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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.