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Odysseus and The Odyssey

The Siren by Edward Armitage via Wikipedia

The Odyssey is an epic poem traditionally ascribed to the Greek poet Homer. As a sequel to The Illiad, also ascribed to Homer, The Odyssey relates the story of Odysseus (Ulysses), an archetypal hero.

During his return to Greece after the Trojan wars, Odysseus overcomes many daunting and life-threatening challenges. Gods and goddesses, especially Athena, provide otherworldly assistance while Odysseus takes on scary and bewitching creatures like the Cyclops and the Sirens

Upon returning home, Odysseus find a pack of suitors lounging around his estate. They had presumed him dead and were trying to win over his wife Penelope’s hand in marriage.

Odysseus outwits the suitors and ends up killing each and every one with the help of his son Telemachus.

Depth psychologists and mythographers say this tale provides a classic example of the hero‘s journey, often read in myth and folklore.

A scene featuring the siren Parthenope, the my...

A scene featuring the siren Parthenope, the mythological founder of Naples. “Center of Naples, Italy”. Chadab Napoli. 2007-06-24 . . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Generally speaking, the hero cycle involves a trip to the underworld. The hero must overcome an array of harmful beings as well as gain the maturity to discern unfamiliar, strange helpers.

At the very bottom of the underworld, the hero discovers (or wins through battle with a monster) some secret key to wisdom or immortality. Upon returning to the mundane world (as opposed to the underworld), he or she has gained new insights that are shared for the greater good of society.

In the poem the Greek pantheon is depicted as residing at Mount Olympus, home of the gods.

¹ The image (orange and black) shows Odysseus strapped to the mast of his ship as he sails by the dangerous bird-women, the Sirens. Odysseus had instructed his crew to bind him tightly to the mast so he would not be enticed by the Sirens’ irresistible song. If a sailor gets too close to the sirens, there’s no return and death is assured.

Related » Hermes, Hesiod



The Sirens of Ancient Greece

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by J...

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are usually depicted as bird-like creatures with women’s heads who lure sailors to their doom through their haunting song. They can also tame the wind.

In Homer, Odysseus heeded Circe’s warning to avoid the Sirens’ disastrous call by plugging his crew’s ears with beeswax. Curious to hear their strange song, himself, Odysseus ordered his shipmates to fasten him to the mast so he, himself, would not be entranced.

In another version of the myth, Orpheus overpowers their haunting voices with the power of his lyre.¹

In later accounts, the Sirens drown themselves after failing to destroy Odysseus and his crew. Again they commit suicide in another variant, after losing to the Muses in a music competition. The Sirens have also been depicted in Greek myth as mermaids.

The Greek philosopher, Plato depicted eight Sirens in the myth of Er (toward the end of the Republic) as makers of the music of the spheres.

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1...

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1900), depicted as a fish-chimera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sirens were also with Persephone during her rape. According to Ovid, they were originally humanoid but were transformed into birds with human faces while searching for her.²

So we see, as in most ancient myth, a jumble of stories. This makes it hard, I think, to simplify the story of the Sirens to one archetypal idea.

Along these lines, Gilbert Thurlow, following the lead of Mircea Eliade, C. G. Jung and others, tends to emphasize the universal nature of myth:

What is a myth? In the narrowest sense it is a tale about the supernatural. But in a deeper sense it is also a revelation of the divine in terms of this life, a method of revealing ultimate truth.³

The sirens are found on bronze vases from about 600 BCE.

In early Christian times actual belief in the Sirens was discouraged but they remained as symbols of evil, temptation and womanly seduction. In some instances they were likened to heavenly music.

