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In our time we take for granted that a successful story leads to a sequel. In some obvious ways this makes sense, especially if the story ends with many issues unresolved and many principal characters still alive. However, as a story by definition has an ending, this seems to go against resuming the story as if it had not ended.
Sequels are tricky. They cannot simply extend the original story, and if a story-teller attempts this he merely repeats the original tale with variations which fool no one. Many bad movie sequels come to mind here. The true art of the sequel is to take some characters from the original story and put them in a new story, using not as many elements from the original story as possible but as few as necessary.
Anyone interested in sequels should study the first and greatest one: Homer’s Odyssey.
To continue the story of the siege of Troy would be presupposed, but Homer avoids this. Instead he jumps ahead many years and shows the sorrows of the family of Odysseus – the man who did not come home.
Departing from the mainly linear time-line of the Iliad, much of the Odyssey is told as flashbacks. Sequels demand more sophisticated structure than the original work. They should also be able to stand independently from the original work. Had the Iliad been lost, the Odyssey would yet stand on its own.
To stand on its own a sequel needs a central idea which either does not appear in the original work or is treated there peripherally. In the Odyssey this is the idea of Odysseus as story-teller. Touched upon in the Iliad, this idea is now plowed deeply. We hear Odysseus telling stories almost by second nature; whenever he encounters an obstacle his first reaction is to tell a story to get around it. His ability to disguise his intentions is without equal in world literature. The one time Odysseus is tripped up is when listening to a story about the fall of Troy and his role in it. Curiously this is the story which Homer’s audience would have expected to hear. By making it a story within the story, Homer’s narrative sophistication is breath-taking.
Deception is largely absent from the Iliad; it is central to the Odyssey. Odysseus is a thinking man’s hero. Over and over he wins against all odds because he out-thinks his opponents. His secret of success is that he regards everyone with suspicion; together with ruthlessness and the favor of the gods, that is all one needs.
By substituting false information for true information and doing this at the outset of every encounter, Odysseus always has the upper hand. Dealing with potential friends, he conceals his identity until safe to reveal it. Dealing with enemies, he conceals his identity until too late for them to act against him. This is in sharp contrast to how nearly every character acts in the Iliad, yet develops a theme only lightly touched upon there: how honesty gets you into trouble.
Homer’s Odysseus - the man of “many wiles” – is the ideal story-teller, as Achilles is the ideal warrior. In every crisis he faces. Odysseus’s first impulse is to tell a story. Even when he has come home to Ithaca and meets his father, Laertes, his reaction is not to embrace dear old dad but to fabricate a story on the spot.
No model is better for a story-teller than Odysseus; he leads the way, and there has truly been nothing added to the art of story-telling since him. We see Odysseus unarmed, without gold or silver, without friends, without knowledge even of where he is, and literally naked among strangers – but he clothes himself with a story and we, too, listen as raptly as Nausicaa.
Here we perceive that the master story-teller takes his art with the greatest seriousness. It is a matter of life or death. For you, my friend, as for Odysseus, the right story at the right time will save your ass.
But the Odyssey has a deeper level. Homer ascribes the Iliad to the goddess who sings through him and, apparently, cannot lie (a limitation which male gods are never under). Much of the Odyssey quotes or paraphrases Odysseus himself – making it the story of a man who tells stories. But are stories lies? That depends on what you mean by “truth.” Implicit in everything Odysseus says is a definition of truth which we might call the misplaced heritage of Western man: truth is what works.
The Odyssey was a hard act to follow. It did not inspire an extensive literature about trickster heroes, but grew out of a very old tradition of trickster gods. Because we know these gods only as seen in stories, it is impossible to know how they were regarded in a purely myth-minded world. Myths are not about opposition between true and false, but about opposition between success and failure. Thereby the gods never tell “falsehoods” as we understand the term. Homer’s contemporaries must have regarded Odysseus in this spirit. But as stories proliferated and narrative-based thought became widespread, this earlier mindset was pushed out of mind. Then people came to believe there must be an absolute difference between truth and falsehood. As all story-tellers are the bastards of Odysseus, increasingly elaborate means had to be invented to give people the trickery they silently demand.
