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Odysseus, while in the Underworld, is almost a totally different character than the cunning trickster who blinded the son of Poseidon. Unlike the previous lands and adventures, Odysseus is not waylaid, but rather enters deliberately. In contrast to his boasting and bragging about blinding the monster, here we see him grieving. When he spies the soul of the warrior Ajax, he tries to apologize. Ajax refuses to speak, causing Odysseus to plead with the ghost. His grief at his failure to embrace his mother plays out in a similar fashion. Here, surrounded by the dead, we see a man confronting both his failures and the people he failed. He expresses great regret and grief, showing the reader a man that seems to feel sorrow and empathy, but only when it is too late to do anything.
The interaction between Odysseus and his mother is such a tragic interaction for our hero.
Odysseus says, “Thrice I sprang towards her, and my heart bade me clasp her, and thrice she flitted from my arms like a shadow or a dream, and pain grew ever sharper at my heart.”
The wandering king at this point is reduced to a child whose only wish at this point is to hug his mother. Three time he reaches out and three times she slips through his arms like a shadow. It is no coincidence that it is after Odysseus is broken down and humble that he starts to see how he can get back home.
In book 11 of The Odyssey, Odysseus displays humility in the “Land of the Dead” that he does not show in his dealings with the Cyclops. Humility through respecting the rules and rituals of the land, not what he assumes should be his rights. Humility in the land of the dead and hubris in dealing with Polyphemus.
To begin with let’s look at the hubris, or brash and arrogant character that Odysseus demonstrates in book 9. When Odysseus and his men enter the cave of Polyphemus he makes the arrogant assumption the occupant of the cave must follow the rules of hospitality that are the tradition of Greece. It is this belief that ultimately costs some of his men their lives. Once Odysseus realizes that the Cyclops does not follow the rules as Odysseus believes they should be, he becomes enraged and seeks vengeance as well as escape from the cave. Tricking Polyphemus and ultimately blinding the Cyclops in his escape Odysseus should be relieved at his escape yet he taunts the giant. It is the taunting of Polyphemus by Odysseus that leads to Odysseus being cursed by Poseidon. Hubris has led to Odysseus’s inability to get home.
In stark contrast to the arrogant Odysseus of the Cyclops’ island, the humbled Odysseus shows proper respect for the traditions of the land by performing the rites that pay tribute and show honor to the dead.
“I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh, and dug a pit of a cubit's length this way and that, and around it poured a libation to all the dead, first with milk and honey, thereafter with sweet wine, and in the third place with water, and I sprinkled thereon white barley meal. And I earnestly entreated the powerless heads of the dead, vowing that when I came to Ithaca I would sacrifice in my halls a barren heifer, the best I had, and pile the altar with goodly gifts, and to Teiresias alone would sacrifice separately a ram, wholly black, the goodliest of my flocks.”
It is ritual that shows his humility when dealing with the shades. He does not command the spirits but invites them and makes promises to again honor them when he gets home. In stark contrast to the challenges and threats made to Polyphemus.
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