Tag Archives: Athena

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall

OdysseusSuitors

In this episode, Odysseus essentially cleans house (pun intended). With the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and the goddess Athena near the end, Odysseus kills all the suitors and spares only the minstrel and the herald, who were deemed innocents. Odysseus then has Telemachus put the disloyal maids to death.

I have a lot to say about this episode, which is clearly the climax of the epic. The first section I want to point out is when Athena appears. She acts quite differently from when she appears in other parts of the text. Throughout, she always offers assistance to Odysseus immediately, but not this time. Now, in his most dire hour, she withholds bestowing power upon him. Odysseus must now prove himself worthy of the goddess. It is as if this is Odysseus’ true test, almost like he is on trial and must demonstrate that he deserves to have divine power bestowed upon him.

For all her fighting words
she gave no overpowering aid—not yet;
father and son must prove their mettle still.
Into the smoky air under the roof
the goddess merely darted to perch on a blackened beam—
no figure to be seen now but a swallow.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 416 – 417)

When Athena finally reveals herself and prepares to join the battle, the suitors are thrown into panic. The description of the scene draws on imagery of birds of prey swooping down on their victims, which echoes the imagery seen in the omens and visions presented throughout the text.

And the suitors mad with fear
at her great sign stampeded like stung cattle by a river
when the dread shimmering gadfly strikes in summer,
in the flowering season, in the long drawn days.
After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons
from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down
with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds,
who cower down the sky in chutes and bursts along the valley—
but the pouncing falcons grip their prey, no frantic wing avails,
and farmers love to watch those beaked hunters.
So these now fell upon the suitors in that hall,
turning, turning to strike and strike again,
while torn men moaned at death, and blood ran smoking
over the whole floor.

(ibid: pp. 418 – 419)

Homer uses the metaphor of cattle when describing the suitors. Throughout the text, cattle are generally offered as sacrifices to the gods. I cannot help but seeing the suitors as sacrificial beasts, slaughtered to appease the gods. Also, the falcons seem to symbolize divine justice. As I read this, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(Excerpt from “The Second Coming”)

One passage that I found particularly fascinating was the scene where the minstrel and the herald are spared. It is Telemachus, the son, who is the one who can bestow forgiveness.

Telemakhos in the elation of battle
heard him. He at once called to his father:

“Wait: that one is innocent: don’t hurt him.
And we should let our herald live—Medon;

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 420)

I see a connection here between Telemachus and Christ. Both are figures who can offer mercy and intervene on behalf of a person. Forgiveness can only be attained through the son.

The last section from this episode that I want to look at also contains imagery and symbolism that we find in the Christian Bible.

Odysseus answered:

“Let me have the fire.
The first thing is to purify this place.”

With no more chat Eurykleia obeyed
and fetched the fire and brimstone. Cleansing fumes
he sent through court and hall and storage chamber.

(ibid: p. 425)

Whenever I hear about fire and brimstone, I cannot help but envision the Christian hell. I had always viewed fire and brimstone as symbols for punishment, when actually, they are symbols of purification, as expressed here. This changes my interpretation of biblical hell. It is not a place of punishment as some would assert, but a symbolic cleansing of the soul, a purification of the spirit before it is reunited with the divine source.

This book is definitely the climax of the epic, and it works on many levels. The symbols, metaphors, and the pace of the text all work together to create the climactic sequence, which has been steadily building throughout the tale.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVI – Father and Son

"Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus" by Henri-Lucien Doucet

“Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” by Henri-Lucien Doucet

In this episode, Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited. After Eumaeus leaves his hut to go inform Penelope that Telemachus has returned safely, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus and together they plot the overthrow of the suitors.

What stood out for me the most in this episode was all the irony. For example, when Odysseus reveals himself to his son, Telemachus thinks it’s a trick.

You cannot
be my father Odysseus! Meddling spirits
conceived this trick to twist the knife in me!
No man of woman born could work these wonders
by his own craft, unless a god came into it
with ease to turn him young or old at will.
I swear you were in rags and old,
and here you stand like one of the immortals!

