Homer’s Odyssey & Logos

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“Laughing, crying, tumbling, mumbling,
Gotta do more, gotta be more.
Chaos screaming, chaos dreaming,
Gotta be more, gotta do more.”

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Knox Overstreet recites in the cave of the Dead Poets, in a youthful search for meaning.[1] Order or chaos? – a question pondered by physicists, political scientists and ethicists, to name but a few, has as much relevance for us today as it did for the Greeks of Homer’s day. While Dostoevsky shows how we often end up in chaos, “without God … everything is permitted,”[2] to Homer and the early Greeks, such chaos was something to be avoided, to elevate one’s self, community or polis, and civilization itself above.  But to the Christian, the message of God to this world, the divine Word or Logos, that is,  Christ, provides an interpretation to history and a meaning culled from the apparent (or perhaps all too real) chaos of our lives.

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The Homeric world did not yet know of this answer, as they preceded Christ by over 400 years.  But to study their literature allows us a glimpse of the questions posed across humanity to which Christ uniquely provides an answer. John Mark Reynolds put it best: “To study the Greek thinkers before their contact with Christianity is to see the best that human reason and imagination is capable of without divine revelation.”[3] The answer Christ provides to the yearnings of Homer’s age (or those of any pre-Christian culture) will suggest a significant challenge to the Homeric worldview, and in ways that might have been a surprise to the Greeks of Homer’s day.

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The Homeric worldview was unstable, with mortal man at the mercy of the whims of nature, the gods (who often personified nature, such as Poseidon), and of course, other men.  This chaos was evident from the creation account given in Hesiod’s Theogeny: whereas Hebrew scriptures provide the familiar “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,”  Hesiod gives simply “Out of the chasm came Erobos and Dark Night, and from Night in turn came Bright Air and Day.”[4]  While Hesiod’s ‘chasm’ did not itself include the notion of chaos,[5] the bickering world of gods which emerged assured little else but chaos, among themselves as well as for the helpless fates of mortals below.  While some gods represented lofty capacities of man as the Muses did with dance, poetry, tragedy and comedy, other gods largely embodied forces of nature and not always in a nice way.  For instance, Poseidon the god of earthquake and ocean, jealously eyes Odysseus leaving Calypso and declares “I’ll give that man his swamping fill of trouble.”[6]  Otherwise, the gods  and their prophecies offered guidance (Athene guides both Telemachus and Odysseus), typically at the behest of Zeus.  The gods relation to men was stated succinctly by Zeus when reviewing Orestes’s murder of Aegisthus, avenging his father Agamemnon: “”Ah, how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their own pains beyond their proper share.”[7]  Otherwise, the readers were often left to supply their own morality to the tales told of the amoral gods, as figures like  Aphrodite embodied love but was unfaithful.  Some of the later gods did embody highly moral notions, such as Themis (divine justice) and Dike (human justice), and Nemesis (righteous anger).[8]

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The implicit moral chaos of the Homeric weltanschaaung left heroic, clever and moral man to fend for himself to inject order and meaning into his world.  Odysseus personifies this when described by Athena upon his arrival back on the shores of Ithaca “Her words went flying straight toward Odysseus: / “Any man – any god who met you – would have to be / some champion lying cheat to get past you / for all-around craft and guile! You terrible man, / foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks …  Come, enough of this now. We’re both old hands / at the arts of intrigue…”[9] In the larger sense, Odysseus’s struggle was for a moral order in which a peacable life could be lived, ostensibly spent pursuing and enjoying the ‘good, true and beautiful,’ not to mention his wife, family, polis and other loves. Battling against nature, gods and man was the price extracted however. Herodotus,  colloquially known as ‘The Father of History,’ echoes this in casting Homer’s heroic accounts of the Greek and Trojan war as a battle between “tyranny and democracy, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization.”[10]

Homeric man (Odysseus) struggles against fate in the same way that Oedipus did in Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus.  Odysseus taunts Poseidon, and spends much of his tale realizing his ‘prayers’ were in fact answered, as he inveighs “Hear me Poseidon … grant that Odysseus, raider of cities,/ Laertes son who makes his home in Ithaca, / never reaches home. Or … let him come home late / and come a broken man – all shipmates lost, / along in a stranger’s ship – / and let him find a world of pain.”[11]  Zeus and other gods begin The Odyssey in dialogue about the fate of Odysseus, and the power of the gods could be seen clearly in the three Fates, Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos who apportion, spin and cut the thread of life, respectively,  personifying “the idea of human destiny beyond human control.”[12]

