Symbolism in Homer’s Odyssey: On the Blindness of Polyphemos

As many of you know, I have been teaching Homer’s Odyssey for four years now. During this time I have taught it four times to high school students, and I have also had the pleasure to teach community members and parents for the last three years in bi-weekly seminars. So, by the end of this year, I will have taught this Ancient epic poem through lecture and seminar seven times. Add to that my reading it during graduate school, taking an Ancient Greek preceptorial on it, and having “read” it in undergraduate education, and this is my tenth time going through the ancient epic. So, it is high time to share some mature reflections on the meaning of certain key moments in the text as something of a celebration of this feat! Today, we will begin with the cyclopes episode and the dread monster, Polyphemos.

Image result for polyphemus the cyclops


As almost everybody knows, during the “cyclops episode” Odysseus gets himself into trouble looking for a “guest-gift” from a man with savage and wild nature, who also happens to be a giant, man-eating cyclops. This cyclops eats six of Odysseus’ men, famously believes Odysseus when he calls himself ou tis or Nobody, and is eventually physically blinded by Odysseus before calling down a curse on him after he reveals his name. Below, we will consider the ways in which Polyphemos is illustrated as truly blind, regardless of whether he has his physical sight, and that in fact he only “sees” after he loses his capacity for physical sight, much as the illuminated poet of the Phaiakians, Demodokos, cannot physically see anything but the truth of stories, and the blind prophet Teiresias, cannot physically see, but can see the truth of the future.

The four examples of Polyphemos’ blindness to intangible truths is illustrated in four events: 1) his blindness to being deceived about Odysseus’ “given” name, Nobody; 2) his blindness of the fact that Odysseus would dare injure or kill him; 3) his blindness to seeing the path beneath his rams as a means of escape, and of course 4) his blindness to the fact that a small and insignificant appearing man might be the very man of prophecy who was sent to bring about his blindness (sort of similar and opposite to another man sent by prophecy to the Western world to alter one’s vision.) Let us now consider what these illustrative examples teach us about the true nature of the cyclops’ sight.

First and foremost, one immediately knows that sight and seeing will be huge parts of this episode by the fact that Polyphemos is a cyclops or a Kuklos+ops=Circle-eye. Though he is reported to have “brows” which are singed by Odysseus’ olive-brand, the cyclops is known to have one eye by nature or due to some injury at another time. The point, however, is to note that a creature with one eye lacks depth-perspective in the natural world, but in this world of epic imagination, his one eye indicates his lack of perspective in general.

Image result for polyphemus


How he demonstrates his lack of perspective* is by the following acts. First, Odysseus lies to him multiple times: the first time, Polyphemos asks after Odysseus’ ship’s location, and though Odysseus has 12 ships docked at the island, he savvily responds that Poseidon had destroyed his ship and that only he and his 12 companions remained. Later again, while Odysseus is ingratiating himself to the cyclops and the monster is consuming unmixed wine, the cyclops asks who Odysseus is, to which Odysseus famously responds: Nobody. All this goes to show, so far, that Polyphemos does not see through the words and intentions of Odysseus, whereas Odysseus in his responses to Polyphemos, clearly sees what the monster is up to. Therefore, if Odysseus happens to defeat the monster, who is much stronger and larger than Odysseus, the reason would be that seeing through, or having perspective, or cunning, is a more valuable skill than brute and blind strength. Odysseus, of course, does escape.

Next, the foolish cyclops assumes or does not see the threat posed by Odysseus. He falls asleep drunk, vomits up both wine and human remains, and leaves himself open to attack. To his mind, Odysseus would not dare attack him because only Polyphemos can move the boulder blocking the entrance to the cave. He has however miscalculated, failed to see, that Odysseus might come up with a circuitous and complex plan of escape, which involves physically blinding the cyclops. The cyclops therefore fails to account for a threat precisely because he does not see Odysseus as one. He pays with his physical sight for this. And as Polyphemos yells out that “nobody is hurting me by force or violence,” of course nobody helps him!

