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The Resourceful, Great Hearted Hero

It must seem a bit strange. That after an entire blog post on a certain subject matter I never gave an exact definition of the primary term. Perhaps I did in so many ways. Because if we just peruse quickly the definition of nostalgia we end up with several different results. 

Google’s Dictionary: 

“a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”

Merriam Webster Dictionary:

1 – “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”

2 – “the state of being homesick”

Cambridge Dictionary:

“a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past”

Britannica:

“pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again”

It seems that I was able to at least capture the essence of nostalgia, but it is very interesting how definitions, even of the exact same word, can vary. And yet, for some reason, the origin of the word nostalgia doesn’t seem to deviate nearly as much. It is, yes, you guessed it… Greek. 

When broken down we have: 

“Nostos” which means – return home

“Algos” which means – pain

The Resourceful, Great Hearted Hero

For the ancient Greeks, ironically, but especially during the supposed “Golden Age,” no one elucidated nostalgia quite like Homer. I think of “The Mandolorian” and their mantra of “this is the way.” When reading and engaging with Homer’s  “The Odyssey,” there is a sense that to not think in accordance with this would put one in direct conflict with the zeitgeist of Greek culture as a whole. This, once again, makes Plato quite bold in his desire to challenge the status quo. To say, “Who was this Homer guy anyway?” 

As we’ve previously stated, Homer may not have even existed. But the characters within his epic poems are no less than God-like in the etchings that their memories have left within Greek culture as well as every subsequent culture that has engaged with them along the way, up until our current moment in time. The power. Not only within the lamentation as we previously discussed, but within their impact culturally. In shaping, molding, and forming it. 

Yet, it’s poetry. It’s not prose. It’s not philosophy. Or is it? Why can’t philosophy be both? Why can’t literature be both?

Regardless, what we are currently seeking at this juncture, within the arch of this Greek story, is a way, a means over or through or beyond tragedy. And what Homer and his characters offer is a very special way in which to achieve this goal. A way in which to literally and figuratively avert the succession of tragic lightning strikes that Zeus (or perhaps life in general) may throw at you. In particular, we will be focusing on the hero within “The Odyssey,” Odysseus. 

Odysseus portrays the ideal Greek man. His character radiates power and control. He is muscular and handsome. So much so that even the Gods admire his physical features. He also has the ideal woman in the beautiful and circumspect Penelope, the ultimate son in the brave and shining Telemachos, and the finest home in his well-kept vast estate on the Greek island of ‘Rocky’ Ithaka. Finally, he was a quintessential war hero in helping the Achians win the battle against Troy. Yet, in spite of all this, Odysseus is chiefly defined throughout “The Odyssey” by his great suffering and enduring heart as well as his resourceful capabilities in terms of achieving his goals. But what could his goals possibly have been, given that he had so much naturally endowed upon him? 

The Pendulum of Fortune 

After winning the war against Troy, Odysseus and his men set sail for home, but along the way their good fortune shifted into that of misfortune. This first appears when Odysseus and his men choose to stop at the town of Ismaros on their way home and sack it, killing their people (Karaikians) as well as taking their women and possessions. Their reasoning for why to sack this particular town is far from strategic. Instead it seems more like a convenience as it was on the way and, perhaps, they needed to replenish their supplies. 

This particular encounter is never mentioned again within the book, yet it seems to play a pivotal role in Homer’s possible reasoning for why their fortunes had swung. In particular, this seems to allude to the question of fate vs. free will (one of the paramount philosophical questions that we will be exploring ad infinitum). Wherein Odysseus and his men made the decision to sack this particular town, even though there was nothing specifically urging them to do so at this particular time, not even the Gods. Essentially, they could have sailed on, but chose not to. However, they did pay a price in terms of losing several dear companions in their battle with the Karaikians which leads to Odysseus, instead of analyzing the actions of himself and his men, reverting to the blame of Father Zeus for this evil misfortune. 

Yet, within this particular point in the story we find that Odysseus is alone, without his men, and has made his way from the island of the goddess Kalypso to the palace of a supposed great King (Alkinoos) of a supposed great people (the Phaiakians). But how did Odysseus get all the way here? What happened to his men? Why is he alone? These are the questions that both we, as the readers, and the great King Alkinoos want Odysseus to answer. 

