Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 5-8)

Odysseus was a wanderer. The Odyssey opens by explaining “Many cities did Odysseus visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea…” Saint Paul was a wanderer too. He also saw many nations and became acquainted with many manners and customs. The Acts of the Apostles tells what Paul found when he traveled to Greece: “Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.”

Are the Greeks “very religious” in every respect in The Odyssey? The gods, especially Athene and Poseidon, certainly play major roles in what happens to Odysseus. A comparison of Odysseus’ pagan worldview and Paul’s Christian worldview is instructive. There are divine messengers in both worlds: Hermes for the Greeks and the archangel Gabriel for the Christians. Odysseus is being detained by Calypso “the heavenly goddess.” When Hermes comes to tell her she must give up living with Odysseus she replies: “Hard are you gods and envious beyond all, to grudge the goddesses their meeting men in open wedlock, when one makes the man she loves her husband.” When Gabriel comes to inform Mary that she’s been chosen to bear a child (even though she’s a virgin) she’s astonished at first. But Mary’s response to the archangel Gabriel is: “Let it be done unto to me according to your word.” Calypso and Mary both yield to their respective heavenly messengers but one gives in grudgingly and the other does so willingly. In both the pagan Greek world and the early Christian world there’s a close connection between the human realm on earth and the divine sphere in heaven. There’s a fateful interplay between ordinary people here below and the gods and angels from above.

But there’s a big difference in the kind of divine creatures inhabiting the Greek and Christian worlds. Mary willingly accepts her mission from the archangel Gabriel because she trusts him. At one point in The Odyssey we find Odysseus in trouble and clinging to his raft for dear life when “…fair-ankled Ino, that goddess pale who formerly was mortal and of human speech, but now in the water’s depths shares the gods’ honors. She pitied Odysseus…” And the goddess Ino gives Odysseus this advice: “leave your raft for winds to carry, then strike out with your arms and seek a landing on the Phaeacian coast, where fate allows you safety.” In other words she counsels him to make a break for it. Odysseus thinks it over and says to himself: “I fear that here again an immortal plots me harm in bidding me leave my raft. I will not yet obey…” Because Odysseus thinks he has a better plan. On the other hand Mary didn’t say to herself “you know, I’m not too sure about this virgin-birth stuff. I think I’ve got a better idea.”

The difference between these two worldviews is not a small thing. When a heavenly creature appears to Mary and says “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” she believes him. Odysseus trusts no one but himself, and with good reason. Poseidon is, in fact, out to get him. As Odysseus explains it to Queen Arete: “Hard it were, Queen, fully to tell my woes, because the gods of heaven have given me many…” Does help come from the gods or from ourselves? St. Paul says “faith is…the evidence of things not seen.” Odysseus asks: “What shall I do? What will become of me?”


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