When a man thinks of objects, attachment for them arises. From attachment arises desire; from desire arises wrath. From wrath arises delusion; from delusion, failure of memory; from failure of memory, loss of conscience; from loss of conscience he is utterly ruined.
Bhagavad Gita, II, 62-3, trans. Sastry, Samata books, 1977
"Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland": this is the soundest counsel. But what is this flight? How are we to gain the open sea? For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso- not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days. The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father.
Plotinus, Ennead I:6:8, trans. McKenna
I can’t recall just what it was that made me leave,
To venture into that dark world of Strife.
Some dream, some urge for glory to Odysseus alone.
Instead I got deceit and mere cleverness.
I found myself among those stealing armor from men still dying,
Confused, not yet having begun their trudge to Hell.
If that be glory, god grant me shame.
Years later, I would wash up on the shores of Scheria,
Alone, naked, spent, nameless; mere flotsam.
I was truly No One then, but at least I was not a beast.
Still the memory that had led me past the rocks, the sirens,
The concealings, the enchantments, Hell itself, led me back to Ithaca.
I had to slay those who wanted my throne; no negotiating there.
So I have brought justice again, but have lost my stories;
No murder and madness now, no struggles. A dull dinner companion,
But that my heart is swollen with love.
Now I am no more the man of pain, of twists and turns,
I am Telemachus, I am Penelope, I am Laertes, I am Athena.
I am I again, unnamed and whole.
The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer continue to be touchstones of the Western canon, with new translations appearing it seems every few years, and an ongoing cottage industry of criticism and interpretations, to which of course this essay belongs. That this is true should not be a surprise, given the remarkable nature of these works, which provide the same kind of jolt as finding an M16 in a dig at Troy. I don’t claim the qualifications to step into this stream of academic criticism, but I do humbly offer an interpretation of several themes in The Odyssey seen through the overall theme of self-remembering that has been used in other essays in this series. I don’t claim that this was in fact Homer’s intent in “writing” it, but there are I think too many congruities for it to be an accident.
I don’t look at The Iliad in the same way because I don’t see these same congruities at work. Leaving aside the whole question of whether “Homer” wrote both works, I see the themes of self-remembering much more clearly in The Odyssey; at times, in fact, they seem to leap off the page. Overall the two works can be seen, as Empedocles might have it, as a journey from Love (“philia”) to Strife (“neikos”) and back again; from “kosmos” and justice to disorder and multiplicity and back. We can infer that Ithaca is a just state: it is ruled by Odysseus we are told with a “fatherly kindness”. He is surrounded by the love of his people, his wife and parents. (His son he never really gets to know.) But for some reason he leaves and goes off to fight in a war not his own, and ends up a party to monstrous deeds. He literally loses himself in strife; the first word of The Iliad that sets its tone is μῆνιν, “menin” – “rage” or “wrath”. As he tries to make his way home, the monsters he has unleashed on his way from Ithaca turn on him and try to destroy him – the worst perhaps being the monster of forgetfulness.
Leaving aside the question of authorship, I find The Odyssey to be a much more human, rather than just male, document, and strongly feel the feminine presence in it. I am sympathetic to those, starting with Samuel Butler, who feel it may have been written by a woman. It is of course much more concerned with love as a unifying force, with family, with hospitality, with strong female characters, and (not to be stereotypical) with food and eating. Whoever wrote it, whether it was Homer, or his daughter, or someone else named Homer, it still stands as one of the most remarkable works of art in the world.
A couple of issues come up right away when writing about The Odyssey and the Ideal. First, there is the well-known dismissal by Plato of poets, including Homer, from his ideal state, essentially for telling lies about the gods, and for creating basically images of images. In the Republic he says:
Shall we, then, lay it down that all the poetic tribe, beginning with Homer, are imitators of images of excellence and of the other things that they ‘create, and do not lay hold on truth?’ but, as we were just now saying, the painter will fashion, himself knowing nothing of the cobbler’s art, what appears to be a cobbler to him and likewise to those who know nothing but judge only by forms and colors?
And similarly, I suppose, we shall say that the poet himself, knowing nothing but how to imitate, lays on with words and phrases the colors of the several arts in such fashion that others equally ignorant, who see things only through words, will deem his words most excellent, whether he speak in rhythm, meter and harmony about cobbling or generalship or anything whatever. (Republic 10:600-601)
This is often portrayed as a blanket ostracism, but Plato does offer qualifications. Earlier in the Republic, he chides Homer for his grim view of the afterlife, fearing that it will have the effect of making the Guardians less brave:
“Then,” said I, “beginning with this verse we will expunge everything of the same kind: ‘Liefer were I in the fields up above to be serf to another tiller of some poor plot which yields him a scanty subsistence, than to be ruler and king over all the dead who have perished,’ (Republic 3:386)
But later, he has Socrates quote the same line when it suits his purposes; when he is describing the “life” of the prisoners in the cave – how they have contests and reward each other on the basis of observing and manipulating shadows alone. Of the man who has escaped from the cave he asks:
….do you think he would be very keen about such rewards, and that he would envy and emulate those who were honored by these prisoners and lorded it among them, or that he would feel with Homer and ‘greatly prefer while living on earth to be serf of another, a landless man,’ and endure anything rather than opine with them and live that life?’ (Republic 7:516)
Plato’s objections seem to derive from the fact that Homer’s knowledge of the things he speaks about is at several removes from the actual experts in the field, like Gorgias the rhetorician practicing a pale imitation of law-giving. But I think even in his own day most people assumed that these were poetic representations and would not try to wage a war or even roast a bull based on descriptions from The Odyssey. Plato’s objections are not to poetry itself – Socrates is seen to be writing poetry in his cell as he awaits his death – or to the use of metaphor and myth, as evidenced by the Myth of Er in Book 10 and other instances throughout the dialogs. His objection is really just to the negative influence that some passages in poetry can have on the impressionable youth in his ideal state. I will try to show that Homer’s real subject was the return of the soul to its “native land”, and that for this the language of metaphor (as in Plato’s cave) can be most helpful.
