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

OdysseusNurse

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.

Friend,
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.

Cheers!

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