Odysseus and the Tao

Odysseus does not desire to go home during his epic journey, but rather, like a Taoist, his home is the journey. The notion that he wishes to be in a particular place called home is but a projection which we throw onto him based on our own desires. Let us think about this. When we first meet him on Kalypso’s Isle of Ogygia in Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, he is crying on the beach. Many have interpreted Odysseus’ crying as parallel to Penelope’s own, and as Penelope cries for Odysseus, they assume that Odysseus cries for Penelope, or for home represented through her. This is not quite right. For one, let us consider the sort of man Odysseus, of the many-ways and devices, is. Is he the sort of man that would enjoy repose, like Laertes, out on his farm? Or simply to administer to his men? Perhaps if we look to Odysseus’ actions and the prophecy by Teiresias, we will figure out that the only “desire for home” we truly see, is our own desire for home, which as Agamemnon shows us, is simply a desire for the past.

Let us venture to the underworld. There we speak to Agamemnon, and boy does he have something to say:

“When Proserpine had dismissed the female ghosts in all directions, the ghost of Agamemnon son of Atreus came sadly up tome, surrounded by those who had perished with him in the house of Aegisthus. As soon as he had tasted the blood he knew me, and weeping bitterly stretched out his arms towards me to embrace me; but he had no strength nor substance any more, and I too wept and pitied him as I beheld him. ‘How did you come by your death,’ said I, ‘King Agamemnon? Did Neptune raise his winds and waves against you when you were at sea, or did your enemies make an end of you on the mainland when you were cattle-lifting or sheep-stealing, or while they were fighting in defence of their wives and city?’

“‘Ulysses,’ he answered, ‘noble son of Laertes, was not lost at sea in any storm of Neptune’s raising, nor did my foes despatch me upon the mainland, but Aegisthus and my wicked wife were the death of me between them. He asked me to his house, feasted me, and then butchered me most miserably as though I were a fat beast in a slaughter house, while all around me my comrades were slain like sheep or pigs for the wedding breakfast, or picnic, or gorgeous banquet of some great nobleman. You must have seen numbers of men killed either in a general engagement, or in single combat, but you never saw anything so truly pitiable as the way in which we fell in that cloister, with the mixing-bowl and the loaded tables lying all about, and the ground reeking with our-blood. I heard Priam’s daughter Cassandra scream as Clytemnestra killed her close beside me. I lay dying upon the earth with the sword in my body, and raised my hands to kill the slut of a murderess, but she slipped away from me; she would not even close my lips nor my eyes when I was dying, for there is nothing in this world so cruel and so shameless as a woman when she has fallen into such guilt as hers was. Fancy murdering her own husband! I thought I was going to be welcomed home by my children and my servants, but her abominable crime has brought disgrace on herself and all women who shall come after- even on the good ones.’

(Odyssey, Bk XI 385-434)

The lesson of Agamemnon’s story, typical of his speech, does not come until his final sentence. Just as in Homer’s Iliad Agamemnon blames delusion and not himself for his dispute with Achilleus in Book XIX, so here does Agamemnon blame others for his death. Of course it is literally true that Klytaimestra (Clytemnestra) and Aigisthos (Aegithus) did kill Agamemnon, he reveals that it was his own thoughtless assumption that happiness would be waiting for him at home which led to his demise! His own recklessness! For if he thought through his return, he would remember that he had sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigeneia, for the sake of good winds to Troy against the will of Klytaimestra, and that in killing Aigisthos’ father, Thyestes, that ill-will existed and was waiting for him in Mykenai (Mycenaea). And typically, rather than blaming himself for his own thoughtlessness, directly after winning a war with the conspiratorial help of Odysseus, Agamemnon decides to blame all women. Odysseus’ response is priceless:

“And I said, ‘In truth Jove has hated the house of Atreus from first to last in the matter of their women’s counsels. See how many of us fell for Helen’s sake, and now it seems that Clytemnestra hatched mischief against too during your absence.’ (Ibid, XI 435-439)

If one reads closely, it almost appears as if Odysseus is making fun of Agamemnon for (1) his bad luck with women! (Briseis/Chryseis, Helen, and Klytaimestra!), and (2) for his inability or unwillingness to consider the possibility of having “mischief” hatched against him while he was gone. Naturally, Odysseus will not fall in such a thoughtless way.

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Then let us consider the prophecy which Teiresias tells to Odysseus about his future:

“You want to know,’ said he, ‘about your return home, but heaven will make this hard for you. I do not think that you will escape the eye of Neptune, who still nurses his bitter grudge against you for having blinded his son. Still, after much suffering you may get home if you can restrain yourself and your companions when your ship reaches the Thrinacian island, where you will find the sheep and cattle belonging to the sun, who sees and gives ear to everything. If you leave these flocks unharmed and think of nothing but of getting home, you may yet after much hardship reach Ithaca; but if you harm them, then I forewarn you of the destruction both of your ship and of your men. Even though you may yourself escape, you will return in bad plight after losing all your men, [in another man’s ship, and you will find trouble in your house, which will be overrun by high-handed people, who are devouring your substance under the pretext of paying court and making presents to your wife.

“‘When you get home you will take your revenge on these suitors; and after you have killed them by force or fraud in your own house, you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food, nor do they know anything about ships, and oars that are as the wings of a ship. I will give you this certain token which cannot escape your notice. A wayfarer will meet you and will say it must be a winnowing shovel that you have got upon your shoulder; on this you must fix the oar in the ground and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a boar to Neptune. Then go home and offer hecatombs to an the gods in heaven one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full of years and peace of mind, and your people shall bless you. All that I have said will come true].’

(Odyssey, Bk XI 100-137)

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If we look at the structure of this prophecy, Odysseus’ homecoming, in the traditional meaning of the word, is not at the end of the prophecy, but at the middle. Often, here, the students shout that it is unfair that Odysseus does not get to “return home” and “live at peace,” but have we not already forgotten Odysseus’ sadness on peaceful Ogygia? Have we so quickly forgotten his active, persevering, and cunning nature? Would he even be happy continuing to live at home? Or is the point that home, for Odysseus, resides squarely within him acting in the way he was meant to, his energeia as Aristotelians tell us, or is home simply a physical place to which one returns? Obviously, the first choice is correct if we look at the definition of energeia and entellecheiaacting as an end in itself, or an action which is its own end. So one who acts in such a way is like a tortoise carrying its own shell, its own home, on its back. Thus is Odysseus always at home whenever he acts in accordance with his nature, which is all the way through his journey except when (a) he is with Kalypso, and (b) challenged to a simulated discus contest by the young Phaiakians Laodamas and Euryalos in Book VIII.