This segues into the last great trickster hero in the literature of the Classical world. The stories about him are well known, even though we do not see him the same way as when his character was invented. He is Jesus.
Regarding tricks as frivolous or disreputable, we are unaccustomed to think of Jesus as a trickster. It was not always such. Throughout most of history trickery was seen as a sign of intelligence indicating divine favor. The gods smiled on the trickster. The idea of governments and their ruling elites having a monopoly on trickery (like a monopoly on violence) is a modern concept.
Note that trickery is not the same as lying. When we lie, we walk; when we trick, we dance. Anyone can lie; only a few can trick. Whereas the liar denies truth, the trickster pays homage to it by saying “the truth is too precious to get involved here!” You can lie to people who do not want to be lied to, but you can only trick people willing to be tricked. And it is no exaggeration to call trickery the distaff side of justice. Anyone willing to trick others is open to being tricked himself. Thereby a master trickster – who could almost consistently trick without being tricked – inspired awe and admiration.
Jesus’s role as magician is well known (even if seldom so acknowledged). But the world which Jesus is set in is chock-a-block with magicians. Something about this story character made him stand out – and it was not healing the sick or even raising the dead. Jesus avers any exclusivity in these powers, which can be freely conferred upon others and are never claimed as his alone. What makes Jesus unique is his constant arguing for the deceptiveness of appearances. Saying the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, the smallest seed produced the biggest tree etc. – all bespeaks a worldview where nearly everything is opposite to what it seems. Jesus even tricks his own parents when he is twelve years old. His story is a narrative of trickery as he conceals his identity as Messiah.
Significantly, Jesus cannot die until his trick is exposed when Pilate orders a placard put atop the Cross identifying this particular malefactor as “King of the Jews.” The Crucifixion then becomes the supreme act of trickery in world literature. Jesus appears down and out, but is really setting the scene for the greatest come-back of all time. The subsequent resurrection stories (which do not appear in the earliest versions of the Mark Gospel) show Jesus tricking people right and left even post mortem.
As the Christian movement gathered steam, Jesus went from human trickster to trickster god. But consider the roots of the story:
At the beginning of the tale is the slaughter of the innocents by Herod and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. At the beginning of Homer’s tale about Odysseus (if we transpose it into linear time) is the slaughter of the innocents during the sack of Troy; while earlier in the Odyssey, as it is actually structured, is the tale of Telemachos’ visit to Egypt in search of information on his missing father.
When Odysseus enters the cave of the Cyclops, he has twelve companions. Jesus has twelve apostles. Odysseus’ companions are mariners. Jesus’ apostles are mainly fishermen. Odysseus is imprisoned in the cave for three days. Jesus is in his tomb for three days. The cave of the Cyclops is sealed with a heavy stone. The tomb of Jesus is sealed with a heavy stone. The Cyclops is blinded with a wooden spear. Jesus is crucified on wood and pierced with a spear as darkness covers the land; while in later Christian legend, Longinus, the Roman centurion who pierces the side of Christ, is going blind until vision of the Holy Blood miraculously restores his sight.
Odysseus and his surviving men escape the Cyclops’s cave by tying themselves to lambs. Jesus is the Lamb of God. Odysseus conceals his identity from the Cyclops, then reveals it. Jesus conceals his identity, then reveals himself as Messiah. Odysseus calls himself “no man” – although he is a man. Christ, in a matter of theological ambiguity – is both man and no man.
Other points of identity:
Odysseus is of royal descent. Jesus is of royal descent.
Odysseus makes wine. Jesus’ first miracle (in the John Gospel) is making wine for the wedding at Cana.
Odysseus calms the sea after Aeolos gives him a bag confining the winds. Jesus calms the wind during a storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Odysseus’ men are turned into swine by Circe but are redeemed by their master. Jesus redeems the demoniac by casting his demons into swine.
Odysseus is tempted by Sirens. Jesus is tempted by Satan.
