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Return of the Omen


That would certainly avoid diplomatic problems: “Jove did it.”

Well, I have finished reading the Odyssey, not light summer reading exactly but well worth it. I undertook this for two reasons. First of all, the title of the book had come up three times recently (see “The Magic of Three”); and secondly, I became curious about the elements in the story that have made it timeless. I have just published a book myself, and timely would make me happy.

It was slow going at first, but the grand language does begin to imprint, and I was fascinated by the end. My edition from The Great Books by Encyclopedia Britannica touches lightly in the introduction on whether Homer actually existed and whether this book, as well as the Iliad, has been created from a collection of poems embellished over centuries. I don’t have the background  to get into that. I haven’t studied Homer before, and I brought a virgin mind to my inquiry.

The ordeals of the ten years it took Ulysses to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War are the foundation; and it is a story filled with heroism, violence, treachery, and the storytelling gifts of Ulysses himself. Any time anyone addresses him with the phrase, “Tell me and tell me true,” he usually launches with a fiction. Though he is repeatedly described as having godlike cunning, wisdom, strength, and beauty, he is often driven by pride, curiosity, and an audacity that imperils both him and his men.

Fortunately, the goddess Minerva has committed to help him get home, and she is wondrous. Among other things, she shapeshifts to counsel him in many forms; she puts ideas into the minds of others; she manipulates night, day, and wind; and she transforms the appearance of the aging Ulysses, making “the hair grow thick on the top of his head and flow down in curls like hyacinth blossoms.” Ah, would that I could write so.

In fact, it is the engagement of all the gods in this story that gives it a magical quality that probably transcends the eternal appeal of heroism and violence. The imagination of the people of the times must have been enlivened minute by minute by the belief that the gods were afoot in their daily affairs alternately creating havoc and triumph. With regard to the computer virus Stuxnet, which impaired the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, it would have attributed it to the mischief of Mercury, who was Jove’s messenger, rather than the Israelis. That would certainly avoid diplomatic problems: “Jove did it.”

Reading the Odyssey with my modern mind, I am amazed at the ease with which Ulysses kills. His will and his pride are paramount, and I detected no evidence whatever of conscience, compassion, or regret. It is interesting to think of the multitudes of people who were riveted by these stories for centuries and probably without judgment. After he finally arrives in Ithaca and has killed the suitors who have been laying waste to his estate as they seek the hand of his wife, Penelope,  he attacks the remaining warriors of his homeland intending to slaughter them all. Minerva intervenes and Saturn throws down a “thunderbolt of fire” to warn Ulysses off. He makes “a covenant of peace between the two contending parties.” The end.

Another thing about the story that captured my attention was how attuned the people were to nature and to the omens through which the gods might communicate. In our daily lives, we have become so preoccupied with other things that I’m afraid many of us are largely oblivious to what is going on in the natural world–to our peril, perhaps.

Yesterday afternoon as I was driving home with my sister under threatening Santa Fe skies, we suddenly saw a phenomenon. Descending from the high clouds to the top of a mountain was the long tail of what would probably be called a “sand spout,” as opposed to a water spout. It had a line down the middle as though it were two entities locked in rotation. We both stared, fascinated, as it moved southward and then disappeared. It was, we knew, the sight of a lifetime.

An omen undoubtedly. The revolving air of a whirlwind can be symbolic of sudden change. I decided to take the sight as encouragement to construct a Homerically inspired vision of such. I will begin tomorrow, “when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn” appears.


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