Homer’s Odyssey as Spiritual Quest
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Roman mosaic depicting Odysseus and the Sirens, Carthage, 2nd century CE
"The story of the Odyssey is quite short. A man is for many years away from home and his footsteps are dogged by Poseidon and he is all alone. Moreover, affairs at home are in such a state that his estate is being wasted by suitors and a plot laid against his son, but after being storm-tossed he arrives himself, reveals who he is, and attacks them, with the result that he is saved and destroys his enemies. That is the essence, the rest is episodes."
Aristotle ; Poetics
"The Odyssey is not about the Odyssey; it's the return from darkness and death to light and life.” The Odyssey could be heard as a rousing adventure story on one level, and as a timeless metaphor for a spiritual quest on another. Werner Jaeger says as much in his classic Paideia :
« Art has a limitless power of converting the human soul — a power which the Greeks called psychagogia. For art alone possesses the two essentials of educational influence — universal significance and immediate appeal. »
For most of its existence, the Odyssey has been understood psychologically by many commentators as a metaphor or allegory for the process by which the fragmented soul seeks its return to a state of unity. This tradition, developed most clearly by the Neo
Platonists, is well documented by Robert Lamberton in Homer the Theologian.
He says, for example,
“It is difficult to say whether there was ever a time when the Iliad and the Odyssey were not viewed as possessing this potential to reveal meanings beyond the obvious.”
The central metaphor used in the parables of Christ is that of rebirth, anagennese. The central metaphor in the Odyssey is nostos, the return home, about which we will have more to say later. “Psychologically,” to use Nicoll’s term, they both mean the same thing. Christ is crucified and taken for dead, but he rises on the third day, born again. This represents our own need to die to our small selves — our egos — so that we can be born to our spiritual selves. Odysseus also goes to Hades and receives instruction about how to gain his way home. He too becomes “twiceborn.”
Another key reading — positive this time — of the allegorical power of the Odyssey as a spiritual quest is to be found in The Enneads of Plotinus, a neoPlatonist who lived in the third century CE. He realizes that it is a metaphor for the inward journey, and that the Fatherland, the source of our being, is within:
« Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland: this is the soundest counsel. But what is this flight ? How are we to gain the open sea ? For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso — not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days.
The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father. What then is our course, what the manner of our flight ? This is not a journey for the feet ; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see : you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birthright of all, which few turn to use. »
The Odyssey describes a spiritual quest from multiplicity and Strife back to unity and Love: the reunification of the soul’s polis, or state, under its rightful ruler. It is a parable for the journey of the human soul from confusion and disorder back to an Edenic state of integration and happiness. What Odysseus finds at the end of his journey is “my very self”, his “what I am”, as he once again makes whole the state of Ithaca. The real hero doesn’t conquer monsters and enemies ; he conquers himself.
So in order to understand this inner journey, we have to at least entertain the possibility that we have within us our own “region of supernatural wonder,” at once universal and particular, which can be attained by making the right choices. So for the spiritual hero, there is an extra dimension to the quest: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine.
This quest has been expressed by many different people in many different traditions over many centuries, but those who wish to can see the common thread: from Strife to Love (Empedocles), from becoming to Being (Parmenides), from the shadows to the sunlight (Plato), from the many to the One (Plotinus). It is, as we shall see, a nostos — ”a return from darkness and death to light and life”, and although it is often portrayed as a journey, as Plotinus says, “It is not a journey for the feet.” It is an inner transformation, a return to a Self that is always there and does not change; a “journey back to where you are.”
Depiction of a scene from The Odyssey on a Greek national stamp, 1983
While the Iliad is concerned with traditional warrior values of glory (kleos) and honor (time), the Odyssey brings in a new set of set of ideas appropriate to the spiritual quest, and they are introduced early on in the poem. Their metaphorical nature, the parallel between the main story and the spiritual parable, is established in the proem in which Homer invokes the Muse. In line 5 he speaks of psūkhē, (psyche) which is usually translated as 'life', but which carries the deeper meaning of 'soul'.
"Many were the pains he suffered in his heart while crossing the sea struggling to merit the saving of his own life [psūkhē] and his own homecoming as well as the homecoming of his comrades."
As Gregory Nagy points out,
"At the beginning of the Odyssey, both the epic narrative about the hero’s return to his home and the mystical subnarrative about the soul’s return to light and life are recapitulated in the double meaning of psūkhē as either ‘life’ or ‘soul’."
Odysseus wants to save his life — that is, his body and those of his comrades — but also to save his soul from what it has become: duplicitous, alienated, warlike. As we will see, in order to do this he must shed all the associations he has acquired as a result of his time in Troy, and this will include his crew. They represent impediments to the reintegration of the psūkhē, and their death by the sun god Helios frees Odysseus to continue the journey within.
The same double meaning exists in the word nostos (from which we get the English word “nostalgia”), which can apply to the physical return trip home as well as the deeper sense of a 'return to light and life', as shown by Douglas Frame. Frame also shows the connection to Indo-European root *nes, which is the basis of the name Nestor and relates to his function as the 'homebringer'.
Again, Gregory Nagy describes the metaphorical function of this word:
"While the epic narrative tells about the hero’s return to Ithaca after all the fighting at Troy and all the travels at sea, the mystical subnarrative tells about the soul’s return from darkness and death to light and life."
As shown by Frame in the work cited above, the word nostos is related to nóos, which also carries two meanings: it is usually translated as 'mind', but has the more universal meaning of 'consciousness'. We normally are so identified with our mind that we make the lethal mistake of forgetting that it is a subset of consciousness, the medium through which we perceive and know anything; we are like the fish who don’t understand “water.”
Nagy also brings these two ideas together :
"The very idea of consciousness as conveyed by noos is derived from the metaphor of returning to light from darkness, as encapsulated in the moment of waking up from sleep, or of regaining consciousness after losing consciousness, that is of “coming to.”
This metaphor of coming to is at work not only in the meaning of noos in the sense of consciousness but also in the meaning of nostos in the sense of returning from darkness and death to light and life. Remarkably, these two meanings converge at one single point in the master myth of the Odyssey. It happens when Odysseus finally reaches his homeland of Ithaca."
Odysseus returning to Penelope
Greek, Melian ;Terracotta plaque, ca. 460–450 B.C.
The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer's Odyssey as Spiritual Quest,
by David A. Beardsley