An Interpretation — Part I (1)
Sing, Muse, the song of Odysseus, him of the hardy heart, bravest of all the brave who sailed in the hollow ships of the Grecians, Odysseus, erstwhile King of Ithaca, now held by crafty Calypso, she of the braided tresses, in far Ogygia. Gone indeed is the day of his returning! Zeus the cloud-gatherer aids him not; Poseidon the earth-shaker sends ruinous winds upon him and dire engulfings in the wine-dark sea. Only Athena would aid thee — grey-eyed Athena of the bronze-shod spear, daughter of Zeus, the thunderer. See! From the azure seats of the gods, even from Olympus, comes she now glancing down.
The wise teachers of old knew that not only children but grown men and women are always ready to listen to an interesting story. In ancient times, when few people could read, bards and story-tellers would travel about singing or reciting, as they still do in the East. Serious teachings about life and morals were put into the form of vivid and absorbing stories. Enshrined in imperishable forms, great truths were presented by the effective method of suggestion. Allegory was a recognized method of instruction, as it now is in the Orient.
The basis of many such legends was the experience and suffering of man, individually and as a race, in seeking a higher and nobler life, in the quest for enlightenment. The pilgrimage and tribulations of the awakening personality when it seriously commences to seek for purification, or in other words, union with its own higher nature, have been presented in various forms according to the varying conditions of the times, but the underlying principle or motif was always the same. At a certain stage man is no longer satisfied with the ordinary pleasures and ambitions of life; he begins to suspect that a greater life awaits him, and he becomes willing to endure with patience the experiences in store for him which are necessary for his purification, even though they take many lifetimes.
The vulgar Western belief of modern times, that we live but once on earth, has deprived us of a right understanding of many of the greater truths concealed in the ancient allegories. Once comprehended in the light of reincarnation — the mechanism of evolution — human life no longer appears a meaningless frenzy, but something worthy and governed by justice.
The epics of the nations which tell the story of man's aspiration are built upon the trials, temptations, and victories that precede the union of the purified lower personality with the Higher Ego, its over-shadowing Divinity, the Father that lives in "heaven." Remember that "heaven" is said to be within man. The goal of attainment is symbolized in various ways. It may be the vision of the Holy Grail, or the winning of a treasure such as the Golden Apples of the Hesperides or the Golden Fleece; it is sometimes a marriage with a princess after rescuing her from a monster, as in the story of Perseus and Andromeda, or with a goddess. Perhaps a wife has to be regained. In India the subject of the semi-historical Bhagavad-Gita — included in the great epic of the Mahabharata — is Arjuna's battling for his rightful heritage. The Biblical story of the Israelites breaking out of bondage and passing through the Red Sea and then wandering for forty years in the Desert of Sinai on their way to the Promised Land is a very clear allegory.
In Ireland we find the legend of Bran seeking the mystic country of joy and peace; of Art the son of Conn overcoming ordeals in his search for a princess of the Isle of Wonders, and many others. In Wales there are the legends of Pwyll and Manawyddan, and the adventurous journey of King Arthur to the Annwn, the Welsh Hades, to obtain a magic caldron — a type of the Cup of the Holy Grail.
Thanks to Wagner, the Teutonic legends of Siegfried and Brunhilde, of Tannhauser and Parsifal, and the rest are now familiar. Greece has a wealth of myths founded on the drama of the soul; some are quite transparent to interpretation, such as Perseus and Andromeda, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Jason and the Golden Fleece; but as a secular and popular story, nothing has appeared of more enduring fame than the Wanderings of Odysseus as told in the Odyssey of Homer.
Odysseus is representative of the awakened mind of man seeking, after long years of battling with worldly things — represented by the Trojans — to find, or more accurately, to regain, the spiritual wisdom deep-buried within his soul, and symbolized by his faithful wife, Penelope. This spiritual Intuition stands in the dim background of the whole poem as a permeating influence, calm, and waiting patiently for him to find her. While Odysseus, as the active mentality, is fighting against obstacles and pushing onward in rapid movement, Penelope sits at home and weaves her patterns, creating and preserving. Odysseus is not only separated from his wife but is an exile from his hearth and country; not only has he to keep constantly in action but he has to find for himself the true Path which leads homeward, a very significant point.
