Poem notes

Katabasis: Three Underworlds

By Homer, Ovid, Virgil

The descent to the underworld (κατάβασις) is as old as recorded literature and a recurring theme in epic poetry. The three episodes translated here span some 700 years of Greek and Roman history, during which poetry became increasingly literary and self-aware. The Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso (‘Ovid’, 43 BCE–17 CE) never lose sight of their own artifice. When the goddess Juno visits the underworld in Book iv she crosses a landscape that is both original and aware of its own antecedents.

Some thirty years earlier, Publius Vergilius Maro (‘Virgil’, 70 BcE–19 BcE) had taken his hero Aeneas on the same journey. Where Ovid is a magician enjoying his own illusion, Virgil seems
in genuine awe of his material. His invocation to the gods may be conventional but is tinged with piety: the underworld is a dangerous place for mortal imaginations to trespass.

The written Odyssey dates from the end of the eighth century BCE but had evolved for much longer in the oral tradition. Odysseus’s visit to the underworld stops at the borderlands; the ensuing corpse- ritual (νέκυια) is nonetheless one of the most unsettling episodes in Western literature.

All three originals were written in the same dactylic hexameter (the metre of classical epic). For the two Latin poems I chose a loose pentameter as the closest cultural equivalent. For the necromancy of Odyssey XI this felt too refined, and if the resulting alliterative verse takes liberties with the original then I hope it conveys something of its spirit in doing so.

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