Spiritual Rebirth of the Hero: Odyssey 5

“Spiritual Rebirth of the Hero: Odyssey 5″
Classical Journal 61.5 (1966): 206-210
[Reprinted with the permission of the Classical
Association of the Middle West and South]

[Page 206] In the chronological sequence of Odysseus’ wanderings the penultimate delay before he reaches the relative safety of his homeland is the sojourn with Calypso and the departure from her island.  Prior to washing up on the shores of Ogygia, the hero has encountered Death in a number of harrowing adventures (Polyphemus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, descent to the House of Hades, Scylla and Charybdis, Thrinacia – to mention the more important ones) that have contributed to the steady attrition of his companions, until only he himself remains.  His final confrontation with Death, a protracted and enforced stay (14)1
The use of ἀνάγκῃ here and at lines 154f. points not only to the constraints of force, but also to the constraint of death.
with the goddess Calypso, she who covers or hides, renders the council of the gods amenable to Athena’s suggestion (7ff.) that he at last be allowed to make his way home, that, in other words, he be allowed to return to the world of physical reality.  It is the symbolism, in terms of actual birth, of Odysseus’ spiritual rebirth through a return to reality that I wish to discuss in the following essay.

Hermes, who is enjoined by Zeus (29ff.) to bear the message to Calypso that she must set Odysseus free, is called Diaktoros (43), guide;  and to make it quite clear that the task is imposed upon him in his aspect as Psychopompos, the poet describes his wand (47f.) as one “with which he soothes the eyes of whatever men he wishes, and, in turn, wakes some who slumber”;  for not only does Hermes conduct the spirits of the dead to the underworld, as at the opening of Od. 24, but he also escorts from the underworld those privileged few to whom Hades may grant a reprieve, as he did for Persephone (Hom. Hymn 2.334-41, 377-86).  That Hermes, in his visit to Calypso, is visiting a goddess of Death in her realm is further underscored by the description of her dwelling as a huge (57), hollow (68) and spacious (77) cave2;
The cave represents a dwelling beneath the earth, where the abodes of chthonian deities, who as such are death deities, are commonly found.  On the chthonioi, cf. the remark of W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their gods (Boston 1956) 218:  “The chthonioi … have two primary functions:  they ensure the fertility of the land, and they preside over, or have some function of other connection with, the realm of the souls of the dead.”  Calypso’s association with fertility is evident from the personal relationship with Odysseus, as well as from the description of the luxuriant vegetation about her cave (63, 68f., 72f.).  Calypso’s cave as a symbol of the womb has been suggested by Charles H. Taylor, Jr., Yale Rev. 50 (1961) 571.
by the presence around it of, among other trees, a black poplar, one of the tokens by which Odysseus himself was to recognize the entrance to the lower world (10.510)3;
Cf. William S. Anderson, “Calypso and Elysium,” CJ 54 (1958) 7.
and by the remoteness (80) of her abode from the world of men (100-102), much as the entrance to the underworld is fabulously distant (11.13ff.).

After Hermes has departed from her realm, the goddess of Death, in order to execute the commands of Zeus, approaches Odysseus as he sits mourning at the sea shore (151ff.).  She promises the hero that [page 207] she is finally going to send him off, and that she will herself provision the raft he is to build and give him clothes for the journey he must make over the murky sea (162ff.).  When Calypso has assured Odysseus that there lurks no harmful ulterior motive behind her proffer of aid, the two of them return to her hollow cave to eat.  The fact that Odysseus now sits down in the very seat which Hermes, after his prandial colloquy with Calypso, had recently vacated (195f.) comments on Odysseus’ own imminent departures from the island:  he will in a sense become his own Hermes to guide himself out of the realm of Death, for it has been decreed by Zeus (31f.) that he is to enjoy the assisting escort of neither god nor man.  From the inception of the construction of the raft the symbolic vehicle of his rebirth, to the beaching on Scheria, Odysseus must act by himself.  He, like every man, is the sole agent of this own spiritual rebirth, of his growth to emotional maturity;  numinous agents can do no more than point the way.4
That is the function which is assigned to the deities in Book 5.  Calypso herself becomes, like Circe, an instructress (143);  but she cannot, or, as she says, she will not, personally escort him (140).

