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August 24, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Joseph Campbell’s Odyssey

One of my more pleasant duties in my three years (1978-81) of herding cats as Statewide Coordinator of California Poets In The Schools was to attend the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) regional conference at Asilomar, on the Pacific shore near Monterey, California, and schmooze with the assembled potential clients seeking niches for poets in classrooms. The Asilomar NCTE’s had a truly distinguished set of presenters. My final year the keynote speaker was the renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here are my notes (necessarily framentary, explicated only when possible) on the truly unique take on Homer that Joseph Campbell presented at Asilomar on September 28, 1980. Any flat inaccuracies are undoubtedly mine rather than Campbell’s.


The function of religious institutions is to defend yourself against an experience of God.

Odysseus spent twenty years in passage through a violent male world where woman was booty. To return from that experience, to reach home again, he had to pass through a debriefing which included threats and teachers. The threats were monsters: Cyclops, the Laestrygonians. The teachers were nymphs representing three-fold aspects of the Great Goddess: Circe (Aphrodite), Kallypso (Hera) and Nausicaa (Athene). These three ladies were supposedly  judged by Paris: a male put-down of the feminine.

The Old Goddess was animal as well as human. Pig, deer and water (in the Odyssey) are the powers of life. When she becomes human, the animal is her associate. Eating and drinking, we partake of the universe. The goal of all living is become transparent to the transcendent. The radiance of the transcendent permeates the world of time-space. Squirrel or saint on the shores of experience.

The function of art, of the poet, is to make things ONE, as opposed to war, this against that: DIVISION. That is the large movement that works in Homer. Male and female versions at work and at loggerheads in the text.

Aphrodite, born on the half-shell, out of the ocean, was the cause of the whole thing. Gaea was born inside the father-womb of Uranus. Uranus was so tight, so uptight, that his children couldn’t get out. Chronos was the eldest child, took a sickle and casbtrated his father, throwing his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was born from thence: this version is another male put-down.

The Goddess was there first! She is time and space and logic. We are bound in those realms, and she is the binding circle. She is being and act, woman and man, love and war together, the ground of being, always naked. There is a bird in her hair: the Holy Ghost. And a snake too. They are the messengers of Aphrodite. The bird is released spirit, the snake bound to earth. The serpent of the moon shed its skin to be born again. Significance of the snake reversed in Judeo-Christian tradition.

Aphrodite as the mother, the fingers of a baby on her nipple: Eros.  Her other male associate is Hermes, with wings in his hair, wearing a white suit at the gate of death, he opens the way. Hermes the dog and the three goddesses. Hermes is Mithra, with a stocking cap. The sun. Christmas is Mithra’s birthday.

Paris is a lounge lizard, an Indo-European latecomer. Accosted by Hermes, he sets up an Atlantic City beauty contest between the goddesses with their three circles of destiny. Another inflexion: the three Eumenides. Hermes tells you: gotta face ’em. Hermes makes you make up your mind.

In the male tradition, Aphrodite offers Helen as a bribe to Paris. Paris abducts Helen. Menelaus objects: “Helen in my property.” Achilles and Patroclus are draftees. Odysseus, newly married, tries to act crazy for the draft board, hitching incongruous animals to his plow. Agamennon is a tough shrink: he sets Telemachus in the furrow. Odysseus flinches from plowing under his own and only son. “You must be sane,” concludes Agamennon. Catch-22.

There’s no wind for the fleet, so the male priest Calchis declares they must sacrifice Iphigenia. Clytemnestra sees her daughter taken away, with nefarious consequences. Clytemnestra has had bad press. In the female tradition, Artemis recues Iphigenia. Homer didn’t know this.

The Iliad among the Dorians is contemporary with Judges and Joshua among the Hebrews. Jephthah also sacrifices his daughter Iphis. We have both traditions. That’s why we’re in such a mess.

Achilles and Agamemnon in a spat over Briseydis: who gets the blonde? Achilles sulks in his tent. Soldiers in their free time, playing chess. Come on, come on!, coax his friends. And the Iliad begins: I sing the wrath… Patroklus killed, Achilles goes to war for personal revenge, a bad reason if you want to keep your soul clean.

Unlike the Old Testament, there are personal heroes on both sides. Achilles is a sports hero: Joe Namath. Hektor is  a real human being. Hektor will be no match for Achilles. Andromache knows it and tells him not to go. Parallel here to Arjuna and Krishna. Astyanax, their son, “little star,” is afraid of his father’s helmet: bad omen for the male side. Achilles drags Hektor three times around the walls of Troy to his death, a magical act, unwinding the walls’ magic. Athene suggests the strategem of the Trojan Horse. The classical tradition survives and is transformed in Europe: the God become heroes. Virgil with Aeneas. Arthur.

Christianity is more Greek than Hebrew. The swan descends to Leda, the dove to Mary.

