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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIV – Hospitality in the Forest

Odysseus and Eumaeus

Odysseus and Eumaeus

In this episode, Odysseus is given shelter in the hut of Eumaeus, his swineherd. Since Odysseus is disguised, Eumaeus does not recognize him, but invites him in as courtesy to a wanderer and offers Odysseus food and drink. Odysseus lies about where he is from and assures Eumaeus that his master is still alive and will return soon.

This book presents Odysseus more as the archetype of the wanderer, although, he still demonstrates a bit of the trickster through his lies and stories.

Come to the cabin. You’re a wanderer too.
You must eat something, drink some wine, and tell me
where you are from and the hard times you’ve seen.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 248)

After the meal, Odysseus and the swineherd begin talking. Eumaeus expresses his belief that all wanderers are also liars.

Wandering men tell lies for a night’s lodging,
for fresh clothing; truth really doesn’t interest them.
Every time a traveller comes ashore
he has to tell my mistress his pretty tale,

(ibid: p. 251)

The connection between the wanderer and the trickster archetypes is established. Odysseus embodies both, but I wonder if the implication here is that both archetypes are intrinsically connected. It is almost as if they are two aspects of the same. The trickster, who revels in deceit and trickery, must of necessity travel constantly in search of new dupes. Likewise, the constant wanderer must always be ready to use his wit and guile in order to secure what is needed and manipulate individuals into providing shelter and provisions.

One of my favorite quotes from this episode is when the swineherd confronts Odysseus and asks him why he is a liar.

That tale
about Odysseus, though, you might have spared me;
you will not make me believe that.
Why must you lie, being the man you are,
and all for nothing?

(ibid: p. 258)

Since Odysseus is an incarnation of the trickster, he cannot help but lie. It is part of his nature. Even though he will not gain anything—the swineherd has already given him food and shelter—Odysseus as the trickster must still lie and make up stories, for no reason but because he can.

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“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.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book X – The Grace of the Witch

CirceAndSwine

In this book, Odysseus continues his tale of his journey. He actually covers three parts of his odyssey in this book. First, he describes his dealings with Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Aeolus gives him a bag of wind to aid in his voyage, but some of his greedy men think it has gold and open it, resulting in the boat being blown back to Aeolia. Next, Odysseus and his crew arrive at the land of the Laestrygonians, who are cannibalistic giants and devour a few of his men. Finally, they arrive at the island of Circe, who is depicted as a goddess but also a sorceress.

What I found the most fascinating about this book are the allusions to magic and ritual. Circe is obviously very skilled in the mystical arts and the imagery of her weaving “by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven” (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 171), her use of herbs and potions, and her wielding of a wand, all conjure some fantastic visions of the mystical woman.

The god Hermes offers to assist Odysseus in overcoming Circe’s spells. He provides Odysseus with instructions on how to use an amulet in conjunction with sex magic to protect himself from the sorceress.

But I can tell you what to do
to come unchanged from Kirke’s power (Note: alternate spelling in translation)
and disenthrall your fighting crew:
take with you to her bower
as amulet, this plant I know—
it will defeat her horrid show,
so pure and potent is the flower;
no mortal herb was ever so.

Your cup with numbing drops of night
and evil, stilled of all remorse,
she will infuse to charm your sight;
but this great herb with holy force
will keep your minds and senses clear:
when she turns cruel, coming near
with her long stick to whip you out of doors,
then let your cutting blade appear,

Let instant death upon it shine,
and she will cower and yield her bed—
a pleasure you must not decline,
so may her lust and fear bestead
you and your friends, and break her spell;
but make her swear by heaven and hell
no witches’ tricks, or else, your harness shed,
you’ll be unmanned by her as well.

(ibid: p. 174)

The plant that Hermes refers to appears to be mandrake, which according to myth will drive a human insane if pulled from the ground.

He bent down glittering for the magic plant
and pulled it up, black root and milky flower—
a molu in the language of the gods—
fatigue and pain for mortals to uproot;
but gods do this, and everything, with ease.

(ibid: p. 174)

Mandrake

Mandrake

Near the end of the book, Circe tells Odysseus that he must open a portal to the underworld, summon the spirit of the blind prophet Teiresias, and inquire about what he needs to do in order to return home. Circe provides instructions to Odysseus, and these instructions read like a dark magic ritual.

Here, toward the Sorrowing Water, run the streams
of Wailing, out of Styx, and quenchless burning—
torrents that join in thunder at the Rock.
Here then, great soldier, setting foot obey me:
dig a well shaft a forearm square; pour out
libations around it to the unnumbered dead:
sweet milk and honey, then sweet wine, and last
clear water, scattering handfuls of white barley.
Pray now, with all your heart, to the faint dead;
swear you will sacrifice your finest heifer,
at home in Ithaka, and burn for them
her tenderest parts in sacrifice; and vow
to the lord Teiresias, apart from all,
a black lamb, handsomest of all your flock—
thus to appease the nations of the dead.
Then slash a black ewe’s throat, and a black ram,
facing the gloom of Erebos; but turn
your head away toward Ocean. You shall see, now
souls of the buried dead in shadowy hosts,
and now you must call out to your companions
to flay those sheep the bronze knife has cut down,
for offerings, burnt flesh to those below,
to sovereign Death and pale Persephone.
Meanwhile draw sword from hip, crouch down, ward off
the surging phantoms from the bloody pit
until you know the presence of Teiresias.
He will come soon, great captain; be it he
who gives you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.

