ULYSSES IN HADES
BY M. M. BIRD
Before he left fair Circe's isle Ulysses reminded
the goddess of her promise to speed them on their
homeward way. This, she assured him, not she but
the Fates refused. Nor could they hope to breathe their
native air till a long and toilsome journey had been taken,
a journey that would lead them down even to the dread
realms of Death. "But there," she said, "you shall seek
out blind Tiresias, the Theban bard; though his eyes be
blind his mind is filled with prophetic light. He will
tell you all you seek to know of your future and the fate
of those you love."
Brave as he was, Ulysses shuddered at the awful road
he had to tread, and appealed to Circe for further aid in
this adventure. So she told him the landmarks to guide
him on his way, and instructed him what to do when
he reached the realms of Tartarus. And when morn
broke he summoned his companions to set forth. They
came in haste and joy.
But one was missing. Elpenor, the youngest of the
band, a wild and senseless youth, had climbed to the
housetop to breathe the cold air after a debauch lasting
far into the night. At the sudden tumult of departure
he was roused, and hastening down he missed the
ladder and fell headlong from the roof and broke his
Ignorant of his fate, the rest crowded eagerly round
their leader, till his few and sober words told them that
not yet the joys of homecoming awaited them, but it
was decreed that first they should seek the awful shade
of Tiresias in the dark and dreary realms of Death.
Sadly then upon that shore they made their sacrifices to
the immortal gods, and sadly embarked in the waiting
ship and spread their sails to the freshening breeze.
As the sun sank, and all the ways were darkened, they
reached the utmost bounds of Ocean, a lonely land, where
the sun never shines, where darkness broods perpetually
over bare and rocky crags, the abode of the Cimmerians.
Off their desolate shore Ulysses cast anchor, and leaping
from his ship, descried the awful chasm that leads
to the realms of the dead.
His two companions bore with them the black sheep as
Circe had bidden, and Ulysses drew his shining sword
and carved a great trench, a cubit long and wide, in the
black earth. This was filled with wine, milk, and honey,
and the blood of the newly offered sacrifices. Thus, with
solemn rites and holy vows, they invoked the nations
of the dead. And lo! among the frowning caverns and
all along the dusky shores appeared the phantom shapes
of unsubstantial ghosts. Old and young, warriors
ghastly with wounds, matrons and maids, rich and poor,
they crowded about the trench filled with the reeking
blood of sacrifice. But Ulysses in terror brandished his
sword above the flowing blood, and the pale throngs
started back and stood silently about him.
Then he saw Elpenor, new to the realms of Death.
Astonished, he demanded of the shade how it was that
he had outrun their swift sail, and was found wandering
with the dead. To which the youth replied that his feet,
unsteady through excess of wine, had betrayed him and
sent him headlong from the tower, and as he fell his neck
was broken and his soul plunged in Hell.
But he implored Ulysses, by all he held most dear, to
give his unburied limbs a peaceful grave, and set up a
barrow, and on it plant his oar to show that he had
been one of Ulysses' crew. And Ulysses granted the
boon, and the spirit of Elpenor departed content.
Then, as Ulysses sat watching the trench, he saw the
shade of his royal mother, Anticlea, approach; but though
the tears bedewed his cheek at the sight, the pale shade
stood regardless of her son.
Next came the mighty Theban, Tiresias, bearing a
scepter of gold; and he knew him and spake: "Why, son
of Laertes, wanderest thou from cheerful day to tread
this sorrowful path? What angry gods have led thee,
alive, to be companion of the dead? If thou wilt sheathe
thy sword I will relate thy future and the high purposes
of Heaven towards thee."
Ulysses sheathed his glittering blade, and the seer bent
down and drank of the dark blood. Then he foretold all
the strange disasters that would threaten and detain
Ulysses on his homeward way. He told how at length
he alone of all his crew would survive to reach his country—there
to find his labors not yet at an end, with foes
in power at his court, lordly suitors besieging his wife,
and wasting his substance in riot and debauch. But a
peaceful end to his long and toilsome life should come
at last, and see him sink to the grave blessed by all his
people. "This is thy life to come, and this is Fate,"
said the seer.
To whom Ulysses, unmoved, made answer: "All that
the gods ordain the wise endure."
So the prophet went his way, and Ulysses waited on
for his mother to come. And anon, Anticlea came and
stooped and drank of the dark blood, and straightway
all the mother in her soul awoke, and she addressed her
son, asking whence he came and why.
"To seek Tiresias, and learn my doom," Ulysses
answered, "for I have been a roamer and an exile from
home ever since the fall of Troy." Then he asked her
how her own death had happened, whether his good father
Laertes still lived, if Telemachus his son ruled in
Ithaca, and if Penelope yet waited and watched for her
absent lord, or if she had taken a new mate.
To all his questions Anticlea made answer with tender
pity. Penelope, his faithful wife, still mourned for him
uncomforted; Telemachus, now almost grown to manhood,
ruled his realm; and old Laertes, bowed with grief,
only waited in sorrow for the release of the tomb, since
his son Ulysses returned no more. She herself, his
mother, had died of a broken heart; for him she lived,
and when he came not, for love of him she died.