Descension from an Ideal Cultural Backdrop

Within the palace of Alkinoos, Odysseus is welcomed warmly with a feast (of course, hahaha) that depicts the pinnacles of ideal ancient Greek culture, beauty and competition. A backdrop of poetic music being sung about the ancient Gods accompanied by the lyre and dancing, and a series of competitive games much like the olympics are at the forefront. Games including sprinting, wrestling, jumping, discus throwing, and boxing. Alkinnos’ son tries to persuade Odysseus to partake in these games and show his skills, for he believes and perhaps Homer as well as the general cultural zeitgeist of ancient Greece believes, that there is, “no greater glory that can befall a man living than what he achieves with the speed of his feet or strength of his hands.” Profound and completely indicative of the male, warrior oriented culture of ancient Greece. 

Nevertheless, Odysseus will not partake, for he is on an intense mission with very specific goals. Driven by a deep desire, an impassioned hunger to reach his home and reunite with his wife, son, and people. Given this, Odysseus is resourceful in his responses and tries to evade the persuasive tactics to get him to partake in the games. It is only anger that provokes Odysseus to action as he is eventually accused of essentially being unworthy wherein he states that these specific words spoken to him bit him in the heart. Hence, in his anger he decides to throw the discus and excels all of the other men’s throws in distance. 

Returning home… This is half of the meaning of nostalgia in itself. Now we just need the element of pain. Unfortunately for Odysseus, he gets this in spades. 

Then, the gray-eyed Goddess Athene, changing her forms as she often does, so as to appear like the common people and effectively watch over and protect Odysseus, states while in the form of a man amongst the Phaikian people, “Even a blind man, friend, would be able to distinguish your mark by feeling for it, since it is not mingled with the common lot, but far before. Have no fear over this contest. No one of the Phaikians will come up to this mark or pass it.” This manifests a great confidence within Odysseus to go on to challenge the Phaikian men in the other games wherein all of them decline and Alkinoos becomes all the more intrigued with his guest, Odysseus, and asks him to tell him the tales of his suffering. 

The Cruel Subtlety of Addiction & Illusion

Odysseus proceeds then to tell the tales of his mournful sufferings, the many trials and tribulations he faced to get from his illustrious victory at Troy all the way to the current moment wherein his heart bleeds with grieving pain as he is speaking with Alkinoos. How after his luck turned with Zeus and his battle with the Kikonians, it spiraled into an even worse state wherein ‘the shaker of the Earth’ Poseidon, God of the Seas, joined Zeus in harboring evil luck against Odysseus and his men. Yet, once again, Homer does allude to a series of key decisions that are made. Difficult decisions that seem almost as if there really was no choice. 

Specifically, after his battle with the Kikonians, Odysseus and his men try once again to leave for their home of Ithaka via their ship. Yet, Zeus and Poseidon change their course by conjuring up great storms on the sea and they are forced into the land of the lotus eaters. For Odysseus and his men it seems like a decent enough place as the lotus eaters never threatened them physically. 

However, in their search for water, food, and men that were ‘eaters of bread,’ Odysseus finds that several of his men had tasted the lotus plant. And in doing so, found themselves completely overtaken by an insatiable and all consuming desire to continue eating the lotus plant. Eventually Odysseus had to forcefully remove these men from the land, bring them back to the ship, and tie them to their rowing benches for fear that they would try to return to the lotus eaters. 

The Brutality of the Archetypal Cave Allegory

Once Odysseus successfully regathered all his men, they then set sail for home once again, and came upon an island. One in which a giant resided. But not just any giant, a ‘lawless and outrageous Cyclopes’ named Polyphemos. Odysseus and his men try to engage with the giant so as to ask him for presents so they can get back on course for home. But in doing so, they are trapped by the giant in his cave where he proceeds to ask them invasive questions to gauge their value and threat level. 

I’m reminded here of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in terms of gauging what is real, or the reality of the world inside the cave versus outside of it. What, if anything, truly lies beyond the cave? How could one ever really know except to strip away their preconceptions and customs and laws.  

The giant begins by asking if they are there on business or if they are pirates bringing evil with them. Odysseus goes on to tell him that they are Achians coming from Troy. That they are destined at the behest of Zeus and are affiliated with the magnanimous Agamemnon (ancient Greek leader of the Achaeans or Achians, one of the ancestors of the ancient Athenians). Given this, Odysseus proceeds to ask for gifts as stranger suppliants and states that the way of the Gods is to avenge any wrongdoing done toward strangers or suppliants. 

