Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought

  Bergren, Ann. 2008. Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BergrenA.Weaving_Truth.2008.

3. Similes and Symbol in Odyssey v [1]

Since antiquity, the Odyssey has invited symbolic interpretation. When Eustathius pronounces the poem an ethical allegory, and in that, more indicative than the Iliad of “Homeric power,” he echoes a tradition extending back through early Christian writers to the Allegoriae (Quaestiones Homericae) of Heraclitus. [2] Among modern critics, Charles Segal has shown how Books v–xii—the hero’s return to Ithaca from the island of Calypso, with his narration to the Phaeacians of his earlier adventures—are symbolic of psychological development. [3] Within this portion of the poem, however, with the exception of a 1966 article by Erling Holtsmark, no developed symbolism has been seen in the action of Odyssey v—Odysseus’ departure from Calypso, the storm at sea, and his landing upon Phaeacia. [4] The figure of Calypso, “she who covers,” has been regularly interpreted as the power of the female—sexual, maternal, and deadly, and her cave as chthonic womb or underworld. [5] In antiquity, she was sometimes read allegorically. [6] And in Segal’s elegant and suggestive words, she is “a point of suspension” in whom “are reflected the crossing and binding together of the cosmic substances, earth, sky and sea.” [7] But no elaboration of her symbolic meaning has been observed in the action of the book as a whole. She has been taken, to employ Quintilian’s distinction, as a single-word trope rather than an extended figure, in an otherwise literal narrative of leaving her. [8] The action by which Odysseus enters his epic is not felt to be figurative in the way, for example, that of its successor, Canto I of the Inferno, is held to be. [9] Dante’s entry into the Divina Commedia displays the extended, systematic symbolization of action designated as allegory, specifically, an allegory of spiritual awakening, while the meaning of Odyssey v seems limited to the physical ordeal of escaping Calypso’s attractive force. The Homeric narration is full of concrete details with no evident reference outside themselves. The characterization is individual rather than emblematic; the subtle conversations first, between Hermes and Calypso and then, between {58|59} Calypso and Odysseus, the building of the raft, and the stages of the storm all tend toward the realism typical of post-allegorical fiction and typically appreciated in Homeric style. [10]

Evidently first a means for identifying guest-friends, allies, or depositors of goods, the term sumbolon designates an incomplete object, such as a half of a knucklebone or a tablet, which must be brought together (συμβάλλειν) with its counterpart in order to signify the relationship between the bearers. [13] The meaning of the sumbolon is an identity constituted by a relationship. The connection between the sumbolon and the person who bears it may be arbitrary (in semiotic terms, conventional or unmotivated)—as in the case of a private code or of words as conventional sumbola of mental experiences in Aristotle’s definition, [14] or it may be natural (motivated)—as in the case of the baby clothes, weaving, necklace, and olive wreath that identify Creusa and Ion as mother and son. [15] In either case, the process of interpreting the sumbolon is the same, but the authority of the interpretation may vary. To interpret sumbolon-a, one must first establish that sumbolon-b is its complement and then determine the relationship between the possessors to which the sumbola testify: the symbolic meaning of sumbolon-a is the identity of its possessor in that relationship. An instance in Herodotus of conventional sumbola illustrates their potential weakness as signs: a creditor “interprets” the sumbolon of his debtor by providing its counterpart, but the debtor simply denies that these objects betoken any prior relationship of obligation. [16] Motivated sumbola like the contents of Ion’s cradle permit a more authoritative reading. This example also illustrates the derived, {59|60} somewhat metaphorical usage of the term, sumbolon, to designate not a half but a whole object. Even in this case, however, the sumbolon operates according to the original model and the interpretive process is the same. When Creusa is able to describe, before seeing them, the contents of Ion’s cradle, she establishes a “natural” bond of identification between herself and these objects (a sort of sumbolon-b) that complements the equally “natural” bond between the objects and Ion (a sort of sumbolon-a). Her knowledge of these objects makes them, so to speak, “half-hers,” that is, “the other half of the knucklebone.” [17] And, because the bond between the objects and their possessors is “natural,” that is, true and necessary, Ion can offer no further resistance when Creusa describes the relationship they betoken. He must accept her interpretation of their symbolic meaning, his identity as her son. The relationship signified by “natural” sumbola is taken as equally “natural,” while the relationship marked by conventional sumbola is liable to be denied.

This operation of the sumbolon applies to literary symbolism as it occurs in Inferno I and Odyssey v. As with the concrete sumbolon, the meaning of the symbolic text is also constituted by a relationship, in this case, with a complementary “counter-text.” The difference between concrete and literary symbolism lies in the fact that when the sumbolon is a text, the symbol and its bearer coincide: the meaning of the sumbolon, the identity it proves, does not belong to a separate person who possesses it, but to the text itself. The coincidence of sumbolon and text results in a simplification of the interpretive process. Since the sumbolon is no longer separate from its bearer, what was before a two-step procedure of establishing first the complementarity of the concrete sumbola and then the relationship of their owners, is now collapsed into the single need to demonstrate the intertextual relationship through which the symbol acquires its “other meaning.” In addition, because the sumbolon and its bearer are identical, the authority of an interpretation no longer depends upon whether the symbol is viewed as conventional or natural, but only upon the existence of the intertextual links, the author and “authority” of the symbolism. In the case of an allegory like Inferno I, for example, the commentary of Singleton interprets each element in Dante’s awakening and movement through the forest (sumbolon-a), by repeating the Biblical “counter-texts” (sumbolon-b) to which it corresponds through a network of common words or themes. By the internal consistency of the correspondences, he shows how each element in Inferno I acts as res et signum, both the thing itself and a symbol of its role in Christian experience. [18] More specifically, these textual counterparts together reveal a shared cosmos of {60|61} analogical oppositions through which spiritual value may be coded in physical terms. [19] Assuming that knowledge of these Christian texts was assured, Dante wrote for those who, like Singleton, could recognize the textual connections that “authorize” the allegory. In Odyssey v the process of symbolization is analogous. The epic “annotates” itself by its own intertextual reservoir. It weaves into the action a sequence of similes which, like the Singleton commentary, “allegorize” the narrative. The similes turn the action of Odyssey v into a sumbolon of self-generated, psychological rebirth.