Calypso’s final appeal (203ff.) to Odysseus to remain with her and be immortal is rejected by him with polite, but firm, refusal (215ff.).  To stay on as immortal with Calypso is on Odysseus’ terms equivalent to an eternal death that denies the life of physical reality.  Only through a return, although he knows it will be fraught with peril, to that world in which the supreme reality is the death from which Calypso here ostensibly offers to absolve him can Odysseus make the attempts to grow into mature and integrated adulthood as recognized father of Telemachus, husband of Penelope and son of Laertes.5
See C. H. Whitman, Homer and Homeric tradition (Cambridge 1958) 296.
The hero’s very potential for growth as man must presuppose first of all on his part an unclouded recognition and unqualified acceptance of reality;  Odysseus, who is no weaver of rationalizing fantasies, perceives intellectually that the denial of that reality would foredoom him to the spiritual death that Ogygia contains for him, an eternity of unresolved doubt over himself.  That is not to say that he embraces Calypso’s proposal with equanimity.  Quite the contrary, it causes a chilling shudder to run through him (171), and in voicing suspicion of Calypso’s designs he is simply giving utterance to the conflict between his emotional anxiety at the thought, and his intellectual appreciation of the fact, that if he is ever to be free, both of the physical island and his own almost total lack of self-identity,6
Whitman (above, n. 5), 298, makes the point that Odysseus’ identity has, on Calypso’s island, been submerged.
he must take the desperate plunge into the sea.  Fundamentally he wants to begin the journey of rediscovery of the self.

The building of the raft (228ff.), with Calypso’s passive assistance, is a meticulous and exacting business, for the sturdiness of the raft will be Odysseus’s sole guarantee of completing his trip over “the great expanse of a dread and troublesome sea” (174f.).  Indeed, only in close conjunction with the raft can he sustain life during the voyage, since on it are stored the parting gifts of Calypso:  one skin of wine and one skin of water, and also a pouch containing many strengthening victuals (265ff.).  Odysseus, having at least been sent off by the goddess, strikes out boldly across the sea that will wash about him on his life-giving raft until the moment that he emerges, dripping and exhausted, on the coast of Scheria.

After eighteen days of undisturbed sailing, just as Odysseus comes within sight of the shady mountains of Scheria, a wrathful Poseidon notices him and decides to make his landing as perilous and traumatic an experience as possible.  One might well pause here momentarily to inquire into the reason, aside from the overt one of Polyphemus’ prayer to have revenge for the loss of his eye (9.528ff.), for the implacable behavior of Poseidon towards Odysseus at this critical juncture when the latter is about to be ejected from the womb of the [page 208] sea7
The symbol of the sea as womb is perhaps explicable on the grounds that it is in accord with the geological-paleontological fact that all life ultimately traces its provenience from the pre-Cambrian seas, not to mention that every human being is bathed in the amniotic fluid of the womb during nine months of gestation.  The highly common motif, in numerous mythologies, of man’s creation as a result of a universal flood may point to the origin of the same basic symbol.  Further, see Otto Rank, The myth of the birth of the hero, and other writings (New York, 1959), 71.
to a reconstituted life on the Phaeacian coast.