In tracing the plain Theosophical interpretation of the Odyssey, we need not follow the order of the poem as arranged by Homer or by whomever compiled the Homeric legends, but will take the simple narrative of the wanderings of Odysseus in their natural sequence of events. This paper is not an analysis of the poem from a literary standpoint in any way, nor shall we consider the archaeological problems aroused by sundry references to customs and the construction of buildings found in the text, interesting as these may be, particularly in view of the modern discoveries of early Mediterranean civilizations.
After leaving the battlefields of Troy, Odysseus embarks for his native isle, "Ithaca the Fair," expecting to arrive there quickly, but a tempest drives the fleet out of its course, and a great fight impedes his progress at the very outset. Many students know how true this is. The destruction of all his ships but one, and of many of the sailors, follows quickly. One of the most curious stories of this introductory part is that of Polyphemus, the Cyclopean giant with a single eye in the midst of his forehead. Madame Blavatsky, in her great work, The Secret Doctrine, gives considerable attention to the partly-hidden meaning of this grotesque incident. She reveals the clue by showing that it is based upon historical facts, however little they may be known in modern times. Urged by curiosity, Odysseus ventures too near the giant, and with his companions, falls into his hands. In order to escape, they destroy the single eye of Polyphemus and deceive him by the stratagem of the flocks of rams, a well known esoteric symbol. The legend is based upon the disappearance from use of the "third Eye" (the existing vestige of which is commonly known as the pineal gland in the brain) at a very early period in human evolution. H. P. Blavatsky says that Odysseus'
adventure with the latter [the pastoral Cyclopes] — a savage gigantic race, the antithesis of cultured civilization in the Odyssey — is an allegorical record of the gradual passage from the Cyclopean civilization of stone and colossal buildings to the more sensual and physical culture of the Atlanteans, which finally caused the last of the Third Race to lose their all-penetrating spiritual eye. — The Secret Doctrine, II, p. 769. See also I sis Unveiled, II, p. 423.
The story of the tribe of one-eyed Cyclops, which preserves the memory of the transformation in the human frame far more than a million years ago, is found in many countries in different forms. In China, the legends speak of men who had two faces and could see behind them; in Ireland the hero who blinds the Cyclops-eyed giant is called Finn. There is one living animal possessing the third eye in recognizable form today — the New Zealand lizard Hatteria punctata, a relic of long-vanished conditions on earth.
After their escape and some further perilous adventures, Odysseus and his companions soon reach the island of the enchantress Circe, which very clearly represents the fascination of sensual delights. Odysseus is unaffected by the gross temptations which overwhelm his companions, who are turned into swine by the goddess. He retains his human form and is helped by the Olympian god Hermes to frustrate the designs of Circe. Odysseus' boldness and "confidence in heaven" finally conquer the enchantress and compel her to serve him. She becomes transformed into a friend and counsellor. She restores the men to human form and instructs Odysseus how to find the way to the Underworld. This episode reminds us of and illustrates the saying of Katherine Tingley "that after a certain stage of spiritual unfoldment, the action of Karma changes from penalty to tuition," and also of a striking passage in a well-known Theosophical book, Through the Gates of Gold:
Once force the animal into his rightful place, that of an inferior, and you find yourself in possession of a great force hitherto unsuspected and unknown. The god as a servant adds a thousand-fold to the pleasures of the animal; the animal as a servant adds a thousand-fold to the powers of the god. . . . The animal in man, elevated, is a thing unimaginable in its great powers of service and strength. . . . But this power can only be attained by giving the god the sovereignty. Make your animal ruler over yourself, and he will never rule others.
Now comes the ordeal of Terror, an emotion not familiar to Odysseus. Circe has warned him that, before he goes farther, he must gain some necessary information about the future from Tiresias, the ancient prophet who lives with the Shades in Hades, though he himself is not dead. The approach to this great seer and the initiation itself are surrounded by fearful dangers; safely to defy the multitudes of the vengeful shades of the dead calls forth the highest physical and moral courage of Odysseus. Like all the heroes of the epics of the Soul, he has to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death in a very real sense; to meet and face and remain unappalled by the Shades, the lingering remains of past sins and errors; then to learn what is necessary for his further progress; and finally to return unharmed, though tried to the uttermost. This Descent into Hell, or the Underworld, or the "Open Tomb" has more than one meaning, and it is always introduced in some form in the myths of initiation. For instance, in the legend of Perseus and Andromeda, the hero, aided by the gods, must fly to the hideous regions of cold and darkness and destroy the death-dealing monster Medusa and take her head, before he can rescue the princess of Ethiopia.
