The journey of Odysseus

There are several ways the journey of Odysseus, told by Homer in the Odyssey, can be looked at. Does the poem preserve any details about the period it depicts that can help historians reconstruct early Greek history and society? Is the poem still able to enthrall modern listeners and readers as it once did the Greeks? Can the journey be retraced by modern travellers in search of what the poems tell us about the extent of Odysseus’s world? Can mythographers look for patterns in the story which might indicate traces of ancient Greek religion? Although I’m interested in all these approaches, at the moment I’m reading Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: III Occidental Mythology, so here I’ll look at what he has to say on the subject of Odysseus and myth.

A myth speaks to a deep emotional core within us all. It touches something primitive, something within us that predates reason. Whether because of developments in the primitive period of our evolution, or our repeat of that process while developing within the womb, myth has a powerful resonance we cannot fully understand. Think of the myths we know and many of us react to. The story of the pure knight searching for the holy grail. The story of the immortal being who endures death and suffering to bring eternal life to his creation. The castaway who resourcefully builds himself a new life. The belief that there exists somewhere a perfect match for each of us, a soul mate. The fear that ‘out there’ are evil forces working for our destruction. The battle to be fought against the evil prince who will take over our world and destroy it.

All these, and many more, strike a deep response within many of us. It is not a question of belief or disbelief, of truth or falsehood. We respond, instinctively, and the way we respond is to partake at some level in the drama being enacted. In some way acting out a path within these myths makes us whole.

This has likely always been the case, as the human brain hasn’t changed all that much over the period of human civilisation. So early cultures such as that of Bronze Age Greece, almost three and a half thousand years ago, would have responded much the same way to their myths as we do as children to the story of Cinderella, as young adults to the story of Luke Skywalker or as Christians to the events of the Last Supper or humanists to the miracle of the reasoning power of the human brain.

However it is likely there was an original and pragmatic purpose behind many myths as well as the emotional fulfillment they provided. They were once part of the ritual practice of ancient religions, and it was believed the rites they were a part of helped the world to function along the course set by the gods. Myths as we have them now consist of layers of sometimes divergent meanings, the product of later needs of succeeding generations. Such developments might include: emotional paths we must travel to maturity; rites for the successful turnings of the seasons ensuring human survival; primitive explorations of the world about; and stories handed down through the generations signifying cultural survival. Myths in this way sometimes become distorted. This growth is like the rings of a tree covered by bark. The process gives an added richness to many surviving myths, but sometimes adds non mythic material.

Campbell (quoting Jane Harrison) points out how many myths have  become misrepresented, and gives the example of the story of the Apple of Discord as told by Homer. In this story three great goddesses of the Greek pantheon, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, originally three aspects of the same power, compete with one another, according to Homer, in a beauty contest (this is primitive sexism says Harrison, the belief by men that even goddesses can’t think of more than their own vanity – and can’t be evaluated except by their bodies, as subsequent iconography shows all three naked; divine beauty has become male sexual arousal). They do so by bribing the judge, the shepherd Paris, originally the human consort of the Great Goddess, who dies and whom she resurrects and gives eternal life to in heaven, but here both a shepherd, and a Prince of Troy. The successful briber, Aphrodite, gets the Golden Apple, as Eve does in the Garden of Eden (why do they need to be given it by a human?) and, Pandora like, brings evil on future generations, Eve by disobeying Yahweh and Aphrodite by rewarding Paris with possession of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta. And so began the Trojan War (the Homeric version).

Ten years later the wisest of the Greeks, Odysseus, returned home. And on the way he encountered three goddesses (myth is full of holy trinities), Circe (Kirke), Kalypso and Nausicaa. Sojourn on their three islands will teach Odysseus the meanings of the mysteries of both life and death. His mentor is Hermes, the trickster god, emissary of Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, guide to the underworld. Hermes’ symbols are a pair of winged boots, for like Perseus or Bellerophon riding Pegasus, who slew the Gorgon Medusa, he is swift; and the caduceus, the staff with two snakes entwined, for the serpent is the source of hidden wisdom, the power within, known in yoga as kundalini.

It takes a wise man to learn wisdom, and wisdom in primitive societies must be learnt through women, priestesses of the Great Mother. The Goddess is mistress of the underworld, source of both life and death, and Odysseus is not just a hero of the Trojan War, but a priest who performs the same rite as Orpheus and Perseus, his contemporaries. He goes to the underworld, confronts death, and learns from the spirits of the dead. He is a shaman.

Campbell says the name  termination -eus, found in a number of names of Greek mythological figures, is not a Greek ending, but shows traces of survivals from pre Greek peoples and their customs. The Greeks arrived in several waves of invading tribes from 1500 BC, and found peoples whom they called Pelasgians in the area. Many surviving myths, including a core of stories about Odysseus, most likely came from these people.

Examples of more primitive levels of myth involving figures whose names end in -eus include stories about Peleus, last king of Aegina, father of Archilles, companion of Herakles in the search for the Golden Fleece and one of the hunters of the Calydonian Boar: human sacrifice may have been used in his cult. Perseus of Mycenae whose story is set about 1290 BC: he and his mother Danae were set adrift in a chest in the sea, like Moses, and his trial was later to obtain the head of Medusa. There is Akhilleus, original spelling of Archilles; the shape shifter Proteus; Orpheus who also went to the underworld to save his wife Eurydice, and whose body was dismembered and eaten sacramentally at his death, like Dionysios; Prometheus who gave the arts of civilisation to men and suffered eternal torments as a consequence; the king of Athens who slew the minotaur, Theseus; and the king of the gods, Zeus.