But the giant does not fear the wrath of the Gods. Instead he responds with another invasive question about their well-made ship and its whereabouts. Odysseus senses danger and immediately engages the giant with his trademark resourcefulness, stating that Poseidon wrecked their ship, and that they were fortunate to not be killed and swim to his island, wherein they were the only survivors. Immediately thereafter, the giant responds with the extremest of physical brutalities. 

“So I spoke, but he in pitiless spirit answered nothing, but sprang up and reached for my companions, caught up two together and slapped them, like killing puppies, against the ground, and the brains ran all over the floor, soaking on the ground. Then he cut them up limb by limb and got supper ready, and like a lion reared in the hills, without leaving anything, ate them, entrails, flesh, and the marrowy bones alike. We cried out loud and held our hands up to Zeus, seeing the cruelty of what he did, but our hearts were helpless.”

From here, the cyclopes fell asleep and Odysseus and his men tried to strategize a plan to avenge their fallen companions. But, in spite of all their plans, the cyclopes still managed to do the same thing the next two nights, eating two more of Odysseus’ men each night. It isn’t until this third night that Odysseus and his men finally escape the cave, barely, by getting the giant drunk with wine and then stabbing him in the eye with a red hot stick, and finally riding out of the cave on top of Polyphemos’ own sheep and rams so he could not detect them as he was blocking the exit out of the cave. 

After they exit the cave Odysseus, overcome with grief and anger in his heart, taunts Polyphemos until they reach their ship. This enables Polyphemos to hear them and he uses this to try to throw boulders at them as they continue on their escape. Finally, once Odysseus and his men finally reach their ship and are ready to set sail, Polyphemos shouts so that Odysseus and all his men can hear. 

“Ah now, a prophecy spoken of old has come to completion. There used to be a man here, great and strong, and a prophet, Telemos, Eurymos’ son, who for prophecy was pre-eminent and grew old as a prophet among the Cyclopes. This man told me how all this that has happened now must someday be accomplished, and how I must lose the sight of my eye at the hands of Odysseus. But always I was on the lookout for a man handsome and tall, with great endowment of strength on him, to come here; but now the end of it is a little man, niddering, feeble, has taken away the sight of my eye, first making me helpless with wine. So come here, Odysseus, let me give you a guest gift and urge the glorious Shaker of the Earth to grant you conveyance home. For I am his son, he announces himself as my father.” 

Evil Transformations, Drugs and Devious Enchantments

Hence, even after all of these tragic events, the hearts of Odysseus and his men would have to endure even more. With the epic tides of tragedy in full force against them, they would lose all of their ships and men, except for Odysseus’s ship and the men aboard it. The next major tragedy would come when they finally landed on the island of Aiaia where Circe, the dread goddess, lived. Around her were lions and wolves that she had enchanted and acted not as wild animals, but almost as her loyal pets, awaiting her orders. 

This would be a macabre foreshadowing of the events to follow with Odysseus and his men as they would be lured into her place via the sweet sounds of Circe’s singing voice. From here, Circe would proceed to feed them and put malignant drugs in their wine. After drinking this, Circe took out her wand and struck them, turning the men into man-pigs. Essentially having the physical characteristics of pigs, but maintaining their same human mind. Only one of his men, Eurylochos, did not enter and returned to Odysseus to tell him of this horrifying act. 

Upon hearing the story, Odysseus immediately gets his battle gear ready to go out alone and save his men as Eurylochos is paralyzed with fear. On his way, he encounters another God, Hermes who had shifted into the form of a young man with a new beard (which for Homer is the most graceful time of young manhood). Hermes was gifted in medicine and wanted to help save Odysseus and his men. He then digs up a black plant with a milky flower and tells Odysseus that this is ‘good medicine,’ what the gods call “moly,” and that he should take it before his encounter with Circe so as to evade her evil enchantments. 

Then Hermes tells Odysseus to go feral and rage against the goddess as if you were going to kill her immediately after she realizes that her spell has failed. Upon doing this, she will be afraid and want to go to bed with you, wherein you must not refuse as she will then help your companions and also care for you. Lastly, Hermes tells Odysseus that he must get her to swear the great oath of the gods, that she has, “no other evil hurt that she is devising against you,” which will also then prevent her from making you weak and unmanned once you’re naked.

