If you have a copy of Homer’s masterful epic poem, The Odyssey, on your bookshelf, you may be surprised to know that the poem contains a powerful ritual to summon the spirits of the dead. Yet, before you attempt try it out, this ritual will not work in your back yard. According to Homer, the spell will only work if performed at the borderlands of the underworld.
The ritual in question is mentioned at the end of book 10 and the beginning of Book 11 in The Odyssey. In regards to plot, this scene takes place after Odysseus blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus, a child of the sea-god, Poseidon. From the land of the Cyclops, Odysseus then sailed to the island inhabited by Aeolus, keeper of the winds, who gave the adventurer a bag of air that would ensure that the sailors had favorable weather on their journey home. Yet, Odysseus’ crew opened the bag, releasing the wind and consequently blowing the ship off course. The wind-blown sailors eventually washed up in the territory of the giant, man-eating Laestrygonians. When it became apparent to Odysseus that the locals wanted to have his crew for dinner, he quickly set sail and eventually anchored his ship at Aeaea, the island called home by the goddess-witch, Circe.
Odysseus sent out half of his crew to scout the island of Aeaea and these unlucky men found Circe’s polished-stone palace. Circe greeted the sailors and managed to lure all but one member of the party into her hall, where she fed them a feast of cheese, barley-meal, honey and wine. The goddess, however, had added a secret ingredient to the food and drink—all of the men who ate from her table were transformed into swine. Luckily for the pig-men, their captain, Odysseus, was on his way to save the day. Using a magical antidote dropped off by Hermes, Odysseus entered the stone palace, and after some intimate negotiations with Circe in her bedroom, Odysseus convinced the goddess to turn the crew back into humans. Interestingly enough, Odysseus’ crew and Circe became the best of pals after the incident, and Odysseus decided to party with the goddess on Aeaea for an entire year.
When that year was over, however, Circe told Odysseus that he needed to consult with the spirit of the dead prophet, Teiresias, to have any chance of returning to his home in Ithaca. In addition to this advice, Circe gave Odysseus instructions on how to reach the border of the underworld, as well as instructions for a ghostly summoning ritual and the supplies needed to perform that spell. Thus equipped with knowledge and provisions, Odysseus set sail toward the land of the dead.
Odysseus’ ship, pushed by Circe’s summoned winds, sailed through deep ocean waters to a spot called Persephone’s Grove, which was overgrown with poplars and willows. There, Odysseus made landfall and traveled to an estuary that was fed by several streams that had branched away from the River Styx. There, on the edge of the underworld, Odysseus began his ceremony.
The first step in the ritual was to dig a small trench in the ground, which specifically was required to be approximately the size of a man’s forearm. With this step complete, Odysseus’ next task was to slowly circle around the trench, offering different liquids to the spirits. On the first lap around the trench, he offered a milk and honey mixture. On the second, he offered sweet wine. On the third lap, he offered water. Finally, to top it all off, Odysseus sprinkled grains of white barley over the liquids in the trench.
Next, Odysseus called out to the spirits, promising to give them a pyre, offerings and sacrifices not only here, but also at his home in Ithaca. In particular, he promised that his most prized sheep on Ithaca would be sacrificed in honor of Teiresias, the prophetic spirit he wanted to contact.
Now that Odysseus had the attention of the spirits, it was time for the main course of the ritual—sacrifices. First, Odysseus sacrificed a ram. Next, was a black ewe. As he performed the sacrifices, he remembered Circe’s instructions to look back toward the direction of the ocean while letting the sacrificial blood pour down into the trench. By this point in the ceremony, hordes of dead spirits were already creeping toward Odysseus, but even so, the ritual was not complete.
The final steps in the summoning were to flay the sacrifices and to ceremoniously burn their remains. While the sacrifices burned, Odysseus and his crew multitasked between praying to Hades and Persephone, while also warding off ghosts who tried to approach the bloody trench. They kept this up until the ghost of Teiresias appeared. After drinking from the mixture in the trench, Teiresias told Odysseus of two possible futures he may face.
Book 11, where this scene occurs in The Odyssey, serves as an interesting sample of spiritual belief in the time of Homer, who wrote his poems around 700 BCE. As portrayed by Homer, the sight Odysseus witnessed must have looked oddly like a horde of zombies. Odysseus, a veteran of the Trojan War, was said to have seen the ghosts of countless men who fell during that conflict. Although the beings were spiritual, not material, their clothing still showed blood stains and their bodies had visible wounds. Homer also claimed that, in general, most ghosts were forgetful and simple creatures. These absent-minded creatures craved sacrificial blood, as the sanguine fluid would allow them to temporarily regain some of their lost or dulled memory. As a side effect, the blood also forced the spirits to tell the truth, which was useful for necromancers like Odysseus, who were seeking answers from the dead. As for how the ghosts could be perceived, Homer claimed that the spirits could be seen with the naked eye, but that trying to grab hold of one would be like attempting to grasp smoke.
The spirits that were drawn to Odysseus’ ritual came from all sexes, age groups and social ranks. In addition to the dead slain in war, other arrivals at the scene of Odysseus’ ritual were the ghosts of well-aged elders and youths who died too young. There were also ghosts of noble women, kings and even demigods. Of Odysseus’ deceased friends and companions, Agamemnon, Achilles and even Odysseus’ own mother, Anticleia, all stopped by to partake of the sacrificial blood and speak with Odysseus.
Although Odysseus spent a long time talking with the ghosts of famous men and women, he eventually became concerned by the increasingly powerful spirits that were emerging out of the underworld to drink from the ritual trench. By this point, Homer claimed that Odysseus was surrounded by tens of thousands of spirits, a situation that would frighten even the most sturdy man or women. It was as if he had been pulled into the center of the underworld. Even though Odysseus presumably never left the ceremonial trench during the ritual, he was said to have been able to see such famous underworld figures as King Minos and the tortured souls of Tantalus and Sisyphus. With such astounding sights before him, Odysseus instinctively felt that it would not be long before some horrible monster appeared from the depths of the underworld to have a share of the blood. With this in mind, Odysseus quickly ushered his crew back to shore and set sail for the land of the living.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Souls on the Banks of Acheron, by Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl (1860–1933), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.