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Interaction and Reaction in Virgil and Homer

 "May it be right to tell what I have heard,
May it be right, and fitting, by your will,
That I describe the deep world sunk in darkness
Under the earth." (Aeneid VI, 366-369)

The remarkable resemblance between the Underworld of Homer's Odyssey and that of Virgil's Aeneid reveals, upon closer examination, several important differences; these adaptations and corrections by Virgil of the Homeric vision lend credence to the Bloomian concept of influence, and show the many-faceted reactions of Virgil to the "burden" of his eminent precursor. In addition, they provide the reader of the poems with a fascinating basis for comparison, not only between the two poets, but between their characters and poetic creations as well.

One of the most striking of these contrasts appears in the detailed geographical and topological imagery with which Virgil has built his Hades. Not only do we see, in the passage relating the tortures and torments of the mythological figures, specific geographical formations, such as the fiery Styx which "rushed with scorching flames and boulders tossed in thunder," but also artificial, man-made (or in this case god-made) elements: "wide buildings girt by a triple wall" and "a massive gate with adamantine pillars." (Aeneid VI, 738-742) Nothing of this sort appears in Homer's tale; although individual figures seen by Odysseus are described in settings with mountains or pools of water, the backdrop for the stage on which the Underworld is portrayed is barren and devoid of scenery. The world of Hades for Homer is far more a dreamland, topologically undefined, while Virgil has in mind an earth-like but twisted vista, well-defined in its geographical features.

Interestingly, however, the figures which come to view in the Odyssey, despite a general lack of background environment, are portrayed much more as separate individuals: each is given a name, and a full paragraph is devoted to painting the tormented picture of each form of suffering. Tantalus, for example, and Sisyphus both receive lengthy discussions, complete with detailed pictures of their individual surroundings: the trees around Tantalus are "big with fruit, pear trees, pomegranates, brilliant apples, luscious figs, and olives ripe and dark" (Odyssey XI, 704-706), yet he can never partake of their gifts. In the Aeneid, on the other hand, the name of Tantalus is never even mentioned, and the feasters who seem to share his fate are given only five lines of rather dry portrayal.

This lack of individuality in the Underworld of Virgil is of course what lends to it its nightmarish, frightening qualities, which on the whole are not shared by Homer's version. In the Odyssey, although certain tortures are described in detail, there is little sense of true misery, and even less a sense of fright on the part of Death's inhabitants. Indeed, these creatures are living out their punishments purely for themselves; although seen by Odysseus, they are never "on display" in the way that Virgil's figures are. In the Virgilian Hades, by contrast, the tortured souls become even more pitiful by virtue of their exposure to the public eye: the purpose of their punishment seems to be not only a personal tribulation, but a warning and memorial to others as well. The picture of the Underworld set out by Virgil has many qualities of a nightmare, then: the twisted, mysterious and feverish landscape, the lack of individuality in the figures portrayed, and the feeling of inevitability and fatalism in the torments described.

Another significant difference that can be seen in the cataloging of lost souls set out by Virgil and Homer is the different approach the two have to the ordering of their worlds. In Virgil, we see an almost obsessive categorization: the entire realm of death is divided into sections and areas, as are the souls whom he puts there. In addition, this compartmentalization is by no means random: instead, it is based on judiciary reasoning. Each soul is placed in the area it belongs, according to the nature of its wrongdoings or the manner of its death. This ordering of even the world of death will of course be taken to further extremes by Dante, but it is noteworthy that Homer's world has little sense of classification. Is this a reflection of the difference between Homer's Greece and Virgil's Rome? Perhaps, but more likely it is caused by the different views of history the authors possess. Homer's dead souls, when called up to appear before Odysseus, arise in a seemingly random order; the only apparent distinction made is the time at which the soul perished, as we see by the initial encounter with Elpênor, who had fallen to his death very recently before the journey to the Underworld. But the whole body of souls in Homer does not appear in chronological order, so this can hardly be seen as an attempt at categorization on the poet's part. Indeed, the purpose of Virgil's ordering of Hades into these different categories must relate to his relationship to the ideas set out by Homer, and is most likely an attempt to complete and perfect Homer's vision by re-casting it with his own purpose in mind.

The two images of the afterlife share many other contrasting features brought out throughout the narrative. One of the most striking of these is the difference between the orientation of the two heroes, which plays a large part in their respective experiences in Hades. Odysseus, when he calls up the shades, does so in order to fulfill the command of Kirkê, who had ordered that he must first hear the prophesy of Teiresias before returning home. As such, it is decreed by fate that he complete this task. For Aeneas, the matter is rather different: here, he is fulfilling the last wishes of his father, who had begged him to journey to Hades after his death for one last moment to speak to him. "Duty-bound" is Aeneas indeed -- he obeys his father's wishes even unto death.

The journeys of Aeneas and Odysseus also tell us something about their respective characters, and about the characters of the authors as well. Aeneas' obligation to follow his father's desire leads him on a strange and terrible journey, truly an ordeal after all that he has already been put through. The process of reaching the Underworld is for Virgil highly ritualized; the proper sacrifices must be made, then the Golden Bough must be found, in order to enable them to cross the Styx, and finally, the arduous and frightening traversing of the Sibyl's cave completes the long procedure. For Homer, there is comparatively little ritual: Odysseus slaughters the sacrifice and promises his best heifer to the dead, then simply calls up the lost souls and converses with them. There is no long, involved journey, and little testing of the hero's resolve.

