“Whether in the monumental epics of Homer…or in the charming wonder stories of the folk tradition…the powers have to be consulted again directly, again and again. Our primary task is to learn, not so much what they are said to have said, but to evoke fresh speech from them, and understand that speech” – Heinrich Zimmer
Most tales involve some kind of a rite of passage or initiation from difficulty to maturity, with a growth in awareness and the resolution of a problem. As a result, the old stories can still speak to us today, addressing, as they do, universal, timeless human themes and narratives.
The fabled journey of Odysseus with its mysteries and initiations, is one such story, which offers the fullest possible adventure and exploration of life. Through his journey, our hero is driven out of his familiar world into a wonderland where he is constantly tested and challenged, in the process, winning the fruits of higher knowledge and learning.
“Sing in me, Muse, of the man of many ways” begins the tale. These ‘many ways’ can be understood as many devices, capacities, and facets of his being. Odysseus is the multiple man. He is, what Jean Houston refers to as, the ‘many-potentialed being’, who has seen everything, done everything, understood everything.
Odysseus’ journey is an education, in that it is a ‘calling forth’ of these potentials through challenge, response and growth. An odyssey is a journey, an adventure, a discovery – sounds appealing until you realise that the word ‘Odysseus’, in ancient Greek, means ‘trouble’. Like so many of the great stories the Odyssey begins in a time of crisis, where the protagonist is faced with a problem which he must learn to negotiate, and ultimately resolve.
The story begins:
Many years ago, there was a siege of a city called Troy. Odysseus was a Greek prince and the king of an island on the west coast of Greece, called Ithaca. Upon hearing news of the war, the wise Odysseus realised that the war would be long and destructive and was unwilling to go. He had only recently married a good and beautiful wife and had a young son. To avoid the war, he pretended to be mad. To convince on-lookers he brought his plough down to the sea-shore and ploughed the sand. Someone took his son and placed him in front of the plough to test his seeming insanity; Odysseus stopped the plough. “This man is not really mad”, they said. And so, the reluctant warrior was forced to go off to war. His journey is the story of his efforts to get back home.