There has long been a fashion among critics and historians, including Sir James Frazier and Graham Hancock, to insist upon taking the account of Odysseus' voyage to Hades in Book XI of the Odyssey at near face-value as a description of people and places familiar to a Greek audience of Homer's day. Both linguistics and comparative history have been employed to discover exactly how accurately this originally oral epic conveys this gritty realism. Something, however, is not right with this purely empiric approach. What is missing is an examination through the lens of ancient religious practices. Surely a literary work so teeming with deities-wise Athena, spiteful Poseidon, impish Hermes, omnipotent Zeus-deserves such study.
In protohistoric times, the worshipers of the gods sought out mystic union with their deities by means of bodily mortification and ingestion of hallucinogenic drugs. These practices are spelled out both in the Rig Veda of India and the Chinese Book of Songs. In the Veda, Indra is worshiped in a ritual that includes large doses of soma. The Book of Songs, compiled by Confucius from the many texts of poetry and myth at his disposal, contains repeated accounts of trance and religious ekstasis. In the twenty-second chapter of St. John's Revelation, the Koine Greek term translated as sorcerers in the King James Bible is pharmakeusin Literally, this word denotes those who use drugs to achieve arcane effects. Since plants were the mainstay of medical science in those distant days, a secondary meaning might be applied: herbalists. Robin Fox, in his book Pagans and Christians, argues that the role of such figures as the Sybil of Cumae and the Delphic prophetess ...
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...se value to the Odyssey as a voice from an antique time aimed at future generations. During the Roman Empire, both the Odyssey and its companion, the Iliad, were considered as foundational texts in education. Small wonder; history, poetry, parable, hymn-such a literary work is its own small cosmos. It deserves to be approached and interacted with as a living entity that still matters in Western civilization. That is possible only if we view such works in the context of the societies that produced them. Religion was a huge component of such a society. Although we now possess technological marvels that might give a Greek deity apoplexy from shame, the ancient Greeks are still Us. Men and women will always feel the need to see the world through fresher eyes than their own.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1962.
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