Least Tern > English Classroom > Odyssey Guide

The Odyssey

Book  11 ~ Study Guide

from John McIlvain

An Overview for the Student

Book-by-Book Study Guide

Literary Responses to the Odyssey

Greek warriors - pottery fragment

Image source: http://www.beloit.edu/~classics/main/courses/classics100/museum2/art_museum2.html

Note: This site is designed to be used with Robert Fagles' translation of the Odyssey, published by Penguin USA. It was prepared for a 9th grade English class.


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SCENE: the land of the Cimmerians, Hades, and a few moments in the palace of the Phaeacians.

IMPORTANT CHARACTERS: Odysseus, Elpenor, Tiresias, Anticleia (Odysseus' mother,) Arete, Alcinous, Agamemnon, Achilles, Telemonian Ajax, Tantalus and Sisyphus.

After arriving at the land of the Cimmerians and performing appropriate sacrifices, Odysseus moves to the land of the dead. Before he can reach Hades proper he's stopped by Elpenor, a crewman of his who died the last night on Aeaea . After Odysseus agrees to return to Aeaea and honor Elpenor with burial, he moves onto Hades where he follows Circe's directions and talks first to the blind prophet of Thebes, Tiresias, who predicts Odysseus' future and tells him what he will ultimately have to do to placate Poseidon. Odysseus then talks to other who have died, first Anticlea, followed by a number of illustrious women who had "known" gods. He also meets the fellow Captains at Troy who have died and two men, Tantalus and Sisyphus, whose "lives" in the Underworld are perpetual torment.


EPITHETS:  Who is...


  1. What favor does Elpenor as of Odysseus?
  2. What ritual does Odysseus perform in order to meet those in the Underworld?
  3. What does Tiresias do in order to speak to Odysseus?
  4. What does Odysseus learn about his journey from Tiresias in Hades?
  5. What does Odysseus learn from Anticleia? What does he try to do when after she speaks to him? Why does he fail?
  6. What does Agamemnon tell Odysseus about how men should feel about women? Is it significant that earlier in the book we hear about celebrated women?
  7. What is the reason for Ajax's anger at Odysseus?
  8. What is the Greek Underworld (Hades) like?
  9. What do you make of Tantalus and Sisyphus?


