BMCR 2019.08.14

Homer and the Poetics of Hades

, Homer and the Poetics of Hades. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xi, 253. ISBN 9780198787266 $80.00.


The Homeric Hades has been the object of ample scholarly attention, from the studies of the Analytic school with their attempts to uncover contradictions and incoherences in the text, to more recent studies centered on the ontological status of the dead, their sociological organization and the very possibility of an afterlife. Gazis starts by reflecting on one of the more notable characteristics of Hοmeric poetry, its vividness or ἐνάργεια. After an Introduction that presents the aims of the work and justifies the focus on Hades as a poetic resource, the book is divided into two parts: Part I on the Iliad treats “Hades in the Iliad” and “The Dream of Achilles”. Part 2, in five chapters, treats the Odyssey, under the headings, “The Odyssey and the Poetics of Hades”; “The ‘Nekyia’”; “The ‘Catalogue of Heroines’”; “The Intermezzo”; and “The ‘Catalogue of Heroes.’” Final Conclusions, Bibliography and two helpful Indexes (general and of passages) close the book.

Gazis’s review of the Iliadic Hades repeats well-known facts: that Hades’ most consistent feature is its darkness and its invisibility, which contrasts sharply with the luminosity of Homer’s poetry. The popular interpretation of Hades’ name as A-idēs, “invisible,” is fully exploited. Gazis notes that from the start of the poem, Hades is presented as the final destination of all heroes and is “the repository of the heroic world, a place where the tradition remains stored” (25). This seems odd, since no inhabitant of Hades except Tireisias is conscious after death. Gazis offers a detailed analysis of προίαψεν, taking his cue from ΣbT ad Il. 1.3: “send one to his death before his time.” The verb is used twice in the Iliad by characters (Pandarus, 5.190, and Hector, 6.487) and twice by the poet (1.3. 11.55), in near identical formulas. Only one of them suggests “before his time” (6.486-7), and that barely. In the two uses by the poet, Gazis notes, the verb is associated to the will of Zeus, “which in turn is associated with the concept of Fate in the Iliad” (33). From this Gazis concludes that “the poet links it to Hades as the ultimate destination for all the heroes in the Iliad, and also the place to which the whole of the heroic tradition will be transferred after it comes to an end.” The will of Zeus is certainly connected to Fate, but it hardly follows that Hades is a repository of the tradition.

In the remainder of Part I, Gazis concentrates on Hades as a place of darkness, where even the gods cannot see, and from this he concludes that “Hades remains impenetrable even to (…) the omnipresent Muses” (35), a point never made in the poem. “In this sense,” he adds, “life and death are equated with seeing and been seen or not seeing and been invisible” (39-40); hence, the negative epithets characterizing Hades (40). But this is a common conceptual metaphor, and death is also presented as a journey (West 2010: 388: cf. the verbs of motion associated with it: ‘go’, ‘hurl into’, ‘send’, etc.). Hades has a landscape as well, and it is shut in by gates, features Gazis does not explore.

In Achilles’ vision of Patroclus’ shade, Gazis notes that in this liminal scene Patroclus offers a “much more personalized take on the epic past than that of traditional Muse narrative.” Gazis’s core argument concerning the poetics of Hades is that the heroes themselves offer an alternative, unmediated recollection of the epic past. Patroclus’ shade “challenges traditional views of kleos and instead emphasizes emotional attachment” (49). Gazis describes Achilles’ attitude as “frustration, confusion and uncertainty” (54), as he realizes that this is and is not his dear Patroclus. Achilles greets him with a formal address (χαῖρε, 23.19), as is usual for the dead. Sourvinou-Inwood,1 however, has shown that this greeting was originally reserved for gods and heroes and some have seen in this a hint at Patroclus’ heroization. Gazis, though, finds other signs of heroization in the description of Patroclus’ funeral: the blood libation offered by Achilles and the adjective κοτυλήρυτον, and he argues that Achilles has summoned Patroclus out of Hades in a nighttime nekuomanteia (cf. Od. 11.34-7). By postponing his bath until after Patroclus’ funeral, Achilles is, according to Gazis, “refusing to follow custom,” though such abstention is a natural part of ritual mourning (grieving parties even befoul their bodies). Gazis notes that Patroclus talks to Achilles about intimate matters; this is not epic saga but a record of their affective bond (68-71). Achilles, for his part, “learns to accept his own mortal nature and to reinsert himself into heroic society” (75). But the formal return of Achilles to his community was already celebrated in book 19. Gazis ends this Part I by comparing the women’s lament ( goos): women express their personal experience, their loss and grief, and the scene in book 23 is similar: “the quest for kleos remains with the living in the song of the Muses.” What descends to Hades “is a shadow of the hero’s self—along with stories that have never been told before” (76).

Part II is, in my view, the stronger contribution. Gazis surveys the scholarship on the Odyssean Hades, noting the contradictions that drove Aristarchus (and analytic critics), to athetize several passages. I agree with Gazis that this sort of detail would not matter much to Homer and his audiences. Gazis focuses rather on the role of the ‘Nekuia’ in the poem: “Odysseus’ visit to a world where even the divine sight of the Muses is nullified cannot but have profound poetic implications.” Homer uses “his protagonist’s tale to access issues and air stories that were otherwise inaccessible to the epic narrator” (83); it allows him to experiment with “new forms of storytelling,” as the now dead characters look back at their lives without the social, political, religious constraints that limited them while alive. Odysseus acquires crucial information about his own past (from his mother) and his future (from Teirisias) and so his return starts properly here.

