What is your Odyssey? Introduction

Homer’s Odyssey is the great story of homecoming.

Since ancient times, The Odyssey has been known as the journey that each of us – having been out and about, struggling one way or another, pretending to be this and that – must take to return home, to who we really are and what we are supposed to become.

On his long odyssey, Odysseus gets sidetracked, distracted, waylaid.  Some truths he learns easily and others he resists.  He meets magical and powerful beings who can help the journey along or cause disaster. Some see who he is in his heart and help him, and bring him insight and attainment. Others – aggravating and difficult strangers – try to do him in.

In all of this Odysseus is not so different than the rest of us.

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, at 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 petulant gods and godesses 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.

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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.

The Iliad and The Odyssey  

The story before our story is the bloody Trojan War, a 10 year struggle over the most beautiful woman in the world, named Helen. She was married to King Menelaus of Sparta. But Paris, Prince of Troy (Ilium in the Greek), spirited her away (with her consent or not, we can only wonder, since versions differ).

Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek kings to fight the Trojan War for the return of his queen. The Iliad recounts the events in the last year of that 10 year war – it was 1184 BCE – when the Greeks finally win and Helen returns with the triumphant Menelaus to Sparta.

The Iliad’s warriors venture out to do battle; they win conquests and recover from defeats. they build their egos and test their powers. They are generally not shy about demanding their way or asserting their will.

The Iliad is about devising stratey and taking action, about fighting for what you want against others who want it too; it is the story of how to (or how not to) make your place in the world.

Odysseus is the shrewdest of the Greek generals. He thought up one of the most famous and devious military stratagems of all time: to concoct a colossal, hollow wooden horse, secretly station battle-ready Greek soldiers inside, and present it as a gift to the citizens of Troy. The Trojans received the impressive gift horse into their city and, when the hidden Greek warriors snuck out at night, the stunned Trojans were caught unawares and were bushwhacked; The Greeks won the final victory.  (These days, an apparently benign computer program which contains secret directives to wreak  havoc is called a Trojan Horse).

Now the war over, Ody to the Greek island of Ithaca, just across the Aegean Sea from Troy (on the modern Turkish coast); it is a distance of 565 nautical miles, no more than a fortnights’s sail. Alas, the trips takes Odysseus 10 years. The amount of this famous, problematical sea voyage is told in The Odyssey, ‘the hero’s journey of Odysseus’.