Lesson 5



1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote









1. Read Homer's Odyssey Book 8.527 through Book 13.18 (Damrosch A354-A411). If you do not have the book, see on this website a selection from Homer's Odyssey (books 6-11).

2. Note: If you are not very familiar with ancient Greece, or Homer, some quick background appears at the Hellenic background page

3. Skim through the page below, and then summarize and reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

4. If you are enrolled in this course for college credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.

How and why did story-telling begin? Sociobiologists and prehistorians have various theories, but I will try to gather some of the best available literary and physiological evidence in this page. 


Let's rediscover the origins of story-telling. We cruise with Odysseus among the Lotus Eaters, cannibals (gasp), and heroes of old



Running with the meat

One literary clue is the quest, a plot pattern found in story-telling seemingly everywhere on earth, from the earliest recorded times. You know how it goes: one or more characters leave the comforts of home, endure a tough journey into forbidding territory, encounter dangerous adversaries, engage in mortal conflict, and finally return home again, with or without the quest-object, the life-sustaining thing that motivates the quest-journey.

Whose legs do the running?The quest formula resembles the vital routine of predators, animal and human: leaving home to hunt for food, taking it and keeping it from competitors, bringing it safely back for the clan without leaving a trail for rivals. Could there be an underlying relationship between primal story-telling and eating? Traces of such a relationship indeed can be found in many early literary texts.

The ancient Hellenic legend of the Trojan War is illustrative. Here, once upon a time, the Achaeans (a/k/a Argives from the Greek peninsula) massed their tribal forces to attack the wealthy city of Troy; they traveled far away and fought for ten years; eventually after great loss of lives they looted and destroyed the city; and finally they returned home with the spoils--or they tried to. Offended gods saw to it that few reached home. Parts of this quest-story, with special attention to meals eaten and better-left-uneaten along the way, are immortalized in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

  • In the Iliad, the young warrior Achilles becomes entangled in a cycle of deadly violence from which he knows that he cannot escape or ever go home again. Even though he is the best of the Achaean warriors at Troy, Achilles is the hunter who will become the prey. The vital lesson is that hunter and victim are one

  • In the Odyssey, the veteran Odysseus returns home via ten years of misfortunes after the war. In the end all that he has gained are his stories and the curses that he has received as a notorious sacker of cities. Odysseus is the hunter fleeing with the spoils. Because he is pursued by angry gods, he cannot take a direct route home, and he is forced to drop his quarry along the way.

These songs describe in grim detail the suffering of victims as warriors slash and spear one another, old men and children are slaughtered, women are enslaved, corpses are mutilated and denied burial. The violence ends only when the gods have victimized the hunting party . . .

The so-called Narmer stele or Narmer Palette from pre-dynastic Egypt, cir. 3000 BC.Homer should NOT be confused with  story-tellers who celebrate their exploits and advertise their fitness for survival. This practical use of story-telling for bragging existed in Homer's day. It appears historically by the time that the first pharaoh smote, or claimed to have smitten, his first enemies [as in the Narmer stele, figure left]. And it survives today in hunting and fishing lodges all across the American wilderness, where my neighbors' dens are decorated with heads of assorted prey, and whole stuffed birds and fish, all of which inspire epics about the cleverness, bravery and endurance of their killers.

The Homeric Songs belong in this same general tradition of trophy talk, but ultimately they are not about the greatness of the warriors who plundered Troy. They're all about the victims, and this focus raises an important question. Why would Homer, or anybody, tell the story of a hunt with particular sympathy for the hunted?








Image left: from an ancient Greek dish. In those days, although it wasn't fast food, it  was carry-out service.














British novelist Henry Fielding aptly described the Odyssey as "the eatingest epic."






Image left: the so-called King Narmer stele (cir. 3000 BC), the oldest existing depiction of an Egyptian ruler shows him striking a characteristic pharaoh pose,
smiting enemies

Hunting Magic:
animal rites at the dawn of history

The Homeric songs are among the earliest remaining literature of the Hellenes or Greek-speaking people. The literary record indicates that these people were, first and foremost, story-tellers. They told stories of a large pantheon of deities, led by the god Zeus as king and the goddess Hera as queen. They told even more stories of their ancestors, "the heroes" whose deeds were remembered and made famous through ritual ceremony, graphic arts and song.

I was lured by fame. Now I'm just a damned picture.The most famed Hellenic hero was a hunter dressed in lion's skin, Heracles (or Hercules, to the later Romans who had forgotten Hera; Heracles' name means "the fame of Hera"). In his quests or labors, Heracles typically uses a primitive wooden club and arm-wrestling to slay dangerous animal opponents and gigantic monsters. He is a link back to distant, prehistoric times. He would have been right at home in the Ice Age.

