The Symbolism of the Loom and the Mast
by Jeffrey Bond
A PDF version of this essay is available here.
Then, Glaucon, said I, when you meet encomiasts of Homer who tell us that this poet has been the educator of Hellas, and that for the conduct and refinement of human life he is worthy of our study and devotion, and that we should order our entire lives by the guidance of this poet, we must love and salute them as doing the best they can, and concede to them that Homer is the most poetic of poets and the first of tragedians, but we must know the truth, that we can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men. For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law and that which shall from time to time have approved itself to the general reason as the best.
Most true, he said.
Let us, then, conclude our return to the topic of poetry and our apology, and affirm that we really had good grounds then for dismissing her from our city, since such was her character. For reason constrained us. And let us further say to her, lest she condemn us for harshness and rusticity, that there is from of old a quarrel between philosophy and poetry… But nevertheless let it be declared that, if the mimetic and dulcet poetry can show any reason for her existence in a well-governed state, we would gladly admit her, since we ourselves are very conscious of her spell. But all the same it would be impious to betray what we believe to be the truth. Is not that so, friend? Do you not yourself feel her magic and especially when Homer is her interpreter?
Then may she not justly return from this exile after she has pleaded her defense, whether in lyric or other measure?
By all means.
And we would allow her advocates who are not poets but lovers of poetry to plead her cause in prose without meter, and show that she is not only delightful but beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man. And we shall listen benevolently, for it will be clear gain for us if it can be shown that she bestows not only pleasure but benefit.
Plato Republic 607b-e
Socrates’ critique of Homer and poetry in Plato’s Republic culminates with the poets being banished from the city founded by Socrates and his friends. Nevertheless, Socrates leaves a way open for Homer’s return if the argument can be made that Homeric poetry is “beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man.” The first principles of such an argument are set forth by Aristotle in the Poetics, which, among other things, defends the art of poetry against the Socratic critique of poetic imitation. Not only does Aristotle point out that the Socratic dialogues themselves are a form of imitation (1447b), but, more importantly, Aristotle also notes that poetry is natural to man because man learns by imitation, and that “to be learning something is the greatest of pleasures not only to the philosopher but also to the rest of mankind” (1448b4-15). Although it is not my intention here to use Aristotle’s Poetics to defend Homeric poetry against Socrates’ charges, nevertheless I do hope to provide support for such a defense by presenting an interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey that focuses on the meaning of Homer’s epic poem itself. I intend to argue that Homer’s teaching on political authority is indeed “beneficial to orderly government and all the life of man,” and that Homer’s teaching rests upon a cosmology and metaphysics which is best revealed through a study of the loom and the mast, both of which Homer employs as symbols of the cosmic order.
Before proceeding directly to an investigation of the loom and the mast, it is necessary to understand, and may even be evident, that the metaphysical concepts of the ancient world were often not formulated in theoretical language. Instead, symbol and myth created a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things. In Homer, for example, we find little or no theoretical language; therefore, it is useless to search his lines for terms such as “being” and “becoming,” “real” and “apparent,” “essential” and “accidental,” or “form” and “matter,” terms made familiar to us by subsequent analytical traditions of thought beginning with Plato and Aristotle. Nonetheless, these nakedly rational notions are given presence and appearance in Homer; that is, they are manifested, visualized, or revealed by symbolic vehicles, the careful and consistent organization of which constitutes the structure of the Homeric epic.
One of the Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria, explained the nature of Homeric poetry as follows:
The ancients taught their wisdom by means of a suggestive symbolism, and I am thinking when I say this of Orpheus, Linus, Musaeus, Homer, and Hesiod, and of all other such men as were possessors of wisdom. For the great multitude their poetic psychagogy was like a concealing curtain.
Clement not only points us in the right direction for understanding Homer, he also teaches us why we should strive to do so. The Greeks, according to Clement, because of their love of wisdom,
followed that inward vision of theirs which was aimed at the truth, and this they did, not without help of God; and so in certain things they were in agreement with the words of the prophets. They searched through truth in part and in whole and honored it by the formulations of their thought which were in clear harmony with the intelligible nature of things; for they had received an intimation of that which is related to truth itself. Thus the Greek love of wisdom is like unto a lamp whose wick has been lit by men skillfully borrowing light from the rays of the sun. Yet it was only when the Logos of God had been proclaimed that the full holy light blazed forth. From this we see that the borrowed light is useful in the night, but when it is day all flames are outshone; for the night itself has been made day by the mighty sun of spiritual light.
If Clement is correct in suggesting that the ancient lamps were lit by the sun of spiritual light, who is none other than our Lord, Jesus Christ, then we, as Christians, are well-equipped to discern those first rays of divine light in Homer, for we share with him the truth that the world is one of objective order, purpose and meaning. Thus it is incumbent upon us to penetrate the curtain of Homer’s symbolism if we are to discover his perennial wisdom concerning the metaphysical order of things, and the nature and end of political authority.
Simply put, to read symbolically is to attempt to view the invisible world through the visible, to see the inner meaning, the soul, as it were, as manifested in the literal text or body. Homer must be read symbolically because, as I hope to show, he presents us with a universe subject to superhuman authority, where the material world is shaped by and infused with the transcendent principles of order and generation that underlie all things. The Odyssey itself, therefore, works both allegorically and naturally as form relates to matter. That is to say, the allegory, expressing the general meaning of the story, determines and shapes the human and environmental material of the story and is, hence, manifested by it. The allegory must be grasped before the story can be properly understood generally or in the particulars. In fact, it is only on the allegorical level that the apparent naivete and inconsistencies of the literal or natural level can be resolved.
Consider, for example, the obvious implausibility of the account of Penelope’s weaving and unweaving in order to deceive the suitors, the famous ruse which is crucial to the plot and meaning of the Odyssey. While we might believe that the suitors were foolish enough to be deceived by this trick for three days, it is impossible that they would have failed to notice the lack of progress in Penelope’s weaving for three years. The reader must choose, then, either to conclude, as many have, that Homer was more myopic than the suitors, or to seek, as Homer no doubt intended us to do, for the symbolic meaning of Penelope’s weaving and unweaving, the cosmological and metaphysical significance of which we will soon consider.
Those who are dubious of a symbolic reading of the Odyssey would do well to consider that Homer’s characters find symbolic meaning in nearly everything around them: birds, lightening, dreams, an exclamation, and even a sneeze. Indeed, much of the meaning of the action in the Odyssey turns upon the contrast between those who notice things and discern their inner meaning and those who either fail to notice or fail to understand what they do see. The opening scene of the Odyssey, in the human world at any rate, presents this very contrast in the persons of Telemachus and the suitors: Telemachus sees the disguised Athena at the door and welcomes her inside; but the self-satisfied suitors fail to take full note of her until after she has left. As a fellow participant in the human world, the reader begins with Telemachus in a more profound way than simply that this is where the story begins. It is as if we, too, in beginning to read the Odyssey, are visited by Athena, or wisdom, who patiently waits at the door of our house to be invited inside. Certainly the fate of the suitors – the exemplars of those who neither see nor seek to understand what they do see – should serve as ample warning to those who fail to detect the invisible in the visible, and thus neglect to welcome in wisdom.
With this in mind we are prepared to recognize that the central symbol of the Odyssey is Odysseus himself. As the first word of the poem indicates, the subject of the Odyssey is “man” (andra). The hero Odysseus, the focus of Homer’s teaching on political authority, is not mentioned by name in the invocation of the Muse; instead, Homer asks the Muse to tell him of the polytropos man, the “man of many ways.” This suggests that the peculiar epithet “polytropos” serves as more than the defining characteristic of the individual man, Odysseus; polytropos somehow characterizes all men, the very nature of man. As exemplified by the wily Odysseus, man is defined by his “many ways,” his ability to think and to follow the seemingly innumerable ways his thoughts lead him. Man can apparently go anywhere, be and do anything. However, polytropos can also be translated “many turns” or “much-turned,” in which case the “many ways” of man are those in which he is turned and pushed in life rather than those of his own choosing. Although these two meanings of polytropos are opposed, their opposition is also complementary. In fact, polytropos aptly characterizes man because the word imitates man’s paradoxical nature by uniting what appears to be fundamentally opposed. Man is a creature both active and passive, a creature of “many ways” but also “much-turned.” Odysseus, the paradigmatic man, is the wisest of men (i. 65-66), the man of many ways without equal, but also the man “who was driven far journeys” and whose sufferings are beyond all others. Odysseus, whose name is perhaps best translated as “Pain,” is the last of the Achaians to return home from Troy (i. 11-14). As Zeus proclaims in the first spoken words in the Odyssey, man is, all protests to the contrary notwithstanding, responsible for his own worst sufferings (i. 23-43). Apparently man is “much-turned” because of his “many ways.” Man’s intellect allows him to do as Odysseus does, to journey far from home, to travel to other cities, to learn the ways and minds of other men and, possibly, to go astray and lose his homecoming. As the audience is warned at the beginning of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ companions are destroyed by “their own wild recklessness” (i. 7).