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Given that when one acts in accordance with one’s nature or essence, one “carries one’s home with one,” it is curious how Plato interprets the journey of Odysseus, and potentially incorrectly. During Book X, the final book of Plato’s Republic, he recounts the so-called “Myth of Er,” which is a myth about how life ends and begins at the very end of the book. The long section which tells the myth and includes Odysseus and a little more is contained below. If you only wish to read the part about Odysseus, it is the italicized portion in the first paragraph below:

“And according to the report of the messenger from the other world this was what the prophet said at the time: ‘Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely and will live diligently, there is appointed a happy and not undesirable existence. Let not him who chooses first be careless, and let not the last despair.’ And when he had spoken, he who had the first choice came forward and in a moment chose the greatest tyranny; his mind having been darkened by folly and sensuality, he had not thought out the whole matter before he chose, and did not at first sight perceive that he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children. But when he had time to reflect, and saw what was in the lot, he began to beat his breast and lament over his choice, forgetting the proclamation of the prophet; for, instead of throwing the blame of his misfortune on himself, he accused chance and the gods, and everything rather than himself. Now he was one of those who came from heaven, and in a former life had dwelt in a well-ordered State, but his virtue was a matter of habit only, and he had no philosophy. And it was true of others who were similarly overtaken, that the greater number of them came from heaven and therefore they had never been schooled by trial, whereas the pilgrims who came from earth, having themselves suffered and seen others suffer, were not in a hurry to choose. And owing to this inexperience of theirs, and also because the lot was a chance, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. For if a man had always on his arrival in this world dedicated himself from the first to sound philosophy, and had been moderately fortunate in the number of the lot, he might, as the messenger reported, be happy here, and also his journey to another life and return to this, instead of being rough and underground, would be smooth and heavenly. Most curious, he said, was the spectacle –sad and laughable and strange; for the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life. There he saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a swan out of enmity to the race of women, hating to be born of a woman because they had been his murderers; he beheld also the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale; birds, on the other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men. The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it. And not only did men pass into animals, but I must also mention that there were animals tame and wild who changed into one another and into corresponding human natures –the good into the gentle and the evil into the savage, in all sorts of combinations.

All the souls had now chosen their lives, and they went in the order of their choice to Lachesis, who sent with them the genius whom they had severally chosen, to be the guardian of their lives and the fulfiller of the choice: this genius led the souls first to Clotho, and drew them within the revolution of the spindle impelled by her hand, thus ratifying the destiny of each; and then, when they were fastened to this, carried them to Atropos, who spun the threads and made them irreversible, whence without turning round they passed beneath the throne of Necessity; and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. He himself was hindered from drinking the water. But in what manner or by what means he returned to the body he could not say; only, in the morning, awaking suddenly, he found himself lying on the pyre.”

(Plato, Republic Book X, 614B-621B)

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At first glance it is unclear whether Plato is agreeing or disagreeing with the above interpretation of Odysseus’ nature or tao–for if Odysseus truly were happy, or living a meaningful life, through acting in the way he did during life, why would he choose another sort of existence in his next life? Well, one might respond to this by saying that Odysseus correctly lived his first life in the manner proper to it, and in his next life he will do the same. Why, though, does he choose the life of a private man, if not to show Plato’s progression from Homer–the spirit of the Homeric adventurer in the world is met by the adventurous spirit of the mind which the philosopher engenders. Therefore, the Odysseus from Homer in one age embodies the scurrilous, cunning, and adventurous hero. And a few hundred years later that same spirit is embodied in a new way and in a new pursuit, and though the pursuit, on the face of it, looks different, it is simply adapted to its time, as it eternally is, just like one’s home, which one eternally carries with himself.


Conversations with Students XI: The Tricky Telemachy

The second seminar of the second seminar series of the year (on Homer’s Odyssey) is also the last seminar of the first semester. So, we are half-way through our year long goal of recording, documenting, and sharing the thoughts of the students on the Great Books of the Western Canon. This week, we focused on the Telemachy (first four books of Homer’s Odyssey) as a whole with special focus on Books 3 and 4, and we considered not only Telemachos, and his struggle to become a man, but made comparisons between Penelope and Odysseus, and considered the examples of Nestor and Menelaos too–considering whether they were models of hospitality/xenia.

First and foremost, the students considered what the importance to Telemachos’ transformation the fact of his friendship with Nestor’s son Peisistratos is. All through Books 1-3, Telemachos is receiving help from Athene. In Book I Athene comes to tell him to take the initiative to call an assembly to turn public opinion against the suitors and to seek after information on his father in the guise of the stranger Mentes (1.114-320). In Book 2, after the assembly is rudely disassembled by haughty Leokritos, Athene appears to Telemachos as kindly Mentor and outfits a ship and rounds up a crew for Telemachos (2.266-295). Then in Book 3, Athene, still in the guise of Mentor, not only advises Telemachos on how to speak to Nestor (3.26-28), speaks/prays alongside Telemachos to Nestor in demonstration (3.55-62), but she even puts courage into Telemachos’ heart (to win a good reputation) (3.75-78), and then, reveals herself as a god in order to demonstrate Telemachos’ divine favor to Nestor (3.370-384) (to create a good reputation among men for Telemachos–part and parcel of being perceived as not only a man, but a man of great kleos). The point is is that Athene is essentially guiding Telemachos every step of the way–both internally and externally, like both a father and a mother might. She even, in typically devious and clever fashion, advises him on the proper perception of the gods in all their power:

“Telemachos, what sort of word escaped your teeth’s barrier? Lightly a god, if he wishes, can save a man, even from far off. I myself would rather first have gone through many hardships and then come home, and look upon my day of returning, than come home and be killed at my own hearth, as Agamemnon was killed, by the treacherous plot of his wife, and by Aigisthos. But death is a thing that comes to all alike. Not even the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when once the destructive doom of leveling death has fastened upon him.” (3.230-238)

Not only does Athene here quickly remind Telemachos of the difference between the will of a god and the will of man (and give some serious foreshadowing about the return of Odysseus):precisely that gods can easily make things happen, even if it takes some doing, in the case of Odysseus. But she also reminds us of a theme that was constant in Homer’s Iliad, the inevitable death of all mortals, and the importance that a man die in a proper way if he wishes to be remembered and honored. But back to the point–Athene, until she flies away as a vulture, makes sure that Telemachos  cannot possibly fail to make it to Pylos, say the right things, and be recognized as a fine young man and son of Odysseus. After she flies away, though, Telemachos is on his own, and Nestor grants him his son, Peisistratos, as a companion. This brought up an interesting question to the students: to what extent is friendship, beyond simple guidance (from Athene), necessary to a child becoming an adult?

This question was a little beyond us, but the general feeling was that friendship, for a child, is the first autonomous attempt of a young person to create and maintain the fabric of society. That is, a friendship, as the basis of society, is something for which the two participants alone are responsible for maintaining–so, in a way, Telemachos’ relationship to Peisistratos is the first thing in his life that he can call solely his–and is a major step towards him being an autonomous decision maker, or adult. This segues nicely to Telemachos’ adventure, across land, to shining Sparta.

