I just read Homer’s Odyssey -once again- and my joy has been different from before, but not less. I have read it in the magnificent translation by Carlos García Gual, the latest from Alianza Editorial, from 2013. I am not proficient enough in ancient Greek to read it in the original but, well, neither have I read the original works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Kafka.
So I am writing to clarify somewhat where my enthusiasm comes from, what in my opinion is real and what is not, and for what reasons I invite you to read it. A reading for pleasure, not academic, to free yourself, even to fall asleep. A reading for the love of art, without obsessing over symbolism or what it meant to say. Without apriorism. Let your own intuition illuminate as you go and make your own guesses and comparisons, and discover your own hidden symbols. As if you were a lover, cry, sigh and die of amazement with the light and beauty of the worlds that are evoked. Wouldn’t you cry with grief when you realized that you were watching the last episode of your favorite series?
Of course, I do not invite you to it because it is a classic. The word “classic” is the greatest enemy of the classics, since we almost always associate it with a leather-bound book stored on a shelf where all the classics shine, forgotten. And if, in addition, they are a required reading in schools, we go headlong into the river. However, the classics get such status because for generation after generation they have been considered a model of wisdom and beauty. They are river stones polished by time and the eyes that rested on them. Curiously, most of the classical authors led a life that was nothing short of miserable, marginal and, in many cases, persecuted. Italo Calvino, Italian writer, invites us to read the classics for many reasons, and he is right about all of them. Some, for example:
- Because they are books that never finish saying what they say. That is, its potential never ends; they are sources of living water, because they are written from a point of view and a state of consciousness that enables them to be useful, fresh and relevant in all contexts, at all times and places. Thus, each one reads “his” book as if it had been written for himself, for the needs of his soul.
- Because they transmit universal and eternal archetypes. That is, knowledge structures and the collective unconscious applicable to all humanity.
- Because the classic is configured as an equivalent of the universe, like the ancient talismans.
The Odyssey, according to scholars, like the Iliad, Homer’s other great epic, dates from about the 8th century BC, and the events to which it supposedly refers occurred more or less between the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC. Actually, for those educated in such things, it may be very important to date this event, as well as to know for sure if Jesus Christ existed as a historical figure or is simply the name of a great myth that has shaped, along with the Greeks, the entire western culture.
But that doesn’t matter, because both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Gospels, do not refer to physical persons, nor do they deny them, but to archetypes that work to model a culture and, what is more, to transmit to us universal knowledge coincident in all peoples: the search for the spirit.
In every human being there is a latent principle, which at any moment of his life can manifest itself. This principle, call it Tao, Brahman, God, Universal Logos, etc., strongly calls upon all of us so some people set out to find answers to fundamental questions such as “who am I, where do I come from, where am I going, why does evil exist…?”
To help those who set out on this path, these myths were born in all cultures. And they do so in the form of a story, the most intelligent and entertaining way of transmitting a teaching. These stories have many levels of reading, because, as we said before, they not only give clues about the spiritual path, but also shape nations, peoples, philosophies and ways of life.
Every one wishes to have a divine origin –as does every human being, even if they do not know it- and to this end, they spontaneously build within themselves the story of their origins, which takes shape over time, until it is written down and established as the “story of the homeland”.
The Odyssey recounts the vicissitudes that occur to Ulysses, or Odysseus, on his return to his homeland, the island of Ithaca. Odysseus sets sail with his companions, always protected by the goddess Pallas Athena. He will have to face the wrath of Poseidon, god of the sea, in storms and shipwrecks, the temptation to live eternally with the nymph Calypso, or succumb to the spell of the sirens or the force of the Cyclops, among other things. All this without betraying his longing -to be reunited with his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, who 20 years ago saw him leave and who, now, are harassed by the suitors, a large group of noblemen who aspire to marry with his wife and destroys his state.
The adventures of Odysseus on his return home are of such magnitude, and to such an extent have permeated the collective unconscious, that today “odyssey” has become a common name, defined rather adversely as “a long journey, in which adverse or favorable adventures abound”.
To all misfortunes, which are not few, in which he loses all his companions, the character responds with three qualities: longing, perseverance and intelligence; for which he counts on the help of the gods. The latter could specify that it is a way of saying that “the path summons the necessary forces to travel the path”. Today we can find this inventory of virtues in any self-help manual and, of course, in life itself, in the form of ethics, morals or religion. However, something I would like to emphasize is that the most interesting aspect, apart from the literary, is the spiritual one, that is, the type of energy or subtle vibration that emerges from its pages –I would say that this is its truth– and the symbolism of the facts.
The interpretation of the facts arises as our consciousness identifies the symbols spontaneously, not starting from an inventory of them but rather having to unravel them in the text. I mean spiritual symbolism above all.
Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, to bore and frustrate the suitors, weaves a cloth during the day that she undoes at night; in this way, she gains time so as not to lose hope in the return of the hero, because she, like Ulysses, longs for their reunion. In this case, the symbolism of the soul that always waits for the terrestrial being, whom it envelops, to mature through endless experiences to become great and be worthy of the Spirit, comes to mind. Finally, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, confronts the suitors and recovers his kingdom – the Spirit, his original being – and becomes once again the king of himself, the highest power to which a human being can aspire.
The Greek poet Konstantino Kavafis has expressed better than anyone else the ideas, the myth of Ithaca, in his homonymous poem, the longing to depart, the experiences of the journey, the wisdom acquired at the end of the road. “Wise as you have already become / you will finally know what Ithacas means”.
Odyssey is a book about the path, about the motivation to travel the path, about the misadventures and dangers of the path, about the forces that protect the one who walks. About the union with the original being where the path leads, the kingdom of which oneself is king.
We have left out the literary nature of Odyssey, something that is unavoidable when talking about it. Odyssey is one of the summits of universal literature along with the Iliad, the Mahabharata, Tao te King, the Bible, the Thousand and One Nights, Dante’s Comedy and some more. It is also the culmination of narrative excellence. Let us think of the episode in which, already in the court of the Phaeacians, he recounts, in a masterful retrospective, his adventures so far.
As in all epics, the ancient one, its verses in hexameters, were recited or sung by rhapsodists in public and private spaces. Now the stories can be read or seen in novels, tales, movies, series, etc. Even social networks themselves are nowadays a narrative genre of fiction, in which everyone builds their own character. However, this does not mean that, in the babel of today’s culture, we fail to find, for example, the cinema of Bergman, Passolini, Malick and others, places where the spiritual impulse, the spirit of the path, can be presumed.
Recently, at the presentation of a book to commemorate the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a transcript of the original Odyssey, the author, to the question of which author he considered the greatest narrator of all time, answered without hesitation : Homer.
 Italo Calvino: Why read the classics. Lumen. Barcelona, 1993. Siruela, Barcelona, 2019.