In the invocation of the Muse, Homer describes the polytropos man as struggling for his soul (psyche) (i. 5). Odysseus’ physical journey is in fact the journey of the soul in which the various episodes in the Odyssey represent exemplary psychic “episodes” in the soul’s quest for “home,” that is, knowledge of man’s place within the cosmic order. Odysseus represents a man who endures and successfully completes the soul’s painful journey of life. Odysseus’ journey, which involves the loss of his companions and the destruction of the suitors, culminates in his reunion with Penelope and his fitness for rule as king. If we are to understand the meaning of Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope and the basis of his political authority, it is necessary to examine the structure and rhythms of the Homeric cosmos as summarized in the symbolism of the loom and the mast.
For Homer, the whole or cosmos is comprised of the relationship and coordination of its fundamental parts. The fundamental parts of the Homeric cosmos consist in three continuous worlds: the vertical, the horizontal, and the human. By the vertical we mean the immutable and hierarchical order of being which culminates in the celestial, the transcendent and eternal realm of the gods. The horizontal world, on the other hand, is the terrestrial and level world of becoming and passing away, potentiality, change, and multiplicity, the visible manifold of being. And the human world is the world of man himself, the nexus between the vertical and horizontal worlds.
In the Odyssey, Homer uses the loom and the mast to express the relationship among these three worlds. In fact, Homer uses the same word for both “loom” and “mast”: histos. The loom and the mast are linked etymologically because both are things that stand vertically, histos being derived from histemi, to set up, rise or stand. More significantly, the loom and the mast are linked symbolically because Homer uses them as symbols of what has traditionally been called the axis mundi, or “world axis.”
The existence of a stationary and invisible vertical world axis is part of the natural experience of mankind, for its presence is implied by the circular motion of the constellations around a fixed point. When Odysseus leaves the island of Kalypso, he navigates his course by means of the Bear,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion,
and she alone is never plunged into the wash of the Ocean (v. 274-275).
The motion of the constellations would appear random and chaotic to man if there were no motionless center of reference that determined and made possible the perception of their circular pathways. Odysseus – that is, man – can only find his way through the changing world and achieve his homecoming, the highest actualization of his nature, by taking his bearings from the unchanging, the eternal. The vertical world axis, standing at the center of all things, unifies and orders all other worlds to itself, thus making a whole or cosmos possible and actual. To do this it must penetrate the planes of the lesser worlds. Hence, it is like an axis that runs through everything determining the character and station of all it sets in motion while itself remaining unmoved or unchanged.
The pole star, around which the Bear and the other constellations revolve, is a visible image, a sign, of the celestial culmination or zenith of the vertical world axis. This axis is itself the symbol of immutable Being, the actual, which is never “plunged” or dispersed into horizontal multiplicity, contingency, generation and decay, namely, the formless, potential and chaotic world of the ocean. Nonetheless, the world axis penetrates the mundane horizontal world and turns or draws it to its center, to fullness of Being. As the motionless center of all motion, the world axis is analogous to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” which is itself motionless or unmoved, but is nevertheless the cause of all motion. That is to say, the world axis represents “pure act”: the axis itself is “actionless,” but it is the center of all activity and that which causes all other things to act.
The significance of the world axis and the pole star is identical to that of the divine and transcendent Olympus, which rests at the summit of reality, motionless, eternal, and immune from the imperfection and corruption of the horizontal world:
So the grey-eyed Athene spoke and went from her
to Olympos, where the abode of the gods stands firm and unmoving
forever, they say, and is not shaken with winds nor spattered
with rains, nor does snow pile ever there, but the shining bright air
stretches cloudless away, and the white light glances upon it (vi. 41-5).
In determination and guidance of the mortal sphere the immortal gods descend from and ascend to Olympus. As the story of the Odyssey makes clear, submission to and union with the vertical world is the path that secures man’s wholeness and his salvation. How man is to achieve this union and completion of his being is expressed not only through occasions of piety and outward deference to explicit manifestations of the divine (as in the visitations of Hermes and Athene), but also through the symbolic association of characters with signs of the vertical, in particular, the mast and the loom, and finally through the spiritual reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.
In order to illustrate the various ways in which Homer employs vertical symbols to express the relationship between the divine and human worlds, we will consider first the great loom of Penelope, which is the central symbol of the world axis in the Odyssey. In all three accounts of Penelope’s famous ruse, she is said to weave on a great (mega) loom, which distinguishes her loom and her weaving from the many other looms and weavers portrayed by Homer. Moreover, Penelope’s unique status as a weaver is even displayed in her name, Penelope being a combination of pene, the thread on the shuttle or woof, and lopizein, to cover or to wrap up.
In weaving the vertical threads are called the warp and the horizontal threads the woof. The warp never changes, it provides a base or support for the woof, and it must be present before the woof can begin to form. As a symbol, the warp represents that which is always present, that which is prior to the existence of any other thing, and that upon which all other things depend. While the great loom of Penelope represents the world axis or Being in its essential unity, the vertical threads, which are hung on the loom prior to weaving, represent the vertical descent and influence of Being through all levels of existence. Thus the vertical threads can be said to correspond to the essential qualities or forms of things, things that never change. The woof, on the other hand, which is wound alternately around the warp, represents matter that is ordered into sensible forms by the permanent and motionless vertical threads of the warp. As such, the woof symbolizes an endless potential to embody the immutable essences. The warp, when covered with the woof, represents the forms of things when they have taken on the dimensions of time and space. In Platonic terms, the vertical threads are to the horizontal threads as the Forms are to the multiplicity of things that “participate” in them; for regardless of the manner in which a Form is particularized, the Form remains as itself; it has an existence of its own behind the overlay of the woof. The woof can be unwoven and the warp still remains. Accordingly, the vertical threads represent what is eternal and absolute in the cosmos while the horizontal threads represent what is changing and varied. In this context, then, the vertical threads represent the active or masculine cosmic principle, which is immutably present in the world just as the warp vertically penetrates through all levels of the woof as it structures it. This makes the woof symbolic of the feminine or material cosmic principle since it is passive or receptive to the ordering agency of the warp.
Through the symbolism of weaving, Homer portrays the cosmos as a great web, and Penelope’s ruse of weaving during the day and unweaving at night represents the rhythmic process that characterizes the cosmos. By bringing together the woof and warp and then separating the two, Penelope’s weaving and unweaving mirrors the cosmic joining and separating of matter and form; form and matter unite only to separate, or, they separate only to unite anew. Penelope symbolizes the force that is responsible for this rhythmic process; she is Nature who weaves on the cosmic loom, who joins and separates the “vertical” and the “horizontal,” the immutable and the variable. This force of Nature is evident in the realm where there is birth and death, light and darkness, and where there is a rhythmical change from one state to the other.
Just as Penelope weaves and unweaves in order to prevent the suitors from uniting with her, so Nature continuously joins and separates the vertical and the horizontal worlds to prevent an imperfect union from lasting. Thus the essence of Nature is exhibited through two aspects: one maternal and the other destructive. Penelope is the mother of Telemachus and the weaver of a shroud for Laertes; she brings life to Odysseus and death to the suitors. And just as Penelope weaves up the vertical threads in order to bring her web into fuller existence, so Nature is continuously joining herself to the vertical and giving birth to material reality through her receptivity to the vertical order. And yet, in order to prevent unworthy suitors from permanently attaching themselves to her estate, Nature has an equivalent descending movement that separates the horizontal from the vertical, much as Penelope unravels at night what she has woven during the day. Thus Nature shows herself through two complementary movements: one ascending and the other descending, represented by weaving and unweaving, respectively.
