Tag Archives: Troy

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XVIII – Blows and a Queen’s Beauty

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

Statue of Penelope, Vatican

In this episode, Odysseus, still disguised as a beggar, fights with another beggar named Irus. The rowdy suitors cheer on the fight as entertainment, and Odysseus easily beats Irus. Then Penelope comes down to address the suitors and tricks them into bringing her gifts as a way of winning her. Penelope, like Odysseus, employs trickery and manipulation.

There are two things in this episode I want to point out. The first is the ideal of feminine beauty and the second is the symbol of fire.

Before going down to address the suitors, Penelope goes to sleep. While she is asleep, Athena heightens her feminine beauty. What struck me about this passage is how similar Penelope’s beauty is to Greek statuary. I have always thought of Greek sculpture as the ideal of physical beauty, so essentially, Athena is altering Penelope’s appearance so that she resembles a statue, or the ideal of what female beauty.

And while she slept the goddess
endowed her with immortal grace to hold
the eyes of the Akhaians. With ambrosia
she bathed her cheeks and throat and smoothed her brow—
ambrosia, used by flower-crowned Kythereia
when she would join the rose-lipped Graces dancing.
Grandeur she gave her, too, in height and form,
and made her whiter than carved ivory.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 342)

When Penelope appears before the suitors, she is praised for her beauty.

Penelope,
deep-minded queen, daughter of Ikarios,
if all the Akhaians in the land of Argos
only saw you now! What hundreds more
would join your suitors here to feast tomorrow!
Beauty like yours no woman had before,
or majesty, or mastery.

(ibid: p. 344)

What’s interesting about this passage is the claim that Penelope is more beautiful than any woman before. This would mean she is more beautiful than Helen, whose abduction started the Trojan War and led Odysseus from his home. So now, on a smaller scale, we have another battle ready to begin over a beautiful woman. It is almost as if the suitors symbolize the Trojans and Odysseus the Achaeans who went to fight in Troy.

So as I mentioned earlier, the symbol of fire was also significant to me as I read this episode. The first passage I want to discuss is when Odysseus takes his place beside the fire to tend to it while the suitors continue their revelry.

I stand here
ready to tend to these flares and offer light
to everyone. They cannot tire me out,
even if they wish to drink till Dawn.
I am a patient man.

(ibid: p. 346)

The first thing I thought of as I read this is that the fire represents illumination and that Odysseus is being likened to Prometheus. His adventures and tales serve as inspiration, lighting the way for generations of future poets and writers. But then as I thought about it some more, I found a second possible interpretation. The fire could also be a symbol of Odysseus’ wrath. If this is the case, then by standing and tending the flames, he is essentially feeding the rage that burns within him, and being “a patient man,” he will bide his time until he is ready to unleash his fury upon those who usurp his home.

There is another passage that supports the idea of fire as illumination. This is a quote by Eurymakhos as he observes Odysseus near the fire.

This man
comes with a certain aura of divinity
into Odysseus’ hall. He shines.

He shines
around the noggin, like a flashing light,
having no hair at all to dim his luster.

(ibid: p. 347)

As I read this, I had an image of Odysseus with an aura, almost like a halo. He shines with divine light, with an inner fire that makes him like a god.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I found the symbolism to be intriguing and the flow of the tale to be brilliant. Check back soon for my thoughts on Book XIX.

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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 XI – A Gathering of the Shades

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

Odysseus and Tiresias: Wikipedia

In this book, Odysseus describes how he performed the ritual that Circe instructed him to do. He raises the spirit of Tiresias who tells Odysseus that he is being punished by Poseidon for blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He then describes the other spirits he encountered, specifically the warriors that died at the battle of Troy. He also sees the punishment of Sisyphus.

The section that stood out the most for me in this book is when Alkinoos praises Odysseus for his honesty.

As to that, one word, Odysseus:
from all we see, we take you for no swindler—
though the dark earth be patient of so many,
scattered everywhere, baiting their traps with lies
of old times and of places no one knows.
You speak with art, but your intent is honest.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 197)

We have some serious irony here. Odysseus is not really an honest person. He’s the Trickster. I’m starting to think that he is making all this up, that the odyssey is really a mental construct in Odysseus’ mind. I am going to have to start reading a little closer to see if I can uncover any more clues to support the assertion that Odysseus is really full of it and just making up a story. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Read on, friends!

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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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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“The Rose of the World” by William Butler Yeats

Rose

Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

We and the laboring world are passing by:—
Amid men’s souls that day by day gives place,
More fleeting than the sea’s foam-fickle face,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one stood beside His seat;
He made the world, to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.

According to the literary analysis I read, this poem was written by Yeats to Maud Gonne, with whom he was in love. He expresses that she is the embodiment of beauty that is eternal and does not pass and fade “like a dream.” He compares her beauty with Helen of Troy’s, as well as with Usna from ancient Irish mythology. While I do not question that Gonne was the inspiration for this poem, I think that Yeats is also expressing something else here.

The first two stanzas address the temporality and impermanence of our lives, contrasted with the eternal, spiritual quality of Beauty, symbolized by the rose. For me, the key to understanding the hidden meaning in this poem lies in the third stanza, where Yeats asserts that Beauty is archetypal and existed before the existence of the archangels.

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,

As the stanza continues, we are presented with the image of God just prior to his creation of the world. Beside him is an unnamed feminine presence. This would be the goddess aspect of the dyad, or the feminine half of the godhead. Yeats is claiming that Beauty is a characteristic of the goddess and existed before creation. Since Maud Gonne possesses Beauty in Yeats’ eyes, he can only assume that the goddess is manifest within her.

