Tag Archives: Odysseus

“The Sorrow of Love” by William Butler Yeats


The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.

A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;

Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.

I read this poem a couple times through to try to get a sense of what Yeats was conveying. I suspected that he was making references to Maud Gonne, and a quick search online confirmed this. So then I thought about what aspect of his love for Gonne might be causing him sorrow, and I suspect it is connected with the symbolism of the fall in the Garden of Eden.

There is a definite impression of Eden, especially in the first and third stanzas. The reference to “man’s image” implies the archetypal being embodied in Adam. Also, the image of the “famous harmony of leaves” conjures a vision of the innocent state of man in the Garden, contrasted by the “lamentation of the leaves” which may refer to the use of leaves by Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after the fall.

I get the sense that Yeats felt like he sacrificed something deep and meaningful to himself for Maud, or else he became separated from her and left lost and adrift like Odysseus, trying to return to her. I am not sure, but there is a tangible feeling of sadness associated with his love for Gonne.



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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXIV – Warriors, Farewell


It seems that Homer faced the same challenge that writers face today when trying to close an epic series. How does one creatively and successfully bring a saga to a close? As I read this, I was reminded of the many great television series that I watched, and the ones that had successful closings and the ones that failed miserably. I had a sense that Homer struggled here. How could he bring such an epic tale to a close?

Because I hate spoilers, I am not going to go into the details of this episode. I will share my opinion, though. It felt somewhat lukewarm to me. It didn’t suck, but it wasn’t great either. It almost felt like a postscript, some commentary at the end. While there were some interesting sections, the overall impression I had was that Homer was trying to tie up all the loose ends and present what he felt was closure to the tale. And that’s OK, but honestly, there were a few parts that felt contrived and other parts which I felt could have been omitted. I could have let my imagination come up with scenarios for what happened to the souls of the slaughtered suitors. Sometimes, it’s best to leave some details open for the readers (or listeners in Homer’s day) to fill in on their own. But that’s just my opinion, for what it’s worth.

Anyway, that brings this blog series to a close. I hope you enjoyed it and I want to thank you for going on this literary odyssey with me. Thanks for all your great comments, and be sure to keep on reading cool stuff!


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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXIII – The Trunk of the Olive Tree

Odysseus and Penelope in Bed: Source - Wikipedia

Odysseus and Penelope in Bed: Source – Wikipedia

After the battle, Eurycleia wakes Penelope and tells her what happened. Penelope is reluctant to believe what happened, even after seeing Odysseus. She believes she is being tricked, which is ironic considering Odysseus is the consummate trickster. To test whether Odysseus is who he says he is, she instructs Eurycleia to move the bed, which angers Odysseus. He asserts that the bed cannot be moved since it was constructed from the trunk of an olive tree that was still embedded in the ground. At this point, Penelope is convinced. The couple retires together and Odysseus briefly recounts his tale.

The bed is the primary symbol in this episode. The fact that it is built into the trunk of the olive tree implies permanence and stability. It is also the central point of the house, which is constructed around the tree. It is also a symbol of the pledge of love between Odysseus and Penelope, a connection which can never be uprooted.

There is our pact and pledge, our secret sign,
built into that bed—my handiwork
and no one else’s!

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 435)

As I read the description of the bed, and how the chamber was sealed and no one other than the couple and Penelope’s slave have ever laid eyes on the inner sanctum, I could not help seeing a correlation between the bedchamber and the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. In Solomon’s Temple, the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant; similarly, the bed and the olive tree symbolize the covenant between Odysseus and Penelope.

But here and now, what sign could be so clear
as this of our own bed?
No other man has ever laid eyes on it—
only my own slave, Aktoris, that my father
sent with me as a gift—she kept our door.

(ibid: p, 436)

After all the trials that both Odysseus and Penelope suffered, it is great to see them united and happy. Check back soon for my final installment on The Odyssey.



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


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 XXI – The Test of the Bow

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Penelope announces she will marry the suitor who can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through a line of 12 axe heads. The suitors all fail, and then Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, easily strings the weapon and shoots an arrow through the axe heads.

The first thing I considered when I read this episode was the symbolism of the 12 axes. My initial thought is that the axes represent the 12 zodiac signs. There is a lot of support for astrological symbolism incorporated into The Odyssey. For more information on this topic, I recommend visiting the Symbol Reader blog. Search the page for posts on The Odyssey. There are several very good posts there on astrological symbolism in the text.

When Odysseus asks for a try at the bow, the suitors are opposed. Telemachus speaks up and strongly asserts his right over who can use the bow. The bow, therefore, becomes a symbol of authority over the household. Once the bow is placed into Odysseus’ hands, then he will once again be master of the house.