The Muses, who are present and know all ( Il. 2.485), are compared to Helios, who sees and hears everything (88). Both share the upper world of light, where they exert their powers. To show that even the Muses cannot know what happens in Hades, Gazis compares them to the Sirens who, like Helios, have only knowledge of what happens on Earth. Although Gazis is aware that Homer never says this of the Muses, he affirms that Homer “builds up so many obstacles, both of a geographical and a poetic nature, that the question becomes effectively moot” (91-92); I remain unconvinced. At all events, in the ‘Nekuia,’ Homer brings his “hero face to face with the epic tradition qua tradition… as an archive of quotable text.” Odysseus quotes, as it were, with his eyes (cf. his repeated, “I saw”), remarkably, given that Hades is a place of darkness (92, 117, 127). The stories told by the characters Odysseus sees reflect, according to Gazis, their personal viewpoint and differ from the main epic tradition about them. The heroines alter their stories, highlighting their own contribution to the events for which they were famous or the positive traits of their children and family, while bypassing other less laudatory episodes. So too, his companions in the war tell their stories from their own perspective, again modifying the epic tradition. Hades’ seclusion even from the gods allows for this freedom (111), which extends to the hero himself. His intimate encounter with Anticleia offers a more emotional and intimate side of Odysseus that we do not see elsewhere. Gazis shows how the epic language is reconfigured “to express truths that are less traditional than personally felt” (122).

Gazis treats the catalogue of heroines as a place for “poetic experimentation and metapoetic reflection.” This contrasts with the Hesiodic catalogue, where the women are never heard in their own voice (128-9). Gazis suggests that “this personally inflected view of the epic past” distances it from epic values and conventions and align it rather with lyric poetry. Tyro defies Poseidon’s order to keep silent after their encounter by narrating it: she has a new freedom (129-136). Antiope talks of her children as the founders of Thebes, competing with the story that made Cadmus the founder; her use of the adjective πρῶτοι indicates an awareness of the rival tradition (138). Epicasta retells Oedipus’ story in such a way as to pass over her incest, making “Oedipus the true agent of the ‘great deed'” (142). Even in cases in which there is no verb of speech introducing their stories, Gazis argues (142-3), the heroines’ narratives make clear that the perspective adopted is theirs. The role of Chloris’ daughter, Pero, is stressed to the detriment of her sons, and she is said to have ruled in Pylos (ἐβασίλευε, 11.285). Leda, however, concentrates on her sons and omits reference to her daughters of ill repute and her own affair with Zeus. Iphimedeia relates the crimes of her children, the giants Otos and Ephialtes, affectionately, as “a loving mother… looks with sympathy at her children’s mischief ” (150). Only in Hades and in Stesichorus’ lyric, Gazis writes, “can monsters like the Aloades be presented in an affectionate way” (153).

Thanks to the praise Odysseus receives from Arete and Alcinous, confirming that the alternative traditions he has presented have been “authenticated and integrated in the wider epic tradition” (164), Odysseus feels encouraged to enter upon the catalogue of heroes, where “the heroes themselves confront their own heroic tradition and remold it” from their personal perspective (167). Agamemnon cares only about his son, and the chance of seeing him again is what Clytemnestra’s crime took away. Achilles, according to Gazis, “renounces his heroic persona outright” (183). This is a contentious issue, as Gazis recognizes: Achilles is still defending the heroic values when he rejoices at the news of Neoptolemus’ heroism. I agree with Gazis’s conclusion that, if given a second chance, Achilles “would act in the exact same way as he does in the Iliad” (184). What the epic tradition means to its protagonists changes radically in Hades, and the rules that operate for the living are cancelled here. Achilles meets Odysseus in the company of Patroclus, Antilochus and Ajax, the former heroic team now a pathetic ensemble of lamenting shades. Achilles applies to Odysseus the epithet φαίδιμος, used in the Iliad of Achilles and not Odysseus. Gazis sees in it another indication of the changed values of the underworld: in the Iliad, a hero must win kleos to be shining, while in dark Hades, “where kleos is a distant memory, seeing the light of the sun is essentially what makes one shining” (190-191). Yet, when Achilles thinks of the world of the living, the old values still count: in asking about Peleus and Neoptolemus he is concerned about their honor – his last word is τιμῆς, 503).

Gazis notes that even as Odysseus praises Achilles’ and Neoptolemus’ achievements, he subtly presents himself as superior to both (194). So too, Ajax’s silence and stubborn resentment allow Odysseus to tell the story of his rival from his own perspective, “marginalizing Ajax’s role” (197). All this is very different from the Epic Cycle’s version: there is no hint of a quarrel between them: Thetis sets the prize, and Athena gives a final verdict (200-201). Even Ajax’s silence is subject to Odysseus’ will (203). The last character Odysseus sees in Hades, Heracles, or rather, his eidolon, since he himself is already on Olympus, “is emblematic of the poetics” of Hades in his dual nature: we see sides of him that are not easily assimilated into the epic mainstream (205).

Many of Gazis’s arguments are open to contention, but I find most problematic his insistence that Hades is closed to the Muses. The epic poet is the one managing Odysseus’s narrative, whether in Hades or out of it, and he is always inspired by the Muse. But how the Homeric tradition deals with the other strands of poetry is one of the most exciting areas in Homeric studies. Gazis’s book is an important contribution to this growing body of scholarship, revealing how the Homeric treatment of Hades enables perspectives on epic values and stories that are not heard elsewhere in the poem.


1. Sourvinou-Inwood, C. Reading Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Periodi. Oxford, 1995: 198-200.