The Theosophical Forum – May 1948


An Interpretation — Part II (1)

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; . . .
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
           — From Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson

Having passed through the initiation in the Underworld and having learned unspeakable things therein, Odysseus is in danger of being overcome by pride and rash self-confidence and may yield to the fascination of the temptation. The satisfaction of intellectual desires alone threatens to lead him from the direct path into destruction, for the Sirens are maneaters. Knowing well the overwhelming power of this temptation, and that before he can be safe he must be willing "to appear as nothing in the eyes of men" (2) the hero takes every precaution. He has himself firmly bound to the mast so that he cannot fling himself out of the vessel, and he stops the ears of his crew with wax so that they cannot hear the Siren voices while they work the ship. Exposed to the full force of the temptation Odysseus struggles to be free, but he gets through in safety. The sailors, whose ears are deaf to the allurements of the intellectual seductions, seem to represent the remaining traces of the gross elements in man's nature, particularly in view of the next incident of importance, when they kill and devour Apollo's sacred oxen to satisfy their gluttony. This so greatly arouses the wrath of the god that he sends a great tempest and destroys the last of Odysseus' followers. The hero is now left alone with nothing but his own strength and the favor of Pallas Athene, his Guide, to bring him safely through. But he is not yet completely free from the chains of personality and in his desperation and loneliness he meets with a temptation that nearly proves his undoing, i.e., the dalliance with the lovely nymph Calypso in her enchanted Atlantean island upon which he is cast by the waves. Seven long years he lingers with Calypso, unmindful for the most part of his purpose, and dazzled with the glories of her magic realm. Now and again something faintly stirs within him calling him to be up and doing. The poet says he has never been quite able

To banish from his breast his country's love.

Calypso even offers him

Immortal life, exempt from age or woe.

But with the help of Athene, the personification of Divine Wisdom, he has enough strength to resist this supreme test. This is one of the passages in the Odyssey, that show the profound wisdom of the poet and the high quality of his teaching, for here he shows the great difference between the real immortality gained when the lower elements of the personality are dissolved and ultimate union with the Higher Self is made, and an artificial prolongation of the unpurified life of the ordinary personality with its selfish cravings and desires. Odysseus recognizes that to drink the elixir of life in any form before he is truly purified would be a fearful error. A great deal might be said upon the philosophy of this, for it goes very deeply into the roots of our being, but it would carry us too far for our present purpose. We are irresistibly reminded of the words of Christ:

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
       — Luke ix, 23, 24

Paul, the "wise masterbuilder," in common with all the great teachers of antiquity, refers to the same principle when he speaks of being changed "in the twinkling of an eye," a very cryptic saying suggesting the springing into activity of the inner "eye" or power of intuition which sees the difference between the higher life and the delusions of sensual gratification. To Odysseus, after his luxurious existence in Calypso's magic island and the promise of eternal youth, the return to ordinary life and duty offers a great contrast and many trials, but at the bottom of his heart he languishes "to return and die at home." When he makes his decision the irresistible power of the Olympian deities is exerted in his favor: Calypso abandons her enchantments and, like Circe, is transformed, from the tempter she at first appears to be, to helper.

Calypso's Isle is said by Homer to be far away, over

Such length of Ocean and unmeasured deep;
A world of waters! far from all the ways
Where men frequent, or sacred altars blaze.

Calypso was the daughter of Atlas, and the island was called "Ogygia the Atlantic Isle." H. P. Blavatsky points out, in The Secret Doctrine, that the poet, in certain passages, distinctly refers to the lost continent of Atlantis, mentioned later by Plato, and to certain historical events that took place upon that former seat of a powerful civilization.

Odysseus builds a new vessel with his own hands and sets forth joyfully, feeling sure he will soon reach his goal. But, although he has received the powerful aid of Athene and other Olympian gods, the opposition of Poseidon, who has been his enemy from nearly the beginning, is not withdrawn, and he still has many perils and trials. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was the father of Polyphemus, whose "third eye" was destroyed by Odysseus. This is significant, for the sea often stands in symbolism for the great Illusion, the ever-shifting unstable elements in life. Odysseus is no exception to the rule that all who start on the great adventure for self-knowledge and the higher life must fight continually against the false ideals and illusions of their surroundings; they are swimming against the stream of the ordinary worldly consciousness. The hero in Homer's epic is just strong enough — with the divine aid — to save his life, and though wrecked and left without an atom of personal possessions, he reaches the friendly coast of the wise king Alcinous who helps him to reach his native land, Ithaca.

Odysseus had rashly and without orders trespassed on the territory of the Cyclops. It was therefore his own act that aroused Poseidon's wrath, and became the fundamental cause of his misfortunes. Pallas Athene and the other gods could not avert the consequences, and the great Zeus himself had to put forth his power to restore his fortunes after long years of suffering and sorrow.

Upon his arrival home he discovers the terrible straits to which his wife and son have been reduced by the outrageous conduct of her admirers, and he soon perceives that his greatest battle is yet to come. Though the odds are apparently against him, he knows that he cannot fail, for his cause is just and has the help of the gods.

