Odysseus The story of Odysseus in the epic poem, the Odyssey, is a tremendous tale of the classical hero and the adventures that he has. It is also the tale of an incomplete hero, a hero who must learn and struggle with the world and his unconscious and grow to become the true hero who literally and cosmogonically can come home. It is also the story of us all, and our struggle towards completion. All three of these stories are wrapped into the character of Odysseus. His adventures are more than just the story of the prototype of the hero using brains and brawn to destroy his enemies and get the girl. Through the latent content of Odysseus' adventures we discover not only the symbolic meaning of the events that take place and the creatures that Odysseus encounters but we can relate Odysseus' journey towards home and his education to our own lives.
Odysseus' adventures are really a psychological experience that we see through the physical adventures.
A tool that lends itself very well to Odysseus' adventures is the cosmogonic cycle. This is a literary tool that is written about by Joseph Cambell in his book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Without going into too much detail, the cosmogonic cycle is a cycle that can be found more or less in all literature. It is the base story of the journey of the hero in literature. It fits well with Odysseus because he is often looked at as the prototypical literary hero. The Cosmogonic cycle can be looked at like a big circle. The circle can be broken up into two halves the top half being the conscious, light, or life and the bottom half being the unconcious, dark, or death. Most stories begin with the hero at home, at the top of the circle. The hero then experiences a "call to adventure"Ã¯Â¿Â½ which begins their quest. As the hero continues on his quest he begins to go around the circle until he reaches the bottom half of the circle. The bottom half of the circle is the area of the unconscious/darkness/death. Once he is in the bottom half of the circle the hero must go through a series of trials and learn a number of things before he is able to re-emerge in the top half of the circle and come home, into the light, the hero. If he fails to learn these things or fails to meet these challenges he is doomed to be forever trapped in the underworld and he can never really come home. He can never truly become the hero.
This is where we begin to see the Odyssey fitting into this cycle. In the beginning of the epic we hear the story of Agamemnon. This is an important part of the story of Odysseus because it shows us a hero who did not complete his journey. When Agamemnon returned home he had not learned everything that he was supposed to learn and as a result, he was killed. His death trapped him forever in the underworld literally and cosmogonically, he never was able to truly return home. This serves as a warning to us and in a way to Odysseus showing what can happen if we fail to learn the things that we must learn and we do not shed the ignorance and desires that we need to.
The most important place for us to begin to look at Odysseus is when he is already at sea. The sea is a very important symbol throughout the entire story. Throughout the epic if it is not water that is directly effecting him, it always has a role. In fact, the water is the root reason for Odysseus being lost. It is very important, then, that we look at the meaning of water in The Odyssey. The Dictionary of Symbolism by, Hans Biedermann, describes the sea (or water) as "the deeper layers in the psyche"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (Biedermann 372) and "the primordial fluid from which all life comes"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (372) it says that "water is also associated with the afterlife"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (373). This symbol is a good one because in Odysseus' case it symbolizes all three. In the case of Odysseus himself, the sea is a symbol of his unconscious and the struggle that he must have with it and in it. This symbolizes that when Odysseus is at sea he is cosmogonically in the stage of the unconscious/underworld ("afterlife"Ã¯Â¿Â½) and the adventures that he has are the tests that he must go through in order to be educated and return home the hero. They are the most important part of the epic because it is where Odysseus changes and becomes the hero that the literary world comes to know.
Another important reoccurring symbol throughout the epic is Odysseus' men. After the sea they are the important symbol in his adventures. A lot of the trouble that he gets into is a result of the actions of his men. The symbolism that we find in Odysseus' men is nearly the same symbolism that we find in the sea. Odysseus' men are mainly a symbol of Odysseus' unconscious. Evidence of this can be seen in adventures like the encounter with Aeolus, and the encounter with Thrinacia. In both of these encounters Odysseus' men did something that got everyone in trouble or did something that took them further away from home. Also, more importantly for the symbolism, in both of these encounters the men did this when Odysseus was sleeping, or in his unconscious. They did things that were completely irrational and completely lust motivated. In the case of Aeolus it was their untrustworthiness and lust for treasure. In the case of Thrinacia it was their lust for food, even though they knew that they were not to slaughter the cattle because it belonged to the sun god. These two encounters are good examples of the reason that Odysseus is not home. They show the constant struggle that Odysseus is going through with his unconscious. He wants very badly to go home but the unreadiness and unwillingness to give up his primal lust keeps him away from truly coming home. It is that conflict and turmoil that he must make peace with before he can come home.
Another good example of the men succumbing to their lusts comes when Odysseus and his men encounter Circe. In this encounter one of the main themes, that is also a reoccurring theme throughout the epic, is the primal instinct of sexual lust. In the encounter with Circe, any man who had sex with Circe was turned into, a pig, a wolf, or a lion. These three animals can respectively symbolize gluttony, sexual lust, and rage. All of these things are forms of lust, lust for food, lust for sex, and lust for anger. They are all examples of the lust that Odysseus must shed in order to return home. It is a symbol of the repercussions of succumbing to the animal instinct, those who succumbed to their animal instinct became animals themselves. This incident is the most obvious example of Homer showing us the animal lust (because in this adventure the men actually turn into animals) that Odysseus must overcome to come home.
The men are a different symbol of the unconscious than the sea because Odysseus must make peace with the sea. However, with Odysseus' men, as they begin to die out so do Odysseus' primal lusts and it is these primal lusts that blind reason and prevent Odysseus from reemerging into the conscious/light. It is that reason, untainted by primal lusts, that prevents Odysseus from being killed, and ending up in the underworld (again literally and cosmogonically) when he returns home, like Agamemnon was. A smaller but reoccurring event with the men is that when they are killed they always are killed in groups of three. The signifigance of the number three is, as Hans Biedermann describes it in The Dictionary of Symbolism, "a symbol of godliness and perfection"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (Biedermann 240). So to apply that symbolism to Odysseus, every time Odysseus encounters something on his adventures that provokes that primal lust, as all his adventures do, he learns a little and grows more toward perfection. His men represent those primal lusts as they die out so does Odysseus' irrationality. As his irrationality is taken away he takes steps toward being able to return home a perfectly rational man that is able to fend off his killers and restore order to his house.
The final symbolism of all of this comes when Odysseus leaves the island of Ogygia and frees himself from Calypso. This is a time when all of his men are dead and he finally decides on his own that he is ready to return home on his own will. He overcomes his physical lust for Calypso. This is the last thing that he must do. His men are dead and the sea is calm. All of the other symbols of his unconscious struggle have gone away and become peaceful. The only thing that he must do now is decide for himself that he wants to re-emerge in the world of the conscious/light and return home. When he is on the raft and then naked that is the time when he becomes one with his unconscious and he re-emerges into the world of the light/life/conscious. He re-emerges a new man. His nakedness, nakedness of a baby, and coming out of the water, the unconscious, suggest a rebirth into the world of the light. He is reborn a new man and he is now able to go home and not be killed by the suitors. He is now educated and is prepared to truly go home and become the hero.