In Odyssey v the similes are not independent of one another. Rather they form a progression comparable to Quintilian’s notion of allegory as an extended metaphor. This progression of the similes is interwoven with that of the action through a set of shared oppositions that parallel physical experience with psychological process. This thematic fabric commences, when Hermes begins his mission, having been dispatched by Zeus to break up the union between Odysseus and Calypso:

αὐτίκ᾽ ἔπειθ᾽ ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα,
ἀμβρόσια χρύσεια, τά μιν φέρον ἠμὲν ἐφ᾽ ὑγρὴν
ἠδ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν ἅμα πνοιῇς ἀνέμοιο.
εἵλετο δὲ ῥάβδον, τῇ τ᾽ ἀνδρῶν ὄμματα θέλγει,
ὧν ἐθέλει, τοὺς δ᾽ αὖτε καὶ ὑπνώοντας ἐγείρει.
τὴν μετὰ χερσὶν ἔχων πέτετο κρατὺς ἀργεϊφόντης.
Then at once he bound under his feet the beautiful sandals,
undying, golden, that always carried him over both the water of the sea
and the limitless earth together with the blasts of the wind.
And he took the wand by which he forever enchants the eyes of men,
of whomever he wishes, while others he rouses even as they sleep.
Having this in his hands he flew, the strong slayer-of-Argos.

Odyssey v 44–49

Hermes’ undying sandals, winging their way with the breaths of the wind over land and sea, link “immortality,” “wings,” and “wind” as intermediaries between the “dry” and the “wet.” The ῥάβδος “wand” by which the god enchants men to sleep and awakens them is a parallel agent of change, this time between states of consciousness. Here is the composite: {61|62}

sea immortality land
wet wind dry
sleep   wakefulness
  ῥάβδος “wand”  
enchantment   awareness

The basic states of nature, the solid of dry land over against the liquid of the sea, emerge as elemental analogues to human conditions of mind.

Once introduced, this network of terms immediately connects a simile with the action, as the winged god is likened to a bird, one that joins air, land, and water:

Πιερίην δ᾽ ἐπιβὰς ἐξ αἰθέρος ἔμπεσε πόντῳ:
σεύατ᾽ ἔπειτ᾽ ἐπὶ κῦμα λάρῳ ὄρνιθι ἐοικώς,
ὅς τε κατὰ δεινοὺς κόλπους ἁλὸς ἀτρυγέτοιο
ἰχθῦς ἀγρώσσων πυκινὰ πτερὰ δεύεται ἅλμῃ:
τῷ ἴκελος πολέεσσιν ὀχήσατο κύμασιν Ἑρμῆς.
On to Pieria he stepped from the upper air and swooped down upon the sea:
then rushed over the waves like to a bird, a seagull,
who along the dread hollows (literally, “bosoms”) of the unresting sea,
hunting for fish, wets his thick wings in the salt water.
Like to this bird Hermes made his way over the multitude of waves.

Odyssey v 50–54

The comparison achieves its full meaning later, when Odysseus assumes the place and power of Hermes, when the sea is revealed to combine both the nourishing capacity of Calypso (κόλπος) and the dire hostility of Poseidon (δεινός), and when Odysseus himself is compared with an octopus, a creature of the sea. For now, it serves to figure the sea as feminine, nourishing, and dreadful.

Within this figural aura, the god alights upon the island of Calypso. As if following the path of Hermes’ eyes, the text describes the two elements regularly taken as symbolic, the goddess and her home. This ekphrasis casts Calypso as both sexual and maternal, at the heart of a place of transcendent fertility {62|63} and sensory satisfaction. Hermes finds a νύμφη “marriageable maiden” inside a μέγα σπέος “great cave,” a womb-like pleasure dome (Odyssey v 57). [20] For mingled within are offerings to every sense, both from nature and from art: light and heat from the great fire on the hearth, fragrance of burning cedar and lemon wood so intense that it permeates the island, the sound of singing by a “beautiful voice,” and the sight of tapestry woven with a golden shuttle (Odyssey v 59–62). [21] Outside the cave, the island burgeons with varieties of trees and birds, meadows of soft violet and parsley, and heavy vines. Four springs of “white” water, each flowing in a different direction, capture in one supernatural image the source and totality of all fluids. “At this sight, even an immortal, who happened by, would gaze and delight in his heart.” And indeed Hermes, divine mediator that he is, with reason “stood and gazed” (Odyssey v 73–75). For here all these qualities blend—earth and water, mother and lover, art and nature, sight, sound, touch, smell—into one all-gratifying, but all-embracing Eden. [22] Calypso—the great “Coveress”—provides all, but encloses all in the ὀμφαλός “navel” of the sea (Odyssey i 50), the place that connects life with pre-birth.