Helen, taken back by Menelaus, ends up in Egypt. Agamemnon is killed by Clytemnestra, Clytemnestra by Orestes. Is he his mother’s or his father’s son? Two mythologies clash.

Apollo purifies Orestes by pig sacrifice: domestic cult. Tusks of the pig: two crescent moons, blackface between. The blood of the pig puts the Eumenides to sleep. Circe’s animal is the pig. Odysseus meets his son Telemachus in the swineherd’s shelter.

Sword in hand, Odysseus, a wary crazy Vietnam vet, sails his twelve ships first north to Ismarius, where they sack the town, rape and pillage. Boreas, the North Wind, then blows him south to Africa, to the land of the Lotus Eaters. The magical experience, LSD, the shore of dreams. California.

Odysseus goes ashore on the Isle of the Cyclops with the solar number of twelve men. Entering the cave, the narrow gate, he confronts Polyphemus the one-eyed, a reduced negative form of power facing within. Asked who are you? he responds “No man,” divesting himself of secular fame as he enters the underworld.

Polyphemus eats six men, three sheep, nine in total, a goddess number.  The sharpened beam that blinds him is a convenience from the magical realm described in gory detail. When he cries out and tells his friends No man is killing him, they tell him: “keep it to yourself.”

The central problem in the Odyssey is how to coordinate the adventures of the solar hero and the woman who weaves the world. Odysseus is the Ram, the Sun-God, on his way to the Island of the Sun, to which he is introduced by Circe. Penelope weaves and unweaves like the moon. The lunar and solar calendars mesh in a twenty-year cycle. The moon is life throwing off death, bound to the wheel of the world, reincarnation. The sun casts no shadow, the radiant sign of life disengaged from time, nirvana. Locate the eternal light. Am I consciousness or body? You don’t have to quit life to get to the sun. The full moon, the mid-point in man’s life, the 35th year, Yeats, A Vision, Dante.

Aeolus of the winds, Stromboli, the newspaper office in Joyce’s Ulysses, spirit that has left earthly character behind: the danger of inflation, puff yourself up. The temptation of Jesus, to turn bread into stone, to convert spiritual kingdoms into economics and politics. Alternatively, cast yourself down. Given a wallet full of winds, Odysseus falls asleep, his men open the packet. “We blew it.”

Ugly adventure among the Laestrygonians, manic depression, cannibalism the ultimate depressant. We are all flesh, and that’s all. Throw rocks at them, they sink eleven of twelve shiops, more divestiture.

Circe of the Braided Locks, weaving appearance, weaving Maya. Odysseus, you’re in trouble now: a woman whom you can’t push around. Male brute force against woman’s magic arrow. The Iliad is ruled by Zeus and Apollo, the Odyssey by Hermes.

 Odysseus undergoes two initiations: that of the Underworld and that of the Lord of Light, Circe’s father. The underworld is the ancestral world where all bodies are the shadows of spirits.

Tiresias saw two serpents copulating, stuck his staff between them and it made a woman. Zeus and Hera, arguing about who enjoys sex more, man or woman, ask Tiresias, who knows both, and he answers “woman, of course.” Hera took this badly and struck him blind. Angry because she could no longer say, “I’m only doing this for you, dear.”

The power of prophency, the inward eye. Odysseus realizes male and female are one being, one androgyne. Next, please. Circe predicts obstacles. Scylla and Charibdis, the fine craft of bondage.

The Island of the Sun, taboo against killing the oxen: a warning against spiritual materialism. Odysseus again distracted, falls asleep, his men eat the oxen, followed by complete shipwreck disaster, only Odysseus is left. Ishmael after the wreck of the Pequod.

Odysseus fails to pass the sundoor, he is thrown willy-nilly toward Penelope again via Kallypso. The function of women in relation to the Hero: knock him down and put him together again. This is not the Hindu transcendence of the world, but living in the world with knowledge of the light.

Seven years have passed, says Hermes, it’s time. Odysseus is washed ashore in the land of the Phaecians. Nausicaa, the third goddess, is doing laundry, and tossing a ball (goddess roundness activity). She alone has the courage to confvront the phenomenon of a naked gentleman. In her role as Athene, Nausicaa brings him home to Daddy. “Wal, stranger, where ya been?” “I’m Odysseus.” He returns through the threshold, regains his secular identity.

Another mysterious passage: Odysseus falls asleep on shipboard, is left asleep on the shore of Ithaka.

Telemachus is the young man of 21 (three times seven, goddess numbers). Athene tells him : Go find your father.  First he visits with Nestor, the old football coach. Then son and father meet in the swinehard shelter in Arcadia. Odysseus arrives as the Tramp. “Don’t mention my name.”  Old Nurse is the first to recognize him by the scar on his though from the boar’s crescent goddess horns. Adonis was slain by a boar. Buddha died from eating pork. And the Old Dog.

Bending the bow through the twelve signs. Odysseus is the sun; the suitors, the stars. Final reconciliation with Penelope. Leaving the bearded blind Poet on the shores of experience.


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