Yeats was very interested in mythology and the occult. Whenever I read a poem by Yeats, I always approach it from the perspective that he has hidden occult symbolism somewhere in the verse. In this poem, I believe that the rose is the symbol for the goddess, whose eternal beauty is expressed in human form through Maud Gonne.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 2

Image Source: www.comicvine.com

Stephen Dedalus — Image Source: http://www.comicvine.com

This is a short episode, but there is a lot going on. For me, this episode sets the groundwork for the saga which will unfold throughout the book. Some of the dominant themes that stood out for me were memory, history, money, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.

Early in the episode, Stephen Dedalus’ mind wanders as he briefly considers memory. There is a sense that Stephen is haunted by memories, most likely the result of his pain over his mother’s death. I suspect that the reason for this is because often the most vivid memories are the sharpest and most painful, those which cut directly into the psyche.

Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it. A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?

(p. 24)

As Stephen is discussing Pyrrhus with the class he is teaching, one of the students jokes that Pyrrhus was a pier. Stephen then follows the prompt and explores what is a pier.

—Tell me now, Stephen said, poking the boy’s shoulder with the book, what is a pier.

—A pier, sir, Armstrong said. A thing out in the waves. A kind of bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.

(p. 24)

The pier then becomes a symbol for memory. It is something solid that juts out into the sea of the subconscious. And despite the continuous crashing of the waves of forgetfulness against the pylons holding up the pier, the pier remains, just as the painful memories persist. It is also worth noting that a pier is a place where ships depart and dock, so the pier also builds the connection to the seafaring Odysseus.

As the class is dismissing, Stephen offers the following riddle to the class:

The cock crew
The sky was blue:
The bells in heaven
Were striking eleven.
Tis time for this poor soul
To go to heaven.

(p. 26)

The students are unable to solve the riddle, so Stephen tells them that the answer is “The fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush.” (p. 27) This is a totally absurdist answer and has no relevance to the riddle whatsoever. I would go as far as asserting it is a Dadaist answer. I pondered the riddle for a bit and came up with my own answer: Judas Iscariot. There were originally twelve apostles, and one would assume that eleven of them were admitted into heaven, hence the ringing of the eleven bells. Judas was sent to hell, for betraying Christ and for committing suicide. The riddle implies that it is time to forgive Judas for his sins and allow his soul access to heaven. I think Joyce dropped a little hint to the riddle in the text, because on page 29, he mentions the twelve apostles.

The image of the fox reappears, but now it seems to be a symbol for a historian, a sly and intelligent creature who is obsessed with digging up the past, with scraping away the debris of time to uncover the history buried below the surface.

A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.

(p. 28)

The second half of this episode focuses on Stephen’s interactions with Mr. Deasy, the schoolmaster. I personally found Deasy to be a most disdainful character and he could easily be called Mr. Queasy, since he kind of made me feel sick. He is self-righteous, obsessed with money, brazenly anti-Semitic, and misogynistic.

Deasy lectures Stephen on the importance of money, emphasizing that money is power. He then tosses in a quote by Shakespeare to back up his assertion, but Stephen catches the irony of the fact that it was Iago who Deasy quoted, and Iago is not a model character.

—Because you don’t save, Mr Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don’t know what money is. Money is power, when you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? Put but money in thy purse.

—Iago, Stephen murmured.

(p. 30)

Shortly afterward, Deasy launches into an anti-Semitic rant. He employs the same inane arguments that have fueled anti-Jewish sentiment for years: that the Jews control the government, the banks, the press, and so forth. He then accuses the Jews of being the cause of society’s decline.

—Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.

(p. 33)

After Stephen attempts to defend the Jews against Deasy’s accusations, he says something that really struck a nerve with me:

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

(p. 34)

On one level, this is an expression of the connection between memory and history. Stephen’s past haunts and torments him, and try as he may, he cannot free himself from his personal history. But there is also a larger issue here. Our society is formed based upon human history. Whether we remember the past or forget it collectively, it doesn’t matter all that much. We are still the products of our collective past. If you wanted to apply a Jungian analysis, you could also argue that our collective consciousness is tied to our collective history, and we are bound to it, unable to free ourselves. It’s kind of a dark rabbit hole to start going down, and for one who has always viewed history in a positive light, this casts a shroud over my long-standing views on the value of history and memory.

Next, Deasy launches into his tirade against women. During his rant, he mentions Helen of Troy, which serves to tie the scene in with the Homeric motif.

—I am happier than you are, he said. We have committed many errors and many sins. A woman brought sin into the world. For a woman who was no better than she should be, Helen, the runaway wife of Menelaus, ten years the Greeks make war on troy. A faithless wife first brought strangers to our shore here. MacMurrough’s wife and her leman O’Rourke, prince of Breffini. A woman too brought Parnell low. Many errors, many failures but not one sin. I am a struggler now at the end of my days. But I will fight for the right till the end.

(pp. 34 – 35)

As I read this again, I couldn’t help wondering how Stephen felt hearing this, especially with the pain of his mother’s death still fresh. He does not react to it, other than signaling he is ready to leave. I suspect he is hurt and angry, but because he is financially broke and struggling, and needs the work, he is afraid to speak out. I feel for Stephen. He is in a terrible place.

The episode concludes with Deasy making a joke about the Jews.

—I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.

(p. 36)

For me, this is the key setup for what is to come. There is a similarity between the Jews wandering in the desert and Odysseus traveling the seas. Both are wanderers attempting to return home, but can’t. It is also important to note that Leopold Bloom (who correlates to Odysseus and will appear soon in the story) is Jewish.

The next episode concludes the first part of the book. If you are reading along, I expect to have my thoughts on Episode 3 to be up in about a week. Read on!

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