Another objection is that the Ideal, as defined by Plato, isn’t articulated for another several hundred years. By most estimates, Homer lived in the 8th century BC and Plato from about 427-347 BC, so it is stretching the point to use the term “Ideal” applied to Homer. But again I will try to show that the kind of journey Homer describes is consistent with the one described by Plato of the upward journey from the cave to the light in the Republic, and also the ascent of the soul to “the great sea of beauty” as described in the Symposium. This unity is also consistent with what Anaximander called “apeiron” – “boundless”, and what Parmenides called “ontos” – “being”. It is the movement of the fragmentary soul back to the unity of the Ideal, and this is the journey it always makes. The names change; the named does not.
Even though it also came later, I think it is fair to apply to these works Plato’s analogy of the state and the individual, as articulated in the Republic. The Ideal state ruled by the philosopher-king corresponds to the individual who has remembered the Universal Self and who is ruled by Reason (noesis). The mind, heart and senses are remarkable tools that operate in service to that Self. Seen on the macro level, The Odyssey employs the literary device of the “absent king”, whose realm is threatened by usurpers, and the efforts of the king to reclaim it. (This same device was of course used by Shakespeare to great effect many years later.) On the micro level, it is an allegory for our “fall” from unity with our true Self into the chaos and confusion of the ego, but with the possibility of return fueled by memory of that true Self, through many trials and temptations along the way.
I have written more generally on the Quest metaphor as it relates to the spiritual search in The Ideal of the Quest. In it, I was guided by Joseph Campbell’s description of the monomyth found in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
When combined with The Iliad, The Odyssey can be seen as describing the nostos, or “coming back” portion (although avoiding nostalgia). But I think its enduring appeal is in the fact that Odysseus doesn’t just find some Golden Fleece or magic beans. What he finds is “my very self”, his “what-I-am”, as he once again makes whole the state of Ithaca. The real hero doesn’t conquer monsters and enemies; he conquers himself. Odysseus’s adventure is our adventure. We are on this same journey, whether we realize it or not, and his experience can help us to understand and appreciate our own – even those parts where we feel lost and abandoned. Until we reach our native land, each of us is a “man of pain”, but Odysseus can give us the courage to persist.
Rather than approaching this reading chapter-by-chapter, I’ll be looking at it as a series of recurring themes, which as mentioned are quite different from those in The Iliad. There will be some overlap among themes, but I think it will provide greater illumination than would a chronological retelling. This will however assume a basic knowledge of The Odyssey on the part of the reader. There are other themes that could be included – light and dark, signs and omens, xenia itself – but I will leave these for you to tease out. For references, I’ll be using the public domain A. T. Murray translation, found at the Perseus site.
Using the analogy of the state, on the macro level as I’ve suggested it is a unified kingdom of Ithaca that represents the Ideal, not just Odysseus himself. Beginning, as The Odyssey does in the tenth year of Odysseus’s wanderings after the fall of Troy, and twenty years after he has left his kingdom, we don’t have a clear description of what Ithaca was like before that time. But the implications that are given show it as a “peaceable kingdom”: Laertes, Odysseus’s father, has ceded authority to him; Penelope, his wife, is loyal and loving, and has just given birth to their son Telemachus. In addressing the suitors in Book 2, Telemachus says, “First, I have lost my noble sire who was once king among you here, and was gentle as a father; and now there is come an evil yet greater far, which will presently altogether destroy my house and ruin all my livelihood.” It is the desire to reclaim this just state that propels the action of the nostos, the return home.
Why Odysseus would want to leave this perfect setup in the first place is a question that is never really answered. There are the non-Homeric accounts that show Odysseus feigning madness in order to stay away from the fighting, and of being dragged into it against his will by having to uphold an oath he had sworn as a kind of mutual defense pact. But Homer himself is silent on the point; in Book 24 we hear from Agamemnon only that it took a fair amount of persuasion to get Odysseus to come onboard. From the account given in The Iliad he seems to be there willingly. He is a full participant in the fighting, “the man of many devices” who in fact comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse.
But the question is also unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, on the micro level as well. Each of us has been at one time or another, although perhaps not since childhood, a peaceable kingdom unto ourselves. We are happy in our own consciousness, and not its contents. We do not rely on “things” to make us happy. We live in the “vast sea of beauty” that Plato speaks of. We are free from anger, envy, self-pity and greed. Our only desire is that everyone else should also feel this happiness. But then the “fall” happens, and because it is a step into ignorance, we are not aware of it – we can’t tell how or when it happened, and in fact we are quite in denial that it has happened. But our kingdom, now perhaps reduced to a village, has become one city-state against many, and is beset by many internal “suitors” – thoughts, desires, fears – that wish to claim government over it.
This is the fragmented state of Ithaca as The Odyssey begins, and the fragmented state of the soul as it begins its own journey back to wholeness. I think it would be helpful then to look at some of the main characters and try to assess what piece of the state and the individual that they stand for.
The most obvious character is of course Odysseus himself. In The Iliad, he is presented as a fairly typical Achaean (Greek) military type: brave, glory-seeking, articulate, and more intellectually resourceful than most. He is known by the epithets “sacker of cities”, a man of “twists and turns” (polytropos), and the “man of pain”. But I believe these “qualities” come about as a result of his being in the world of Strife, of multiplicity. His intelligence has been reduced to cleverness, and his compassion to mere loyalty. He cannot be a “gentle father” in this environment. In his own world he would be an arbiter, a peacemaker; in Troy he has to take a side, to be in opposition, even though it’s not really his fight. He doesn’t seem to relish the fighting for its own sake, as do some, and seems largely concerned with protecting his men and trying to end the war. He is driven by the memory of his unified family, and has the will and resourcefulness to seek it again. He also has the resources – his crew and compatriots on the journey who are loyal and helpful for the most part. (Except when they’re not – I’m talking to you, Eurylochus.)
