Tag Archives: Telemachus

“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 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 XVI – Father and Son

"Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus" by Henri-Lucien Doucet

“Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus” by Henri-Lucien Doucet

In this episode, Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited. After Eumaeus leaves his hut to go inform Penelope that Telemachus has returned safely, Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachus and together they plot the overthrow of the suitors.

What stood out for me the most in this episode was all the irony. For example, when Odysseus reveals himself to his son, Telemachus thinks it’s a trick.

You cannot
be my father Odysseus! Meddling spirits
conceived this trick to twist the knife in me!
No man of woman born could work these wonders
by his own craft, unless a god came into it
with ease to turn him young or old at will.
I swear you were in rags and old,
and here you stand like one of the immortals!

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 295 – 296)

Here Odysseus is revealing his true self, without disguise, but his own son does not believe it is him. It’s almost like he has been pretending to be someone else for so long that now he cannot be himself. Shortly afterwards, Odysseus says to Telemachus that he is going to tell him the “plain truth” about how he got to Ithaca.

Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.
Great seafarers, the Phaiakians, gave me passage
as they give other wanderers. By night
over the open ocean, while I slept,
they brought me in their cutter, set me down
on Ithaka, with gifts of bronze and gold
and stores of woven things. By the gods’ will
these lie hidden in a cave. I came
to this wild place, directed by Athena,
so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

(ibid: pp. 296 – 297)

As far as I can tell, this is the first time that Odysseus has been completely honest in this tale. But the most ironic passage in this section occurs toward the end of the episode, when Eurymakhos lies to Penelope and tells her that there was no plot against Telemachus.

Blasphemous lies
in earnest tones he told—the one who planned
the lad’s destruction!

(ibid: p. 304)

So we have Odysseus, the trickster, who has been lying his way through the entire odyssey so far, who is deemed a hero, and yet the suitor who lies is blasphemous. Not that I am siding with the suitors; I most certainly am not. I just find the comparison to be quite ironic.

That’s all for now. Check back for my thoughts on Book XVII.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XV – How They Came to Ithaka

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Athena travels to Sparta and instructs Telemachus to go back to Ithaca. She also warns him about the trap that the suitors have set to kill him before he gets home. She tells him how to avoid the trap and says that he should go to the house of the swineherd Eumaeus before returning to his home. As this is taking place, Odysseus is still at the home of Eumaeus where they continue to share stories.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular book. It seems like pieces are being set in motion and moved into place. There did seem to be an emphasis on omens, though, especially concerning birds. Telemachus is presented with two omens. The first one is interpreted by Helen.

Listen:
I can tell you—tell what the omen means,
as light is given to me, and as I see it
point by point fulfilled. The beaked eagle
flew from the wild mountain of his fathers
to take for prey the tame house bird. Just so,
Odysseus, back from his hard trials and wandering,
will soon come down in fury on his house.
He may be there today, and a black hour
he brings upon the suitors.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 273)

The second omen is interpreted by Theoklymenos.

A god spoke in this bird-sign on the right.
I knew it when I saw the hawk fly over us.
There is no kinglier house than yours, Telemakhos,
here in the realm of Ithaka. Your family
will be in power forever.

(ibid: p. 285)

I have personally had some life-changing events happen in my life following “unusual” encounters with birds. I’ve come to believe that when you have an encounter with a bird that is out of the ordinary, it is definitely a sign. I’m curious—have any of you had an encounter with a bird and had something significant happen afterwards? Feel free to share your stories.

Cheers!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book IV – The Red-Haired King and his Lady

Proteus

In this episode, Telemachus and Pisistratus go to Sparta and meet with Menelaus and Helen to inquire about the fate of Odysseus. Over dinner, the king and queen share stories of Odysseus’ feats at Troy, and Menelaus recounts how he made it back after the war. Also in this book, the suitors discover that Telemachus has left Ithaca and they plot to murder him upon his return. Mendon overhears the plans and informs Penelope who grieves that she may lose her son as well as her husband. She prays to Athena, and Athena sends a phantom to let Penelope know that Telemachus will be protected by the goddess.

There is a lot that takes place in this book and it would be easy to write a long post analyzing all the various tales and symbolism, but instead I will focus on one small section that I found to be the most interesting, which was Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus.

Menelaus tells how he was stranded in Egypt and could not figure out how to please the gods and gain favorable passage to leave the region. Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea, takes pity on him and agrees to help Menelaus capture Proteus and thereby acquire the information he needs to escape the doldrums.

