Wednesday, January 24, 2007



The word “Odyssey,” according to Webster, means: “a series of adventurous journeys usually marked by many changes of fortune.” In Jungian terms, the story can be understood as the ego’s individuation once a certain stage of development has been reached. We can liken it to the Biblical story of the Israelites. It took someone like Moses to lead the people out of bondage, through the wilderness, to the edge of the promised land. In this story, again looked at from a Jungian frame, a “Moses” kind of consciousness is necessary but only up to a point. Here Moses represents a gathering of psychic energetic forces, all leading toward a single goal–freedom for the personality. In other words, a degree of integration of the ego with an attendant increase in free will. A look at Biblical story as the code for the development of the personality would make for a fascinating study in itself. However, in this course we are going to read and discuss Homer’s ODYSSEY in hopes of finding relevance for us today.

Homer wrote down this epic poem some 2700-2800 years ago. The outline of the story, as summarized by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., is this: “A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife’s hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed.”

So, how are we to look for relevance in a story almost 3,000 years old? THE ODYSSEY emerged at a time when ego consciousness and its unconscious substratum were more closely allied than they are today. Today our individual consciousness is so well developed that, for most people, the existence of the unconscious is not even a consideration. But just because we are unaware of something doesn’t mean that “something” does not exist.

As we read and discuss, keep in mind that (1) the unconscious often personifies its contents, (2) events and experiences we explain today with notions like “hunches” or intuitions or luck or neurosis, our Greek ancestors explained as actions or interferences of the gods, and (3) the boundary between a waking and sleeping state was most probably not so well defined 3,000 years ago.

If you accept the reality of the unconscious, or at least can entertain the hypothesis that the unconscious exists, (and I assume you do or can since you are interested in things Jungian), then you can readily see that the unconscious personifies its contents because that is the way we are presented unconscious contents in dreams.

As for my second premise, that we have new notions and words for explaining what are truly ancient and universal experiences, simply consider how very recently much of daily phenomena were explained away by superstition.

Perhaps the best way to explain what I am driving at here is to consider some of the contributions of Immanuel Kant. One of Kant’s basic ideas was that there are two world, the phenomenal and the numinal. He argued that there is a great deal about the phenomenal world that we can understand and agree upon, that indeed our minds are constructed in such a way that we experience this world in the same ways. We all can agree about time, distance (width and length and depth), and cause and effect. The numinal world, Kant argued, we should leave to religion; There is little we can agree upon about it and for that reason shouldn’t try.

After Kant, much superstition fell away. (As modern events prove, there is little about the numinal world that we can agree upon and much we can fight over. Fruitlessly, I believe.) Standardization took root. We all have light bulbs that fit, time definitions that work for us. There is universal agreement about the measurement of length. Before Kant a foot was the measure of the king’s foot. When the king changed, so did the length of the foot. And cause and effect is such an accepted fact that few moderns can accept any other explanation for events.

Jung was a student of Kantian Philosophy. However, he took Kant one step further. He believed that the numinal world gives rise to the phenomenal and continues to influence and provide energy to it. The conscious mind and its unconscious substrate are Jung’s parallel notions of the phenomenal and the numinal. If we were inclined to use theological language, we would talk about the continuing incarnation of the godhead.

If you think about all this a little, it makes some sense. We are hard pressed to give up ideas of space and time and cause and effect in our waking realities. However, in the world we experience while asleep, i.e., when the conscious mind is somewhat shut down, the rules of space and time and cause and effect simply do not apply. That is one reason it is so difficult to work with and understand dreams–they force us to think “outside the box,” as it were. If we bring our conscious mind and its constructs to the dream, we will simply make the dream fit into one of our preexistent categories of understanding. If, however, we allow the dream to break up those categories, then dreams may possibly bring something quite new and original into consciousness. In fact, the very word analysis helps explain the work: lysis means “loosening.” The task in analysis is “loosening” the rigid consciousness that we work so hard to acquire in our first decades. You can see then why dreams so often contribute to a more creative consciousness.

You can see, also, why the work of analysis can lead us straight into conflict. A well-bounded, adapted, and functioning consciousness is necessary for the world, and there are great worldly compensations for it. It is the task of consciousness to discriminate and exclude. The price to be paid is that too much exclusion ay leave consciousness in a desiccated existence. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Returning now to THE ODYSSEY. I urge you to read the story without giving it a whole lot of thought. Read it as you would read a novel. If something strikes you, note it for discussion. Let’s see together if in our reading and discussion we can feel our way into the world of Odysseus and his crew, into a consciousness somewhat emeshed with the unconscious background.

Homer’s great work is archetypal. By archetypal, I mean something very simple: an archetype is a pattern of human behavior. The two primary archetypes of THE ODYSSEY are “the journey” and “coming home.” Reading THE ODYSSEY may help us feel our way more deeply into our own archetypal patterns of journey and home.

Rose F. Holt
January 15, 2007