Me too.Far back before Heracles and all remembered stories there was Paleolithic cave painting, dating from as early as 30,000 BC in Europe. These earliest surviving works of western art typically are concerned with the hunt--and not with the hunters but with the hunted. They are images of victims. Why? The stone age tradeoff with the animal victim was that, in exchange for its meat, hide and bone, it was immortalized by humankind in art. The pictures were painted in underworld galleries where the dead animals could see that people are trustworthy and do nice work.

This art worked like a charm, from the cave-artist's point of view. The artist took credit for successful hunts when the animals vainly flocked in to dinner to have their portraits painted. Restoring the images of these poor beasts, as they had appeared in life, the artist also alleviated the guilt of the diners for killing and devouring their prey. (Yet how much happier the animals must have been, eventually in Neolithic times, to cut a deal with humankind for domestication. They finally got some real benefits, not just human lip service!)

Painting preceded writing in Europe by tens of thousands of years, but the literate Hellenes' arrangement with their heroes was essentially the same deal as the Paleolithic compact with wild animals. Like the celebrated food animal, the hero gives up the world of sunshine but receives in exchange an immortal fame, a presentation in art that the living will see or hear forever. Though not everyone still believes, this same aesthetic bargain still attracts victims today, as can be seen in countless public memorials to war dead and religious shrines of martyrs.

What most interested the Hellenes about Heracles was not his magnificent strength, courage or skill in fighting but his terrible suffering. His quests were "labors," and they were agonizing. His namesake, the goddess Hera, was responsible for his glory (glory = "kleos" in Greek) because her animosity toward him caused all of his trouble and pain. "Hera-kleos" wore the lion's skin, and he wore it in such a way that he appeared in the lion's mouth (see figure above left), because he identified himself as victim.

Ironically, nobody remembers who Homer was, but he clearly was an heir to this very old magical tradition of victim presentation. Homer remembers the dead for their suffering, and he associates their labors with the sacrifice of animals that are killed and eaten.

In nearly the age-old way too, the Homeric bard sings the praises of victims in exchange for dinner. Let's now look in on an evening's entertainment at one of these ancient banquets...










Figure left: primitive Heracles with his club and dressed in the skin of his victim, the Nemean Lion. Image based on a classical vase decoration. 





Figure left: wild black bull, modeled after a cave painting from Lascaux (Dordogne), France, 15,000 - 10,000 BC?










From the earliest times, art stimulated the parasympathetic system and improved digestion. Recall our lesson on powers of literature.




I can't hear anything. How about you?

Odysseus' after-dinner story
 Odyssey 8-11

On his way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus has been shipwrecked and washed ashore, naked and alone and unconscious, on the distant island of the Phaeacians. Fortunately, these strangers not only know Greek, but they follow Hellenic customs of hospitality more closely than real Hellenes actually do. They charitably revive, clothe, praise, and feed Odysseus before asking who he is. He gets to tell them his story on a stomach full of roasted pork.

The Phaeacians are an ideal audience. Telling a good story to them can save your life, as in The Thousand and One Nights where clever Sheherazade gets to live one more day if, each night, she tells a story of continuing charm to cruel but enchantable King Schariar. Once the Phaeacians hear Odysseus tell about his ten years of hardships in homecoming, they immediately agree to provide an ultra-fast boat with a sleeping cabin, so that he can return home to distant Ithaca in only forty winks (Odyssey 13.1-118).

How does Odysseus charm these strangers? His story is more than entertainment or pastime. It's a means to achieve personal identification. When Odysseus tells his story--even though it is a very strange story--he ceases to be a stranger. The story brings him to life by revealing his suffering, his humanity. As the Phaeacians hear the story, they come to view Odysseus as a person of "good disposition," worthy of charity (Odyssey  9.362).  Story-telling is humanizing. It awakens kind-ness.

Story-telling produces meat for the story-teller, too, almost in the old Paleolithic way that cave-painting produced it. A professional story-teller works the Phaeacian dining room, ahead of Odysseus on the evening's story-telling program. He's the bard Demodocus. Another Sheherazade-figure dependent on story-telling for survival, Demodocus sings for his supper. (Actually, he gets the food up front, before the art is performed, as the practical Hellenic custom of "hospitality" requires. First get the meat, and only then sing of victims. Corollary: no meat, no song.)

Demodocus receives a nice piece of pork in advance, sings about Troy on request after dinner, and moves his audience to tears. The tears are an essential part. The listeners must be made to care about the people in the story and what becomes of them. And what becomes of them can't be good. Homeric story appeals to sympathy.

