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“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.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XII – Sea Perils and Defeat

Source: Symbol Reader

Source: Symbol Reader

A lot happens in this short section of the epic. Odysseus returns to Circe’s island after consulting with the dead, and she gives Odysseus more instructions on how to deal with the next set of challenges that he must face. First, he and his crew sail past the sirens and he alone is tied to the mast with unplugged ears so he can hear their song. Then the ship navigates between the dreaded Scylla and Charybdis. Then they arrive at Helios’ island where his crew slaughters the sacred cattle of the Sun for food, the result of which is Zeus destroying his ship and killing all his crew, and he winds up on Calypso’s island.

So, in my post on Book XI, I pointed out the irony that Alkinoos stated how honest Odysseus was. It made me think that maybe this whole story is one big lie. Odysseus is, after all, a manifestation of the Trickster archetype.

I washed my hands there, and made supplication
to the gods who won Olympos, all the gods—
but they, for answer, only closed my eyes
under slow drops of sleep.

Now on the shore Eurylokhos
made his insidious plea:

‘Comrades,’ he said,
‘You’ve gone through everything; listen to what I say.
All deaths are hateful to us, mortal wretches,
but famine is the most pitiful, the worst
end that a man can come to.

Will you fight it?
Come, we’ll cut out the noblest of these cattle
for sacrifice to the gods who own the sky;
and once at home, in the old country of Ithaka,
if ever that day comes—
we’ll build a costly temple and adorn it
with every beauty for the Lord of Noon.
But if he flares up over his heifers lost,
wishing our ship destroyed, and if the gods
make cause with him, why, then I say: Better
open your lungs to a big sea once for all
than waste to skin and bones on a lonely island!’

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 221)

So, if Odysseus was asleep, then how could he know about the conversation Eurylokhos had with the crew? Obviously, he is making this all up. Essentially, he is telling a great big lie to manipulate Alkinoos and the Phaeacians. The entire “odyssey” is really nothing but a story told by the Trickster to get others to do what he wants them to do. Odysseus is one crafty dude, I give him that much.

Thanks for stopping by, and hope you enjoyed the post. Cheers!

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 14

Tibaldi

Tibaldi

This episode corresponds to the oxen of the sun section in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s men slaughter the sacred cattle of Helios for food. In Joyce’s novel, the scene takes place in a hospital maternity ward where the men there are having an unruly discussion about pregnancy and childbirth. Essentially, they are profaning the sacred act of creating life, similar to the way Odysseus’s men profaned the sacred cattle by using them as food.

So far, this was the most challenging section to read, but also brilliant, in my humble opinion. I felt validated though when I found out I was not alone in seeing this as the hardest part of the book.

The style of Episode Fourteen, one of the most difficult in the novel, consists of imitations of chronological stages in the growth of the English language, beginning with Latinate and Middle English prose up to the chaos of twentieth-century slang. The progression of language is, in turn, meant to correspond to the nine-month gestation period leading to human birth. The imitations of the styles of different time periods and prominent writers seem parodic because the styles are somewhat exaggerated (some more so than others). The ultimate effect is to drive home the point that has been made more subtly in Episodes Twelve and Thirteen: narrative style contains built-in ideology that effects what is reported and how it is reported. Joyce shows this by allowing each different style to gravitate toward its normal subject matter.

(Spark Notes)

Throughout the episode, Joyce employs lots of imagery and metaphors associated with childbirth and cattle, solidifying the connection between this episode and the one in Homer’s epic. There are so many and they are embedded in such dense text, I could write a small book just exploring them. As such, I decided to just mention them and leave them to you to explore and interpret as you read through the episode. Instead, I want to use the rest of this post to look a little closer at two paragraphs that really struck me. They are long, but I’m including them here for those who need.

The voices blend and fuse in clouded silence: silence that is the infinite of space: and swiftly, silently the soul is wafted over regions of cycles of cycles of generations that have lived. A region where grey twilight ever descends, never falls on wide sagegreen pasturefields, shedding her dusk, scattering a perennial dew of stars. She follows her mother with ungainly steps, a mare leading her fillyfoal. Twilight phantoms are they yet moulded in prophetic grace of structure, slim shapely haunches, a supple tendonous neck, the meek apprehensive skull. They fade, sad phantoms: all is gone. Agendath is a waste land, a home of screechowls and the sandblind upupa. Netaim, the golden, is no more. And on the highway of the clouds they come, muttering thunder of rebellion, the ghosts of beasts. Huuh! Hark! Huuh! Parallax stalks behind and goads them, the lancinating lightning of whose brow are scorpions. Elk and yak, the bulls of Bashan and of Babylon, mammoth and mastodon, they come trooping to the sunken sea, Lacus Mortis. Ominous, revengeful zodiacal host! They moan, passing upon the clouds, horned and capricorned, the trumpeted with the tusked, the lionmaned the giantantlered, snouter and crawler, rodent, ruminant and pachyderm, all their moving moaning multitude, murderers of the sun.

Onward to the dead sea they tramp to drink, unslaked and with horrible gulping, the salt somnolent inexhaustible flood. And the equine portent grows again, magnified in the deserted heavens, nay to heaven’s own magnitude, till it looms, vast, over the house of Virgo, And, lo, wonder of metempsychosis, it is she, the everlasting bride, harbinger of the daystar, the bride, ever virgin. It is she, Martha, thou lost one, Millicent, the young, the dear, the radiant. How serene does she now arise, a queen among the Pleiades, in the penultimate antelucan hour, shod in sandals of bright gold, coifed with a veil of what do you call it gossamer! It floats, it flows about her starborn flesh and loose it streams emerald, sapphire, mauve and heliotrope, sustained on currents of cold interstellar wind, winding, coiling, simply swirling, writhing in the skies a mysterious writing till after a myriad metamorphoses of symbol, it blazes, Alpha, a ruby and triangled sign upon the forehead of Taurus.

(p. 414)

So there is a lot going on here. First off, we see liberal use of oxen imagery and allusions to birth. These are then connected to cycles, particularly cycles of rebirth, or metempsychosis. This is all connected to the collective unconscious, represented by the sea and also the heavens. The bull imagery is likely an allusion to Apis, the Egyptian bull deity who served as an intermediary between humans and Osiris.

Apis is named on very early monuments, but little is known of the divine animal before the New Kingdom. Ceremonial burials of bulls indicate that ritual sacrifice was part of the worship of the early cow deities and a bull might represent a king who became a deity after death. He was entitled “the renewal of the life” of the Memphite god Ptah: but after death he became Osorapis, i.e. the Osiris Apis, just as dead humans were assimilated to Osiris, the king of the underworld.

(Wikipedia)

We also have a lot of goddess symbolism woven into the section. Virgin birth and Immaculate Conception are hinted at, as well as the goddess Venus (represented by the daystar) and the Jewish Shekhinah from the kabbalah, who is the veiled and hidden aspect of the godhead.

Finally, the section is full of clear zodiac references. These tie into the overall theme of the cycles of birth and regeneration while strengthening the connection between human existence and the divine cycles as reflected in the heavens. Life and consciousness, like the zodiac, is an eternal cycle, and is sacred. The zodiac represents our spiritual and psychic connection with the universe. Joyce draws on all these various symbols to emphasize how sacred life is, and how childbirth is a key part of the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

zodiac

The next episode is the longest in the book, approximately 180 pages. It is written in the style of a play script, so it should go fairly quickly, but it may take me a little longer to finish that section and get a post up. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts.


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section14.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apis_%28god%29

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