Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus

Robert Knapp:
Reed College
August 24, 2005

Siren-Songs: Reading the Odyssey Allegorically

On April 10 of this year, a 400 pound ex-Marine by the name of Steve Vaught began a hike from San Diego, California, to New York City. For fifteen years, he'd been in a state of profound depression, induced by his having killed two people in an auto accident. With no job, but with a wife and two sons, he decided that it was finally time "to lose weight and regain my life," and so began his long walk, which is currently being chronicled at In his donated backpack are food, water, a tent, and two books: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the Odyssey.

As one who teaches in the Humanities program at Reed, I confess that I had not imagined using Homer for this kind of inspirational and therapeutic purpose. Much of the time, in fact, we discourage efforts at seeing one's own life reflected in the ancient texts, emphasizing instead the strangeness of the Greeks, teaching students how to read Homer and Sophocles and even Plato in historical context, demythologizing the classics through an explanation of how their presumed universalism often masks-or has been used to advance-social arrangements that hardly comport with our own sense of justice, or even of how to live the good life. As a professional student of the English Renaissance, however, I think that I can recognize in Steve Vaught's use of the Odyssey a modern variation on an old way of making sense out of one's own self through the sense that an ancient text can make when read as if it were a source of wisdom and truth.

Certainly this way of reading (however naive it might seem to some skeptics) governed the approach of the first English translator of Homer. Many of you willrecall the name of George Chapman from John Keats' great sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," wherein the young poet compares his experience to that of one who discovers a new planet, or who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. But for Chapman himself, Homer provides not an occasion for experiencing the sublime but an opportunity to contemplate moral truth disguised in what he calls "eternal fiction." Let me quote a brief passage from Chapman's dedicatory letter to Lord Somerset, where he explains how by looking at Homer's "face" (the language of the text) one may view Homer's "mind" (the sense and "soul" of that text):

And that your Lordship may in his Face take view of his Mind, the first word of his Iliads is greek symbol, wrath; the first word of his Odysses, greek symbol,Man – contracting in either word his each worke's Proposition. In one, Predominate Perturbation; in the other, overruling Wisdom; in one, the Bodie's fervour and fashion of outward Fortitude to all possible height of Heroicall Action; in the other, the Mind's inward, constant and unconquerd Empire, unbroken, unalterd with any most insolent and tyrannous infliction.

In other words, for Chapman, the Iliad is a poem about strife and valor, about active and heroic engagement with the world, whereas the Odyssey is a poem about discovering an inward reality, the reality of a mind that finally returns to its own home, freeing itself from various passions, reconnecting with its own realm after a series of assaults from lawless, brute, and meaningless things. As Robert Lamberton has amply demonstrated, this way of reading the Homeric poems-seeing the Iliad as a poem of history and of the physical world, and the Odyssey as a largely moral allegory-dates to sometime time before Plato dismissed both epics as epistemologically ungrounded and morally dangerous.

Having just used the word "allegory," I need to make some postcard-size remarks about literary interpretation. Academic literary critics used to deprecate allegory, but in the last thirty years or so, most of us have come to see that allegory is a regular and perhaps inevitable feature of reading and writing. "Allegory"-the etymology means something like "otherspeech," or speaking otherwise than one seems to speak-can be a deliberate literary strategy (as in Dante's Divine Comedy or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress); it can be the arbitrary recoding of strange texts (as in Freud's way of reading dreams, or some Christian ways of reading the Hebrew bible); or it can be subtle, pervasive, almost inescapable, as when we acknowledge that every interpretation involves the more or less systematic mapping of someone else's words (words that don't exactly "belong" to them) onto one's own construct of ideas and references. Though governed by many rules, some logical and some learned from experience, and though always subject to the kind of policing that occurs when someone else shows how my interpretation makes less (sometimes considerably less) than perfect sense, this process of reading always also leaves room for more meanings, more of what we sometimes call "polysemy," or many signs, many ways of signifying. The older the text, the more mythic its materials, the more embedded it is in other texts and practices (with the Odyssey, think of all those texts ranging from Virgil's Aeneid through Joyce's Ulysses on to [at least] Derek Walcott's Omeros), the more evocative, mysterious, and polysemous the text will become. To put it another way, historical distance and cultural embeddedness make it harder for us to imagine that we know what the text originally meant (I'm reminded here of Justice William Brennan's remark in quite a different context that any claim to understand original intent is a form of arrogance cloaked as humility). In consequence, historical distance and cultural embeddedness make us more alert to the way in which every reading probes beyond the "literal," searching for ideas, patterns, and connections that will somehow put one's mind in touch with the "mind" that, like Chapman, I at least can't help attributing to the text, partly because it excites my imagination, partly because I know that it has excited the imaginations of so many other readers and writers, and partly because some of what it seems to say just makes no sense unless interpreted in a figurative way.