Demodocus sings sadly enough about the final destruction of Troy, an attack planned and led by Odysseus himself almost ten years earlier (Odyssey 8.469). Listening closely and hearing that Demodocus knows the true story, Odysseus reacts to the song appropriately. He weeps.

In a favorite Homeric figure of speech, an elaborate simile, Homer compares Odysseus' sobbing to the groans of a helpless war victim: 

He [Odysseus] wept as a woman weeps when she throws herself on the body of her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, fighting bravely in defense of his home and children. She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labor and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks--even so piteously did Odysseus weep.          Odyssey 8.521

The simile identifies hero with victim. Through Demodocus' art, Odysseus seems to have returned to the scene of his greatest military triumph only to find himself transformed into the helpless war widow who is beaten and hauled away into slavery. The image of the weeping woman is a reminder of the brutality at Troy, including Odysseus' own reputed crime on the night of the fall of the city, the killing of Trojan Prince Hektor's helpless young child Astyanax. The weeping woman could be Astyanax' mother, Andromache, whose laments fill the Iliad.

The Iliad also identifies hero with victim, when in the end the ruthless warrior Achilles weeps with his enemy, the grieving old Trojan king Priam (image left). In his anger Achilles has killed Priam's son, Hektor, but Achilles finally comes to sympathize with Priam, and to allow the old man to ransom Hektor's body for burial. He is moved by Priam's suffering because he foresees his own death in Hektor's death. He imagines in Priam his own aged father begging for the corpse of Achilles.

Identification with victims is Homer's golden rule. What you do is what you get. Just as Heracles dresses himself in the skin of the lion that he has killed, the Homeric warriors come to view themselves as their victims. Achilles identifies with Hektor; Odysseus identifies with a Trojan widow. In Homer, those who do not identify with their victims become mere animals or monsters (because they treat their victims inhumanly as such). Those who identify with their victims are filled with suffering, but they become truly human through their expression of grief.

Homeric identification operates in several ways at the same time:

  • Poetic: identification is a reflection of the story-teller's art of characterization, impersonating others through sympathetic re-enactment. The experience of these characters and their suffering encourages the audience to empathize, to be more aware of the human. condition and more respectful of others. 

  • Moral: as a cultural value, identification is the seed for the Golden Rule, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is common sense instruction on behavior. If I cause pain for others, I can expect to receive pain in retaliation from the enemies I have made. If I raise a fist at you, you probably will raise one at me. If I hold out my hand toward you for a handshake, you are likely to do the same toward me. Because of imitation, what we do unto others is likely to be done unto us.

  • Religious or psychological: tactical concern about retaliation aside, there is a deeper fear of spiritual consequences of aggression. The Homeric warrior becomes his own enemy. A wound inflicted is a wound received. In modern religious or psychological terms: hurting others creates guilt, and guilt causes suffering. Homer obviously did not know guilt by this modern name, but he was very familiar with its punishing operation. In Homeric song, the infliction of pain on others leads to retaliation or punishment by the gods, and the result is suffering.

Odysseus' story to the Phaeacians fully develops this spiritual level of interest. Its more modern counterparts include stories of spiritual conversion into an opposite self, such as the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, as well as confessions of guilt and entry into a radically new spiritual life, such as Augustine's Confessions. The "born again" story formula appears in many varieties today: i.e., the criminal who reforms, the spy who defects to the enemy, the priest who loses faith, the confirmed bachelor who marries, the man who turns into a cockroach, etc.

In the very ancient spiritual idiom of the Odyssey--ritual sacrifice of animals--identity is transformed from the victim animal that is eaten to the spirit that endures in those who eat. Animal flesh is destroyed in the natural process of survival, but art rectifies this injustice: the ingested animal victim becomes human through incorporation. Once sacrificed and devoured, the victim gains the power of speech that it lacked when it was only a dumb animal. ICheers!ts story now comes out, told through the voice of the speaker who has been fed. This imputed survival is its living "spirit."

Odysseus' after-dinner story describes the transformation of men to animals, and animals to men. To clarify this theme, let's briefly review some of Odysseus' tale.


Figure left: Odysseus and the Sirens  (Odyssey 12.165) image based on a classical vase design. Wannabe heroes are lured to their deaths as they hope to hear the Sirens sing of their fame.














































Figure left: old King Priam ransoming Hektor's body from Achilles, scene from an archaic vase decoration. Note that Achilles is pouring a libation (drink offering) over Hektor's body.






































