" "A Herbal, " "The Odyssey, " Elizabeth Wayland Barber, " Telemakhos, "Human Chain, "Leda and the Swan", "The Iliad, Aegean Plate, African Plate, Agamemnon, Akhilleus, bow, Caroline Alexander, earthquake, epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh, Helen, Helen of Troy, Homer, Indo-European, Iphigenia, Ithaka, labrys, Leda, Mycenean, Nausicaa, New Madrid, Odysseus, Paris, Paul T. Barber, Penelope, Seamus Heaney, story of Odysseus, Troy, volcano
I picked it up again, opened it at random, and noted with interest his simile in “A Kite For Aibhin” depicting his hand as a spindle. That conjured, for whatever reason, images of women in ancient demesnes,my own foremothers perhaps, at their spinning and weaving. So I turned to that ancient classic, “The Odyssey.”
Like Odysseus’ Ithaka, Ireland is an island. I have stood breathless on her shore gazing from her cliffs. I can imagine Odysseus of the red-gold hair in a similar stance reflecting, as Heaney did in his poem “A Herbal,” that the wind taught him much in the ways of the world. “Unstable is good. …… Go, then, citizen/of the wind./Go with the flow.”
How else to float your boat?
The poetry, both ancient and modern, flowed and lapped at my consciousness until it dawned on me (although no misty pink fingers touched my shoulders) that “The Odyssey,” at heart, was the story of Odysseus becoming fully Man, coming fully into Himself. I decided then that I could not consider Odysseus’ growth in the context of “The Odyssey” alone. I had to consider “The Iliad” as well.
With that in mind I saw that Odysseus’ story of becoming was that of a man made to leave his “local” existence to enter into a “global” situation and then learn how to reconcile himself back into his local setting. The trials Odysseus endured during his journey were a continuation of the underlying theme of “The Iliad,” which I will here term “The Trouble with the Feminine.”
And trouble there was aplenty.
“The Iliad” opens with a quarrel between Agamemnon and Akhilleus over the return of one “prize,” Khryseis, by Agamemnon to her father and the usurpation of another “prize,” Briseis, by Agamemnon from Akhilleus. Very early in “The Odyssey” we learn of Agamemnon’s further troubles – killed by his wife upon his return from Troy. When we dig further elsewhere into the Greek myths we learn that Agamemnon’s wife, Klytemnestra, killed him as revenge for his sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia to incur the gods’ favor before he sailed for Troy.
W. B. Yeats sketched Helen of Troy’s origins for us in his poem “Leda and the Swan” (1923): “A shudder in the loins engenders there/The broken wall, the burning roof and tower … And Agamemnon dead.” The conception of Helen, world renowned beauty and stated cause of the Trojan War, is portrayed in this poem with vicious words: ‘blow,’ ‘beating,’ ‘staggering,’ ‘dark,’ ‘caught,’ ‘helpless,’ ‘terrified,’ ‘vague,’ ‘loosening,’ ‘broken,’ ‘burning,’ ‘dead,’ ‘indifferent.’
So, in summary: Leda was assaulted by Zeus and impregnated with Helen; Helen was taken from Sparta, her husband, and her family; Iphigenia, Helen’s niece,was sacrificed to ensure success of the war to reclaim Helen. “The Trouble with the Feminine” was set in motion by the actions of the Masculine.
For Homer, Helen’s abduction was meant to serve as a focal point in the destabilization of a culture, a destabilization the poet saw had been happening for at least 1,400 years, when the first texts of the Indo-European epic of Gilgamesh are believed to have been recorded. (Gilgamesh reigned in Uruk around 2,750 BCE. The earliest, Sumerian, texts of his reign are dated from around 2,100 BCE, thus about 1,400 years before Homer.) Given that Gilgamesh was the third millennium BCE king of a nation located near present-day Iraq – east of Greece across the Mediterranean Sea and inland toward the Tigris River – and given that trade concerns likely connected the two areas I think it is plausible that Homer knew of this epic. I think he knew of it and kept it in mind as he worked, much as I might reflect upon the work of medieval troubadours.
In Book VI of “Gilgamesh” the goddess Ishtar saw Gilgamesh, “saw how splendid a man he was,” fresh from his victory over the monster Humbaba in the Cedar Forest, and desired him. “Come here. Be my sweet man.” He rejected her gifts. He rejected Her. His diatribe against Her was extensive. For more than three pages he insulted and humiliated Her.
As punishment Ishtar begged her father Anu to let her send the Bull of Heaven to earth, but when the Bull confronted the king and his bosom friend Enkidu, they killed it and ripped out its heart. Enkidu laughed at Ishtar’s outrage: “If only I could catch you, this is what I would do to you, I would rip you apart and drape the Bull’s guts over your arms!”