Having satisfied his heart with gazing, Hermes enters the cave. Here his encounter with the goddess triggers the transformation of her name and home from tropos to figura. Calypso asks the purpose of his visit, and after a dinner of nectar and ambrosia, he delivers Zeus’ command that she send Odysseus away at once, “for he is not fated to perish here far from his loved ones, but it is still his lot to see his loved ones and arrive at his high-roofed home and fatherland” (Odyssey v 75–115). Outraged, Calypso charges, “Cruel you are, gods, and jealous beyond all others, you who always begrudge goddesses that they should sleep beside men openly, if any makes a mortal her beloved bedfellow (φίλον ἀκοίτην),” and cites two such cases, first, the goddess Eos and the human hunter Orion, killed by the arrows of Olympian Artemis, and then, the goddess Demeter and the man Iasion, blasted by Zeus’ thunderbolt (Odyssey v 118–128). Her examples are ironically revealing. For unlike Orion or Iasion, Odysseus is not to die as a result of Olympian intervention. Hermes is, to be sure, the conductor of ψυχαί “souls” between life and death. [23] But here he has come not to take Odysseus to Hades, but to ensure his return home. Where, then, is Odysseus now? What is the nature of this goddess-man bond? Odysseus is not simply dead. Indeed, it was death at sea from which Calypso saved him “riding on the keel and all alone,” after Zeus’ thunderbolt shattered his ship. And theirs is more than a simply sexual bond. As she says, “I both loved him as one of my own and nourished him (φίλεόν {63|64} τε καὶ ἔτρεφον) and I declared I would make him immortal and ageless all his days” (Odyssey v 129–136). Emancipation from human death along with everlasting nurture, this is what Calypso gives. Where can a man enjoy such gifts? Only in the maternal cave, the place before mortality. Separation from Calypso by the agency of Hermes would thus be a second birth, not of the body but of that which Hermes conducts, the ψυχή “life-breath, soul”—a psychological rebirth from undying union with the source of life, a birth in which the hero, as consort of the symbolic mother, would be also the figural father, generating his own new self. [24]

Indeed, for Odysseus undying union with Calypso has lost its allure. When Hermes first enters the cave, Odysseus is not himself within. He has gone instead away from the goddess, away from the cave, as far as he can, to the edge of the island, where he can see only water. Matching its “unresting” flow, he “wept sitting upon the shore (καθήμενος ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς), there as before, rending his spirit with tears and groans and pains (δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων), and he would look out upon the unresting sea, shedding tears (πόντον ἐπ᾽ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων)” (Odyssey v 81–84). The same terms recur, when Calypso comes to deliver Hermes’ message, underscoring the constancy of the hero’s grief.

τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς εὗρε καθήμενον: οὐδέ ποτ᾽ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν τέρσοντο, κατείβετο δὲ γλυκὺς αἰὼν
νόστον ὀδυρομένῳ, ἐπεὶ οὐκέτι ἥνδανε νύμφη.
ἀλλ᾽ ἦ τοι νύκτας μὲν ἰαύεσκεν καὶ ἀνάγκῃ
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι παρ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλων ἐθελούσῃ:
ἤματα δ᾽ ἂμ πέτρῃσι καὶ ἠιόνεσσι καθίζων
δάκρυσι καὶ στοναχῇσι καὶ ἄλγεσι θυμὸν ἐρέχθων
πόντον ἐπ᾽ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων.
She found him sitting upon the shore. Nor were his eyes ever
dry of tears, but his sweet life was dripping away,
as he grieved for return, since the nymph was no longer pleasing.
Indeed by night he would sleep, compelled by force,
in the hollow cave, unwilling beside her who was willing,
but by day he would sit upon the rocks and sands,
rending his spirit with tears and groans and pains,
and he would look out upon the unresting sea, shedding tears.

Odyssey v 151–158 {64|65}

The hero’s “life” has become a liquid, a “sweet” one like honey, that is “dripping away,” while his eyes weep “tears,” salty like the sea. By these repetitions of δάκρυα “tears” and κατείβω/λείβω “drip away, shed,” [
25] the life of Odysseus bound to Calypso is allied with the earlier terms, “sea,” “wet,” “sleep,” and “enchantment.” Upon receiving the news of Hermes’ mediation, however, Odysseus begins his passage to the opposite pole of “land,” “dry,” “wakefulness,” and “awareness.”

Following the period of preparation for his departure, Odysseus’ passage to Phaeacia includes two major movements, first, the storm at sea sent by Poseidon and then, the final emergence from “wet” to “dry” under the aegis of Athena. At each phase of the hero’s progress, the space of the narrative is widened to include a simile that discloses the action’s symbolic meaning. Working together, one after another, the similes confirm the earlier implications of Odysseus’ separation from Calypso. They cast the vicissitudes of his entry into the epic as stages in a self-generated psychological rebirth. The first one focuses upon Odysseus building the means of his departure:

ὅσσον τίς τ᾽ ἔδαφος νηὸς τορνώσεται ἀνὴρ
φορτίδος εὐρείης, ἐὺ εἰδὼς τεκτοσυνάων,
τόσσον ἔπ᾽ εὐρεῖαν σχεδίην ποιήσατ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς.
As large as a man marks off with a compass the bottom
of a wide cargo-ship, a man who knows well the skills of carpentry,
so large did Odysseus make the wide raft.

Odyssey v 249–251

In constructing his raft, Odysseus is like the builder of a wide cargo-ship, the tool of commerce, the vehicle by which men step beyond the “ends of the earth” to travel over the ever-threatening sea and to trade for profit in the sphere of human culture dependent upon and reflective of Hermes’ power of transportation. [
26] As an essential medium of economic exchange, the cargo-ship parallels the earlier agents of Hermes’ mediation, “divinity,” “wings,” “wind,” and the ῥάβδος “wand.” Likening the raft to the cargo-ship thus makes of Odysseus, Hermes’ human counterpart. In building this raft through his τεκτοσύναι “skills of carpentry”—in thereby transforming the dry material of Calypso’s island into the means of travel through the sea—a man, Odysseus, plays the role of cultural mediator, but in the human position, midway between the winged god and the winged animal of the first simile. [27] In the raft, Odysseus makes his wings. [28] Yet for all his skill in building, Odysseus is still {65|66} dependent upon Calypso for clothes, provisions, navigational instructions, and even the propelling winds (Odyssey v 263–277). Figuratively, as the next simile reveals, Odysseus is still enclosed by Calypso’s protection.

