Odyssey. Note Quote.

In tracing an interpretation of the Odyssey it is not necessary to follow the order of the poem as arranged by Homer or by whoever compiled the Homeric legends; it is easier and more rewarding to take the simple narrative in the natural sequence of events. After leaving the battlefield of Troy, Odysseus embarks for his native isle, “Ithaca the Fair,” expecting to arrive there quickly; but at the very outset a tempest drives the fleet off its course, and a great fight impedes his progress. The destruction of all his ships but one, and of many of the sailors, follows quickly. One of the strangest incidents in this introductory part is the encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclopean giant with a single eye in the middle of his forehead. Before we shrug him off as a creature of early man’s distorted imagination, we should hold in mind the possibility of a symbolic meaning. Creatures of a similar type were mentioned by many archaic peoples far removed from each other; possibly they referred to some past event in human history, now forgotten.

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After their escape from this one-eyed monster and some further perilous adventures, Odysseus and his companions soon reach the island of the enchantress Circe, who represents the fascination of sensual delights. Odysseus is unaffected by the gross enticements which overwhelm his fellows, now turned into swine by the goddess; and his boldness and “confidence in heaven” finally conquer the temptress and compel her to serve him. She restores the men to human form and instructs Odysseus how to find the way to the Underworld.

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The entrance into Hell or the Underworld, the “open tomb,” has more than one meaning in ancient allegories, and is always introduced in some form in myths of initiation; Orpheus, Aeneas and many others had to make the dread “descent.” In the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, the hero aided by the gods flies to the hideous regions of cold and darkness and destroys the deadly Medusa before he can rescue the princess of Ethiopia from the monster. For Odysseus the event is an ordeal of terror. Circe has warned him that before he may go further, he must gain information about the future from Tiresias, a venerable prophet, who lives with the inhabitants of Hades, though he himself is not dead. The approach to the entire experience is surrounded by fearful dangers and to pass safely through the multitudes of vengeful shades calls for the highest physical and moral courage. Like all heroes of epics of the soul, he has to traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death: to face the shades, the lingering remains of past sins and errors; then to learn what is necessary for his further progress.

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The tone of the poem changes at this point; the lightness and gaiety with which Odysseus has related his adventures is replaced by a deep solemnity, and the scenes of Hades are described with intense vividness and many touches of realism. Are these portrayals actual revelations of postmortem life? Leaving the more impure regions, Odysseus moves on, sees stern Minos, the Judge of the Dead, and even gets a passing view of the heavenly world or the Elysian fields, where the higher and immortal parts of man are held to exist between incarnations on earth. (Plato and Plutarch give valuable insights into the Greek teachings on this mysterious subject which are found to be practically identical with the Egyptian, Indian, and other ancient views of these after-death states.)

At length, having interviewed the sage Tiresias, Odysseus returns to Circe who outlines the perils still lying ahead on his homeward journey. Then come the hazardous Straits between Scylla and Charybdis, and the subtle allurements of the Sirens. Exquisitely fair, they offer him the satisfaction of the pride of knowledge, telling him they know “Whate’er beneath the sun’s bright journey lies,” and singing with all the charm of celestial music:

Blest is the man ordain’d our voice to hear,
The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear.
Approach! thy soul shall into raptures rise!
Approach! and learn new wisdom from the wise.

Having passed successfully through the trials of the Underworld, will he be overcome by pride and rash self-confidence? Knowing well the overwhelming power of this temptation, the hero takes every precaution, has himself tied to the mast and stops the ears of his crew with wax against the Sirens’ songs. They steer safely through the Straits — only to plunge again into difficulty when his men, to satisfy their gluttony, kill and devour Apollo’s sacred oxen. This so arouses the wrath of the god that he sends a great tempest to destroy the last of Odysseus’ crew, and the brave man is left with nothing but his own strength and the favor of Athena, his guide.

In his desperation and loneliness he meets with a temptation that almost proves his undoing. He succumbs for seven years to the blandishments of the lovely nymph Calypso in her enchanted Atlantean island. Calypso even offers him “immortal life, exempt from age or woe.” But with the help of Athena, the personification of divine wisdom, he summons the strength to resist.

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This is one of the passages in the Odyssey that reveals the high understanding of the poet and the profound quality of his teaching. For here is shown the wide gulf between any artificial prolongation of the life of the personality with its selfish cravings and that genuine immortality born of steadfast aspiration and self-control which leads to union with one’s inner god. Such a philosophy nourishes the roots of our being and reminds us of the words of the Nazarene:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. –– Matthew, 16:24-5

Paul, the wise master builder, in common with the great teachers of antiquity, refers to the same principle when he speaks of being changed “in the twinkling of an eye.” This is a cryptic saying suggesting the spontaneous springing into activity of the power of intuition which sees the difference between a nobler life and the delusions of sensual gratification.

