ODYSSEUS AND THE NIGHT SEA JOURNEY
A Story About War and Its Aftermath
Homer’s Odyssey begins with these words:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, that many-minded man…struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions…longing for his wife and his home.”
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the oldest living narratives in our Western cultural heritage. The Iliad is the first story to confront us with the details of the field of battle, its heroes, victims, glories, crushing horrors, and its pitiful endings. The Odyssey is the first story to confront us with fundamental questions about the devastating costs of war for individual lives, and especially about those psycho-spiritual wounds we call post-traumatic stress, which men and women suffer from as a direct consequence of war.
What does it take to heal those wounds, visible and invisible, after years in the killing fields? Can a man like Odysseus ever become whole, able to embrace a woman fully, lovingly, and as an equal? Can he ever open himself to his sons and daughters, and teach them how to live fully, as a father ought? What powerful medicine holds the potential to heal the soul of a warrior be he king, or an “ordinary guy”? For Homer the answer is yes, and he shows us the pathway.
My father, and many of our fathers and mothers, served, or currently serve, in the armed forces in a times of war. He served as an infantry lieutenant on the front line in Germany during the Second World War. He never spoke much about his war experiences. Dad just came home, where he and my mother wove their future together.
In 1986 I made a pilgrimage to the town of Muden, located on the Mosel River, about an hour’s train ride from Koblenz. On a hill across the river from the town, my father told me, there is a large granite outcropping—dark with a white streak, like lightening. While defending that hill my father nearly lost his life, and saved the lives of his men through his heroic action for which he received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Homer’s words took on new meaning for me, once I went to this place where my father descended into the night-sea journey, the dark night of the soul, and his nostos—his return home. Time and life have also taught me that many who never literally go to war fight different kinds of battles on different fronts in everyday life, and on psychic levels, just as Odysseus did on the wine-dark sea of the Netherworld.
During our Summer Fairy Tale Seminar we will make Odysseus’ story a place to begin. We will look for the stories of our father-warriors, and in our own interior lives as well. With the help of Homer and Odysseus we will enter the deeper meaning of the dark night, the nekyia, the night sea-journey, and the journey home.
Our text is, of course, Homer’s Odyssey. There are many good translations. My favorite is by Richmond Lattimore (HarperPerennial, 2007). Please find your favorite to use. It is always fun to see how different translators interpret the original.
If you are interested in attending, please contact me for the details.