After casting off from Calypso’s island, Odysseus is totally surrounded by the “wet.” At sea, the elements of wind and water turn hostile to the hero, as Poseidon plays a “maleficent Calypso,” stirring up hurricanes and “covering” (κάλυψε) all land and sea with clouds (Odyssey v 292–294). By this storm Odysseus is brought to the verge of death, a λευγαλέος θάνατος “wretched death” without the κλέος “fame” of those who died at Troy (Odyssey v 295–312). At this prospect, he yearns to have perished in his moment of greatest martial glory, when he rescued the corpse of Achilles. Rather than saving the hero of the Odyssey, he longs to have already died, saving the dead hero of the Iliad. Rather than the throes of a new birth, he wishes for death (Odyssey v 306–312). As he utters this wish, as if in response to it, a wave twists away his raft, leaving him weighted down by the clothes from Calypso and almost engulfed (Odyssey v 313–323). Nevertheless, he manages to regain the raft, but now since the mast has been broken, he must ride wherever the winds direct:

τὴν δ᾽ ἐφόρει μέγα κῦμα κατὰ ῥόον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ὀπωρινὸς Βορέης φορέῃσιν ἀκάνθας
ἂμ πεδίον, πυκιναὶ δὲ πρὸς ἀλλήλῃσιν ἔχονται,
ὣς τὴν ἂμ πέλαγος ἄνεμοι φέρον ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα.
Then the great wave was carrying the raft along the current now here, now there.
And as when the North Wind in autumn carries thistles
over the plain, and close they stick to one another,
so the winds were carrying the raft over the deep, now here, now there.

Odyssey v 327–330

Here again, as in the simile of the cargo-ship, the opening set of elemental contrasts is invoked. Over against the “wet” sea and the hurricane, the simile sets the “dry” plain and the wind of autumn, the season of harvest. In the role of the raft that carries Odysseus we find the ἀκάνθας “thistles,” protective “coverings” and carriers of seeds, dispersed as the wind scatters the thistledown. Propelled in such a vehicle, the life of Odysseus is no longer tears or honey, but a seed. Although all alone in the liquid sea, his effort to save himself has turned him into a potential source of life on dry land. Borne by “thistles,” however, this “seed” is still enclosed by a protective shell, one he {66|67} will have to discard in order to germinate. For now, the raft is caught in a state of suspended animation, blown first north, then south, then east, then west:

ἄλλοτε μέν τε Νότος Βορέῃ προβάλεσκε φέρεσθαι,
ἄλλοτε δ᾽ αὖτ᾽ Εὖρος Ζεφύρῳ εἴξασκε διώκειν.
At one time the South Wind would cast it to the North Wind to be carried,
and at another time again the East Wind would yield it to the West Wind to pursue.

Odyssey v 331–332

The syntax is iconic of Odysseus’ alternating, non-progressive movement: ἄλλοτε μέν τε “at one time” matched by ἄλλοτε δὲ αὖτ᾿ “at another time again,” Νότος Βορέῃ “the South Wind to the North Wind” by Εὖρος Ζεφύρῳ “the East Wind to the West Wind,” and προβάλεσκε φέρεσθαι “would cast it to be carried” by εἴξασκε διώκειν “would yield it to pursue.” Each movement is reversed, resulting in no forward motion.

Almost at once, Odysseus is moved off this dead center by the intervention of Ino. In the symbolism of rebirth, her role is that of a midwife, facilitating his separation from those elements, previously protective, that now inhibit his emergence from the sea. She urges him to take off the garments from Calypso that have “covered” him like a placenta, but now hold him back, and to abandon his raft, likened before to a thistle’s sheltering case (Odyssey v 342–345). [29] As an alternative lifeline, a figural umbilical cord, she offers an ἄμβροτον κρήδεμνον “immortal veil” to fasten below his chest and then to cast off, once he reaches dry land. After this offering, Ino dives back into the sea (Odyssey v 346–352). Immediately, the sea again covers (κάλυψεν) Odysseus with a dark wave (Odyssey v 353). While he debates whether or not to obey Ino, Poseidon breaks the wave upon him (Odyssey v 356–367) and by this convulsion the raft is shattered:

ὡς δ᾽ ἄνεμος ζαὴς ἠΐων θημῶνα τινάξῃ
καρφαλέων: τὰ μὲν ἄρ τε διεσκέδας᾽ ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ:
ὣς τῆς δούρατα μακρὰ διεσκέδας᾽. αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς
ἀμφ᾽ ἑνὶ δούρατι βαῖνε, κέληθ᾽ ὡς ἵππον ἐλαύνων,
εἵματα δ᾽ ἐξαπέδυνε, τά οἱ πόρε δῖα Καλυψώ.
αὐτίκα δὲ κρήδεμνον ὑπὸ στέρνοιο τάνυσσεν,
αὐτὸς δὲ πρηνὴς ἁλὶ κάππεσε, χεῖρε πετάσσας,
νηχέμεναι μεμαώς. {67|68}
And as when the strong-blowing wind shakes a heap of dry
chaff and scatters it now in this direction, now in that,
so the wave scattered the raft’s long planks, but now Odysseus
sat astride one plank, like a man riding on horseback,
and stripped off the clothing that the divine Calypso had provided him.
And at once he stretched the veil of Ino under his chest and
dove down himself head first in the sea with his arms spread out,
passionately eager to swim.

Odyssey v 368–375

Like its earlier counterpart, this simile pits the “dry”—before, the thistle and here, the chaff—against the “wet” of the sea, with the wind as the mediating agent in both realms. [
30] But now the raft is no longer a protective vehicle, encasing a potential life. Now shattered, the raft leaves Odysseus, separated like a seed from the chaff, able to germinate. Now able to act independently, Odysseus turns a fragment of the broken raft into a temporary carrier. In this transformation of wreckage into mobility, Odysseus is likened no longer to any phase of the life of a seed, but to a man, one who augments the speed of his movement by engaging the energy of a horse. Likened to a horse, the wood of the plank becomes animated. And likened to a rider, Odysseus becomes similarly active—he jettisons the “coverings” from the “Cover-ess” that now weigh him down, puts on a final fabric of female protection, and projects himself, now an unsupported missile, into the sea to swim alone. At once, the second movement of Odyssey v ends, with Poseidon departing as he initially intruded, after a short prediction of Odysseus’ future trials (Odyssey v 377–379; compare 286–290). The third portion of Book v, the ultimate passage from “wet” to “dry,” is governed by Athena.