The goddess was humiliated, the animal sacred to Her butchered.
Homer saw that this humiliation and rejection coincided with the gradual influx of Indo-European peoples from the north and east. Caroline Alexander, author of “The War That Killed Achilles,” writes: “Helen’s name, for example, can be traced to the Indo-European *Swelena, from the root *swel — ‘sun,’ ‘solar glare,’ ‘burn,’ ‘grill.’ Her prototype was a Daughter of the Sun, the abduction of the Sun Maiden being a recurrent motif in old Indo-European myth.”
There is no need to ask what the loss of the Sun would have meant to the life of a community.
Homer depicted the event as galvanizing the region, with all their princes departing for Troy. To provide an atmosphere that accurately depicted the ripples Helen’s abduction sent through the people he literally set the landscape itself in motion. Barber and Barber offer the theory that, in the millennia before the scientific method, volcanic activity at Thera in the 17th c. BCE may have been shaped into the language of myth to explain such events.
When they apply this theory to Odysseus’ encounter with the Kyklops it is easy to see how a ‘giant’ with one ‘eye’ (volcano’s crater) could throw boulders out to sea in anger.
Once volcanic activity is suggested in Homer’s epic, other natural disasters appear as characters. I noted in particular the ‘uprising’ of the River Xanthos in “The Iliad” when Akhilleus is engaged in the slaughter to avenge his friend Patroklos. The river’s rage and pursuit of that warrior reminded me of reports from the winter of 1812 when an earthquake in New Madrid, Missouri devastated the region and caused the Mississippi River to run backward for a time.
Ithaka, Greece, and Troy lie in a geographic zone susceptible to seismic activity near the area where the Aegean Plate and the African Plate butt against one another. Vibrations and tremors before and after the main seismic event, perhaps lasting for months or years, the upheaval of the main event itself, and possible volcanic activity and hurricanes, coupled with the erosion of spiritual underpinnings to the culture, likely left the people with what Haig Bosmajian termed “shaken spiritual security.”
“Now it’s high watermark/And flood tide in the heart” (Seamus Heaney, “The Cure at Troy)
At war’s end, in the midst of these terrifying natural forces, Homer brought Odysseus center stage “when all the rest who left behind them/headlong death in battle or at sea/had long ago returned, while he alone still hungered for home and wife.” (I.19-22) The “master mind of war, so long a castaway” (I.68) had such a desire to return home to Ithaka “that he longs to die.” (I.80)
His situation was poignant, especially if one realizes that Odysseus likely left Ithaka when he was not much older, if at all, than his son Telemakhos in “The Odyssey.” Telemakhos was roughly nineteen or twenty years old and I think it is a reasonable theory that Odysseus was still not much more than a youth when he departed for Troy. He spent ten years fighting in that war and another ten being buffeted by Poseidon as he navigated his way home. Half of his life had been out of his control. Yes, he was technically a husband and father when he left, but he came of age during the war and his wanderings.
D. S. Carne-Ross writes in the introduction to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Odyssey,” “Heaven, working through involuntary mortal agents, is bringing about the restoration of order. Disorder in the home or state shakes the very sum of things …” Odysseus was Homer’s choice for the role of heaven’s involuntary mortal agent. He of the great heart stood the best chance of restoring order from the chaos rising from the abduction of the Sun Maiden and the consequent orgy of brazen war.
Odysseus moved from a landscape of gore and carnage, enduring still more calamities of nature. He moved into landscapes where his armor and his weapons were his person and his wits, and his contact was, by and large, with otherworldly beings.
Most of those otherworldly beings were Feminine, each with her own echo of Ishtar’s invitation to Gilgamesh, “Come here. Be my sweet man.” It felt to me as I read of Odysseus’ encounters with these presences that he was being handled, being molded more fully into himself, by virtue of his responses to them. He rejected the ‘prizes’ they offered – “But in my heart I never gave consent” – yet he did not reject the Feminine. He did not curse the Feminine.
I have the sense that Odysseus, of whom Zeus said, “There is no mortal half so wise,” (I.88) had an instinct that these otherworldly Feminine presences were the personification of some powers, some energies, with which he must come to terms before he could be assimilated back into life in his homeland. He had to fit those powers and energies into what he knew of himself as a warrior and sea-farer before he could return home.
When Odysseus was finally delivered back into the human sphere he had nothing. His crew had been decimated. He was the sole survivor of all who left Ithaka two decades earlier. The boat he crafted to leave Ogygia had been washed away in the storm. The stores Kalypso loaded, his clothing – gone as well. Washed away. All is lost. Storm-ravaged, brine-covered, and sun-soaked he managed to crawl ashore and burrow into a nest of leaves beneath two olive trees to seek some rest.