Odysseus executes Hermes’ plan flawlessly. Once Circe reversed her spell and the men were reunited, “the lovely longing for lamentation came over them, and the house echoed terribly to the sound, and even the goddess took pity.” Circe proceeds to “persuade their proud hearts” from continuing to lament by giving the men an abundant feast and bathing each one of the men, anointing them with olive oil, and giving them fresh clothes to wear (tunics and fleece mantles).Then she tells them she is aware of the depths of their suffering and that they should stay with her at her house for a while so that they may regain the strong spirit they once had, before they initially left Ithaka to fight their great battle in Troy. For one whole year, Odysseus and his men would remain with Circe in her house. 

Spiraling Down the Rabbit Hole of Hades

After one year of regaining their spirits in the house of Circe, Odysseus asks Circe if they can finally leave to go home. Circe agrees, but says that before they can return home they must first complete one more quest. They must go to the depths of Hades and speak with the soul of Teiresias the Theban, a blind prophet that still has the gift of foresight. This rips the heart out of Odysseus as he doesn’t seem to believe that he can withstand the possibility of any more sorrow and suffering. And, given this is a trip to Hades which no other human has successfully endeavored, Odysseus asks Circe how it’s even possible to navigate his black ship to Hades. 

Circe calls him a “hero” and tells him that there is a way. Specifically, to let the North Wind carry his ship to an island past the stream of the Ocean where black poplars and fruit perishing willows grow. From here she directs Odysseus to find a particular point on the island and, “dig a pit of about a cubit in each direction, and pour it full of drink offerings for all the dead, first honey mixed with milk, then a second pouring of sweet wine, and the third water, and over all then sprinkle white barley.” From here Odysseus must offer treasures and make several different animal sacrifices to appease the spirits from Hades.

The first soul Odysseus encounters is that of his recently fallen companion Elpenor. And by fallen, I mean literally fallen, as he was drunk and died by falling off the roof of Circe’s house. Sucks, poor dude, hahaha:). He asks Odysseus to honor him by burying his dead body in a particular way and Odysseus agrees. Secondly, Odysseus sees his dead Mother. But couldn’t yet speak with her despite his “thronging sorrow” when seeing her. Instead he tries to stay focused on the task at hand. 

Prophecy of Teiresias the Theban 

Next he sees the soul of Teiresias the Theban who proceeds to speak to him, “resourceful Odysseus, how is it then, unhappy man, you have left the sunlight and come here to look on dead men, and this place without pleasure?” 

Teiresias then tells Odysseus that there remains a possibility of him successfully returning home in spite of Poseidon’s intense hatred for him for blinding his son Polyphemos. However it will require containing the desire of he and his men to eat the God Helios’ cattle once they have arrived at their next destination, the island of Thrinakia. If they can, it will prevent the destruction of their ship and more suffering, but if they cannot moderate their desires, surely death and destruction will follow. 

And that when he gets home he will find insolent men courting his godlike wife Penelope and eating away his livelihood that he must then punish them via the sharp bronze (he must kill them). Then he must make a ceremonious animal sacrifice to Poseidon so as to appease his anger. Only then, when all of this has been completed will Odysseus achieve his goal of a successful homecoming, for Teiresias proclaims his words to be “the truth.” The last question Odysseus asks Teiresias is how he can communicate with his Mother. Teiresias tells him that if he allows a spirit to come up to the blood, from the animal sacrifice he made, they will give him a true answer. 

Mother’s Affirmations

From here, Odysseus allows the spirit of his dead Mother to come upon the blood and speaks to her, asking her what caused her death as well as the current status of his father, wife, son, estate, and inheritance. She proceeds to tell him that his wife awaits his return with an enduring heart, his son oversees his lands with a fine hand, and that his father suffers tremendously also awaiting the return of his son Odysseus. Further, that it was, “my longing for you (shining Odysseus), your cleverness and your gentle ways, that took the sweet spirit of life from me.” His inheritance is intact, but the suitors eat up his estate by the minute. 

