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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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“The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats

StolenChildThis morning I read “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats. I’d read the poem in college, but it had been a while since I had last read it. The poem is a little too long to post on the blog, but you can click here to read it online.

(Note: There is a discrepancy between the online versions I found and the version in my print book edited by M. L. Rosenthal. The last line in the online versions starts with “For” but in the print version it begins with “From.” This greatly changes the meaning of the last line, in my opinion, so just consider that when reading.)

The poem is basically an allegory of the loss of childhood fantasy and imagination which seems to be told from the perspective of the faery folk. The child believes in faeries and magic, but the “real” world of adulthood is poised to steal the child away from the realm of imagination and draw the child into the world of sorrow and weeping. In addition to the basic interpretation, I recall discussions in college about how this poem could also be symbolic of Irish culture being stolen by the English, or pagan traditions being usurped by Christianity.

Structurally, the poem works like a childhood song. There is a refrain at the end of each stanza which enhances the musical feel. I would not be surprised if someone put this to music. If I didn’t have to start work soon, I would search YouTube to see if anyone has done so.

There are a couple of passages that stood out for me on this reading which I’d like to look at closer.

We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;

What I found interesting about these lines is that they invoke an image of Celtic tradition, particularly with the weaving. I almost get a sense of artists designing Celtic knots. The words also conjure imagery of pagan dances. I can envision people dancing around a May Pole, weaving their ribbons as they dance in circles around the pole.

The other passage that I found interesting is:

We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;

The first thing that struck me is that trout do not have ears, so there is no way that anyone could whisper into a trout’s ear. There are a couple possible interpretations here. First, it could be the child’s imagination creating an image of a fish with ears, but also–and this is what I find the most thought-provoking–it could symbolically represent how faeries communicate with people in our realm. I suspect that Yeats viewed faeries as beings from another dimension, and that the threshold between these dimensions is easily crossed by children. As adults, greater effort is required to cross the span between realms. But the issue arises: how do beings from different planes of reality communicate? I think that Yeats was trying to express that faeries communicate in a non-verbal manner with people in our realm, that the words are projected directly into our psyches, similar to speaking into the non-existent ears of a fish.

The more I read Yeats’ works, the more I appreciate his genius. He can be challenging, but that is a good thing when reading poetry, since the thing about poetry which I love the most is that it seeks to express that which is difficult to express in a way other than through symbols. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

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