As mentioned earlier, a major theme we are keeping in mind this time through Homer’s Odyssey is how a people greet strangers and whether they honor the xenia or not. So, in the first book, when Mentes first enters the house of Odysseus, the suitors pay him no mind and continue drinking and eating as if nobody at all has entered–only Telemachos honors the guest/host relationship and feeds and converses with Mentes. In Pylos, Nestor is making a grand sacrifice to Poseidon, and he invites the traveleres (Mentor(Athene) and Telemachos) to do the same. When Telemachos and Peisistratos then arrive at Sparta, they view a wedding feast occurring for two of Menelaos’ children: Megapenthes (his illegitimate son by a slave girl who is heir to his throne due to Helen now being barren) and Alektor’s daughter and Hermione (daughter of Helen and Menelaos from before the Trojan War) and Neoptolemos. There is really just so much to consider here. First off, Menelaos’ henchman, Eteoneus, messes up and suggests to Menelaos that these “god-like” men either have their horses unharnessed or “send them on to someone else, who can entertain them.” (4.29-30) Menelaos is none to happy about this suggestion; he is a mighty king, and no one far or wide could possibly entertain these men in the manner that he could. He rebukes Eteoneus violently. But, why, in the first place would Eteoneus even suggest this? Is there some shame to be observed in this public ceremony? Sparta is full of such ambiguities, painful reminders, and “all that glitters not being golden”, as it were.

Let us consider what could be potentially embarrassing or unseemly about the wedding feast for the two children of Menelaos. On the first hand, it brings up the issue of Menelaos’ faithlessness right alongside Helen’s barrenness and faithlessness herself. Megapenthes is not the son of Helen, and given his age, ostensibly he was conceived before Helen left for Troy. Awkward. Second, since Helen can longer have children: “but the gods gave no more children to Helen once she had borne her first and only child, the lovely Hermione, with the beauty of Aphrodite the golden.” (4.12-14) Hermione is herself an interesting case because she was left alone by her parents for years and years growing up–and she is now being shipped off to Phthia with Neoptolemos. Spoiler alert, too, her husband Neoptolemos will be killed by resident Achaian stud Orestes in a dispute over who has first right to her. But that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Next, during the delightful dinner shared between Peisistratos, Telemachos, and Menelaos, Menelaos has decided that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, but it is Helen, just after she descends from the staircase, who points it out explicity. In a touch of bitter irony not unknown to the Homer of the Odyssey, Helen is compared to chaste Artemis in her initial description (4.121-122). Ouch. Helen then blurts out that Telemachos must be the son of Odysseus, and of course she is right. She does have a gift for seeing through ruses–and in fact in Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad she even effectively saw through a disguise that Aphrodite had as an attendant woman. There is, however, one time Helen tells us, that a very cunning man did manage to fool her–Odysseus, during a spy mission in Troy. Her description of what happens during the mission quickly gets awkward:

“[Odysseus] flagellated himself with degrading strokes, then threw on a worthless sheet about his shoulders. He looked like a servant. So he crept into the wide-wayed city of the men he was fighting, disguising himself in the likeness of somebody else, a beggar, one who was unlike himself in the likeness of somebody else [note: how like all things in this book! One thing appearing as something it is not] beside the ships of the Achaians, but in his likeness crept into the Trojans’ city, and they all were taken in. I alone recognized him even in this form, and I questioned him, but he in his craftiness eluded me.” (4.243-251)

So, we should revise our above opinion that Helen was fooled by Odysseus, because she did recognize him, but he was simply too crafty for her to prove that he was who she recognized him to be. Here, though, is where yet again in Sparta does the awkwardness of Helen and Menelaos’ tarnished relationship rear its head:

“but after I bathed him and anointed him with olive oil and put some clothing upon him, after I had sworn a great oath [note: keep this in mind during the Circe episode] not to disclose before the Trojans that this was Odysseus until he made his way back to the fast ships and the shelters, then at last he told me all the purpose of the Achaians, and after striking many Trojans down with the thin bronze edge, he went back to the Argives and brought back much information. The rest of the Trojan women cried out shrill, but my heart was happy, my heart had changed by now and was for going back home again, and I grieved for the madness that Aphrodite bestowed when she led me there away from my own dear country, forsaking my own daughter, my bedchamber, and my husband, a man who lacked no endowment either of brains of beauty.” (4.252-264)

Zeus only knows what Helen and Odysseus did before she bathed and anointed him, but Menelaos, who is sitting there listening, likely has some idea, just as everyone else there does. Even if it were nothing, the awkwardness looms. Another, small note Helen adds is that he heart had changed and that she longed for Menelaos. Whether it was the case that she truly loved Paris when she ran from Sparta or it was truly the “madness of Aphrodite” is a difficult question, and one the students continue to debate. What is slightly easier to debate, however, is that Menelaos’ immediate response to Helen about her involvement in an attempt to destroy the Trojan Horse seems to directly contradict her claim that she both loved and wanted to return to her husband, whom she almost had a direct hand in killing. Observe:

“Then in answer fair-haired Menelaos said to her: ‘Yes, my wife, all this that you said is fair and orderly. In my time I have studied the wit and counsel of many men who were heroes, and I have been over much of the world, yet nowhere have I seen with my own eyes anyone like him, nor known an inward heart like the heart of enduring Odysseus. Here is the way that strong man acted and the way he endured action, inside the wooden horse, where we who were greatest of the Argives all were sitting and bringing death and destruction to the Trojans. Then you came here, Helen; you will have been moved by some divine spirit who wished to grant glory to the Trojans, and Deiphobos, a godlike man, was with you when you came. Three times you walked around the hollow ambush, feeling it, and you called out, naming them by name, to the best of the Danaans, and made your voice sound like the voice of the wife of each of the Argives.” (4.265-279)

Burn. Not only does Menelaos bring up the fact that Helen directly acted against her expressed will in her previous statement by attempting to “out” the Achaians in the Trojan Horse through nefarious means, but he also cleverly and pointedly suggests that perhaps this action to was the result of some “divine spirit” like when she abandoned Sparta with Paris in the first place. This relationship looks uglier and uglier. Not only earlier did Helen show her lack of “one-mindedness” with Menelaos by blurting out that she thought Telemachos was the son of Odysseus, but she also had to place “heartsease”, an Egyptian drug, which eases even the deepest hurts (4.221-232) into the drinks of all the men because they were all crying so hard for those they had lost during Troy, which of course was the result of Helen’s absconding. Everything seems to remind Menelaos and Helen of the fact that she is responsible for all Menelaos’ suffering–and we have not even gotten to how Menelaos learns of his brother’s death from Proteus, and his inability to do anything to prevent it, because of course he was detained in Egypt after finishing the war to win back his truant wife. The quote then ends emphasizing Odysseus’ clever nature by detaining the foolish Antiklos who fell for Helen’s ruse, and mentioning, perhaps slyly, that Athene must have led Helen off (4.280-289). If Helen is going to rely on the gods as an excuse for her indiscretions, Menelaos is certainly laying it on thick that she is apparently beyond choice and influenced in all she does by them.

