / immemor heu! uictusque (...)
  • 36 Cf. Ον., Metam., X, 56-59: hic, ne deficeret, metuens avidusque videndi / flexit amans oculos, et (...)
  • 37 Cf. Sen., Her. Oet., 1079-1087: sed dum respicit immemor / nec credens sibi redatta / Orpheus Eury (...)

14On the contrary, the widely accepted version, the one made famous by the virgilian Georgics35, Ovid’s Metamorphoseis36, and Seneca37, the one that has reached us through the modern creations of Gluck, Rilke or Cocteau, is the story of a failure. A failure imposed by a realistic and paradigmatic (and, therefore, mythopoetic in its true sense) reading of reality: the fact that nobody comes back after death.

3. The “necromantic” katábasis: Odysseus

  • 38 Cf. Aristarchus thought to be spurious the v. 568-640 (cf. Schol. Vet. ad loc.), an idea warmly ac (...)

15In contrast with the katabaseis of Herakles, Pirithous and Orpheus, that of Odysseus is a complete episode without any gaps. At the same time it forms part of a wider story pattern, that of the Odyssey, and it is in this context that its analysis must be carried out. This episode is the main theme of the so-called “Nekyia” and is one of the most carefully studied parts of the Odyssey. Gone are the days when the Homeric analysis saw the whole of it as a kleines epos interpolated by a late poet or “composer” – or at least some parts of it (especially, the Catalogue of the Heroines, v. 235-332)38. Today most Homerists think that it forms an organic and inseparable element of Odyssey’s argument: its strictly central position (book XI) would be meaningful enough to support this idea.

  • 39 Cf. U. Hölscher, Die Odyssée. Epos zwischen Marchen und Roman (1988). He takes into account severa (...)
  • 40 Cf. XI, 356 sq.

16Lately most of the light thrown on it has come from a comparative and structural point of view. The work done on folktale has turned our attention to the simple fact that the Odyssey is built primarily on a “return tale” (more exactly a “search, wandering and return tale”). This tale, however, has been converted into an Epic –and a monumental one like the Homeric epic is-through the utilization of the characteristic resources of this genre, mainly expansion and slowing of the narrative pace. In tales of this kind, similar to the one which is the core of the Odyssey, the hero, kept away from his home for a time, knows through a prophecy, the search for which is his last adventure or feat, that his wife (or fiancée) is on the verge of marrying; and he returns home at the very last moment by supernatural means in order to prevent it. Needless to say there is a cause-effect relation between prophecy and return. Homer, instead, dissociates both facts and presents us with a “prophecy without consequence” and a “return voyage without motivation”39: indeed, Odysseus is aware of the chaotic situation at home but he will not return inmediately –he tells the Phaeacians that he would rather stay with them for a year in order go back home “with fuller hands”40.

  • 41 Cf. loc. cit., col. 2362.

17Moreover, expansion and slowing of the narrative pace, together now with the archaic resources of symmetry and polarity, create a fourfold episode which symbolizes the entry of the hero in the other world: those of Circe and Calypso on the one hand, and those of the Phaeacians and Hades on the other. Although it does not seem admissible to deduce, like Ganschinietz does41, that the Odyssey as a whole consists of a series of descensus ad inferos which end up in the heroe’s glorification and deification, it might certainly be said that the “otherworldiness” is in the Odyssey more represented than it could seem at first sight. As a matter of fact, all these episodes have been taken out of their original context and inserted in a wider one with different function and meaning, but the traits common to all four are striking and numerous. To allude only to some of them: both Circe and Calypso seem to be goddesses of the after life world, as is revealed not only by their names –the one of Calypso is crystal clear (“The One who conceals”) – but by the fact that both of them live in paradisiac islands. As for the Phaeacians, they too have a “talking name” –the “Grey Ones”, the dead-and it must be remembered that before they went to Escheria, the island where no mortal arrives, they lived in “Hyperaia” –literally “The land of beyond”. The obvious difference between Hades, on the one hand, and the islands of Circe, Calypso and the Phaeacians on the other, is that the last three symbolize the hero’s entrance and staying in a happy world: Homer relishes in describing their paradisiac conditions, which are very similar to those of the Elysian Fields or the Islands of the Blessed, that is, a permanent springtime in blooming meadows and fruit gardens irrigated by several fountains and tempered by the mild gusts of zephyrus.

