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Odyssey Book XI - Nekuia - Odysseus' Trip to the Underworld

Nekuia, a word used to describe Homer's Odyssey Book XI, is a rite used to summon and question ghosts.

More of this Feature
Odysseus visits the Underworld
Odysseus addresses the fallen heroes in the Underworld
Bulfinch Mythology Glossary

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Usually, when heroes undertake the dangerous voyage to the Underworld, it's for the purpose of bringing back a person (animal) of value. Hercules went to the Underworld to steal Cerberus and to rescue Alcestis; Orpheus went below to try to win back his beloved Eurydice; Theseus went to try to abduct Persephone; but Odysseus went for information.

Although, obviously, it is frightening to visit the dead (referred to as the home of Hades and Persephone aidao domous kai epaines persphoneies), to hear the wailing and weeping, and to know that at any moment Hades and Persephone could make sure he never sees the light of day again, there is remarkably little peril in Odysseus' voyage. Even when he violates the letter of the instructions to offer the blood and talk to Tiresias first, by talking to Elpenor, his companion who had recently died at Circe's palace, there are no negative consequences1. What Odysseus learns satisfies his own curiosity and provides information for the rest of us, including King Alcinous whom Odysseus is regaling with tales of the fates of the other Achaeans after the fall of Troy and his own exploits.

For ten years, the Greeks (aka Danaans and Achaeans) had fought the Trojans. By the time Troy (Ilium) was burned, the Greeks were eager to return to their homes and families, but much had changed while they'd been away. While some local kings were gone, their power had been usurped. Odysseus, who ultimately fared better than many of his fellows, was to suffer the wrath of the sea god for many years before he was permitted to reach his home.

"[Poseidon] could see him sailing upon the sea, and it made him very angry, so he wagged his head and muttered to himself, saying, heavens, so the gods have been changing their minds about Odysseus while I was away in Ethiopia, and now he is close to the land of the Phaeacians, where it is decreed that he shall escape from the calamities that have befallen him. Still, he shall have plenty of hardship yet before he has done with it."
Poseidon refrained from drowning the hero, but he threw Odysseus and his crew off course. Waylaid on the island of Circe (the enchantress who initially turned his men into swine), Odysseus spent a luxurious year enjoying the bounty of the goddess. His men, however, long restored to human form, kept reminding their leader of their destination, Ithaca. Eventually, they prevailed. Circe regretfully prepared her mortal lover for his trip back to his wife by warning him that he would never make it back to Ithaca if he didn't first speak with Tiresias.

Tiresias was dead, though. In order to learn from the blind seer what he needed to do, Odysseus would have to visit the land of the dead.

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1. Perhaps the instructions were not really violated since Elpenor speaks without drinking the blood.

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