I’ll put it for you clearly as maybe, friend.
The Ancient of the Salt Sea haunts this place,
immortal Proteus of Egypt; all the deeps
are known to him; he serves under Poseidon,
and is, they say, my father.
If you could take him by surprise and hold him,
he’d give you course and distance for your sailing
homeward across the cold fish-breeding sea.
And should you wish it, noble friend, he’d tell you
all that occurred at home, both good and evil,
while you were gone so long and hard a journey.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 64)

Before continuing, it is important to note that Proteus is a symbol for the unconscious mind. The god is also associated with Mercury in alchemy.

The German mystical alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote of the shape-changing sea-god who, because of his relationship to the sea, is both a symbol of the unconscious as well as the perfection of the art. Alluding to the scintilla, the spark from ‘the light of nature’ and symbol of the anima mundi, Khunrath in Gnostic vein stated of the Protean element Mercury:

“ our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and …power over all things.”

—Von Hyleanischen Chaos, Carl Jung, vol. 14:50

In modern times, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung defined the mythological figure of Proteus as a personification of the unconscious, who, because of his gift of prophecy and shape-changing, has much in common with the central but elusive figure of alchemy, Mercurius.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Eidothea lays out the plan to Menelaus. It is a fairly long passage, but one that I find rich with symbolism and worth including in this post.

I’ll tell you this, too, clearly as may be.
When the sun hangs at high noon in heaven,
the Ancient glides ashore under the Westwind,
hidden by shivering glooms on the clear water,
and rests in caverns hollowed by the sea.
There flippered seals, brine children, shining come
from silvery foam in crowds to lie around him,
exhaling rankness from the deep sea floor.
Tomorrow dawn I’ll take you to those caves
and bed you down there. Choose three officers
for company—brave men they had better be—
the old one has strange powers, I must tell you.
He goes amid the seals to check their number,
and when he sees them all, and counts them all,
he lies down like a shepherd with his flock.
Here is your opportunity: at this point
gather yourselves, with all your heart and strength,
and tackle him before he bursts away.
He’ll make you fight—for he can take the forms
of all the beasts, and water, and blinding fire;
but you must hold on, even so, and crush him
until he breaks his silence. When he does,
he will be in that shape you saw asleep.
Relax your grip, then, set the Ancient free,
and put your questions, hero:
Who is the god so hostile to you,
and how will you go home on the fish-cold sea.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 65)

First off, the depths from which Proteus will emerge represent the mystical realm which is the source of archetypes and forms, the unseen source of divine emanation. The seals are symbols of the forms which are emanated from the depths of the creative consciousness. The fact that the seals emerge from “silvery foam” suggests the alchemical connection to mercury.

Proteus is described as having “strange powers.” While these could be the powers of transformation, I suspect that the powers also have something to do with the ability to manipulate the emanated forms into corporeal manifestations.

Finally, Menelaus must wrestle with the god of the sea, and must hold onto the god no matter what. This is very similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel, which is symbolic for man wrestling with the concept of the divine. So essentially, Menelaus must grapple with the unknowable aspect of the god-consciousness in order to acquire the knowledge he seeks. He must struggle to keep hold on that which is fluid and ever changing.

As I said, there are many other rich aspects to this book: Menelaus’ comparison between earthly riches and spiritual wealth; the mystical knowledge of herbs and drugs that Helen acquired from the magicians in Egypt; and Telemachus’ voyage to sea as a symbol of a rite of passage. As always, feel free to share any thoughts or comments below, and thanks for stopping by.


 

Further Reading:

Fascinating Mythical Creatures: Proteus

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book III – The Lord of the Western Approaches

BullSacrifice

This book takes place in Pylos. Telemachus and Athena (disguised as Mentor) arrive and witness a religious ceremony in which 81 bulls are sacrificed to Poseidon. Afterwards, they meet with Nestor who relates what he knows about what happened to Odysseus after the Trojan War.

The number 9 appears several times in this book. First, at the ceremony, there are nine congregations and each one is offering nine bulls, for a total of 81 bulls. It is also worth noting that 81 in some forms of mystical numerology is broken down to 8+1 which again equals 9.

On the shore
black bulls were being offered by the people
to the blue-maned god who makes the islands tremble:
nine congregations, each five hundred strong,
led out nine bulls apiece to sacrifice,
taking the tripes to eat, while on the altars
thighbones of fat lay burning for the god.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 35)

The number nine also appears when Nestor is relating events to Telemachus and Athena.