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 295 – 296)

Here Odysseus is revealing his true self, without disguise, but his own son does not believe it is him. It’s almost like he has been pretending to be someone else for so long that now he cannot be himself. Shortly afterwards, Odysseus says to Telemachus that he is going to tell him the “plain truth” about how he got to Ithaca.

Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.
Great seafarers, the Phaiakians, gave me passage
as they give other wanderers. By night
over the open ocean, while I slept,
they brought me in their cutter, set me down
on Ithaka, with gifts of bronze and gold
and stores of woven things. By the gods’ will
these lie hidden in a cave. I came
to this wild place, directed by Athena,
so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

(ibid: pp. 296 – 297)

As far as I can tell, this is the first time that Odysseus has been completely honest in this tale. But the most ironic passage in this section occurs toward the end of the episode, when Eurymakhos lies to Penelope and tells her that there was no plot against Telemachus.

Blasphemous lies
in earnest tones he told—the one who planned
the lad’s destruction!

(ibid: p. 304)

So we have Odysseus, the trickster, who has been lying his way through the entire odyssey so far, who is deemed a hero, and yet the suitor who lies is blasphemous. Not that I am siding with the suitors; I most certainly am not. I just find the comparison to be quite ironic.

That’s all for now. Check back for my thoughts on Book XVII.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XV – How They Came to Ithaka

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Athena travels to Sparta and instructs Telemachus to go back to Ithaca. She also warns him about the trap that the suitors have set to kill him before he gets home. She tells him how to avoid the trap and says that he should go to the house of the swineherd Eumaeus before returning to his home. As this is taking place, Odysseus is still at the home of Eumaeus where they continue to share stories.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular book. It seems like pieces are being set in motion and moved into place. There did seem to be an emphasis on omens, though, especially concerning birds. Telemachus is presented with two omens. The first one is interpreted by Helen.

Listen:
I can tell you—tell what the omen means,
as light is given to me, and as I see it
point by point fulfilled. The beaked eagle
flew from the wild mountain of his fathers
to take for prey the tame house bird. Just so,
Odysseus, back from his hard trials and wandering,
will soon come down in fury on his house.
He may be there today, and a black hour
he brings upon the suitors.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 273)

The second omen is interpreted by Theoklymenos.

A god spoke in this bird-sign on the right.
I knew it when I saw the hawk fly over us.
There is no kinglier house than yours, Telemakhos,
here in the realm of Ithaka. Your family
will be in power forever.

(ibid: p. 285)

I have personally had some life-changing events happen in my life following “unusual” encounters with birds. I’ve come to believe that when you have an encounter with a bird that is out of the ordinary, it is definitely a sign. I’m curious—have any of you had an encounter with a bird and had something significant happen afterwards? Feel free to share your stories.

Cheers!

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIII – One More Strange Island

OdysseusAthena

In this episode, Odysseus is taken by the Phaeacians back to Ithaca. He is asleep when they arrive and is dropped off on the shore along with his treasure. When he wakes, he thinks he was tricked and dropped off somewhere else, since he does not recognize Ithaca because of the mists. Athena then appears to Odysseus in disguise, and Odysseus attempts to hide his identity from her. Athena then reveals herself and informs Odysseus that he is in Ithaca.

For me, the key section in this section is what Athena says as she reveals herself to Odysseus.

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop your spellbinding for an instant?

You play a part as if it were your own tough skin.

No more of this, though. Two of a kind, we are,
contrivers, both. Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story telling.
My own fame is for wisdom among the gods—
deceptions, too.

Would even you have guessed
that I am Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus,
I that am always with you in times of trial,
a shield to you in battle, I who made
the Phaiakians befriend you, to a man?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 239)

Here we have Athena acknowledging Odysseus as the Trickster. But there is something even deeper going on here. First off, she points out that “even a god might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.” I see a double meaning in this line. On one hand, Athena is saying that the gods would bow to him as a sign of acknowledgment and respect for his skill in the art of deception. But bow could also mean bend. If that is the case, then Athena is stating that Odysseus as the Trickster is so powerful that he has the ability to actually deceive the gods. The fact that Odysseus can bend the will of a god by sheer guile and will is an awesome power.