At the very opening of the poem, Homer describes Odysseus’s journey as “seeking to win his own life …” The word translated here as “life” is ψυχή, “psukhe,” (psyche) which is most often translated as “soul”. George Dimock in his book The Unity of The Odyssey translates it as “ghost”, but the implication of both these terms is something more than “life” – more than mere survival, as stated by the seer Teiresias when Odysseus visits the underworld in Book 11. As Dimock says:
The fifth line of The Odyssey speaks of him as “winning his ghost”. If his toils end, as Teiresias suggests, in homecoming, revenge, reunion, and the reassertion of all he holds valuable, if time succeeds neither then nor later in blotting his image out, may we not say that he has planted his oar and “won his ghost” in a survival far outshining any mere physical immortality that Kalypso could offer? (p.161)
It is said that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Odysseus does know where he is going, and so only one road will serve – it is the one he is on, although it is full of “twists and turns”, long periods of forgetfulness, and of monsters and temptations. As we’ve said, in a way he creates these monsters himself on his descent into Strife, and must then overcome them on his way back to Love. What he is seeking is his own soul, and it is because of this goal that he can (usually) discriminate which option is better when he reaches a fork. He is constantly having to start over to one degree or another, from being washed up on the shores of Scheria with nothing, to being dropped off asleep on Ithaca. Here he doesn’t know where he is, but he does know who he is, although he still needs the advice and assistance of Athena to be transformed into a wizened beggar to reestablish his kingship.
On the individual level I believe Odysseus represents what could be called “conscience” – that faculty that we “know with”. It is a “superego” (although not in the Freudian sense) that is above the ego and can observe it. It is discrimination; that which knows the truth of any situation, even if we choose to ignore it. It’s the knowledge with which we pursue Knowledge, even when the immediate evidence for it is scant. It may be a “king”, but it is not a tyrant, since it is in service to the benefit of the whole state, not itself alone. But for whatever reason, it has abrogated its responsibility and fallen into the world of multiplicity, the natural realm of the ego. There it is subject to trials and temptations, and for many of us it can fall short of wholeness by taking on the fragmentary identity of some established party or sect – us against them, Greeks against Trojans. This is the realm of the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, seeing the shadows on the wall and believing them to be reality. We also have our own crew of virtues that are helpful in the return – patience, hope, intelligence – unless they lose the bigger picture and start making their own decisions. Patience can turn to apathy, hope to cynicism, intelligence to opinion. Along with Odysseus we need to see what is really needed at each given moment without bringing in our own desires and fears, judgments and commentary. Once we can do this, by giving full attention to what is in front of us at each moment, the proper course of action becomes much clearer.
Odysseus’s single-mindedness in returning home is perhaps his greatest asset. He is continuously being presented with choices, from the life-threatening to the trivial, and the desire for nostos acts as a guiding light in each of them. Should he sail near Scylla or Charybdis? Better to lose a few men than the whole crew. Should he sleep on the beach at Scheria or go inland? Better to head for the safety of the intertwined trees. What do we do when we feel the pull of that attractive body walking down the street, the rising anger at the person taking too long in the checkout line, the envy of a friend who has just had a stroke of good fortune? Odysseus’s ability to discriminate becomes more refined the more he uses it, just as ours grows as we begin to feel the stronger pull of our native land.
Penelope fills a similar function, while she remains in the now-dysfunctional state, and is also connected to the memory of unity. She has a strong desire to remain true to Odysseus, but without his presence her desire wavers. (Odysseus would probably claim that he too has been faithful “in my own way”.) She appears at least to consider giving way to the suitors, despite the fact that they are parasites who would usurp the role of Odysseus and destroy the kingdom for everyone. She feels incomplete, but knows that choosing someone over Odysseus would diminish the kingdom. “… so that with Odysseus before my mind I might even pass beneath the hateful earth, and never gladden in any wise the heart of a baser man.” (Book 20:82-3) As a result, she is drawn into her own (forgivable) realm of deceit, as seen through her weaving and unweaving the funeral shroud.
Although there’s no ready-made psychological term for this part of ourselves, this inner Penelope, its role is to provide the kind of stability and constancy that keeps the soul ready for the return of conscience. It is perhaps the complementary side of the memory found in Odysseus. As with his memory, it remains faithful even through the ups and downs of changing fortunes, is not swayed by bad luck or good luck, and knows that real happiness can only be had by re-union.
Telemachus, as befits the son of Odysseus and Penelope, has a more active role of trying to bring about this reunion. As the poem begins, he has been treated as a kind of mascot by the suitors as the tale begins, but with the help of Athena starts to see the picture more clearly – to see the damage wrought on his mother and his own prospects by the absence of Odysseus and the presence of the suitors. He represents a latent but emerging memory of unity. He has not really experienced the unity himself – he is a kind of atheist, not really believing his father is alive – but he’s willing to start his own quest, to step into the unknown to find out for himself.
His quest takes him to the kingdoms of Nestor in Pylos and Menelaus in Sparta, where he can see for himself the operation of a well-run kingdom, jointly ruled by a wise king and queen, abundant in wealth, storytelling, athletics, and fulfilling the laws of xenia, or hospitality – all traits that are absent in Ithaca. (Sparta is kept from full happiness of course by the memory of the murder of Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.)
