The Secrets of the Odyssey (11): Death of Odysseus, Master of Land Ways and Sea Ways


Edward Dodwell, “Ithaca”

Having emerged from the Cave of the Nymphs, while the Moon is still in its dark period and the Sun stands still at Winter Solstice, Odysseus hides away in the hut of a pig-keeper Eumaeus.  As a master of suspense, Homer makes us wait for a long time before Odysseus’ closest ones can recognize him and celebrate a sweet reunion with him. The drums are rolling louder and louder as Odysseus is staging his grand return. While the Cave of the Nymphs was symbolic for the unseen creative powers of the Universe, the pig farm stands for the visible universe as known to Homer. As Kenneth and Florence Wood describe it in Homer’s Secret Odyssey:


“A hut in a high clearing or yard with a wide view and the boundary of the clearing marked by a wooden fence ‘in a full circle.’ … Within the yard are 12 pigsties, each containing 50 sows, and beyond the fence are 360 boars guarded by four savage dogs trained by Eumaeus.

Eumaeus’ house = the earth at the centre of the universe.

A lofty enclosure and view on all sides  = the dome of the heavens.

Posts in a ‘full circle’  = the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun during the course of the year.

12 pig pens  = the 12 zodiacal constellations through which the sun appears to pass during a year.

360 boars + 5 add-ons of 4 dogs plus Eumaeus  = the 365 days of the solar year.

It is not coincidence that Homer is specific about the gender of the pigs on the farm, for the boars are related to solar data but the sows are related to lunations. In each of Eumaeus’ pens are 50 sows and each one represents one lunation.”


Jan Styka, “Eumaeus”

It is in Eumaeus’ farm that Odysseus reunites with his son Telemachus, uttering these moving words: “I am that father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered pain for lack of. I am he.”


Henri Loucien-Doucet, “Reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus”

After a reunion with the faithful servant and his son, Odysseus, still in disguise as a beggar, travels to the palace. Nobody recognizes him but when the nurse Eurycleia, who had known him since his boyhood, washes his feet, she notices a scar that looks like a curved white tusk. The scar was left by a wild boar during a hunting expedition to Mount Parnassus when Odysseus was a young prince. She is moved to tears but vows to keep his secret safe even from Penelope. The shape of the scar reminds that the new moon is imminent. When we realize that Parnassus is the mountain sacred to Apollo and the Muses, this incident from Odysseus’ youth suddenly rises in prophetic and symbolic significance: the hero will reach the summit of Mount Parnassus as Greece’s last mythical hero and a master story teller but he will forever bear a scar as an emblem of his suffering. Interestingly, wild boars were animals offered in goddess sacrifice, notably to Astarte in Syria and Demeter in Greece:

“Myths of dying gods like Tammuz, Attis, and Adonis featured the boar, or boarskin-clad priest, who sacrificed the god in swine form. …  As lovers of the Goddess, they were chosen from members of her priesthood. …  Some myths said Attis died in the same way as Adonis, being gored by a boar. Others said Attis himself was the boar, a totemic sign of his kingship.”

Barbara G. Walker, “Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets”


Image of Goddess Ceres with a wild boar

Thus, Odysseus’ scar is a sign of him being a sacrificial king bound to the goddess. As the New Moon finally appears, Odysseus proves his mastery at archery by killing the suitors, and, to quote the Woods, “to mark the coming together of the sun and moon he fires an arrow (the sun) through a line of 12 axe-heads, representing the months of a lunar year. As the new moon appears in the evening sky it marks the coming together of the sun and moon after 19 years.” Odysseus’ act may bring about war but goddess Athena prevents it. On the second day of the new lunation – the final day of the Odyssey – Odysseus meets his father, Laertes, and Athena restores peace between Odysseus and relatives of the slain suitors. As the Woods notice, “the lunar and solar calendars are at that moment in harmony at the beginning of both a new calendar year and a new 19-year cycle of the sun and moon.” For me, by far the most moving moment of the grand finale of the Odyssey is Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope:

 “Now from his breast into his eyes the ache

of longing mounted, and he wept at last,

his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,

longed for

as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer

spent in rough water where his ship went down

under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.”


Angelica Kauffmann, “Euricleia Wakes Penelope”

During their long night of love (extended by divine powers of Athena) Odysseus tells Penelope about his adventures. She learns that they are not going to die side by side because his final adventure awaits him, as prophesized by Teiresias during Odysseus’ sojourn in Hades:

 “But after you have dealt out death—in open

combat or by stealth—to all the suitors,

go overland on foot, and take an oar,

until one day you come where men have lived

with meat unsalted, never known the sea,

nor seen seagoing ships, with crimson bows

and oars that fledge light hulls for dipping f light.

The spot will soon be plain to you, and I

can tell you how: some passerby will say,

“What winnowing fan is that upon your shoulder?”