Think: we were there nine years, and we tried everything,
all stratagems against them,
up to the bitter end that Zeus begrudged us.

(ibid: p. 38)

The number 9 is a truly mystical number, and I suspect its prominence in this book has symbolic meaning.

Of all the single digit numbers, nine (9) may be the most profound. Composed of three trinities (3 times 3 equals 9), nine represents the principles of the sacred Triad taken to their utmost expression. The Chaldeans believed 9 to be sacred, and kept it apart in their numerology from the other numbers. Nine has been and in some cases still is considered thrice sacred and represents perfection, balance, order — in effect, the supreme superlative.

(Source: http://www.halexandria.org/dward091.htm)

In kabbalistic numerology, the number 9 corresponds with the sefirah Yesod and represents the power of connection, particularly between the earthly and the divine.

Yesod (Hebrew: יסוד “foundation”) is a sephirah in the kabbalistic Tree of Life. Yesod is the sephirah below Hod and Netzach, and above Malkuth (the kingdom). It is the vehicle, from one thing or condition to another. It is the power of connection.

The sephirah of Yesod translates spiritual concepts into actions that unite us with God.

It is often associated with the Moon, because it is the sphere which reflects the light of all the other sephirot into Malkuth, and it is associated with the sexual organs, because it is here that the higher spheres connect to the earth.

It plays the role of collecting and balancing the different and opposing energies of Hod and Netzach, and also from Tiferet above it, storing and distributing it throughout the world. It is likened to the ‘engine-room’ of creation.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So my interpretation of this section of the Odyssey is that it is establishing a connection between the human and the divine, the conscious and the subconscious, the known and the ineffable. It is also worth noting that this all occurs in the third book, with 3 being the square root of 9.

There are other interesting aspects and passages in this book, but I think this is enough to mull over for now. Of course, please feel free to share any thoughts or things you would like to discuss in the comments section below. Thanks for stopping by.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book II – A Hero’s Son Awakens

Source: artic.edu

Source: artic.edu

In this book, Telemachus attends the assembly, representing his father. He entreats the suitors to abandon his family’s estate, but they mock him. Afterwards, he enlists the aid of Athena to assist him in securing a ship to sail to Pylos and Sparta. When all is prepared, he sneaks away in the night and only the old nurse Eurykleia is made aware of his departure.

There are two passages in this section that stood out for me. The first one takes place during Telemachus’ response to Antinoos during the assembly.

But if your hearts are capable of shame,
leave my great hall, and take your dinner elsewhere,
consume your own stores. Turn and turn about,
use one another’s houses. If you choose
to slaughter one man’s livestock and pay nothing,
this is rapine; and by the eternal gods
I beg Zeus you shall get what you deserve:
a slaughter here, and nothing paid for it!

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 23)

What I found interesting about this passage is that the act of being ungracious and abusing a host is seen as a horrific act worthy of death. One gets the impression that the suitors are raping the household, that there is violent violation in their actions. And I personally see an environmental message here. We as a species are but guests and visitors on this earth. As such, we should be respectful of what the earth has to offer. To use and consume all that the earth has to offer without regard is equivalent to what the suitors are doing in Odysseus’ home.

The next section I want to explore takes place when Mentor is addressing the assembly.

“Hear me, Ithakans! Hear what I have to say.
Let no man holding scepter as a king
be thoughtful, mild, kindly, or virtuous;
let him be cruel, and practice evil ways;
it is so clear that no one here remembers
how like a gentle father Odysseus ruled you.
I find it less revolting that the suitors
carry their malice into violent acts;
at least they stake their lives
when they go pillaging the house of Odysseus—
their lives upon it, he will not come again.
What sickens me is to see the whole community
sitting still, and never a voice or a hand raised
against them—a mere handful compared with you.”

(ibid: pp 25 – 26)

This may have been my favorite passage in this book. Mentor condemns, not the suitors, but those citizens who stand by in complacency and do nothing while these atrocities occur. I was reminded of the holocaust. The citizens of Ithaca who refuse to condemn the actions of the suitors are no different than the people who stood by and silently watched as millions of Jews were massacred. Who is worse—the Nazi soldier who is carrying out his orders, or the person who stands by silently and refuses to do anything? It is a challenging question and one that is worth contemplating. Would you stand by if you saw someone being abused, or would you speak out? It is something we should all ask ourselves.

If you are reading along, I would love to hear your thoughts on these or other passages in this book. Please feel free to comment below. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read my thoughts. Cheers!

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