In this opening section of the Odyssey, the goddess Athena petitions Zeus for permission to intervene on Odysseus’ behalf and is granted permission to go to Ithaca to speak with Telemachus, Odysseus’s son. It has been ten years since the Trojan War ended and Odysseus has yet to return. As a result, suitors seeking Penelope’s hand in marriage are gathering and taking advantage of the estate. Athena meets with Telemachus in the form on Mentes, a friend of Odysseus, and advises him on how to deal with the suitors. She then instructs him to journey to Pylos and Sparta to inquire after his father.
For this post, I am going to focus on the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious.
When Athena is petitioning Zeus, she mentions Odysseus’ captivity on Calypso’s island. She states that Calypso is Altas’ daughter and that Atlas is one who knows all the depths of the seas.
But my own heart is broken for Odysseus,
the master mind of war, so long a castaway
upon an island in the running sea;
a wooded island, in the sea’s middle,
and there’s a goddess in the place, the daughter
of one whose baleful mind knows all the deeps
of the blue sea—Atlas, who holds the columns
that bear from land the great thrust of the sky.
(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 3)
What is implied here is that Atlas understands the deeper aspects of the collective unconscious. That is what the sea symbolizes here. This collective unconscious is the realm of archetypes. And Odysseus is one of the archetypes that exist in this realm. So in the following passage, where Athena is conversing with Telemachus and she states that “never in this world is Odysseus dead,” she is implying that he is one of the eternal archetypes.
But never in this world is Odysseus dead—
only detained somewhere on the wide sea,
upon some island, with wild islanders;
savages, they must be, to hold him captive.
Well, I will forecast for you, as the gods
put the strong feeling in me—I see it all,
and I’m no prophet, no adept in bird-signs.
He will not, now, be long away from Ithaka,
his father’s dear land; though he be in chains
he’ll scheme a way to come; he can do anything.
(ibid: p. 7)
It is important to note that Athena asserts that Odysseus will “scheme a way to come.” He is already being cast as the Trickster archetype; although, he is also an incarnation of the Wanderer archetype.
As Athena’s meeting with Telemachus nears its end, Telemachus begins to suspect the divine nature of the being who is with him. He acknowledges that she must return to the sea, of the realm of consciousness where gods and archetypes exist, but offers her a gift before she leaves.
“Friend, you have done me
kindness, like a father to his son,
and I shall not forget your counsel ever.
You must get back to sea, I know, but come
take a hot bath, and rest; accept a gift
to make your heart lift up when you embark—
some precious thing, and beautiful, from me,
a keepsake, such as dear friends give their friends.”
(ibid: p. 11)
There are many other interesting aspects about this opening book, but to quote a famous writer, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” so I will just mention a couple more things that caught my attention. First, I was fascinated by the passage that discussed the responsibility of the son to avenge the father, whether directly or through guile. It made me think a lot about the connection between characters like Telemachus, Orestes, and Hamlet. Lastly, I loved the image of the poet as a weaver of spells. I have always considered poetry to be a form of evocative magic, conjuring through the use of words and cadence.
Phêmios, other spells you know, high deeds
of gods and heroes, as the poets tell them;
(ibid: p. 12)
If you are reading along, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please feel free to post below and we can engage in a conversation.