The Hero and the Goddess
The Odyssey as Pathway to Personal Transformation
By Jean Houston
Theosophical Publishing House Copyright © 2009 Jean Houston
All rights reserved.
The Odyssey as Transformational Myth and Mystery
Sing in me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel. Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of, many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea, struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions. Even so, he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to; they were devoured by their own wild recklessness, fools who devoured the oxen of Hellos, the Sun God, and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.
—Homer, The Odyssey
Let us begin our experience of the power of myth by looking through the lens of one of the most famous and beguiling examples of a dramatic journey of transformation. This journey, with its mysteries and initiations, gave its hero, Odysseus, the fullest possible experience of adventure and despair, lostness and foundness, mute tragedy and thrilling triumph. Of even more importance, it demanded that he engage in initiations, which drove him past the realistic world of his much-vaunted mastery into wonderlands peopled by paradox where he was tested and honed into deeper life and higher knowing.
The story also contains a remarkable element: It tells us what can happen in a life that includes a deep and committed friendship with an archetypal power, that is, a power that emanates from a reality deeper than our own and that can guide and sustain us. In this case, that power is the goddess Athena.
The first line of The Odyssey sets the theme: "Sing in me, Muse, of the man of many ways ..." The word in Greek for "of many ways" is the descriptive polytropous. Other translations refer to a man of many devices, many capacities, even many turnings in his character as well as in his journey. Odysseus is indeed a man of many ways. He is the exemplar of the many-potentialed being, the man who has seen everything, can do everything, and, at least with his intellect, can understand everything. We study Odysseus for his utter potential.
His journey and its many levels of reality call forth these potentials in ways that have embodied the principal models, or paradigms, of challenge, response, and growth in the Western imagination. Across space and time his influence has been immense. Odysseus holds us in thrall, whether we be ancient Greek schoolboys or modern inquirers into the possible human. Entrepreneurs of every ilk name their ventures after him. From travel agencies to motion picture companies, "Odyssey" is blazoned across signboard and stationery to imply the adventurous nature of the business. "This is the cutting edge," these companies seem to say. "We are the state of the art, and to deal with us is to be caught up in excitement and innovation." Unfortunately, these companies often discover to their sorrow that the real meaning of the name Odysseus in ancient Greek is "trouble." What's in a name? Usually more than one bargained for.
In his wanderings, Odysseus finds a full spectrum of archetypal patterns. There is the heavy-handed savagery and tunnel vision of the cave-dwelling Cyclops, and its opposite in the complex sensibilities of the highly civilized Phaeacians. He meets kind hosts such as Aeolus, god of the winds, who feed him and help him, but he also encounters the ruthless giant Laestrygonians, who feed on him and try every way to destroy him. Odysseus and his crew are tempted to dwell in mindless bliss with the Lotus-Eaters, and are lured to oblivion by the Sirens. They meet with mindful, quick-witted advice from the messenger god Hermes, but also wild ruinous wrath from the sea god Poseidon. Odysseus encounters eroticism in its dangerous and devolutionary character in Circe, the nymph who reverses evolution by changing men into wolves and pigs. But there is also eros in all its subtle delicacy and fresh awakening in the young Nausicaa, Odysseus' rescuer on the Isle of the Phaeacians. And he gains an understanding of the past on his visit to the ancestors in the Underworld as well as knowledge of the future from the shade of the blind prophet Tiresias.
Odysseus' voyage, with all its physical dangers and thrills, may also be perceived as a progressive journey into the far more chilling cartography of inner space. As our hero plunges deeper and deeper into this realm, he finds himself with fewer and fewer resources and friends, until at last he washes ashore on Calypso's Isle with nothing remaining of his former selfhood. Here he stays for a full seven years as the beloved consort of this minor goddess whose name has the same root as the word "eclipse." This, as Homeric scholar Cedric Whitman describes it, is "the nadir, the quiet center of the magic world" from which grows the intensity of his longing to return home to Ithaca, which in turn prompts the gods to reconsider his fate and allow him to begin his magical trip back. The breaking out of this womb of the ocean, "where the navel of the sea lies," begins with a violent confrontation with the Poseidon-maddened sea. This, in turn, leads Odysseus from the deep world of archetypal folk to the mid-world of the Phaeacians, a people of the in-between who dwell, Homer tells us, at the boundary between humankind and the gods. And it is only these beings of an ideal and balanced society who embody the sacred conjunction of divine and human and thus have the power to bring Odysseus back home to Ithaca.