When Odysseus makes his decision, the irresistible power of the Olympian deities is exerted in his favor, Calypso abandons her inducements and, like Circe, is transformed from a temptress into a helper. Odysseus builds a new vessel with his own hands and sets out joyfully for home, a voyage still not without its risks. Upon his arrival, he discovers the terrible conditions to which his wife and son have been reduced by the outrageous conduct of her admirers and soon perceives that his greatest battle is yet to come. His wife, Penelope, who stands for the climax of his endeavors, his goal, does not immediately throw herself into his arms. Ragged, worn, and disguised as an old man, he is not easily recognized by her, though his aged nurse and faithful dog know him quickly. Even when Athena restores him to the prime of life, and to greater dignity and beauty than before, he has to prove his identity to Penelope before she will accept him. This hesitation on her part is not, as some have thought, a blemish on the story; it could not be otherwise. It is traditional that anyone wishing recognition by the higher self must make a clear demand; he must unmistakably recognize and call upon his inner god before it can help him.

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Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew., 7:7).

Odysseus’ supreme opportunity comes when he finds his palace invaded and his wife surrounded by a mob of suitors, all trying to persuade her that he is surely dead and that she should choose a second husband from among them. Repugnant as they are, they have no power over Odysseus, but he must destroy them before he can regain his rightful place. They represent lingering traces of lower desires which must be slain forever if he will be master in his own household. At last the battle is won, the evil forces overpowered, and Odysseus, calm, purified, asserts his noble identity to Penelope and is joyously received by her.

From a practical point of view, the scene of this last struggle and the method adopted by Odysseus in challenging the suitors may appear singular, but there is good warrant for these in the mystical symbolism obviously familiar to Homer. The contest takes place at close quarters, in the confined space of the palace hall, yet the hero has to depend upon his mighty bow for success — the bow that none other can wield — instead of the more logical weapons of sword or spear. The bow is the weapon of Apollo, god of light, and the day of Odysseus’ victory is sacred to that deity. In Hindu philosophy also, the bow, or in some cases the arrow, stands for man himself who must be strong enough in texture to stand the strain. In one of the Upanishads, it says:

Having taken the bow, the great weapon, let him place on it the arrow, sharpened by devotion. Then, having drawn it with a thought directed to That which is, hit the mark, O friend — the Indestructible. . . . It is to be hit by a man who is not thoughtless; and then, as the arrow becomes one with the target, he will become one with Brahman. — Mundaka,II ii, 3-4

The Odyssey closes with the hero, now triumphant as the rightful king and leader, going forth and subduing the few remaining rebels after which, the poet says, the “willing nations knew their lawful lord.” His future reign is left to the imagination, but it is secure in peace and wisdom for, having conquered the enemies in his own house, he cannot fail.

Richard Wagner: Parsifal

Art which transcends its own time, in addition to mirroring the artist’s quest for truth, is also a source of inspiration for those who contact it. Such art is often extremely complex and its profound meaning difficult to discern. Richard Wagner is one of the most controversial and wholly misunderstood artists of the past 200 years; and his opera Parsifal one of the most complicated works.

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Wagner felt the first impulse to write Parsifal at the age of 31. He was in Marienbad working on the opera Lohengrin when he read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s ParzivalThis epic poem brings together various mythical traditions; Wagner later added elements from other legends. Three years later, in 1848, the main features of Parsifal flowed over into the draft of a drama entitled “Jesus of Nazareth,” in which Mary Magdalene takes the place of Kundry. In May 1856 Wagner wrote the draft for a Buddhist drama with the working tide “Der Sieger” (“The Victor”), in which the features of what later became Parsifal are already clear. Wagner spent Good Friday 1858 in his Zurich retreat where he had a vision and decided on the main motifs of the opera.

In the years that followed, individual characters began to take shape. At the same time, however, Wagner experienced the immense difficulties presented by the subject matter. Time and again he postponed committing anything to paper — he was plagued with such doubts that he felt like giving up the whole idea. It was not until August 1865 that he wrote a detailed draft at King Ludwig II’s insistence. But a further twelve years elapsed before the work was completed in April 1877, being published in book form the same year. The composition of the music took five more years, and only on July 26, 1882, did the first performance take place in the “Haus Wahnfried” in Bayreuth. Thirty-seven years had gone by between the first idea for the work and its completion.