It should be remembered that in both weaving and unweaving, the movement of the horizontal thread, which follows the to-and-fro motion of the shuttle, is ordered and regulated by the “actionless” influence of the permanent vertical threads, just as the movement of the constellations is ordered and regulated by the “actionless” influence of the pole star. Thus the motionless and immutable presence of the world axis determines the two movements of Nature, who winds herself up and down the world axis. This relationship is succinctly expressed by the staff of Hermes, or caduceus: the world axis is represented by the golden staff while the two movements of Nature are represented by the two entwined snakes which wind themselves in opposite directions around the length of the staff. We can understand, then, why Penelope, who is often found near a pillar, a symbol of the cosmic axis, is continually depicted as either ascending or descending the stairs leading to her upper chamber.
Homer represents the ascending and descending movements of Nature as being present in all things, for even the realm of Poseidon manifests her rhythmic process. Charybdis, one of the many faces of Poseidon, exhibits on the level of absolute necessity the two movements of Nature. This is made clear when Circe warns Odysseus as follows:
There is a great fig tree grows there, dense with foliage,
and under this shining Charybdis sucks down the black water.
For three times a day she flows it up, and three times she sucks it
terribly down; may you not be there when she sucks down water
for not even the Earthshaker could rescue you out of that evil (xii. 101-7).
Here the world axis is represented by the great fig tree, which, standing above Charybdis, provides a measure by which the continuous flowing up and sucking down can be determined. Like the tide of the ocean, even the terrible motion of Charybdis reveals the orderly pattern of ascension and descension by which one can perceive the essence of Nature.
As a creature of Nature, man also exhibits her characteristic movements as is evident from such involuntary rhythms as inhaling and exhaling, waking and sleeping, coming to be and passing away. Like the horizontal thread, man himself is woven into the cosmic web by the to-and-fro motion of Nature’s shuttle, and therefore he is polytropos or “much-turned,” governed as he is by the natural processes of generation and decay. Nonetheless, Nature does not rule men tyrannically, but only those men who would tyrannize her. The suitors of Penelope, whom Homer first characterizes by their dice-playing (i. 107) – a game of chance – view the world and nature as ruled by Fortune rather than by a natural and divine order to which they are subject and must submit. As such, Nature is to be controlled and exploited to satisfy self-serving and profane desires and pleasures; that is, Penelope is to be conquered. The suitors, therefore, are appropriately portrayed as eating up the home of Penelope, taking what Nature has to offer in terms of food and drink only. When the suitors discover that Penelope is unweaving at night, they force her to finish her weaving; they want her to weave but not to unweave. Because they see Nature as random flux and therefore malleable to man’s will, they try to deny that they are subject to Nature’s rhythm and must pass away. Thus the suitors force Penelope to complete her weaving, but they fail to force Nature to conform to their desires because the completed garment is a shroud. Despite the efforts of men like the suitors, Nature retains her passing away side, and the completed shroud foreshadows the death of the suitors.
Ironically, those men who attempt to compel Nature not to destroy them are thereby destroyed by Nature, as the suitors themselves testify in Hades (xxiv. 125-8). Odysseus, on the other hand, represents man’s potential for joining with Nature as husband with wife. Penelope promises that she will marry when the shroud is completed, and she finishes it on the very day that Odysseus returns to Ithaka (xxiv. 147-50). Penelope’s promise indicates that Nature’s two fundamental aspects cannot be separated: marriage brings life while the shroud implies death; the one cannot be without the other. Whatever comes to be must pass away, but for Homer this process is not futile, for it allows for the possibility of a true union between man and Nature. Penelope weaves and unweaves in order to prevent a union with an unworthy suitor. Likewise, by ending whatever she begins, Nature is protected from men like the suitors who would force her to be other than what she is. The same process, however, provides the possibility for a man to “marry” Nature, for she is always bringing man into being. Paradoxically, Nature herself frees man from the very rhythm to which she initially subjects him.
Homer’s account of the wanderings of Odysseus through the horizontal realm (as depicted by the vast expanse of the ocean), suggests that there are everywhere vertical “links” with the world axis, as indeed the symbolism of weaving implies. In three of the episodes in the Odyssey, Homer depicts Odysseus’ relationship to the world axis by means of a ship’s mast: Odysseus puts out the eye of the Cyclops with a great bludgeon of olive wood which is likened to the mast of a ship (ix. 319-25); Odysseus is able to listen to the song of the Sirens while standing tied upright to the ship’s mast (xii. 179); and Odysseus saves himself by lashing together the ship’s mast and keel after his ship and crew are destroyed by Zeus (xii. 424).
In the Cyclops episode, Odysseus discovers the mast-like beam of olive wood in the Cyclops’ cave, and he hides it beneath all the dung that is everywhere lying about (ix. 329-31). This indicates that the world axis is immutably present in all circumstances, however base. But the Cyclops, whose single eye is an outward sign of his solipsistic perspective and radically individualistic way of life, places himself at the center of all things, and therefore he is blind to the presence of the world axis, it being necessarily hidden from his self-focused and self-centered view. As the son of Poseidon, Polyphemos’ extreme individualism mirrors the chaos of his father’s realm in that each individual being becomes the measure of reality in the denial of any universal standard or measure. As a result, the Cyclopses are apolitical:
These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsel;
rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed
among the peaks of high mountains, and each one is the law
for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others (ix. 112-5).
Each Cyclops is his own law; that is, they are lawless. Polyphemos denies that he must submit in any way to Zeus (ix. 273-80). Nonetheless, when filled with the divine wine Polyphemos is made passive; and while lying horizontally on the ground (ix. 371) his single eye – his “world view” – is penetrated by the vertical world axis. By having Odysseus put out the single eye of the Cyclops with the mast-like beam, Homer fittingly demonstrates the inherent “blindness” of the Cyclops’ perspective in the presence of the world axis.
As opposed to Polyphemos, who must be forced to be passive because he refuses to be ruled by what is higher than himself, Odysseus chooses to be passive in his manner of escape from the cave. Odysseus explains his plan as follows:
There were some male sheep, rams, well nourished, thick and fleecy,
handsome and large, with a dark depth of wool. Silently
I caught these and lashed them together with pliant willow
withes, where the monstrous Cyclops lawless of mind had used to
sleep. I had them in threes, and the one in the middle carried
a man, while the other two went on each side, so guarding
my friends. Three rams carried each man, but as for myself
there was one ram, far the finest of the flock. This one
I clasped around the back, snuggled under the wool of the belly,
and stayed there still, and with a firm twist of the hands and enduring
spirit clung fast to the glory of this fleece, unrelenting.
So we grieved for a time and waited for the divine Dawn (ix. 425-36).
The above passage is presented by Homer is such a way as to call his audience’s attention to the peculiar fact that Odysseus and his men spend the night underneath the rams. In addition, earlier in the episode, Homer makes a special effort to mention the presence of the male sheep (ix. 237-9, 337-9), and here again he emphasizes the role of the male sheep in Odysseus’ escape. Taking these seemingly insignificant details together, it appears that Homer intends to suggest to his audience that Odysseus and his men have spent the night in the feminine or passive position in sexual intercourse beneath the male sheep. The adoption of this position is significant not only strategically, but also symbolically. The sheep, which descend into the dark cave every night (ix. 336) and then ascend into the daylight every morning (ix. 307-14), exhibit and represent the two movements of Nature. As the sheep leave the cave with Odysseus and his men underneath them, Polyphemos
felt over the backs of all his sheep, standing
up as they were, but in his guilelessness did not notice
how my men were fastened under the breasts of his fleecy sheep (ix. 441-444).
Polyphemos’ “oversight” reflects his single-minded understanding of the relationship between man and Nature. A Cyclops, who sees himself as the complete master of his own world, can only conceive of active domination of Nature rather than passive submission to Nature’s rhythm. Therefore, Polyphemos assumes that Odysseus would only ride on top of the sheep rather than underneath them. Odysseus’ willingness to be passive to Nature, which foreshadows his coming to Penelope as a beggar, allows him to escape from the world of the Cyclops, such an escape being possible only when man places himself in harmony with the rhythm of Nature, that is, “marries” Nature, just as Odysseus adapts his plan to the descending and ascending movements of the sheep.