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But it was in Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus, that the struggle of man against fate is made most explicit.  Oedipus is cast as “the dramatic embodiment of the creative vigor and intellectual daring of the fifth-century Athenian spirit,” conqueror of earth, sea and animals as plowman, sailor and hunter, and is wise and even skilled in medicine.[13]   When Tiresias taunts him with “what envy lurks inside you!” Oedipus asserts his accomplishments with “O power – / wealth and empire, skill outstripping skill,/ in the heady rivalries of life.”[14]   But ultimately, Oedipus’s realizes he struggles against the gods in vain.  After learning the truth then blinding himself, he declares “Apollo, friends, Apollo – / he ordained my agonies – these, my pains on pains!” though he continues, finding some room for his own freedom “But he hand that struck my eyes was mine,/ mine alone – no one else – I did it all myself!”[15]  Alternatively, Oedipus’ wife Penelope found a false solace in denying the fates, as she declares “Fear? / What should a man fear? It’s all chance, / chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead, groping through he dark/ Better to live at random, best we can.”[16] The Homeric worldview can only realize an uneasy tension between human freedom and the grip of fate.

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In the face of this, Oedipus offers the search for truth as man’s sole resource. Translator Robert Fagles notes how “the catastrophe of the tragic hero thus becomes the catastrophe of fifth-century man; all his furious energy and intellectual daring drive him on to this terrible discovery of his fundamental ignorance – he is not the measure of all things but the thing measured and found lacking.”[17] The counter to Protagoras indictment of gods and their prophecies, “man is the measure of all things,” is thus reversed.  But the valuable lesson Oedipus bequeaths to the Homeric worldview is the unrelenting search for truth. Again and again, Oedipus will not desist in his quest for the truth of his origins, stating “Fail to solve the mystery of my birth? / Not for all the world!”[18] , “That is my blood, my nature – I will never betray it, / never fail to search and learn my birth!” [19] and “Let it burst! Whatever will, whatever must!”[20] Fagles casts this as the legcy of Oedipus, bequeathing to the ancient Greeks, and humanity at large, a “heroic example of man’s dedication to the search for truth, the truth about himself,” continuing “this is perhaps the only freedom, the play seems to say, but there could be none more noble.”[21]

This search for the truth suggests one important way in which the recognition of Christ as logos, or the divine word spoken to man, can speak to the Homeric worldview: Christ is the full truth which the ancient Greeks sought.  Just as with the colloquial wisdom about an open mind being useful to the extent to which it can ultimately find some truth to close itself on, so can Christ represent that order and meaning the Oedipus and Odysseus so relentlessly strove.  In the case of Oedipus, his search for the truth, while his personal undoing, did serve to ultimately help him defuse the plague the gods had sent to Thebes, allowing Oedipus to once again save the day for his kingdom.

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Homer’s Odysseus similarly battled fate and the prophecies of the gods, though his relentless search had as its objective not so much truth as love and meaning, and his journey to return to his beloved wife, family and polis, the Kingdom of Ithaca over which he ruled.  Whereas Homer’s earlier Iliad is arguably the first and greatest Greek tragedy, with Achilles desperately striving to rise above the senseless waste of war but failing, his Odyssey shows a hero who actually does complete the journey to happy domestic life, and hence has been described more properly as a comedy.[22] Just as Dante’s Divine Comedy properly ended with entry to paradise, so does Odysseus ward off temptation after temptation to return to those he loves.  Temptations fail to lure Odysseus, despite their offers of a life of ease and pleasure. The alluring Calypso, goddess of immortal beauty who offers herself as well as immortality, leaves Odysseus “on a headland, weeping there as always, / wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.”[23] Similarly, the offer of a beautiful young princess and the island Kingdom of Nausicaa is met by Odysseus with “grant me a rapid convoy home / to my own native land. How far away I’ve been / from all my loved ones – how long I have suffered!”[24]  The faithful and home-longing Odysseus thus shows the reward to be gained from subduing barbaric chaos of war: love and the sense of happiness and meaning it gives.

