The Underworld

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Odysseus and Aeneas both visit the Underworld; in Odysseus' case, in Book XII of Homer's Odyssey, and in Aeneas' case, in Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid. In discussing the differences between the two treatments of the Underworld episodes, it is imporcant to first outline the similarities in the two situations:

Odysseus and Aeneas both journey to the Underworld in order to receive knowledge. Previous mythological warrior-heroes went there to fulfill a more specific, tangible purpose eg. Heracles' borrowing of Cerberus and Orpheus plea for the return of his wife Eurydice. The atypical purposes for the visits of our heroes leads to a logical conclusion: simce the Odyssey predates the Aeneid and we know Virgil to have been familiar with the earlier work, it follows that Aeneas' descent to Hades is loosely based on Odysseus'.

In both cases, the visit to the Underworld is the turning point in the hero's development during a long and treacherous voyage towards home. Rebirth, actual and spiritual, follows. Odysseus, dehumanised by his gruesome experiences at Troy, is symbolically cleansed, so that he may return to Ithaca fit for leadership. Aeneas, on the other hand, is purged of the human qualities which he possesed beforehand by the revelations of his great destiny in the scene known as the Parade of Future Roman leaders. In order to be the paterfamilias of an entire people, as he is destined to become, he must free himself of human frailty and doubt and become the unquestioning servant of fate. Aeneas' ultimate role as divine instrument is reminiscent of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Both heroes are confronted with their past misdemeanours in the Underworld: Odysseus meets his unburied, unwept companion Elpenor, whilst Aeneas is met with the sight of his former lover Dido. Burial rites are described often and ritually throughout the Odyssey, often with the use of stock passages, and Odysseus' failure to obey these divinely inspired customs must be...
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