The marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope gives us one of the most powerful images in Homer’s Odyssey. Carved from a living olive tree still rooted in the ground, it symbolizes the centrality of marriage to the health and preservation of a good society. Odysseus’s struggle to return to this bed and his slaughter of the usurpers who would take his place there form a satisfying climax to one of history’s greatest stories.
In his literary masterpiece Gli Asolani, Renaissance writer Pietro Bembo awakens and ennobles the moral imagination with the myth of the Queen of the Fortunate Isles. In this myth—which, in the narrative is told by a wise old man to the impressionable young man, Lavinello—the Queen of “surpassing beauty” tests the affections of men and rewards them in accordance with their love. Bembo’s myth invites us into a beautiful romance and demands that we examine ourselves, reorder our loves, and seek better dreams for our lives.
The question of how Christians should engage culture is one which garners diverse opinions from people of faith. Many argue that we should participate in our culture. Sometimes, this means conceding to whatever has been deemed fashionable by society. Then there are those who do not see the value of engaging with culture, echoing Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
The answer to these questions in their totality is complex. However, one interesting literary relationship can shed light on it: The Gospel of Mark’s use of Homer’s Odyssey.
Seventy-five years ago, as the Nazis were methodically implementing their conquest of Europe, the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil published a long essay titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In her perceptive take on Homer’s poem, she describes force as “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad....,” and defines it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” (The Nazis brought this practice to a new level, and still stand as role models for
Necessity is the mother of invention, quipped Ben Franklin, and, in quintessential American fashion, he seemed content to let the buck stop with necessity. For a nation whose only original philosophical contribution has been pragmatism, need seems self-evident, self-justified, self-authenticating. If I am a student who needs special provisions made for my religious practices, or an employee who needs insurance coverage for my sexual experimentation—who is to deny me? At times, in the course of human events, things just become necessary.
First, an experiment: Imagine building a sandcastle. Imagine building that sandcastle right now, as you read this. Imagine driving to the beach, parking your car, walking out onto the sand, going down to the surf and getting the wet sand. Fill up a bucket. If you forgot to imagine bringing a bucket, imagine driving home to get one. Pack the sand in good. Dump it out in an even bucket shape. Do this four times, and have each upside down bucket of wet sand be a corner of the castle. Sculpt walls of sand between the corners. Dig a moat around the castle.
When book five begins we find ourselves in the same place where book one began: Olympus, where the gods are in session. And, as in book one, we listen as Athena pleads Odysseus' case. “Father Zeus . . . “ she says, “be one whose thought is schooled in justice.” And justice, she claims, demands that both Odysseus and Telemachus be free to return home.
When last we rode with “thoughtful” Telemachus, he and Peisistratos, Nestor's son, were on their way to the home of “glorious” Menelaus and Helen (she for whom his father was fighting when he went missing). As book four begins - and we come to the end of the portion of the Odyssey typically known as the Telemachy - Telemachus and Pesistratos are finally arrving at the King's palace. They are greeted with, of course, a grand feast.