After losing his sight, Polyphemos then himself hatches a plot to catch Odysseus. He opens the cavern and sits himself at the entrance to touch and inspect the backs of his goats, sheep, and rams as they exit. That said, he fails to see that Odysseus and his men might just as well lash themselves beneath the rams and escape scot-free. He even fails to see, while wishing that his ram could speak, that it could tell him where Odysseus was. But since it always leads the pack, and today is so clearly weighed down, he fails to see that the ram has told him where Odysseus/Nobody is! And it is the cyclops’ foolish assumptions which keep him from seeing it! So, though his plan takes account of part of the whole situation, again he lacks the perspective necessary to see the situation correctly, or wholly, blinded by his own presuppositions.

Image result for odysseus under sheep


Lastly, as Odysseus and his men escape on their ships, Odysseus himself losing perspective yells out to the cyclops twice, both times risking disaster as the cyclops slightly misses the mark (hamartia**) throwing large boulders (one is called a mountain-peak) near enough Odysseus’ ship to wash it back ashore. The blindness, however, is even more lucidly illustrated by the fact that when Polyphemos learns the name Odysseus, he recalls a prophecy by a former prophet named Telemos who said that one day some Odysseus would blind Polyphemos. Polyphemos, however, trenchant in his blinding arrogance had expected a bigger and more exceptional man to fulfill this prophecy! So, he tragically, for himself, failed to see that a man who seemed to be weak and of no account, could be the fulfiller of his destiny. The man who would physically take the sight which he symbolically lacked. So, like Teiresias, the blind prophet, and Demodokos, the blind but illuminated singer, the cyclops loses his physical sight, but in this moment of realization he finally sees what has happened to him, and how symbolically fate tends to work! His physical sight blinds him to what is real, but ultimately, only through losing his physical sight does he acquire the insight or the hindsight that the prophecy about his blindness had already been fulfilled!

Image result for odysseus under sheep


Image result for polyphemus



*The word perspective of course comes from the Latin word Perspectivum, or an optical glass through one sees, from perspicere: to look closely.

**Hamartia comes from the Greek alpha-privative and marturos (seer/witness), so “not-witness”, or one who errs by failing to see the truth.

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.

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)

On Evil: The House of Atreus

Yesterday, we considered the relationship between education and evil and how and why education might appropriately approach the subject. But, as Socrates might so aptly remind Meno, it seems that we do not even know what evil is. So, the purpose of the article today will be to examine several examples of times when an evil action might be said to have occurred. And through examining situations in which evil events have happened, perhaps we will reach a more generalizable or universal account of what evil is.

The first example we will consider is that of a father sacrificing his daughter for military glory (yes, before even Stannis did it). Such an act, devoid of context, seems blatantly evil. Let us, however, examine exactly why it is that Agamemnon sacrificed his young daughter to the goddess Artemis and see whether context tempers our judgment. As the story goes, Agamemnon was hunting with his men as they camped at Aulis before setting sail for Troy. During this hunt, Agamemnon either claimed to have hunting abilities beyond those of Artemis, or he killed a sacred stag of hers. In any case, she was angry, and he was at fault. Artemis, therefore, turned the winds of the sea against the troops and marooned them on Aulis. The prophet Calchas prophesied that Artemis would only be satisfied by the blood of one of Agamemnon’s daughters. Under the pretense of being wed to Achilleus, Iphigeneia was brought to Aulis just to discover to her horror that she was actually to be sacrificed. Supposedly she was gagged and pled with her eyes until the axe met her throat.

Now, let us consider the situation in its broader context: Agamemnon was field-marshal and commander of 1000 ships set for Troy. Had he not sacrificed his daughter, which he at first did not wish to do, his men would have been stranded on Aulis by the winds of Artemis. So, which is more important: honoring the dignity and valor of the assembled men and bringing justice to the nation of Troy who abducted Helen, queen of Sparta? Or the life of Agamemnon’s young and unwed daughter? To add to this, was Artemis’ request in the first place a bloodthirsty and evil demand of a thoughtless word of Agamemnon? And thirdly, was Agamemnon’s tricking his daughter into coming to Aulis in the first place (under the pretense of marrying Achilleus) evil itself? We will move forward with examples before pausing for further reflection.

After Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Klytaimestra never saw her husband in the same way again. Betrayed and hurt, she became prey for the enemies of Agamemnon and their plots while Agamemnon was away at Troy for ten years. Aigisthos, the cousin of Agamemnon who had murdered his father, Atreus, found his way to the court of Klytaimestra and became her lover. During this time–seven years–he effectively ruled Argos and convinced Klytaimestra that it would be just for her to execute Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. When Agamemnon returned, she and Aigisthos murdered Agamemnon in cold blood (and his new concubine Kassandra). Put blandly, and how Agamemnon presents it in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey (lines 409-428),* Agamemnon was murdered by his faithless wife who served the interest of herself and her new lover by killing him.

Is the situation quite so simple, though? In sacrificing Iphigeneia, did not Agamemnon earn the wrath of the furies (by spilling the blood of a family member)? And since he did not confer with his wife, was she completely and outrageously in the wrong for killing Agamemnon? Was her reason for killing him justice for her daughter, or was it due to new love for Aigisthos, the hated rival of Agamemnon? Was her crime senseless, and must a crime be senseless to be evil? Let us continue forward with this question in mind.

Continuing down the branches of Agamemnon’s family, let us consider his son, Orestes. As we are told in Sophocles’ Electra and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Orestes was given over to Strophius and his son Pylades to raise (though in the one play by Klytaimestra (Agamemnon) and the other by Electra (Electra)). After coming of age, Orestes felt a duty to avenge his father’s death, so he ventured to Mykenai and with the help of Pylades and Electra he slew both Aigisthos and his mother Klytaimestra.

Now, this situation is even more complex; for on the one hand might see it this way: Orestes justly avenged the murderers of his father, the rightful king of Argos/Mykenai. On the other, however, he is an upstart refugee who has killed not only the king of Mykenai himself, but also his mother, in cold blood. Even if one concedes that Aigisthos “had it coming” and that Klytaimestra herself warranted punishment, was it right for Orestes to kill her himself? Did his duty to his father outweigh his duty to his mother? These examples all seem complex, and in their complexity there seems to be some justification for each of the characters. And due to this very presence of reason, validly judged by sound minds, though the crimes above all seem “bad”, they do not seem evil. Is it thus the case, then, that an action which admits of a reasonable or just reason cannot by definition be evil? Let us now consider an act which may shed a new light on our perception of evil.

The final example we will consider is at the very highest branches of the House of Atreus, Tantalos and his son Pelops, perhaps a prima facie example of that which we call evil. Tantalos, already being in trouble on the mortal plane, was given refuge on Olympos by Zeus. But Tantalos, having the nature that he did, was not satisfied simply to enjoy the camaraderie with the gods. No, he decided that we wanted to test their omniscience, and the way he thought to do this: make a stew with parts from his disembodied son. How utterly wretched. This brings us to our closest expression of evil and what differentiates it from something “bad” or “wrong”. There seems to be something ineffable and inexplicable in true evil. As if the process of thought which led up to it included a creative leap that a healthy or sound mind might not make. So much does this appear to be so that upon looking at the reasoning of an “evil thought”, shock rather than recognition fills the observer as he gazes with horror at the chimerical result of such abominable thinking. Let us consider this further.

If we are to label Tantalos’ actions evil and not simply unjust, cruel, bad, illegal, and mean, there must be something ineffable in what he did, or so “wretched” and “wrong” that what he has done does not admit of being spoken of–because its very mention might upset or bring about the wrath of the gods. This is an artful way of expressing that there is something beyond rational in an evil action–super or sub-rational. Certainly what Tantalos did in Antiquity was punished by the gods: his own father, Zeus, banished him to Tartaros, the deepest pit of Hades, where he would forever be submerged in water he could not drink and just below a tree of fruits from which he could not eat (Homer’s Odyssey Bk XI 581-585). But one must ask one’s self, was Tantalos’ killing and feeding of his own son to the gods to test their omniscience absolutely unthinkable? If yes, then one has there one’s definition of evil and a prima facie evidence of evil stripped right out from Greek mythology.

The nature of evil having been determined, we will move forward and consider further aspects of it in the article which is to follow.

*This is also the topic of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.