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Reflections on the experience of Odysseus as related to Jean Houston's The Hero and the Goddess: The Odyssey as Mystery and Initiation and Alicia LeVan's Calypso and Circe On the lush, luxuriant island of Ogygia, Odysseus spends seven years of his ten year journey home with the beautiful seductive nymph Calypso, who virtually possesses him and compels him to live a sensual but vegetative existence. For ten years, surrounded by men, he lived out the male heroic ideal of warrior, then spent several years further testing himself against otherworldly obstacles. In the process, he lost all of his companions, and has nothing left but the little that remains of himself.
Here on Calypso's isle, he lives in paradise:
"Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave,
alders, and black poplars, pungent cypress too,
and there, birds roosted, folding their long wings,
owls and hawks and the spread beaked ravens of the sea,
black skimmers who make their living off the waves.
And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine
laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes.
Four springs in a row, bubling clear and cold,
running side-by-side, took channels left and right.
Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets,
lush with beds of parsley. Why, even a deathless god
who came upon that place would gaze in wonder,
heart entranced with pleasure.
Homer, The Odyssey, V:71-82, Fagles translation
Odysseus is now embraced by Mother Earth, in all her verdant fertility, and also living deep within caverns that are only reminiscent of the womb. For seven years, Calypso protects him from Poseidon's wrath. As the devoted and devouring mother, AND the seductive and engulfing mistress/lover, she is both what men most desire, and most fear.
Alicia LeVan wrote:
Perhaps the 'necessity' he has for unity with the feminine, coupled with his yearning for home, (an embodiment of the feminine principle representing relationship, community, cooperation, and non-aggression) represents a need for integration of the feminine principle within his psyche after years of functioning in war, with the constant testosterone of destroying, killing, raping and surviving in the most inhumane, strife torn, blood drenched, barren plains of Troy. After ten years of functioning as a killer and destroyer,he must heal his numbness and desensitivity by connecting with his feelings.
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The emotional outpouring when he weeps in pain from being in exile from his home (the feminine) suggests that he has begun to integrate the feminine virtues of sensitivity, patience, contemplation, depth, ripening, healing and transforming insight that enable him to continue, and to be drawn back home. Thus he is reborn through Calypso.
In Jungian terms, Odysseus has been ruled for years by his animus, his male self. He has denied the feminine, his anima. When we deny a significant part of our psyche, we often end up confronting it outside of ourselves, and usually, at least initially, in a negative or extreme manner.
From this viewpoint, we can view Odysseus' seven years with Calypso as seven years of feeling engulfed by his own need for dependency on the feminine - both the mother principle which forces his comes to terms with the powerless boy within who craves a mother's care, and also the inner adolescent who feels at the mercy of his sexual desires. The engulfment by Calypso expresses his own lack of control as his deeper unconscious self takes him over and possesses him. He both desires and despises the very union with the feminine he craves - despises, because within it there is no arena for his masculinity except in its most primal form.
Jean Houston wrote:
"[Calypso] provides him with a regular daily life in which has has no need for the cunning and wily qualities that saw him through the Trojan victory and his subsequent adventures. Instead, he must learn to use the qualities of sensory enjoyment and emotional relationship.
Most of the commentators.... (virtually all of whom are men) see an engulfment by the "instinctual female principle, physically vital, but intellectually and spiritually lifeless." For the hero adventurer, the apparent "effortlessness of existence" would always be a kind of living death. For only in action can he find his identity: only by struggle an he maintain his reality.... So this adventuresome hero must live without adventure for seven full years.
Odysseus faces the challenge of NO active challenge. On Calypso's isle, he has no way to be a hero. He is forced to live a vegetative existence, perhaps at first a welcome rest, but then a womblike entrapment. The name Calypso means "eclipse," and indeed, Odysseus' long stay on Calypso's isle is an eclipse of all that he has known of life...and also of his consciousness of himself as a warrior hero and shrewd initiator of action.
Eighteen years ago, in a book chapter I wrote entitled, How to Swim Through Cosmic Waters, I expressed my own experience with this stage of development:
In this state we may feel as if we are in a trance. Our egos are pulled deeper into our subconscious. We are operating on only a small portion of our energy .... Our conscious energy seems to be leeking into our subconscious, while our subconscious energy is simultaneously seeping into our consciousness and dissolving behavior patterns of the past. For a time, we are not likely to be able to operate clearly or productively, as part of ourselves is actually being bathed in the well of our subconscious feminine energies, taking a deep rest so that in the future it can spring forth, totally refreshed and bursting with new inspiration.