In the end, it is not just the peace of civilization over barbarism that speaks deepest to Odysseus’s soul, nor even the search for truth: it is love that has the strongest grip.  His loves, for his wife, son and community, in fact help to define who Odysseus is, and the mission for which he serves.  Taken as a shadow of the love and meaning offered by the Divine Logos of Christ, these loves illustrate the pinnacle of meaningful existence in the Homeric world.  His reunion with Penelope demonstrates the joy and commitment of marital love on a par with descriptions by Solomon, which are otherwise ultimately symbolic of the love of Christ for His bride, the church.  Odysseus’s description of his personally-hewn and crafted bed is in fact reminiscent of the glory of the Temple of worship Solomon built: complete with a branching olive tree as a bedpost and given “ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings”[25] fitted in a room with stonework. The joy of loves reunited that Homer shows in Odysseus’s homecoming complete the happy comedy, though it is a human and not divine comedy.

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The accomplishments of the Homeric worldview thus offer a shadowy presaging of those offered from communion with a personal and divine Maker.  As Aquinas noted, “we think ourselves to know perfectly when we know the first cause… but God is the first cause of all, therefore man’s ultimate end is to know God.”[26] While the gods of Homer and Hesiod often do offer help and at times companionship to heroes, this is but a pale copy of adoption into the divine communion of the Trinity that Christ offers.  Odysseus does succeed in not falling to temptation and losing his way, as the 11th century Christian writer Anselm described “how wretched is man’s lot when he has lost that for which he is made!”[27] But it is only to the level of human love that Odysseus can attain, however laudable and meaningful the love of spouse, family and community may be.  There is little love lost between Homer and the gods, particularly those such as Poseidon; Zeus and Athena did offer guidance (and in the case of Athena, actual companionship on the journey, one could draw a parallel between her and the Holy Spirit), but that is a far cry from eternal and abiding communion with one’s creator.  So, while Homeric world at its best offered arguably the most that civilization could, it still paled next to the riches offered by the King of Creation.  Thus does the realization of Christ as divine logos fulfill the hopes and yearnings showcased by the Homeric worldview; it is perhaps a surprising answer since their assemblage of deities never fully embodied the riches offered by Christ, though the questions they asked are the ones answered by Christ today and every day.

 

[1]    Dead Poets Society, written by Tom Schulman, directed by Peter Weir (Touchstone Pictures, 1989), DVD (Touchstone Home Entertainment, 2006).

[2]    Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhononsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 589.

[3]    John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 24.

[4]    Hesiod, “Theogony” in Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 6.

[5]    Ibid., 64.

[6]    Homer, The Odyssey , trans. Robert Fagles (London: Penguin Books, 1996), V.320.

[7]    Homer, The Odyssey, I.37-40.

[8]    Holly Ordway Coursenotes, Ancient Philosophy and Culture: The Greek Pantheon, 43.

[9]               Odyssey, XIV: 325 – 336.

[10]  Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 205.

[11]  Odyssey, IX 587-595.

[12]  Ibid., 47.

[13]  Robert Fagles, “Oedipus the King: Introduction,” in Sophocles: Three Theban Plays (New York: Penguin Books, 1984) 142-143.

[14]  Oedipus the King, 432-435.

[15]  Ibid., 1467-1471.

[16]  Sophocles,1068-1072.

[17]  Fagles,  Sophocles, 143.

[18]  Oedipus the King, 1161-1162.

[19]  Ibid., 1193-1194.

[20]  Ibid., 1183.

[21]  Fagles,  Sophocles, 153.

[22]  Markos, From Achilles to Christ, 79.

[23]  The Odyssey, V.93-95.

[24]  Ibid., VII.179-181.

[25]  Homer, The Odyssey , trans. Robert Fagles (London: Penguin Books, 1996), XXIII.215-225.

[26]  Thomas Aquinas, “The Human Good” in Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Ch. 25: Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, trans. Ralph McInerny (Penguin Books: London, 1998), 266.

[27]  Anselm, “Proslogion :1”  in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 85.

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