Concerning Wagner’s knowledge of occultism, we know he was acquainted with Freemasons, with whom he entered into fierce debate, and with the Rosicrucians. In his library, now situated in Bayreuth and open to the public, there are translations of the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, which were just being published in his time. I suspect that Richard Wagner had exceptional intuitive abilities and could see many extremely subtle realms and interrelations directly; also that he suffered deeply because all too often he simply could not find the words to express what took place so clearly before his spiritual eye. It is therefore understandable that he identified with the figure of Amfortas: Wagner believed in living life to the full; he also saw things but could not grasp them. The basic spiritual tendency running through the opera is compassion or buddhi. Reincarnation and karma are clearly described in several places — without them the whole drama would be inexplicable.

A number of symbols and mythical elements are important for a general understanding of the work. First, the symbol of the Grail combines elements of legends from Persia and Asia Minor with those from Celtic mythology. The Grail, the cup which Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper, was made from the stone which fell from Lucifer’s crown as he plunged to earth. Lucifer (the Light-bringer) brought the mental principle to evolving humanity. The stone from Lucifer’s crown can therefore be regarded as ego-consciousness or “I am I”: without the awakening mind principle humanity would not be able to acquire knowledge, and the first step along this path is “I am I.” That this stone was fashioned into a cup or bowl which was used to catch the blood of Christ elevates its meaning because it then stands for the divine self, atma-buddhi. As Wagner remarked, it becomes “Grail consciousness” — purified, redeemed “I am.” The Grail is entrusted to Titurel. He gathers a brotherhood of knights around him, called the knights of the Grail, who devote themselves to the service of this Grail consciousness through noble deeds.

A second important symbol is the spear, derived from the spear of Longinus who, it is said, thrust it into Christ’s side during the crucifixion, shedding the Savior’s blood. It stands for higher mind, that part of us which must decide whether the mind will aspire to spirit or succumb to material desire.

A third central symbol is the swan, denoting the north. Wagner uses the swan as a symbol of those beings who, though still devoid of individual consciousness, are located in the divine realms, but have their whole development before them; this symbol is identical with that of the angel. In the last scene a dove appears, symbol according to Wagner of “divine spirit, which floats down idealistically onto the human soul.” It is the Holy Ghost or Spirit — atma-buddhi.

The first act of the opera, which takes place in the realm of the Grail, begins with trombones sounding the reveille. Gurnemanz, teacher and guardian of the secret wisdom of the Grail, wakens two squires lying asleep under a tree, saying: “Do you hear the call? Give thanks to God that you are called to hear it!” That the reveille sounds from the realm of the Grail indicates that it is a spiritual call. Buddhi penetrates the consciousness of the awakening men and Gurnemanz feels it to be a blessing. He calls on his pupils to give thanks, for he knows that few are granted the privilege of feeling this call of buddhi.

At this time Amfortas, King of the Grail, lies sick and wounded, the wound being an external symbol for inner events. In his striving towards higher things, Amfortas battled in the realm of the lower mind ruled by the black magician Klingsor and lost the spear (mind). Klingsor wounded him in his side with the spear, a wound which will not heal. This wound is the pivot of all further action. It is the fissure between the higher self and the personal self, caused by the fact that the mental principle was directed into the earthly realm where it is now ruled by Klingsor, or mind linked with desire. Gurnemanz and the squires, impelled by buddhi, now try to alleviate the pain suffered by the King of the Grail. They wish to bathe the wound, though Gurnemanz in his wisdom knows this will be of no avail. The King’s wound, an inner wound, cannot be closed by baths or ointments. Wrapped in thought, he sings: “There is but one thing can help him, only one man.” When a knight asks the man’s name, he avoids answering.

Then Kundry enters the scene, appearing wild one moment, lifeless the next. She presses on Gurnemanz a small crystal vessel containing balsam with which Amfortas might be healed. Kundry personifies the desire nature, messenger and temptress at the same time. On the one hand, desire binds us to earthly things, while on the other it provides the first impulses to understand what is hidden. Thus Kundry serves both the Grail and also, as temptress, Klingsor who seeks to divert people from the quest for the divine through the power of the senses. Wagner remarks that the black magician

beclouds the divine judgment of man through the sense impressions of the material world, and thereby leads him into a world of deception.

A dispute arises between the knights of the Grail and Gurnemanz about Kundry (desire). The squires mistrust her, but Gurnemanz says:

Yes, she may be under a curse. She lives here now — perhaps reincarnated, to expiate some sin from an earlier life not yet forgiven there. Now she makes atonement by such deeds as benefit our knightly order; she has done good, beyond all doubt, serving us and thereby helping herself.

Naturally, Kundry was also involved when Klingsor seized the spear of mind from Amfortas.

