What makes the Odyssey so fascinating to me is the constant presence of gods and goddesses, who ceaselessly impinge on the human world. In Homeric Moments, Eva Brann, reflects on the qualities of Greek gods:
“Living lightly is the god’s way. The gods are ever at leisure. Since almost nothing they do has serious consequences for them, they give themselves over completely to the present… And the ichor is stemmed, and all the wounds are healed immediately, and death is not a prospect. … Seen against them, as dark shadows against a scene of light, human mortals gain their gravity.
The world of the gods is incorruptibly beautiful, full of hilarity, exquisite artifacts, ever-fresh lovemaking, a world in which distance is not laboriously conquered and time is not inescapable. The gods fly through the sky and skim over the earth, assume whatever look suits them, and what is more, females become males, while all are untrammeled by the social decencies of the human world…
These gods, who have time on their hands and sacrifices on their minds, are also inveterate onlookers, watchers of humanity and eager interferers. … The heroes live under the regard of their observing gods, and it gives them dignity.”
The Odyssey is a profound meditation on archetypal patterns, a celestial journey through Zodiac signs and constellations. Gods and goddesses are present both as themselves, in the flesh, and as archetypes projected upon the starry firmament. A special protectress of Odysseus is Athena, who has a special relationship with our hero. In her Asteroid Goddesses, Demetra George credits Pallas Athene with “advancing the civilizing influence of culture upon humanity.” Like Odysseus, she was a master of tactics and strategy, and stood for creative intelligence. Athena’s mother, Metis, was a Titaness of wisdom, deep thought and “magical cunning.” Metis, meaning wisdom and cunning, was a quality Athena bestowed on Odysseus, her beloved protégé.
Sandro Botticelli, “Athena and the Centaur” (detail)
Athena is symbolically present in one of the most famous adventures of Odysseus: his encounter with the Cyclop Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Poseidon and Athena had a long history of being divine adversaries, who disputed between themselves whose name should be given to a new mighty city in Attica. The dispute was to be settled by a contest: whoever offers a more precious gift to the citizens, will also lend his or her name to the city. Athena’s gift of an olive tree was deemed as more precious than Poseidon’s stream of salty water. The new city was named Athens. In the story of Cyclop the conflict between Poseidon and Athene lurks in the background, which I will reveal in more detail shortly.
Athena blesses the olive tree
Before Odysseus landed on the Cyclops’ island, he visited the Lotus-Land. The book Homer’s Secret Odyssey plots his adventures along the ecliptic of a star chart. In the first month of Odysseus’ post-Troyan adventures, the Sun passes northern fish (Pisces) and Odysseus’ fleet gets hit by a hurricane. As the Sun passes Pisces and Cetus, the sea monster, he lands in the Land of the Lotus. His three companions, who were sent there on a scouting mission, taste the sweet flower and fall into mellow oblivion, forgetting about their homes and the purpose of their journey. Odysseus orders them to be dragged back to the ship and bound under the rowing benches. This occurs with the Sun on the verge of entering the sign Aries, which symbolically means the disentanglement from the sweet oblivion of the Piscean collective waters and making a decisive step towards Arian consciousness.
“Lotus-Eater Male” by Biffno
Next the Sun moves into Taurus and the crew make a stopover on the idyllic, beautiful and bountiful Goat’s Island, where they replenish their stocks and have a peaceful sojourn. The island is symbolically identified with the constellation Auriga, the Chariot which is driven by Erichthonius, son of Athena and Hephaestus. The suffix –chthonius means “earth,” Taurus being an earth sign. The following story of Erichthonius comes from Anne Wight’s website The Constellation of Words (http://www.constellationsofwords.com/Constellations/Auriga.html):
“He is the child produced by Hephaestus’ aborted attempt to have sex with Athena. In the fight (eris) that ensued between the two, some of Hephaestus’ semen fell on Athena’s leg. The goddess wiped it off in disgust with a woolen cloth (eri) and threw it to the ground. Gaia (Earth) gave birth to the child. Erichthonius, in his childhood, enjoyed the protection of Athena, who hid him in a basket or chest woven from Actaean osiers (willows), as she did not want the other gods to know that she was taking care of the child.”
