“Odyssey” by Homer: Book I – A Goddess Intervenes

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

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.

Read on!!

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““Odyssey” by Homer: Book I – A Goddess Intervenes

  1. Sooo glad to return to this. Spellbinding, indeed. Athena and her special importance for Odysseus is something I would love to explore further. She comes as a man called Mentes – the Mind. Odysseus and Telemachus are mentored by her.
    Thank you for all your thoughts, Jeff.

    • Hi Monika. So glad you are sharing your wisdom here. You are absolutely right about Mentes being both Mind and Mentor. I am really excited about reading this and the translation is beautiful. Thank yo so much for suggesting Fitzgerald’s version. Looking forward to some interesting discussions!

      Jeff

  2. I’m reading along. I appreciate your comments about archetypes and the symbolism of the sea. It enriches my reading experience. The text is much livlier, somehow, than I was expecting. I can see why Fitzgerald’s translation was kind of a b ig deal.

  3. Alex Hurst

    Yay, I finally finished Book 1, so can comment! I’m not reading the same translation, but they are close enough, I think. 🙂

    I love the angle you’re going at with your review. It does make me think more deeply about how things are worded (especially since, as you know, I’m doing an Archetypes series now).

    I think my favorite thing about Book 1 was the championing of Athena for Odysseus and his son, and also how she takes the form of men to bring about the change. What we might now call a deus ex machina is one of the big pillars of the story, which constantly reminds us that a story is exactly what it is.

    • Hi Alex. Glad you are finally on board with the reading. As evident from your thoughtful comment, it will be great having you along for the “journey.”

      You make an interesting point regarding divine intervention being one of the main pillars of the tale. I’m going to toss out a question, which you don’t have to answer but just think it over. Do you think that the gods and goddesses taking on human form is a symbol for the possibility of divine consciousness manifesting in the human psyche?

      Thanks for your comment and I look forward to some interesting discussions 🙂

      Jeff

      • Alex Hurst

        Good evening Jeff!

        I’ve given it a good think, and I think you’re right. Though it might otherwise be called ‘divine providence’ or ‘divine inspiration’, there are definitely moments when we escape our own “Ego” and are driven by a (usually) short-lived, inspired energy to accomplish either a personal goal, or the goals of another. I think Epics take use of this in particular, and in the case of Athena, she takes the form of a man, only to leave them (presumably) with their memory intact, and their actions while possessed/mimicked never questioned. So, the entry of the Divine, in this case, I suppose, does ultimately change a person, suggesting that it is an irregular occurrence within the psyche that manifests either for the greater good or greater evil of the world.

        …If that makes sense, haha.

      • Totally agree, Alex. I have a friend who is practices Voudou and he had suggested a great book on the religion: “The Divine Horsemen” by Maya Deren. There is some great stuff in there concerning possession by divine entities. If it is something you are interested in, I suggest adding to your list. I wrote two posts on the book. Here they are:

        https://stuffjeffreads.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/divine-horsemen-the-living-gods-of-haiti-by-maya-deren-pt-1/

        https://stuffjeffreads.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/divine-horsemen-the-living-gods-of-haiti-by-maya-deren-pt-2/

        Have a great weekend, and thanks for your great input.

        Jeff

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