in Literature

Where Did Odysseus Enter the Underworld?

In his first book against Rufinus, Claudian places Odysseus’ meeting with the shades of the dead in Gaul–or, rather, shows that he is familiar with a tradition that places the event there (fertur):

Est locus extremum pandit qua Gallia litus

Oceani praetentus aquis, ubi fertur Ulixes

sanguine libato populum movisse silentem.  (In Rufinum 1.123-5)

Does anyone know the antecedent for this tradition locating the event, not just at the edge of the world, but precisely in Gaul? I don’t recall coming across this before, but that presumably just shows my ignorance. Is this found anywhere in the mythographical tradition?

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  1. Claudian:
    “There is a place, in which Gaul extends its farthest shore, stretched before the waters of Ocean, where Odysseus is said to have moved a silent host (populum) by spilled blood.”

    Homer, Odyssey 11.13–37 (truncated):
    “And the ship reached the limit of deep-flowing Ocean.
    And there was the land and the city of the Cimmerians, …
    . . . . .

    And after I besought the host (ethnea) of the dead with vows and prayers, I slit the throats of the sheep having taken them into the pit, and the black blood was flowing. And the souls of dead corpses thronged from Erebus below.”

    I think he’s following Homer, but placing the Cimmerians in (or in the ocean opposite) the farthest reaches of Gaul. The Kimmerioi of Homer are generally taken to be wholly mythical, having no relation to the historical Cimmerians, so he’s justified in playing with geography.

    I think a case can be made for the connection in Claudian’s use of populum for the dead where Homer had ethnea. (I say “host” in both translations to keep the connection clear.) (The “extremum litus” where this site is located “stretching before the waters of Ocean” may be also be a reference to Homer’s “limit of deep-flowing Ocean.”)

    As to why, I would guess that Claudian just wanted to give Megaera a cool entrance near Rufinus’s home town. It may also suggest just how obscure Rufinus’s origins are: he’s from the edge of the world.

  2. Thanks–yes, I looked quickly at Homer and the Cimmerians; Stanford notes that they may have a connection with the far north. What struck me was the specific reference to Gaul. You’re probably right that it has to do with R.’s Gallic origin, and so perhaps it is Claudian’s innovation–I just wondered if any previous writers had made the same geographical claim.

    Also, I like the connection between populum and ethnea. Good find and thanks for sharing.