Despite his willingness to be passive to Nature’s rhythm, it is important to note that Odysseus initiates the confrontation with the Cyclops. From the moment they enter the cave of Polyphemos, Odysseus’ companions beg him to take the cheeses, lambs and kids and to leave the cave before the Cyclops returns (ix. 224-6). But it is Odysseus’s desire to learn the nature of the Cyclops which brings them into the cave in the first place and which causes them to wait for the Cyclops’ return:
The rest of you, who are my eager companions, wait here,
while I, with my own ship and companions that are in it,
go and find out about these people, and learn what they are,
whether they are savage and violent, and without justice,
or hospitable to strangers and with minds that are godly (ix. 172-176).
Odysseus’ companions, who beg him to flee, do not share Odysseus’ desire to know and his sense of wonder (cf. ix. 190). It can also be said, however, that they do not share Odysseus’ hubris and vanity. Odysseus remains in the cave for the return of the Cyclops not only because he wonders about the nature of the Cyclops, but also to see if the Cyclops will give him gifts (ix. 229). Odysseus’ arrogance is matched only by the arrogance of Polyphemos whom Homer employs as a mirror of Odysseus’ soul. Having just left ten years of fighting at Troy, Odysseus’ first act is to sack Ismaros (ix. 39-40), thereby manifesting his Cyclopean perspective, having an eye only for war. Indeed, in the Cyclops episode Odysseus violates the cave of Polyphemos (ix. 216-33) and hubristically vaunts himself before the Cyclops by boasting of the number of Trojan men to whose death he has been a party (ix. 259-71). In this way, even while in the position of a suppliant, Odysseus vainly exalts himself and the Achaians and implicitly challenges Polyphemos to demonstrate that he is superior to the Achaians in the same way that the Achaians were superior to the Trojans. Polyphemos, of course, immediately accepts Odysseus’ challenge by killing and eating two of his men.
Just as the man of many ways is also much-turned, so Odysseus’ vanity is the reverse side of his desire to know. Man’s intellect not only characterizes man as man, a being capable of finding his home in the cosmos, but also allows him to go astray, to lose his homecoming, to fail to achieve the very thing of which his intellect makes him capable. Vanity presents this danger to the soul because it blinds man to the reality outside of himself. The arrogant man fails to achieve his homecoming because he fails to understand his true place in the world. By representing the internal danger of vanity to Odysseus by means of the external menace of the Cyclops, Homer uses the Cyclops episode to dramatize the confrontation within the soul between vanity and the quest for self-knowledge. Because Polyphemos is a reflection of Odysseus himself, Odysseus’ desire to learn the nature of the Cyclops indicates his desire to know himself, to confront and overcome those aspects of himself that are Cyclopean: his vanity, arrogance, and brutishness. And because Odysseus’ struggle is with his vain desire for glory, Homer appropriately names the Cyclops “Polyphemos,” which means “much-fame.”
In each man’s symbolic confrontation with the Cyclops, he must either “blind” his vanity or be destroyed by being blinded by it. Odysseus’ companions, who beg Odysseus to avoid the Cyclops, represent those men who do not seek self-knowledge: they are afraid to confront the Cyclops within themselves. Those who are killed in their confrontation with the Cyclops represent men who are destroyed by their own Cyclopean tendencies: to be eaten by the Cyclops is to be symbolically “consumed” by one’s vanity. Odysseus, however, who discerns the presence of the world axis within the cave of Polyphemos (ix. 318-31), grasps and employs the mast-like beam as a weapon to penetrate the Cyclops within himself.
In overcoming Polyphemos, Odysseus saves his companions as well as himself by tying them underneath the rams. Odysseus is able to “cling fast” to Nature without the need for conventional “ties,” but his companions must be bound to Nature if they are to be saved. While Odysseus “grasps” the essential unity of Nature, the companions are attached to a plurality of three rams tied together in a clumsy imitation of one. Unable to confront directly and to overcome the Cyclops, the companions are dependent upon artifice to escape. But because Odysseus himself is joined to Nature, his art is informed by Nature and therefore it is not arbitrary or “Cyclopean,” that is, the whim of an individual man. As the natural ruler, Odysseus’ political authority is grounded in Nature, and the restraints imposed upon the companions bind them to Nature’s rhythm; they are necessary for their survival.
In the episode of the Sirens, the second episode in which a ship’s mast plays an important role, it is Odysseus who is tied to the mast while his men remain untied. Here, however, the bonds have been self-imposed, and Odysseus’ open ears must be contrasted with the closed ears of his men. Having been initiated by Circe, the meaning of which we will discuss below, Odysseus is able to take the necessary precautions that he explains to his men as follows:
but only I, she said, was to listen to them, but you must tie me
hard in hurtful bonds, to hold me fast in position
upright against the mast, with the ropes’ ends fastened around it (xii. 159-162).
Odysseus chooses to be bound “upright” (orthon) and “immovable” (empedon) to the mast rather than to the Sirens whose name literally means “binders” or “entanglers.” Homer seems to suggest that man, the creature who stands upright, is an axis akin to the world axis, which is likewise “upright” and “immovable.” The human axis and the world axis can be as one. The alternative is offered by the Sirens who seek to entice Odysseus with their sweet song:
Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,
and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing;
for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship
until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues
from our lips; then goes on, well pleased, knowing more than ever
he did, for we know everything that the Argives and Trojans
did and suffered in wide Troy through the gods’ despite.
We know as much as comes to be over the generous earth (xii. 184-91).
The Sirens promise Odysseus that he will know more (pleiona) than he did before listening to them, and the word “as much as” (hossa) further emphasizes the quantitative nature of the knowledge they promise. According to the Sirens themselves, their knowledge is limited to the things of the earth, that is, the things in the realm of multiplicity, the things that “come to be” (genetai). In direct contrast to divine Being and the qualitative “vertical” knowledge symbolized by the mast, Homer uses the Sirens to represent the specious allure of “horizontal” knowledge and the world, which is signified here by the beach before them “piled with bone heaps of men now rotted away” (xii. 45-46), for most men are enticed to bind themselves to the things that come to be and pass away rather than to Being itself.
Through the episode of the Sirens, Homer teaches that the human axis is an image of the world axis, and that man can comprehend within himself the full “vertical” dimension of the cosmos. Man’s upright posture, which allows him to look up as Odysseus looks up to the guided by the pole star, is an outward sign of his inward affinity with what is above the things of the earth (cf. v. 272-5). For Homer, man has access and is uniquely suited to what is outside and above himself. While this gives man his unique status in the natural world, it also presents the possibility for man to see himself as the world axis, as “the measure of all things,” and not simply as its image or reflection. The Sirens represent the overwhelming attraction that this possibility holds for man, no man being capable of resisting this temptation unless he has been properly initiated, as is Odysseus, or restrained, as the ears of the companions are filled with wax. The Sirens represent the same danger to the soul as the Cyclops: intellectual vanity. They flatter “honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians,” promising him knowledge of the horizontal world. Indeed, the Sirens sing their sweet song in the souls of all men, seductively suggesting that there is no higher knowledge than each man’s own.
Odysseus’ willingness to be bound with hurtful bonds upright against the mast saves him and his companions from the otherwise irresistible Sirens. Paradoxically, man becomes truly free only when he submits himself to what is higher than man. And the paradox inherent in the idea of “enslaving” oneself in order to become free is made even more paradoxical by the fact that the man who rejects “horizontal” knowledge for “vertical” knowledge also gains “horizontal” knowledge, that is, a proper appreciation of the value and meaning of temporal things, for Odysseus is the only one who is able to listen to the Sirens without being destroyed.
Odysseus is able to sail past the Sirens because he is initiated by Circe. Prior to his initiation, however, Odysseus must confront and overcome Circe who has turned his companions into pigs. On his way to the house of Circe, Odysseus encounters Hermes who gives him the mysterious moly:
So spoke Hermes, and he gave me the medicine,
which he picked out of the ground, and he explained the nature
of it to me. It was black at the root, but with a milky
flower. The gods call it moly. It is hard for mortal
men to dig up, but the gods have the power to do all things (x. 302-6).
It should first be noted that the moly exhibits the ascending and descending movements of Nature: its black root grows downward into the darkness while its white flower grows upward to the light. Therefore the black root, which actively seeks nourishment from the dark earth, is seemingly opposed to the white flower, which mysteriously ascends out of the descending root and passively receives the light of the sun. Nonetheless, it is only through the nourishment acquired through the dark root that the white flower can bloom. Like the moly, man is rooted in the darkness and yet longs for the light; he stands on the earth and yet looks up to the heavens. The human axis, like the world axis, participates in both the high and the low. Man stands between the darkness and the light, and this is exactly the situation in which Odysseus and his men find themselves when they first arrive on Circle’s island, Aiaia. Odysseus says to his men:
Dear friends, for we do not know where the darkness is nor the sunrise,
nor where the Sun who shines upon people rises, nor where
he sets, then let us hasten our minds and think, whether there is
any course left open to us. But I think there is none (x. 190-193).
Just as the white flower of the moly is dependent upon the black root, so man’s quest for self-knowledge is paradoxically fueled by his vanity. However, man’s black root can ultimately be dug out of the ground, although he cannot dig himself out by his powers alone. As the passivity of the flower suggests, man is dependent upon help from above if he is to transcend the darkness, and this help is only forthcoming when man recognizes his need for it, just as Odysseus here acknowledges for the first time that there is no course left open to him (x. 193).
Odysseus refers to the moly as medicine (x. 302). The moly is a spiritual medicine to heal the divided nature of man and to make him whole. In giving the moly to Odysseus, Hermes, who carries a golden staff, a symbol of the world axis (x. 277; xxiv. 3), presents an image of Odysseus’ true self to him. By digging the moly out of the ground, Hermes dramatizes the symbolism of the moly by freeing the flower from its dependence upon the root, just as the moly itself saves Odysseus from Circe, who turns men into pigs by putting drugs in their food and drink. Odysseus’ companions are turned into pigs because, like the suitors, they relate to Nature only on the level of food and drink. The companions are not married to Nature as men but as animals: they are “married” to their material desires. Circe represents this lower aspect of Nature that seduces man through that aspect of himself. But Circe can be seduced herself, and when this happens she leads man toward the higher aspect of Nature. Like man and the moly, Circe, as the offspring of Helios and Perse, daughter of Ocean, is herself a divided creature who initially serves the dark powers of Poseidon, but who can be forced to serve the light of Helios. Man is a part of the realm that is symbolized by the moly’s black root, but when he sees that the black root nourishes a white flower, he can overcome his enslavement to the root by realizing that the root is there for the sake of the flower. Odysseus, who is taught the nature of the moly by Hermes, is able to overcome Circe as a result of his knowledge that the lower aspect of Nature is not the whole of Nature. When man acknowledges his need for the reality outside of himself, he can bring himself toward it through the lower aspect of Nature.
Circe represents both the malignancy and benevolence of Nature: she is injurious to those men who are prone to dissipate themselves or indulge their material wants in her material abundance; but she also contains the secrets of the horizontal world, the science of which is necessary for man’s homecoming. It is only by uniting with Circe in the “bed of love,” not by exploiting her material plenitude, that Odysseus acquires knowledge of the realm of Poseidon, the horizontal world, and of the underworld: the Sirens, Skylla, Charybdis, Thrinakia, and Hades. Circe’s instructions to Odysseus are vital to his self-mastery, to his victory over cupidity, fear, and false self-reliance, which are put to the test by his voyage to Hades and the subsequent “horizontal” trials. The abandonment of the appetitive self and vanity in favor of the attachment to the vertical becomes the pattern by which Odysseus is continually saved from the ravages of the horizontal world and its temporal allurements.
But if Odysseus is to be saved and have his homecoming by learning and incorporating what is above, the divine light, he must first come to know what is below; he must experience or suffer darkness and death and thereby entrust himself to the wisdom and guidance of the divine. In following Circe’s instructions, Odysseus demonstrates his unity with Nature not only by heeding her teaching, but also by participating in her mode of being. The descent and ascent from Hades reflects the rhythms of Nature who continuously brings forth life only by a prior return to receptivity, potentiality, or death – a passive or quiescent state which anticipates the penetrating creativity of divine being and intelligence, and the vital determination by the cosmic axis – hence the cycle of the seasons. Nature herself is continuous and only those who stand in permanent opposition to her, like the suitors, will suffer destruction without regeneration. By experiencing the realm of the dead, Odysseus reaches that psychic state of quiescence, which parallels nature’s receptive mode, and anticipates intercourse with the divine and thereby transcendence of the natural per se and natural decay. Thus, in Hades Odysseus meets the prophet Teiresias who, like Hermes, carries a golden staff which symbolizes the world axis, for the vertical or divine being which orders all things is present also at the nadir of the cosmos, that is, the underworld. Teiresias, who alone possesses intelligence in Hades (x. 494), imparts his “vertical” knowledge to Odysseus, which reveals the way home. Through the reception of this “vertical” knowledge, Odysseus returns to the realm of the living and escapes death because he shares in divine being. The way beyond Nature, then, is through Nature. And man must descend before he ascends or transcends. It is fitting, then, that when Odysseus returns to Circe’s island after having descended into the darkness of Hades (xi. 14-19), Odysseus reports that he came back to the island of Aiaia,
where lies the house of early Dawn, her dancing
spaces, and where Helios, the sun, makes his uprising (xii. 3-4).
Having been ignorant upon his arrival at Aiaia of where the darkness or sunrise is, or where the sun rises or sets (x. 190-193), Odysseus now knows that the sun makes his rising at Aiaia. Having stood between the darkness and the light, between Circe and Hermes, Odysseus, like the dug up moly, has transcended the darkness and emerged into the light.
The last episode in which a ship’s mast plays an important role is the destruction of Odysseus’ ship and his men after they eat the oxen of Helios. Odysseus, who stands alone against the self-destructive wishes of his companions, is compelled by their greater numbers to give in to their desire to rest on the island of Helios (xii. 297). True to their nature as revealed by Circe’s transforming them into pigs, the companions cannot endure their hunger and they violate their oath to Odysseus not to eat the oxen of Helios. Here Homer presents the essential tragedy of political life and demonstrates the limits of Odysseus’ political authority. Odysseus’ authority is based upon his superior knowledge, not his brute strength; therefore, his rule must be accepted by the many who are in need of it. However, because the many lack “vertical” knowledge themselves, they are unable to recognize it in Odysseus. As the audience is told in the invocation of the Muse, Odysseus cannot save his companions from themselves:
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 of God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming (i. 6-9).
When Odysseus goes off alone to pray to the gods, his companions devise a plan to eat the cattle:
Then I went away along the island in order
to pray to the gods, if any of them might show me some course
to sail on, but when, crossing the isle, I had left my companions
behind, I washed my hands, where there was a place sheltered
from the wind, and prayed to all the gods whose hold in Olympos (xii. 333-337).
In his absence, Odysseus’ companions are left to their own devices, and they soon undertake their own destruction. Odysseus, by his very nature, literally and symbolically leaves his companions behind in his quest for divine assistance and knowledge.
Significantly, Zeus’ assault on the ship begins with the toppling of the mast (xii. 405-10). With Odysseus’ men having ignored the repeated warnings from those possessing “vertical” knowledge, that is, Circe, Teiresias, and Odysseus himself (xii. 266-76), the vertical link between the men and Zeus is leveled. Indeed, Homer drives this point home in his account of the mast’s destruction:
and the blast of the stormwind snapped both the forestays that where holding
the mast, and the mast went over backwards, and all the running gear
collapsed in the wash; and at the stern of the ship the mast pole
crashed down on the steerman’s head and pounded to pieces
all the bones of his head, so that he like a diver
dropped from the high deck, and the proud life left his bones there (xii. 409-414).
The steerman, who represents here the false course chosen by Odysseus’ companions, has his head appropriately crushed by the mast, for man cannot find his way without the “vertical” knowledge of the world axis. Ironically, that which ought to be man’s salvation becomes the destroyer of his “proud life” when man uses his intellect to turn away from the divine. Odysseus, who alone does not perish after the apocalyptic eating of the oxen of Helios, lashes together the mast and the keel (xii. 424). While Homer distinguishes Odysseus from his men in every episode, here, at the crucial point when all the others lose their homecoming (xxi. 417-9), Homer has Odysseus attach himself once more to the mast, albeit in a submerged or horizontal state. By bringing together the mast and the keel, the vertical and the horizontal, Odysseus imitates the weaving of Penelope, that is, he imitates the rhythm of Nature who brings together the “vertical” and the “horizontal” on the cosmic loom. As a creature of both worlds, man finds his salvation in his ability to imitate Nature in reconciling these two worlds.