18To go back to the Nekyia. From the point of view of the construction of the Odyssey’s story or argument, this episode is situated at a central point not without a reason: it is like a mirror towards which converge the hero’s past (encounter with his mother and the Trojan war heroes), present (knowledge of the facts at home in Ithaca) and future (prediction of his own death). That is why, far from being a clumsy interpolation, on closer examination it appears to be a masterpiece of narrative engineering. Let us analyze its structure pointing out, first of all, to a general trait which permeates the whole episode. It has been noticed by many a scholar that in fact we are in the presence of two different realities: on the one hand Odysseus, urged by his companions to leave Circe and go back to Ithaca, is advised by the goddess to go into the palace of Hades (είς’ Αΐδεω ỉέναι. δόμον) and consult Teiresias about his return home. This is the last feat of the hero of the folktale. But in fact what we have is a necromancy, an oracular ritual, which is described in full detail at v. 23-50 and excludes the very possibility of entering Hades. On the other hand, being the descent to Hades, or katábasis, the last and greatest feat of a Greek hero, Homer skillfully combines both situations –or, better still, he juxtaposes them, because the link between both can be easily seen. The original situation is mantained by the formula “and there came the soul of...”, but suddenly in v. 568 the souls cease to come up, and Odysseus says “and there I saw...” which implies a very different situation. Odysseus seems to be in the middle of Hades.

19But a duality is in fact present throughout the whole episode at different levels which, in a way, are reciprocally determined. We have, to begin with, two different conceptions of the “other world”: according to the one, it is “the Beyond”, that is, the other side of the river Ocean where the necromancy takes place (or the faraway paradise islands). The river Ocean, or the vast sea between our land and the islands, is conceived as a limes which separates the world of the living and that of the dead. The other conception is that of an Underworld: the souls “go down into” or “come out from under” Hades. To locate beyond the Ocean a cave, by the confluence of three rivers (Pyriphlegethon, Cocytus and Acheron), where the entrance to Hades is situated, seems to be a simple way of conciliating or making both conceptions compatible. On a third level we also have two different rituals which are, in this case, intertwined. In the first place Odysseus makes his necromancy which originally is a magic rite –in it there are all the drómena and legómena of Magic: the digging of a trench, the sacrifice of minor victims, the pouring of their blood, the prayers; the souls drinking the blood of the victims in order to recover their human mind and feelings. But there is no trace of an essential trait of Magic –menacing words on the part of Odysseus. The magic ritual had already been artfully turned into the heroic cult by the time of Homer with the supression of everything that could be offensive to the official religion. In this way, what originally was but a magic ritual has turned into a sacrifice to evoke the soul of the hero Teiresias. On the other hand the poet is forced to introduce another kind of ritual by juxtaposition as well: the one directed to the gods –in this case, those of the Underworld. In fact it was obviously not necessary at all because the souls had begun to go up and drink the blood, but the injunctions of Circe demanded this other kind of sacrifice in which there is a burning of the victims already slaughtered, and special prayers to Hades and Persephone.

  • 42 Cf. XI, 333-385.
  • 43 Cf. Β. Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, Wiesbaden, 1974.

20But let us proceed with the structure of the episode. If the Odyssey, instead of being a monumental epic poem, were a popular tale in its more simple form, it would be enough with Teiresias going up and doing his job foretelling the vicissitudes of Odysseus’ return voyage. But we have seen that this is not the case. As I said before, whole episode has been expanded and considerably complicated. And as is usual in this expanded digressions, the composition is circular (Ringkomposition) and, above all, mostly symmetric. After the mantic ritual a crowd of anonym souls rush up –young women, old men, warriors– who wandered in groups here and there: “and pale terror took hold of me” says Odysseus (v. 42-43). Well, the Nekyia ends 600 verses later with a very similar situation and a close phraseology: “an endles number of dead began to congregate with a supernatural clamor, and pale terror took hold of me” (v. 632-633)· Between these two utterings the organization of the material has a remarkable symmetry: the grouping of the different souls –often in threes– or the contraposition of bands of heroines and heroes, or the division of the whole picture in two halves separated by the so-called “interlude” in which Odysseus breaks the narrative and talks to the Phaeacians42, reveals the hand of an expert and careful artist43.