There is so much more to consider in this book, but we have run long, and not even considered all we set out to–we should end by mentioning the potential significance of Menelaos’ encounter with the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus. The students wondered why exactly it was that Menelaos had to wrestle with and hold Proteus, Old Man of the Sea, and a shapeshifter. He shifts into a lion, serpent, leopard, boar, water, and even a tree. All I could suggest to them is that the truth takes many forms, and that in life, it often requires real perseverance and wrestling with the truth in all its many forms in order to pin down and finally grasp the essence of its apparently evanescent nature.




Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell 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 destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, 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.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

Conversations with Students VII: a Bounded Eternity

Last Tuesday’s seminar essentially covered Homer’s Iliad Books 18-20, but it also constantly referenced back to Book 16 and the death of Patroklos–which has become something of a lynch-pin for the thinking of this group of students. The main questions considered on Tuesday follow below:

1) What a world without strife look like? Achilleus suggests that he wishes strife would disappear from all the world, but would that world be a better world than, say, sort of utopia/dystopian world without emotions and strife like in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which the students read in 8th grade, the year before my course. Later on in their careers they may consider the implications of these questions in relation to say A Wrinkle in Time, 1984, and Brave New World, and if they want a headache, perhaps even Anthem. The operant quote where Achilleus states this position comes in Book 18 in conversation with his mother after his dearest friend Patroklos has fallen to his fated death:

“Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers, since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other companions [is this grief for his actions?!–my add], who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor, but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land, I who am such as no other of the bronze-armoured Achaians in battle, though there are others also better in council–why, I wish that strife would vanish away from among gods and mortals, and glass, which makes a man grow angry for all his great mind, that gall of anger that swarms like smoke inside of a man’s heart and becomes a thing sweeter to him by far than the dripping of honey.” (18.101-110, Lattimore tr.)

The students became divided, then, on the issue of what a world without strife caused by emotions would be. For here Achilleus demonstrates his usual clear-minded perception of the case: had he not become angry, his friend and many other Achaians would not have died. And he does this in language which is rather damning of himself, calling himself a “useless weight” though “no other of the bronze-armoured Achaians” are his equal in battle. The students on one side claimed that one’s humanity is directly tied to one’s capacity to feel emotion, and some suggested that one’s emotions themselves make one a human, while other more sapient students suggested that the complexity of emotion, like compassion, mixed with one’s decisions based on how to express and deal with such emotion are what makes one a human. In either case, simply restraining emotion with a pill, like in The Giver or the movie Equilibrium, would strip one of his or her essential humanity, and would essentially replace one tragedy, loss, especially of loved ones, due to one’s own emotional decisions with the greater tragedy of denaturing and neutering mankind’s essential humanity. It does seem clear that one’s mistakes are an essential part of being human, and that living with them is just as much a part of being human as trying to rectify them (as the constant examples of Herakles in the text invoke).

There was, however, also a small contingent of students who maintained that emotions do cause all strife and that because of that they ought to be expunged from all human decision. While the point has a sort of pristine edge, it lacks philosophical depth in the wake of considering humans and their essential differences from machines: if a human were meant simply to be an object with purpose which carried it out with ruthless efficiency, would not a human be somewhat poorly adapted to this purpose through its emotions and the complexities which arise due to them and their relationship to personal and societal ethics? Tragic as the consequences of strong emotions and heated decisions may be, they are as dear and essential to human nature as any sophisticated teleological point about human end. In fact, it is the fact that some humans live out their purposes, in particular Achilleus, in the wake of such emotion, which is so impressive.

2) Is the shield significant? What about the cities of war and at peace? What about the heavens in the middle and ocean along the edge? This question could be answered for days, but essentially it considers the body of text between 18.474-616. In a way, all things in life and the world are represented on this shield. In its middle are the sources of all life and that which guides it, the sun and moon and earth and sea. And around these are five constellations strewn throughout the heavens. There are then two cities, one at peace, complete with a marriage, an act of ultimate union occurring, and one at war, complete with Athene and Ares and Hate, Confusion, and Death. There are then singing and playing youths, working women, cattle, dogs, and even a dancing floor like the one “Daidolos built for Ariadnes” where young men and women, in utter elegance, are dancing in finery. Around all this, as limit to both shield and world, lies Okeanos, mighty, large, and both beginning and end to all the world and every story regarding it. Naturally, we discussed all this, but for those seeking further depth of insight, I would only say that we determined through a clever syllogism that all things must exist within the shield because even an Xbox may be perceived within it. How one asks? Well, when the students are asked what an Xbox is used for, the response is for entertainment, often by means of video games. What sorts of video games? They suggested “Call of Duty”, a game which features modern warfare–and as it features warfare, and so does the shield, so must the shield comprise the Xbox as well. Such reasoning is at best entertaining, but the point is clear that the shield does run a wide gamut of major themes, celestial, natural, human, ordered, and chaotic which form and destroy this world periodically while encompassing the lion’s share of all our human experiences.

3) A question that invoked fire-like passion was whether Patroklos died a hero, a fool, or a man in love with honor. Some students, one in particular, were of the opinion that Patroklos simply disobeyed orders and fought beyond the Achaian wall because either a) he wanted to do himself honor, or b) because Zeus had placed bravery within him/besotted his wits. A cabal of other students, however, insisted that the very reason that Patroklos fought in the first place was out of care and concern for the Achaians–because he, unlike Achilleus, could be moved to pity–especially as he had just seen the injured Machaon and Eurypylos–and been in conversation with Nestor who related the injuries of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Diomedes to him as well.

The question of whether Patroklos died honorably/nobly was most notable for not only its spirited nature, but also for its excellent references to the text in Books 15 (the prophecy of Zeus of Sarpedon, Patroklos, and Hektor’s deaths (15.64-76) and Book 16 where Patroklos chooses, seemingly of his own volition to fight–he comes crying to Achilleus, but that when he gets beyond the ships, there Zeus’ “mind” drives him on towards his doom (16.685-689). In any case, the issue remained unresolved, though generally more from a logical rather than emotional point of view. Few if any of the students truly doubted whether Patroklos, man with three slayers, who died boasting of the looming death of his third slayer died as a hero with great honor.

Conversations with Students III: Defeat, Destruction, and Catastrophe on the Trojan Plain

The body of text that we covered in preparation for this seminar was technically Homer’s Iliad Books VI-VIII, and just through the very beginning of Book IX. During that time, the students encountered the odd exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes of vows of friendship and an exchange of armor of wildly disparate values (Glaukos’ gold armor was worth 100 oxen and Diomedes’ 9), but the students were quick to remind that at least Glaukos left the encounter with his life, so perhaps the 91 oxen difference is value is at least one or two short of the value Glaukos lays on his life.