Image left: Odysseus and his animal-crew take their medicine on Circe's island, restored scene of Odyssey 10 from a classical drinking bowl. 

Odysseus' story in summary

Odysseus suffers a long series of punishments by the spirits after the Trojan War. He becomes a victim animal, but finally he is transformed back into manhood and released to return home:

  • Odyssey 9.39. Odysseus and his crew sack the city of Kikones on the way home from the war. This brief episode shows the ruthless character of the plunderers who have destroyed Troy. They are pirates. Their victims mean nothing more to them than so many cattle: the males are slaughtered and the females are taken for breeding stock. As the crew lingers feasting upon the captured cattle, however, the allies of Kikones are able to mount a counter-attack with "the hand of heaven" on their side. Now Odysseus is on the defensive, and his men begin to be killed. It's their turn to be victimized and devoured.

  • 9.62. Divine punishment continues as the Achaeans flee from Kikones. Zeus raises a wind that blows the ships far off course. From this point forward Odysseus loses control and self-direction. Gods sweep the voyage into a series of alien worlds where Odysseus and his mates are treated as animals (just as they have treated their victims at Troy, Kikones, and elsewhere).

  • 9.82. Visit to the land of the Lotus Eaters: the crew begins to forget who they are and where they are supposed to be going. Those who eat the Lotus are transformed into animal consciousness, becoming like mindless cattle grazing in a pasture.

  • 9.105. Visit to the land of the cannibal Cyclopes: Odysseus' crew members are eaten like animals. The grotesque experience in the cyclops Polyphemus' cave repays Odysseus and crew for victimizing others. Polyphemus' name means "much fame," but you don't receive fame, of course, unless you are eaten. (Remember the covenant of the cave, the Paleolithic bargain with the wild animals.) Odysseus wants no part of this animal deal. He escapes from the cave of fame by giving up his fame--that is, by calling himself "Noman," hiding his name. Yet he still hasn't learned his lesson. As soon as he thinks that he is beyond Polyphemus' reach outside the cave, he congratulates himself on his cleverness, and he foolishly brags to the cyclops that he is Odysseus, the famous sacker of cities. By identifying himself once again as famous, Odysseus is cursed by Polyphemus. Under the curse, the famous man must be consumed after all.  (Back home in Ithaca, where Odysseus is presumed to be dead, his livestock are being eaten, and the diners are courting his weeping widow, and threatening to kill his orphaned young son.) Odysseus now tries to appease the anger of Zeus by sacrificing animals to him, but the god refuses to accept these offerings. It's Odysseus himself that Zeus wants!

  • 10.1. Visit to Aeolus, the god of winds: the Achaeans can't get home because their greed and envy unleash unfavorable winds. In a classic episode of the falling out of thieves, the crew now imagines their captain Odysseus as a swindler who won't share the spoils fairly with them. Thinking that Aeolus' wind bag is a sack of gold that Odysseus is keeping from them, they can't resist opening it when Odysseus is asleep. The explosion of the escaping winds blows the adventurers far off course again. Awakening to this wind storm, Odysseus now realizes that he is accursed by the gods. Aeolus describes him as the "vilest of humankind."

  • 10.77. Visit to the Laestrygonians: more cannibals see Odysseus and his crew only as food. Most of Odysseus' comrades are eaten here, and the survivors are reduced to terror and grief.

  • 10.133. Visit to the goddess Circe: the voyage at last reaches a place where magical transformations are possible. Circe is a witch who can turn humans into animals, but she also can turn animals back into humans. These are digestive powers, and they are exactly what's needed to return the animal-Achaeans back into people. With help from Hermes, the god of magic, Odysseus and his crew regain the appearance of manhood from Circe. They become the eaters again, instead of the eaten, and they recover the strength that they once had in their innocence before Troy. Reborn in this way, seemingly young again, they remember their destination, which is home. Yet Circe instructs Odysseus that he can go home only by way of the underworld. As in Paleolithic art, it is only through death that the animal victims become human. 

  • 11.1. Visit to the prophet Teiresias and the world of the dead: the spiritual journey concludes in religious ceremony with animal sacrifices offered to spirits of the dead. The ritual reflects the practice of ancient hero worship where the living visited the dead to gain instruction about the afterlife. In this underground place of visions Odysseus sees that his mother has died for grief over his absence. He also learns that he must NOT steal cattle on his way home or else he will find his home overrun by evil-doers, devouring his flocks. Last, he receives a prophecy from Teiresias that he can restore order to Ithaca, if and when he gets home, but then he will need to atone for all of his transgressions by making a long pilgrimage to offer sacrifices to Poseidon and the other gods.

