As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Ithaka By Kavafis
Homer’s Odyssey is probably the greatest poem about life’s journey, at once a timeless human story and an individual test of moral character. In this post I would like to argue that Homer uses the idea of spiritual growth as one of his underlying themes in the Odyssey, a poem plenty of metaphors and insights about life as a journey.
Odysseus’ name means “trouble” in Greek, referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings He begins on Calypso’s island, where he has everything, except happiness. His spirit is low as he longs for his homeland. Homer introduces Odysseus at a low point to emphasize the growth of Odysseus’ spirit from beginning to end. If Homer had shown Odysseus in a good spirit first, then the growth would not have seemed as prevalent.
Odysseus seems to see the light when he finds out that he will be sailing home. He is tested first when Poseidon nearly kills him off the coast of Scheria, the first island he reaches. The Odyssey says, “and trapped within that backwash of the brine, Odysseus would have died before his time had not gray-eyed Athena counseled him” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 109). Athena allows Odysseus to experience the storm, but not die. She knows that it will make him stronger for it.
Odysseus is also tempted when he and his crew pass the Sirens. He is the only one to hear their song and must be tied to a post in order to keep himself restrained. Odysseus’ spirit is still weak as he is engrossed with the Sirens ability to foretell the future. He says, “So did they chant with their entrancing voice. My heart longed so to listen, and I asked my men to set me free”. The restraints allow him to struggle with the challenge and become stronger without being entangled with the evil.
The suitors entice Odysseus when he returns home disguised as the beggar. But now, he has the strength and will power to reject those spoken words.
Homer expresses his ideas about pride and spirit when Odysseus encounters the Cyclopes. After out-smarting the Polyphemus, Odysseus shouts out his own name in search for “kleos.” These were his words to Polyphemus, “if any mortal man should ask about the shameful blinding of your eye, then tell him that the man who gouged you was Odysseus, ravager of cities” (Odyssey by Mandelbaum, 185). Instead of being humbled by the experience, Odysseus tries to brag about what he has done. In reality, it was the gods who blessed him with the ability to escape his situation. Odysseus pays for this action as Poseidon makes his journey back more difficult than it should have been. We see later in the Odyssey how Odysseus grows from this experience when he returns home. He is angered by the suitors and has the composure to keep his name secret until the right time. His spirit is more humble now with the idea of pride than it was on his journey home.
Telemachus also experiences spiritual growth, but Homer displays it in a different manner. Whereas Odysseus’ growth is concerned with situations, Telemachus’ is dependent upon a journey. He is sent away from home in search of his father. It seems as though the prince was so dependent on his father that he never really got away from home on his own. It took his father’s disappearance to force Telemachus into a leadership role. He visits friends of his father’s and experiences “xenia” as the normal head of households do. Through his journey, he learns to depend on the gods and returns home a more spiritually inclined man. Telemachus learns how to make decisions and trust the instinct that the gods give to him. Many can “talk the talk,” but Telemachus had to “walk the walk” in order to grow spiritually. And his maturity is displayed toward the end of the Odyssey.
Homer shows many different types of spiritual growth throughout the Odyssey. But, he has one main idea: the spirit with the most growth and strength is the one that is tested and weakened through the process. Telemachus’ spirit grows, but cannot compare to that of Odysseus because he was not weakened and tested as much as Odysseus. The weakening allows a person to grow stronger, not just grow.
Even though Odysseus longs for his return to Ithaka, it is the journey what makes the story and his life meaningful. If he never left Ithaka, if he never encountered Laistrygonians and Cyclops, nobody would read the poem. I think our Ithaka is a life that is worth living. I don’t think life has “a” meaning, but life itself “is” meaning. Life is direction, transformation and ending, it is a “story”, one that can be good or bad, depending of our attitude more than our circumstances. We are here to develop our full human potential, to achieve wholeness. Eudaimonia is a greek word that means to live with a good spirit, a good flow of life. By a “good” life I don’t mean one of pleasure and comfort, but a life of purpose, joy, challenge and experience. One in which you can say to yourself in your deathbed, “I would do it all over again!”
But there are many moments of pain, disappointment and loss along the journey. It would not be a journey if there were no such moments. The Universe is not there for us, nor against us, gravity pulls us downwards, so we push upwards. Without antagonistic forces there would be no world, only particles floating in the void. Those moments of loss and pain can be destructive, but, with the right attitude can also be transformative, even necessary, for a good voayage.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
– Ithaka By Kavafis
Many men and women throughout history have experienced the most important transformations of their lives after suffering a long and difficult illness, many artist and scientist begun to write, paint or study during a crisis of health, exile or prison.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
We will find meaning in our lives when we overcome our ego, and let our actions be guided by Virtue, toward something bigger than ourselves, when we strive for the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the ignorance and alienation of infancy and adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, the flourishing of maturity and the wisdom and serenity of old age.
Life is transformation, it is up to us to transform our life into a meaningful journey.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
– Ithaka By Kavafis