The Sirens were allegorized by both classical and Christian writers as representing the lusts of the flesh, the insatiable desire for knowledge, the dangers of flattery, or as celestial music drawing souls upwards to heaven. Odysseus bound to the mast even came to be seen as an allegory of Christ on the cross.4

Apparently the Roman Emperor Tiberius teased his court scholars by asking them the impossible question: What song did the Sirens sing? Tiberius is generally understood to be the somewhat moody Emperor who ruled during the life and preaching of Jesus.5

Wikipedia provides a convenient list of the Sirens:

  • Aglaope (Αγλαόπη) or Aglaophonos (Αγλαόφωνος) or Aglaopheme (Αγλαοφήμη)(“with lambent voice”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Leucosia (Λευκοσία). Her name was given to the island opposite to the Sirenuss cape. Her body was found on the shore of Poseidonia.
  • Ligeia (Λιγεία). She was found ashore of Terine in Bruttium.
  • Molpe (Μολπή). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Parthenope (Παρθενόπη). Her tomb was presented in Naples and called “constraction of sirens”.
  • Peisinoe (Πεισινόη) or Peisithoe (Πεισιθόη). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Thelxiope (Θελξιόπη) or Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια) (“eye pleasing”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ “Sirens” in Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd Ed. (2000, CD ROM edition).

² Ibid. and Jenny March, Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology 2001, p. 705.

³ Gilbert Thurlow, Biblical Myths and Mysteries, Octopus Books, 1974, p. 4. Myself, I think it’s highly debatable that myth necessarily tells us about ultimate truth. Apart from variations in content, context, cultural influence and style, myth may, indeed, point to different kinds of transcendence. But these are many. And, as most responsible scholars and seasoned religious mystics point out, a simple glow or buzz is not necessarily the highest, true light of heaven.

4 OCD, op. cit.

5 M. C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers, The Concise Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford, 1996, p. 497.

Related » The Odyssey, Hero

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Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias. Sid...

Odysseus consulting the shade of Tiresias. Side A from a Lucanian red-figured calyx-krater, 4th century BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek myth Tiresias is a Theban, the son of a shepherd and a nymph, who unintentionally sees the chaste Athena bathing. She immediately punishes him with blindness but he is compensated, to some extent, with the gifts of wisdom and prophecy, along with a lifespan of seven generations.

In another mythic cycle Tiresias becomes blind after seeing two snakes coupling. Killing one of the snakes, he is transformed into a woman. Seven years later he again sees two snakes coupling. In one variant of the myth he kills the snakes, in another he leaves them alone. But in both versions he’s changed back into a man.

At this point Zeus and Hera ask him who enjoys sex more, men or women. Tiresias, having experienced both, says women receive nine time more pleasure than men. Hera doesn’t like this answer and strikes him blind. But Zeus gives him the gift of prophecy to compensate for his loss.

Two strange sounding stories, they point to the idea that losing things in life is often replaced or rewarded by something else of a higher or subtler nature.

In Homer‘s Odyssey, the seafaring hero Odysseus asks Tiresias, who’s departed and in the underworld, about his return sea journey home. Tiresias warns Odysseus of many dangers, facilitating his safe return.¹

In pop culture the British progressive rock band Genesis speaks of “father Tiresias” in the song, The Cinema Show (1973):

Take a little trip back with father Tiresias,
Listen to the old one speak of all he has lived through.
I have crossed between the poles, for me there’s no mystery.
Once a man, like the sea I raged,
Once a woman, like the earth I gave.

On the Web:

¹ See Wikipedia for more variations and depictions in art »

Related Posts » Hephaestus, Seer, Wisdom

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Schliemann Trench at Troy by Julian Fong

Schliemann Trench at Troy by Julian Fong via Flickr

Troy is an ancient city with archaeological ruins located in Turkey. According to Homer‘s Illiad, it was attacked by the Greeks for ten years, a conflict commonly known as the Trojan war. In a space of 4000 years the city was rebuilt nine times.

For many years Troy was thought to be a mythical place, much like Atlantis. But in the 1870’s its ruins were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann.

Sadly, Schliemann’s ham-handed excavations did much damage to the ancient site. As the Wikipedia entry about him notes:

Schliemann began work on Troy in 1871. His excavations began before archaeology had developed as a professional field. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, Schliemann and his workers dug hastily through the upper levels.¹

The fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1...