Phaeacian King Alkinoos is moved by Odysseus' story. The king's name means both "powerful mind" and also "he who has power to bring back to life." Alkinoos understands the story, and he sympathizes. He arranges for a ship to return Odysseus home to Ithaca at once.







Kikones was the city of Orpheus, the bard who descended into the underworld and brought back his wife from death  (Strabo C333). 




Excuse me,  I wonder if I could borrow a little salt and pepper?

Sympathetic magic

The magical use of art to control events is known in cultures throughout the world. The form varies greatly from place to place, but anthropologists call this general activity "sympathetic magic." An artistic or artificial presentation is intended to cause sympathetic or similar things to happen in the real world.

In voodoo, a gesture that harms a figurine, by sympathetic magic, causes harm to the real-life victim presented by the figurine. A pretense of raining in the rain dance causes rain to fall. This practical, magical basis for art is universal, though it is observed most clearly at great distances from the observer. It seems most obvious in the study of belief systems that are very ancient or very foreign, such as Paleolithic culture in prehistoric Europe where cave art was believed to satisfy the needs of animals to be remembered or glorified.

The Hellenic people, almost modern by comparison, believed in oracles and prophecies. These stories of sympathetic magic are visions or presentations of future experience. A biography, or at least the important aspects of it, can be told before the life is lived. The concept is comparable to "fortune telling," astrology or other primitive determinisms. The oracle, prophet or seer doesn't make predictions or forecasts based on probabilities, as far as the believer is concerned. The story may not be probable at all, but it is inevitable. It will happen.

In the Odyssey, before he can return home to Ithaca, Odysseus must hear the story of his life-to-be from a oracle or prophet. Clever though he is, he can't see the path forward by himself or make up his own story. Because he has become lost in a maze of bewildering spiritual punishments about his past, his future must be told to him by somebody who can see ahead. That guide is Teiresias, the oracle who knows past and future.

But where does Teiresias get the story? How does he know the future?

Don't try this at home!The future in Homer frequently depends on the past; hence the future often can be foretold, if the story of the past can be recalled correctly. In these cases the future is not simply some made up story, acted out according to the whim of gods or the desires of human actors themselves. It is not invented out of thin air by creative seers and priests.  It is not some new thing, independent of things that have gone before. It is what must happen, in fairness, to complete or compensate for what has gone before.

Under such a system of retributive justice, guilt works out through time: "the first shall become last" and vice versa. Time brings about a fairly predictable series of role reversals like the transformation of Odysseus the oppressor (the victor at Troy) into Odysseus the victim (the weeping war widow). Odysseus has been a famous sacker of cities; accordingly his fate, and the cyclops' curse, will return him to a home which reflects the cities that he has sacked. He has stolen the cattle of others, so his own cattle will be devoured. Ithaca, when he finally gets there, will be a reflection of dead Hektor's household: Odysseus' grieving wife Penelope will take the place of sorrowing widow Andromache, and Odysseus' paranoid young son Telemakhos will suffer from delusions that he is about to be murdered like Astyanax.

Because the future is the spiritual consequence of the past, in this way, Teiresias and other Homeric seers can read it in victims. The blood allows them to speak and to prophesy. Show the seer your victim, and the seer shows your future to you. 

In this prophetic system, events that appear to the living as if they have passed actually are still present, spiritually. What happened in former times is the spell, charm or curse under which the living exist. In this mythic or recurrent sense in which the past isn't past at all, history must be taken quite seriously because it is the key to understanding the changes that are going to happen.

Image left: "calf-bearer" cir. 570 BC (upper portion, partially restored), a 65-foot statue in the Acropolis Museum, Athens.


























Figure left: Odysseus rescued by the ram from the cave of Polyphemus, restored image from a 7th century BC figurine. How's this for identification with the victim? Ancient Hellenes slept under sheep skins to contact the dead in dreams.





From hero worship to tragedy:
a very general overview of Hellenic art

The particular rite of sympathetic magic from which Homeric song derives is ancient Hellenic hero worship or communion with the ancestors

Bottom's up! This image appears in the bottom of a libation cup, early 5th century BCWhat was it? Among the Hellenes, cult rituals were conducted at ancient tombs, supposed to be the last resting place of local heroes. Animal sacrifices were offered and communion meals were served with drink libations of blood or wine spilled on the ground, where the remains of the dead were buried, so that the heroes could share in the feast. (In the Hellenic image of Priam ransoming Hektor's body, above on this page, note Achilles pouring a libation over the dead body of Hektor on the ground. Once this libation is poured, Hektor will come to life in Achilles' imagination, and Achilles will treat Priam as if Priam was his own father. Note also the Hellenic image to the right of this present paragraph, the figure of the seated Hellenic singer with lyre in hand, pouring a libation on the ground in preparation for singing. The song will be the voice of the dead, awakened by the libation.) 