Let me pursue this line of thought by examining the episode in the Odyssey that more than any other has attracted allegorical interpretation (and which has to be meaningful for the 400 pound ex-Marine with whom I began): the encounter with Circe in book ten and in the first part of book twelve. It is Circe, of course, who turns half of Odysseus' men into pigs, but who becomes Odysseus' lover and advisor after he-with the help of an antidote and some instructions given him by Hermes-fails to to succumb to her drug. It is she who tells Odysseus that he must visit the underworld, learning from Tiresias how he can "cross the swarming sea and reach home at last," and after his return from that informative journey into the land of the dead, it is she who reinforces Teiresias' warning not to let his men butcher the oxen of the sun.

I suppose that some readers of the Odyssey stop with the literal record of these events: there's that wacky old poet again, telling a good yarn, borrowing folk tales and myths for his entertaining story of Sinbad the Sailor. But even someone so reputedly hostile to Homer as Socrates apparently read the Circe story in an allegorical way, albeit with a certain ironic distance. Here is Xenophon-a younger contemporary-explaining how Socrates justified his own moderation in food and drink:

"Whenever he accepted an invitation to dinner, he resisted without difficulty the common temptation to exceed the limit of satiety; and he advised those who could not do likewise to avoid appetizers that encouraged them to eat and drink what they did not want: for such trash was the ruin of stomach and brain and soul. ‘I believe,' he said in jest, ‘it was by providing a feast of such things that Circe made swine; and it was partly by the prompting of Hermes, partly through his own self-restraint and avoidance of excessive indulgence in such things, that Odysseus was not turned into a pig.' This was how he would talk on the subject, half joking, half in earnest."

"Half joking, half in earnest": Xenophon's Socrates refers to the poem (and to his own ethical posture) with laudable tact. School teachers in fifth-century Athens may well have taught the Odyssey as a sequence of moral lessons, yet the poem itself guides our reading only through its patterns and allusions, not through explicit statements on the part of the poet or his muse. These patterns and allusions, however, seem to me-as they also do to scholars so disparate as George Lord and Erwin Cook-to nudge us in a consistent direction, one that sets force in opposition to intelligence, matter in opposition to mind or soul, and bestial excess in opposition to civilized and law-abiding restraint. And much of this patterning has to do with the right and wrong use of food.

Consider how Homer situates and frames the Circe episode. This strange goddess occupies the very center of Odysseus' autobiographical account; in her switch from foe to friend, she literally and figuratively becomes the turning point in Odysseus' effort to come home, to let himself be transformed from the warrior who is outside civilization to the chieftain who rejoins the human community on Ithaca, afterhaving purged his home of its own lawlessness. Remembering Socrates' wry remarksabout food and drink, we should notice how Odysseus' inset narrative begins (as it will end) with the punishment of reckless or even unlawful feasting. Leaving Troy, Odysseus sacks the Ciconian city of Ismarus, his crew killing all the men, carrying away and sharing the women and the booty, all in an act of unprovoked aggression that the seventeenth century Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, reputedly called the first recorded violation of international law. Intoxicated with success, however, the men ignore Odysseus' amoral but prudent pleas, and linger (like the suitors on Ithaca) to swill wine and slaughter sheep and cattle. Their greed is punished by an army of vengeful Cicones, who kill six men out of each ship, and then is itself oddly echoed with the brief temptation provided by the Lotus-eaters, whose food causes forgetfulness of home. The same unrestrained greed finds implicit figurative expression in the gigantic Cyclops, who pretty clearly embodies everything that opposes civilization and respect for the gods. Dwelling in isolation, "a grim loner set in his own lawless ways," Polyphemous is as close to the non-human as one can be and still have speech; he too indulges himself with repeated feasting-on raw man's flesh-and then succumbs to repeated draughts of the strong wine that Odysseus had been given by Maron. Though with his ruthless cunning, Odysseus manages to defeat the man-eating shepherd, his own recklessness-both his initial desire to exchange gifts with one whom he's nearly certain is barbaric and his final insistence on taunting the blinded monster by boasting about his own name-makes him vulnerable to the brute force of Poseidon, Polyphemous' father, and perhaps the ultimate representative of the material, natural, mindless world. I'll skip over the episodes with Aeolus, and with the Lastrygonians, except to note that both also involve greed and its explicit or implicit punishment.