AT another level, The Odyssey can be read as a paean to resourcefulness. In essence, it is a story of survival by means of the ability to change, adapt, transform, and skillfully orchestrate all circumstances. This is a critical theme for our work of self-unfolding, as it shows how resourceful people can be when they consciously begin to create their reality. Odysseus creates his world by risk, choice, tenacity, and action. Like us, he often fails. But in failing he discovers even deeper resources that reflect his truer self.
One of his most persistent difficulties is in failing to see the consequences of his choices. His actions are marked by flamboyance and little or no forethought. Consider that his ten-year odyssey begins with a careless decision to attack the innocent Ciconians instead of immediately setting sail for home after his triumph at Troy. This piratical episode, although such actions were condoned in the Heroic age, still smacked of hubris, of god-challenging pride, and thus invited inevitable retribution. This is a quintessential example of the ways our heedless choices pull us into adventures and diversions far off the beaten track, Ironically, these seemingly random choices, which may even be experienced as blunders, provide the real stuff of our lives—the context and the content for growth into consciousness.
In his excellent essay on "The Odyssey and Change," Cedric Whitman shows that, in the realms of the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, and the Laestrygonians, it is Odysseus' chronic curiosity, not need, that demands the exploration of these lands, for neither he nor the crew are pressed by any urgent necessity. The same is true in the case of Circe—as his anguished companions point out to him. But their caution never prevails. If there is risk and adventure looming before him, Odysseus plunges into it, dragging his fear-filled companions along, often to their doom.
Odysseus may be driven to these places by the wrath of gods—as all of us are at one time or another driven to outrageous experiences and places by circumstance—but it is he, and we, who choose to explore them. And yet, after his intimacy with Circe—symbolic perhaps of what happens when we enter into intimacy with our own deeps—the usual kind of choice disappears, and we, like Odysseus are committed to a world of wonder and soul-charging circumstances.
Essentially, Odysseus is left with no choice until he has lived with Calypso for seven full years. For the ancient Greeks, seven years symbolized a major phase in life as well as in myth and in music, as in the seven notes of the musical octave. This octave of time is given him so that he may integrate all his learnings. After that, we see a clear contrast between the wily, arrogant master of disguises who consorts with Circe and the half-dead, salt-encrusted wreck of a man who washes up on the Phaeacian beach to be saved by a young girl. After the gestation years with Calypso, Odysseus appears before Nausicaa with only an olive branch to cover his nakedness, all disguises gone. It is she who gives him the possibility of rebirth. Now he is ready to begin a new life and also a new series of disguises, which are at once more humble, more real, and thereby more effective—for example, assuming the role of the beggar in his own suitor-ridden home. This is possible now because he has become a much larger being and is in conscious touch with more dimensions of inner as well as outer reality.
THIS great change in Odysseus has been nurtured by his friend and partner in the archetypal world, the goddess Athena, who also provides the impetus for his return home by pleading his case before her father, Zeus, and the other gods. It is the power and nature of this crazy friendship that gives us new understanding about how humans and "gods," or Spiritual potencies, mutually evolve each other—how, in the words of Nikos Kazantzakis, we become the "saviors of God."
What are these gods to the Greeks? They are not simply men and women writ large. Nor are they merely personalized and then deified qualities of love, war, fertility, authority, and death. Rather, they are felt presences who underlie and inform our existence. They are at once real and yet possessed of a reality that is more fluid than our own. They live closer to the storehouse of creation and therefore have greater access to the patterns and possibilities that reside there. Their abode on Mount Olympus is not only high, it is deep as well, and from its depths spring the potencies that charge the world of time.
The gods are not God; rather, they are aspects or emanations from the One spiritual reality. They serve as bridges between the One God and our own humanity, rivers to the Source, whose greater "humanness" serves to engage and illumine our own. The stories and myths that accrue around them show that they are never static but are themselves involved in growth and learning. They are numinous borderline persons who require interaction with human beings in order to extend themselves, while we need their promptings and knowledge to give us our impetus for living and learning. Both gods and humans, then, are always available for transition into wiser and deeper versions of themselves.
The Athena of The Odyssey, patroness of heroes and innovators, of those who live life to its fullest and live life at the edge, is herself at a transition point. She is evolving from the archaic and militant Mycenean deity of citadels, reflected in the raging war goddess of The Iliad, into the goddess of wisdom, of culture, and of civilization. This evolution of an archetype is an important informing motif of The Odyssey and is, I believe, the reason the entire poem is under the dominion of Athena. At a depth level it tells us as much about the growth of a god as about the growth of a hero. It is as much about the evolution of spiritual powers as it is about the growth of human consciousness. Studied from this perspective, The Odyssey becomes a sacred text and a drama of the highest mysteries. To help us understand how critical this point is, let us put The Odyssey into its historical perspective, and then, going farther back in time, track the cultural sources of the Goddess.
THE HISTORY OF THE ODYSSEY
The Odyssey was probably assembled in its present form in the eighth century BC by "Homer" from many oral traditions and bardic "lays" with their convention of stock epithets and repeated formulas such as "rosy-fingered dawn," "wine-dark sea," and "much-enduring Odysseus." Who "Homer" actually was has been the subject of much scholarly debate for centuries. Whether he was one person or many, whether he was the author of both The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as other epics, or whether "Homer" was the name given to a collective of poets and bards reaching across centuries is still very much of an open issue. Robert Graves and Samuel Butler even think that in the case of The Odyssey, "he" was a "she," a Sicilian priestess of Athena who gathered the oral material and re-formed it into her own epic masterpiece. There is also the well-known tradition that Homer was blind, and one can only wonder whether this purported blindness reflects the fact that no one will ever really be able to "see" Homer's true face and identity. My own belief is that, although traditional formulas and oral poetry transmitted and shared by generations of bards are included throughout the Homeric epics, the overall design of the poems with its rich detail and dazzling intricacy shows evidence of a single creative intelligence that could not have been the result of a committee of authors' work over centuries. Thus the likelihood of "Homer" having been a single eighth-century poet of enormous craft and genius. Whether he himself was literate, since a written alphabet was available although not widely employed at that time, or dictated portions of his epic to a scribe is also a question that occupies scholars. Perhaps the most balanced view is to be found in the work of classicist Eric Havelock, who suggests that Homer's eighth-century rendering was an intermingling of oral recitation and partial alphabetic transcription. It is generally believed that a final written form of the Homeric poems was available in the sixth century BC. With regard to the possibility of an original written text by Homer, I tend to agree with George Steiner, who writes, "I venture to guess that Homer was the first great poet in Western literature because he was the first to have understood the infinite resources of the written word. In the zest of the Homeric narrative, in its superb architecture, flashes the delight of a mind which has discovered that it need not deliver its creation into the fragile trust of memory.... It is entirely possible that the original 'Homer manuscript' was something unique and that it was kept in the jealous possession of a bardic guild (the Homeridae). The newly established Panhellenic festivals of the eighth century created an audience for the 'sons of Homer.' These singers may well have preserved The Iliad and The Odyssey in a small number of canonic texts until their wider publications in sixth-century Athens (what scholars call the Pisistratean Recension)."
This was a time of transition that marked the end of a dark age and the beginning of a new high civilization. The epic itself is concerned with events that occurred some four hundred to five hundred years earlier, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries BC.
The date of the Trojan War is generally put at around twelve hundred years before the Christian era. This was the peak of the Heroic Age, the era of the "bronze-clad Achaeans" of Greece, who were descendents of the Indo-Aryan invaders. The label "Indo-Aryan" is generic for the waves of invaders that conquered many peoples during this period. Among them were the Aryans of India, the Hittites and Mittani of the Fertile Crescent, the Luwians of Anatolia, Kurgans in eastern Europe, and the Achaeans and later the Dorians in Greece and Crete. (Continues...)
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