Not only Christ is said to have descended into the Underworld and "ministered to the spirits in prison" but Orpheus, Aeneas and many other Great Ones, and we are told that in the ceremonies conducted in the profound recesses of the Great Pyramid of Egypt the candidates had to descend into the subterranean chamber or symbolic Underworld, for trial, reascending the third day strengthened and illuminated. The descent into the shadows is an indispensable part of every complete story of the pilgrimage of the soul, for it represents a necessary experience. "No cross, no crown." It is not mere physical death and resurrection or rebirth into a new body; that is but a natural incident, frequently recurring, in the far-stretching career of the soul, the close of a day in its life-story. When the true resurrection has been fully accomplished there will be little necessity of reincarnation on earth, except by the deliberate choice of great souls who descend for the purpose of helping humanity.
The tone of the poem changes at this point; the lightness and gaiety with which Odysseus has related his adventures is replaced by a deep solemnity, and the horrid scenes in Hades are described with intense vividness, and many curious touches of realism, as in the account of the blood-evocation — a necromantic ceremony the contemporaries of Homer would firmly believe in. In his description of the Underworld, Homer shows a real knowledge of certain conditions of the post mortem life, a knowledge more common then than now. He unveils only a partial glimpse of the lower states or planes, and, of course, he allegorizes everything for the popular understanding, but he gives a very striking picture of the weird and desolate sphere of restless phantoms, most of them merely "eidolons," i.e., soulless images or dregs of what once were men whose real higher nature or spirit has passed onward. Leaving the impure remains to fade out, often painfully, in the lower astral planes, Odysseus gets a passing view of "stern Minos," the Judge of the Dead, the personification of the Law of Karma or Justice, rewarding the righteous and dooming the guilty, and he is privileged to gain a momentary glance into the heavenly world of Elysium or Devachan in which live in blessedness during the periods of rest between incarnations on earth, the higher immortal spirits of those whose fading shadows wander in Hades below. H. P. Blavastky says:
. . . the Hades of the ancients [is] . . . a locality only in a relative sense. . . . Still it exists, and it is there that the astral eidolons of all the beings that have lived . . . await their second death. — The Key to Theosophy, p. 143
Plato and Plutarch give more complete accounts of the Greek teachings on this mysterious subject; examined in the light of Theosophy they are seen to be practically identical with the Egyptian, Indian, and other ancient teachings on these states of existence. It is very significant that wherever we go among so-called "primitive peoples" we find they are aware of the danger of intercourse with the lower and irresponsible remains of the dead, and though devoted to them in life will go to great pains to avoid the soulless relics of their parted friends.
Odysseus does not ask the shuddering phantoms to help him; he appeals to the prophet Tiresias, who, though shadowy himself, is fully human:
. . . the Theban bard, deprived of sight;
Within, irradiate with prophetic light;
To whom Persephone, entire and whole,
Gave to retain the unseparated soul;
The rest are forms, of empty ether made;
Impassive semblance, and a flitting shade.
Tiresias sees what possibilities the future has for Odysseus, outlines his trials, and warns him against the rashness of his followers. Odysseus replies to the prophet:
. . . If this the gods prepare,
What Heaven ordains the wise with courage bear.
Returning to Circe, who outlines in greater detail the dangers of his coming journey, and gives him good counsel, he once more collects his men and starts. Then comes the perilous passage of the Straits between Scylla and Charybdis, and the subtle temptation of the Sirens. The Sirens, whose outward appearance is exquisitely fair, offer the hero the satisfaction of the pride of knowledge. They tell him they know "Whate'er beneath the sun's bright journey lies," and they sing with all the charm of celestial music:
O stay, O pride of Greece! Ulysses stay!
O cease thy course, and listen to our lay!
Blest is the man ordain'd our voice to hear,
The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear.
Approach! thy soul shall into raptures rise!
Approach! and learn new wisdom from the wise.
(To be concluded)
1. From The Theosophical Path, October, 1917. Revised and amended by the author. (return to text)