This painting, by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (c. 1743 – 1809), re-creates a scene from the ancient Greek epic poem, The Odyssey, written by the poet Homer (c. 8th century BCE). In terms of chronology, the painting is set several years after the poem’s namesake, Odysseus, originally set off on his troubled journey home to Ithaca. During this journey, he kept running into supernatural and abnormal communities, including the Cicones, the Lotus-Eaters, and a group of man-eating cyclopes. They then reached the home of the wind-god, Aeolus, who gave the traveling hero a bag of wind that would allow Odysseus to easily sail home to Ithaca. Nevertheless, the hero’s crew opened up the bag, unleashing a terrible gust that sent them horribly off course. Odysseus next arrived in the lands of the giant and violent Laestrygonians. After escaping, Odysseus and the remnants of his followers found their way to the island of Aeaea—the lair of the magical goddess, Circe. After eventually warming to Odysseus and his crew, Circe decided that Odysseus needed to consult with the blind Theban prophet, Teiresias, in order to learn how to return home. Teiresias, however, was dead and in the underworld. To Circe, though, this was not an issue. She told Odysseus how to reach the edge of the realm of the dead and instructed him in a ritual that would lure Teiresias and other ghosts out to speak with Odysseus.
Following Circe’s instructions, Odysseus sailed to a place called Persephone’s Grove, through which several branches of the River Styx flowed. There, Odysseus dug a trench in the ground and, while circling around this trench, he began ceremoniously pouring in milk, honey, wine and water. The liquids were then topped with a sprinkling of barley grains. Next, Odysseus called out to the spirits, telling them of his intention to offer them honors and sacrifices. And, finally, he sacrificed a ram and a black ewe over the trench, flaying the animals and ritualistically burning their remains. With these actions complete, Odysseus and his crew began praying to the underworld gods, Hades and Persephone; and with the permission of these deities, spirits from the underworld began to creep out to meet with Odysseus. Homer, narrating from Odysseus’ point of view, described the scene:
“I turned to my comrades and told them to quickly flay the sheep I had slaughtered with my sword and burn them, and to pray to the gods, the mighty Hades and august Persephone. But I myself sat on the guard, bare sword in hand, and prevented any of the insubstantial presences from approaching the blood before I questioned Teiresias…And the spirit of the Theban prophet now came up, with a gold scepter in his hand, saw who I was, and addressed me” (Homer, The Odyssey, book 11, between lines 40-100).
It is this passage that inspired Nicolai Abildgaard’s painting. It shows the spirit of Teiresias, gold staff in hand, meeting with Odysseus. Around them are other spirits—including Odysseus’ mother, Anticleia—who await their turn to speak to the rare living guest. Teiresias prophesied Odysseus’s future and, after receiving this fortunetelling, the hero lingered at the borderlands of the underworld to talk with the ghosts. Nevertheless, Odysseus eventually had to depart from the departed. He momentarily returned to the island of the goddess, Circe, then he resumed his odyssey home to Ithaca.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.