Thursday, February 28, 2008

Allegorizing the Odyssey

The Fathers did not limit their use of allegory to interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Here is an excerpt from Book XII of Homer's Odyssey, that great textbook of the ancient world, in which Odysseus instructs his sailors to tie him upright against the mast of his ship in order to sail safely by the Muses:
"Friends, since it is not right for one or two of us only to know the divinizations that Circe, bright among goddesses, gave me, so I will tell you, and knowing all we may either die, or turn aside from death and escape destruction. First of all she tells us to keep away from the magical Sirens and their singing and their flowery meadow, but only I, she said, was to listen to them, but you must tie me hard in hurtful bonds, to hold me fast in position upright against the mast, with the ropes' ends fastened around it; but if I suplicate you and implore you to set me free, then you must tie me fast with even more lashings." (XII: 154-164)
Clement of Alexandria, equating the Sirens with temptation, writes:
Sail past their music and leave it behind you, for it will bring about your death. But if you will, you can be the victor over the powers of destruction. The Logos of God will be your pilot, and the Holy Spirit [pneuma, wind] will bring you to anchor in the harbor of heaven.
I found this passage in Alan Jacobs' marvelous study, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, which I whole-heartedly recommend. (You might know Dr Jacobs as the author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.) I've cited Richmond Lattimore's The Odyssey of Homer. The above mosaic, showing Odysseus sailing past the Sirens, is of Byzantine origin.

No comments: