STONES OF ITHACA (2019)

Chapter 15

LANGUAGE: THE ODYSSEY

AIO. The progression from A to I to O. The progression of human life. It is interesting, when we put these letters together, what words we will find. For example, AIO gives AID and DAY; it also gives lady. If we replace O with the Greek letter for omega, W, we have AIW, which gives I AM (m-w), law (i-l) and way (i-y). So far, so good. If we add the letters for the I deleted, a cross – the most usual letters here are t and f, which resemble an upright cross closely – then we find words like wait. Or atom (a word that is remarkably close to atone). This last example should remind us of DNA, the reverse of and, which spells Alpha and Omega. It is in our make-up. Then if we add those letters that reflect the plus-sign – n, as in ’n’, and the extended h, which we saw in the Cyrillic O WH – we find words like faith, connected with wait by the pair f-w, addition of h (is that what faith is?). This is a whole study and deserves a publication of its own.

            But since this book has been inspired by Ithaca, the Greek island that Odysseus called home, I would like now to look at the Odyssey, probably the most famous and widely read book of antiquity, the sequel to the Iliad, which tells of the travails and sufferings the Greek hero Odysseus had to endure on his way home from the war in Troy, sufferings caused by his blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus and crucially his act of hubris in front of the Cyclops when he shouted out his name to him. This enabled Polyphemus to curse Odysseus in front of his father, Poseidon, god of the sea, whose wrath pursued Odysseus for ten years and almost did away with him.

            In Book XI, Odysseus visits the underworld with his men in order to consult with the Theban seer Tiresias. This is a crucial, but much overlooked event in the Odyssey. Tiresias gives Odysseus some very important information, namely that he may reach home, but if he does, it will be in a bad way and with the loss of his companions, which indeed turns out to be the case. He is washed up, barely alive, on Scheria, the island of the Phaeacians, and taken back by them to Ithaca, where he has to dress as a beggar in order to overcome the suitors of his wife, Penelope, and regain the palace with the help of his son, Telemachus, and the swineherd Eumaeus. Hardly a dignified return. His companions are lost at sea for ignoring Odysseus’ command and slaying and then eating the cattle of the sun-god, Helios.

            In order to appease Poseidon, Tiresias tells him, once he is home again and order has been re-established, he must set off once more, taking a ship’s oar with him, and head inland to a place whose people have never heard tell of the sea and have never tasted food mixed with salt. He will know that he has reached such a place when a passer-by thinks that the oar he is carrying (which Homer poetically describes as a ship’s wing) is in actual fact a winnow-fan, used to separate the wheat from the chaff, i.e. in agricultural labours, and nothing to do with the sea. When this happens, he must plant the oar in the ground and offer sacrifice to Poseidon (a ram, a bull and a wild boar). Then he can return home, where he must offer holy hecatombs to the immortal gods, and look forward to a peaceful old age.

            The mention of a winnow-fan might remind us of the passage in Matthew 3:12, spoken by John the Baptist, the last of the prophets and the first forerunner of Christ (the one who announced his coming), about Christ:

“His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (NRSV)

            This seems to make reference to the Second Coming and the Last Judgement, when people will resurrect and be judged according to their deeds in this life, being separated into two groups, the wheat representing the righteous and the chaff all evildoers. We see this imagery later in Matthew 13:24-30, the Parable of the Tares, in which Christ, the Son of Man, sows good seed in the field of the world, but the devil comes in the night and sows weeds among the wheat. The slaves of the householder ask if they should remove the weeds, but the householder (Christ) says no, to leave them where they are, because in uprooting the weeds they might also uproot the wheat. Both should be allowed to grow (time for repentance?) until the harvest, when the householder will tell the reapers (that is, his angels) to burn the weeds and gather the wheat into his barn.

            We might notice the obvious connections between weed and wheat (d-t, addition of h) or between angel and glean (the act of gathering in the wheat). There is also a clear connection between rape and reap, which I understand to mean that we must bear the consequences of our actions (Galatians 6:7).

            But let us return to the Odyssey and Tiresias’ prophecy. The words used in Richmond Lattimore’s excellent translation are “oar”, “winnow” and “fan”. All these words derive from the progression AIO. In the word oar, the letter r also resembles a cross, the figure of a man with his arms upraised, his head slumped to one side. Win-now is a progression in itself from I to O and contains the letters we have already talked about in relation to the description of Christ in icons, O WN. Finally, fan also contains the deletion of the I (f and n, the cross and the plus-sign).