Much of the remainder of Book VI is given to Hektor briefly leaving the battlefield in order to order a sacrifice to Athene within the walls of Troy, to collect his brother Paris, who is sitting about his bedchamber, doing nothing, like a pale shadow of Achilleus, and for Hektor poignantly to see his son, Astyanax, and his wife, Andromache for the last time.

Book VII then carries on with the fighting and Apollo and Athene decided that yet another one on one combat between champions is in order: Apollo chooses Hektor, the greatest warrior of the Trojans, and when Hektor calls out his challenge to the Achaians, only Menelaos attempts to accept it–but his older and more prudent brother, Agamemnon, stops him from volunteering, insisting that Hektor is “by far the greater man”. Nestor, the wise old counselor of the Achaians, then tells a story in typical fashion about him once defeating a great champion named Ereuthalion, and the Achaians now shamed and full of fighting spirit have 9 intrepid champions volunteer to fight: Agamemnon, Diomedes, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser (The two Aias’ are called the “Aiantes” when referred to together), Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Each man then has a lot assigned, and with a prayer for Diomedes, Aias the Greater, or Agamemnon to be chosen, Nestor shakes the helmet and shoots the lot. Aias’ lot is chosen, and he proceeds to seriously task Hektor during the fight: penetrating his shield twice a spear, tearing Hektor’s neck, and crushing his shield inward with a rock while sustaining no damage himself. Unfortunately, night comes and the two champions are separated by the heralds, Idaios and Talthybios.

Book VII then ends with the Trojan advisor, Antenor, sagaciously suggesting that the Trojans just give Helen and the stolen possessions of Menelaos back to the Achaians, but Paris demurred, and for some reason, his father Priam, king of Troy, agrees to send the possessions back but not Helen. Of course the Achaians take this as a slap in the face, and they do not accept the fulsome offering from the Trojans. All this said, the seminar we had to today largely focused on why the Achaians and Trojans are still fighting after 9 long years of war. Several suggestions ensued.

1) Helen is a political object which was possessed by Menelaos, king of Sparta, and she was stolen by a foreign dignitary, Paris, and therefore an act of war was made by Troy against Sparta. In the background to this is the fact that many of the great men around then Achaia, Argos, and what would come later to be called Hellas or Greece had all been suitors to Helen before Menelaos was chosen as winner. During this process, Odysseus, seeking after his own interest in winning Penelope, niece of Tyndareus (father of Helen) suggested that Tyndareus have every suitor honor the decision of Helen and Tyndareus on husband and promise forever to protect Helen and her husband. The idea behind this oath was to keep the suitors from outright murdering Helen, her father, and her new husband in a collectively spurned rage. Little did any of them expect that they would later be honor-bound to mass armies, cross the Aegean Sea, and fight a ten year long war, which few enough of them would return from.

2) The second reason that the students gave for why the war rages on is the champions/heroes’ desire for further enlarging and expanding their kleos or honor. This claim might see some evidence with Pandaros, fool that he is, being persuaded by Athene to shoot his arrow at Menelaos in a misbegotten attempt to win honor at the expense of continuing the war on (4. 115-140). Also, Diomedes several times distinguishes himself as a great battler, susceptible to shaming (4. 425-430) and desirous of wonderful honor during his heroic and god-like deeds during his aristeia all throughout Book V. But the problem with this perspective was that in the first nine books of Homer’s Iliad there are five attempts by the Achaians or the Trojans alone or in tandem to draw the war to a quick end–all five of which occur during a Two day stint (Books III-VII are one long day of fighting, Book VIII another long one during which the Trojans rout the Achaians with the favor of Zeus, and Book IX begins on the same night as Book VIII).

The first time the Achaians show their weakness and desire to leave is actually the same day spoke of in Book III but is found back in Book II. Agamemnon devises a “reverse psychology” sort of speech where he tells the Achaians that they should just go home because Zeus must have falsely promised Agamemnon Troy (2. 119-153). Instead of having their battle spirits raised, the men of the Achaians just start heading back towards their ships, and it takes a command by Hera to Athene to rouse the men back up through the voice of Odysseus and then the liquid-honey voice of Nestor to get the men to stay. The point is though Odysseus suggests that it is disgraceful to return home after a long time empty-handed, that these men are all tired and beaten down.

The second time both the Achaians and Trojans show a desire for a quick end is when Paris suggests to his brother Hektor single-combat against Menelaos, winner take Helen, receive war-restitution, and the items stolen from Sparta alongside Helen. Menelaos hears of this opportunity, and with the assent of all his people (and likely the Trojans too), proceeds to beat Paris senseless (its true; he knocks him over with his spear, breaks his sword over Paris’ head, and then attempts to choke him with his own helmet’s chin-strap) (3. 375-400). Unfortunately for both sides, Aphrodite then saves Paris and deposits him safely back in his bedchambers with Helen, who all too humanly, is disgusted with her wretched and cowardly husband.

The third time both Achaians and Trojans, and even the gods Athene and Apollo, show a desire to end the war is when in Book VII a second single combat (on the same day as the first) is suggested between Hektor and an unnamed Achaian champion, who after a rousing speech by Nestor, and nine men volunteer, ends up being Aias the Greater, who is chosen by lots (as summarized above as well). This battle is less one-sided than the Paris and Menelaos battle in a way, but Aias essentially dominates it until the heralds Talthybios and Idaios stop it do to the onset of darkness, and ostensibly, because both men are so beloved, that neither side really wants to see either die on account of pathetic Paris.

The fourth and most pathetic attempt to end the war (until we see the fifth at the beginning of Book IX) is Antenor’s suggestion to the Trojan council that the Trojans just give Helen back to the Achaians with Menelaos’ possessions and be done with it all. After two failed attempts at ending the war that day, Antenor reasonably assumes that the will of the people is to end the war, with Troy not being sacked. As reasonable as his perspective is, Paris demurred, and for some reason, Priam places the desires of Paris above the will of his people. Is this perhaps because he would prefer to see Troy destroyed than it further suffer disgrace at the hands of his beautiful but weak son? One is led to wonder, but the thought is never confirmed by him.

After Book VIII and Zeus’ decree that the Trojans shall smash the Achaians back until Achilleus retakes the field of battle (after his friend Patroklos dies), Agamemnon begins Book IX disconsolate. He is so disconsolate that now, without using reverse psychology, he suggests to his counselors that they just retreat (9. 18-31). Zeus is just too strong! Naturally, Diomedes, the young and name-making Achaian, who had just fought with the gods Ares and Aphrodite is sick of this sort of attitude and claims that if he and Sthenelos were left alone on the battlefield that they would sack Troy themselves. But all that said, over a span of two days, the men show just how tired, worn-out, fatigued, exhausted they are. Though kleos might be the immortal measure of a man’s life and power, his mortal limits apparently must be taken into account.

