Book IX of The Odyssey is called Nekuia, which is an ancient Greek rite used to summon and question ghosts. In it, Odysseus tells his King Alcinous all about his fantastic and unusual trip to the underworld in which he did just that.
An Unusual Purpose
Usually, when mythic heroes undertake the dangerous voyage to the Underworld, it's for the purpose of bringing back a person or animal of value. Hercules went to the Underworld to steal the three-headed dog Cerberus and to rescue Alcestis who had sacrificed herself for her husband. Orpheus went below to try to win back his beloved Eurydice, and Theseus went to try to abduct Persephone. But Odysseus? He went for information.
Although, obviously, it is frightening to visit the dead (referred to as the home of Hades and Persephone "aidao domous kai epaines persphoneies"), to hear the wailing and weeping, and to know that at any moment Hades and Persephone could make sure he never sees the light of day again, there is remarkably little peril in Odysseus' voyage. Even when he violates the letter of the instructions there are no negative consequences.
What Odysseus learns satisfies his own curiosity and makes a great story for King Alcinous whom Odysseus is regaling with tales of the fates of the other Achaeans after the fall of Troy and his own exploits.
For ten years, the Greeks (aka Danaans and Achaeans) had fought the Trojans. By the time Troy (Ilium) was burned, the Greeks were eager to return to their homes and families, but much had changed while they'd been away. While some local kings were gone, their power had been usurped. Odysseus, who ultimately fared better than many of his fellows, was to suffer the wrath of the sea god for many years before he was permitted to reach his home.
"Poseidon could see him sailing upon the sea, and it made him very angry, so he wagged his head and muttered to himself, saying, heavens, so the gods have been changing their minds about Odysseus while I was away in Ethiopia, and now he is close to the land of the Phaeacians, where it is decreed that he shall escape from the calamities that have befallen him. Still, he shall have plenty of hardship yet before he has done with it." V.283-290
Advice From a Siren
Poseidon refrained from drowning the hero, but he threw Odysseus and his crew off course. Waylaid on the island of Circe (the enchantress who initially turned his men into swine), Odysseus spent a luxurious year enjoying the bounty of the goddess. His men, however, long restored to human form, kept reminding their leader of their destination, Ithaca. Eventually, they prevailed. Circe regretfully prepared her mortal lover for his trip back to his wife by warning him that he would never make it back to Ithaca if he didn't first speak with Tiresias.
Tiresias was dead, though. In order to learn from the blind seer what he needed to do, Odysseus would have to visit the land of the dead. Circe gave Odysseus sacrificial blood to give to the denizens of the Underworld who could then speak to him. Odysseus protested that no mortal could visit the Underworld. Circe told him not to worry, the winds would guide his ship.
"Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, let there be in thy mind no concern for a pilot to guide thy ship, but set up thy mast, and spread the white sail, and sit thee down; and the breath of the North Wind will bear her onward." X.504-505
The Greek Underworld
When he arrived at Oceanus, the body of water encircling the earth and the seas, he would find the groves of Persephone and the house of Hades, i.e., the Underworld. The Underworld is not actually described as being underground, but rather the place where the light of Helios never shines. Circe warned him to make the appropriate animal sacrifices, pour out votive offerings of milk, honey, wine, and water, and fend off the shades of the other dead until Tiresias appeared.
Most of this Odysseus did, although before questioning Tiresias, he talked with his companion Elpenor who had fallen, drunk, to his death. Odysseus promised Elpenor a proper funeral. While they talked, other shades appeared, but Odysseus ignored them until Tiresias arrived.
Tiresias and Anticlea
Odysseus provided the seer with some of the sacrificial blood Circe had told him would permit the dead to speak; then he listened. Tiresias explained Poseidon's anger as the result of Odysseus' blinding Poseidon's son (the Cyclops Polyphemus, who had found and eaten six members of Odysseus' crew while they were taking shelter in his cave). He warned Odysseus that if he and his men avoided the herds of Helios on Thrinacia, they would reach Ithaca safely. If instead, they landed on the island, his starving men would eat the cattle and be punished by the god. Odysseus, alone and after many years of delay, would reach home where he would find Penelope oppressed by suitors. Tiresias also foretold a peaceful death for Odysseus at a later date, at sea.
Among the shades, Odysseus had seen earlier had been his mother, Anticlea. Odysseus gave the sacrificial blood to her next. She told him that his wife, Penelope, was still waiting for him with their son Telemachus, but that she, his mother, had died from the ache she felt because Odysseus had been away so long. Odysseus longed to hold his mother, but, as Anticlea explained, since the bodies of the dead were burned to ash, the shades of the dead are just insubstantial shadows. She urged her son to talk with the other women so he would be able to give news to Penelope whenever he reached Ithaca.
Odysseus briefly talked to a dozen women, mostly good or beautiful ones, mothers of heroes, or beloved of the gods: Tyro, mother of Pelias and Neleu; Antiope, mother of Amphion and the founder of Thebes, Zethos; Hercules' mother, Alcmene; Oedipus' mother, here, Epicaste; Chloris, mother of Nestor, Chromios, Periclymenos, and Pero; Leda, mother of Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux); Iphimedeia, mother of Otos and Ephialtes; Phaedra; Procris; Ariadne; Clymene; and a different type of woman, Eriphyle, who had betrayed her husband.
To King Alcinous, Odysseus recounted his visits to these women quickly: he wanted to stop speaking so he and his crew could get some sleep. But the king urged him to go on even if it took all night. Since Odysseus wanted help from Alcinous for his return voyage, he settled down to a more detailed report on his conversations with the warriors beside whom he had fought so long.
Heroes and Friends
The first hero Odysseus spoke with was Agamemnon who said Aegisthus and his own wife Clytemnestra had killed him and his troops during the feast celebrating his return. Clytemnestra wouldn't even close her dead husband's eyes. Filled with distrust of women, Agamemnon gave Odysseus some good advice: land secretly in Ithaca.
After Agamemnon, Odysseus let Achilles drink the blood. Achilles complained about death and asked about his son's life. Odysseus was able to assure him that Neoptolemus was still alive and had repeatedly proved himself to be brave and heroic. In life, when Achilles had died, Ajax had thought the honor of possessing the dead man's armor should have fallen to him, but instead, it was awarded to Odysseus. Even in death Ajax held a grudge and would not speak with Odysseus.
Next Odysseus saw (and briefly recounted to Alcinous) the spirits of Minos (son of Zeus and Europa whom Odysseus witnessed meting out judgment to the dead); Orion (driving herds of wild beasts he had slain); Tityos (who paid for violating Leto in perpetuity by being gnawed upon by vultures); Tantalus (who could never quench his thirst despite being immersed in water, nor slake his hunger despite being inches from an overhanging branch bearing fruit); and Sisyphus (doomed forever to roll back up a hill a rock that keeps rolling back down).
But the next (and last) to speak was Hercules' phantom (the real Hercules being with the gods). Hercules compared his labors with those of Odysseus, commiserating on the god-inflicted suffering. Next Odysseus would have liked to have spoken with Theseus, but the wailing of the dead scared him and he feared Persephone would destroy him using the head of Medusa:
"I would fain have seen - Theseus and Peirithoos glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Persephone should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon." XI.628
So Odysseus finally returned to his men and his ship, and sailed away from the Underworld through Oceanus, back to Circe for more refreshment, comfort, a burial, and help to get home to Ithaca.
His adventures were far from over.
Updated by K. Kris Hirst