In his pain, Amfortas addresses the Grail and asks for a sign of help. In a vision he describes how someone will come to help him: “Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool; wait for him, the appointed one.” This announcement of the foolish innocent (“Fal parsi,” hence Parsifal) refers to the reincarnating ego, which hastens from life to life. If the reincarnating ego gives full expression to its divine individuality in its personal life, the inner fissure — the wound — will be closed again, for the mind which has been directed to things of matter will be turned back to the divine.

Before divinity can be attained, however, human evolution has to be experienced. At the outset, mankind is completely unself-conscious and lives in a state of divine innocence, untouched by things of matter and without an independent mind, a state symbolized by the swan. It has to leave this state, descend to the physical realm, and experience all the conflicts that evolution entails. Through the associated suffering and the development of the thinking principle, humans learn from their own experience to feel compassion for other beings.

These developments find their corollary in the departure of young people from their parental home, the maternal plane. Such a departure is often very difficult and may be accompanied by a great deal of pain and many reproaches; but this break is absolutely necessary if young people are to go through their own experiences and develop the ability to think for themselves, though this simultaneously causes the maternal principle much grief. The result is often condemnation by one’s fellowmen.

This “descent” or gaining of independence by the monad is represented by Wagner in the slaying of the swan by Parsifal. Gurnemanz sternly reproaches Parsifal for killing the swan with an arrow. Parsifal is at first filled with childlike pride at his accuracy but becomes increasingly disturbed when he looks at the dead bird, and for the first time he feels pity. Gurnemanz inquires of Parsifal his name and origin, but Parsifal cannot remember and replies: “I had many, but I know none of them any more.” The only name he remembers is that of his mother: Herzeleide (Heart’s Sorrow). Kundry is able to provide more information about his origin: his father was killed in battle, and his mother ” reared him up in the desert to folly, a stranger to arms.” Parsifal nevertheless recalls that one day he saw the knights of the Grail riding along the forest’s edge: “I ran after them, but could not overtake them; through deserts I wandered, up hill and down dale.”

The monad yearns for more than a solitary, peaceful life. Kundry confirms this, and informs him of his mother’s death. Parsifal springs furiously at her, but Gurnemanz restrains him. Thus although the monad is endowed with a feeling of right and wrong, mind is not yet fully developed. It therefore turns, in conjunction with desire, to anger and rage. Gurnemanz, the initiate, restrains him.

The rest of the opera describes what takes place during this descent of the human monad. Gurnemanz has already recognized that Parsifal is someone who can restore the divine harmony. He offers to lead him to the feast of the Grail. Both move into their inner, spiritual realms, represented by the temple of the Grail. This realm lies beyond the differentiation of space and time. Hence Parsifal remarks: “I scarcely tread, yet seem already to have come far.”

Gurnemanz answers: “You see, my son, time here becomes space.” This is because the inner vision appears to the physical person as space. Gurnemanz warns Parsifal to pay close attention to everything he encounters and later to take it back into the realm of his personal consciousness. Before them both a scene opens with a pillared hall where the knights of the Grail carry in Amfortas. The covered shrine of the Grail is carried before them. In the background can be heard the voice of Titurel, the former guardian of the Grail, who received the Cup from the angel’s hands and learned the occult mysteries in an inner vision. He says, “Amfortas, my son, are you in your place? Shall I again today look on the Grail and live?” This indicates that the life forces of spiritual traditions steadily weaken if they are not renewed by intuitive, creative individuals. Time and again attempts are made to establish a spiritual, compassionate brotherhood. If, however, the innovators fail, the effort comes to a standstill; the teachings ossify, and what used to be the content becomes a veil, until nothing is left of the original impulse. Titurel must therefore die.

So Titurel calls upon Amfortas to view the Grail. But Amfortas is incapable of doing so — he has lost the mental principle to Klingsor, the lower mind. Titurel now calls for the uncovering of the Grail, the revelation of occult wisdom. When, at his insistence, this takes place, Amfortas is racked with pain: for those imprisoned in the lower mind, the sight of divine wisdom is unbearable. The tragedy of such a situation is clear. On the one hand, such people are impelled by divine, buddhic impulses; on the other, they are completely entangled in the world of deception and sensuality. When the full, idealistic nature of the Grail appears to Amfortas, so great becomes his despair that he begs to die. But the Chorus sings again: “Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool: wait for him, the appointed one.”

Gurnemanz, who led Parsifal to this inner vision, stands beside Parsifal throughout the scene. At the end he asks Parsifal: “Do you know what you have seen?” But Parsifal cannot answer, as he is overcome by the suffering he has seen. Gurnemanz angrily dismisses him. Parsifal is not yet able to help, as this requires more than just a vision of things occult. He must first acquire occult knowledge on the physical plane. This alone will enable him to internalize what he has seen and make it part of his consciousness. Only in this way can the divine be carried over into all realms.