Next, we have the correlation between Athena and Odysseus in the area of trickery. She states that she is also famed among the gods for her deceptions. This made me wonder if Athena is the feminine counterpart to the masculine Trickster archetype expressed through the character of Odysseus. Essentially, Athena and Odysseus would be the anima and animus of the Trickster, if we were to consider this from a Jungian perspective.

If Athena and Odysseus are truly two aspects of the Trickster archetype, then that would explain why the goddess is so steadfast in her support for Odysseus. I feel that the text supports this idea, particularly when we consider how many times Athena has disguised and concealed herself throughout the tale, just as Odysseus has done.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. I will be posting on Book XIV soon.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VII – Gardens and Firelight

Phoenix

In this book, Athena disguises herself as a young girl and guides Odysseus to the palace of Alkinoos, Nausicaa’s father and king of the Phaeacians. Odysseus is awestruck by the splendor of the palace. When Odysseus meets the king and his wife Arete, Alkinoos questions whether Odysseus is a god, to which he replies that he is mortal. Odysseus then tells the story of how he came to Phaeacia while withholding his true identity. Alkinoos agrees to help Odysseus return home and also offers Odysseus Nausicaa’s hand in marriage.

This is a fairly short book, and much of it is description of the palace and gardens, and Odysseus recounting his journey from Calypso’s island. One passage stood out for me, though.

He moved, then, toward the fire, and sat him down
amid the ashes. No one stirred or spoke
until Ekhineos broke the spell—an old man
eldest of the Phaiakians, an oracle,
versed in the laws and manners of old time.
He rose among them now and spoke kindly:

“Alkinoos, this will not pass for courtesy:
a guest abased in ashes at our hearth?
Everyone here awaits your word; so come, then,
lift the man up; give him a seat of honor,
a silver-studded chair. Then tell the stewards
we’ll have another wine bowl for libation
to Zeus, lord of the lightening—advocate
of honorable petitioners. And supper
may be supplied our friend by the larder mistress.”

Alkinoos, calm in power, heard him out,
then took the great adventurer by the hand
and led him from the fire. Nearest his throne
the son whom he loved best, Laodamas,
had long held place; now the king bade him rise
and gave the shining chair to Lord Odysseus.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 115 – 116)

So in this section, we have Odysseus placing himself by the fire and sitting in the ashes. He is then raised from the ashes and given a seat of honor beside the king’s throne. I found this to be a symbolic association between Odysseus and the Phoenix. The Phoenix is one of the most recognizable symbols of rebirth and regeneration, dying in fire and then resurrecting from the ashes. But what I find the most interesting about this is that Odysseus seems to be going through a series of rebirths, with each one being associated with a different element. So in Book V, Odysseus experiences a rebirth through the element of earth, as he is buried beneath the leaves. In Book VI, he is reborn again and this time the rebirth is associated with the element of water, as he is cleansed and purified in the river. Now, in Book VII, we see Odysseus reborn through the element of fire. Homer draws on the various symbols of resurrection, connects them to the elements, then weaves them all together into the hero myth. In my opinion, this is nothing short of poetic genius.

I really have nothing else to say about this book. I’m still in awe. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and comments. Cheers!

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VI – The Princess at the River

Painting by Michele Desubleo

Painting by Michele Desubleo

In this book, Odysseus awakens and encounters the princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens at the river. Nausicaa begins to fall in love with Odysseus and agrees to help him enter the city and gain an audience with her parents, the king and queen.

There are a few passages in this section that I found interesting and wanted to discuss. The first deals with beauty.

While Nausicaa is with her handmaidens, Athena bestows divine beauty upon her, “So one could tell the princess from the maids.” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 102) The passage likens the differentiation between Nausicaa and the maids to the difference between Artemis and the nymphs. This made me think about the association between physical beauty and the divine. In fact, as Odysseus comes upon the young women, he asks Nausicaa: “Mistress: please: are you divine, or mortal?” (ibid: p. 103) It made me think that in this tale, beauty is in essence the divine made corporeal. And as I thought about this more, I began to wonder whether wisdom and courage are also divine qualities that manifest within certain individuals. Anyway, it’s certainly something I will keep in mind as I continue reading.

