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Episode 6: The Land of the Dead

Teaching activities

  • Starting points
  • Follow-up
  • Further activities
  • ‘A chill in my very soul’: This is how Odysseus responds to the words of Circe. What could be so frightening to Odysseus? Discuss the figurative meaning of this phrase. Ask for learner’s ideas of what the place of the ghosts of the dead might be like. We will soon discover that the chill will be literal.

  • Death: What do we already know, about ancient Greek ideas of death and the Underworld? Gather ideas to ensure that they understand what being mortal means: and that normally only the dead go to the Underworld. Some may have heard of the story of Persephone and Eurydice. Odysseus will hear from someone who is dead (Achilles) and find out what that really means.

  • Sacrifice: Talk about sacrifices, what this word means today, and why they are offered to gods (to please and appease). Sacrificing a sheep had a special purpose here: what? There are more sacrifices to come.

  • Tasks: We know that in myths characters are often given tasks to do. Odysseus will be given two tasks by Tiresias. Listen out for them. In a later episode we will need to remember them.

  • Odysseus: Now can you see why Odysseus felt a chill? Was this place as you pictured it? What is the most frightening place you have ever been in? How did it make you feel? Discuss Odysseus’ meeting with Achilles and his mother, and how he felt.

  • Odysseus’ name: Tiresias says ‘You will be nobody’. Odysseus once said ‘Nobody’ was his name. How will that be different this time? (He will be unimportant, unknown.) What else is he called? (In the title: a prince.)

  • Home: Home and family are important to Odysseus. He tells of things he misses. What are they? (The smell of Ithacan earth after rain. The long shadows of the afternoon stretching down the terraces and vineyards that ladder every slope. My dog licking my palm.) What do we miss when we are away from our own homes? Talk about small, simple personal things. Consider all of the senses. (List these ideas as phrases, making stylistic choices so that the list takes on the form of a poem.)

  • Describing the land of the dead: Use the [pdf] transcript (p. 1 lines 10-30) to look in detail at how the desolation and horror of this land is described. Discuss the use of images. Find similes, explain and discuss their impact (like a dragon’s teeth; as if we were wading against the current of an ocean we couldn’t see; like flies to carrion). Highlight powerful words and phrases that conjure up mood (shards of ice, wall of fog, mist, gloom, uneasy, infected, greyness, shifting forms, fog). Read out just these words to see their powerful effect. It is like a poem. (How do you feel when you hear these adjectives and make these pictures in your head?)

  • Names for the land of the dead: Have you heard any other names for this place? (Hades; the Underworld; the realm of many guests.) What names are used for the dead? (Ghosts; spirits of the dead; shades; wraiths.) Compose more names — use ideas from the description.

  • The sacrifice of the sheep: How was this described in the story? (Odysseus and his two men fetched a pair of sheep ashore, they scooped a hollow in the sand, cut the throats of the sheep and the sheep’s dark blood made a pool.) What was the sacrifice for? (Odysseus wants Tiresias to drink the blood so that he can remember again and tell them how to outwit the god of the sea.)

  • Odysseus in the Underworld: [pdf] Illustration. Work out who the characters are. What is happening in the story and why? This is a very detailed picture. Look carefully at the hair, clothing and belongings of the characters and describe what you see. (Combine words and images by labelling the illustration, putting all of the information around the picture.)

Dance Composition: This activity results in describing the land of the dead through dance.

Recreate this place through dance, using the descriptive paragraphs as an inspiration. Develop these elements:

Travelling: Wading against a current; shambling, stumbling, weightless steps of the dead; directionless pathways through fog; stillness of dead before they move towards the blood.

Shape/gesture: Freezing, shaking, gaping, from cold and fear; jagged shapes of icy shards; shifting forms.

Working singly and in pairs, explore ways of projecting distorted body shadows onto a screen.

Accompaniment: ambient electronic music, wind and sea sounds, vocal sounds of moaning and hissing, spoken poetry using the powerful words selected from the transcript.

Visual aids

Odysseus in the Underworld

Based on a Lucanian red figure wine bowl (calyx crater) attributed to the Dolon painter, c. 380-360 BC, Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Médailles, Paris
Arriving in the Underworld, Odysseus (centre) consults the ghost of Tiresias (bottom left) who comes to drink the blood of the sacrificial sheep at Odysseus’ feet. Tiresias tells Odysseus of the two tasks which he must carry out in order to escape the anger of Poseidon. Odysseus’ two companions stand on either side of the pool to keep the other ghosts away.

Suggested activities
See also teaching activities for Episode 6.

Line drawing of Odysseus in the Underworld consulting the ghost of Tiresias, who has come to drink the blood of the sacrificial lamb at Odysseus' feet.