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The Underworld and Afterlife, Research Paper Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1719

Research Paper

It is in the nature of human beings to be afraid of death, and rationalize this fear by inventing different versions of afterlife. Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey are among the primary sources describing ancient Greek and Roman concepts of life after death. Though these texts have lots of in common in their description of Underworld, there are significant differences in Homer’s and Virgil’s perception of the Kingdom of the Dead. Aeneid and Odyssey were created in different historical periods; the purposes and target audiences of both texts were also diverse. Therefore, while Homer describes the Underworld as a stage of the Odysseus’s personal journey home, for Aeneas the descent to Hades is an act empowering him to continue with his mission. This paper is the analysis of Homer’s and Virgil’s concepts of the Afterlife and Underworld in the context of the Greek and Roman views of the Afterlife. Mesopotamian views of the Afterlife, driven from the Epic of Gilgamesh, are also included in this essay in order to illustrate differences in the perception of reality ancient Greeks, Romans and Sumerians had.

Both Virgil and Homer agree that the entrance to the Underworld exists in a physical realm though hidden from ordinary people. Odysseus and his counterparts have to go “to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the Earth, where is land and city of the Cimmerians, wrapped in mist and cloud (Homer 11). Aeneas’s destination is clearer than Odysseus’s is – his entrance is situated at Cumae in Italy, and Cumaean Sibyl guides him to Virgil’s underworld. The fact that Virgil gives the exact destination of the pathway to Underworld is not accidental. Unlike Odyssey, which was written disregard of any political issues, Aeneid was intended for keeping the authority of Caesar Augustus (Adams 9). Therefore, the realm depicted in Aeneid had to be “real” and situated nearby, in order to evolve the feelings of recognition and participation in the listeners.

The paths to the Underworld Odysseus and Aeneas have to walk are also different. Odysseus’s path is relatively uncomplicated. Odysseus and his counterparts “went along by the waters of Oceanus till … came to the place of which Circe had told”. There they stopped and began the ritual. At the same time, Aeneas had to pass the halls with “many monstrous forms besides of various beasts … stalled at the doors, Centaurs and double-shaped Scyllas, and he hundredfold Briareus, and the beast of Lerna, hissing horribly, and the Chimaera armed with flame, Gorgons and Harpies” (Virgil 6), and many other scary images. Then he encounters Charon and persuades him to give them passage. Only after that Aeneas may start talking with the dwellers of the Underworld, the spirits. For Odysseus, the procedure is much easier than for Aeneas – he pours animal blood, and spirits come to drink it. This difference is illustrative of the differences of the views of the afterlife of Greek and Romans, and their societal structures. In Virgil’s poem, the act of the entrance to the Underworld is complicated, and, it is even possible to add, bureaucratic, in comparison to Odysseus’s experience.

Nevertheless, both Odysseus and Aeneas had to ask permission from gods of the Underworld, Aid and Persephone, in order to enter it. In Odysseus’s case, it was prayer, in Aeneas’s – appropriate sacrifices and a golden bough for Persephone. It is indicative of the fact that both Greeks and Romans believed the Underworld was ruled by deities.

Another similarity is the encounter with an unburied friend both Odysseus and Aeneas get. In Virgil’s world leaving a body unburied guaranteed that its owner’s soul could not enter Hades, and Charon refused to take such souls in his boat. In Homer’s world, a soul entered Afterlife regardless of the state of its body, but leaving it unburied still was a dangerous thing to do.

One more difference between Aeneas’s and Odysseus’s journeys is the set of souls they met there. One of the Odysseus’s most significant encounters is his mother, Anticlea, who reveals him that death is “the appointed way with mortals when one dies. For the sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together, but the strong might of blazing fire destroys these, as soon as the life leaves the white bones, and the spirit, like a dream, flits away, and hovers to and fro” (Homer 11). This is the kind of personal, mystic revelation. At the same time, Aeneas, who encounters his father, hears that “shall that glorious Rome extend her empire to earth’s ends, her ambitions to the skies, and shall embrace seven hills with a single city’s wall” (Virgil 6). Aeneas gets to know that his descendants will be the rulers of the greatest empire, which empowers him to continue his quest for founding Rome.