At this point we have another opportunity to admire the profound insight of the poet, and to realize that he must have been a true initiate into the mysteries of human life. Penelope, the noble wife of Odysseus, who stands for the climax of his endeavor, his goal, his higher self, does not immediately throw herself into his arms in welcome. Ragged, worn, and disguised as an old man, he is not recognized by her, though his old nurse and his faithful dog know him quickly. Is this because they are less sophisticated? Even when Athene restores him to his prime of life and to greater dignity and beauty than before, he has to prove his identity to Penelope without possibility of doubt before she can accept him as her long lost husband. This hesitation on her part is not, as some have thought, a blemish on the story; it could not be otherwise and remain true to the meaning Homer wished to convey, if our hypothesis of the general import of the poem be true. It is the law that the aspirant for recognition by the higher self should make a clear demand; he must give the complete password before he can be admitted to the inner chamber. A mystic writing on this subject warns us:

Look for the warrior and let him fight in thee. . . . Look for him, else in the fever and hurry of the fight thou mayest pass him; and he will not know thee unless thou knowest him. If thy cry reach his listening ear then will he fight in thee and fill the dull void within. . . . — Light on the Path

and a greater Teacher said:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

Odysseus" final opportunity to prove his quality comes when he finds his palace invaded and his wife surrounded by a mob of suitors all trying to persuade her that he is surely dead and that she should choose a second husband among them. They are utterly repugnant to the hero; they have no power over him; but he must destroy them before he can regain his rightful place. They represent the last lingering traces of the lower desires, even "the very knowledge of desire" mentioned by H. P. Blavatsky in The Voice of the Silence, which must be slain forever, even though its force has passed away.

The suitors have already received a warning from Zeus in the form of two eagles fighting in the sky. This is, of course, a direct reference to the stirring up of the lower nature when the awakening of the higher aspirations compels it to realize that the time has come for the last desperate battle in which no quarter is asked or given. The scene of the struggle which shall decide is in the very home of Odysseus itself. This seems strange, yet how could it be otherwise! It is from the heart that come the issues of life. The higher powers, symbolized by Athene in the background, give encouragement, and at last the battle is won and the evil forces annihilated. The master of the house, calm, purified, and restored to more than his former beauty, attired in his royal robes, proves his identity to Penelope and is joyously recognized by her.

From a practical point of view, the method adopted by Odysseus in attacking the suitors may seem singular, but there is good warrant for it in the mystical symbolism familiar to Homer. Although the struggle takes place in the confined space of the palace hall, at very close quarters, the hero depends upon his mighty Bow for success — the Bow that none other can wield — instead of trusting to his sword or spear, which only come into action later. In making the Bow so prominent Homer shows his knowledge of a profoundly significant symbol in ancient psychology. The bow is the weapon of Apollo, the god of light, and the day of Odysseus" victory is sacred to that deity. In Indian philosophy the bow, or in some cases the arrow, stands for man himself who must be strong enough in texture to stand the strain or the spiritual archery will fail. The bow, not the sword, is the principal weapon of Arjuna, Prince of India, the hero of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Indian allegorical poem, famous as the vehicle of a profound philosophical teaching. In other Oriental scriptures the bow is a frequent symbol. One of the Upanishads says:

Having taken the bow, the great weapon, let him place on it the arrow, sharpened by devotion. Then, having drawn it with a thought directed to that which is, hit the mark, O friend — the Indestructible. Om is the bow, the Self is the arrow, Brahman is called its aim. It is to be hit by a man who is not thoughtless; and then as the arrow becomes one with the target, he will become one with Brahman. . . . Hail to you that you may cross beyond the sea of darkness.

William Q. Judge wrote a very striking article, "Hit the Mark," in The Path, Sept., 1890. He gives the practice and theory of archery as an illustration of concentration, poise, firmness, high aims, and other valuable qualities. In this article he says:

The bow figures in the lives of the Greek heroes, and just now the novelist Louis Stevenson is publishing a book in which he sings the praises of a bow, the bow of war possessed by Ulysses; when war was at hand it sang its own peculiar, shrill, clear song, and the arrows shot from it hit the mark.

Archery is a practice that symbolizes concentration. There is the archer, the arrow, the bow, and the target to be hit. To reach the mark it is necessary to concentrate the mind, the eye, and the body upon many points at once, while at the same time the string must be let go without disturbing the aim. The draw of the string with the arrow must be even and steady on the line of sight, and when grasp, draw, aim, and line are perfected, the arrow must be loosed smoothly at the moment of full draw, so that by the bow's recoil it may be carried straight to the mark. So those who truly seek wisdom are archers trying to hit the mark. This is spiritual archery. . . .

The Odyssey closes with the hero, now triumphant as the rightful king and leader, going forth and subduing the few remaining rebels, after which, the poet says, the "willing nations knew their lawful lord." His future peaceful and wise reign is left to the imagination, but it is secure, for he cannot fail after the final conquest of the enemies who found lodgement in his own house.

In an editorial in Lucifer, Sept., 1891, we find these eloquent words which fittingly close our very brief study of the esoteric side of the Odyssey: —

There is a road, steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind, but yet a road, and it leads to the heart of the Universe. . . . There is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer; there is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through; there is no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling — the power to bless and save humanity; for those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.


1. From THE THEOSOPHICAL PATH, October, 1917, Revised and amended by the author. (return to text)

2. Light on the Path. (return to text)

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