In hero rituals, as the libation was poured, the singer was crowned with a garland of laurel sprigs, the plant sacred to Apollo, god of death and song. The laurel crown symbolically connected the singer's mind to the dead through new life nourished in the soil from their remains. (In the figure of the tomb ceremony shown below, see the libation being poured to the right of the central crypt, while the singer with lyre is crowned to the left.) The female who crowned the singer was identified with the Muse or goddess of memory.  Coloration has been added to highlight the relief. The original stone is badly eroded.





Figure left: with Apollo's bird (the raven) and lyre, a Hellenic singer pours a libation, image based on a classical bowl decoration. What is the relationship between story-telling and spilling blood or pouring wine?










Figure left: classical stone carving from Attica of a muse crowning with laurel a singer with lyre, and a procession of worshipers pouring libations at the tomb in a hero ceremony. (A similar engraving from classical Athens is shown on mouse-over.)

Once the ritual libation had been poured, and they had been fed, the dead heroes spoke to the worshippers. The Odyssey recalls this climactic moment of hero ceremonies, when the dead Teiresias and the other ghosts have been given sacrificial blood to drink, and are empowered to speak to Odysseus (Odyssey 11.23-150).

In the ancient rituals, the faithful participants believed that the singer was not a performer, who simply made up the words, but an entranced medium though whose song-voice the hero actually spoke. The singing, together with music of the lyre, indicated that the words were not normal, everyday speech; they were coming from a separate disembodied being or spiritual presence. The singer was possessed by the hero. The song was inspired.

Heroic poetry among the Hellenes developed from this ritual impersonation of the dead on ceremonial feast days. In this secularized or literary development, as we see it in Homer, the song had been separated from its originally ritual context. In place of a gathering of faithful believers, there had come to be audiences of make-believers. The enraptured Homeric bard or singer was the hero-impersonator who had moved the ancestor show from its original sacred place (the hero shrine, the place of burial outside of town) into the political palace or aristocratic household or public festival in town.

Detached from the original context in ritual, the singing eventually came to be admired and practiced as performing art. The ancestors' physical remains were no longer really there, where the performer and audience were. The heroes now were present only in mind. So the haunting voices of the ancestors gradually faded into fiction.

The bards eventually transformed the ritual of tomb visitation into the art form that we call tragedy, and Homer may have played a major role in this transformation. Homeric performance uses a dramatic style of vivid scenes and dialogues to bring the dead heroes to life, at least in the imagination of the audience. Centuries after Homer, in the classical age (5th century BC), Hellenic tragedy took this impersonation style further, dramatizing many of the Homeric episodes and similar stories, using actors and chorus in place of the simple one-man show of the story-teller, adding costumes, scenery, music, dance and special effects.

The purpose of this classical Hellenic tragedy was to arouse strong emotional sympathy in the audience, as noted by the earliest western literary critics, Plato and Aristotle.  The theater audience was to be moved to pity and fear for the suffering victim, the tragic hero. The emotional purpose is essentially the same as in Odysseus' story-telling to the Phaeacians.

Hellenic tragedy in its heyday was taken seriously. The Hellenic theater was a public institution, and citizens attended the public performances as a matter of civic duty on religious feast days. In its early form, the celebration opened with the ritual sacrifice of animals and a public feast or communion meal; then the actors, wearing masks to obscure their own identity, using music and other effects to transform their stage into a magical spirit world, sang and spoke the words of heroes of long ago . . .














Fiction separated from ritual when the heroes no longer were believed to be there.


















Humankind is the animal
that tells after-dinner stories

Now let's return to our proposed mother of all stories, the primitive story of the hunt told after dinnertime. The underlying pattern hero story, or tragedy, of the Hellenes is the story of the animal killed on the hunt--which is also the quest story of the suffering of the hunter who identifies with the slain animal, like Heracles in the victim lion's skin. 

The simplicity of this story is deceptive. Its core idea is the sacrifice. All life comes from death. The dying victim gives life to the one who sacrifices; then the one who sacrifices in turn becomes the victim. This cycle unifies all life, all organisms of all time on earth.

Sacrifice offers a first theory of creative story-telling, just as it does for cave painting in visual art. When the artist has feasted on the animal, the animal is incorporated in the artist. In exchange for its animal body, it gains the artist's body, which includes the artist's power of speech to tell its story. Literature first comes from this incorporated voice within, this ingested alien that has its say through the artist's voice box. This art may have been the original form of spiritual possession, possession by the victim food animal. 