It is a well demonstrated fact that heroic legends, be they Greek or other, display an amazing consistency in the number and incidence of their thematic motifs and structural patterns.8
See, e.g., Rank (above, n. 7), 65;  Lord Raglan, The hero (New York 1956), 174f.;  Joseph Campbell, The hero with a thousand faces (Cleveland 1963), 36ff.
The story of Odysseus, compounded as it is of elements from both legend and folk tale, is no exception.  For instance, the wanderings of Odysseus and his multiform encounters with opposition comprise part of the common motif of the testing of the hero;  so, too, the motif of doubtful parentage is revealed in the non-Homeric tradition of Odysseus’ parental ancestry, according to which the circumstances of his birth were highly unusual and resulted in his having, like so many other heroes, a real and a reputedly real father:  Sisyphos and Laertes respectively.9
See H.J. Rose, A handbook of Greek mythology (New York 1959), 270;  C. Kerenyi, The heroes of the Greeks (New York 1962), 77f.  Cf. also Rhys Carpenter, Folk tale, fiction and saga in the Homeric epics (Berkeley 1958), 125f.;  he calls attention, quite rightly it seems to me, to the similarity between Sisyphos and Odysseus as escapers from Death.
A further motif frequently encountered concerns the opposition, or outright persecution, of the newly born hero by some close relative, who often is the hero’s father (as with Oedipus) or his maternal grandfather (as with Perseus);  the relative may, however, also be an uncle (as with Hamlet).  Taking  into account the tradition, never alluded to explicitly in Homer, that makes Sisyphos the father of Odysseus, we find that Poseidon is, by the transference of parental roles, a father figure in respect to Odysseus;  for Poseidon is actually an uncle to the hero through his marriage to Melanippe, a sister of Odysseus’ father Sisyphos.10
It is interesting to note in this connection that Odysseus is told by Teiresias that once he arranges his affairs on Ithaca he must set out with an oar to a certain place where someone will ask him about his ‘winnowing-fan,’ and there offer sacrifice to Poseidon specifically among the gods (11.127ff.).  Is this because the hero must placate his real father, Sisyphos, as symbolized by the “overvalued” father (on this term see Rank, n.7) father-uncle Poseidon, after he has been recognized by his reputed father Laertes?
From the transferred familial relationship between the hero and the god it emerges that the father Poseidon’s persecution of the “infant” Odysseus is quite simply an extreme manifestation of the ambivalent feelings which a father entertains in regard to his offspring.  Poseidon will, in short, try to abort the birth of Odysseus, and to this end he has roused a powerful storm to whip the waves into a frenzy of destructive activity.  The raft, tossed about by a mountainous sea that hurls the hero far into the water where he almost drowns before recovering it, sustains severe damage:  the rudder is lost, the mast is shattered and the said with its antenna falls into the sea (313ff.).  Although Odysseus still huddles on the raft, it is now a directionless thing whose only remaining value to him is that, even if he cannot control his course on it, he can yet derive from it an elemental protection against the hostile and threatening forces of his circumambient watery world.  The waves keep tossing it back and forth as the wind does with tumbleweed, now here, now there (327-32).  The rhythmical, but excessively violent, spasms of the labor of birth have begun, and Poseidon would have the intensity of the contractions squeeze the son to death in the ejective process of bestowing conscious life.

Thus buffeted about by the violent sea without visible prospect of rescue, Odysseus is seen, pitied and visited by Leucothea (332ff.), who, like a sea bird, perches on his raft.  As Hermes, like a tern (51), had descended from heaven to set in motion the rebirth of Odysseus, so Leucothea now ascends from the depths of the sea to ensure that the hero will not perish at birth:  the assistance from the heights of heaven and [page 209] from the depths of the sea, from nature at large, endows the birth of this Everyman with cosmic overtones and extends the fundamental validity of his experience to the cycles of all men.  Leucothea’s succinct advice to Odysseus is that he undress, abandon the raft, swim for shore and tie about his chest a veil that she gives to him and that he is to cast back to the sea once he reaches land (343ff.)  To undress is for Odysseus to slough off the now dead skin in which Calypso had clothed him (264) and so to emerge in the naked garb of infancy, a notion symbolically reinforced in the exhortation to relinquish the placental security of the food-bearing raft that comes from Calypso’s island.  The advice tendered, Leucothea, the white goddess, is covered by a black wave (353: μέλαν δέ ἑ κῦμα κάλυψεν) and returns to the deep.  Dark Calypso covered (κάλυψεν) the white goddess:  Odysseus does not take the advice of the goddess who offers the light of life, but clings to the darkness of the goddess of Death.  The child will not abandon the preconscious certainties of the womb, no matter how distressing, for the much more distressing uncertainty of conscious life.  In two lines which are almost identical in the metrical arrangement of the words, the redeeming grace of Leucothea (342) is forcefully denied by the hesitant Odysseus (360).  But the possibility of choice is abruptly removed by a monstrous wave that crashes down on him and shatters his raft as a wind stirs up a heap of parched chaff (368ff.).  The use of ἠίων (368) strongly suggests the ᾖα (266) with which Calypso freighted his placental raft;  the simile is indeed apposite, for as a mere remnant of shattered parts and spars the raft is no longer able to provide Odysseus with the life-nurturing ᾖα.  In the same instant he removes Calypso’s clothes and dons the umbilical veil provided him by Leucothea.  The irrevocable break with the darkness of Calypso’s world implies full commitment to the brightness of Leucothea and life.  Poseidon relents and permits Odysseus to swim.