Odysseus has now crossed the πεῖραρ ὀιζύος “boundary of misery” (Odyssey v 289), the frontier between the two worlds of the Odyssey, the raw, elemental nature of Poseidon and the civilization of Athena. [31] Now Athena directs the winds and the waves to conduct Odysseus to the land of the Phaeacians (Odyssey v 382–387). The psychological significance of this land for Odysseus is conveyed in a simile that inverts the conventional associations of its terms:

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἀσπάσιος βίοτος παίδεσσι φανήῃ
πατρός, ὃς ἐν νούσῳ κεῖται κρατέρ᾽ ἄλγεα πάσχων,
δηρὸν τηκόμενος, στυγερὸς δέ οἱ ἔχραε δαίμων,
ἀσπάσιον δ᾽ ἄρα τόν γε θεοὶ κακότητος ἔλυσαν, {68|69}
ὣς Ὀδυσῆ’ ἀσπαστὸν ἐείσατο γαῖα καὶ ὕλη,
νῆχε δ᾽ ἐπειγόμενος ποσὶν ἠπείρου ἐπιβῆναι.
As when gladly welcomed life appears to the children,
the life of the father, who lies in sickness suffering strong pains,
for a long time wasting away, and the hated death spirit attacked him,
but then gladly welcomed the gods released him from misery,
so gladly welcomed appeared the earth and woods to Odysseus,
and he swam, pressing himself, so as to set foot on the mainland.

Odyssey v 394–399

Instead of its usual identification with motherhood, the earth here is likened to a father. Failure to reach this land would mean the loss of what only the father confers in father-ruled society, home and legitimate adult identity. Despite its distance from Ithaca, Phaeacia is now psychologically the “father-land” of Odysseus. To set foot on this island is to achieve separation from the mother and identification with the father, to emerge, that is, as a male child. [
32] Accordingly, it is to children that Odysseus is compared, children nearly orphaned, too young to assume their patrimony.

Once having seen this “father-land,” the “child” Odysseus confronts the remaining onslaughts of the sea with increasing independence and intellectual control, a growth reflected in the progressive decrease of direct intervention by Athena. In the first upheaval after sighting land, Athena gives him the idea of clinging to a rock (Odyssey v 424–429). Then when the undertow of the same wave sucks him out to sea again, it is through foresight supplied by Athena that he swims out of the reach of the surf (Odyssey v 435–440). But when he comes to the mouth of the river, it is Odysseus alone who begs the current to receive him, and when he steps at last upon the land, Odysseus alone plans how to preserve himself against the elements. The last two similes of Odyssey v interpret this action as a development within the ψυχή “life-breath, soul” of the hero.

When Odysseus is again thrown out to sea by the backwash of the wave he had just escaped, his separation from the rock is described by a subtly meaningful simile:

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε πουλύποδος θαλάμης ἐξελκομένοιο
πρὸς κοτυληδονόφιν πυκιναὶ λάιγγες ἔχονται,
ὣς τοῦ πρὸς πέτρῃσι θρασειάων ἀπὸ χειρῶν
ῥινοὶ ἀπέδρυφθεν: τὸν δὲ μέγα κῦμα κάλυψεν. {69|70}
And as when an octopus is dragged away from its hole,
dense-packed pebbles are held by the cups of its tentacles,
so by the rocks the skin from his bold hands
was torn off. And a great wave covered him.

Odyssey v 432–435

The image is initially elusive. At the start, the counterpart of Odysseus seems to be the octopus: each is forced away from an object in the sea, Odysseus from a rock, the octopus from his hole (θαλάμης). [
33] And as the πουλύποδος“octopus” is literally “he of the many feet,” so Odysseus is at the start of the epic πολύτροπος “he of the many turns” (Odyssey i 1) and elsewhere, πολύμητις “he of much mêtis.” [34] Accordingly, when we hear how the octopus holds the pebbles in its tentacles, we expect that Odysseus holds something, too. But what happens is just the opposite: the skin of Odysseus “is being held” by the rock. Now, not Odysseus, but the rock becomes the octopus’ parallel. The skin he leaves behind and the wave that then “covered” (κάλυψεν) him mark his remaining physical dependency: he is still within the sea and Athena is still stimulating his mind and his action. But his emergence within the simile from an apparent sea creature to a man suggests an internal, psychological development into adulthood, at the same time as it prefigures the external, physical emergence from the sea that this inner development will make possible. This movement of Odysseus within the simile from an apparent animal to a man recalls the earlier simile when Hermes was likened to the seagull who dives into the deep for its food. Just as Odysseus subsequently sat in the chair Hermes had occupied (Odyssey v 195–196), so now it is the hero who is compared, at least initially, to a creature of the sea. But no sooner is he likened to a sea creature than he moves on in the simile to a role with no divine precedent, a role solely his own. Odysseus has become his own “Hermes,” first by paralleling the god who came to separate him and then by separating himself.

This figuration of Odysseus as his own “Hermes” is explicit in the final act and simile of Odyssey v. Here, indeed, he appropriates the roles of both Athena and Calypso as well. Once he has emerged from the ocean, Odysseus acts alone to insure his passage from “sleep” to “wakefulness,” safe from that form of the “wet” one can suffer upon the land, the “evil frost and the feminine dew” (Odyssey v 467). He assumes this function of Hermes ψυχοπομπός “conductor of the soul” by transforming the “dry” material of the land—leaves from the olive trees of Athena—into a self-made “Calypso.” In the simile that interprets this action, Odysseus’ “crafting” of a bed and a “cover” of olive leaves is turned into a sumbolon of completed rebirth of the ψυχή “life-breath, soul”: {70|71}

τὴν μὲν ἰδὼν γήθησε πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα μέσσῃ λέκτο, χύσιν δ᾽ ἐπεχεύατο φύλλων.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ᾽ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σώζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὔοι,
ὣς Ὀδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο.
Seeing this bed, much-enduring, shining Odysseus was happy,
and so he lay down in the middle of it and poured the profusion of leaves over him.
As when a man hides a burning log in a dark heap of ashes
in the remotest part of a field, a man for whom there are no others as neighbors nearby,
thus saving the seed of fire, so as not to have to kindle it from some other source,
so Odysseus covered himself with the leaves.