Later, still long before the time of the Homeric songs, human dead generally took the place of slain animals in story-telling. According to new ideas about spirits at this time, animal sacrifice could be "offered" to human dead. The voices of hero-ancestors could be heard when animals were sacrificed to them. Not surprisingly, the most ancient hero-spirits (like Heracles or Odysseus) often were portrayed with animal qualities. Animal sacrifices also could be "offered" to the gods, with a similar result that gods often took on animal characteristics, like Zeus in the form of a bull. 

This newer form of sacrifice, as offering to hero, or offering to god, may have been the poetic origin of mythology, history, and prophecy: speaking for people of the past and speaking for gods. The practice of ancestral and divine impersonation could have arisen with the domestication of animals in the Neolithic period. At that time, the old magical idea of attracting the animal for dinner would have begun to fade away, because food animals had been domesticated. But the need to avoid guilt for eating would have remained as strong as ever. Before the cruel circuses of the Roman Empire, animals seldom were killed for sport, or even for personal consumption. Previously, slaughtering and eating meat had a higher justification or pretence, the communion with ancestor-spirits and gods.

From a modern scientific perspective, this feasting and story-telling  phenomenon can be explained in medical terms. Human beings have a unique nervous system that can be regulated to some degree by conscious thoughts. This system consists of a sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which raises stress levels, and a parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which relaxes them. The SNS drives up blood pressure, increases heartbeat, and optimizes the body for physical action, especially fight or flight emergencies. When it is frequently used, the SNS tends to get stuck in the "on" position, so that we can't relax--a condition that leads to sleeplessness, stroke, heart disease, impotence, ulcers, indigestion and a host of other stress-related ailments. We can shut off the SNS, however, by consciously stimulating the PNS, which triggers a calm, vegetative state, optimizes our gastrointestinal tract for digestion, and allows us to sleep.

Ancient Hellenes were physically stressed--possibly much more stressed than most of us are today, due to the severities and dangers of life in their challenging times. They needed relaxation, especially after dinner and before bedtime. Fine arts accompanying evening meals would have helped to induce parasympathetic tone.


The temple of Apollo at Delphi (in collage at left) was the foremost place of sacrifice in the Hellenic world. The purpose of the sacrifice was to reveal the future.















Figure left: The good shepherd, 4th century AD statue (restored). How does this pastoral imagery relate to Odysseus and the ram?















Children of Adam and Eve

Animal sacrifice was known and practiced with variations throughout much of the ancient world, not only in areas of major Hellenic influence. Animal sacrifice is introduced in Genesis in the story of Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve. 

Recall the story. Abel is the keeper of sheep, and his sacrifice of the firstlings of the flock is accepted by the Lord. Cain is a tiller of the ground whose sacrifice of the first fruits of the earth is not accepted by the Lord. (Can you see why the sacrifice of animals might be more "acceptable" than the sacrifice of fruits?)

Abel is the sacrificer who becomes the sacrifice. Cain slays Abel, and the spilled blood of Abel calls out from the ground to the Lord. Abel also now speaks and lives in Cain, for bloodshed brings role-reversal, and Cain becomes the suffering victim. No longer will Cain be a tiller of the ground. His life takes the form of a vagabond wanderer, the life of an animal. He believes that every man he meets will kill him. This animal fear is his guilt, and it is not forgiven. The Lord promises only that, if Cain is slain, the pattern of victimization will continue and escalate for "whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold."

According to another verse of Genesis, incidentally, Cain became the father of all those who play the lyre (the musical instrument used by mediums in hero rituals, and later used by bards to accompany heroic songs). The story of Cain and Abel is far from Homeric in its spare style, but broad similarities between Cain and Odysseus are unmistakable. Killers become sufferers, homeless vagabonds who fear for their lives, punished  by divine retribution as if they were animals. Punishment is not the end of the story, however. In an ending that is often difficult for modern audiences to understand, both Cain and Odysseus turn out to be heroes. Why? They are not murderers of modern crime fiction but sacrificers of an archaic ritual type, killers in whose guilty suffering the victim is reborn.

The essential story pattern survived in tragic literature centuries after animal sacrifice ceased to be practiced. Shakespeare, for example, returned to it in Macbeth (cir. 1604 AD) and Julius Caesar (cir. 1598 AD) where murderers, haunted by the blood of their victims, receive punishment by spirits, eloquence, illumination and eventual butchering. In later literature, like Shakespeare, this plot development, from murder to victimization, may look simply like poetic justice or irony, a merely literary device. In the primal view of Homer and Genesis, however, it is the sacrificial order of nature herself. 