The Taurean adventures of Odysseus, i.e. his stay on Auriga and his encounter with the Cyclopes, can be looked upon as a journey through the dark underbelly of primal instincts. On Auriga, nature is presented as benevolent, but on Cyclopes’ island it is dangerous and devouring. The image of the chariot brings to mind Plato’s chariot allegory from his dialogue Phaedrus. He explains there that the soul is like a chariot drawn by two horses: the white one is reasonable and easy to control, the dark one wild and unruly. Polyphemus is the dark son of Poseidon and an antithesis to the principle of Athenian metis. What is more, this adventure occurs when the moon is in its dark period and possibly a solar eclipse takes place. The Woods say: “Polyphemus blocks out light from the entrance to the cave (representing the sun) with a large stone (the moon) … .” Odysseus and his twelve crew members get trapped in the cave of the wild, devouring Cyclop, “a brute so huge, he seemed no man at all of those who eat good wheaten bread; but he seemed rather a shaggy mountain reared in solitude.” His cruelty is thus described by Homer:
“Neither reply nor pity came from him,
but in one stride he clutched at my companions
and caught two in his hands like squirming puppies
to beat their brains out, spattering the floor.
Then he dismembered them and made his meal,
gaping and crunching like a mountain lion—
everything: innards, flesh, and marrow bones.
We cried aloud, lifting our hands to Zeus,
powerless, looking on at this, appalled;
but Kyklop went on filling up his belly
with manflesh and great gulps of whey,
then lay down like a mast among his sheep.”
David Enelow gives an illuminating discourse on two Greek words: techne (craft, skill) and themis (customs, manners, morality), both of which the Cyclopes lack:
“Under the heading of techne we are concerned with the manipulation of nature; under the heading of themis we are concerned with relations among human beings and relations between human beings and the gods.”
Gustave Moreau, “Head of Polyphemus”
Civilization, accompanied by the advent of patriarchy to Greece, is about calming down and harnessing the wildness of nature, which is seen as hostile and life-threatening. It is significant that Odysseus blinds Polyphemus by means of an olive branch. We are reminded of the story of Athena and Athens, as olive tree is identified with civilization. It is also ironic that this act of violence was performed with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. According to Demetra George, Athena was the goddess promoted by the new Greek patriarchal order, which I have already written about here.
The blinding of Polyphemus
Another tool that Odysseus uses to outwit Polyphemus is language. He tells him that his name is “Nobody.” The Cyclop bellows in pain attracting other other Cyclopes to the entrance of his cave. When asked by his compatriots what had happened, Polyphemus tells them that “nobody” had hurt him. Odysseus thinks to himself at that point: “…the heart within me/ laughed over how my name and my perfect planning had fooled him.” Polyphemus has not quite grasped the abstract, metaphoric properties of language while Odysseus once again has proved his metis, the skill in planning with tremendous foresight. Enelow speaks of Polyphemus as representative of “the mute and unintelligible substratum of human existence which always retains the power, if its demands are unappeased, to efface voice, memory, identity, and finally civilization.” He adds: “It is an apt piece of symbolism that Odysseus, in the cave of the Cyclops–which itself resembles an enormous stomach–, should call himself ‘Nobody.’ ” The one-eyed Cyclop has no binocular, double vision. He displays no objective judgments of what is right or wrong. He is primary, wild and brute force of instinct incarnate.
Odysseus and his companions manage to escape the monster hidden under the bellies of rams. The Woods notice that in the spring skies of 2300 BC the constellation of Aries (the Ram) had its heliacal rising on the eastern horizon at dawn, just as Odysseus and his men were leaving the cave of Polyphemus. From the safety of his ship, Odysseus could no longer stand being anonymous and proudly shouted to the son of Poseidon:
if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laërtês’ son, whose home’s on Ithaka!”
Polyphemus, wronged and enraged, prayed to his father Poseidon:
“O hear me, lord, blue girdler of the islands,
if I am thine indeed, and thou art father:
grant that Odysseus, raider of cities, never
see his home: Laërtês’ son, I mean,
who kept his hall on Ithaka. Should destiny
intend that he shall see his roof again
among his family in his father land,
far be that day, and dark the years between.
Let him lose all companions, and return
under strange sail to bitter days at home.”
Blinding of Polyphemus was Odysseus’ felix culpa because it spurred him on a long journey of individuation through the fantastic lands of his unconscious. On a personal level, he will pay a huge price, losing all his companions, but the odyssey will also grant him illumination and bring him closer to the gods.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Ulysseus Deriding Polyphemus”
Eva Brann, Homeric Moments: Clues to the Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad
David Enelow, “In the Cave of the Cyclops: A Reading of Book 9 of the Odyssey” https://www.headroyce.org/uploaded/faculty/denelow/Homer/odynarrhetoric.html
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Roger Sworder, Science & Religion in Archaic Greece: Homer on Immortality, Parmenides at Delphi
Kenneth and Florence Wood, Homer’s Secret Odyssey