            I would like to be clear here. Odysseus is a mortal man, prone to trickery. It was his quick and clever thinking that came up with the idea of the wooden horse, into which he and some Greek soldiers would be introduced while the other Greeks and their fleet withdrew, leaving the horse as an offering that would be taken inside the city walls, from where they could launch their attack at night and storm the city, which is exactly what happened. A slaughter of the Trojans followed. I don’t find this very admirable, but some people obviously did, and the epithet or adjective Homer used to describe Odysseus in Greek is polytropos, normally translated as “wily” (“much-turning”, almost “shape-shifting”). When Aeolus bags all the winds and sends Odysseus on his way to Ithaca, but in sight of land sleep overcomes Odysseus and his companions open the bag with the suspicion there may be gold inside, letting loose all the winds and sending the ships far out of sight of Ithaca, Aeolus is not impressed and is certainly not willing to bag the winds again for him (a slippery task). He calls Odysseus the vilest of men. I can understand his frustration.

            But at the same time, through his wanderings at sea and undoubted sufferings (does that sound like life?), Odysseus must have been humbled, he must have learned repentance, he must have felt sorry at some point for his actions, or questioned what it was he’d done that had brought him to such a strait. It would be inhuman not to. When he returned to Ithaca and had to dress as a beggar, sit in the hallway while the suitors tucked into his food and wine and addressed unsuitable demands to his wife, he must again have felt some remorse, suffering brings us low (IOW) and in return (a word connected with nature) we can also find mature. In these years at sea – forgive me if I liken this to middle age – he must have matured a bit.

            Christ is not like this. Christ is without sin. He is the God-man, both fully divine and fully human. The lamb, he is without blame, but came to take our blame upon himself.

            And yet in the act of planting an oar in the ground – an act that is only prophesied in the Odyssey, it never forms part of the narrative – I cannot help seeing a foreshadowing of the Cross on which Christ would be crucified on Golgotha to atone not for his sins (he doesn’t have any, and that is the crucial difference), but rather for our sins. It is this planting of the oar in the ground that will atone for Odysseus’ sins, that will make peace with Poseidon and the other gods and enable Odysseus to live to a peaceful old age and to die with those he loves around him, in an “altogether unwarlike way” (Lattimore).

            This act will represent the climax of his whole journey, it is the act that will secure him the longed-for peace, when he no longer has to worry about a slightly overlarge wave or an onrushing wind. So, in effect, while it never forms part of the narrative itself, it is the climax of the book, a prophesy Odysseus himself will share with Penelope after they have been reunited in Book XXIII.

            In this sense, despite the glaring differences, Odysseus could be said to be a type of Christ, in the same way Isaac, the son of Abraham, was, who had to carry the firewood on which he was due to be sacrificed up the mountain, until God relented of his wish and provided a ram instead.

            This book, Stones Of Ithaca, has been about word connections, meaning in language, meaning in the environment, a language that at first sight may not be seen. Only when our eyes are cleansed by faith in Christ, and by participation in the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church (most notably, confession and communion), do we begin to recover our spiritual sight and see things for what they are. So it would be remiss of me not to point out a similarity in the names Odysseus and Jesus:

(Od)ysseus – Jesus

            And who is the prophet that will foreshadow the Second Coming of Christ, known in Orthodoxy as the second forerunner, after John the Baptist? The answer is St Elijah, whose name in Greek is St Elias.

            Would it be far-fetched to see a similarity between Tiresias and St Elias (phonetic pair l-r, repetition of i)?

Tiresias – St Elias

            It seems extraordinary to me, and yet entirely predictable, that the most famous work of antiquity, Homer’s Odyssey, should contain at its heart a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Christ, the act of salvation that opened a way for us to return to God.

            And the r, which resembles a cross, a man with his head slumped to one side (I don’t think death is meant to be pretty), suddenly resembles something else, a seagull in a child’s drawing, the cross – our cross – is uprooted and takes flight.

This excerpt is taken from my book Stones Of Ithaca, first published in 2019. More information on the publisher’s website: https://www.smallstations.com/book/stones.

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