As Odysseus is coming upon the women, he makes a strange choice to rely upon words instead of actions to win their support.

In his swift reckoning, he thought it best
to trust in words to please her—and keep away;
he might anger the girl, touching her knees.
So he began, and let the soft words fall:

(ibid: p 103)

What struck me about this passage is the reliance on words. On one hand, words are tools of the Trickster, and Odysseus certainly embodies characteristics of this archetype. But words are also the tools of the poet, who uses words to express divine truth. It feels like there is a double entendre here, where words could be used both for expressing truth and deceit.

Odysseus concludes his supplication to Nausicaa by invoking the importance of family and home.

And may the gods accomplish your desire:
a home, a husband, and harmonious
converse with him—the best thing in the world
being a strong house held in serenity
where man and wife agree. Woe to their enemies,
joy to their friends! But all this they know best.

(ibid: p. 104)

This is worth considering because of Odysseus’ plight. He has been kept from his harmonious relationship with Penelope, and his strong house is being attacked by the suitors, who will no doubt become his enemies. One can sense the longing he must feel, to be reunited with the person who he loves, and to be back at home. It’s a very poignant image.

The last passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus bathes himself, away from the view of the women.

They left him, then, and went to tell the princess.
And now Odysseus, dousing in the river,
scrubbed the coat of brine from back and shoulders
and rinsed the clot of sea-spume from his hair;
got himself all rubbed down, from head to foot,
then he put on the clothes the princess gave him.
Athena lent a hand, making him seem
taller, and massive too, with crisping hair
in curls like petals of wild hyacinth,
but all red-golden. Think of gold infused
on silver by a craftsman, whose fine art
Hephaistos taught him, or Athena: one
whose work moves to delight: just so she lavished
beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders.
Then he went down to sit on the sea the beach
in his new splendor.

(ibid: pp 105 – 106)

I found this to be very symbolic. The bathing and anointing is a form of spiritual purification, where his soul is cleansed and he is again made holy. It seems very ritualistic in the description and the fact that he now appears in “new splendor” reinforces the image of Odysseus as a divine being. When we consider this in connection with the symbolic rebirth that Odysseus experiences in Book V, the symbolism becomes even more powerful, as the remnants of the past life are washed away and the newly resurrected hero appears in god-like glory.

So that’s all I have to say regarding Book VI. As always, please share any thoughts or comments. I’d love to hear from you. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book VII.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book V – Sweet Nymph and Open Sea

N.C. Wyeth

N.C. Wyeth

This is the first book in the epic where we actually encounter Odysseus. After Athena convinces Zeus to intervene on Odysseus’ behalf, Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso’s island and instructs her that it is Zeus’ will that Odysseus is released. Calypso helps Odysseus build a raft and give him provisions. After leaving the island, Odysseus spends 18 days at sea (18 being 2×9; remember the importance of the number 9 in Book III). Poseidon then creates a storm that strands Odysseus on the island of Scheria.

So for this post, I want to focus on the final passage in this section:

A man in a distant field, no hearthfires near,
will hide a fresh brand in his bed of embers
to keep the spark alive for the next day;
so in the leaves Odysseus hid himself,
while over him Athena showered sleep
that his distress should end, and soon, soon.
In quiet sleep she sealed his cherished eyes.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 95)

This passage was the most interesting for me. I interpret this as a symbolic rebirth of Odysseus. The ember is the spark of consciousness that continues to live after one’s physical body dies. Odysseus is then buried under leaves, which represents death. Even the fact that Athena “sealed his cherished eyes” implies something more than just normal sleep, adding a sense of permanence to his state. But the spark of the divine consciousness remains, and when the new day dawns, it will reignite Odysseus’ consciousness and resurrect him from his grave beneath the leaves.

The symbolic rebirth of the hero is not uncommon in epic literature, and I would not be surprised if this theme presents itself again further on in the text. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

16 Comments

Filed under Literature