On the level of the individual, this same quest can begin as the result of a “good impulse”, (although it may not seem good at the time). This can take the form of a sudden loss, perhaps of a dear friend or loved one, or it can be a slow-moving tragedy like that of Telemachus. On a more positive note it can be a good book or personal example of a teacher or parent or other person who embodies the kind of civilizing aspects seen in the kingdoms of Pylos or Sparta. But once begun, as with Odysseus, the pull of this quest will usually grow stronger, and it will continue until the goal is reached, despite trials, temptations, ridicule and doubt. We see the change in Telemachus going from shy and childlike to becoming an assertive master of the house; the “pull of the way” can effect the same change in each individual as well.
The suitors (wooers)
The “haughty suitors” are an interesting take on the role of villain in the story. Although some are capable of murderous thoughts (e.g., Antinous – “against mind”), by and large they seem to be no worse than over-privileged frat boys with too much time on their hands. But they are associated from the beginning with deceit and duplicity. That they think Telemachus to be arrogant is a clear measure of their own unconsciousness. His attempts to reason with them are met with scorn by Antinous in Book 2:86: “Telemachus, thou braggart, unrestrained in daring, what a thing hast thou said, putting us to shame, and wouldest fain fasten reproach upon us!” No sooner does he speak than a sign is sent by Zeus which is interpreted by Halitherses to mean that Odysseus is near and will wreak havoc on them all. But they disregard this warning, and it falls to Mentor, “a comrade of noble Odysseus”, to reinforce the “kind and gentle” nature of Odysseus’s rule and let the suitors know that none is without complicity. They will all, including the silent bystanders, suffer the same fate:
Never henceforth let sceptred king with a ready heart be kind and gentle, nor let him heed righteousness in his heart, but let him ever be harsh and work unrighteousness, seeing that no one remembers divine Odysseus of the people whose lord he was; yet gentle was he as a father. But of a truth I begrudge not the proud wooers that they work deeds of violence in the evil contrivings of their minds, for it is at the hazard of their own lives that they violently devour the house of Odysseus, who, they say, will no more return. Nay, rather it is with the rest of the folk that I am wroth, that ye all sit thus in silence, and utter no word of rebuke to make the wooers cease, though ye are many and they but few. (Book 2:230-241)
And later, after Odysseus has returned but still in disguise, he gives a clear warning to Amphinomus, perhaps the most sympathetic of the suitors – “a man of prudence” – that he will suffer the same fate as the others if he continues to consort with them:
Aye, for I see the wooers devising wantonness, wasting the wealth and dishonoring the wife of a man who, I tell thee, will not long be away from his friends and his native land; nay, he is very near. But may some god lead thee forth hence to thy home, and mayest thou not meet him when he comes home to his dear native land. For not without bloodshed, methinks, will the wooers and he part one from the other when once he comes beneath his roof.” (Book 18: 143-152)
On the micro level, the suitors can be seen as the multitude of thoughts and desires that constitute the ego. Ruled by the Ideal, they would be ideas rather than thoughts, they would be Love rather than desires. But as tools of the ego, they would usurp the role of conscience and have us settle for things that, although attractive, are in fact limitations – more stuff, personal fame, insider status. They can be best seen as that raucous internal monologue that provides a running commentary to our lives – making judgments, feeling superior, feeling inferior, criticizing, gossiping, nursing grudges, becoming angry and jealous. From one point of view they seem like harmless delusions, but they form a kind of spiritual asteroid belt, orbiting space junk that keeps us from expanding to our full infinity. Like Amphinomus, like other unconscious beings, they cannot see past themselves to the possibility that they will one day have to die.
I think it’s also necessary to address the violence visited upon the suitors in Book 22, which is still quite shocking even after a number of readings. We can feel a sense of satisfaction when Antinous gets his, but most of the suitors are like Amphinomus, who just wants to have it “both ways”, or Eurymachus (“good war”) who wants to negotiate. I mean, really, is being arrogant and self-indulgent a capital crime? If so, we’d all be on death row. Rather, as George Dimock says in The Unity of The Odyssey, “The monstrous quality of the suitors’ crime, one and all, is their impudence in treating a man as though he did not exist.” (p. 297) Despite repeated warnings, the suitors do not believe in the return of Odysseus, or in his existence at all – they violently devour the house of Odysseus, who, they say, will no more return.” Their disbelief is beginning to infect Penelope and Telemachus.
And this is the crime also visited on the level of the individual: all the “suitors” that would distract us from the steadfast patience and constancy represented by Penelope and the active seeking represented by Telemachus, themselves have no belief in the existence of this state of unity. They are not rational and cannot be brought into negotiations. (I will resist the temptation to invoke any comparisons to current politics.) They are at the core unlawful, devoted only to themselves, and the comparison to parasites is apt. They represent a disease, an infection of the soul. We would not hesitate to take an antibiotic to kill bacteria that have invaded the body, and we must ultimately kill the ego and its components in order to achieve health in the Ideal state.
As with any good Greek drama, the gods are fully engaged, providing a kind of meta-text or super-plot to the events on earth. I’ve discussed the gods in general elsewhere, but I think the main characterization stands: “a pretty insufferable lot, kind of like high school with life-and-death powers”. Which is basically what it seems they think of us (without the powers). Zeus, in the very opening of The Odyssey says to his fellow nectar-drinkers:
“Look you now, how ready mortals are to blame the gods. It is from us, they say, that evils come, but they even of themselves, through their own blind folly, have sorrows beyond that which is ordained.” (Book 1:33-4)
It would seem that behind and separate from the whole interaction of gods and humans there is this realm of what’s “ordained” – a world of necessity, fate, destiny, or seemingly blind chance in which even the gods themselves may not interfere. Homer doesn’t really give any explanation of it, but it seems to be a result of a personal burden of “injustice” that each of us carries, and which determines our “fate” in this and the next life. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here, but it is interesting to note that even the gods recognize that “the fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.