(ibid: p. 181)

I cannot help but wonder whether Homer was schooled in the magical arts. Regardless, this is a very interesting segment of the epic. I am eager to read about Odysseus’ encounter with the spirits. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XI.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IX – New Coasts and Poseidon’s Son

CyclopsPolyphemus

In this book, Odysseus begins telling the tale of his journey to the Phaeacians. He first tells them of his encounter with the Lotus-eaters. The lotus fruit is an intoxicant and as soon as Odysseus’ crew eats it, they lose touch with reality and only want to continue eating the fruit. After escaping from the island of the Lotus-eaters, Odysseus and his men are captured by the Cyclops Polyphemus who starts eating the men. Odysseus eventually blinds the Cyclops and escapes through trickery, causing Polyphemus to pray to his father, Poseidon, for revenge upon Odysseus.

For this post, I want to focus on the Polyphemus section. When Odysseus first encounters the Cyclops, Odysseus entreats him to show them hospitality in the name of the gods. Polyphemus’ response demonstrates a disdain for the gods, which I found interesting.

You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.
I would not let you go for fear of Zeus—
you or your friends—unless I had a whim to.
Tell me, where was it, now, you left your ship—
around the point, or down the shore, I wonder?

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 153)

I consider the Cyclops to be a symbol of a myopic person, someone who can only see one side of something, usually their own. So here the Cyclops has a singular, self-centered view. He is blind to his connection with the Divine and does not see or care about how others are also connected with the Divine. He cares only about himself and satisfying his basic urges and desires. What I found ironic, though, is that after Polyphemus is blinded, then he calls upon Poseidon, his father. I find two interpretations of this. From a cynical perspective, we have the self-centered person who disregards his spiritual connection with god praying and suddenly becoming “religious” when things go awry. We have all known people like this, who claim to not care about the Divine but immediately begin to pray when faced with adversity. But I also see a more spiritual interpretation. Once Polyphemus is blinded, he no longer sees the physical world. Instead, his vision is turned within and he recognizes his connection to the world of the Divine.

I mentioned before that one of the archetypes that Odysseus represents is the Trickster. In this part of the tale, he establishes himself as the Trickster. He begins his ruse by telling Polyphemus that his name is “Nobody.”

Kyklops,
you ask my honorable name? Remember
the gift you promised me, and I shall tell you.
My name is Nohbdy: mother, father, and friends,
everyone calls me Nohbdy.

(ibid: pp. 155 – 156)

After Odysseus and his men drive the stake into the Cyclops’ eye, Polyphemus calls out to the other Cyclopes for help.

‘What ails you,
Polyphemos? Why do you cry so sore
in the starry night? You will not let us sleep.
Sure no man’s driving off your flock? No man
has tricked you, ruined you?’

Out of the cave
the mammoth Polyphemos roared in answer:

‘Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me!’

To this rough shout they made a sage reply:

‘Ah well, if nobody has played you foul
there in your lonely bed, we are no use in pain
given by great Zeus. Let it be your father,
Poseidon Lord, to whom you pray.’

(ibid: p. 157)

Odysseus responds to the events as the Trickster would, showing delight in his craft and deception.

So saying
they trailed away. And I was filled with laughter
to see how like a charm the name deceived them.

(ibid: p. 157)

As Odysseus and his men escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus begins to take on characteristics of the hero archetype. A hero has a flaw, which ultimately leads to the hero’s fall. Frequently, hubris is the flaw which heroes exhibit, and this is the case with Odysseus. He acts out of hubris and this ultimately allows Polyphemus to summon Poseidon’s wrath upon Odysseus.

I would not heed them in my glorying spirit,
but let my anger flare and yelled:

‘Kyklops,
if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laertes’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!’

(ibid: p. 160)

This is a great book in the epic and truly demonstrates the complexity of Odysseus as a character. I hope you found my thoughts interesting and be sure to check back for my thoughts on Book X soon.

Cheers!

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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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Announcing New Read-Along: Homer’s “Odyssey”

Odyssey

I’ve been considering re-reading The Odyssey again for a while now. This will be my third time reading it. For this reading, I wanted a translation that was true to the poetic feel of Homer’s original. I reached out to Symbol Reader, a friend and fellow blogger, to get her recommendation. She suggested Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.

(If you are not familiar with her site, I highly recommend you visit. Her blog is one of my favorites: symbolreader.net)

My plan is to read through the text and post my thoughts and analysis for each of the twenty-four books contained in the epic. If you are interested in reading along and using the comments section to share your thoughts, questions, impressions, you are encouraged to do so. I will be sharing my first post on “Book I” soon.

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”

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