The actual emergence from the womb is the critical moment of birth, and it is appropriately attended by the administering midwife Athena (382ff.).  Although she calms the billowy path for Odysseus as he swims in eager search of his exit from the womb, Athena, like the other deities who can only point to, but not physically aid in, the hero’s spiritual reconstruction, cannot prevent injury to him.  Odysseus tries to land, only to be frightened and battered by the overpowering violence of the surf as it surges and pulsates against the craggy shore with potentially destructive regularity of imminent parturition (402-35).  “Nowhere,” he moans, “has there appeared an exit from the greyish sea to the portals” (410).  The gates to life have not yet opened, but Odysseus holds fast with the tenacity of an octopus which will not be dragged from the protection of its chamber (432ff.);  thus the hero is not swept against the reefs and crushed to death by the constrictive embrace of the fluxing tide.  As the crashing wave ebbs out to sea, he all but yields to the watery covering of death (435: τὸν δὲ μέγα κῦμα κάλυψεν) that engulfs him.  Calypso’s specter is ever present;  even in the prenatal stage the possibility of death must be reckoned with.  But Odysseus, with Athena’s inspired assistance, at last espies the fluvial uterus that allows him facile egress from the sea (441ff.).  Odysseus, his skin swollen from the ordeal, has endured the exhausting labors of his birth and he appears on the shore naked as an infant, bespattered with the unsightly dross that still clings to him from his watery womb (455f.;  also 6.224-6).  After he has regained his strength sufficiently, he tosses back into the sea the protective veil that Leucothea had given him, thus symbolizing his severance of the umbilical cord that has sustained his life during the final stage in the womb;  for now that his birth is accomplished fact, the hero must dispossess himself of all connections with his prenatal existence if he is to begin to grow in the world of real life.

The dominant motif of the book is tempestuousness;  it closes on a calm note.  Recognizing the dangers that may threaten a newborn infant in a strange and hostile environment (465ff.) the hero seeks the quiet shelter of the double-boled olive (475ff.), and, still his own ministering genius, places over himself (482ff.) a soft swaddling blanket of forest leaves to keep the sputtering spark of life burning (488ff.).  After he has thus covered himself (491: καλύψατο) with leaves, Athena finally covers up (493: ἀφικαλύψας) his weary eyelids in sleep that he may rest from his toil and gather strength.  The meaning of the name of Calypso, the coverer who is Death, is at the beginning of the book the negation of real life, becomes in the book’s central portion a strong intimation of the ambivalently exercised struggle between the claims of life and death (353, 372, 435), and suggests at the end the restorative process by means of which the precariously kindled flame will blaze forth in full affirmation of life.

The hero has now been set on the arduous path that will lead to complete individuation, but he is still at the infantile stage.  Odysseus is at this point no more than Lucretius’ puer … cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum (5.222-7).  The process of growth, with its inevitably concomitant testings, begins in the land of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus is in fact put to successful trial during the athletic games (8.145ff.).  There, immediately prompted by Alcinous’ remark (8.552ff.) that all men have a name from the moment of birth, Odysseus finally gives himself concrete identity and fully locates himself as a citizen of the real world, of Ithaca (9.19-28).  After the long narrative of Books 9-12, Odysseus is given a number of gifts11
These gifts symbolize the knowledge and understanding which the hero has acquired during his dark explorative journey of the self;  thus equipped, he returns to the real world in order in order to restore it (and himself) to normality, as Odysseus in fact does in the microcosmic world of Ithaca.  See Campbell (above, n. 8), 38.
by the Phaeacians which are loaded on the ship that will take him, sleeping, back to Ithaca, where he must endure many more trials before he is ultimately restored to wholeness as an integrated human being in the real world.

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2 Responses to Spiritual Rebirth of the Hero: Odyssey 5

  1. heather says:

    I love the Iliad, and the love the Odyssey even more!

  2. Pingback: Scylla or Charybdis: our metastasizing debt | laohutiger

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