Still, there is some compensation made for the effort put out by Aeneas: he has a guide, the Sibyl, to show him the way and to help him understand what he sees. Odysseus, on the other hand, although his journey does not seem as difficult, must complete it entirely on his own. This is typical of the views held by the heroes, as we have seen: passive Aeneas looks always toward the fulfillment of his destiny, and is helped along or hindered by the gods, while vociferous Odysseus pushes his own way through the trials that fate has dealt him. Also a sign of the passivity of Aeneas is the help given him by the Sibyl, not only on his journey itself, but even beforehand: she tells him of the friend who lies unburied at his ship, and commands that he first bury the body, which he is of course glad to carry out. Odysseus has no such advisor: he too had lost a friend, Elpênor, but this one had remained unburied, and so lamented to Odysseus when they met up in the Underworld. A minor but relevant point here: the tale of Aeneas' journey is related to us by the narrator in third person, clearly a sign of his passivity, while Odysseus himself tells of his shadowy experiences as his sits with Alkínoös and Arêtê.

In addition, the two heroes encounter a completely different set of experiences in the Underworld after their arrival there. Aeneas, who is forever looking toward the future, although heavily burdened by his past, meets both past and future in the presence of Virgil's afterlife. At first, he is faced with the mythological figures and tormented souls of the past discussed in the passage above, but then, as he meets up with his father in Elysium, he sees his own descendants: his future, the fulfillment of his family's destiny. Odysseus, however, never sees those lucky souls who will later become men; his experiences are confined to reliving the past, chatting with Achilles about the past glories of the Trojan War and lamenting the deaths of the many brave men there.

The similarities of their experiences reveal also this important character trait in the heroes: pride and self-concern, as opposed to responsibility and destiny-consciousness. Odysseus, when he encounters Elpênor, the friend unburied, immediately asks him:

 How is this, Elpênor,
how could you journey to the western gloom
swifter afoot than I in the black lugger? (Odyssey XI, 60-62)

Here Odysseus is immediately concerned, not so much for his friend's welfare, as for his own pride: Elpenor beat him to the "western gloom," as if this were a race between them. Boastful as ever, Odysseus wants above all to win. Aeneas, on the other hand, exhibits his forward-looking vision and concern for fulfilling his destiny upon encountering his friend, the recently drowned Palinarus, and quickly wants to know:

 Tell me. In this one prophecy
Apollo, who had never played me false,
Falsely foretold you'd be unharmed at sea
And would arrive at the Ausonian coast
Is the promise kept? (Aeneid VI, 464-468)

The striking similarities and close contrasts between the Underworlds of the two poets make it painfully obvious that Virgil was strongly affected by the ideas instilled in Homer's text. How exactly he reacted to this "burden," however, and how he attempted to justify his own work and separate it from that of Homer: these are the difficult yet ever-important questions. In re-creating Homer's Hades, and in the process facing up to his predecessor, Virgil exhibits clearly his desire to re-work Homer, to complete and perfect the vision of the earlier poet. Homer's Underworld has relatively little to make it memorable: apart from the "shadowy" souls, insubstantial and unreachable by mortal means, there is not much in Homer that Virgil did not significantly re-cast.

Above all, Virgil's Underworld has, unlike Homer's, a striking sense of purpose: the souls are there either to be punished for wrongdoings, or to be prepared for a new life on earth. This is where Homer had failed, as Virgil sees it: what point was there to the painful suffering of Tantalus and Sisyphus, except that the gods had willed it so? Virgil imbues his Hades, as well as his Elysium, with a substantiated and understandable raison d'etre , and in the process corrects the notions of his predecessor. For Virgil, the Underworld must be categorized and organized as well as justified: thus the grouping of the souls of his Hades by reason or nature of punishment.

In the process, however, of correcting the Homeric vision, Virgil must inevitably face up and come to terms with his great predecessor. This he does, but not without fear; on many occasions outside of the Underworld, we see Aeneas encountering remains and traces of Odysseus, from the man picked up at Polyphemus' island to the wearing of the Greek armour while still at Troy. Here in the Underworld, however, these traces, if at all evident, are much farther removed. It is not at all clear if the journeying of Aeneas to Hades takes place before or after that of Odysseus; at any rate, there is no mention of Odysseus' actual presence, as in so many other scenes.

Still, Virgil does not simply ignore the traces of Odysseus, nor of the Homeric tales. The most important realization of his rival's influence comes into play, in fact, within the realm of Hades. It is in the Odyssey, which of course is told from an exceedingly Greek point of view, that we first hear the story of Neoptolemus, whom the Aeneid calls Pyrrhus: we encounter him when Odysseus calls up the warrior's shade, and recounts to Achilles of the deeds of his great son. Here the story is one of valor and great deeds, and of his courage while the Greeks waited inside the Trojan Horse. Not once is there a mention of the acts perpetrated by Pyrrhus in the Aeneid: his killing of Priam's son before the parents' very eyes, striking him down while undefended. The imagery in Virgil's version of the man's story is so much more violent, so much more vile, that it must be seen as a reaction by the ephebe against his own powerful predecessor; instead of submitting willfully to the stories told by Homer, he reforms them, making them abrasive and unheroic, attempting to belittle the Homeric tales by setting up his own version of them. The same can be said of the reforming of the picture of the Underworld: by making Hades a nightmare vision, full of frightening and horrific punishments, indeed a torture chamber of everlasting punishment, Virgil is taking away from the peaceful (though pitiful) image given to us in the Odyssey. Not only, then, is Virgil's reaction to Homer one of correction and completion, but of anger and resentment as well, culminating in the diminishing of his predecessor's work: a unity of the Bloomian concepts of clinamen, tessera, and daemonization, to produce a work that, much like its hero Aeneas, successfully comes to terms with its past.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Literature 10a at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Interaction and Reaction in Virgil and Homer." Website Article. 29 September 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/L10virgil.html>.