Floating upon the mast and the keel, Odysseus is once again swept into the face of the twin dangers of Skylla and Charybdis. He escapes the rhythmical flowing up and sucking down of Charybdis (the natural cycle of generation and destruction) by grasping the fig tree above (the world axis):
I came to the sea rock of Skylla, and dreaded Charybdis.
At this time Charybdis sucked down the sea’s salt water,
but I reached high in the air above me, to where the tall fig tree
grew, and caught hold of it and clung like a bat (xii. 430-33).
Like a bat, man is blind and turned upside down in the face of divine reality; and yet, by viewing the descending and ascending movements of Nature from a more detached position, Odysseus is able to save himself by harmonizing his movements with those of Charybdis, just as he did with the sheep when he escaped from the cave of the Cyclops. Thus, when Charybdis vomits the mast and the keel back up again, Odysseus drops down “between” the two long timbers, once more finding his proper place between the two worlds which he must reconcile (xii. 437-444).
Odysseus’ arrangement, however, is finally artificial. Man cannot, it seems, hold the two worlds, upper and lower, together on his own. He cannot contrive reconciliation with the divine, such efforts being ultimately futile without direct assistance from above. Hence, according to Kalypso, she saved Odysseus “when he clung astride the keel board all alone” (v. 130-132; vii. 251-254). Odysseus, all alone in the vast expanse of the ocean, was unable to keep the mast and the keel lashed together in the journey from Charybdis to Ogygia, home of Kalypso. In this way, Homer indicates that all man’s attempts to imitate Nature are subject to decay, and that man must wander in the horizontal world until he reunites with Nature herself, namely, Penelope. But now, as is suggested by his clinging to the keel board without the mast, Odysseus finds himself in the embrace of the horizontal world as embodied in the voluptuous appeal of Kalypso. Nonetheless, Odysseus’ orientation to the vertical and his longing for home and Penelope, brings him to eventual dissatisfaction with the mere sensuality of Kalypso and drives him away from her false promise of immortality. This promise, like the false promise of the Sirens, involves the seeming immortality that follows from making one’ self the measure of reality, thereby creating the illusion of having achieved divinity. But, as the entire thrust of the Odyssey makes clear, man can only reach the safe haven of home, the salvific favor of the divine, by trial and submission to the supreme cosmic authorities, not by languishing in sensual pleasure and solipsism. As is evident from the council of the gods, Odysseus must fulfill the supreme and absolute purpose of Zeus and Athena (i. 32-95).
Now, just as Odysseus is in need of Penelope (to whom he returns as a beggar) in order to fulfill his nature, so too Penelope (Nature) needs Odysseus to be completed herself. According to the suitors after they have been sent down to Hades, Penelope does not complete the great web until the very day Odysseus returns to Ithaka:
Then she displayed the great piece of weaving that she had woven.
She washed it, and it shone like the sun or the moon. At that time
an evil spirit, coming from somewhere, brought back Odysseus
to the remote part of his estate, where his swineherd was living (xxiv. 147-150).
Penelope’s completed web is said to shine like the sun or the moon. As a symbol, the sun corresponds to the active or masculine cosmic principle in that it is a source of direct light, the form of which never changes. The moon, on the other hand, corresponds to the passive or feminine cosmic principle in that its light is indirect, reflecting the light of the sun in a form that is ever-changing. In terms of the symbolism of weaving, the sun and the moon stand in the same relation to one another as do the vertical and horizontal threads. Therefore, for Penelope’s web to be described as shining like the sun or the moon implies that the duality of the two fundamental cosmic principles has been synthesized into a higher unity, just as the vertical and horizontal threads combine to make a single whole. For to say “sun or moon” as opposed to “sun and moon” indicates that the light from the web does not come from two distinct parts, but that the light cannot be distinguished as coming from one or the other. This relationship of the sun and the moon is also expressed in the repeated description of a golden pitcher and a silver basin:
A maidservant brought water for them and poured it from a splendid
and golden pitcher, holding it above a silver basin
for them to wash, and she pulled a polished table before them. (i. 136-138)
Here the active and passive poles of existence are represented by the golden pitcher and silver basin, respectively, gold being related to silver as the sun is to the moon; for gold seems to contain light within itself, thereby being a source of direct light, while silver passively reflects light like a mirror. The golden pitcher fills the receptive silver basin from above while man, who stands between these poles, is cleansed by their interplay.
That Penelope does not complete the great web, her “great piece of weaving” (xxiv. 147), until Odysseus returns to Ithaka suggests that the primordial wholeness of things has been restored – “it shone like the sun or the moon” – the universal contraries have been unified, earth and heaven reunited, the horizontal and the vertical reconciles, cosmic integration reestablished out of relativity, fragmentation, and opposition, a state contrary to Being and the ultimate good. That there is a need for reconciliation of the fundamental components of the whole implies that there is a certain opposition between them, between man on the one hand and Nature and the cosmic order on the other, and that for Being and universal happiness they must return to their original union. This opposition is symbolized by Odysseus’ departure from Penelope to go to Troy. Certainly Homer emphasizes the connection between Odysseus’ departure and his return to Penelope by having his departure discussed by the disguised Odysseus and Penelope when they first speak together after having been apart for twenty years. In testing the truth of Odysseus’ claim to have seen Odysseus, Penelope asks him to describe the clothing that Odysseus wore. Odysseus then gives the following description:
Great Odysseus was wearing a woolen mantle of purple,
with two folds, but the pin to it was golden and fashioned
with double sheathes, and the front part of it was artfully
done: a hound held in his forepaws a dappled
fawn, preying on it as it struggled; and all admired it,
how, though they were golden, it preyed on the fawn and strangled it
and the fawn struggled with his feet as he tried to escape him (xix. 225-232).
The two folds in the mantle, the double sheathes of the pin, and the struggle of the hound and the fawn all stress duality and opposition. The struggle of the hound and the fawn especially represents the fundamental opposition between and activity and passivity or receptivity, which characterize Odysseus and Penelope, respectively.
Because Homer uses the story of Odysseus and Penelope to demonstrate and celebrate the return and marriage of man with Nature (the reconciliation of the active and the passive), Homer largely employs the Telemachy to portray their prior opposition. At first man is united with Nature as her child or offspring, and then there must be maturation and separation before he can become her husband. Telemachus leaves the home of his mother to search for his father, that is, to seek his origins, the nature of his being and therefore of Being in general. Man’s verticalness causes him to question and to search for the truth, which requires some separation from his natural and conventional circumstances. Odysseus must go to war to learn to control the disparate forces that seek to rule his soul, a process of self-overcoming and cleansing in the quest for what is real, of greatest worth, and abiding. But the answers and the ends toward which Telemachus and Odysseus jointly strive are above the human world. Hence, both their realization and the cleansing of the psychic obstacles to that realization are ultimately a matter of divine assistance and human cooperation as attested finally by Athena’s help in the cleansing of Odysseus’ home (soul) of the suitors (the acquisitive, appetitive, and self-serving elements within the soul which stand in permanent opposition to Nature and seek only to exploit her). Such assistance is possible only if man becomes open to the divine, if man unites with Nature thereby incorporating her femininity or receptivity as Telemachus and Odysseus return to the side of Penelope.
When Telemachus leaves home in search of his father, Penelope grieves and anxiously awaits his return, just as she grieves for long absent Odysseus. Likewise, Nature “grieves” when Man does not unite with her, for she is not complete until he does so. On the other hand, man is not complete until he has joined with Nature, for until he does so he does not understand his place in the cosmos. While the departure of Telemachus and Odysseus represents the opposition between man and Nature, this separation ultimately serves to establish a true union. As seen by the symbolism of the moly, man is both a part of and apart from Nature: he is part of Nature in that he is a creature of the earth who is ruled by Nature’s rhythm; but he is apart from Nature in that his capacity for “verticalness” allows him to view Nature from outside of her domain. As the highest creature of the natural world, man is paradoxically endowed with the natural capacity to separate himself from Nature, which frees him to understand Nature as she really is. In freely choosing to “return” to Nature as Odysseus returns to Penelope, man fulfills his natural end by completing Nature and being completed himself. This is true in two senses: first, Odysseus as a symbol of the vertical and Penelope as a symbol of the horizontal require each other since Nature without the divine is void and the divine without Nature is unmanifested; and second, the natural condition of man is one of complementary balance between activity and passivity, the masculine and the feminine. Man is therefore the key, for through him the natural and the supernatural worlds are held together in harmony, or they are broken in strife, as effected by Odysseus’ companions and the suitors.