He was awakened by feminine voices.
Shielding himself with an olive branch, he decided to approach these feminine presences and determine where he had landed and who inhabited the place. He was vastly relieved to find himself in human company. Even so he had to exercise courtesy because he was at their mercy, after all, and their reception of him could mean the difference between a swift return home and further trials.
Up to this point in “The Odyssey” we know of Odysseus from the speech of others. Now, at the Phaiakian feast hosted by “Alkinoos, king and admiration of men” (IX.2) Odysseus declared himself: “I am Laertes’ son, Odysseus.” (IX.20 Mandelbaum and Fagles translate the line, “I am Odysseus, Laertes son.”) He spoke his truth. He stated his origins and filled in the gaps. This is significant because, as author Sue Monk Kidd states, “To name is to define and shape reality.”
He brought his story right up to the unknown, that unknown being his home. To what will he return? Had he known them, great-hearted Odysseus might have quoted Seamus Heaney’s lines near the end of “A Herbal”: “I had my existence. I was there./Me in place and the place in me.” Neither Troy nor any other place held, or was held by, him. Only Ithaka.
On Ithaka we see what I most appreciate about Odysseus — his subtlety. He knew and demonstrated that Power is not merely a show of force. Power is seeing and understanding the energies in play in a given situation. Power is knowing your own assets and allies and reserves. Power is knowing what you are willing to risk.
The key for restoring order in Odysseus’ home was a strategy proposed by the great tactician’s wife, the lady Penelope. “Here is my lord Odysseus’ hunting bow./Bend and string it if you can. Who sends an arrow/through iron axe-helve sockets, twelve in line?/I join my life with his …” (XXI.78-81) She told the horrid suitors, in effect, ‘Do what my husband could do twenty years ago.’ One by one they tried, and failed.
This challenge is quite a tribute to Odysseus’ subtlety and mastery, as it is to Homer’s. What could be more masculine than a test of marksmanship with bow and arrow, “quills of groaning,” and a line of twelve axe heads arranged for said arrow’s path?
Yet, what could be more Feminine in Bronze Age Mycenae than a line of twelve labrys, twelve symmetrical double-headed battle axes, all associated with the Goddess?
You get the picture.
In Homer’s view, it was the person who could reconcile the Masculine with the Feminine in themselves, their life, their situation, who set things in order. Homer touched on the need for guidance of the next generation in his description of Telemakhos’ actions leading up to the contest. It was Telemakhos, the son, who placed and aligned the axes’ socket rings, though he had never seen it done. Telemakhos, aware of the beggar’s true identity, was the first to handle the bow and would have strung it had not “a stiffening in Odysseus made him check.” He dissembled, his father’s son, and withdrew, appropriately, from the contest.
Odysseus’ arrow alone flew true. His beggar’s rags thrown off, he stepped again into his rightful place, a rightful place whose axis was, “An old trunk of olive/grew like a pillar on the building plot,/and I laid out our bedroom round that tree,/lined up the stone walls, built the walls and roof,/gave it a doorway and smooth-fitting doors./Then I lopped off the silvery leaves and branches, hewed and shaped that stump from the roots up/into a bedpost, drilled it, let it serve/as model for the rest. I planed them all,/inlaid them all with silver, gold and ivory,/and stretched a bed between — a pliant web/of oxhide thongs dyed crimson.” (XXIII.216-228)
In Homer’s epic Athena held back the Dawn to prolong the night of their reunion. In reality, however, nothing held back the ‘Dark Age’ that descended upon Mycenaean civilization. Homer’s Troy appears to have been the death blow. We might ask ourselves, in Heaney’s words (“A Herbal”): “Where can it be found again,/An elsewhere world, beyond/Maps and atlases,/Where all is woven into/And of itself, like a nest/of crosshatched grass blades?”
In answer I offer Homer’s poetry as a starting point, delivered from those first fingers of Dawn’s light in the mid-eighth century BCE.
Barbara Butler McCoy, c. 2014
Bibliography: Alexander, Caroline. “The War That Killed Achilles.” New York: Penguin Books, 2009; Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Barber, Paul T. “When They Severed Earth from Sky.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004; Bosmajian, Haig. “The Language of Oppression.” Washington, D.C.:Public Affairs Press, 1974; Heaney, Seamus. “Human Chain.” New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; Homer. “The Iliad.” (Robert Fitzgerald, translator) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004; Homer. “The Odyssey.” (Robert Fitzgerald, translator) New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998; Kidd, Sue Monk. “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter.” New York: Harper Collins, 1996; Mitchell, Stephen. “Gilgamesh.” New York: Free Press, 2004; Yeats, William Butler. “The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.” (Richard J. Finneran, editor) New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996