Odyssey v 486–491

Through the δαλὸν “burning log” and the σπέρμα πυρὸς “seed of fire,” the simile connects itself with all the earlier symbolism of rebirth and with the elemental environment of the action as a whole. Odysseus is again a seed, but now a seed of fire, wholly “dry.” [
35] Before “covered” by Calypso and then by Poseidon’s sea, Odysseus has now completed the “self-generation” implicit in being both consort and child of the goddess and can now “cover” himself. What he thus preserves is the spark of the intelligence of Athena. Such is the implication of the fact that the “seed of fire” is hidden in ashes, the product of fire. For the “fire” common to both the “seed of fire” as Odysseus and the “ashes” as counterpart to the olive leaves is Athena. Odysseus has covered “Athena,” now fully revived within him. The two are in concert, as the goddess now proves, when in the last words of the book instead of initiating, she echoes the hero’s action by “covering his eyes” (βλέφαρ᾿ ἀμφικαλύψας, Odyssey v 493) for sleep. [36]


[ back ] 1. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Classical World 74 (Symbolism in Greek Poetry) (1980) 109–123. I am grateful to Thomas Habinek, Katherine King, David Quint, Froma Zeitlin, and the referee for Classical World for help with that text, and to Nancy Felson for her dedication in fostering the special issue of the journal.

[ back ] 2. Eustathius Commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem vol. 1, page 7 in his “Critical Remarks on Homer’s Iliad” observes: ὅτι ἀνδρώδης μὲν ἡ Ἰλιὰς καὶ σεμνοτέρα καὶ ὕψος ἔχουσα, ἐπεὶ καὶ ἡρωϊκωτέρα· ἠθικὴ δὲ ἡ Ὀδύσσεια, ὡς ἐκεῖ σαφέστερον γέγραπται· καὶ ὅτι τὴν Ὁμηρικὴν ἰσχὺν οὐ τοσοῦτον ἐν τῇ Ἰλιάδι ἔστι καταμαθεῖν, ὅσον ἐν τῇ Ὀδυσσείᾳ, “that the Iliad on the one hand is manly and more serious and possesses sublimity, since it is also more heroic, and on the other hand, the Odyssey is ethical, as has been written more clearly there [where the point was set out earlier]; and that it is not possible to perceive Homer’s power so much in the Iliad as in the Odyssey.” See also Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam vol. 1, pages 1–2 on the Proem: Ἠθικωτέρα δὲ τῆς Ἰλιάδος κατὰ τὴν παλαιὰν ἀλήθειαν ἐστὶν ἡ Ὀδύσσεια ὅ ἐστιν, γλυκυτέρα τὲ καὶ ἀφελεστέρα. ἤδη δὲ καὶ ὀξυτέρα διὰ τὰ ἐν φαντασίᾳ ἐπιπολαίου ἀφελείας βάθη τῶν νοημάτων, ὡς οἱ τεχνικοὶ λέγουσι, “According to the ancient truth [that is, a truth uttered long ago], the Odyssey is more ethical than the Iliad, that is, it is both sweeter and of greater simplicity. And at the same time it is also more acute on account of the depths of its thoughts in an appearance of superficial simplicity, as the grammarians say.” On these passages, see Segal 1962b:17 and Allen 1970:90–93. For the allegorical interpretation of Homeric epic, see also Buffière 1956 and Pépin 1958.

[ back ] 3. See Segal 1962b and 1967. In 1962b:18 Segal explains: “The symbolism of the Return—the possibility for certain images, characters, places, episodes in it to carry a deeper meaning than their literal, surface denotation—is latent in the concern of the Odyssey, as perhaps of all epic, with the basic mysteries and conditions of human life, ever changing between an unknown beginning and an unknown end. In the Odyssey these possibilities are especially rich, for the poem deals recurrently and under many different forms with death and rebirth, with change of state and the loss and resumption of identity.”

[ back ] 4. Holtsmark 1966, a study which points the way for the present essay and to which I am greatly indebted.

[ back ] 5. From antiquity through the Renaissance, the most frequent interpretation of Calypso is as the entrapping sexuality of the beautiful female: for example, Antisthenes, the Cynic, who takes Odysseus’ rejection of Calypso’s offer of immortality in favor of the “wise” but less beautiful Penelope as proof of the wise man’s knowledge that lovers promise the impossible and of his preference for wisdom (see Buffière 1956:371–372 and Pépin 1958:107–108), Plotinus, who in his treatise On the Beautiful cites Calypso as an example of sensual beauty (see Pépin 1958:199), and Ludovico Dolce, who in his L’Ulisse of 1573 casts Calypso as libidinous femininity (see Allen 1970:94). Contemporary readings stress what is implicit in Calypso as material body, namely, that she is the source of love and death; for example, Güntert 1919, followed by Anderson 1958 and Holtsmark 1966, who also elaborates her maternal role.

[ back ] 6. Eustathius records a neo-Platonic allegory of Calypso as the shell-like body that imprisons the pearl of the soul and of her sea-dashed, wooded island at the navel of the sea as the watery, material body, exposed to all passions; and of Odysseus’ escape from her to Penelope by the aid of Hermes as logos, as the passage from corporeal to philosophic existence (Eustathius Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam vol. 1, page 17 on Odyssey i 51; see Buffière 1956:461–463). In another allegory transmitted by Eustathius Calypso is interpreted macrocosmically as the heavenly vault “covering” the earth and as the science of astronomy, since she is the daughter or telos of Atlas, the axis whose regular rotations constitute the laws of the sky; in this conception, the goddess represents the philosophy of the material world as opposed to the true wisdom of internal contemplation represented by Penelope (Eustathius Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam vol. 1, page 17 on Odyssey i 52; see Buffière 1956:388–391).