And she [Circe] made the outer limits, the Ocean River's bounds		
where Cimmerian people have their homes - their realm and city
shrouded in mist and cloud. The eye of the Sun can never
flash his rays through the dark and bring them light,
not when he climbs the starry skies or when he wheels
back down from the heights to touch the earth once more -
an endless, deadly night overhangs those wretched men.
					But first				
the ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came toward me.
He'd not been buried under the wide way of earth,
not yet, we'd left his body in Circe's house,
unwept, unburied - this other labor pressed us.
But I wept to see him now. . .
"Don't sail off					
and desert me, left behind unwept, unburied, don't,
or my curse may draw god's fury on your head.
No bury me in full armor . . ."
"All this, my unlucky friend . . .					
I will do for you."
. .. But look, the ghost of my mother came! 					
My mother dead and gone now . . .
whom I have left alive when I sailed for sacred Troy.
I broke into tears. . .but . . .I would not let her ghost
approach the blood till I had questioned Tiresias myself.
At last he [Tiresias] came The shade of the famous Theban prophet,	
holding a golden scepter, knew me at once and hailed me:
"Royal son of Laertes, master of exploits,
man of pain, what now, what brings you here? . . .
Stand back from the trench . . .
so I can drink the blood and tell you all the truth,
"And even if you escape, you'll come home late				
and come a broken man - all shipmates lost -
alone in a strangers ship -
and you will find a world of pain at home ...
When another traveler falls in with you and calls
that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain
then plant you bladed, balanced oar in the earth
and sacrifice fine beast to the lord god of the sea . . ."
"[Mother] What form of death overcame you, what laid you low? …	
Tell me of my father, of the son I left behind . . .
Please tell me about my wife, her turn of mind,
Her thoughts. . ."
"Surely, surely,"				
My noble mother answered quickly, "she is still waiting
There in your halls, poor woman, suffering so,
Her life an endless hardship like your own . . .
Telemachus still holds your great estates in peace . . .
As for your father,
he keeps to his own farm, he never goes to town -
with no beds for him there, no blankets, glossy throws . . .
. . .he lies in anguish . . .
and his grief grows as he long for your return.
And I, my mind of turmoil, how I longed
To embrace my mother's spirit, dead as she was!
Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,
Three times she fluttered through my fingers, sifting away
Like a shadow, dissolving like a dream . . .
I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness,
"Mother, why not wait for me?". . .
My noble mother answered me at once:
"My son, my son, unluckiest man alive!
This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone,
This is just the way of mortals when we die . . .
And the first I saw there? Tyro, born of kings
. . .once she fell in love with the river god, Enipeus
till taking his shape one day
the god who girds the earth and makes it tremble
bedded her when where the swirling river runs out the sea . . .
"now home you go, and restrain yourself, I say,
never breathe you lover's name but know -
I am Poseidon, god who rocks the earth!"
And after Tyro I saw Asopus' daughter Antiope,
proud she's spent a night in the arms of Zeus himself
and born the god twin sons...
And I saw Alcmena next, Amphytrion's wife,
who slept in the clasp of Zeus and merged in love,
and brought forth Hercules, rugged will and lion heart . . .
And I saw the mother of Oedipus, beautiful Epicaste.
What a monstrous thing she did, all in innocence -
she married her own son . . .
who killed his father, then she married him!
But the gods soon made it known to all mankind.
So he in growing pain ruled on in beloved Thebes
lording Cadmus' people -thanks to the Gods' brutal plan -
while she went down to death who guards the massive gate.
Lashing a noose to a step rafter, there se hanged aloft,
strangling in all her anguish, leaving her son to bear
the world of horror a mother's Furies brings to life . . .
And I saw Leda next, Tyndaerus' wife,
who'd born the king two sons, intrepid twins,
Castor. breaker of horses and the hardy boxer Polydeuces,
both buried now in the life giving earth, though still alive.
Even under the earth, Zeus grants them that distinction,
one day alive, the next day dead, each twin by turns,
and both hold honors equal to the Gods.
(Leda is also known to be Helen's mother - her children the result of being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan - it is interesting that this is not a Homeric "story")
. . . Phedra and Procis, too I saw, and lovely Ariadne,
daughter of Minos, that harsh king. One day Theseus tried
to sprit her off from Crete to Athens' sacred heights
but he got no joy from her. Artemis killed her first
on wave-washed Dia's shores, accused by Dionysius.
Odysseus paused . . . They all fell silent, hushed,
his story holding them spellbound down the shadowed halls
till the white armed queen Arete suddenly burst out,
Phaecians, how does this man impress you now . . .
This stranger is my guest . . ."
[Alcinous] "Keep telling us your adventures - they are wonderful
I could hold court here till awns first light
if only you could bear, here in out halls,
to tell the tale of all the pain you've suffered."
"Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, mastermind of war.
I was not wrecked in the ships when Lord Poseidon
roused some punishing blasts of storm winds, gust on gust,
nor did ranks of enemies mow me down on land -
Aegisthus hatched my doom an my destruction,
he killed me, he with my own accursed wife . . .
he invited me to his palace, sat me down to a feast
then cut me down as a man cuts down some ox at a trough!
So I died - a wretched, ignominious death
and round me all my comrades killed, no mercy. . .
how we sprawled by the mixing bowls and laded tables there,
throughout the palace, the whole floor awash with blood.
But the death cry of Cassandra, Priam's daughter -
the most pitiful thing I heard! My treacherous queen,
killed her over my body, yes and I . . .
dying, dying, writhing around the sword.
But she, that whore, she turned her back on me . . .
she even lacked the heart
to seal my eyes with her hand or close my jaws.
there's nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman
set on works like these - what a monstrous thing
she plotted, slaughtered her own lawful husband!
"But she -
the queen hell bent on outrage - bathes in shame
not only herself but the whole breed of womankind,
even the honest ones to come, forever down the years!
. . . so even you r own wife - never indulge her too far.
Never reveal the whole truth, whatever you may know . . .
the time for trusting woman's gone forever!"
(Achilles) "What daring brought you down to the House of Death?-
where the senseless, burnt-out wraiths of mortals make their home"
. . . "But you, Achilles,
there's not a man in the world more blest than you-
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles".
             I reassured the ghost, but he broke out protesting.
"No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man-
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive-
than rule down here over the breathless dead.
But come, tell me the news about my gallant son."
Only the ghost of Great Ajax, son of Telemon,
Kept his distance, blazing with anger at me still
For the victory I had won by the ships that time
I pressed my claim for the arms of Prince Achilles.
His queenly mother had set them up as prizes . . .
Would to God I'd never won such trophies!
All for them the earth closed over Ajax,
That proud hero Ajax . . .
"Ajax . . . the gods set up that prize to plague the Achaea - . . .
For your death we grieved as we did for Achilles death -
. . . none's to blame
but Zeus. . .
Conquer your rage, your blazing, headlong pride!'
And I saw Tantalus too, bearing endless torture.
He stood erect in a pool as the water lapped -
parched, he tried to drink he tried to drink, but he could not reach the surface.
no, time and again, the old man stooped, craving a sip,
time and again the water vanished, swallowed down,
laying bear the caked black earth at his feet -
some spirit drank it dry. And over his head
leafy trees from high aloft,
pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red,
succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark,
but as soon as the old man would strain to clutch them fast
a gust would toss them up to the lowering black clouds.
And I saw Sisyphus too, bound to his own torture
grappling his monstrous boulder with both arms working,
heaving, hands struggling, legs driving, he kept on
thrusting the rock uphill towards the brink, but just
as it teetered, set to topple over -
                    time and again,
the immense weight of the thing would wheel it back and
the ruthless boulder would tumble down to the plain again -
so once again he would heave, would struggle to thrust it up,
sweat drenching his body, dust swirling above his head.
Tantalus - in Greek mythology, king of Sipylos, son of Zeus and father of Pelops and Niobe. He was admitted to the society of the gods, 
but his abominable behavior aroused their anger, and Zeus condemned him to suffer eternally at Tartarus. One legend says that he had
divulged divine secrets and stolen the gods' sacred food. Another tells that he had murdered his son Pelops and served his body to the gods
to test their omniscience. (http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/T/Tantalus.asp)
Sisyphus - in Greek mythology, son of Aeolus and founder and king of Corinth. Renowned for his cunning, he was said to have outwitted
even Death. For his disrespect to Zeus, he was condemned to eternal punishment in Tartarus.
(http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/S Sisyphus.asp)

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Least Tern - John McIlvain - March 6, 2004