Halt, and implant your smooth oar in the turf

and make fair sacrifice to Lord Poseidon:

a ram, a bull, a great buck boar; turn back,

and carry out pure hekatombs at home

to all wide heaven’s lords, the undying gods,

to each in order. Then a seaborne death

soft as this hand of mist will come upon you

when you are wearied out with rich old age,

your country folk in blessed peace around you.

And all this shall be just as I foretell.”

In The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Gregory Nagy writes that the verses of the prophecy point to the hero’s death and to the mystical vision of his tomb, where he will be worshiped as a cult hero. At the moment of Odysseus’ death he is going to experience what Carl Jung called “a coincidence of opposites,” through which the sea and its negation – the land – will become one:

“And it is at this same point where the oar that he carries on his shoulder, which is an instrument linked exclusively with the sea, is mistaken with a winnowing shovel, which is an instrument linked exclusively with the earth (it is used for separating the grain from the chaff after the harvesting of wheat), that is, with the cultivation of the land.”

Nagy proclaims that the enmity between Odysseus and Poseidon is ended here because “god-hero antagonism in myth … corresponds to god-hero symbiosis in ritual.” Having achieved heroic consciousness (noos) through his travels, Odysseus dies sending two clear messages: “1) the seafarer is dead 2) the harvest is complete.” The corpse of the hero will bring fertility to the land that worships it while the tomb of the hero as a place of cult has an extraordinary symbolic meaning. Nagy, a Greek scholar who rejoices in etymology, focuses on the Greek word “sema,” which comprises the following in its meaning: ‘sign, signal, symbol; tomb, tomb of a hero.’ It turns out that for the ancient Greek mind there is no meaning and no symbolism without the cult of a hero:

“The key word for this hour is semainein, which means ‘to mean (something), indicate (something) by way of a sema. … the very idea of ‘meaning’ in the ancient Greek language is tied to the idea of the hero – in particular, to the idea of the cult hero’s death and tomb. It is as if ‘meaning’ could not be ‘meaning’ without the hero’s death and tomb. And such heroic ‘meaning’ is tied to the further concept of the hero’s consciousness after death – a consciousness that communicates with the living.”


Statue of Odysseus on Ithaca

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15 Responses to The Secrets of the Odyssey (11): Death of Odysseus, Master of Land Ways and Sea Ways

  1. Maia T. says:

    I wonder, would he have been able to shelter successfully in the pig-keeper’s hut, with all its associations, if he hadn’t learned all he did from Circe earlier?


  2. brilliantly researched and woven, Monika


  3. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    There is an Odyssey before everyone’s way!


  4. Pingback: The Secrets of the Odyssey (11): Death of Odysseus, Master of Land Ways and Sea Ways | lampmagician

  5. Wow! That’s all I have to say.


  6. ptero9 says:

    Dear Monika,
    First, thank you for this wonderful series! It is so rich and eye-opening as to the many levels in which one can hear the classic tale.

    I am struck by the transformation of Odysseus in the story that also correlate both internally with his soul journey, but also with his external relationship to Penelope. The story can also be seen on the level of macrocosm with its correlations to the arcane through astrology and the mundane providing a way to use the cycles the sun and moon for agriculture. It makes me wonder if the origins of the tale are related to the blossoming of the agricultural age in some way.

    Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but the ending –
    “Then a seaborne death
    soft as this hand of mist will come upon you”
    – seems to suggest that the people who revered this tale also revered the knowledge that the tale imparts to them; that of the wisdom of cycles, initiation, and prophetic understanding that comes from arts such as astrology and worship of the gods who have power over the world, bring gifts through their instruction and also dispense to us our fate.

    Much love and respect,


    • Debra, I’m really grateful you were such a terrific reader and supporter of the series. You are probably on the right track with the agricultural age – it also made me think of the golden age. Odysseus had come such a long way. I was struck by his transformation, too. This must be the character I most identify with (with all proportions kept) in the whole Greek mythology.


  7. kfswood says:

    Hi Symbol Reader: Many thanks for giving acknowledgements to our book, Homer’s Secret Odyssey (The History Press, 2011).
    In 1999 we also published Homer’s Secret Iliad (John Murray) which gives a reading of the Iliad as a source of quite different astronomical learning.
    Our research was based on a pioneering hypothesis by the late Edna F Leigh that Homer (and earlier generations of poet-singers) preserved important knowledge of astronomy and calendar-making in mythology during the centuries when the Greeks did not have a writing system.
    Such learning would have been as essential for the organisation of many aspects of Greek society as it was in contemporary – and literate – Mesopotamia and Egypt.
    You may be interested in our website at and ‘Homer the Astronomer – 1’, and ‘Homer the Astronomer – 2’ on YouTube
    Regards, Florence and Kenneth Wood.


  8. I am always enthralled in your knowledge about Greek Mythology Monika.. and learning reading this was another interesting learning for me.. especially about the Pigs 🙂


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