Man’s central position in Nature is further illustrated by Homer in the following description of Odysseus’ arrival on the island of Phaiakia, which foreshadows his return and homecoming to Ithaka:
In the division of his heart this last way seemed best,
and he went to look for some wood and found it close to the water
in a conspicuous place, and stopped underneath two bushes
that grew from the same place, one of shrub, and one of wild olive,
and neither the force of wet-blowing winds could penetrate these
nor could the shining sun ever strike through with his rays, nor yet
could rain pass all the way through them, so close together
were they grown, interlacing each other; and under these now Odysseus
entered, and with his own hands heaped him a bed to sleep on
making it wide, since there was great store of fallen leaves there,
enough for two men to take cover in or even three men
in the winter season, even in the very worst kind of weather.
Seeing this, long-suffering Odysseus was happy,
and lay down in the middle, and made a pile of leaves over him.
As when a man buries a burning log in a black ash heap
in a remote place in the country, where none live near as neighbors,
and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light
from, so Odysseus buried himself in the leaves, and Athene
shed a sleep on his eyes so as most quickly to quit him,
by veiling his eyes, from the exhaustion of his hard labors (v. 474-494).
The image of the two bushes which grow so closely together that they grow alternately (epamoibadis) into one another is reminiscent of Penelope’s web (woven as a shroud to protect the body of Laertes) (ii. 99-103) in which the vertical and horizontal threads are likewise wound alternately together. Moreover, the growth of the two bushes mirrors the growth of the relationship of Odysseus and Penelope who, having so grown that they can embrace each other, reunite on a higher level where their prior opposition is transformed into a complementary union. Just as the two bushes grow from the same place and then separate into two distinct parts only to be jointed again, so the union of Odysseus and Penelope is separated and then reunited. And this union, like the union of the two bushes, provides a secure home for man who finds his home at the center of the natural world where the “vertical” and “horizontal” are reconciled. Like the seed of fire that is buried in a black ash heap, Odysseus’ soul “in” his body is kept alive at the center of Nature’s web, man’s soul being the divine spark akin to the pole star that is never plunged into the ocean.
These same themes are expressed by Homer in his description of Odysseus’ bed where the actual reunion of Odysseus and Penelope takes place. Here the world axis is signified by the immovable bole of an olive tree, which is compared by Odysseus to a column, and which Odysseus shapes into a bed post (xxiii. 183-200). The vertical world, then, intersects the horizontal world at that central point where man and Nature are joined together. By submitting to the divine through the incorporation of Nature’s receptivity to the eternal order, man achieves his homecoming, the perfection of his being, and preservation from destruction.
The reunion of Odysseus and Penelope is a true union, for they unite on the highest level that both man and Nature can attain. The suitors and the handmaidens, on the other hand, who are united on a lower level, must be killed off so that the union of Odysseus and Penelope can be pure. The suitors, who force the handmaidens to sleep with them, represent those men who are not capable of “marrying” Nature in the highest sense. The handmaidens who sleep with the suitors, and who betray Penelope’s ruse to them, represent a lower aspect of Nature, one that succumbs to seduction. When man unites with Nature on the highest level, however, he cannot force her or seduce her, but he must be accepted by her. Thus, Odysseus’ disguise as a beggar is not only strategic, but also symbolic, for is demonstrates his need for Penelope. Penelope must recognize him as worthy before she accepts him as her husband; he cannot force her, for to do so would be to act like one of the suitors. Odysseus is not simply the strongest suitor; he is different from them, and the difference lies in his knowledge of himself and of Nature.
By using marriage as a metaphor for man’s relationship with Nature, Homer is suggesting that to marry Nature is to act in harmony with the way things are. Man can never be fulfilled unless his soul is wedded to Nature, for prior to the soul’s wedding man is without a home. Likewise, a man who has achieved his natural end, who has had his homecoming, is the fulfillment of Nature. This complementariness is portrayed by Homer in the scene where Penelope fully recognizes and embraces the long absent Odysseus:
She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping.
He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous.
And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open
seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scarf of salt coated upon them,
and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms.
Now dawn of the rosy fingers would have dawned on their weeping,
had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene planned it otherwise.
She held the long night back at the outward edge, she detained
Dawn of the golden throne by the Ocean and would not let her
harness her fast-footed horses who bring the daylight to people (xxiii. 231-245).
When the simile begins, the audience assumes that the subject is Odysseus, but the subject changes to become Penelope by the end of the simile. The two are not separate; Odysseus and Penelope are one; man and Nature are one. The union of Odysseus and Penelope symbolizes the union of the “vertical” and the “horizontal,” and thus Athena holds the sun in the ocean; for the sun is a symbol of the eternal, the essential, while the ocean is a symbol for the ever-changing, for potentiality.
If we return now to the first conversation that the disguised Odysseus has with Penelope after twenty years of separation, we are better able to understand the meaning of their exchange. Penelope begins their discourse as follows:
Stranger, I myself first have a question to ask you.
What man are you and whence? Where is your city? Your parents? (xix. 104-5)
Penelope asks Odysseus who he is and what kind of man he is. Penelope asks Odysseus the question that Nature poses to man: she asks him if he knows himself. In his response Odysseus does not disclose his identity, but he answers her question nonetheless by likening Penelope to a well-ruling king:
Lady, no mortal man on the endless earth could have cause
to find fault with you; your fame goes up into the wide heaven,
as of some king who, as a blameless man and god-fearing,
and ruling as lord over many powerful people,
upholds the way of good government, and the black earth yields him
barley and wheat, his trees are heavy with fruit, his sheepflocks
continue to bear young, the sea gives him fish, because of
his good leadership, and his people prosper under him (xix. 107-14).
Odysseus indicates who he is and the kind of man he is by acknowledging and praising the rule of Nature whose rhythms govern man and all the creatures and fruits of the earth, and whose rule is good and self-sustaining even in the absence of a man who has achieved his natural end. However, Odysseus’ praise of Penelope is also ironic; Ithaka, after all, is overrun by the suitors. Unlike the other creatures of the earth, man is not completely passive to Nature’s rhythm since he can, to some extent, act upon and dominate Nature. Thus Odysseus’ praise of Penelope as a king is subtle because it reveals his acceptance of the rule of Nature while simultaneously asking Penelope is she is truly self-sufficient and without need of him. That is to say, Odysseus’ praise indicates that his acquired self-knowledge includes an awareness not only of his dependence upon Nature, but also of his fitness to rule as natural king.
In answering the implicit question Odysseus has asked her, Penelope makes explicit her need for Odysseus:
Stranger, all of my excellence, my beauty and figure,
were ruined by the immortals at that time when the Argives took ship
for Ilion, and with them went my husband, Odysseus.
If he were to come back to me and take care of my life, then
my reputation would be more great and splendid. As it is
now I grieve; such evils the god has let loose upon me (xix. 124-129).
Penelope then reveals to Odysseus the story of the suitors and her weaving and unweaving as a ruse to protect herself (xix. 130-163). Penelope tells Odysseus that she has no way to avoid marriage to a suitor since the great web is finished; but the point seems to be that she needs no more wiles to stave off the suitors, for the proper suitor is at her side. By proposing the contest of the bow, Penelope gives Odysseus the means to destroy the suitors and re-establish order and political life in Ithaka (xix. 570-587). In this way Homer implies that the political order is dependent upon the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus, the wedding of the soul and Nature, a union that participates in and exhibits the order of the cosmos as symbolized by the loom and the union of warp and woof.
As made clear by the presence of the suitors in Ithaka, there is no political authority in Ithaka prior to the return of Odysseus. In fact, the assembly called by Telemachus after Athene’s visit is the first assembly in Ithaka since Odysseus’ departure for Troy twenty years earlier (ii. 25-27). While Odysseus was away, the men of Ithaka became Cyclopean, holding no assemblies and each man going his own way. The suitors, who “rule” Ithaka in Odysseus’ absence, act like Cyclopses: they are lawless, they eat and drink excessively, and Homer even implies that they are cannibals (i. 159-162).