Odysseus is reviled and mocked when he returns home. Jesus is reviled and mocked when he returns to Nazareth.
Odysseus’ true identity as master of the house is revealed to his nurse, Euryclea, as she washes his feet. Jesus’ feet are washed by a woman who knows him as master.
Odysseus finds his house a den of thieves; he resorts to violence. Jesus finds the Temple, his father’s house, a den of thieves; he resorts to violence.
Odysseus’ servant Melanthios betrays his master; for this, Melanthios is hung from a roof beam and then killed by having his guts ripped out and fed to dogs. Judas betrays his master and dies in the Matthew Gospel by hanging himself, but in Acts we are told that after falling his insides burst open “and all his bowels gushed out.”
Odysseus visits the land of the dead, converses with souls of the dead, and returns to the living. Jesus descends into hell, frees souls of some Old Testament figures, and returns to the living.
Odysseus in the land of the dead spurns his own mother (he will not let her ghost drink blood from a sacrificed ram). Jesus in a passage in the synoptic Gospels which most Christians prefer to pass over, spurns his mother when he is busy addressing a crowd. (Significantly, Jesus here breaks completely with the Old Testament, as he not only violates the Fifth Commandment but crows about it.)
Odysseus returned home to Ithaca in disguise but is transfigured by Athena and reveals his true nature to three men of his household. Jesus is transfigured and reveals his true nature to three of his Apostles.
When Odysseus wishes to reveal his identity to disbelievers, he asks that a scar on his body be inspected to dispel all doubt. When Jesus returns from death he is disbelieved until he asks that the scars of his crucifixion be inspected to dispel all doubt.
Odysseus’ second coming sees a bloody judgment imposed on all who have defiled his house, which is then purged with sulfur. Jesus promises a second coming to be followed by a Last Judgment with sinners cast into sulfurous flames.
Athena appears to Odysseus as a sparrow. The Holy Spirit appears to Jesus in the Matthew Gospel descending like a dove.
The most important commonality of Odysseus and Jesus is that both are constant and masterful story-tellers – who “exist” only as characters in story.
But are you surprised that stories were recycled as often in antiquity as in your time?
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Odysseus and Jesus have something else in common: both are motivated by faith in a personal mission – both are presented as voyagers – and both tell us that voyaging is hardship.
Faith in a purely mythic world is based on practicality. One has faith not through wishful thinking but through necessity. Sea voyages are the origin of faith – for to travel by sea one needs faith in the vessel one uses.
To ancient man the sea was terrifying - not only in scale but in its feminine unpredictability. A calm sea could within minutes become a raging caldron of wind and waves. To be lost at sea was to be truly lost; no helplessness exceeds that of having the horizon all around you with no land in sight and no sense of place. The best of ships was frail before the awful immensity of the ocean. But even a small body of water was not small to men who ventured upon it. The Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Middle Earth is each big enough to drown you, and liquid two meters deep might just as well be bottomless. Man was waterborne not just by wood and rope and canvas but by act of faith; all faith is meant to keep man afloat.
In the Gilgamesh Epic the hero crosses the Sea of Death to reach the secret of immortality - a secret arising from an earlier voyage when one of the gods saved a man and a woman from a universal flood by telling them to build a boat. The Egyptians believed that the sun made a daily voyage by boat across the sky, and nightly through the terrors of the netherworld. The tribes of inner Arabia, who had no knowledge of seafaring, believed the ocean to be an absolute barrier no man was meant to cross. Rivers, being fingers of the ocean, were also touched with fearsome respect. To the Greeks the souls of the dead crossed the river Styx to reach the kingdom of Hades, and the gods themselves were bound by oaths invoking this river. Throughout Eurasia rivers were associated with dragons, and it was common practice to sacrifice a virgin to the deity of a river and bury her corpse beneath the pilings of a bridge, which, otherwise, could not be expected to stand – even as taking a woman to sea was bad luck, because the god of the ocean would demand her in sacrifice and claim the entire ship. The heavens themselves were compared to rivers, but there were also secret rivers, underground rivers, rivers arising at the end of the world, rivers in paradise, rivers in hell.
