I’ve long been fascinated by the idea that texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey carry hidden meaning beyond that which is simply symbolic. Naturally, it’s important to understand what a piece of literature or poetry or art might mean (symbolically) – but then comes the next question – what am I meant to do with that?
Over the centuries, there have been many approaches to answer this question but one that I really like is a four level of hermeneutic approach (traced back to the 3rd century as a method for Christian thinkers like Origen and Thomas Aquinas to grasp spiritual meaning from the scriptures).
Let’s assume that the Odyssey is an allegory (extended metaphor) about ‘finding one’s way back home’ – not unlike the theme of many popular stories/ films like The Wizard of Oz which, themselves may be underpinned with Biblical messages about returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden.
Application of the four levels of hermeneutical interpretation to the allegory this allegory might go along something like this:
- Literal – the letter teaches you the facts – this level presents that which is an objective truth to be observed and verified. On the way home from ‘work’ (the Trojan war), Odysseus got lost and although he really wanted to get home (and ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’) this didn’t prove to be easy because the gods blocked him at every turn.
- Allegory – what you should believe – this level expands the literal sense by pairing observed objective truths (see above) to subjective life events. ‘Home’ is a factor in all our lives although not all cultures think of ‘home’ in the same way. But usually we consider ‘home’ as a safe place where we ‘feel’ that we are ‘wanted’ and where we ‘belong’. In this sense, the concept of ‘home’ usually carries lots of emotional baggage and so with that comes the concept of nostalgia – bittersweet memories and longing for that safe space. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek words (1) nostos or ‘return journey’ and (2) algos or ‘pain’. Lots of people get lost – it happens every day – and although more often than not they aren’t too happy about it, they do tend to remember the experience for the rest of their lives So what might we gather from that? A quote by Henry David Thoreau might shed light – “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Put Thoreau together with notions of ‘home’ as a place where we feel we belong and the idea arises that being homeless carries painful (nostalgic) feelings of being ‘left behind’ and ‘left out’ and that we might not have appreciated what ‘belonging’ really meant to us (‘the infinite extent of our relations’) until we experience this.
- Trope – how you should act – this level reveals the context of the interpretation and allows you to interact with it. The term ‘trope’ comes from the Greek tropos, to turn, as in the tropic of the Sun’s turning at the Solstices. Moved by the literal and allegorical ‘truths’ you’ve observed and interpreted, you now turn toward that ‘truth’ and take the necessary actions to implement it. Odysseus was in a difficult situation – ‘a fish out of water’ – he wanted to return to feelings of ‘belonging’ – but some force more powerful than him (i.e. the gods) denied this to him. What actions did he need to take to overcome the gods? I suggest that he had to become ever more cunning and crafty than ever before – and in this regard, the cunning and crafty goddess Athene helped him. In other words, he needed to learn new skills and develop certain aspects of himself that he might have otherwise ignored and/or disregarded. The idea might be that when we feel lost and alone – presented with obstacles we could never have expected – we need to turn within and with divine help take stock of our personal strengths and weaknesses, polishing up the former and shoring up the latter.
- Anagoge – what to hope for – this level, signifying the symbol as something through which the turn of the trope turns, is reflected in our desire to predict. Here we enter the world of the daemon which manifests as a power from outside rather like providence or fate. Because the Greek word anagoge suggests a “climb” or “ascent” upwards, there’s a higher spiritual meaning in play here relating directly to mankind’s destiny in the greater scheme of thing. What then, might we expect (or predict) for ourselves from the homecoming that Odysseus? Most certainly it did not manifest as he’d planned. Although he was finally ‘home’ in the sense that he could now ‘see the smoke that rises from his homeland’, he is still a fish out of water. At least he’d been warned by the ghost of Agamemnon (murdered by his wife and her lover when he returned home from ‘work’ – the Trojan war). But still it isn’t easy. As one commentator notes, the homecoming half of The Odyssey is the least read because it is so gruellingly painful. Whilst people love reading a tale of adventure (the first half of the The Odyssey), they don’t like reading about about mass murder and civil unrest. Yet this is exactly what happened. We might be tempted to say that Odysseus brought this on himself and, at some level, that may well be true. But remember that here we’re looking for some spiritual meaning in regards to what mankind might expect as the result of undertaking an odyssey such as did Odysseus. Returning to parallels of this story to that of returning ‘home’ to the utopian Garden of Eden, we must remember that in Greek, the world ‘utopia’ means ‘nowhere’. Escapist illusions leading to embracing utopian ideals – i.e. there is a place called ‘home’ to which if only we might return, our lives will be shiny and bright again – usually lead to serious disillusionment. Whilst it is true that ‘there’s no place like home’, the Moody Blues made an important point in their hit song from the 1970’s – ‘You Can Never go Home’. Check out the lyrics and let me know what you think what this might mean.