[ back ] 7. Segal 1962b:20.

[ back ] 8. On tropos vs. figura, see Quintilian 9.1.1–9 and 9.2.46, where Quintilian shows how irony can occur as a tropos, that is, by means of one or two words, and as a figura, extended over a whole passage or even over a whole life, as in the case of Socrates. He concludes with the analogy: quemadmodum ἀλληγορίαν facit continua metaphora, sic hoc schema faciat tropos ille contextus “just as a continued metaphor creates allegory, so that tropos which has been connected creates this figura.” An allegory is a continued metaphor, and figure, a “contextualized” trope. In these terms, Calypso is, as we shall see, “figural” and the action of Odyssey v “allegorical.”

[ back ] 9. While Vergil is Dante’s stated “master and author,” the Odyssey, as the first epic of “comic” structure in the Western tradition, is the ultimate antecedent of the Divina Commedia. The entrances of the two heroes, Odysseus and Dante, into the poems share several features. Common to both is the initial position of the man, his movement from that position, and, as we shall see, the symbolization of that movement through a code of opposite categories as spiritual experience. Just as Odysseus is at mid-point in his return home, so Dante is nel mezzo del cammin “midway in the journey.” Each struggles to leave this place, a selva oscura “dark wood” for Dante and for Odysseus, too, a thick forest. Exemplary of both the kinship and the disparities between Inferno I and Odyssey v is the simile of Canto I 22–27, in which the mind (mio animo) of Dante looks back on the wood (selva) as a man looks back upon the sea he has just escaped, an escape parallel to that of Odysseus in Odyssey v. Emergence from the forest and the sea is the common motif of the two works, but the greater interiority of Inferno I is shown in the fact that the tenor of the simile is not a person, but the personified “mind.” In addition, the specific religious meaning of this spiritual experience is not revealed by the simile alone, but only insofar as it alludes to the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus. On this allusion, see Singleton 1970:2.8. In Odyssey v, on the other hand, the overall pattern of action is parallel to that of Inferno I, but the function of the similes is, as we shall see, like that of the episode in Exodus.

[ back ] 10. On the effect of realism resulting from the description of Realien, see Barthes 1968:84–89. For the way such description contributes to the impression in Homeric epic of tangible surfaces in present time and space, see Auerbach 1973 [1953]:3–14.

[ back ] 11. See Singleton 1970:1.2–11 with 2.3–21.

[ back ] 12. On ὑπόνοια as the word in Plato and Xenophon for what was later termed allegoria, see Buffière 1956:45–48, Pépin 1958:85–87, and Allen 1970:viii.

[ back ] 13. See Gauthier 1972:65–71. Implicit in this definition is the fact that only halves of the same object will be able to coincide. This implication may seem to re-emerge in the Romantic assertion of a consubstantiality between symbol and idea that is absent in allegory. For the “material substantiality” and the “participation mystique” in the conception of the symbol of Goethe and Coleridge, see de Man 1969:174–177 and Fletcher 1964:17–19. The ancient notion of sumbolon does not, however, imply the unbroken unity of figure and concept in the Romantic theory, for it is only by reference to a part from which it is irreparably broken that a sumbolon can betoken a relationship between two equally separate parties. What the sumbolon symbolizes is a liaison between two parts, a “wholeness” or “identity” constituted by the “fault” of difference, like James’ “golden bowl.” In this way the operation of the Greek sumbolon is closer to allegory as described by de Man, in which the allegorical sign must repeat a previous sign with which it can never coincide (de Man 1969:190).

[ back ] 14. Aristotle On Interpretation 16a, 4–8, 20–29, in particular: Ἔστι μὲν οὖν τὰ ἐν τῇ φωνῇ τῶν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ παθημάτων σύμβολα, καὶ τὰ γραφόμενα τῶν ἐν τῇ φωνῇ, “Spoken words are the sumbola of experiences in the soul, and written words are sumbola of spoken words” (3–4) and Ὄνομα μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ φωνὴ σημαντικὴ κατὰ συνθήκην ἄνευ χρόνου . . . τὸ δὲ κατὰ συνθήκην, ὅτι φύσει τῶν ὀνομάτων οὐδέν ἐστιν, ἀλλ’ ὅταν γένηται σύμβολον, “A noun is a sound significant by convention without reference to time . . . by convention, because nothing is by nature a noun, but only whenever it becomes a sumbolon” (19–20, 26–28). On motivated vs. unmotivated signs, see Todorov 1977, esp. 28, 32–33. In an unconventional, motivated sign, the signifier bears some natural relation to the signified, such as similarity or difference (metaphorical relations) or contiguity, causality, or consubstantiality (metonymic relations).

[ back ] 15. Euripides Ion 1386–1442. Gauthier 1972 observes: “the memories of Creusa that prove her capable of describing the design of the weaving and the shape of the jewels constitute in effect the counter-part, the equivalent of what was before the other half of the broken knucklebone.” The μητρὸς σύμβολα “symbols of the mother” here are “natural” or “motivated” not only because they include Ion’s actual clothes, but also because of the Gorgon, fringed with snakes in the manner of the aegis, that Creusa wove into the “middle warp threads of her robe” (Ion 1386, 1418, 1421, 1425). This aegis is the emblem of Athena, patroness of Athens, whose autochthonous king, Erechtheus, is Creusa’s father. Similarly “symbolic” of the mother’s identity are the golden snake necklace worn at Athena’s command in memory of Erechthonius and the wreath from the ἀκήρατος “undefiled” olive tree of Athena on the Acropolis (Ion 1427–1429, 1436). The references to virginity point to Ion’s conception in the “defiling” of Creusa, while the Gorgon herself, the dreaded female head with the power to petrify, betokens the woman’s power of life and death displayed by Creusa alternatively in bearing and in trying to kill her son. These sumbola Ion terms θέσφατα “things spoken by god” (Ion 1424). This usage illustrates the claim of oracles to being “motivated speech,” that is, signifiers with a metaphorical or metonymic relation to the signified.

