Tag Archives: Odysseus

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Classical Education

Andrew Dickson White famously wanted Cornell University, unlike what would become known as the other Ivy League schools, to be non-sectarian. Most Ivy League universities were founded as seminaries or with the strong influence of churches. On farmland gifted by Ezra Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, the school became one of the first truly secular world-class universities. As I approached Ithaca over the weekend, my wife told me that the town had once been briefly known by the name of Sodom because the remote location’s reputed notoriety for sabbath breaking, horse racing, and profanity. It is now considered one of the most enlightened towns in the country. Famous for its waterfalls and gorges, one of the cascades is still rejects the biblical slur with the sobriquet “Lucifer Falls.”

Many place names—indeed, much of American culture in general—reflect(s) the Bible. Ours is a culture in denial of just how formative religion has been for who we are. Because of our willful blindness on this point we sometimes run the risk of being entrapped by our heritage. Despite how much we’ve educated ourselves we still see what we want to see. Our religious heritage is often considered an embarrassing family secret rather than the path by which we came to be a civil society. Religion is so frequently portrayed as an evil force that it’s easy to forget just how much we owe it for our evolution. Even education itself had a religious motivation since teaching students to read was often done with the intent that they should read the Bible.

Like nearby Binghamton, Ithaca has a statue dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It bears a biblical quotation from Amos without embarrassment. Ithaca today is a livable, socially conscious community. Recycling is strongly encouraged while cars are not. Hardly a hotbed of immorality, it is one of the great examples of an American college town. Ideas are welcome here. Befitting its classical heritage of education, the city is named after the island ruled by Odysseus, according to Homer. Indeed, Ulysses lies just down the road. Homer (and yet another town in the area bears that name) presented Odysseus as among the smartest of the Greek kings. Like most classical Greeks, Odysseus was only too conscious of how the gods could interfere with one’s life. Instead of denying the obvious, however, religion was recognized as a necessary source of culture. Not that it always has to be taken too seriously. Maybe it shouldn’t be completely ignored either.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

394px-Flock_of_sheep

Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.

Mythology in Cinema and Belief

My snow day activities yesterday would not have been complete without the viewing of a classic science fiction film for relief from my Mythology course prep. Still having mythology on the brain, I selected Dr. Cyclops, a 1940s movie that presages many of the concerns evident in the more famous members of the genre over the next decade. There were, even before the atomic bomb, clear concerns with radioactivity and its control by unstable elements of society. The fact that Dr. Thorkel is stereotypically Germanic would certainly resonate with audiences of the day. Given the title I focused on the classical elements and they eventually came through. As the radioactivity shrunk the cast, with the exception of Dr. Cyclops (Thorkel), Odysseus’ plight in the cave of Polyphemus emerged clearly. The doctor is symbolically blinded by the hiding and breaking of his glasses, and the shrunken prisoners escape like Odysseus’ crew. In one scene where the rival Dr. Bullfinch (surely no accident) addresses the much larger Thorkel the writers make it clear for the viewers that Bullfinch is really Ulysses (Odysseus).

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Presumably filmgoers in 1940 were still required to have read the classics in school so that such references would have been obvious from the start. Less obvious to viewers then and now is the fact that ancient mythology was a form of religion. Over the past week or so I’ve been participating in an exchange on Sabio Lantz’s blog, Triangulations, on the topic of metaphorical versus literal truth. I maintain that mythology reflects truth as perceived by ancient believers, whether they “believed” in an actual pantheon on Mount Olympus or not. Myths are intended to convey truth – although ancient religions were more often about correct practice rather than correct belief. Placating angry gods was the job of the priesthood, not the average citizen.

The question unanswered is when religion shifted from correct practice to correct belief. Correct belief can only truly apply in a monotheistic context – if there are many gods there are potentially many beliefs. With one god, one personality, the potential for believing incorrectly infiltrates a religion that is primarily concerned with keeping the many gods satisfied. So perhaps what Dr. Cyclops sees through his one good lens is a metaphor for seeking a single truth rather than the many. In the film, before he meets his demise in the radium mine, Dr. Thorkel is the only character with the stature of a god.

Compassion Divine

A very generous relative graced this holiday season with the gift of the first season of Star Trek, the original television series. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a “trekkie.” I did, however, enjoy the show as a child and have come to appreciate it even more as an adult. I can’t cite episode and scene like a trekkie can, and a surprise FBI raid would not turn up any pointy Spock ears or a model phaser (although my wife’s cell-phone looks like a sophisticated communicator). As a child the show appealed to my love of science fiction, and as an adult the morality play aspect of the original series fascinates me. Yesterday we watched an early episode where a crew member has his mind boosted by a trip beyond the edge of the galaxy (a la Forbidden Planet). As this character becomes more and more omniscient and powerful, he refers to himself as a god. Captain Kirk, in his attempt to stop his old friend calls out that gods are marked by compassion rather than strength.

I have been rereading Homer’s Iliad in preparation for a course on mythology. Quite apart from the fact that Star Trek borrowed heavily from classical mythological themes, one of the features I have especially picked up on in this reading has been the appeals to the compassion of the gods. As Diomedes, Odysseus, and Ajax (and finally Achilles) battle Hector and Paris both sides call out for the kindness of Zeus, appealing to his compassion (as well as to his baser instincts). Reflecting the ancient perception of the world, Zeus’ responses are fickle.

Biologists have been probing the origins of human sympathies ever since Darwin. Creationists used to argue that compassion, altogether lacking in the animal world, could not have evolved naturally. Many recent studies, however, have demonstrated a naturalistic base for our altruism and compassion. These traits are certainly displayed in a number of animal species, particularly mammals. The ancient Egyptians believed animals to be superior to humans in many respects, lacking our weaknesses and being more adept at survival. It seems that they were right and some of the nobler human traits evolved from our animal milieu. If so, what is divinity beyond the gospel according to Star Trek — compassion to those in need by those who find themselves in positions of power?