Odysseus then addresses his Mother in ‘winged words’ as his heart was urgent to hold her saying, “Mother, why will you not wait for me, when I am trying to hold you, so that even in Hades’ with our arms embracing we can both take the satisfaction of dismal mourning? Or are you nothing but an image that proud Persephone sent my way, to make me grieve all the more for sorrow?” 

His Mother quickly responds, “Oh my child, ill-fated beyond all other mortals, this is not Persephone, daughter of Zeus (also the wife of Hades and goddess of the underworld) beguiling you, but it is only what happens when they die, to all mortals. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together, and once the spirit has left the white bones, all the rest of the body is made subject to the fire’s strong fury, but the soul flitters out like a dream and flies away. Therefore you must strive back toward the light again with all speed; but remember these things for your wife, so you may tell her hereafter.”

Obviously, to anyone who has lost their Mother, or anyone extremely close for that matter, this would be so tremendously difficult. To have to speak with their spirit, face-to-face, and ask such questions. Undoubtedly most would be at least curious regarding the answers. And yet, the explanation by Odyssey’s Mother stuck with me for a long time… it seems to mark one of the most commonly held beliefs regarding the soul and death in Homer’s works. That the body eventually disintegrates, but the soul, having the capability to exist without the body, is able to escape.

Odysseus then goes on to speak with several notable queenly mothers of demigods, including Herakles’ (Hercules in Roman Latin) Mom Alkmene, and Oidipodes’ (Oedipus in Roman Latin) Mom Epikaste. The list of these Mother’s goes on for quite some time as even Odysseus seems to lose his train of thought a bit saying that he can’t even remember the number of wives and daughters of heroes that he spoke to as each seemed to have a fair amount of suffering in the afterlife. 

At this time, there is a brief interlude in which Alkinoos praises the storytelling of Odysseus and pleads for him to finish the tales that took place prior to his arrival in the Phaiakians. Specifically, Alkinoos states to Odysseus, “You have a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense to them, and expertly as a singer would do, you have told the story of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives. But come now, tell me this and give me an accurate answer: Did you see any of your godlike companions, who once went with you to Ilion (to fight against Troy) and met their destiny? Here is a night that is very long, it is endless. It is not time yet to sleep in the palace. But go on telling your wonderful story.”

“Wisdom” from the Souls of Heroes

Odysseus then goes on to explain that the next soul he saw was that of Agamemnon, the great leader of the Achians during this time. And Agamemnon, immediately upon recognizing Odysseus, “fell to lamentation loud and shrill, and the tears came springing, and threw himself into my arms, meaning so to embrace me, but there was no force there any longer, nor any juice left in his flexible limbs, as there had been in time past.” Odysseus, lamenting right along with Agamemnon, then asks Agamemnon what could’ve possibly caused his death as he was unaware.

Agamemnon explains that it was not Poseidon raging upon his ship on the seas, nor was it in a battle on land, instead he died a pitiful death. “Aigisthos, working out my death and destruction, invited me to his house, and feasted me, and killed me there, with the help of my sluttish wife, as one cuts down an ox at his manger.” Agamemnon then goes on to say regarding his wife, “So there is nothing more deadly or more vile than a woman who stores mind with acts that are of such sort, as this one did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted the murder of her lawful husband.” [This reminds me of the red wedding scene in Game of Thrones, crazy to think that that is supposedly how Agamemnon died]. 

Given this, Agamemnon’s advice for Odysseus is to never fully reveal the truth to his wife, instead only tell her a part of it, and to let the rest be hidden in silence so as not to be murdered by your wife. Odysseus seems to, overall, agree with this assessment as he believes that the hateful intentions of Zeus (motif implied by Plato regarding blaming the God’s for the evil in the world) have been manifested through the scheming of women and how many men died for the sake of Helen (many have attributed the Trojan Wars to be associated with the divisiveness of Helen of Troy). 

To slightly digress, here we have the trope of the master-slave relationship in terms of male and female, buried deep within the darkness of Hades, literally, within the previously unknown death of one of ancient Greece’s most formidable leaders, Agamemnon. When we think back on Plato and Aristotle’s words and actions in reference to women and how Homer is portraying them, Plato stays on point in accepting women into his school and allowing them to become leaders. Aristotle, and this is a slight precursor of a future blog post, does not on both accounts. Further, I feel it should be noted that Agamemnon seemed like one of the most prototypical narcissistic megalomaniacs of any time, let alone ancient Greece when reading Homer. Let us return to the action:).