In the end, the students were asked just who was keeping this war going, gods or men, and in two of the accounts gods stepped in to keep the war from ending (examples 1 and 2), but in the following three (Examples 3,4, and 5) it was mortal men who continued to fight. What keeps them going? Or is it who? With these questions we left seminar, though the issue of Helen, her acute ability to spot Aphrodite through her deceptions, her keen hand for weaving and her take on all this remains for us to discuss another day.

Hermes and the Archetype of Transformation

“You can see what kind of a deity this is, a new thought, a new spirit. All the old gods were psychological facts which later on became ideas. The old gods represented by the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, are the old personal gods living on Olympus. They became later on psychological constituents of human character. We speak of a saturnine expression, a mercurial temperament, a martial bearing, jovial behaviour, etc., and we forget that we thus liken man to the great rulers of Olympus. A god may appear to you if it pleases him to do so, and if you integrate or entertain him, as it were, that means a new spirit, a new attitude in you.” (Carl Jung, Seminar on Dream Analysis, pp. 181-182)

Hermes, great messenger of the gods, and son of Zeus and Maya is most popular for his capacity to bring the will of the gods, generally Zeus, down to mortals from above, particularly in Homer’s Odyssey. There is, however, another role which he plays for which he receives a smaller, but potentially more important, bit of credit: as psychopompos. A psychopomp, from psuche+pempein (soul+to send), is a spirit or daimon who brings souls between worlds, like Charon, or Hermes himself. In both the Iliad and Odyssey Hermes acts in this capacity in Book 24 of both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (once with Priam to his son Hektor, and in the latter he takes the souls of the suitors to the Underworld). But he also is mentioned in the famous Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid as both taking souls to and from the Orcus, the Underworld, and the same power is ascribed to him in Book I of Statius’ epic, Thebaid.

Given our recent course of study starting from the archetype of the hero as bringing about tremendous change in the conscious dominant of a person or society, and the archetype of Dionysos proving the necessary “space between” or katharsis before a new dominant takes hold of a person or place: what then does Hermes as an archetype represent, and when in this process does his role become operant? We will begin by examining Hermes’ role as psychopomp in the epic tradition, and then we will connect that role with his “birth myth”, and finally we will consider the symbolism of Hermes/Mercury in conjunction with his purpose and function as archetype.

In Book XXIV of the Iliad, Hermes is sent by Zeus to ensure safe-passage of Priam from his safe and living world of Troy to the camp of his opposite number, his dead son, Hektor, and his son’s murderer, Achilleus, who now holds the body of Hektor hostage. Priam must therefore leave his home, cross the battlefield, and then “kiss the hands” of his sons’ killer–transitioning both his physical place and his state of being across the battlefield. As Zeus commands Hermes down, he makes an interesting comment about Hermes: “Hermes, for to you beyond all other gods it is dearest to be man’s companion, and you listen to whom you will, go now on your way, and so guide Priam inside the hollow ships of the Achaians…” (Homer, Iliad, Bk XXIV 334-337. Lattimore tr.) And then again Hermes is described: “He caught up the staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers.” (Ibid, 343-344) One observes from these two descriptions two important aspects of Hermes: he of all the gods most cares for man (ostensibly, now that Prometheus is out of the picture), and he has the capacity to wake or put to sleep a man. What this means, is that Hermes is the archetype, par excellence, of the transition between one state of being and another, or transformation (for it is humans who go from sleeping to waking, and alive to dead*). Just as Dionysos represents the space necessary between states, so does Hermes represent the active process of transformation, though this transformation can be positive, waking, or negative, being put to sleep, both aspects are essential to transformation. Let us now look to Hermes’ expressly stated role as psychopompos that we might not be tempted to think his role as transformational archetype be a “stretch”.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Book XXIV, after god-like Odysseus has killed withe suitors with the help of his herdsmen (Eumaios and Philoitios) and his son Telemachos, all 108 suitors require guidance to the underworld. It is in this way that Book XXIV opens.

“Hermes of Kyllene summoned the souls of the suitors to come forth, and in his hands he was holding the beautiful golden staff, with which he mazes the eyes of mortals whose eyes he would maze, or wakes again sleepers [my ital.]. Herding them on with this, he led them along, and they followed, gibbering. And as when bats in the depth of an awful cave flitter and gibber, when one of them has fallen out of his place in the chain that the bats have formed by holding one on another; so, gibbering, they went their way together, and Hermes the kindly healer led them down along the mouldering pathways.” (Homer, Odyssey Bk XXIV 1-10, Lattimore, tr.)

We see above that Hermes not only brings sleeper to wakefulness and wakened ones to sleep, but he also commutes the living to the world of the dead, and as we will see below, vice-versa. Interestingly, just as the suitors are transformed from living to dead, so is their speech, of which Hermes is the god, also rendered from intelligible to unintelligible as well. His power is by its very nature the active principle of transformation. Whether he is represented as putting one to sleep (like Argos, the giant whom he killed and earned the epithet Argeiphontes for), waking one up, or bringing one back to life or guiding one down to death. Even in more subtle ways does he represent transformation in the Odyssey where he transforms Odysseus from captive to free-man on Kalypso’s island, Ogygia (Ibid, Bk V 98-117), or when he gives Odysseus moly to prevent him from transforming when he ate the food of Circe (Ibid, Bk X 275-310). If one looks closely, one even observes that Hermes “explained the nature of [the plant, moly]” (304), therefore transforming Odysseus from ignorance to understanding on the substance. We will now conclude the historical overview of Hermes as a transformational archetype in epic with two brief quotes from Vergil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebaid. Though the Thebaid was written first, we will continue with Vergil’s Aeneid.

Interestingly, in Book IV of Vergil’s Aeneid, Mercury (Hermes) speaks twice to Aeneas insisting that he hurry along away from mad Dido. First he reminds Aeneas that he has his own city to fight for and colonize (Vergil, Aeneid, Bk IV 345-371, Mandelbaum tr.). And then when Aeneas has the audacity to attempt to sleep the night away, Mercury drops the bombshell that resonates throughout time along with Agamemnon’s assessment of Klytaimestra from Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, “Why not flee this land headlong, while there is still time? You soon will see the waters churned by wreckage, ferocious torches blaze, and beaches flame, if morning finds you lingering on this coast. Be on your way. Enough delays. An ever uncertain and inconstant thing is woman [my ital.].” (Ibid, 781-786). But where one observes his capacity as psychopompos in its clearest form is in his description before his first visit:

“Mercury made ready to follow his great father’s orders. First he laces on his golden sandals: winged to bear him, swift as whirlwind, high across the land and water. The he takes his wand; with this he calls pale spirits up from Orcus and down to dreary Tartarus sends others; he uses this to give sleep and recall it, and to unseal the eyes of those who have died.” (319-327)

And then again in Statius’ Thebaid:

“His father spoke. Atlas’ grandson appeared and quickly bound winged sandals on his feet. A cap concealed his hair. His glow dimmed stars. In his right hand he held the slender wand he uses to induce and banish sleep or send dead souls to deep, dark Tartarus or, on occasion, bring dead shades to life [my ital.]. Down he leapt, upright; by the air sustained that instant, flying on the vast sublime and traced a mighty down-gyre through the clouds.” (Statius, Thebaid, Bk I 303-311, Ross tr.)

