In Homer’s The Odyssey, many different motifs and themes into his epic, and this theme catches the attention of several critics: death and rebirth. There are several examples of how a burial is not necessary for the people to make their journey to the underworld, such as Elpenor, who is left behind by Odysseus and his men during the war. Also, a situation arises at the beginning of the epic where Telemachus does not know the fate of his father, who has been absent from Ithaca for twenty years. Other examples include when Odysseus and his crew visit the Kingdom of the Dead, Odysseus’ many hardships he has to endure, and when he finally returns home from the Trojan War. The motif of death and rebirth is weaved intricately throughout Homer’s epic tale. This paper examines Book XI for how this key theme is apparent when Odysseus is able to communicate with his kin and fellow soldiers in the Kingdom of the Dead.
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In Book XI, Odysseus and his crew sail to the Kingdom of the Dead. This first soul he recognizes is that of Elpenor, his fallen comrade, and vividly retells the events that take place in a flashback: “But first the ghost of Elpenor, my companion, came toward me. /He’d not been buried under the wide ways 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, pity touched my heart /and I called out a winged word to him there: ‘Elpenor, /how did you travel down to the world of darkness? /Faster on foot, I see, than I in the black ship.’ (XI. 56-64). This passage explains how the Greeks thought burial to be an end of some sort, but this proves that Elpenor still makes it to the Kingdom of the Dead even though Odysseus did not give him a proper burial.
He also recalls meeting the great warrior Achilles and praising him for his kleos: “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 all the breathless dead” (XI. 547-58). By Homer placing this warning to Odysseus from Achilles, it seems that Achilles wanted to highlight that Odysseus needed to rethink how he wanted to be remembered; glory was not everything it was cracked up to be. Odysseus and his crew return to the living world, “. . . where Helios, the sun, makes his uprising . . .” (XII. 4), symbolizing their rebirth. Homer uses light and dark images to emphasize this rebirth. In this passage, the two heroes delve into the variances between the two realms they now inhabit, and each perceives the grass to be greener on the opposite side. Odysseus is envious of Achilles’ strength and the glory he had won from it; Achilles is jealous of Odysseus for being alive. Homer also uses many light and dark references to accentuate the death and rebirth theme in this epic novel-the darkness is symbolic of death, and the light represents life, and therefore, rebirth. Achilles informs Odysseus about his eventual return home whilst visiting the Kingdom of the Dead.
The first example of how the motif of death and rebirth is evident in this poem is that of Telemachus’ uncertainty of his father’s fate. In Book I, he tells Athena, who is disguised as Menelaus, “But now, no use, he’s died a wretched death. /No comfort’s left for usâ€¦not even if /someone, somewhere, says he’s coming home. /The day of his return will never dawn” (I. 193-5). This symbolizes the fact that Telemachus is dead in the sense that he does not have any desire to reclaim his house from the suitors. Athena, disguised as one of Odysseus’ friends, convinces Telemachus that Odysseus is not dead and to set out on his quest to receive his kleos. This is very significant because Homer shows how each character goes through a level of “death” and what happens after the fact.
In book XXIV, the last example of this motif is found. Upon realizing Odysseus’ return home, Laertes faints. Symbolically, this refers to the death of Laertes. He is essentially reborn when he awakens, and is instilled with a new passion for life and no longer wishes to make his journey to the underworld. Overall, the death and rebirth theme makes a very significant impact in The Odyssey.
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Homer makes use of this theme for several reasons. One of the more important underlying themes in the entire book is that one should never give up on living, and this theme highlights that in several passages and scenes. In this epic, Homer emphasizes that, even though a situation may seem undefeatable, there is always a route that will not only keep one alive, but will also provide some valuable lesson to learn from or insight. In this epic, the theme of death and rebirth is universal and proves The Odyssey’s timelessness and longevity.
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