Mother, as to the bow and who may handle it
or not handle it, no man here
has more authority than I do—not one lord
of our own stony Ithaka nor the islands lying
east toward Elis: no one stops me if I choose
to give these weapons outright to my guest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 402)

Finally, there is another analogy regarding the bow that is worth noting. The narrator (which we can assume is Homer as poet/bard) establishes a connection between Odysseus’ bow and the harp of the poet/bard. Homer is asserting that warriors and poets are similar in essence, that deep down in the psyches of both, there is a shared attribute which both the bard and the warrior possess.

But the man skilled in all ways of contending,
satisfied by the great bow’s look and heft,
like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the chord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow’s note.

(ibid: p. 404)

Just as the tension of the bow increases before the arrow is launched, so the tension of the overall story increases before the moment when Odysseus launches into his attack on the suitors. It is impossible to get to the end of this book without diving right in to the next episode. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XXII. Cheers!



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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XX – Signs and a Vision


Benjamin West, Artist

This episode serves to build tension and prepare for the moment when Odysseus will strike down the suitors and reclaim his home. Throughout this section, divine signs are provided which foretell the events to come.

I figured for this post I would provide an example of one of the omens. The following is the vision which is bestowed upon Theoklymenos.

O lost sad men, what terror is this you suffer?
Night shrouds you to the knees, your heads, your faces;
dry retch of death runs round like fire in sticks;
your cheeks are streaming; these fair walls and pedestals
are dripping with crimson blood. And thick with shades
is the entry way, the courtyard thick with shades
passing athirst toward Erebos, into the dark,
the sun is quenched in heaven, foul mist hems us in…

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 386)

It’s a very dark, apocalyptic vision, and one which the suitors in their folly laugh at. I find this sadly similar to the warnings given by scientists regarding the coming impacts of climate change and the reactions by those who deny the inevitable. There have always been and always will be those who refuse to pay heed to the signs, until it is too late.



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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XIX – Recognitions and a Dream


Quite a bit happens in this book. Odysseus speaks with Penelope (though he is still in disguise and she does not recognize him. The elderly maid, Eurycleia, while washing Odysseus’ feet, recognizes his scar and realizes his true identity. Penelope tells Odysseus about a dream she had, which he interprets for her. And finally, Penelope decides to hold a contest using Odysseus’ bow to see which of the suitors she will marry.

There were several passages in this episode that I found interesting. The first was when Penelope describes how she tricked the suitors by telling them she needed to finish her weaving before she could marry. She would weave during the day and then surreptitiously undo her weaving at night (Fitzgerald Translation: p. 358). The tale presents Penelope as similar to Odysseus, almost like a feminine trickster archetype. It is clear that she also relies upon her wit and craft, as does her husband.

The next passage that caught my attention was when Odysseus swears to Penelope that her husband will return.

Here is my sworn word for it. Witness this,
god of the zenith, noblest of the gods,
and Lord Odysseus’ hearthfire, now before me:
I swear these things shall turn out as I say.
Between this present dark and one day’s ebb,
after the wane, before the crescent moon,
Odysseus will come.

(ibid: p. 363)

I found it interesting that not only does Odysseus swear by the gods, but also by the hearth. I suspect the hearth served as a kind of altar. I can picture statues of gods around a hearth, and it appears that the hearth was used as a place to burn offerings to the gods. The hearth is clearly considered to be something sacred.

What is even more important about this passage, though, is the astrological symbolism. Odysseus predicts his return to coincide with the new moon, the period after the waning cycle before the new crescent forms. So when the moon is in this phase, it is considered to be veiled. The moon still exists, but it is hidden. This represents the state of Odysseus. He is there, but veiled (disguised). As the moon begins the cycle of revealing itself, then Odysseus will also reveal himself. So essentially, we have a cosmic connection between the heavens and the events with which Odysseus is involved.

The last passage I want to discuss from this episode concerns the two types of dreams.

many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.
Two gates for ghostly dreams there are: one gateway
of honest horn, and one of ivory.
Issuing by the ivory gate are dreams
of glimmering illusion, fantasies,
but those that come through solid polished horn
may be borne out, if mortals only know them.

(ibid: p. 371)

I interpret this as representing the two types of consciousness: normal waking consciousness and the deeper subconscious. What is puzzling, though, is which type of dream symbolizes which type of consciousness. Are the glimmering illusions and fantasies what we perceive when we delve into our subconscious minds, or are the illusions what we perceive to be real in our normal state of consciousness? Are the dreams associated with the polished horn reality as we perceive it through ordinary consciousness, or is it the realm of forms and archetypes associated with the subconscious that mortals need to interpret symbolically? Personally, I feel that ordinary reality is the glimmering illusion and that the subconscious is the realm of divine truths, “if mortals only know them.”

There are lots of other thought-provoking passages in this episode (I have many more entries in my journal), but as another famous poet wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” so I will choose not to write too much. I do encourage you to read this episode closely, though. There is a lot here and it is worth the effort to read closely and carefully.




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