Subsequently Odysseus sees the soul of the ‘swift-footed’ Achilleus (Achilles). Full of lamentation, Achilles addresses Odysseus in ‘winged words’ and asks him how he could endure coming down to Hades where senseless men dwell as mere imitations of perished mortals. Interestingly, Achilles has only one question. What his sons have been up to. Specifically, if his son Neoptolemos went to war and fought as a champion, and if his other son Peleus keeps his respected position. Odysseus then informs Achilles that he has no knowledge of Peleus, but that he had numerous interactions with Neoptolemos who he had seen exhibit tremendous courage in battle as well as speaking as eloquently as any other soldier save for him and the great Nestor.  Essentially, he lives and is a well-known virtuous man. This made the soul of Achilles happy, even in the depths of Hades.

Next, and of noteworthiness, Odysseus sees Sisyphus, who “was suffering strong pains, and with both arms embracing the monstrous stone, struggling with hands and feet alike, he would try to push the stone upward to the crest of the hill, but when it was on the point of going over the top, the force of gravity turned it backward, and the pitiless stone rolled back down to the level. He then tried once more to push it up, straining hard, and sweat ran all down his body, and over his head a cloud of dust rose.” At some point we will come to one of my favorite philosophers, Albert Camus, who dedicated an entire book and train of thought to this very idea, of Sisyphus. Until then, let us continue onward yet again:). 

Then Odysseus sees the image of Herakles (Hercules) who is also lamenting and he asks Odysseus if he too is suffering some wretched destiny as he had to endure through a multitude of arduous, but seemingly pointless, labors. After this encounter, Odysseus finally leaves the souls of Hades to continue on his quest, returning to Circe to understand what was meant by the prophecy of Teiresias the Theban. 

Unhappiness, Dying Twice, and a Strategy Home

Odysseus and his men are then addressed by Circe upon their return, “Unhappy men, who went alive to the house of Hades, so dying twice, when all the rest of mankind die only once, come then eat what is there and drink your wine, staying here all the rest of the day, and then tomorrow, when dawn shows, you shall sail, and I will show you the way and make plain all details, so that neither by land nor on the salt water you may suffer and come to grief by unhappy bad designing.” With this said, the ‘proud hearts’ within Odysseus and his men are persuaded and Circe proceeds to lay out plans for their next destination, the island of Thrinakia. 

Circe then tells them that en route to Thrinakia via their black ship, they will encounter a series of extremely dangerous adversaries. The first of which are the Sirens as their enchanting song can cause any man to become completely disoriented and have no chance of ultimately returning home. Given this, the men must insert wax honey into their ears to prevent them from hearing the enchanting song of the Sirens. However, Odysseus is to be tied up to the mast of the ship and not given the wax honey so that he may enjoy the sound of the Siren’s song. If he asks to be untied or tries to break free, Circe instructs that his men tighten the ropes and lash him.

Once they sail past the Sirens, they have an option in terms of which obstacle they will engage with first. They could choose to sail in one direction that will first lead to an encounter with an evil sea monster called ‘Skylla’ that lives in the caverns near the cliffside whose howling is terror. Moreover, “she has twelve feet, and all of them wave in the air. She has six necks upon her, grown to great length, and upon each neck there is a horrible head, with teeth in it, set in three rows close together and stiff, full of black death.” Further, each time a ship tries to sail by the monster, six of their men die, each being snatched up by one of the heads of Skylla. 

Not quite the Skylla I had in mind when watching Prison Break, hahaha:). Sorry:)

The second option is to go a slightly different way that first leads them to Charybdis, some type of evil black hole within the sea itself that horrifically sucks down the water three times a day of which not even Poseidon the Earthshaker could rescue you from. Given this, they are to proceed with extreme caution when sailing past this obstacle as there is a chance of total destruction. Circe then recommends that it is wiser to choose the path that goes around Skylla first as it will only result in the loss of six men versus the chance of total loss. 

