According to a well-known saying by Whitehead, all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Philosophy may have begun with Plato but storytelling and literature began with minstrel poets such as Homer. Our cultural womb and cradle is ancient Greece; rereading the Odyssey and marveling at its psychological depth left me with no doubt about that. The world of the Odyssey is imbued with the presence of gods and goddesses. You may be familiar with James Hillman’s notion that in our times gods have been replaced with symptoms with some dire consequences for our collective and individual psyches. Reading myths helps us keep in touch with the divine realm and our own divine essence, hence my little project with the Odyssey. Tracing Hillman’s thought, it is true that we can say that Odysseus is depressed on the island of Calypso, but how much more fascinating and non-pathologizing is to view his sojourn there as gestation, deepening, getting in touch with his soul or feminine side. Homer chooses to start his epic while Odysseus is on the island of the veiled nymph and sorceress Calypso, whose name means “She Who Conceals”: it is on day seven, when the moon is in its dark, balsamic phase, that we encounter our hero for the first time, weeping on the shores of Calypso’s island:
“Her ladyship Kalypso
clung to him in her sea-hollowed caves—
a nymph, immortal and most beautiful,
who craved him for her own.” (translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
Eva Brann, a Greek scholar, thus comments on this line, referring to its sound in Greek:
“It is the Concealer’s signature line, her longing expressed in bewitchingly gliding, slithering sounds, and with them goes a luxurious landscape surrounding the cavernous womb of Ogygia, which is ‘the navel of the sea’.”
Richard Westall, “Telemachus Landing on the Isle of Calypso”
The primordial island of Ogygia, where Odysseus makes love to Calypso in her hollow cave, is an important stopover in Odysseus’ journey of the soul. What is Odysseus like, what makes him such a fascinating and delightful presence in Homer’s epic? He charms all those he encounters being both incredibly clever and deeply imaginative and tender-hearted. He is “a man of many devices,” as Homer puts it; an “Olympic-class liar,” wittily remarks Brann. In the Iliad he showed consummate diplomatic skills acting as a successful messenger between heroes. In the Iliad he proved to be “the man of metis,” says Brann, i.e. of measured, calculated planning. He has an enormous, uncanny capacity for change and shape-shifting: he transforms his behaviour, appearance a few times throughout the story and beyond recognition (hence his affinity with the Moon, addressed in my previous post). Poli and polla, the Greek words for “much, multi-, many,” are very often used to describe him. He experiences many pleasures and endures many hardships, encounters multiple beings during his journey, living through numerous adventures:
“He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea …” (all quotes from the Odyssey come from the Fitzgerald translation)
He is also characterized by steadfastness, loyalty, enormous self-control and endurance: he always shows cold blood in crisis. Through all vicissitudes and changing fortunes, his heart remains stable, forever devoted to Penelope and his homeland, Ithaca. It is his deep heart and wild imagination that makes him such a compelling character, I think. As Brann says:
“The man of order, balance, and tradition, the centrist par excellence in public life, is a vividly imagining free spirit in his inner life.”
His journeys take him deep into the world of imagination. It is interesting to see how many times throughout his adventures he is actually sleeping, missing a decisive part of the action and not being an active agent in the occurrences. Telemachus describes his father, very aptly, as “unsightable, undiscoverable.” This happens to all of us: as we sink into the world of imagination, we become invisible to the outside world. Brann has very illuminating things to say about the meaning of Odysseus’ name. First, she mentions a talk of Athena with Zeus when she asks her father: “Why do you now hate (odysao) him so much, Zeus?” Odysseus is hated for a long while by Poseidon for killing his son Polyphemus. Also in Greek odyromenos means “the one who weeps and laments.” And finally, odyne stands for “pain or suffering.” She summarizes:
“One who is hated, has grief, and gives pain; the man who attracts persecution, the man who feels deeply, who inflicts pain – here is the counterweight to another Odysseus: the crafty survivor, the insouciantly imaginative poet, the faithful family man.”
Another crucial aspect of his personality is his poetic talent for storytelling. After Calypso finally lets him out of her grasp, he is brought to the island of Scheria, home of Phaecians. There his true identity is revealed and he gets to tell the story of his ongoing odyssey to the king of Phaecians. The name “Phaecians” carries the world phainein, meaning “to bring light, to make appear.” The words “fantasy” or “imagination” come from this root. Odysseus talks about his adventures, coining a new word: mythologein, “to-give-an-account-in-story-form.” Brann calls him “the first original Mythologist”:
“With the deftness of a minstrel he strings his great ancestral bow, with the easy smooth motion of a skilled singer who inspects his lyre… Odysseus’ archery is like that of the archer-musician Apollo, the teacher of fingers, to whose altar in Delos he has made a pilgrimage and on whose feast day he will retake his palace by means of his lyrelike bow.”
