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“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.

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“Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” by Maya Deren – Pt 2

DivineHorsemen

I finished reading this book last night. To sum it up, it is nothing short of amazing, one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Not only is it highly informative and inspirational, it is masterfully written. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in religion, spirituality, anthropology, sociology, or with even the slightest interest in human culture.

This post covers the second half of the book. I cover the first half in an earlier post.

The second half of the book focuses primarily on the voudou rites. It is emphasized that voudou rituals are religious and not magic rituals. The purpose of a religious ritual is very different from that of a magical ritual.

… religion differs sharply from magic, for the sorcerer’s apprentice has only to learn the proper words and their proper order to achieve the desired result. The magic ritual is made mysterious because the magician conceals his means from the eyes of the observer; the religious ritual seems mysterious because the observer cannot yet grasp the meaning of what he sees. In a sense, religious training develops the psychic perception and power of the individual; magic apprenticeship provides informations as to the means of manipulating the world. (p. 158)

One of the rites discussed is that of baptism. I found this fascinating, particularly because all I knew about baptism was Christian-based. In voudou, baptism is the process of making something divine, thereby creating an object that can be used to contact the divine spirits.

… baptism does not so much confer divinity upon an object per se as it makes the object a “door” by which divine energy may be drawn into this world by those who possess the key, which is the name to be called. (p. 186)

Voudou rituals are intended to serve the gods, not to attempt to bend the gods to serve the practitioners. For this reason, voudou practitioners are called serviteurs, since they are essentially offering themselves to the gods.

Divinity is an energy, an act. The serviteur does not say, “I believe.” He says: “I serve.” And it is the act of service — the ritual — which infuses both man and matter with divine power. (p. 187)

Two key components of a voudou ritual are drumming and dancing. These help alter the serviteurs’ consciousness, opening them up to the mystical experience. Deren states that drumming is “the organic axis of the spiritual cosmos, around which all temporal elements of ritual are centered.” (p. 238) Regarding the ritual dancing, she asserts that “such dance might be understood as a meditation of the body.” (p. 241)

The final chapter of the book focuses solely on possession. There is no way that I could do this chapter justice in a blog post. Suffice to say that it is riveting to read. Deren describes in breath-taking detail how it feels to become possessed, the physical and emotional changes that one experiences. It must be read to be appreciated. I will note, though, that she describes the loss of self associated with possession by a loa (divine being) as a feeling of death, since one’s spirit is displaced by the loa.

To understand that the self must leave if the loa is to enter, is to understand that one cannot be man and god at once. (p. 249)

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful this book is. Just looking over my notes as I write this post fills me with awe. Now, as an added bonus and to whet your appetite to purchase and read this book, I am including the film that Deren made documenting her observations. It’s worth taking the 50 minutes to watch. The footage of the rituals, including possessions, is amazing. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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