The fall of Troy, by Johann Georg Trautmann (1713–1769). From the collections of the Grand Dukes of Baden, Karlsruhe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Wood‘s In Search of the Trojan War, an investigation into the myth and archaeology of Troy, is available on DVD and highly recommended. And the general idea of Troy has cropped up in TV and movies, most recently Helen of Troy (2003) and Troy (2004) with Brad Pitt.

Related Posts » Achilles, Aphrodite, Atlantis, Edgar Cayce, Projection

On the Web:

¹  In 2009 (the last revision for “Troy” at this Wikipedia entry was cited:

His career began before archaeology developed as a professional field, and so, by present standards, the field technique of Schliemann’s work leaves a lot to be desired. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, he dug hastily through the upper levels.

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Helmeted young warrior, so-called Ares. Roman ...

Helmeted young warrior, so-called Ares. Roman copy from a Greek original—this is a plaster replica, the original is now stored in the Museum of the Villa. Canope at the Villa Adriana in Tivoli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ares is the Greek god of war and the son of Zeus and Hera. In Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey he’s depicted as one of the 12 Olympians.

He’s often depicted as brutal, violent and merciless, but not invulnerable. He often returns to Olympia after battle complaining of his war wounds. To this Zeus responds with ambivalence, not only about war but about his feelings for Ares:

Then looking at him darkly Zeus who gathers the clouds spoke to him:
‘Do not sit beside me and whine, you double-faced liar.
To me you are the most hateful of all gods who hold Olympos.
Forever quarrelling is dear to your heart, wars and battles.

And yet I will not long endure to see you in pain, since
you are my child, and it was to me that your mother bore you.
But were you born of some other god and proved so ruinous
long since you would have been dropped beneath the gods of the bright sky.”¹

Ares and Aphrodite had three offspring, to include Eros. The Roman parallel to Ares is Mars.


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A Sick Child brought into the Temple of Aescul...

A Sick Child brought into the Temple of Aesculapius 1877 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aesculapius was the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek myth. Some believe he was a Greek citizen around 1200 BCE who, like Heracles, became deified.

In Homer‘s Illiad he is described as “the blameless physician.” His cult was centered in Epidaurus and emphasized cure through a prototype of contemporary psychoanalysis.

The poets Hesiod and Pindar speak of Aesculapius as the son of Zeus and Corona. In Epiduarian myth, his mother Corona dies while he is an infant. A Messenian variant, however, says Aesculapius’ mother is Arsinoe and other accounts claim that he is the son of Apollo.

Regardless of his ambiguous parentage, Aesculapius’ fame grew until he became the god of medicine and healing.

According to Greek legend, he was educated by the centaur Chiron. And while in hell he raised a dead person, Hippolytus, to life. This vexed Zeus who retaliated by killing Aesculapius with a thunderbolt.

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although illness in ancient Greece was often attributed to the displeasure of the gods and goddesses, it could nevertheless be cured by divine mercy. The afflicted entered a sacred chamber and allowed visionary or “incubated” dreams to guide them towards health.

The postmodern thinker Michel Foucault saw this type of dream incubation as an ancient precursor the psychoanalytic couch.

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Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil rea...

Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Aeneid is an epic poem written in Latin by the Roman poet Virgil. Thought to be largely historical in its heyday, it tells of the mythic journey and adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who in ancient legend founded Rome.

Aeneas had already been known through Homer, who depicted him as a righteous, trustworthy soul, loyal to Rome.

Virgil in his Aeneid furthers Homer’s emphasis on Aeneas’ piety by representing him, in keeping with fashionable Roman ideals, as a symbol of filial, societal and spiritual devotion—i.e. devotion to parents, to the glory of Rome and its many deities.

The poem had a great influence on Dante, and was core university reading in the Middle Ages. Today, it still fascinates students of myth and classical studies. And for depth psychology, Aeneas makes a journey to the underworld, which speaks to the importance of the so-called collective unconscious.
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