If you are lost in the chronology of the Odyssey, I encourage you to look back at the second part of my series. Homer does not tell the story linearly, because the progress of the soul is not linear. I find it very significant that he would start with the events on Calypso’s island, which chronologically happen towards the end of Odysseus’ adventures. Calypso’s island is the womb of the world, home to luxuriant nature. It is Calypso, as I see it, who makes Odysseus into a poet. After staying with her, he sails to Scheria, where he tells his story to a mesmerized crowd. Ogygia, Calypso’s island, and Scheria are two different worlds, as different as nature (Ogygia) and culture (Scheria). Let me quote a passage from the Odyssey about Ogygia:
the mistress of the isle, was now at home.
Upon her hearthstone a great fire blazing
scented the farthest shores with cedar smoke
and smoke of thyme, and singing high and low
in her sweet voice, before her loom a-weaving,
she passed her golden shuttle to and fro.
A deep wood grew outside, with summer leaves
of alder and black poplar, pungent cypress.
Ornate birds here rested their stretched wings—
horned owls, falcons, cormorants—long-tongued
beachcombing birds, and followers of the sea.
Around the smoothwalled cave a crooking vine
held purple clusters under ply of green;
and four springs, bubbling up near one another
shallow and clear, took channels here and there
through beds of violets and tender parsley.
Even a god who found this place
would gaze, and feel his heart beat with delight.”
In Homer’s Secret Odyssey we come across an interesting interpretation of the passage above:
“At this time of the year the sun has left Sagittarius and Homer’s lyrical description of Calypso’s home becomes a splendid metaphor for the heliacal rising of beautiful Sagittarius and the glittering Milky Way. The ‘loom and shuttle’ suggest the more familiar ‘bow and arrow’ of Sagittarius, while the cave is proposed as asterism, known in more modern terms as the ‘teapot’ or ‘milk ladle.’ The seashore is the Milky Way and the four rivulets are represented by four stars from which can be traced four bands of the Milky Way.”
Nicholas Roerich, “Mother of the World”
The island of Calypso turns out to be the womb and the cradle of the universe, she a High Priestess working unseen behind her veil, spinning and weaving reality into existence. She teaches Odysseus how to use stars and constellations in sailing. Having left Calypso’ centre of the Milky Way he sails across the sea/sky sighting many wonderful constellations, notably the Pleiades and Orion. Scheria, where he lands after a heavy storm which destroys his ship, is not a natural setting, but rather one that is highly crafted. A description of this island matches the Cygnus (Swann) constellation, according to the Woods:
“The palace of king Alcinous is as beautiful as the sun and the moon, says Homer. The starry metaphors and references to the constant movement of the Milky Way continue as women folk go ceaselessly about grinding yellow corn and spinning and weaving white linen cloth, their hands fluttering like (white) aspen leaves. The king’s garden is lush with pears, pomegranates, figs, apples, grapes, and fruits grow on fruits, apples on apples, figs on figs, and grapes on grapes. … the fruits never rot nor die, the flowers bloom all year – like stars, they are everlasting.”
Peter Paul Rubens, “Ulysses on the Island of Phaecians”
Francesco Hayez, “Odysseus at the Palace of Alcinous”
Compare this with a beautiful passage from the Odyssey:
“Through all the rooms, as far as he could see,
tall chairs were placed around the walls, and strewn
with fine embroidered stuff made by the women.
Here were enthroned the leaders of Phaiákia
drinking and dining, with abundant fare.
Here, too, were boys of gold on pedestals
holding aloft bright torches of pitch pine
to light the great rooms, and the night-time feasting.
And fifty maids-in-waiting of the household
sat by the round mill, grinding yellow corn,
or wove upon their looms, or twirled their distaffs,
flickering like the leaves of a poplar tree;
while drops of oil glistened on linen weft.
Skillful as were the men of Phaiákia
in ship handling at sea, so were these women
skilled at the loom, having this lovely craft
and artistry as talents from Athena.”
From Ogygia, the dark navel of the universe, Odysseus emerges into the cultural scene of Scheria, resplendent with light. He shows himself as a godlike poet, a minstrel transforming his adventures into beautiful storytelling. Myth and literature are born at that moment.
Eva Brann, Homeric Moments: Clues to the Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad
Kenneth and Florence Wood, Homer’s Secret Odyssey