With Hermes effectively demonstrated as not only the god of transformation (life to death, sleep to wakefulness, unintelligibility to intelligibility (through language), etc. Let us now consider how his birth and theft of his brother Apollo’s cattle myth yet further demonstrates his archetypal capacity to transform. We will here quote from a summary, but full details from a variety of primary sources exist here.

“Conceived of Zeus, he had been born of a night-sky nymph named Maia…In a cave [Hermes] had been born, at dawn; and toddling forth from his cradle before noon, he has chanced–or had seemed to chance–at the entrance of the cave upon a tortoise (an early animal symbol of the universe), which he broke up and fashioned into a lyre, to which at noon he beautifully sang. That evening he stole Apollo’s cattle, and to appease the god gave him the lyre, which Apollo passed to his own son Orpheus.” (Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology, P. 203)

So, we see above that Hermes, like Dionysos, was an illegitimate son of Zeus, but unlike Dionysos who gained authority through being dismembered (passively) and re-unifying, Hermes, himself, transforms his rank and earns acceptance through his transformational deeds. First, at dawn, a time of transition, at the mouth of the cave he was born at (the space between inside and out), he transforms a living tortoise into the dead lyre by which he transforms moving air and words into son. He then steals his brother’s cattle, transferring ownership from Apollo to him, a markedly underhanded transformation, but one all the same. And then he transforms Apollo from foe to friend, by transferring ownership of the lyre to him, and in doing that, he is accepted as an Olympian by Apollo and Zeus.

All this said, however, how exactly is it that Hermes as archetype of transformation represents a point in time or an energic process in both man and society? Just as in the beginning of this series we suggested that the task of the hero was to remove the “old-king” or dominant of the collective consciousness from power, so did we then indicate that a “purging” or katharsis had to occur between the rule of the old and new king (collective attitude). After the fall of the former dominant, and then after the “clearing of space” of the wild and unruly Dionysian archetype, then does the active transformation of a person or culture begin. That is the space of the archetype of Hermes. Let us observe his description as Mercury from Richard Tarnas.

“the principle of mind, thought, communication, that which articulates the primary creative energy and renders it intelligible; the impulse and capacity to think, to conceptualize, to connect and mediate[my ital.], to use words and language, to give and receive information; to make sense of, to grasp, to perceive and reason, understand and articulate;  to transport, translate, transmit [my ital.]; the principle of Logos; Hermes, the messenger of the gods.” (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, P. 90)

What one sees above is that the principle and essence of the archetype of Hermes is furnish and transmit a new leading collective or personal attitude after the former one has been destroyed by the archetype of the hero. Just as an old conscious dominant ceases to reflect reality and therefore halts the flow of life, vitality, and meaning, so does it become, after the steps above, necessary in some way to reconnect and mediate the new myth which will inform and unite a people or person with creative unconscious or reality as it is. It is precisely in this moment that the archetype of Hermes, messenger of the gods, mediator of wisdom, transformative archetype, is activated.** In the moment after the archetype of Dionysos does its work, then is a space created for the transformative connection between the unconscious and consciousness of a man or society. During this moment of connection or mediation, a link may be created by which the new myth of a person or a people is perceived and interpreted. Plato has a description of such a moment in his Symposium:

“I don’t know whether anybody else has ever opened him up when he’s been being serious, and seen the little images inside, but I saw them once, and they looked so godlike, so golden, so beautiful, and so utterly amazing that there was nothing for it but to do exactly what he told me.” (Plato, Symposium, 216-e-217a, Hamilton tr.)

And when this moment of transformation and transmission occurs on the personal level, the psychologists call it either the coniunctio or part of individuation.

“Our pictures of the coniunctio are to be understood in this sense: union on the biological level is a symbol for the unio oppositorum at its highest. This means that the union of opposites in the royal art is just as real as coitus in the common acceptation of the word, so that the opus becomes an analogy for the natural process by means of which instinctive energy is transformed, at least in part, into symbolical activity [my ital.].” (Carl Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, P. 250, Par. 460)

Just as Alcibiades received insight into the images inside by means of connecting to Socrates, so does one in a psychological sense, achieve a transformation of consciousness or attitude by receiving and embodying a new symbol or myth, a risen phoenix from the ashes purged from the old, now dead one. Jung uses the example of a physical or natural union as a process for transforming instinctive energy into symbolical activity, sometimes called sublimation. So, however, does the archetype of Hermes connect opposites (conscious to the unconscious; mortal to immortal; god to man) in order to revitalizes and reinvigorate the energy, meaning, and purpose of modern culture and modern man.

*Though the gods do appear to sleep in Homer’s Iliad Bk XIV (250-256; 352-355) with the help of the god Sleep, anyway.

** “And with Right may the son of Maia lend his hand, strong to send wind fair for action, if he will. Much else lies secret he may show at need. He speaks the secret word, by night hoods darkness on the eyes nor shows more plainly when the day is there.” (Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, Ll. 811-818, Lattimore tr.) Hermes is no fewer than three times called “Hermes of death” or “lord of the dead,” as well (124, 623, 726)

Fatherhood in the Great Books I: Fathers of The Trojan War

There is little doubt that there are few roles as important to society today as is fatherhood. And as a testament to this thought, even in the Great Books from the “Homeric” period was fatherhood described and pictured as both complex and difficult. In honor of today, we will take a look at some of the major characters from Greek mythology and their profiles as fathers: whether it be the tricky and deceitful character of Odysseus attempting to escape the Trojan War or Agamemnon who sacrificed his own daughter to earn favorable winds, or even the dubious position of soft-hearted Priam of Troy, there is a fundamental tension in the role of fatherhood: where is one’s first allegiance owed–to one’s people, one’s self, or to one’s family.

Let us take the example of Odysseus first. Before the Trojan War, Odysseus received an oracle saying that if he engaged in the Trojan War he would return twenty years later as a beggar. Odysseus, being an enterprising sort, decided that such a fate was not his best option, and fair as Helen was (who Paris had stolen, inciting the war), he would prefer to tend to his lands, family, and self without the added stress of twenty years abroad pursuing and fighting for the wife of another king. So, when an Achaian envoy came to recruit Odysseus, he acted as if he were crazy, and he plowed his fields while sowing salt on them. Palamedes, a clever Achaian in his own right, laid Odysseus’ infant son in front of him (or threatened him with a sword by another account), and Odysseus then broke character and allowed himself to be conscripted. He would later plant evidence in Palamedes’ tent (buried under it) and have Palamedes stoned for being a traitor (more on the story from Apollodorus’ Epitome here).