21The first souls who come to drink the blood are those of Elpenor, Teiresias and his mother Antikleia –the first and last encounters being full of pathos, while the middle one with Teiresias, the main aim of the necromancy, is as cold and matter of fact as we expect it to be. After the moving encounter between Odysseus and his mother, two different groups approach, one of heroines and another of heroes or warriors. Nevertheless, in this case the symmetry is not complete: it is broken in that the first group is presented in a narrative and the second one in a dramatic form. The group of heroines is described as a typical epic catalogue –and therefore bound to be misunderstood as an interpolation by or from the Boeotian school of bards-while from the group of heroes three of them stand out: Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax. With each of the three Odysseus will have a little dramatic scene. The reasons for the selection of precisely these heroes reveals itself in the course of the aforesaid scenes: both Agamemnon and Achilles show their interest in the actual whereabouts and deeds of their respective only child (Orestes and Neoptolemus) –a trait which they share with Odysseus. Of a different kind is the relation between Ajax and Odysseus: the contest for the arms of Achilles had opened a breach between them which the latter wants to heal. But the resentful attitude of Ajax shows this to be an impossible task: he goes away in silence scorning the words of Odysseus.

22Although these two parts of the general picture –the parade of heroines and that of the heroes– belong in fact to the katábasis genre, and not to the necromancy, Homer maintains them skillfuly as a part of the latter: Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus only after he has drunk the blood (“he recognised me inmediately after he drank the black blood”, v. 390), and of Ajax he says that “he went down again to the Erebos of the dead in the company of the other souls” (v. 563-564). It is precisely at this point that the katábasis proper begins. There is no reason to doubt that Homer does not try to conceal it either: Odysseus is in the middle of Hades as is shown unmistakably by the wording ἒvθ ‘ ἤτοι Μίνωα ἴδον, v. 568. This katábasis is a little piece, complete in itself, which is again organised in a symmetric form: first of all Odysseus sees Minos imparting justice to “the tribes of the dead”. Then, embedded in the description of two hunting heroes, Orion and Heracles, chasing wild animals along a field of asphodels, there comes the short series of, again three, famous damned consisting of Tition, Tantalus and Sysiphus. Finally, as we pointed out at the beginning, the anonymous crowd of souls aproaches and frightens Odysseus. The ring has closed and the episode reaches its end.

23This is the katábasis of Odysseus. For him, as the hero of the tale, it was useless because, as we said before, he was no longer the hero of the folktzle, but of the epic poetry. For Homer, though, it was very useful: as an epic potetes, and due to the epic character of the Odyssey as a codification of social customs and religious conceptions, it served as an adequate vehicle for transmitting a typically Hellenic vision of the Underworld. A conception which survived for centuries, although it combined inconsistently with others which were the product of a new morality, alien to the Homeric world, and of new religious ideas coming from different philosophers and religious thinkers.

Notes

1 Cf. Virg., Aen. VI, 129-132 where those men endowed with virtue are added.

2 Esch., HF, 613 (τὰ μυστῶν δ’ ὄργι’ εὐτύχησ’ ἰδώυ) is our first witness, Cf. also Ps.-Plato, Ax. 13 (371e1), Diod. Sic., IV, 25. According to Servius, Heracles’ katabasis had been incorporated even in the orphie cycle: tectum in Orpheo est, quod quando Hercules ad inferos descendit... (in Aen VI, 392).

3 Among the literature which deals specifically with the subject after 1900, cf. R. Ganschinietz, Katábasis, in RE, X 2 (1919), col. 2360 sq.; E. Norden, P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis Buch VI, Leipzig 1903; A. Dieterich, Nekyia. Beitràge zur Erklärung der neu-entdeckten Petrusapokalypse, Leipzig, 19132; L. Radermacher, Das Jenseits im Mytbos der Hellenen, Bonn, 1903, etc.

4 Sometimes it is represented as a serpent. As to its name, it is remarkable that Kerberos is not mentioned until Hesiod (Theog., 311: Kέρβερov ὠμηστήν). If its etymology is related to IE *gu er (with dissimilation of the first consonant), and, therefore, to bórboros, etc., that would suppose an old link with the Underworld.