This mindset explains one of the greatest oddities of world history: why did it take so long to discover America? If we look at reproductions of the 15th century vessels which first made the voyage, we are scarcely impressed by their sturdiness. Men could have made the trip thousands of years earlier. Some may have done so – but by accident and without returning. It was not technology which kept the hemispheres apart; it was lack of faith in the ability to make such a voyage. Shakespeare’s The Tempest begins with a shipwreck to show the audience its own fear – a fear which held men back for millennia from Prospero’s world. For hard by faith was always fear, and to shed the latter is to lose the former. In a world without fear, faith withers like a flower in a desert.
The modern myths of our time (which began to appear in the 18th Century) are not fear based and, therefore, not faith based either. But viewed from without, these new myths tell us that as bad as fear is, there are things much worse. The worst monsters are not those we fear but those we should.
Post Script to The Lost World -
Prelude to God: The Early Years
We take as granted the idea of one past and not multiple pasts. It was not always so. In polytheistic cultures, just as there are multiple gods there are multiple pasts. Even when geographic areas comparable to modern nation-states were brought under a single government, this unity did not embrace a unified past. Thus pharaonic Egypt had multiple creation myths in different respective cult centers, all under common political control but with no contradiction seen. The gods had different pasts depending on where you were, just as different places had different gods. To us this seems absurd, but it was no more absurd than people having different accents, different regional dress, different cooking. Why not different pasts?
Precisely because myths did not change the past, different pasts persisted. Here we must counter the idea that as we look further back in time people are less sophisticated or “simpler” than we moderns. Nothing is further from the truth. Acceptance of multiple pasts shows a sophistication of thought not to be recaptured until the 20th Century invention of quantum mechanics – yet once upon a time everyone thought this way. More complicated still, they did not conceive of any past as historically distanced from them; rather they saw everything as variegated aspects of contemporary reality – which was the only reality they knew.
What we accept as the Greek revolution in thought did not in this respect involve more complex thinking but a radical simplification of thought. The idea of one past begins with the Greeks. It predates the rise of monotheism, yet the two are intimately connected. One God demands one past. But this puts the cart before the horse. First one past, then One God.
And from whence does the idea of one past come? It comes from story. For in story events unfold as the audience witnesses generation of a past - a single past which makes up the narrative and is vivified by a moral. As part of this process the audience is introduced to a complexity of thought as it holds in mind simultaneously two contradictory ideas: that the story is unreal, the characters made up, the moral a fabrication of the story-teller – but the story is real, the characters exist and the moral is a force of nature. We have been trained to hold in mind these contradictions without seeing them as contradictions. This is the only way we can experience story, but it is also an experience which refashions our minds – not in the experience of any particular story but in the experience of story in general. Our minds become narratized when we hold diametrically opposed concepts and do so effortlessly.
In polytheistic times, a goddess may grant you an abundant harvest – but some other god blasts your crop with a hailstorm. You had placated one deity and failed to placate another. It all made perfect sense. But if there is One God who gives and takes, who makes the crops grow but then mysteriously annihilates them, how do you square that? You do it by holding in mind two contradictory ideas without being aware of the contradiction. In other words, you apply to theodicy the training you have already received in your abundant experience of narrative. In this spirit, an almighty God possesses absolute foreknowledge of human acts, which he has ordained from the creation of the universe; but man has free will and is fully responsible for his acts, which he fully controls.
A loving and merciful God allows rape and murder just as we listen to tales of rape and murder, which we abhor but at the same time cannot get enough of. Thus we love story-tellers who tell of the unlovely. And even as the story-teller presents a moral which explains everything in the end, so the One God - supreme story-teller - must likewise have a moral to his tale which will likewise come at the end. And because we are the tale, we are in no hurry to reach the end.
Faith in One God is no more nor less than the faith we all have in listening to a story not knowing how it will end, not knowing how good it will be, but determined that it must be good enough for us to go on listening.