As in many myths of creation, all that existed first was unnamed, undifferentiated chaos before the beginning of the earth and the birth of humanity, so we are journeying into the primeval chaos in order to give birth to higher dimensions of ourselves. We are taking a journey into blankness, into the void within - a fertile void, but we are not yet aware of its fertility. Instead, we may struggle and splash in the waters of our emotional confusion, afraid of being engulfed and drowning in the whirlpool within us.
We need to understand fully that we are in a time of transition, vacationing upon an island in the midst of the deepest waters of the psyche, as our energy is being reprocessed to prepare for a future period of greater clarity, fulfillment and wholeness.
Odysseus has been severely traumatized. Year after year of war, fighting for his life, and losing the male friends with whom he bonded throughout harrowing adventures -all the while being cut off from nurturing relationship with the feminine - he has regressed to a lower level of functioning. He can no longer free himself from the challenges he is facing through brawn or brain. The only way out is to surrender.
According to Jean Houston, his experience is a hibernation, a kind of halfway
house for post-traumatic stress survivors, a seven-year stay in a healing sanctuary of recuperation - and integration.
In The Hero and the Goddess, Houston also wrote:
It feels like an utter engulfment in which one has a hard time relating to anything else because the self is so deeply buried in something else. It is not the dark night of the soul. Rather, it is the necessary hibernation period presaging a fundamental renewal or restructuring of personality. How vital the long resting place is to the soul's development... those loose and mindless places where on can go to relax and vegetate... Sometimes, however, these places are so hidden, even from us, that we feel our lives are being wasted and we long to get back where the action is. Yet the "action" may very well be going on - in the internal reams - with our state of external routine providing the stable conditions necessary for the reflection and reweaving of our own possible human.
During his stay on Calypso's isle, Odysseus is never able to fully accept his situation. His body is alive, but only in regard to sensuality. Calypso holds him so tightly in her embrace, that he is not free to embrace her in turn. And because of his unresolved grief and trauma, his heart remains closed. In book nine of the Odyssey, he says of both Calypso and Circe, "They never won the heart inside me, never."
But at the same time, Odysseus is also compelled to surrender. Only in surrender can another part of himself emerge and lead him forward once again. Only in surrender can he feel and release the deep grief he has been carrying all these years, and own the feminine energy within himself. And by the seventh
year, he is ready to move into the next stage, what Houston refers to as the stage of active longing. He weeps ceaselessly, for Ithaca and for Penelope.
The waters are his own now - his tears. The island is his own making - his loneliness. The feminine is within him now - his own deep feeling. At this point, he begins to own and express his own anima .... and in this emerging wholeness, a new voice, which encompasses both the masculine and feminine can begin to exert its authority.
What voice? The voice of Zeus. The king of the gods, the ruling power of his own psyche commands that he be released from the engulfing feminine both within himself and outside himself, and helps provide him the means and power to resume the journey home. And now both his inner feminine and the outer feminine - Calypso - are ready to listen, so that he may continue his journey by water.
For Odysseus now, the male is no longer repressed or expressed in its lowest dimension. Nor does the female need anymore to be projected, or to be encountered in its most primitive manifestation. The feminine within is transformed by grief and lets go, as Calypso lets go. Odysseus awakens again to his heroic, adventuresome self. But this self has only one focus - to unite with the feminine energy in its most positive form. To go home, home to Ithaca, home to Penelope.
Even the lure of immortality cannot entrap him now. His pride, which has led him to continually prove his superhuman capabilities, is no longer his primary source of motivation. The heroic in him now is directing all his energies toward the journey toward both inner and outer home.
Alicia LeVan wrote:
The hero masters his masculinity with Circe, and then unites with his feminine psyche with Calypso. Through coming to know both aspects of universal/ individual duality, he becomes whole.
Now Odysseus is ready, having discovered a manhood which can confront the inner and outer waters, to face the full wrath of Poseidon's waves. Only now can he fully surrender to the sea, to the vast and powerful feminine, and be reborn.
Only then does he arrive in the land of the Phaeaicans, naked as a newborn, but able to now suppress and gain command over the sexuality which so recently dominated his existence - as he covers his private parts with a leaf. For now he meets the feminine in a virgin, youthful form. Nausicaa is an expression of his own virgin and developing anima. He treats her with dignity, grace, self-control and respect. And in honoring her, he also honors himself.
Jean Houston, The Hero and the Goddess
Alicia LeVan, Calypso and Circe
Jan Brueghel painting from Carol Gerten's Gallery
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