[ back ] 16. Herodotus Histories 6.86.28–35. See Gauthier 1972:67–68.

[ back ] 17. Gauthier 1972:72.

[ back ] 18. For res et signum, see Singleton 1970:2.7 on line 17.

[ back ] 19. Principally, in general order of occurrence, these oppositions are: dark/light, crooked/straight, fear/hope, bitter/sweet, death/life, evil/good, sleep/wakefulness, true/false, forest or valley/mountain, low/high, beast/divinity, night/morning, she/he, trembling/peace, woe/happiness.

[ back ] 20. See Holtsmark 1966:206n2.

[ back ] 21. The presence of weaving in Calypso’s cave complicates the view of Vidal-Naquet (1970:1278–1279) that in the Odyssey the adventures take place in the realm of nature and the return in that of culture, with Phaeacia as a place of transition. In the case of Calypso’s island and the home of Circe, as well, where we also find weaving and cooking, there is a more complex admixture of the two realms, suggesting that these two female artifices cannot be comprehended by the nature/culture dichotomy.

[ back ] 22. On Calypso’s island as a “paradise,” see Anderson 1958:6–7.

[ back ] 23. See, for example, Hermes’ conducting of the souls of the suitors to Hades, Odyssey xxiv 1–4: [ back ] Ἑρμῆς δὲ ψυχὰς Κυλλήνιος ἐξεκαλεῖτο [ back ] ἀνδρῶν μνηστήρων: ἔχε δὲ ῥάβδον μετὰ χερσὶν [ back ] καλὴν χρυσείην, τῇ τ᾽ ἀνδρῶν ὄμματα θέλγει [ back ] ὧν ἐθέλει, τοὺς δ᾽ αὖτε καὶ ὑπνώοντας ἐγείρει. [ back ] Hermes of Cyllene called out the souls [ back ] of the suitors: and in his hands he was carrying the wand, [ back ] beautiful, golden, by which he forever enchants the eyes of the men, [ back ] of whomever he wishes, while others he rouses even as they sleep.

[ back ] 24. Segal 1962b:23 points the way toward this interpretation when he calls Odysseus’ arrival, sleep, and awakening on Phaeacia “a rebirth after the quasi-death on Ogygia.”

[ back ] 25. On λείβω and εἴβω as doublets, see Haslam 1976.

[ back ] 26. For instructions on how to maximize profit in ναυτιλία δυσπεμφέλος “rough and stormy sailing,” see Hesiod Works and Days 618–694. On Hermes as the mediator of commerce, see Watkins 1971:346–350.

[ back ] 27. For the ancient definition of humans by their medial status between divinities and beasts, see Aristotle Politics 1253a25-29, Detienne 1972b, and Segal 1974a.

[ back ] 28. For Odysseus’ building of the raft as a “symbolical reengagement of his rational faculties,” see Segal 1962b:22.

[ back ] 29. Holtsmark 1966:209 interprets only the raft with its source of food as the placenta, but the initially protective covering of the clothes given by the “mother” Calypso would seem to share this function.

[ back ] 30. See Moulton 1977:125 on the common features of the two similes (Odyssey v 328–330 and 368–370).

[ back ] 31. Bergren 1975:57–59.

[ back ] 32. For the Athenian male’s movement from childhood to manhood as his physical separation from strictly enclosed female quarters and assumption of relationships with men, see Slater 1971:55–63.

[ back ] 33. Although Odysseus only appears initially to be compared to the octopus, it is still instructive to recall that in Greek culture the octopus was a model in the animal world for mêtis, due to its exceptional polymorphy (it takes the shape of the bodies to which it clings) and to its inky cloud, a means of both escape and capture. See Detienne and Vernant 1978:34–43. Odysseus’ apparent likeness to an octopus is thus proleptically appropriate for the hero who will be covered in a cloud by Metis’ daughter, Athena (Odyssey vii 15, 140; compare Odyssey xiii 189, 299, 313 and 352, where the goddess temporarily disguises Ithaca, too, in a cloud) and will carry out the mêtis “woven” by the goddess and himself (Odyssey xiii 303, 386) by taking on the shape of a beggar (Odyssey xiii 429–438) and later defeating the real beggar, Iros (Odyssey xviii 1–107).

[ back ] 34. In the Odyssey the adjective πολύμητις is used only of Odysseus and all but two of its 68 occurrences are in the line-final πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς.

[ back ] 35. In addition to his efforts to insure his own sleep and safe awakening, this likening of Odysseus to a burning log with its seed of fire points to his assumption of the powers of Hermes. For Hermes as the inventor of fire and fire-sticks, see Homeric Hymn to Hermes 111, and for his identity with the Vedic fire god, Agni, see Hocart 1970 [1963]:17–20 and Watkins 1971:354n41.

[ back ] 36. See Holtsmark 1966:210 for the usage of καλύπτω here and elsewhere in Odyssey v. On these last occurrences of the verb he comments: “After he has thus covered himself (καλύψατο, 491) with leaves, Athena finally covers up (ἀμφικαλύψας, 493) his weary eyelids in sleep that he may rest from his toil and gather strength. The meaning of the name of Calypso, the coverer who is Death, is at the beginning of the book the negation of real life, becomes in the book’s central portion a strong intimation of the ambivalently exercised struggle between the claims of life and death (353, 372, 435), and suggests at the end the restorative process by means of which the precariously kindled flame will blaze in full affirmation of life.”

[ back ] 37. On the relation between the similes of Homer and pre-Socratic philosophy, see Riezler 1936:253–271; note also Riezler’s notion of a “metaphorical” interaction between simile and narrative whereby each transfers its characteristics to the other.