The Odyssey

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The Odyssey Book 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Odysseus continues telling his tale to Alcinous and the Phaeacians. When he and his men reached the entrance to the world of the dead, they did exactly as Circe said: they dug a trench, offered libations, and sacrificed a ewe and a ram. Thousands of ghosts appeared when the blood started flowing. The first ghost that approached them was Elpenor. He asked Odysseus to bury him and grieve for him properly when the crew returned to Aeaea, and Odysseus gladly agreed. The next ghost was Anticleia, Odysseus's mother, but Odysseus did not let even her approach the blood.
Even ghosts in the land of the dead concern themselves with earthly custom: Elpenor cares above all that he receive proper burial rites. When Odysseus meets the ghost of his mother, we see the degree to which he is willing to sacrifice personal feeling to prudence and piety: he holds his own mother at bay in order to follow Circe's instructions.
Themes
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Finally Tiresias appeared. Once he drank the blood of the slaughtered animals, he told Odysseus that his journey home would be full of trouble: Odysseus had angered Poseidon by blinding Poseidon's son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. The men will reach home, said Tiresias, if they leave the Cattle of the Sun unharmed. If they kill the cattle, Odysseus will come home alone. But before settling down in peace, he will have to make one more voyage to a land far away from any sea and make sacrifices to appease Poseidon. Only then will his long travels come to an end.
In Tiresias's prophecy, we see a certain logic in divine justice: the men have harmed something dear to the gods, so to save themselves they must refrain from harming something else dear to the gods (the Cattle), no matter the cost. And yet now the Odysseus and his men's fate has been told clearly, so is what happens to fulfill the prophecy fate or free will?
Themes
Fate, the Gods, and Free Will Theme Icon
Piety, Customs, and Justice Theme Icon
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
Odysseus asked Tiresias how to speak to the ghost of his mother, and Tiresias explained that a ghost would speak only if it drank the animals' blood. Odysseus let his mother drink the blood, and suddenly she recognized him. She told him that Penelope still grieved and waited for him, that his estate was still in Telemachus's hands, and that his father lived in poverty and solitude. She herself died of grief and longing for Odysseus. He tried to put his arms around her, but each time she dissolved at his touch. At this point Odysseus concludes his tale. It is late, and he asks the court again for passage home. The king and queen promise him many fine gifts if he stays on a little longer and ask him to describe the soldiers and heroes he met in the land of the dead.
In the conversation with his mother, Odysseus must fully face the tragic consequences of his absence: while he has been seeking glory and adventure, his family has suffered a great deal. Throughout Odysseus's journey, we observe his desire for glory slowly give way to his desire for home; his encounter with his mother tips the scale toward home. We have seen him take responsibility for his soldiers, but we will soon see him shift that sense of responsibility to his family. His central value changes from glory to honor.
Themes
Memory and Grief Theme Icon
Glory and Honor Theme Icon
Odysseus describes the conversation he had with Agamemnon. The ghost discussed his wife's infidelity; he told Odysseus that her lover Aegisthus murdered him and his comrades right at the dinner table. His wife's behavior, he said, stained all women everywhere. He advised Odysseus to keep some things hidden from his wife, and to arrive home in secret.
Talking to his mother makes Odysseus long for home and family, but talking to Agamemnon makes him wary of that home. Though Odysseus loves his family, he must treat them with suspicion: he must employ cunning in dealing with friends and enemies both. One must always keep oneself partially hidden.
Themes
Cunning, Disguise, and Self-Restraint Theme Icon
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Next Odysseus talked to Achilles, who said that he would rather be a slave on earth than a king in the land of the dead. Odysseus told him that his son , acted very bravely and killed many men, which pleased Achilles. Then the shades swarmed violently around him, wanting to talk to him. He ran back in fear to his ship, and they set sail.
Achilles is a king in the underworld because of the glory he achieved while alive. But, now dead, he would throw away all that glory just to be alive. Like Menelaus, he has come to value glory less and less. He is still pleased to hear of his son's glory in battle, though; he can't give up glory entirely.
Themes
Glory and Honor Theme Icon