So when Circe turns half of Odysseus' men to pigs, it almost seems as if she is giving physical expression to the metaphoric truth of what they have become: irreverent eaters, drinkers, and ones who are eaten. No longer rule-governed human beings (as the unprovoked assault on Ismarus made clear), shunned by the good king Aeolus for their damnable lack of restraint, Odysseus' men seem to belong in Circe's sty even before she transforms them with her drug. And though their leader is smarter and more cunning than they, able to defeat the Cyclops with a ruse nodifferent in principle from the Trojan horse with which he conquered Troy, Odysseushimself needs divine help in order to re-enter the intellectual and moral world of humanity.

This re-entry arguably occurs through a double process: exchanges of oaths and acts of sacrifice that together manifest an explicit reliance on law and divine intervention rather than human will and martial prowess. The first step in this process is the oath that Odysseus exacts from Circe, which is followed-after an undescribed interval of love-making-with Odysseus refusing to eat or drink until the goddess restores his men to human shape. The second step, which occurs only after a year's feasting at ease, a kind of virtual return to the time before the Trojan War, comes when Odysseus performs the elaborate sacrificial rite that puts him in contact with the dead, that gives him crucial information about his future, and that finally puts him in touch with the ghost of Hercules, that other hero of virtue who himself returned from Hades, and who though mortal was transformed into a god. Returning to Circe's island in order to perform one more act of piety, the burial of his helmsman, Odysseus sets off for home with what we may take as a new reverence for forces that he cannot shape to his own will and intellect.

He forgets this lesson once; arming himself against Scylla, in clear opposition to Circe's instruction, he loses six more men. But after this episode, Odysseus (who by following Circe's advice had been able to listen to the Sirens without succumbing to their allure) seems increasingly distinct from his men, who eventually break their explicit oath to him-and defy prophetic warning\by their sacrilegious feasting on the oxen of the Sun. Now alone, Odysseus is twice deprived of human transport, twice cast to safety solely by the assistance of the gods, the second time enabled by a humble prayer to the unknown divinity of a Phaecian river. When he eventually returns to Ithaca, it is as a passive passenger-one whom the muse now describes as a man "the peer of the gods in counsel"- yet this returning wise man, for one moment at least, is no longer an active agent, but instead the beneficiary of uncoerced good will. In going on to purge his household of the irreverently feasting suitors, whose principal spokesman has the unfortunate name Antinous, probably best glossed as nomind, Odysseus thus completes the project of returning from a bestial and material world of reckless force into a domestic world of law and order. That Odysseus has some understanding of the process he has endured may come through in the partly autobiographical advice that he gives in book 18 to the one suitor worth saving, Amphinomus:

. . . let no man ever be lawless all his life,
just take in peace what gifts the gods will send.

So when Circe first transforms the men into pigs, then restores them to human beings younger, more handsome, and more capable of fellow feeling than they had been before, we may see in this episode a figurative condensation of a movement, itself also figurative, that governs the entire poem. Yet as with every figurative reading, every more or less allegorical effort to bring the brute facts of an old song into some meaningful shape, one worries about what's been left out, what's been forced into an idealizing and comforting fable. If through his voyage Odysseus has learned a kind of wisdom and humility, how do we account for the blood-curdling executions of the final action, the decapitation of Leodes the prophet, the casual hanging of the maids who slept with the suitors, the gruesome torture and death by mutilation of Melanthius? Are these acts simply instances of justified revenge carried out according to the canons of an age (and George Chapman's, too, was such an age) less squeamish than our own? Or is this behavior, like the sexualized violence with which Odysseus first extracts that crucial oath from Circe, an indication that even moral allegory cannot altogether rescue this great poem for what we would consider a proper sense of civilized justice? Allegory can have all the allure of the songs of the sirens; and siren songs-as the allegorical tradition itself understood-can either lead, like the muse, to truths beyond the empirical moment, or can cause the hearer to forget altogether anything that could count as "home." Maybe the ultimate lesson to be learned from an effort to read the Odyssey allegorically is not that Odysseus himself learns a proper wisdom and humility, but that we as interpreters must ourselves acknowledge the force of the past, the recalcitrance of human nature, and the limitations of our own ability to make everything material conform to the best desires of the mind. As I've learned from years of working at Reed-and especially from my esteemed colleague, Bill Ray, whose work on culture has informed much of this talk- the most important product of literary interpretation is not getting it right, but the creation of a community of discourse and value shaped in considerable part by our efforts to understand how works of art work. And as Steve Vaught makes his way now across New Mexico, I find in his use of the Odyssey a moving instantiation and application of the work that art can do and of the larger community it can promote.

Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus