Both Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy and Homer's The Odyssey begin in media res, or in the middle of the protagonists' respective stories. Dante, the narrator, has reached middle age and is confronted with the specter of Virgil, his favorite pagan poet. Virgil leads Dante on a journey through hell, purgatory, and ultimately heaven. Virgil instructs the living, Italian Renaissance poet in the ways of personal and universal spiritual truths. Odysseus is similarly led by Athena through his journey. At the beginning of The Odyssey, the hero is trapped on the island of the nymph Calypso, after many years of trying to find his way home. However, while Odysseus is literally in the middle of his physical quest to come home, Dante is in the middle of a lifelong spiritual quest to understand Christian salvation. This underlines the fundamental difference between the two tales: The Divine Comedy is a poem of inner movement and understanding while The Odyssey is a tale of exterior, physical struggle against the will of the gods by the cunning protagonist.
The reason for Odysseus' struggle is fundamentally rooted in the Greeks' sense of hubris. While attempting to return from the Trojan War to his native Ithaca and wife Penelope, Odysseus and his men were thrown in the way of the Cyclops Polyphemus, a terrifying monster. Odysseus tricked the monster into setting his men free, and Odysseus blinded the one-eyed creature during his successful effort to escape. However, the Cyclops, the child of Poseidon, called upon his father to curse Odysseus. Poseidon, who possessed dominion over all of the oceans, was able to prevent Odysseus from returning home, despite the fact that Odysseus was a favored mortal of the goddess Athena.
What is so striking in the rationale behind Odysseus' reason for wandering is that it is not rooted in Odysseus' morality or lack thereof. Odysseus was trying to escape and protect his men, and the Cyclops violated every convention of Greek morality, in terms of showing respect for his vulnerable guests. But because Odysseus is not a god, and the Cyclops is the child of a powerful god, Odysseus has little recourse and is punished terribly for his actions. Odysseus' one 'wrong' over the course of protecting himself and his soldiers is that he arrogantly tells the Cyclops his name, which enables Polyphemus to inform Poseidon of his attacker's identity and bring the wrath of the gods upon Odysseus. Showing such hubris was considered to be the worst sin by the Greek gods, and arrogance about one's ability to be superior to the gods almost always resulted in ruin or, as in the case of Odysseus, great suffering and wandering for ten years. But Odysseus' crime seems minor in light of what a Christian worldview like Dante's would consider evil, such as murdering or betraying.
Dante's quest, in contrast, is willingly undertaken. The Divine Comedy symbolically presents the poet in a dark wood, wandering, representing the darkness of the poet's spirit. The Latin poet Virgil is Dante's guide through a symbolic route from hell to heaven, allegorically representing the journey of humankind as well as the inner journey of the poet. Unlike Odysseus, Dante is not forced to embark upon this arduous journey because he has brought the wrath of the gods upon himself. He seems grateful for the guidance and is interested to learn. He is not responsible for the safety of other men; he is only responsible for the fate of his soul. His wandering is not because he has committed a wrongdoing or was foolish but is welcomed.
Despite the fact that Odysseus' suffering seems unjust in terms of his condemnation for blinding the Cyclops, it should be noted that Odysseus could never figure as a hero in Christian terms, given his opportunistic attitude towards his survival. Odysseus brought about the destruction of Troy, not through military valor but by a trick, when he constructed the infamous 'Trojan Horse' to conceal the Grecian army and storm the city from within. Throughout the epic poem, Odysseus engages in deceit, often with the complicity of Athena, to achieve his ends. He instructs his men to lash him to the mast when they pass the Sirens, for example, so he can hear their song while his men row on, their ears plugged with wax. He takes an herb to render the magic of the sorceress Circe ineffective on him, so he can save his soldiers once again, after they have been turned into swine. Odysseus, in other words, is not honored because he is so good and pure, but because he is cunning and clever. He often exhibits arrogance that is not punished (such as his desire to hear the Sirens' song). And it is the externalities of Odysseus' prowess, not his inner musings and searching that ultimately make him a worthy hero in the eyes of the Greeks.
In the Divine Comedy, merely because a figure is clever does not mean he or she is good. On his way down in the deepest pits of hell, Dante encounters many clever men and women. Only goodness and fidelity is honored. Dante's old tutor, for example, is seen in hell. Even great, good pagans are rewarded, condemned for not having the vision to foresee a heaven where Christ would reign. The upper regions of hell are populated with the spirits of the dead, and the reason that Virgil is Dante's guide through hell is because only a resident of the underworld can descend to its bowels after death: the souls who have been saved reside in heaven.
The Greeks, as noted in Dante's epic poem, took a far darker view of the underworld than the Christians. In the Odyssey, there is no heaven, only a dark underworld where even the heroes like Achilles are miserable and long to drink blood so they can feel what it is like to be alive once again. There are some clear resonances and parallels between the two worlds of Dante and Homer in the sense that the dead often possess knowledge that the living lack (Odysseus' mother knows that her son's house is besieged by suitors for his wife's hand, Agamemnon knows the full story behind the reasons for his murder, which he did not know in life, and the shades in Hades provide guidance to Odysseus just as Virgil does). Dante's vision of hell depicts sinners who must suffer in a manner that is commensurate with how they sinned in life that was also exhibited in the Greek underworld. However, unlike in Homer, Dante always refers to a higher and truer version of life after death while the Greek version of the underworld is harsh even for the greatest of heroes.
Dante's journey through the nine circles of hell contain many famous evildoers, such as Alexander the Great and Helen of Troy, who committed the sins of violence and lust, respectively. However, other figures are less familiar, and are only intelligible to a modern reader through footnotes. Dante interjected figures from his personal past (like his tutor), to give his poem a personal significance, since it is truly a spiritual allegory and autobiography. Homer is entirely absent as an exterior figure from Odysseus' narrative, in contrast. Odysseus' tale is revelatory of the values celebrated by the Greeks (hospitality, cleverness, valor in battle, the ability to survive in barbarian lands, and loyalty of subordinates to superiors) rather than of Homer's own, personal journey.
Odysseus is confronted with fantastic figures and persons who test him over the course of his journey in a very active fashion. He is repeatedly confronted with life-and-death situations. His men seldom truly help him, and often hinder him on his quest to return home. They wish to linger on the island of the Lotus Eaters. When given the fortuitous gift of good winds that can take them home, the greedy men let them go, futilely searching for gold in the bag that Odysseus brings upon the ship.
Dante's journey, however, is one of understanding and reflection. The dramatic texture of The Divine Comedy is presentational, rather than plot-driven. Virgil leads Dante down the series of levels of hell and displays the different suffering creatures at every level, explaining why the figures, some of which whom are quite sympathetic like Paolo and Francesca, must be rejected and not pitied. There is a clear deliberation in the figures that Virgil chooses Dante to see, which are designed to instruct the poet in the right way of life.
Of course, because Dante is constructing the poem as a single author, unlike Homer, to speak of the care with which Virgil shows Dante the different levels of hell is really to speak of Dante himself as a poet. Dante is the guiding intelligence behind the poem, carefully constructing a hell that will serve his needs as an author. The hell brings forth uncomfortable truths he feels he has learned about life, love,…