The style and scope of the descriptions of Afterlife is also appealing to analyze in the context of comparing Virgil’s and Homer’s views on it. In comparison to Virgil’s, Homer’s descriptions are short and concise, while Virgil uses metaphors and lots of details in his writing. This may be indicative of Virgil’s intention to make Aeneid sound like an epos, and is descriptive of the Roman longing for splendor. In addition, due to these descriptions, Virgil’s Underworld is a much scarier place than Homer’s. “Deep cave …, yawning wide and vast, of jagged rock, and sheltered by dark lake and woodland gloom, over which no flying creatures could safely wing their way” (Virgil 6), and the sounds of weeping infants create the atmosphere of the contemporary horror movie. Virgil’s reality is more “real” than the Homer’s Underworld, and this makes it a horrible place.

Homer’s and Virgil’s descriptions of the realm of the Underworld are particularly representative of the concepts their nations had of life after death. In the Underworld described by Homer, there are no clear analogues of hell and heaven. Though there are Meadows of Asphodel where heroes could be found, this place cannot be referred to as “heaven”. At the same time, there are places where “sinners” suffer – Tityous, whose liver is torn by vultures, Tantalus, who stood in the pool, but could not get a drink, and “Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands” (Homer 11). Nevertheless, the place, where Odysseus sees them is not hell, as there he also sees Minos, giving justice to the dead, Orion “driving together over the field of asphodel wild beasts which he himself had slain on the lonely hills” (Homer 11) and other heroes. Homeric Underworld seems to be one big place where heroes and sinners get what they deserve. There is no field for ordinary people there; at least Homer does not mention that Odysseus met any of them. All of his encounters were with heroes, their mothers and daughters, and sinners.

In comparison to the realm, described by Homer, Virgil’s Underworld is structured better. At first, it has a clearly defined entrance, a guard (Cerberus), a border (Styx), and numerous regions, where souls, depending on their deeds, dwell. The clear analogues of hell and heaven are present – Tartarus and Elysium or the Elysian Fields, accordingly. Virgil’s Tartarus is an invincible fortress guarded by Furie, from which horrible sounds come. The nature of punishments is not described in the text, which makes them much scarier than tortures described in Odyssey. On the contrary, the Elysian Fields are described as a place with its own sunshine, where the souls wear white and enjoy things they loved to do when they were alive. In the dialog between Aeneas and his father, the concept of purification arises. Anchises reveals his son the concept of contamination of soul by the body, which will later become one of the primaries in Christianity. In this section Virgil also introduces the concept of reincarnation. Souls drink water from Lethe, a river of forgetfulness in order to get ready to entering new life with a new body.

Finally, the important difference between Homer’s and Virgil’s description of Underworld are the attitudes of their heroes to the life after death. Virgil depicts Elysian Fields as a reward for those, who were pious enough. Afterlife at this place is seen as a reward. At the same time, Homer’s Achilles confesses he would rather  “slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead” (Homer 11). For Homer’s heroes death is an undeniably dreadful idea, while Virgil’s protagonists view it as a continuation of life.

Unlike Homer’s and Virgil’s perception of afterlife, Sumerians did not have a concept of fair reward after death. For them, Underworld was a place equally distressing for every dead, a “house where those who enter do not come out,… house where those who dwell, do without light, where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay, where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers, and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark, and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust” (Shin-eqi-unninni 7). The Mesopotamian concept of life and death has something in common with the Greek concept, which implies taking everything from life at the given moment.

It is clear that the realms of the Underworld, portrayed by Homer and Virgil have much in common. Both authors agree that the Underworld is ruled by two deities, who are spouses; they also consent that the entrance to the Kingdom of the Dead has an entrance in a physical realm. Virgil and Homer agree that one can encounter relatives and lovers who are deceased there. Nevertheless, while for Homer Underworld is just the domain, where outstanding people get what they deserve, with no place for ordinary people, Virgil’s realm foresees that there is a place for everyone. The realm, depicted in Aeneid, is much more structured than the world from Odyssey, and is much scarier. Virgil’s and Homer’s stories are indicative of views on death and Afterlife accepted in the cultures they originated of.

Works Cited

Adams, J. “Greek and Roman Perceptions of the Afterlife in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid”. McNair Scholars Journal 11.1 (2007): 3-11. Print.

Homer. Odyssey. Theoi Greek Mythology. Trans. Murray, A.T. n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.

Shin-eqi-unninni. The Epic Of Gilgamesh. Academy for Ancient Texts. n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

Virgil. Aeneid. Theoi Greek Mythology. Trans. Fairclough, H.R. n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2010.

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