Religion Aspects in Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid

It’s no secret that many religions share common stories and ideals, but where did they first appear? Literature can allow the modern world to understand the timeline for religious progression, and even outline the developments between cultures. Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid both reflect the religious beliefs of their respective time periods and provide insight into the evolution of religion. From the Greek perception of a soul to the location of the underworld, the intertextual commonalities between Hades and Dis reflect the progression of religion through borrowing pieces of previous concepts. To truly understand the intertextual similarities between the eras of religion in the ancient world, the perception of a soul must first be explored. The Odyssey serves as the modern world’s earliest example of polytheistic viewpoints with a detailed description of the underworld and its characteristics which makes it the perfect source for the beginning of the religious timeline in terms of religious developments. As shown in The Odyssey, Greek culture sees death as life in its natural passing of time. To put it simply, death is the next step in life where “In this natural movement of the series of time, death and the underworld need not be seen as the hero’s glory/fate; but rather our easing toward death in the primordial imagining of the invisible underworld…” (Bedford 233). Meaning, the afterlife is simply a continuation of life on Earth. Since the concept of the soul purely exists as an extension of current life, then life does not end it simply moves to be continued in another place--more specifically, “a spiritual place as a physical place” (Miguel Herrero de Jauregui 597). For example, in The Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself surrounded by those who have made their passing into Hades, all of whom have retained emotions and memories linked to their lives on Earth. Agamemnon especially retains feelings of suffering and resentment from his life on Earth while recounting his death to Odysseus: “But I lifted my hands and with them beat on the ground as I died upon the sword, but the sluttish woman turned away from me and was so hard that her hands would not press shut my eyes and mouth though I was going to Hades’” (179). In this sense of complete recollection of memories and emotions, the only difference between realms is location. Since the underworld is a physical place, “Odysseus must physically journey by abandoning his ship to the winds and currents of the sea where the spirits are… half in this world and half out of it, yet… accessible to mortals,” (Tindall and Bustos 124). In other words, Hades as a physical place can technically be accessed by elites, like Odysseus, even before their death because of its status as a location for souls rather than a separate life. This notion of a continuation of life, however, is not unique to Greek culture. In The Aeneid, it is also shown that the underworld serves as a continuation of life on Earth. Although The Aeneid was written much later in the ancient world, the instances in the underworld depict similar perceptions of the afterlife. Aeneas, despite being mortal, can visit the underworld and speak with his father. Similarly to how Agamemnon in The Odyssey retained memories of his life on Earth, Aeneas’ father has spent his time in the underworld awaiting his beloved son’s arrival. Even with the separation between the two realms, there is no distinguishing end to the previous life--it is not so much finished as it is transported somewhere new. This borrowed concept has made its way through one era of religion and into the next, as shown by the passage of time between Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. When Roman culture builds on the Greek concept is where the progression of religion begins. Roman culture adds pieces of reincarnation to the previous Greek concept of a soul; not creating new concepts but simply adding on to pre-existing ones. This is demonstrated in The Aeneid while Aeneas speaks to his father in the underworld, “Must we imagine, father, there are souls that go from here aloft to upper heaven, and once more return to bodies’ dead weight?” (Virgil 185). Here as Aeneas mentions reincarnation, a new layer is added to the previous perception of the afterlife without altering what already existed. The concept of a spiritual space in a physical space still stands, and the continuation of the previous life without disturbance of the soul remains present. The theory simply progresses in that reincarnation has been added to the transportation of the soul from one place to the next. Instead of the soul simply moving from life on Earth to the underworld, it can now also be transported back to life on Earth. By adding to previous Greek concepts of religion, the Romans have progressed religion through borrowing and adapting--such is the nature of intertextuality. Even with this adaptation of Greek religion, there are more intertextual similarities between Greek and Roman concepts. In The Odyssey, the underworld is more than a common room for all souls, it is overseen by a judge who dictates punishment. Odysseus mentions this while in his passage through the underworld, “there I saw Minos, the glorious son of Zeus, seated, holding a golden scepter and issuing judgments among the dead, who all around the great lord argued their cases, some sitting and some standing, by the wide-gated house of Hades” (Homer 182). The appearance of a judge in the underworld introduces the punishment that takes place in the afterlife for deserving souls. Over time, however, this notion does not remain unique to Greek culture. There is also a judge present in The Aeneid, as shown during Aeneas’ trip to the underworld. As Aeneas travels through the underworld he describes the commonality of a judge when he states, “she led me through heaven’s punishments and taught me all. This realm is under Cretan Rhadamanthus’ iron rule” (Virgil 179). Once again The Aeneid has borrowed a concept from pre-existing Greek perceptions of the underworld. Similarly to how Roman religion added to the concept of a soul with reincarnation, Romans also added to the punishment found in the underworld by adding a clear division in the underworld for those who are being punished. This becomes clear as Aeneas prepares to make his way out of the underworld, “Here is the place where the road forks: on the right hand it goes past mighty Dis’s walls, Elysium way, Our way; but the leftward road will punish malefactors, taking them to Tartarus” (Virgil 178). Although the Greek underworld includes punishment, the Roman underworld distinguishes between areas dedicated to punishment and pleasure. The two roads clearly outline the sections for good and bad, a new addition to the previous Greek concept. In doing this, the Romans have once again aided in the progression of religion through intertextuality by borrowing pieces of Greek concepts and adding to them without changing them drastically. Even with the passage of time, these similarities between eras don’t stop with Roman culture. The linear developments in religion continue; stringing along pieces from era to era until religion is left with a combination of concepts that have existed for centuries. Moving forward into the fifth and sixth century, Beowulf also showcases the underworld as a physical place. Its location underwater adds yet another layer to the religious concepts by tying evil and underground to another element. The physical location of the underworld in Beowulf is a recognizable trait of both Greek and Roman culture, yet the added connection to water creates an evolution in the religious concepts that already existed. Even the Roman separation of good and evil prevails in Beowulf through the battle between evil spirits and the hero. As Beowulf continues his journey, it is seen as inevitable that good will conquer over evil. Beowulf himself expects nothing less than victory with his Lord’s protection, “With bare hands shall I grapple with the fiend, fight to the death here, hater and hated! He who is chosen shall deliver himself to the Lord’s judgment” (Unknown 65). This clear distinction between good and evil directly correlates with the separation between pleasure and punishment in the Roman underworld. Even with the added progression of good protection against evil, the Roman concept still stands. Despite the length of time between the Roman era and the fifth and sixth centuries where Beowulf appears, religious advancements are still being made due to the building of pre-existing concepts. With the progression of time, pieces of concepts are borrowed again and again until eventually, religion consists of nothing more than a mash-up of repeated concepts from antiquity. Some new developments exist, but the repetition of traits like the perceptions of a soul and the returning separation of good and evil in the underworld leaves little to the originality of remaining concepts. With the help of ancient literature, a linear development between religious eras becomes apparent and the key role intertextuality plays in the progression becomes clear. Even the concepts that are so widely accepted today contain a history of ancient developments that pre-exist the religion itself. Ancient literature like Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid provides the modern world with the means to identify the intertextual similarities that have led to the current religious concepts and stories. Even with borrowed bases, religious concepts have transcended time, and likely will continue to do so, with the help of intertextuality.
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