Odysseus asks Circe if there is any way to fight off the monster Skylla and sail around Charybdis without losing any more of his men. The shining goddess Circe responds, “Hardy man, your mind is full forever of fighting and battle work. Will you not give way even to the immortals? She (Skylla) is no mortal thing but a mischief immortal, dangerous difficult and bloodthirsty, and there is no fighting against her, nor any force of defense. It is best to run away from her. For if you arm for battle beside her rock and waste time there, I fear she will make another outrush and catch you with all her heads, and snatch away once more the same number of men. Drive by as hard as you can, but invoke Krataiis (a sea goddess of whales and other sea monsters per the Theogony by Hesiod). She is the mother of Skylla and bore this mischief for mortals, and she will stay her from making another sally against you.”

At last, Circe reiterates their final challenge, as Teiresias the Theban had previously prophesied, before returning home to Ithaka. Upon reaching the island of Thrinakia, they must resist the strong urge and desire to eat the cattle and fat sheep of the sun god Helios. If Odysseus and his men are able to overcome this internal battle of will power, then all who remain will then be able to return home to Ithaka. If only Odysseus is successful, then only he will return as all the rest of his men will be lost. Further, he will return home in a bad way. 

Decisions out of Fear & Mistrust

With this, Odysseus informs his men of their initial engagement with the Sirens and how they need to put beeswax in their ears to ensure the sound of the Sirens does not dissuade them from continuing on their journey. This goes fairly smoothly with Odysseus being tied up while his men successfully sailed past them. His men did have to tighten Odysseus’ restraints and even lash him several times for trying to break free, but overall they managed. 

However, out of fear that his companions would be too frightened to carry on beyond the Sirens, Odysseus makes the decision not tell them about Skylla or Charybdis. Even with these good intentions, his men are still mortified when they enter the premise of evil that they seem to sense looming around them when they see smoke and big waves, and hear loud thundering up ahead. It is at this point that Odysseus tries to assuage their fears. He knows they’re as emotionally exhausted as he is. He tells them that they’ve endured through many evils, and to essentially stay strong and keep going in spite of their fears. 

This temporarily helps them to continue onward, but only until they reach the Charybdis which vomited up the sea water, “like a caldron over a strong fire, the whole sea would boil up in turbulence, and the foam flying spattered the pinnacles of the rocks in either direction; but when in turn again she sucked down the sea’s salt water, the turbulence showed all the inner sea, and the rock around it groaned terribly, and the ground showed at the sea’s bottom, black with sand; and green fear seized upon my companions.” It is at this precise moment, while everyone is distracted with the Charybdis, that Skylla appears out of the mist on the cliff side and snatches up six of his companions and nightmarishly eats them while they are screaming for Odysseus to help save them. 

After sailing past this unthinkable bad dream, they finally come upon the island of Thrinakia where the cattle of Helios lived. His companions, hearts broken and emotionally exhausted, want desperately to stop and regroup from all of the macabre madness they’ve had to endure. Immediately Odysseus tries to persuade his men not to, telling them that both Teiresias the Theban and the goddess Circe had informed him of the potential horrific disaster awaiting them on the island. Unfortunately he’s unsuccessful as the men want to stop even if just for one night to have a hearty meal and he is forced to ask his men to swear a strong oath. That if they come across a herd of cattle or some great flock of sheep while on the island and slaughter them, they will surely die as they are the beloved cattle of the sun god Helios. 

Broken Oaths and Loneliness

However the winds do not blow in their favor and they are forced to stay on the island for over a month whereby they eat all of the food that Circe had given them for their voyage home and must resort to hunting and fishing for food. It is at this point that the men grow weary and succumb to the temptation of Helios’s cattle in spite of the strong oath they swore to Odysseus. Hence, while Odysseus is sleeping one night, the men go out and slaughter the cattle. 

One of his men in particular, Eurylochos says, “Listen to what I have to say, my companions, though you are suffering evils. All deaths are detestable for wretched mortals, but hunger is the sorriest way to die and encounter fate. Come then, let us cut out the best of Helios’ cattle, and sacrifice them to the immortals who hold wide heaven, and if we ever come back to Ithaka, land of our fathers, presently we will build a rich temple to the Sun God Helios Hyperion, and store it with dedications, many and good. But if, in anger over his high-horned cattle, he wishes to wreck our ship, and the rest of the gods stand by him, I would far rather gulp the waves and lose my life in them once for all, than be pinched to death on this desolate island.” With all of this said, the other men were persuaded to break their oaths. 