Zeus plays a prominent role in the events, offering helpful advice from time to time, but of course the most prominent is “gray-eyed Athena”, who has a soft spot in her heart for Odysseus, and for Telemachus by extension. It is she who really puts the events in motion, after receiving permission from Zeus her father, by visiting Telemachus “in the likeness of a stranger, Mentes, the leader of the Taphians”. (You get the impression that she could pretty much also put a stop to events whenever she wanted, as she essentially does in Book 24, but then there would be no story.) She addresses Telemachus’s doubts and gives him the courage to begin taking on the role of master of the house and to call the suitors into assembly. When they ignore him and the warnings from the gods, she also gives him the courage to put together a ship and crew to begin his quest for Odysseus. And of course she appears to Odysseus at key moments, giving advice, transforming his appearance as needed, or shrouding him in an invisible mist.
In Book 5, Hermes, messenger of the gods, is dispatched to talk to the “fair-tressed nymph” Calypso (“she who conceals”), who has been holding Odysseus as a kind of boy toy in her “hollow cave.” (The innuendo of this image need not be elaborated.) She tempts Odysseus by offering him immortality, as well as a very pleasurable life – he spends his nights making love to a goddess, but his days weeping because he is powerless to set his course for home. Hermes, who “took the wand wherewith he lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will, while others again he awakens even out of slumber”, tells Calypso it is the will of Zeus that Odysseus be released, and she reluctantly agrees to do so. This kind of captivity to pleasure is repeated in Book 10 (although chronologically it occurs before) with the story of Circe, (Greek: Κίρκη, pronounced “Kirkee,” and the root of our word “circle”, a reference to her power to confine). She is also a goddess, and uses her knowledge of drugs to turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs, and to hold him captive for a year. (Odysseus has been prevented from becoming a pig himself by the intervention of Hermes, who gives him an antidote to Circe’s powerful drugs.) She has a house with “bright doors”, not a cave, but the result is the same – captivity, confinement. (She is also described, interestingly, as “a dread goddess of human speech”.)
When Odysseus and his crew have recovered their strength, as it were, Circe agrees to send them on their way, but with another required stop on the questor’s tour: the Underworld.
Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, abide ye now no longer in my house against your will; but you must first complete another journey, and come to the house of Hades and dread Persephone, to seek soothsaying of the spirit of Theban Teiresias, the blind seer, whose mind abides steadfast. To him even in death Persephone has granted reason, that he alone should have understanding; but the others flit about as shadows. (Book 10, 487-96)
We will consider this journey separately, along with some of the other stops along the way, including the encounter with the Cyclops.
Speaking of the Cyclops, however, it is worth mentioning Poseidon, his father, and Odysseus’s nemesis on his journey. He is of course the god of the sea, which in general symbolizes a “dangerous ignorance”: it is variously described as a “salty waste so vast”, “this waste of water”. (We still refer to the state of confusion or indecision as being “at sea”.) From Book 1, Poseidon is associated with duality, remoteness, division. “Howbeit Poseidon had gone among the far-off Ethiopians – the Ethiopians who dwell sundered in twain, the farthermost of men, some where Hyperion sets and some where he rises …” (Book 1:22-4) Not to get too psychoanalytical about it, but Poseidon seems to be suffering from a severe case of sibling rivalry, as he complains to his brother Zeus after the Phaeacians have safely returned Odysseus to Ithaca, that, “no longer shall I, even I, be held in honor among the immortal gods, seeing that mortals honor me not a whit – even the Phaeacians, who, thou knowest, are of my own lineage”. (Book 13, 128-131) (The king and queen of the Phaeacians, Alcinous and Arete, are cousins, great-grandchildren of Poseidon.) Like a petulant child, he asks for revenge:
But now I am minded to smite the fair ship of the Phaeacians, as she comes back from (t)his convoy on the misty deep, that hereafter they may desist and cease from giving convoy to men, and to fling a great mountain about their city. (Book 13, 149-153)
To which Zeus memorably replies, in the Robert Fagles translation, “Whatever warms your heart”. And that’s pretty much the last we hear from Poseidon.
The supernatural presence is pervasive throughout the story, and there are many other times when Odysseus is propelled or constrained by “some god”. We needn’t look at them all, but I think they correspond to that realm of forces in our own lives that push or pull us in one way or another – our choice of career, our choice of mate, residence, religion (or not), pastimes, even whether or not we will embark on our own quest. We like to think that these are all rational decisions, but if we look closely we see that they all contain forces of predisposition, talent, luck, and timing, which a poet could call the handiwork of the gods. (I know I have done things in my life that should have resulted in disaster, and can only think that I have been protected from their full catastrophic effects by my own Athena, to whom I would like to give public thanks. Our own quests would be much less interesting – pointless, in fact – without these gods and goddesses. And to the extent that we are all deities in training, it would be well to get to know them as future colleagues.)
From the gods we turn to nature, which exerts its own force on this journey. We have already mentioned the famous “wine-dark sea,” which is illustrative of a dual nature – very still and constant in its depths, but with a surface that is changeable, fickle. In concert with the wind-god Aeolus, the ocean can go quickly from a state of calm to violent turbulence. Its beauty is often lauded in Homer, but it is generally seen as a place to be avoided – portrayed, as appropriate to Poseidon, as a vast waste, full of potential dangers, merciless, full of pirates and monsters. We need only think of the description of Odysseus after his raft is destroyed on his way to Scheria, and he finally washes up on the shore after three days in the sea:
And he let his two knees bend and his strong hands fall, for his spirit was crushed by the sea. And all his flesh was swollen, and sea water flowed in streams up through his mouth and nostrils. So he lay breathless and speechless, with scarce strength to move; for terrible weariness had come upon him. (Book 5:455-457)
He has internalized the sea, and one could say that this is really his nadir, but I think that came with his attack on the Cicones. Here he’s naked, alone, beaten, speechless – everything has been taken from him by the sea, but that also seems to include his murderous identity as “sacker of cities”. He will no longer be the aggressor, the seeker of personal glory. Through his trials to this moment, about which more later, he has paid off some of his debt of injustice, and has reached a point of being a blank slate, a point from which he begins to re-member himself. And this is also a lesson for us: unless we are prepared to lose everything we think we know about who we are, we should just stay on Ogygia with Calypso and enjoy.