The leader of the suitors is Antinoos whose name means “anti-mind.” The reign of the suitors is against the dictates of reason and it contrasts strongly with the rule in Phaiakia of Alkinoos whose name means “strong-mind.” Phaiakia, which means “radiant place,” represents the ideal political community where Alkinoos or “Strong-mind” rules in marriage with Arete or “Sacred” (vii. 66). Although they formerly lived next to the Cyclopses, the Phaiakians found them too overbearing and migrated to Scheria, which means “cut-off land” (vi. 1-10). The Phaiakians live apart from other men, their geographic remoteness representing the distance between all actual cities and the ideal. Ruled by Alkinoos, “learned in designs from the gods” (vi. 12), the Phaiakians live very close to the gods who always show themselves clearly to the Phaiakians and sit beside them and feast with them (vii. 201-205).
Homer most clearly distinguishes the rule of Alkinoos from the “rule” of the suitors by their differing attitudes towards their respective singers. The suitors force the singer Phemios to sing for them, and they consume his songs like food and drink. The Phaiakians, on the other hand, value singing above all else (viii. 579-80); they place their singer Demodokos at the center of their political community and provide for his every need. Consider Homer’s first description of the singer Demodokos:
The herald came near, bringing with him the excellent singer
whom the Muse had loved greatly, and gave him both good and evil.
She reft him of his eyes, but she gave him the sweet singing
art. Pontonoos set a silver-studded chair out for him
in the middle of the feasters, propping it against a tall column,
and the herald hung the clear lyre on a peg placed over
his head, and showed him how to reach up with his hands and take it
down, and set beside him a table and a fine basket,
and beside him a cup to drink whenever his spirit desired it (viii. 62-70).
Just as the world axis, here represented by a tall column, stands at the center of all things, so too Demodokos, who takes his place next to the tall column, is placed in the middle of the feasters. And when the Phaiakians demonstrate their skill in dancing to Odysseus, Demodokos once again moves into the middle:
and the herald came bringing with him the clear lyre
for Demodokos, who moved into the middle, and about him stood forth
young men in the first of their youth, well trained in dancing
and beat the wonderful floor with their feet. Odysseus
gazed on the twinkling of their feet, his heart full of wonder (viii. 261-4).
Demodokos is to the dancers as the pole star is to the constellations. Like the world axis, Demodokos stands at the motionless center while his singing is the cause of the rhythmic motion of those who dance around him.
The singer is not, however, the world axis itself, as Homer indicates in a number of ways. In the first description of Demodokos given above, Demodokos’ chair is propped against the tall column, which indicates that the world axis supports and sustains the singer. Moreover, Demodokos’ lyre is hung on the tall column “on a peg placed over his head,” which suggests that the source of song is located “above” the human mind, the source being “grasped” only when one “reaches up” (cf. xii. 432). That the source of song is not the singer himself is further emphasized by the fact that the lyre is hung up on the peg both before and after Demodokos sings his first song (viii. 105), thereby making it necessary for the lyre to be retrieved from the peg by the herald before Demodokos can sing his second song (viii. 245-255). This process of taking the lyre down from the peg on the tall column and hanging it up again is intended to dramatize the singer’s need to draw repeatedly upon a source outside of himself.
While the singer is not the motionless center of all things, but a “center” in the human world through which the world axis penetrates. Like Penelope, who passively receives the idea of the web from some god, Demodokos is himself stirred to sing by the Muse. Thus Demodokos is appropriately seated on a silver-studded chair (vii. 65), for the singer is akin to silver in that he serves as a mirror that passively and imaginatively reflects the nontemporal realities of the world axis.
Given Homer’s understanding of the singer, it is not surprising to find that he often likens Odysseus to a singer (xvii. 512-521). The well-ruled Phaiakians, who take joy in the songs of Demodokos (viii. 90-1), are likewise held in thrall by Odysseus (xi. 333-4), who tells them the story of his journey after Demodokos’ third and final song. After hearing the story of Odysseus, Alkinoos compares Odysseus to a singer (xi. 366-9). And after having killed all the suitors, Odysseus is seated like Demodokos next to a tall pillar where he waits to be accepted by Penelope (xxiii. 90). But the most revealing indication of Odysseus’ affinity with the singers occurs when Demodokos is once more placed next to the tall column in the middle of the feasters (viii. 473), and Odysseus praises Demodokos as he praises no one else in the Odyssey:
Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you.
Surely the Muse, Zeus’ daughter or else Apollo has taught you
for all too right following the tale you sing the Achaians’
venture, all they did and had done to them, all the sufferings
of these Achaians, as if you had been there yourself or heard it
from one who was. Come to another part of the story, sing us
the wooden horse, which Epeios made with Athene helping,
the stratagem great Odysseus filled once with men and brought it
to the upper city, and it was these men who sacked Ilion.
If you can tell me the course of all these things as they happened,
I will speak of you before all mankind, and tell them
how freely the goddess gave you the magical gift of singing (viii. 487-98).
Odysseus’ praise is proper not only for Demodokos but also for Homer, the singer of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The singer can give an account of things he has not seen because the singer’s knowledge is not determined by nor dependent upon his individual perceptions of the world; and certainly this is the meaning of Demodokos’ blindness (as opposed to the blindness of the Cyclops). In response to Odysseus’ request to hear the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy, the story of his greatest stratagem, Demodokos holds, as it were, a mirror up to Odysseus, presenting Odysseus with a picture of himself as he “endured the grimmest fighting that ever he had” (viii. 519-20):
So the famous singer sang the tale, but Odysseus
melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching
his cheeks. As a woman weeps, lying over the body
of her dead husband, who fell fighting for her city and people
as he tried to beat off the pitiless day from city and children;
she sees him dying and gasping for breath, and winding her body
about him she cries high and shrill, while the men behind her,
hitting her with their spear butts on the back and the shoulders,
force her up and lead her away into slavery, to have
hard work and sorrow, and her cheeks are wracked with pitiful weeping.
Such were the pitiful tears Odysseus shed from under
his brows, but they went unnoticed by all the others,
but Alkinoos alone understood what he did and noticed,
since he was sitting next to him and heard him groaning heavily (viii. 521-34).
Because the reality of the world axis “speaks” through Demodokos, Odysseus’ request to hear of himself represents his desire to know himself, to see himself as he really is, without the distorting lens of vanity. Having exalted himself at the beginning of his journey in the cave of the Cyclops as a result of his victory over the Trojans, Odysseus now identifies himself not with the Achaian men but with the Trojan women, not with the victors but with the vanquished. Odysseus weeps as a woman weeps, his passivity to the truth of the brutality of the sack of Troy testifying to his having achieved knowledge of himself, to having overcome his vanity. In fact, Odysseus’ own story of his journey, which follows immediately after his lament over the sack of Troy, is almost confessional in its presentation, and it is required of Odysseus before the Phaiakians will grant him conveyance to Ithaka (viii. 548-86; xi. 330-61). Before he can return to Ithaka to rule as king, Odysseus must first demonstrate, by giving an account of his soul’s journey in the presence of the ideal regime of Phaiakia, that he can rule himself.
Odysseus’ response to the song of Demodokos testifies not only to the self-knowledge of Odysseus but also to the political authority of the singer. We can understand, then, why Homer compares the great bow of Odysseus to a lyre:
So the suitors talked, but now resourceful Odysseus
once he had taken up the great bow and looked it all over,
as when a man, who well understands the lyre and singing,
easily, holding it on either side, pulls strongly twisted
cord of sheep’s gut, so as to slip it over a new peg,
so, without any strain, Odysseus strung the great bow.
Then plucking it in his right hand he tested the bowstring,
and it gave him back an excellent sound like the voice of a swallow (xxi. 404-411).
The great bow of Odysseus is first found by Penelope hanging on a peg like the lyre of Demodokos (xx. 53), and it is left leaning against a pillar when Odysseus is finished with it (xxii. 120). Most significantly, Odysseus uses the great bow to re-establish order and harmony in Ithaka by killing the suitors, just as Homer himself uses his lyre to establish order and harmony in the souls of his audience by “killing” their false conceptions of Nature. By re-presenting the order of the whole upon which the political and psychic orders are dependent, the singer mediates between human life and Being, Homer’s Odyssey itself demonstrating the true political art that seeks to guide the soul in its journey to know itself.