Odysseus’ first trial with death is in the land of the Cyclops, one eyed giants who lead an idyllic pastoral existence but unfortunately see humans as food. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops, who has imprisoned he and his men, with a burning stake, and escapes the giant’s cave hidden on a ram. Much the same way, or on the same mythic journey, as Jason escaped from Aeetes the King of Colchis by killing the sacred dragon and carrying off the golden fleece of the ram. The ram in many ancient rites represents the sun, and the priest in these stories carries out rites to ensure it rises again at the solstice (“solstice” means the sun is stationery. In the bible the Amorites cause this misfortune by opposing the worship of Yahweh. Ancient people believed the gods had to be entreated to continue the cycle of the seasons).

Up to my ship, weigh’d Anchor, and away –
When reverend Circe helpt us to convaie
Our vessell safe, by making well inclind…a forewind,
With which she filled our sailes.
(lines from Chapman’s Homer)

After other adventures that result in loss of his men and ships Odysseus comes to the isle of Kirke, daughter of the sun, mistress of shapes and changes, who turns his shipmates into swine. Only Odysseus, protected by the advice and spells of Hermes, remains unharmed, and wins the love of Kirke, and persuades her to undo her shape shifting magic. The shaman knows the rites which ensure that all follows the ordered path.

Here drew we up our ship,…
And walkt the shore till we attaind the view
Of that sad region Circe had foreshow’d.

Odysseus sails from Kirke’s island to the land of the Kimmerians, where he enters the portal of the underworld and speaks to the dead. This is a memorable passage: the dead, even the great hero Achilles, are flittering shades hungry for the blood sacrifice offered them to retain some semblance of life in this place that negates all that the world stands for. Odysseus learns from these shades a mystery: that from death comes life.

Unlike Odysseus, his men are careless, rash soldiers who offend gods, giants and men alike, and are lost, ship by ship, man by man. One last test is before them all. To reach the isles of the sun, Kirke’s father, Odysseus must pass the rocks where the Sirens sing, and the passage where the rocks clash ships to splinters, where Skylla the whirlpool sucks ships down to the underworld. Surviving every disaster, Odysseus reaches the island of the sun, but his foolish sailors commit sacrilege and what is left of the fleet of warships is destroyed by a retributive storm. The priest knows the path to take to placate the god, avoiding delusion on one hand, danger on the other.

A Second Court on Jove attends,
Who Hermes to Calypso sends,
Commanding her to cleare the wayes
Ulysses sought; and she obayes.

Adrift on a raft in the midst of storm wracked seas Odysseus is cast ashore on Ogygia, where Kalypso dwells. She is, appropriately enough, the daughter of Ocean and the mistress of hidden knowledge and of music. Like Kirke, Kalypso too falls in love with Odysseus, and they spend seven years on the island together. Like Aeneas, Odysseus must leave, for he still has work to do. Like Dido, Kalypso is distraught, but finally sends Odysseus on his way, at the prompting of his guide Hermes.

Yet again Odysseus is cast adrift. Poseidon sends a storm which wrecks his raft, and he swims until exhausted, finally being cast adrift on the island of the Phaeacians, where he meets the princess Nausicaa. After hearing his story, the Phaeacians outfit Odysseus with ships and men, and he finally arrives home at Ithika. The pattern: shipwreck, isle of enchantress, the princess/goddess falling in love with Odysseus and sending him on his way with gifts, is repeated three times. Three times, Odysseus wins the favour of the goddess, not by his strength or valour, but because he knows the rites, how to approach her. The three encounters with the goddess (she is both one and many) are associated with Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. Like Herakles and like Orpheus, Odysseus finds this dangerous, but the wisdom earned makes him a hero, a god.

The Odyssey ends with the episodes of Odysseus reclaiming his kingdom from the suitors who had ravaged it in his absence. Once more he is a warrior hero as in the Iliad, as in the start of the Odyssey where he was a successful raider. But the bulk of the poem has been about shipwreck, discovery of islands ruled by goddesses who are aspects of ocean and sun, and due worship and placation of these gods. For this Odysseus is called the wisest of the Greeks.

The theme of his story is the encounter with troubles and misfortunes, and the resourceful survival of the one who knows the rites to adopt in affliction. It is a mandala, a path, to survive the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Other heroes who tell the same story include Robinson Crusoe, Jack the giant killer; and the pattern is repeated in the narrative of 2001 a Space Odyssey. The final metamorphosis was made by James Joyce, whose Mr Leopold Bloom faces the biggest trial of all Odysseuses, the mundane reality of everyday life.

Another component that went to make the Odyssey was travellers’ tales. Just as the Miletians covered southern Europe and the Black Sea shores with colonies and bought home outlandish tales some of which found their way into poems about Odysseus’ contemporary Jason; and the Phoenicians and Carthaginians carried home tales some of which migrated to Greece and perhaps helped form stories like those about Atlantis; and the traders from Arabia carried Islam to the shores of the Indian Ocean and bought back spices and tales of wonders that became centered on the sailor Sinbad and were incorporated in the Indian collection of stories we know as The Thousand Nights and One Night, tales told by Scheherazade – the Odyssey too was a collection of travellers’ tales. But that’s another story.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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