Issue of Immortality

This picture represents a typical stong Greek hero, most of which strive to gain immortality.


When reading the Odyssey there is definitely one issue that leaves you struck by the way Homer deals with it. This is the issue of immortality in the ancient Greek world. This specific issue is touched on Homer throughout the poem, but reaches its peak in Book 11 and Odysseus’ trip to the Underworld. There are many questions raised concerning this subject.

First of all, why does Odysseus have to make the trip to the Underworld? The most probable reason would be the fact that the ancient Greeks believed that you could achieve rebirth of your spirit through dying and coming back to life. Odysseus is not unique in this sense. There had been other heroes who had made the same trip before him, such as Heracles and Perseus. Therefore, by making the voyage to the Kingdom of Hades and coming back alive, Odysseus achieves a spiritual rebirth. Going further, we can argue that this specific adventure of Odysseus allows him to be put in the category of the greatest ancient Greek heroes; those very few that were so great that they were capable of undertaking this unbelievably difficult task, to desc`nt to the Underworld and come back alive. This argument proves to a certain extent that Odysseus is a respectable Greek hero, even though a lot of people oppose this argument.

In addition to the previous question, there is another big aspect of this issue that needs more clearing up. For those who have read the Iliad, it is very puzzling how the attitude of Odysseus toward immortality is so different compared to that of Achilles and the other Greek heroes that fought in the Trojan War. Nevertheless, even those who have not read the Iliad can see this difference through the references that Homer makes to his previous poem in the Odyssey. Consequently, the question arises concerning the reasons that caused this change in attitude between the two poems. In the Iliad, we watched the Greek heroes valuing immortality, in terms of never ending fame, as the greatest achievement that someone can win in his lifetime; they are ready to die in order to keep their pride and honor, and make their name being remembered in the future years to come. However, in Homer’s Odyssey there is a pivotal change in this issue. We see Odysseus actually defying immortality in several occasions. He has the chance to marry a goddess and gain immortality twice during his long and adventurous journey back from Troy. Nevertheless, he turns down both of these proposals. Odysseus’ love for his wife and house wins over the greatest of all dreams and wishes of the ancient Greeks. Odysseus embraces his mortality, he is not afraid of dying as long as he is reunited with his beloved ones. I believe this is one of the most important issues that the Odyssey presents.

Added to the above, the encounter of Odysseus with Achilles in the Underworld comes in to back up these arguments and proves once again that there is a very important change in the attitude of the ancient Greeks towards the issue of immortality. During this brief encounter, we see Achilles stating that the never ending fame he achieved by dying heroically in the Trojan War has not made him happy. He says that he would prefer to be alive and a slave rather than being the most famous Greek hero and dead. Therefore, once again Homer emphasizes the fact that the Greeks no longer view immortality as being the ultimate goal, but rather they now believe the gift of life as being the most important thing they possess. They no longer fear their mortality; instead they embrace it and feel very comfortable with it. In fact, this is such a strong feeling that Odysseus actually rejects the offer of becoming immortal twice in the Odyssey; something that was unheard of and totally unexpected until that time. Consequently, there is a huge field open for discussion and debate on how and why this pivotal change and transition in the lives and beliefs of the ancient Greeks occurred.

To learn more about Greek immortality and read about other Greek immortals, click here .  This link also goes more into depth about Greek immortality in general, as well as mentioning other Greek icons besides Odysseus.  

Back to Home Page