In The Odyssey, what does Odysseus learn about his future from Teiresias in the Land of the Dead?
In The Odyssey, Odysseus is desperate to return home and admits his need on various occasions as he tries to negotiate his return. There is nothing more important to him, no matter what comfort he enjoys elsewhere. He has had to force his men, on various occasions, to continue on. However, he lingers almost too long on the island of the Cyclops where he tries to outwit Polyphemus, the son of Poseidon. Later, Odysseus will suffer Poseidon's wrath after having blinded Polyphemus in his attempt to escape.
Having been advised by the goddess Circe, with whom Odysseus has spent the past year, that in this quest to return home he must detour to the underworld where he will receive advice from the spirit of Teiresias, Odysseus carries out her instructions despite his men's objections. He meets with other spirits first and, as Circe said he would, receives specific advice and warnings from Teiresias. Teiresias tells him how difficult the journey will be and the perils that awaits his men who will not make it home.
He predicts that Odysseus will, despite all these setbacks, arrive home, although he will be "in bad plight." Once there, he will be required to reclaim his wife and kill her suitors "by force or by fraud." He must also appease Poseidon and the heavens so that he can "ebb away very gently." Much to Odysseus's sorrow, the spirit of his mother is also present and talks with Odysseus, having died during his long absence from Ithaca, his home.
In Book 11 of The Odyssey, The Kingdom of the Dead, Odysseus visits the underworld to consult with the prophet Tiresias. Circe instructs him to visit Tiresias so he can find out about his future, which will involve a difficult journey home.
Tiresias tells Odysseus that while he wants "a sweet smooth journey home" (Book 11, line 111, Fagels translation), "a god will make it hard for you" (113). This god is Poseidon, who is angry because Odysseus has blinded his son, the Cyclops. Tiresias tells Odysseus that his crew may still reach home if he can "curb their wild desire and curb your own" (line 119). Tiresias says it's critical for Odysseus's crew not to disturb the cattle of Helios, the sun god, for if they do, they will be destroyed. Even if Odysseus survives, he will "come home late/and come a broken man" (129-130). His men will be destroyed, and he will find a "a world of pain at home," with men courting his wife and eating all his food (line 132). Odysseus will then need to "pay them back in blood" (line 135). After he has sought revenge on the men destroying his house, he will have to go to a place far from the sea to make a sacrifice to Poseidon. Only then will he be able to enjoy a "gentle, painless death" (line 154) and know that his land and people are in peace.
In Book 12 Teiresias warns Odysseus that he will never escape "the one who shakes the earth" (Poseidon) because he blinded Polyphemus; therefore, his journey home will continue to be a difficult one. When he arrives at the island of Thrinacia, Odysseus must leave the Sun-God's sacred cattle unharmed; however, the seer predicts that his ship and all of his men will be destroyed after his men eat the cattle. If Odysseus manages to escape, he will "come home late, a broken man...and find a world of pain at home." There he must retaliate against the suitors plaguing his wife and make them "pay in blood." After peace is restored, Odysseus must take an oar and travel so far inland that someone calls it a "winnowing fan" (a farm implement). There he must plant the oar and sacrifice beasts to Poseidon. Finally, Teiresias predicts "a gentle, painless death far from the sea... in ripe old age."
Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 1996.