Homer's Hades to Dante's Inferno: Visions of the Ancient Underworld

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Course Notes


Visits to and reflections upon the underworld are a recurrent theme in classical literature, and nowhere more so than in philosophy and epic poetry. In this course, we shall explore classical conceptualisations and representations of the underworld from Homer, Virgil and Plato, and consider both what we might learn from them, and how they influenced Dante's own portrayal of life after death in the Inferno.

Day 1: Introduction

We shall begin the course by looking at ancient ideas of the underworld. Where did these notions about life after death come from, and how did they develop over time? What was the geography of the ancient underworld, and who were the inhabitants of this realm? How might one enter it, and, having done so, could one leave again? In this vein, we shall look at the importance of the afterlife to Greco-Roman mythology and think about the wider cultural significance of ancient ideas about life after death.

In this first class, we shall read together Cantos I-IV of the Inferno. In these opening sections, Dante will meet his guide and begin his journey to the underworld, passing through the gates of Hell and, in a state of unconsciousness, crossing Acheron. In the first circle, Limbo, we meet a number of key figures from antiquity, including heroes, poets, statesmen, philosophers and scientists. Among their number are some of those to whom we, and Dante, owe the greatest debt in our visions of the afterlife.


Day 2: Homer

One of the most famous classical depictions of the underworld comes in book XI of the Odyssey, which sees the hero Odysseus journey to Hades. We shall read selections from this book in translation together, and ask ourselves why Odyssey travels to the underworld, and how he goes about it. Is this part of being Homeric hero? Whom does Odysseus meet in Hades, and what does he learn? How does Homer here portray the underworld, and how might this parallel or contrast with other such mythological depictions, including Iliadic portrayals of the afterlife? What do we learn?


Day 3: Plato

Another major account of a visit to the underworld comes from Plato, in the closing pages of his seminal work on political philosophy, the Republic. The 'Myth of Er' is included by Plato here in his dialogue on the ideal society to explain the idea that the choices we make in this life have consequences after death. It recounts the tale of a soldier who, after dying in battle, later returns to life and tells a story of his journey in the afterlife, urging others to live virtuously in order to ensure a better fate after death. We shall consider too selections from other works by Plato which touch upon the immortality of the soul and the nature of the afterlife, including Apology and Phaedo.


Day 4: Virgil

In our fourth class, we shall return to epic by reading selection from the book VI of theAeneid, in which Virgil greatly expands upon the vision of the underworld familiar from earlier Greek mythology. We will join Aeneas on his own journey into the underworld, comparing and contrasting his experiences with those of Odysseus, and with Homeric and Platonic representations of the afterlife. In so doing, we shall see why Dante selected Virgil as his own guide in theInferno, and how the Virgilian conceptualisation of the underworld influenced Dante's own over a millennium later.


Day 5: Dante

We shall finish the course where we began, by returning to the Inferno itself. As a class, we shall read further selections from the text, exploring its vivid imagery, fantastic symbolism and allegories, and the recurring themes which underpin them, including wickedness, immorality, poetic justice, free will, divine retribution, and divine grace. Dante promises to leave you with plenty of food for thought long after class finishes.



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All courses run for 5 days

WK 1 8 Jul - 12 Jul

WK 2 15 Jul - 19 Jul

WK 3 22 Jul - 26 Jul

WK 4 29 Jul - 2 Aug

Morning Courses

9.15AM to 12.15PM

Afternoon Courses

1.45PM to 4.30PM

All Day Courses

9.15AM to 4.30PM