5 Cf. O. Gruppe, in Roscher, Lexicon, III 1 (1897), col. 1108, 60 sq.; E. Maass, Orpheus, München, 1908.

6 Cf. Themis. A study in the social origins of Greek Religion, Cambridge, 19272, p. 523 sq.

7 Cf. A. Winckler, Die Darstellungen der Unterwelt auf unteritalische Vasen, Breslau, 1891.

8 Cf. Harrison, op. cit. (η. 6), p. 522, n. 2.

9 Cf. Orph. Argon., 40-42: ’’ Αλλα δέ σοι κατέλεξ’ ἅпƐρ εἴσιδον ἠδ’ ἐνόησα, Ταίναρου ἠνíκ’ ἒβην σκοτίην ὁδόν, “Αïδòς εἲσω, ήμετέρη πίσυνος κιθάρη δι’ ἒρωτ’ ἀλόχοιο.

10 W. Burkert (Greek Religion, Oxford, 1985 [engl. transi, from Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche, Stuttgart, 1977], p. 209) seems to retrace Heracles’ journey to “shamanistic hunting magic”.

11 Cf. Il. XI, 624

12 Cf. Il. V, 395 sq.

13 Cf. Od. XI, 630-631.

14 Cf. Hes., fr. 280 M-W (= PIbscher): αὐτός] μὲν γάρ φῆσι κασίγνητος καὶ ὂπατρος ]εν’ Aΐδην δὲ ϕίλον πάτρωα τετύχθαι.

15 Cf. Paus. X., 29, 9: Πανύασσις δὲ ἐποίησεν ὡς θησεὺς καΐ Πειρίθους· ἐπἰ τῶν θρόνων παράσχοίντο σχῆμα οὐ κατὰ δεσμώτας, προϕύεσθαι δὲ ἀπό τοῦ χρωτòς· ἀντί δεσμῶν σϕισιν ἔϕη τὴν πέτραν.

16 Cf. Crit., fr. 6: θησεύς τῷ Πειρίθῳ κολαζομένῳ καὶ δεδεμένῳ / αỉδοῦς ἀχαλκεύτοισιν ἔζευκται πέδαις.

17 Cf. Serv., Ad Aen. VI, 617: nam fertur ab Hercule esse liberatus: quo tempore eum ita abstraxit, ut illic corporis eius relinqueret partem.

18 Cf. Virg., Aen. VI, 618: sedet aeternumque sedebit / infelix Theseus; Apol. Rhod., I, 101-104: θησέα δ’, ὅς περὶ πάντας Έρεχθεΐδας ἐκέκαστο, / Ταιναρίην ἀίδηλος ὑπò χθόνα δεσμòς ἔρυκε, / Πειρίθῳ ἑσπόμενον κοινἠν ὁδόν ή τέ κεν ἄμφω / ῤηίτερον καμάτοιο τέλος– πάντεσσιν ἔθεντο.

19 Cf. Virg., Georg., 484: quin ipsae stupuere domus atque intima Leti / Tartara caeruleosque implexae crinibus anguis / Eumenides, tenuitque inhians tria Cerberus ora,/ atque Ixionii uento rota constilit orbis.

20 I do not agree with the interpretation of R. Böhme (Der Name Orpheus, Minos, 18/19 [19791, p. 80) who relates the name ὀρϕεύς to a root *ἐ‑ρФ: ὀ‑ρФ‑. If it comes, as I think, from a “regular” Indoeuropean root *ser-p– : sor-p– (> *hor-ph– > or-ph-) through aspiration of the labial suffix attached to the root, we do not need to postulate a prothetic vowel. With a velar suffix we have, precisely, the verb όρχεῖσθαι (from *sor-ch-). According to Böhme’s theory the root *o-rp– is related to “rhaptein” and “rhapsode”, a late name which, on the other hand, refers to recitation, not to composition or singing –even less to dancing.

21 Cf. Pind., ΡIV, 176: φορμιγκτὰς· ἀοιδᾶν πατήρ.

22 Cf. W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion, 1925; F. Graf, Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit, Berlin, 1974; R. Böhme, Der Singer von Vorzeit, Basel, 1980.

23 Cf. Eur., Alc, 357 sq.

24 Cf. Plato, Symp. 179d. 15:’Оρϕέα δέ ατλῆ ἀπέπεμψαν έξ ῎Αιδου φάσμα δείξαιντες τῆς γυναικός... ότι μαλθακίσεσθαι έδόκεί.

