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Friday, February 7, 2014

Odyssey and Exodus: the Long Journey Home

Homer’s heroic tale The Odyssey recounts the adventures of the brave and sharp-witted Odysseus as he voyages home from the Trojan War to his native island of Ithaca across ‘the wine-dark sea’. Some of the incidents in the story have become so familiar that you might know of them even if you have not read the narrative.

During his protracted ten years-long journey, Odysseus must face the alluring but deadly song of the sirens, is forced to confront the sorceress Circe who turns his crew into swine, must  [1]outwit the one-eyed rock-hurling giant cyclops [2]Polyphemus, and at one stage even journeys down to the very Underworld. In another episode, the travelling hero and his crew are cast onto an enchanted isle where they must face a powerful sorcerer who demonstrates his powers by turning his magician’s staff into a writhing snake. Or does he?

Well, you might recognise all of the above incidents as being from The Odyssey – except the last. To have encountered this particular ‘sorcerer’ Odysseus would have had to journey to Egypt and another culture. And Homer would have had to have written, not The Odyssey, but the Book of Exodus, in which Moses’ brother [3]Aaron demonstrates the powers of his Deity to the Pharaoh by turning his staff into a serpent. If (as I have just done) we give this scriptural incident a non-scriptural setting, we have no hesitation in recognizing it as a fantasy element in an adventure story. Not for a moment would we seriously consider that it actually happened.

So why is it that we can be entertained by (but do not for a moment seriously believe in) the spell-casting of the bewitching Circe and the sirens and other supernatural and fantasy elements in Homer, while (if we are believers) we uncritically accept the veracity of such supernatural scriptural incidents as the parting of the Red Sea, the [4]burning bush, and even a [5]talking donkey. All these incidents in scripture (and others like them) clearly defy the natural order. They are as fantastic as the crew-devouring sea monster Scylla, whom brave Odysseus also encounters. In short: what makes the scriptural sea monster [6]Leviathan so fundamentally different from the Homeric sea monster Scylla?

The simple answer is of course: context. As soon as something crosses that crucial line into scripture, different rules apply. Faith, not entertainment, is what willingly suspends our disbelief. Faith, for reasons which I’m writing this blog to try and figure out, makes a rational mind accept irrational things. And context is the simple answer, yes. But if we dig a little deeper, the apparent gap between the scriptural and the secular proves not to be as wide as we might have thought. Homer’s first book, The Iliad, covers the events of the Trojan War which, like Odysseus’ voyage home, lasted ten long years, and almost ended in a grinding [7]stalemate.

The first two books of the Bible (and of the Torah) are Genesis and Exodus. The two Homeric books are The Iliad and The Odyssey. The author of the first two is traditionally Moses, although ‘Moses’ turns out to be as elusive an historical figure as Homer himself. Both of these sources originally belonged to a Bronze Age oral tradition, and were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation before finally being committed to writing in the Iron Age – hundreds of years after the events which they relate, which purportedly took place in the Late Bronze Age: historical novels of a sort, if you will.

If we extract suitable tag words from The Iliad we might choose: transgression, forced detention and exile (of Helen of Troy, who is rightfully Helen, queen of Sparta). If we do the same for Genesis we might have: transgression, forced expulsion and exile (of Eve from Eden). Doing the same for The Odyssey we could choose: long voyage home, full of trials. And for Exodus: long journey home, full of trials.

The pattern is clear. But is the pattern more than coincidence? That the ancient Mystery Schools of Greece and Egypt had contact with each other can be established readily enough. Sacred proportions used by both cultures can be found both in the [8]Great Pyramid and in the Parthenon. But did these teachings find their way into scripture? The very [9]name of Moses (who traditionally was an initiate of the Egyptian temple mysteries) is Egyptian, and various of our earliest surviving Biblical texts are in Ancient Greek. The teachings of the Mystery Schools of Pythagoras can even now be found in [10]scripture – and these extant examples are only those which slipped between the fingers of those church fathers who were all too eager to expunge them.

One way in which these Mystery Schools sought to instruct was to use a [11]female character to represent the soul, and to follow that soul’s journey from the innocence of a heavenly ‘home’ through transgression into the incarnation (represented by some sort of exile or incarceration) of a material earthly existence (that is: a human life) to an eventual return (a homecoming) to a heavenly state once that life is over. All of human existence was – and is – bound up in these stories, and even those who did not know of their deeper meanings would still feel the powerful tug of their true intentions. Many hundreds of years later they still do – which is why these timeless stories continue to speak to us.

[1] Although possessing great physical strength, Odysseus tends to use his cunning and sharp wits to win through in these encounters: attributes which clearly appealed to Homer’s audience.

