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 neck.

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 his ears.

And Ulysses answered him: "What ills hath Jupiter wreaked on the house of Atreus through the counsels of women!"

"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 Telemachus.

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 and fled.

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 backward way.