All this said, if one looks on either side of the war, Odysseus showed a remarkable level of care for his family and lands. In the first place, as written above, Odysseus did not want to leave his family at all. It may be objected, of course, that Odysseus, acquisitive as he is, simply did not want to lose his riches and place in Ithakan society–especially, if one considers the fact that the oracle is borne out, and that Odysseus comes home to meet 108 fine suitors eating up his substance in his stead. The lynch-pin of the argument, however, is that Odysseus chooses to save the life of his son, Telemachos, rather than maintain his charade, and he chooses war and poverty over giving up his own son. This shows a remarkable love for his family, and perhaps for the descent of his line, over even his own personal wealth and kleos (glory in Achaian time as measured by possessions and deeds of valor). This care and love for both home and family maintains itself through Odysseus’ entire odyssey home as he fights through Cyclopes, Laistrygones, and gives up the beds of two goddesses (Circe and Kalypso) in order to return to his lands, wife, son, and father. Though Odysseus is often thought of as the consummate cunning and amoral man (responsible for stealing the Paladium, ambushing King Rhesos and the Thracians with Diomedes, and the idea for the Trojan Horse), he shows himself as the perfect mixture of mastermind and family man, ever striving to be home and to fight alongside those he loves and cares for (so long as they are loyal to him).*

In one other way, too, Odysseus shows himself as an effective father. Because he allows (with the help of Athene and Mentor) his son to step out of his shadow by allowing his son, alongside his father, to have a place in the killing of the suitors as well as the fighting against the families of the suitors. Unlike in the case of say the Heraclids (the sons of Herakles), the greatness of the father does not stunt the development of the son, Telemachos.

This balance, however, of family life and place in society did not extend quite so elegantly to every Achaian hero, and from here, let us continue with Agamemnon as a father. When Helen was first taken from Menelaos by ignoble and “womanly” Paris, Agamemnon in support of his younger brother, called all the Achaian captains together who had once convened as suitors to Helen in the lands and court of Tyndareus, Helen’s putative father. Because, again, of Odysseus’ cleverness, all the former suitors of Helen had sworn an oath to forever protect the husband and person of Helen should any trouble befall them. The reason for this oath was that Tyndareus feared that with such a mass of suitors convened that whomever he chose would spark an attack or massacre, so Odysseus (vying for Penelope by suggesting this deal) suggested that all suitors swear an oath to protect whomever was chosen along with Helen herself.

In the first stages of having these captains and their men together ready to assault Paris and Troy for stolen Helen, tragedy struck. Either Agamemnon killed a sacred stag of Artemis, or he had foolishly boasted that he was a a greater hunter than she was; in any case, Artemis turned the winds at Aulis against the fleet and stranded the whole army there until expiation could be done. The prophet Calchas, who Agamemnon would come to hate, declared that nothing would appease Artemis besides a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.

Agamemnon, thus, was caught between his duty as a brother, as a field-marshal, and as a father. Which duty of his should come first? In the end, he was convinced by Odysseus to sacrifice his daughter due to the fact that Iphigeneia was not his only daughter (he still had two other daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and a son, Orestes) and that he had but one brother, and as a a leader of people, his duty was to his men, not simply to his family. Was Agamemnon therefore a better leader and brother than he was a father? Is one’s highest duty to one’s people and army as a general and king, or is one’s duty to one’s own daughter? What a choice.

In any case, after the war, during the Returns, Oeax, brother of executed and disgraced Palamedes, effectively convinced Klytaimestra ( Clytemnestra, Fabulae 117) to conspire to kill Agamemnon because of his outrageous choice to sacrifice their shared daughter, and because Oeax claimed that Agamemnon would be bringing a daughter of Priam, Kassandra, as a concubine to replace Klytaimestra. Klytaimestra was convinced, and with her new lover Aigisthos, cousin (and raised brother of Agamemnon), they slaughtered Agamemnon while he was sacrificing just after he arrived home.

All this tragedy behind him, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, as much as he would have preferred a living and healthy family, did have the opportunity to avenge his father and win eternal fame because of his murder. So highly regarded was he that when Athene first appears to Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey “to start him on his journey to being a man”, Bk I lines 299-303 (Lattimore tr.), she says, “Or have you not heard what glory was won by great Orestes among all mankind, when he killed the murderer of his father, the treacherous Aigisthos, who had slain his famous father?” She passes over in silence his murdering of his mother, Klytaimestra, as well, and seemingly maintains that as tragic as Agamemnon’s death is, the glory of his son is very great.

Standing in stark contrast and as foil to Agamemnon, too, is soft-hearted Priam, the king of Troy. Rather than making the difficult choice Agamemnon did, to value his people above his family when Paris returned home from Sparta with his stolen bride, it was Priam that promised that he would never give Helen back up to Menelaos and the Achaians. Even nine years into the war, with several of his sons slain, countless of his allies and his citizens fallen, when Antenor, his esteemed advisor spoke against Paris, and suggested, wisely, that Helen finally be returned with reparations to the Achaians, Priam again listened to his son (Iliad, Bk VII 365-379), and ignored counsel.

So, because Priam was incapable of choosing against one of his family members, during the course of the Iliad, he watches his favorite son, champion of Troy–Hektor–fall before his very eyes and get dragged and desecrated behind Achilleus’ chariot around the Trojan city three times. Then Priam must finally, in Bk XXIV, kiss the hands of his son’s killer in order to receive his body back. Oh, and then, after Homer’s Iliad, his city is destroyed alongside most of his fifty sons, and his wife is enslaved by Odysseus. Difficult choices a father faces–even more difficult in sight of his own destiny and with concern for the destinies of those about (and under) him. Did Priam fail, perhaps, the stoic ideal, or was being generous to a strange woman and to his own son the kind of man and king he wished to be known and remembered as, regardless of the cost? Did he choose wisely, or was he out of his wits?

Beyond these figures there are countless other fathers who were heroes, leaders, and complicated characters in the Homeric times and beyond. One has the image of pious father Aeneas as something of the perfect political and family father–dutiful beyond all reason, and then one has Achilleus as the image of the absentee father who only cares for how his son represents him in the world after he has died–almost as an extension of his own kleos or glory. There are many more fathers in the Great Books to choose from, and the theme of considering the relationship of one’s own destiny against providing for the destiny of those under one’s care is one of the fundamental moral and political questions in the life of a man. On today, father’s day, such a question is honored here, and it will continue to be honored in future installments of this series.

*For those of you, however, who do not care for Odysseus, check the Telegony here for his ultimate fate according to the Epic Cycle for some serious irony.