Another example






Figure left: Cain and Abel, based on a popular image of the subject by modern illustrator Gustav Dore, emphasizing Cain's primitive brutal character.





















Lesson SummaryThe Homeric songs and later Greek tragedy grew out of magical ceremonies in Hellenic hero worship. The heroes in the rituals were ancestors who were awakened from their graves by sacrificial offerings made to them. Once awakened, they spoke to the living through the song voices of enraptured mediums. Art emerged from religion when these feasts began to be performed in secular settings that were not burial sites, so that the revival of the dead was understood to be only an illusion, not the real thing. This secularization did not result in a total loss of function. The entertainment value of the art continued to aid digestion and relieve stress, as before.


Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. Oracles, prophecies and visions applied: By what stories do you live? If you don't have a story in mind for your future, how can you control your life at all? If you do have a story in mind, isn't it only a fiction?

2. The food chain: Our usual modern idea of the food chain is a collection of supermarkets or fast food restaurants, not an ecosystem. What might be the consequences?  Perhaps the grocery and restaurant businesses are elaborate devices to eliminate guilt for eating, hence successors to cave painting? (And why are so many restaurants run by people of Greco-Roman descent!)

3. Animal stories: can you now suggest why the first stories that you ever heard as a child were animal stories?  What's the message in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or other classic children's stories that feature talking animals? What's the appeal of animal toys?  

4. Jewish and Christian parallels. The Biblical episode most parallel to Odysseus' consultation of Teiresias is the curious story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28: 3-25, dating from perhaps 1000 BCE (the time of Helladic Dark Age). In those days at least two groups of prophets provided consulting services to Saul, King of the Jews. There were men who prophesied by impersonating the Lord in the usual Jewish way. (They said: "Thus says the Lord . . .") And then there were women who somehow raised dead prophets from the underworld to prophesy. The King James translation of the Bible describes these women as witches, probably because James was obsessed with witch detection. More modern translations are less sensational. In the New American Bible, for example, the prophetess of Endor is described as a "medium," meaning simply a host of spirits.

In any case, when live Jewish prophets weren't working, Saul could ask a resurrectress about dead ones. The curiosity in the story of Endor is that the lady gets the job done. She raises the dead prophet Samuel, and somehow she makes Samuel tell the doomed king about his fate.  Moreover, this prophecy turns out to be as correct as any in the scriptures.

The similarities between the two otherwise unrelated stories of Saul and Odysseus, and the matter-of-fact way in which these stories are told, suggest that there was nothing very extraordinary about resurrecting prophets in those days. Can you see why Christianity might catch on among people of Hellenic culture or training? why Constantinople, so near Homer's geographical world, would become a center for the new religion? 

5. Scholarship: for still the world's greatest collection of examples of sympathetic magic, see Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. For a general discussion of archaic conceptions of recurring time, as contrasted with modern linear and historical conceptions, see Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (Harper & Row 1959). Scholarly but readable treatments of Hellenic religion and animal sacrifice can be found in Walter Burkert's fascinating books, Greek Religion (Harvard Press 1985), Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (U California Press 1983), and Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Harvard Press 1996). The last book particularly describes relationships between hunting and the quest pattern of story telling.

Greek voyages of discovery are studied in a wonderful book by Francois Hartog, Memories of Odysseus: Frontier tales from Ancient Greece, tr. Janet Lloyd (U Chicago Press 2001). For the original volume see Memoir d'Ulysse (Editions Gallimard 1996).

6. Ring narrative structure.  Scholars have noted that Homer often patterns episodes in "rings" or other designs. They have observed a pattern of alternating violent/nonviolent episodes in the voyage of Odysseus. 

Sack of Kikones (Odyssey 9.39) / Underworld & Teiresias (11.1) 
Lotus Eaters, forget home (9.82) / Sirens, forget home (12.160)
Cyclops, 6 eaten in cave (9.105) / Scylla, 6 eaten in cave (12.200)
Aeolus, crewmen greedy (10.1) / Helios, crewmen greedy (12.260)
Laestrygonians decimate crew (10.77) /  Zeus destroys crew (12.405)
Circe, remember home  (10.133) / Calypso, remember home (12.445)

The systematic, repeated build and release of tension in this episodic plot is quite similar to modern relaxation therapies where the muscles of the body are tensed and relaxed, tensed and relaxed again, and again, sometimes with the help of imagery to give cognitive support to the exercise. To get the full enjoyment of Odysseus' voyage, then, be sure to read all of it, and try to enter the experience, vicariously sharing in Odysseus' emotions.

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright  2007