10 April 2019
According to Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus sets out for Troy with the best of intentions. He is defending the honor of Menelaus, the king of Sparta and fighting a war to retrieve Hellen, Menelaus’ Queen (Homer.) Odysseus sets out on his odyssey not due to a lust for adventure or a desire to engage in untoward actions, but due to fealty to his king and service to his Gods. Odysseus is only detained from his wife and son after the ten years of the Trojan war because he offends Poseidon and not for any self-serving or sinful purposes—at least, not in the context of the value structure of the ancient world.
In Dante’s Christian view of the world and divorced from the context of his own time, Odysseus, now known as Ulysses, has come to a different understanding of the impetus for his adventures. Ulysses says to Dante:
[N]ot fondness for my son, nor reverence
for my aged father, nor Penelope’s claim
to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind
the lust to experience the far-flung world
and the failings and felicities of mankind. (Alighieri 26.89-93.)
Filtered through time and translated by another religious value structure, Ulysses believes that he had broken his covenant with family to seek the worldly pleasures of pillage, plunder, and sins of the flesh like those he engaged in on Circe’s island. Also, when asked about his final voyage, Ulysses starts out by saying that he left from Circe’s island. He says, “When I left Circe, […] who more than a year/detained me […]” (Alighieri 26.86-87.) In Dante’s version of The Odyssey, Ulysses never made it home to Ithaca to save his wife and son from the suitors and never regained the honor of his family. Therefore, Dante transforms Homer’s triumph of human persistence into a tragedy of human folly.
Interestingly, Ulysses has an understanding of the changing world uncharacteristic to the other sufferers of hell. Many times, in the summary or notes (I cannot find examples at the moment), Ciardi explains that the dead while they have the power to predict the future they are unable to see the present state of the living world (Ciardi.) Somehow, Ulysses knows the modern names of places that he had visited when he was lost at sea for ten years. He says:
I put out on the high and open sea […].
As far as Morocco and as far as Spain
I saw both shores; and I saw Sardinia […]. (Alighieri 26.94, 97-98)
Dante’s decision, as a writer, to give Ulysses the special privilege to know the what has been happening in the living world helps to divorce Ulysses from the cultural and religious context in which he lived allowing him to be an example of a suffering and tormented soul rather than a luminary of the heathen world living (in death) among the likes of Homer and Plato.
Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. New American Library, 2003.
Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.