So in general, the sea represents a state of ignorance, where nothing can be learned. It is something to be crossed, to get over, in order to find a place where learning and xenia can take place. It represents the kind of featureless emptiness that keeps us separated from home. We don’t need to catalog all the trials encountered by Odysseus and his crew on the sea, but there is very little good that comes of it. Except for the men eaten by the Cyclops, pretty much all the other crew die at sea, eaten by Scylla or shipwrecked by Zeus after eating the cattle of Helios. (There seems to be an exception made for the sailors of Scheria, who glide along the ocean in their self-navigating ships.)
This is the way many of us feel about day-to-day life in the working world, a life lived at the surface, far from the shore or any landmarks. It describes the slow erosion of the soul, what Thoreau calls the life of “quiet desperation”. Smooth sailing under these conditions can actually be a kind of punishment; an autopilot without direction. We become executable files, playing out some mechanism implanted in us some other time in some other place. We too may be required to hit some kind of bottom, some Charybdis, in order to change course.
We have also alluded to caves or grottoes, and these too are often portrayed as places of danger or temptation, such as the rocky home of the flesh-eating monster Scylla. But they are also shown as places we enter willingly to some extent, seeking something we think is of value for the quest. Once there, though, we can be trapped: think Calypso, or the cave of the Cyclops, or stretching it a bit, the house of Circe. (The Underworld, as described in Book 11, is perhaps the ultimate cave: no one gets out alive.) The message seems to be that we enter these caves at our peril and should always be planning our escape, like Theseus in the labyrinth. We can too easily become addicted to the tokens of the Good we find there, the small doses of exhilaration found in drugs, sex, drink, fame, wealth, and other pleasurable states. I think Homer is saying not to reject them totally, but not to get attached – they are not the Good you seek, but rather images of it like the shadows on the wall in Plato’s cave. Or, as Plato says in the Gorgias, the Good is one thing; the pleasurable another.
In fairness I should mention that caves are not always given such a bad rap. In a lovely description of the harbor where Odysseus is dropped off on his return to Ithaca, Homer tells us that:
At the head of the harbor is a long-leafed olive tree, and near it a pleasant, shadowy cave sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads. Therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there too the bees store honey. And in the cave are long looms of stone, at which the nymphs weave webs of purple dye, a wonder to behold; and therein are also ever-flowing springs. Two doors there are to the cave, one toward the North Wind, by which men go down, but that toward the South Wind is sacred, nor do men enter thereby; it is the way of the immortals. (Book 13:102-112)
This cave of the Naiads sounds like a lovely place where men and immortals may mingle, although they have separate entrances. Later (Book 13:345), Athena uses this same description to prove to Odysseus that he has in fact landed on Ithaca. It sounds like a step up from the other caves, and we can only wish that Odysseus had entered it for a more thorough description. But then he might become entranced by the ever-flowing streams and have trouble escaping from it as well.
The harbor containing this cave had at its head “a long-leafed olive tree”, and trees, especially olives, play important roles at key moments. The tree of course has a long rich life as a mythological symbol: the tree of life, the tree in the garden of Eden, the “tree” of the cross. The tree can also serve as a 3-D analogy for the Divided Line, used by Plato to illustrate the continuum of the Good, from the physical, visible world of effects to the invisible, intelligible world of causation. On a tree the leaves are the most changeable and transitory, subject to birth and death, while the eternal part is also the invisible – not just the roots themselves but the earth itself which holds and nourishes them.
Unlike other symbols in The Odyssey, there is seldom ambiguity about trees – they are unalloyed good. Its first use is to describe the beauty of Calypso’s island, which causes even the god Hermes to pause on his mission and take notice:
Round about the cave grew a luxuriant wood, alder and poplar and sweet-smelling cypress, wherein birds long of wing were wont to nest… (Book 5:64-6)
It is from these trees that Odysseus makes his raft that will carry him away from this bittersweet captivity.
The next appearance of this symbol is the pivotal scene described above where Odysseus washes up on the shore of Scheria having lost everything. As noted before, he immediately faces another dilemma: if he stays on the shore he could die of exposure, but if he heads inland he could be eaten by animals. A solution presents itself in the form of two trees that reflect his dual state of mind:
….he went his way to the wood and found it near the water in a clear space; and he crept beneath two bushes that grew from the same spot, one of thorn and one of olive. Through these the strength of the wet winds could never blow, nor the rays of the bright sun beat, nor could the rain pierce through them, so closely did they grow, intertwining one with the other. (Book 5: 474-481)
These also represent another stage in his transition from Strife into Love. He is leaving behind the aggressive thorn-like identity of warrior and “sacker of cities”, and preparing to reenter the civilized world of the Scherian court symbolized by the olive tree. Now, although they are two, they have essentially become one. In this womblike environment, Odysseus covered himself with olive leaves and “Athena shed sleep upon his eyes, that it might enfold his lids and speedily free him from toilsome weariness”.