[2] The historian Robin Lane Fox has persuasively suggested that Homer’s cyclops could have been based upon the folk memory of a Mediterranean volcanic eruption. The description of a one-eyed giant (the huge volcanic crater) hurling rocks at shipping (the ejected lava bombs and pumice) certainly seems to fit the job description.

[3] Exodus 7:10. In a secular context this episode would read as a typical duel between two sorcerers to see who commands the most power. 

[4] Please see my post The Burning Bush.

[5] Numbers 22:28. Even for those who read their Bible it sometimes comes as a surprise that it contains a story with a talking donkey. For me the most charming aspect of this story is the way in which, when his own donkey suddenly begins to talk to him, not only is Balaam totally unphased, but he engages the animal in conversation as if it's the most normal thing in the world. The inevitable secular comparison is the talking donkey in the animated film franchise Shrek (right). With the latter, we happily suspend disbelief in the name of entertainment. With the former, we seem equally happy to suspend it in the name of faith.

[6] Job 41:1-34 contains a stirring and detailed description of the monster. Isaiah 27:1 chronicles its destruction by the Lord’s ‘sore and great and strong sword’.

[7] If you read The Iliad expecting to thrill to the episode of the wooden horse, you’ll be disappointed. Contrary to what Hollywood might have led you to believe, the famed wooden horse does not appear in The Iliad, but in the later writings of the Roman poet Virgil, although Homer briefly mentions it in The Odyssey.

[8 and 10] Please see my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish.

[9] Please see my post The Amarna Heresies.

[11] Please see my post Eve’s Story. The story of Sophia (‘Wisdom’) is another example.

Homer: The Iliad, translated by E.V. Rieu. Penguin Classics.
Homer: The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu. Penguin Classics. 
Homer: The Odyssey, translated by T.E. Lawrence. Wordsworth Classics.
Robin Lane Fox: Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer. Allen Lane/Penguin.
Zondervan King James Study Bible.

The Paintings:
David Bergen: The Siren, 21st-century. So often the sirens are portrayed as winsome damsels, although it is not their physical beauty but their song which lures sailors to their deaths. When I read in Homer that the sirens' isle is strewn with the bones and decaying corpses of their victims then I knew that the way to go with my own siren was dark, dangerous and very predatory.

J.M.W. Turner: Odysseus Deriding Polyphemus, 19th-century. This master of light wisely reduces the rock-hurling giant to a half-glimpsed figure wreathed in clouds and mist. The sun’s gold on the water, the billowing sails… the artist might not have snagged it with the historical accuracy of the Greek ships, but when art gets this good who really cares?

J.W. Waterhouse: Circe offering the Cup to Odysseus, 19th-century. The sorceress is here comfortably transformed into the quintessential Victorian femme fatale. Behind her the large circular mirror allows us to glimpse what we cannot see directly: cunning Odysseus who will succeed in turning the powerful sorceress into his ally. 

Gustave Doré: Leviathan, 19th-century. Inset: a 5th-century b.c.e. Greek carving of Scylla. These two writhing sea monsters, the one scriptural, the other Homeric, bring us to the threshold of what it is that divides a Biblical monster from a mythic one. Since both are equally fantastic, it falls to the faith of the individual to untangle any difference – if indeed one exists.

Herbert Draper: Odysseus and the Sirens, 19th-century. The ears of his crew having been stopped with beeswax, Odysseus struggles to free himself from his willing bonds to leap overboard and follow the sirens’ irresistible call. But the ropes hold, and he becomes the only man to have heard the sirens and live, although perhaps always to hear them forever echo in his dreams.

David Roberts: The Israelites leaving Egypt, 19th-century. The beginning of the Exodus and the journey through the wilderness to the land promised by God. Roberts had a thorough grounding in architecture, visiting and painting many of the ruins in Egypt and the Levant, from Karnak to Petra. It shows. This single painting has inspired more than one Biblical film epic.

W-A. Bouguereau: Homer and his Guide, 20th-century. Age accepting the guiding hand of youth. That Homer was blind is a tradition as impossible to establish as his actual appearance. What we do know is that the lyre slung across his back would have been used to accompany the recitations of his epic verse, with the performance seamlessly blending the sacred and the secular.

PLEASE NOTE: I have produced the timeline here with some misgivings: the dating of these events is so contentious that sources can at times wildly disagree. It nevertheless seemed worthwhile to make the attempt, because producing such a graphic is a way of underscoring the centuries-long gaps between the recording of the events and when those events were supposed to have taken place. Archaeology has established the existence of Troy, but the siege of Troy as described by Homer hovers between history and possible fiction. Even with the best of intentions, virtually no evidence for the Exodus exists outside of scripture, and even dating it remains as speculative as the pharaoh whom scripture leaves unnamed, and whose identity otherwise would provide us with a time frame for the event. 

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