Ulysses, deeply moved, strove thrice to clasp her in
his arms, and thrice she slipped from his embrace, like
a shadow or a dream. In vain he begged that his fond
arms might enfold the parent so tenderly loved, that he
might know it was she herself and no empty image sent
by Hell's queen to mock his sorrow. But the pensive
ghost admonished him that such were all spirits when
they had quit their mortal bodies. No substance of the
man remained, said she: all had been devoured by the
funeral flames and scattered by the winds to the empty
air. It was but the soul that flew, like a dream, to the
infernal regions. "But go," she adjured him; "haste to
climb the steep ascent; regain the day and seek your
bride, to recount to her the horrors and the laws of Hell."
As she ceased and disappeared, a cloud of phantoms,
wives and daughters of kings and heroes, flitted round
the visitant of earth. Dauntless he waved his sword; the
ghostly crew shrank away and dared not drink of the
wine in the trench at his feet. They passed, and to
each other Ulysses heard them recount their names and
needs. There he saw Alcmena, mother of Alcides;
Megara, wife of Hercules, who was slain by him in his
madness; the beautiful Chloris, Antiope, and Leda,
mother of the deathless twins Castor and Pollux, who
live and die alternately, the one in Heaven and the other
in Hell, the favored sons of Jove.
There walked Phædra, shedding unceasing tears of
remorse for her slain love, and near her mournful
Ariadne. All these, and many more, Ulysses recognized
in that pale procession of departed spirits. When they
had been summoned back to the black halls of Proserpine,
the forms of the heroes slain by the foul Ægisthus
came in sight. High above them all towered great
Agamemnon. He drank the wine and knew his friend;
with tears Ulysses greeted him and inquired what relentless
doom, what fate of war, or mischance upon the
ocean, had thrust his spirit into Hell? And Agamemnon
told him all the dreadful story of his return from Troy,
and the treachery of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover,
who slew him as he feasted, and with him all his friends;
most pitiful of all, the voice of the dying Cassandra,
slain at his side as he himself lay dying, still rang in
And Ulysses answered him: "What ills hath Jupiter
wreaked on the house of Atreus through the counsels of
"Be warned," replied Agamemnon, "and tell no
woman all that is in thy heart; not even Penelope, though
she is discreet and true above all other women and will
not plot thy death." And he grieved for his own son
Orestes, on whom he had never looked, envying his
friend an heir so wise and brave as the young
Then he saw Achilles and Patroclus, approaching
through the gloom. Achilles knew his friend and hastened
to his side. "Oh mortal, overbold," he asked,
"how durst thou come down living to the realms of
the dead?" Ulysses told him how he had come, though
living, to seek counsel of the dead.
But Achilles made answer:
"Rather would I, in the sun's warmth divine,
Moil as a churl, who drags his days in grief,
Than the whole lordship of the dead were mine."
Then, like Agamemnon, he demanded news of his son,
and Ulysses charmed the father's heart by telling of the
gallant deeds of Neoptolemus at Troy town, and how
he had escaped unscathed from the fight.
Achilles glowed with pride and delight; and as he
joined the illustrious shades of the warriors about him,
Ulysses sought the side of Ajax, whom he perceived
standing apart in gloom and sullenness. His lost honors
perpetually stung his mind, though the fight had been
fair and Ulysses had been judged the victor by the
Trojans. Ulysses seeing him stand thus mournfully
aloof, addressed him with tender sorrow. "Still burns
thy rage? Can brave souls bear malice e'en after death?"
he asked him sadly. But for all his appeals the resentful
shade turned from him with disdain, and silently stalked
away. Touched to the depths of a generous heart
Ulysses started in pursuit through the black and winding
ways of Death, to find and force him to reply to his
earnest questioning, but on the way such strange and
awful scenes met his astonished eyes as caused him to
pause and turn aside.
There was huge Orion, whirling aloft his ponderous
mace of brass to crush his savage prey.
There was Tityus, the son of Earth, who for offering
violence to the goddess Latona was shot dead by her
children, and lay for ever in Hell in fetters while vultures
gnawed at his liver.
Again he looked, and beheld Tantalus, whose awful
groans echoed through the roofless caverns. When to
the stream that rippled past him he applied his parched
lips, it fled before he could taste of it. Fruit of all kinds
hung round him—pomegranates, figs, and ripening apples;
but if he strove to seize the fruit, the baffling wind
would toss the branch high out of his reach.
When in horror at the sight of these torments, Ulysses
turned aside, he saw a laboring figure, Sisyphus, who
with weary steps up a high hill was heaving a huge
round stone. When, with infinite straining, he reached
at length the summit, the boulder, poising but an instant,
bounded down the steep again with a wild impetuous
rush, and dragged with it Sisyphus into the depths of an
awful cavern. Thence once again, with sweat and agony,
he must renew his toil and creep with painful labor up
the slope, thrusting the rock before him. This the punishment
for a life of avaricious greed, devoted to a pitiless
unassuageable lust for gold and power.
And farther on great Hercules was seen, a towering
specter of gigantic form. Gloomy as night he stood, in
act to shoot an arrow from his monstrous bow. With
grim visage and terrible look he lamented his wrongs
and woes, and then abruptly turning, strode away.
When Ulysses, curious to view the kings of ancient
days and all the endless ranks of the mighty dead, would
have stood strong in this resolve to watch them, a great
swarm of specters rose from deepest Hell. With hideous
yells they flew at him; they gaped at him and gibbered
in such menacing tones that his blood froze in
his veins. In fear lest the Gorgon, rising from the depths
of the infernal lake, with her crown of hissing snakes
about her brow, should transfix him to stone, he turned
He climbed the steep ascent and joined his waiting
shipmates. They set sail with all haste to leave the dread
Cimmerian shore, and a fair wind sped them on their