Soon after, when he has been rescued by Nausicaa, daughter of Alcinous and Arete, the bounteous nature of Scheria is described in part by its own orchard with never-ending fruit that “lasts throughout the year”. (Book 7) Later, when he recounts to the Scherian court the story of navigating the twin dangers of Scylla and Charybdis on his return from the Island of Helios, it is a fig tree to which “I clung steadfastly” that saves him. (Book 12:432)
When he reunites with Penelope in Book 23, it is the shared secret of the bed fixed to the root of an olive tree that finally convinces her of his identity. And finally when he goes to find his father, Laertes, the secret recognition, in addition to the scar caused by the boar, is also based on trees:
And come, I will tell thee also the trees in the well-ordered garden which once thou gavest me, and I, who was but a child, was following thee through the garden, and asking thee for this and that. It was through these very trees that we passed, and thou didst name them, and tell me of each one. Pear-trees thirteen thou gavest me, and ten apple-trees, and forty fig-trees. (Book 24:337-41)
The reunion is complete: he has moved from the fallen dried leaves of the olive tree on Scheria, up the Divided Line as it were or like downward-moving sap, back to the unseen root, to the earth. He has finally returned to his native land.
Books nine through twelve of The Odyssey consist of Odysseus himself recounting in the court of Alcinous and Arete, his (mis)adventures to date. He begins with an off-handed account of sailing to the stronghold of the Cicones, a tribe that supposedly supported Troy during the war, and slaying all the men they could and stealing the women and treasure. But the Cicones call in reinforcements, and Odysseus in an uncharacteristic act of cowardice, flees with his men, leaving the dead behind. I think this incident provides a good description of his state of mind upon leaving Troy: murderous, larcenous, cowardly, drenched in Strife. As I’ve said, it’s his nadir, and it is from this bestial and totally alienated state that he must begin to rebuild himself.
Right after this they are led to the land of the Lotus-eaters, an analogy for temptation so straightforward that I don’t think it really requires further comment:
“Thence for nine days’ space I was borne by direful winds over the teeming deep; but on the tenth we set foot on the land of the Lotus-eaters, who eat a flowery food. There we went on shore and drew water, and straightway my comrades took their meal by the swift ships. But when we had tasted food and drink, I sent forth some of my comrades to go and learn who the men were, who here ate bread upon the earth; two men I chose, sending with them a third as a herald. So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way. These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; and I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way. So they went on board straightway and sat down upon the benches, and sitting well in order smote the grey sea with their oars. (Book 9:82-104)
Take that, you pot- and hopheads.
From here they go to the fateful Island of the Cyclopes, which they enter in “murky night”. It actually starts out pretty well, and they easily find nine goats to eat for each ship (Odysseus gets ten). But then Odysseus decides to go exploring, and from there things go south. They come to the cave (see above) of Polyphemus (“Widely famous”) and immediately they should have been suspicious:
There a monstrous man was wont to sleep, who shepherded his flocks alone and afar, and mingled not with others, but lived apart, with his heart set on lawlessness. For he was fashioned a wondrous monster, and was not like a man that lives by bread, but like a wooded peak of lofty mountains, which stands out to view alone, apart from the rest. (Book 9:186-192)
Cave? Monster? Isolation? He is also a one-eyed giant, a son of Poseidon, who thinks himself above the gods. Hello? But they enter his cave anyway, proceed to help themselves to his hand-made artisanal cheeses, and wait for him to come home and greet them as guests. (Odysseus says in a classic of understatement, “his appearing was not to prove a joy to my comrades”.) Polyphemus returns from herding his flocks, and after a little unpleasant conversation he proceeds to kill and eat two of Odysseus’s crewmen. Long story short: he imprisons them and continues to eat them. Finally crafty Odysseus gets him drunk and asks for the guest-gift he was promised, to which Polyphemus replies, “Here’s your gift: I’ll eat you last”. So Odysseus and his men hoist a huge piece of olive (!) wood, which they have specially prepared, and ram it into the Cyclops’s one eye, blinding him. With some further trickery they escape back to their ships and taunt Polyphemus as they sail away. This is the start of the bad blood between Odysseus and Poseidon.
Polyphemus represents an extreme case of ego, “a savage man that knew naught of justice or of law”. He is a law unto himself and thinks himself above the gods. We may not think ourselves in that category, but many of us indulge in the guilty pleasure of following the exploits of those who do, and who seem to fill the ranks of the celebrity culture. So we too are complicit by entering the cave when all the signs are there.
Book 10 finds the unhappy crew chased away from a couple of more islands: the first in a preview of what happens when Odysseus goes to sleep, his crew in an act of selfishness spoils the favorable wind that King Aeolus has provided them and earns his disfavor. Then they’re led to the island of the Laestrygonians, where in an echo of the Cyclops encounter, they are attacked by giant cannibals and Odysseus’s is the only ship to escape. Bit by bit, he is being purged of the associations that had marked his journey into Strife, and there is more to come.
They sail on and end up in the company of Circe, whom we have discussed. She then sends them off to seek further instructions from the Theban seer Teiresias, who unfortunately as we know, dwells among the dead spirits in Hades. Fortunately, she has arranged a method whereby they don’t actually have to go to Hades itself, but can summon up a virtual version, if you will. Here Odysseus does encounter the spirits of the dead, including his mother, who had died of grief in his absence, as well as that of Achilles, his comrade in Troy who tells him he would rather be the servant of a tenant farmer on earth than a lord in Hades (a line, as we’ve seen, also quoted by Plato in the Republic). But the main message he gets is from Teiresias who tells him:
… do thou go forth, taking a shapely oar, until thou comest to men that know naught of the sea and eat not of food mingled with salt, aye, and they know naught of ships with purple cheeks, or of shapely oars that are as wings unto ships. And I will tell thee a sign right manifest, which will not escape thee. When another wayfarer, on meeting thee, shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows—and depart for thy home and offer sacred hecatombs to the immortal gods who hold broad heaven, to each one in due order. And death shall come to thee thyself far from the sea, a death so gentle, that shall lay thee low when thou art overcome with sleek old age, and thy people shall dwell in prosperity around thee. In this have I told thee sooth. (Book 11, 121-37)
In other words, get as far as you can from the waste of the sea, and find people who know nothing of it and think the oar is a winnowing fan – a tool of discrimination, used to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only then will you be restored to full stature. (It is interesting to note that this episode does not actually occur in The Odyssey.)