Odysseus then wakes from his sleep and smells the meat and immediately curses the gods, “Father Zeus, and you other everlasting and blessed gods, with a pitiless sleep you lulled me, to my confusion, and my companions staying here dared a deed that was monstrous.” Further, the sun god Helios is alerted of his cattle being eaten and in his angered heart he spoke, “Father Zeus, and you everlasting and blessed gods, punish the companions of Odysseus, for they outrageously killed my cattle.” Zeus then answers Helios, “Helios, shine on as you do, among the immortals and mortal men, all over the grain-giving earth. For my part I will strike these men’s fast ship midway on the open wine-blue sea with a shining bolt and dash it to pieces.” 

After six days of feasting upon the cattle of Helios, Odysseus and his men leave for their home of Ithaka as the winds have finally settled. While en route, Zeus strikes down their ship with ferocious thunder and lightning killing all except for Odysseus. Deeply lamenting, Odysseus endures onward miraculously making it around the Charybdis and past Skylla undetected until, after nine more days of drifting on two log timbers that were coughed up by the Charybdis, he finally reached the island of Ogygia. The island of Kalypso. 

What’s next?

Wow, super epic… The resourcefulness and great heartedness to endure through relentless tragedy. Wherein, even after suffering the loss of virtually everyone else around you and feeling the magnitude of that ultra loneliness, somehow you still have the strength to persevere. But where does this magnificent fortitude come from? What is the source? Do we come back around, once again, to nostalgia.. to that combination of the depths of the pains endured along the way with an all consuming desire to return home. Surely there is something deeper driving Odysseus. And whatever it is exactly, nostalgia, within its very definition, seems to be playing a pretty significant role. Hence, we must then also start to analyze the question of what it means to “return home?” 

It also seems that there is a connection, somewhere, between our perceptions of nostalgia and heroism. Maybe it lies within those moments of tragic pain, or perceived tragic pain, wherein we envision ourselves somehow heroically overcoming it. And seemingly equal, into the moments that lie just beyond these heroic feats. Moments where we have been able to achieve a sense of the deep inner peace that we so desperately yearn for. Yet these particular moments of inner peace are often a reflection. A reflection of the ‘good old times’ that preceded the tragedy itself. It’s as if we are fighting for the past even as we are looking into the future. All the while still having to make the most of each fleeting current moment that we encounter. Perhaps that’s why, one of the oldest adages across every culture throughout the course of history has been to ‘enjoy the journey.’ 

Sometimes the combination of these things can seem so overwhelming. How do we even function when our hearts, minds, and spirits are torn into such asunder from the devastating lightning strikes of tragedy? Perhaps all we can do is prepare for these moments. Somehow. To give ourselves the best opportunity to not only endure, but to transcend. Transcend ourselves, the people we love, and even others whenever we face extreme adversity in life through a deeper understanding. In staying on the path of modern enlightenment, this is where we come back to harnessing the latent power of not just the immediate culture around us, but also that which has existed for thousands of years. 

Key to this deeper understanding within Homer’s ‘The Odyssey,’ thus far, are several key cultural structural pillars including fortune, oaths, gods and goddesses, rhetoric, persuasion, truth, trust, fear, decision making, wisdom, competition, prophecies, emotion, family, binaries (especially of good and evil), souls, death, happiness, reality, change, as well as traditions and customs. All within the backdrop of the aftermath of war. And it also contains the depth of emotions experienced by each individual character, from Telemachos to Penelope to Agamemnon to the hero Odysseus. 

With all of this in mind, we can also start to obtain a better understanding of the nostalgic impact of Homer on subsequent ancient Greek people from the Golden Age like Pericles, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great, Philip the Great, to name but a few. And this is only the first part. For Odysseus has only overcome the first major set of tragedies within his story and these ideas are but motifs that stream through every civilization’s thought process, even our own. 

With all of that, let us keep sailing, with the unwavering spirit of Odysseus carrying us onward. Even if we must face inevitable pain and suffering along the way… and we are unsure of what the outcome will be. Even if the sun is in our eyes [Sun in Your Eyes]. Let’s let those penetrating emotions run deep until we feel the passion in our hearts. For, just as Odysseus will need it for his return home, so shall we in our continued exploration of enlightenment. Perhaps there is an aspect of nostalgia that is heroic!!!

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