Homer is at the soul of storytelling, but he was far more than a wondrous storyteller. It would be hard to overstate his vast influence.
His two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are the first grand narratives of the Western imagination; for the nearly 140 generations since he recounted these adventures (from about 750 BCE) philosophers and warriors and tellers of tales have claimed the hero Odysseus as one of their own, as the ancient roots of their diverse traditions. Homer was said to be a wanderer, which meant that his stories were not provincial, not limited by time or place. He was unlearned, so that he was not tied to the official story of the times. And he was by tradition blind, which, in the conventions of mythology, suggests that he saw what others did not. And indeed, for ancient audiences, Homer’s stories of great but flawed heroes who wrangled with fabulous monsters, sensuous witches and evil foreigners (not to mention those gods and goddesses who shamelessly meddled in human affairs) percolated with profound meanings. In fact, the true focus of Homer’s stories was said to be a sacred wisdom describing the fate of souls and the structure of the universe.
The fifth century philosopher Proclus wrote that for those who were perceptive enough to appreciate it, Homer’s poems taught what he called a ‘secret doctrine’, by which he seemed to mean not some musty theology, but more like a working perspective on life, a way of being in the world, a most practical way of traveling the journey Home. A myth like The Odyssey plays out on several levels.
The travels of Odysseus take place in the realm of the psyche, as if in a dream. And, as in a dream, we play all the parts. We are not only Odysseus, the bedraggled traveler who becomes a hero, but also the brutish Cyclops, shrewd Circe and the rest. With each adventure, the characters of our internal drama jockey for position. But, perhaps more startling, these stories are the stuff of what we call the outer world as well. So often, psychologically minded people look inward for meaning, when staring us right in the face is the Cyclops himself, barely disguised as the overbearing boss or street tough. Odysseus is nothing if not a practical man, a traveler in the real world. From him we learn the nitty – gritty facts of life about the long journey Home.