But his trials are not over yet. He returns to Circe’s island and is told he must now face further temptations on the way: the sirens, who tempt not with sex but with knowledge, a knowledge which however falls short of that found in the Ideal state. And then they must face the twin dangers of Scylla, a man-eating multi-headed monster, and Charybdis, a violent whirlpool which can suck an entire ship into oblivion in seconds. These I think represent those overwhelming forces that can come out of seemingly nowhere and knock us off course, the ones we tend to make worse than they are through our own imaginings and fear. (As Montaigne supposedly said, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”.) If we see these things, even a terminal illness, for what they are, if we look them calmly in the eye, we will know that they cannot harm what we truly are, and that we will find the resources to come to terms with them.
These large and visible trials they actually pass, but then move onto the last one, which proves to be their undoing: landing on the island of Helios, the god of the sun, whose flocks of sacred cattle they have been told not to touch. But after being becalmed for a month, and while Odysseus sleeps, his crew, led by Eurylochus, breaks down and kills and eats some of the cattle. Again long story short: they try to sail away but the ships are sunk and all but Odysseus die. I think this tells us that perhaps the ultimate trial, the most dangerous of all is that where apparently nothing is happening. We think we’ve been making progress, and all of a sudden – nothing. We are becalmed and feel like there is no movement toward Ithaca. We’re at sea on land. We start to think maybe the whole journey is a fraud, we’re stuck and starving, and have nothing (we think) to lose. But we are not yet ready for the food of the gods, and we doom ourselves if we overstep. Patience.
Odysseus must again pass through the danger of Charybdis, this time alone, clinging to the fig tree to save himself. He is borne on the sea again for nine days and on the tenth ends up where his tale began on the island of Ogygia, a love-slave to Calypso, and again requiring the intervention of Athena to get the story back on track.
Truth and Fabrication
It is not unreasonable to ask why, if this tale is one of returning to a state of unity, there is so much deceit and duplicity along the way. Why does Athena always appear as someone else, and why is Odysseus always lying about who he really is, especially after he has arrived home in Ithaca? Why lie to Eumaius, to Penelope, to Laertes? Penelope deceives the suitors by weaving and then unweaving the funeral shroud for Laertes – a real case of “fabric”ation. Sometimes it seems that the suitors are the only honest ones in the story; they at least are upfront about wanting to marry Penelope, even if it means reducing her to poverty. The short answer of course is that it makes for a better story. But the deeper answer I believe has to do with our own quest, and the lies we tell ourselves along the way.
We don’t really need to catalog all the deceit, and I think Athena’s shape-shifting isn’t really in the same category. (We know what happens if a god appears in his/her true form. Ask Semele.) Early on, truth-telling is associated with wise ones, like Nestor, who have in fact returned home. In Book 3, Athena instructs Telemachus:
But come now, go straightway to Nestor, tamer of horses; let us learn what counsel he keepeth hid in his breast. And do thou beseech him thyself that he may tell thee the very truth. A lie will he not utter, for he is wise indeed.
At the end of Book 3, Nestor pays the same compliment to Menelaus. (Book 3: 327,8)
Odysseus however has not returned home, is still in the land of Strife, even if only in his own mind, and is shown to use his famous resourcefulness by making up lies about who he is when it is expedient – or sometimes just, it seems, because he feels like it. Even after he has returned home to Ithaca, he puts off revealing himself to his loyal servants and his loyal wife – he still harbors suspicions and has been warned to avoid the fate of Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife upon returning from Troy. Penelope needs to be tested, but Odysseus himself needs to be tested in his ability to trust. When it comes to meeting his father in Book 24, he decides “to prove him first with mocking words”. He needs to see that Laertes too has been faithful to him over the years and starts to embark on an elaborate tale of having met Odysseus five years before and not having seen him since. But when he sees his father’s grief,
Then the heart of Odysseus was stirred, and up through his nostrils shot a keen pang, as he beheld his dear father. And he sprang toward him, and clasped him in his arms, and kissed him, saying: “Lo, father, I here before thee, my very self, am that man of whom thou dost ask; I am come in the twentieth year to my native land." (Book 24: 319-22)
And when we are in our own inner Ithaca, this is true for us as well: “Lo, father, I here before thee, my very self.” The Good presides, and our minds and hearts are in service to it, reasoning clearly and loving fully. But when the rulership is usurped by ego, and we wander off to our own Troy, mind and heart fall seamlessly into its service, and we are filled with opinions and cleverness, and the lesser emotions of criticism, anger, envy and so on – all eager suitors. If we attend to our own inner speech, we can see this mechanism (for it is mechanical) at work, but normally we just accept it as who we are. As in a dream I create a story where I am the central character; superior to most, inferior to some. My opinions are true, my humility is praiseworthy, my judgments correct, my anger justified, my successes are my own, my failures are from Fate. Happiness comes from without; it becomes pleasure and the accumulation of more stuff. Always just a little more, and I’ll be happy.
But back in Ithaca, we can see this dream, this war we wage each day. As the story draws rather abruptly to a close, Zeus gives advice to Athena on how this conflict may be resolved:
Do as thou wilt, but I will tell thee what is fitting. Now that goodly Odysseus has taken vengeance on the wooers, let them swear a solemn oath, and let him be king all his days, and let us on our part bring about a forgetting of the slaying of their sons and brothers; and let them love one another as before, and let wealth and peace abound. (Book 24, 481-7)
This is the promise that is made to us all, and the forgetting now becomes one not of our true Ithaca, but of anything that is not love and wealth and peace.