25 Epithaphius Bionis, 123-124: ά μολπά, χώς ᾿Оρϕέι πρόσθεν ἔδωκεν ἁδέα / ϕορμίξοντι παλίσσυτον Εὐρυδίκειαν.

26 Herm., fr. 7, 1 sq.: Οἵην μὲν ϕίλος υίòς ἀνήγαγεν Οlάγροιο ᾿Aργιόττην θρῆσσαν στειλάμενος κιθάρην ᾿Aιδόθεν.

27 Cf. RE, XVIII (1939), col. 1200-1316, 1321-1417.

28 Diod. Sic, IV, 25: την δὲ Φερσεφόνην διὰ τῆς εὐμελείας ϕυχαγωγήσας ἔπεισε... συγχωρῆσαι τὴν γυναίκα αύτου τετελευτηκυῖαν ἀναγαγείν έξ ἂδου.

29 Plut., Amat., 76le: δηλοῖ τά περί ῎Αλκηστιν καἰ Πρωτεσíλεων καí Εὐρυδίκηυ τὴν ᾿Оρϕέως, ὅτι μόνῳ θεῶν ό ῎Αιδης Έρωτι ποιεί τò προσταττόμενον.

30 Luc, Dmort. 28, 3: ᾿Aναμνήσω σε, ὦ Πλούτων ᾿Оρϕεῖ γὰρ δι’ αὐτήν ταὐτην τὴν αίτίαν τὴν Εὐρυδίκην παρέδοτε καὶ τὴν ὁμογενῆ μου ῎Αλκηστιν παρεπέμψατε.

31 Virg., Aen., VI, 119: si potuit manis accersere coniugis Orpheus Threicia fretus cithara fidibusque canoris.

32 Schol ad Eur., Ale., 357: ᾿Оρφέως γυνὴ Εὐριδίκη... τῇ μουσικῇ θέλξας τòν Πλούτωνα καὶ τὴν Κόρην, αὐτὴν ἀνήγαγεν ἐξ ῎Αιδου.

33 Man., V, 324-328: (Lyra) qua quondam somnumque fretis Oeagrius Orpheus / et sensus scopulis et silvis addidit aures / et Diti lacrimas et morti denique finem.

34 Cf. Isoc, Bus., 8, 1: ό μέν ὲξ ῎Aιδου τοὺς τεθνεῶτας ἀνῆγεν, ò δὲ πρò μοίρας τοὺς ζῶντας ἀπώλλυεν.

35 Cf. Virg., Georg., 486-496: restitit, Eurydicenque suam iam luce sub ipsa / immemor heu! uictusque animi respexit... /................................en iterum crudelia retro I fata uocant, conditque natantia lumina somnus.

36 Cf. Ον., Metam., X, 56-59: hic, ne deficeret, metuens avidusque videndi / flexit amans oculos, et protinus illa relapsa est, / bracchiaque intendens prendique et prendere certans / nil nisi cedentes infelix arripit auras.

37 Cf. Sen., Her. Oet., 1079-1087: sed dum respicit immemor / nec credens sibi redatta / Orpheus Eurydicen sequi, / Cantus praemia perdidit: / Quae nata est iterum petit.

38 Cf. Aristarchus thought to be spurious the v. 568-640 (cf. Schol. Vet. ad loc.), an idea warmly accepted by the modern chorizontes (cf. U. Wilamowitz, Homerische Unters., 1885, p. 199-226), etc. But the whole of the Nekyia was considered a late addition still in the fifties and sixties by D.L. Page (Homeric Odyssey, Oxford, 1955), R. Merkelbach (Untersuchungen zur Odyssée, Miinchen, 1951), G.S. Kirk (The Songs of Homer, Cambridge, 1962) and others.

39 Cf. U. Hölscher, Die Odyssée. Epos zwischen Marchen und Roman (1988). He takes into account several folktales different in time and space, such as the Indian “Red Swan Tale”, “Richard of Normandie”, “Sinbad the Sailor” tales 6 and 7 and “Reinfrit von Braunschweig”.

40 Cf. XI, 356 sq.

41 Cf. loc. cit., col. 2362.

42 Cf. XI, 333-385.

43 Cf. Β. Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey, Wiesbaden, 1974.

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Universidad de Granada
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