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Supplemental Essay: Great Parent Fights in The Odyssey

This supplemental essay contains quotes and expanded explanations as background for the material in the main essay. You can skip this supplemental essay if you're not interested in the details.

The Odyssey: Introduction

In this essay I intend to summarize The Odyssey as a traditional "Hero's journey," albeit with a Great Mother fight in the first half and a Great Father fight in the second half; I show how the two work together to further the hero's personal development and serve as "Cultural canon" for audiences in Homer's time. I expect that most readers won't be familiar with the plot of the epic poem, so I walk the reader through the main events of the story at the risk of running the essay a bit long. 

 

The Odyssey is an epic poem written by Homer around 700 BC. It describes events from 500 years prior, that is, events that occurred in 1200 BC at the time of the original Trojan War.

 

The Odyssey does not present events in chronological order; many early events are related late in the poem using flashbacks.  But in my summary of the epic poem I will present events in chronological order for the sake of continuity, as well as filling in a few details that are part of established mythology on the subject and were known to the audiences of the time but might have been skipped over in the poem itself.

 

The Great Mother fight

At the very start of the action, the Trojan War has just ended. After 10 years of fighting, a coalition of Greek armies has finally captured the Turkish city of Troy, winning the war. The victorious Greek forces are in a hurry to pack up their ships and return home after ten years of absence.

 

Some Greek forces are still pillaging and plundering Troy. One Greek officer called Ajax the Lesser (not the same person as the famous Ajax of The Iliad) rapes the Trojan priestess Cassandra in a temple devoted to the goddess Athena. This is deemed sacrilege. Ajax's commander is Odysseus (also known by the Latin variant Ulysses), king of the Greek island of Ithaca. Odysseus wants to call a meeting of the commanders and have Ajax punished, but the other commanders are in a hurry to sail home and Odysseus drops the matter.

 

The goddess Athena is incensed at the sacrilege committed in her temple and at the absence of punishment for the offender. Since the Greeks are sailing away, she resorts to the god of the seas, Poseidon, and asks him to exact revenge on her behalf. Poseidon causes a great storm to come up. Ajax the Lesser is drowned in the storm; and Odysseus and all of the ships under his command are blown off-course to wander helplessly for an additional 10 years.

 

Thus, for the first half of the book Athena plays the role of punishing "Great Mother." She is acting through Poseidon, who plays the role of "daemonic father" and acts as deadly companion and "dragon" for the Great Mother. (For more on the daemonic father, see the section entitled "The Anima Fight and the Great Mother Fight" in the chapter on Sensing.)

 

This is a typical set-up for a Great Mother Fight in literature following the model I mentioned in the main essay: we can abuse that same Feminine influence through ignorance or spite, like a callous lover; but in doing so we risk incurring the wrath of the Terrible Mother who is always lurking in our unconscious. In short, Odysseus awakens the Terrible Mother by neglecting the sensibilities and pride of the goddess Athena.

 

Odysseus and his ships are blown to various strange lands and encounter a number of adventures; finally they end up at the island of Aeaea, which is ruled by the powerful sorceress Circe. Circe is a goddess and is far too powerful for Odysseus alone; she spells certain death for Odysseus and his crews.

 

Fortuitously, on the way to Circe's house Odysseus runs into the god Hermes, who tells Odysseus how to vanquish Circe. Odysseus' meeting with the god seems rather random; but earlier in the book we encounter Athena using Hermes to run errands for her in matters concerning Odysseus. It seems that Athena has been watching Odysseus in his travels and adventures and is increasingly impressed at his brains and resourcefulness. To even the playing field and keep Odysseus from a premature death (or perhaps to prolong his punishments?) she uses Hermes to grant Odysseus the knowledge of how to neutralize Circe. Odysseus does as he was instructed, and Circe yields gracefully. And in fact Odysseus and Circe get along so well that Odysseus spends a year on the island of Aeaea as Circe's consort and parties with her.

 

At the end of a year on Circe's island Odysseus' crew-members are pushing Odysseus to set sail for home. But Circe advises Odysseus to first descend to Hades and speak to the dead. This adventure into the underworld represents, of course, a symbolic confrontation with the Great Mother: Athena has warmed to Odysseus over time, and the trip to Hades signals a turning point in their hostilities. (See my explanation of the significance of the journey to Hades in the section entitled "The Anima Fight and the Great Mother Fight.")

 

What is the "treasure" that Odysseus brings back from Hades? 

 

Ostensibly Odysseus makes the trip in order to talk to the dead prophet Tiresias and find out from him how to return home to Ithaca and, eventually, to propitiate the sea-god Poseidon. But while in Hades Odysseus also encounters the ghosts of his own deceased mother and Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and ruler of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. They talk of what Odysseus will find upon his return home: Has Odysseus' wife Penelope remained faithful to him?

 

Agamemnon himself had survived the Trojan War, but upon his return home he was murdered by his wife who had taken a lover in his absence. A king's return home after a long absence had the potential to turn problematic because it's easy for court intrigues to arise in the interim. So in Hades, as one homecoming king to another, Agamemnon instructs Odysseus on how to test for and detect infidelity and disloyalty on the part of unfaithful wives.

 

I would suggest that this is the "treasure" that Odysseus brings back from Hades. Athena has warmed to Odysseus over time because of his respectful treatment of the women he deals with, from mortals to goddesses. By the time Odysseus finally returns to his own kingdom in Ithaca after 20 years away (10 years at war and 10 years of wandering and shipwrecks), much will depend on whether Penelope as Queen of Ithaca can still be trusted. 

 

Agamemnon represents the castrated male, the victim of the punishing Great Mother. Agamemnon's story is told or mentioned in passing multiple times in different settings in the course of The Odyssey, making it a central theme of the epic. In order to return home safely and reclaim his kingdom, Odysseus needs at a minimum the confidence that he can spot the difference between dangerous love and safe love. Thus Agamemnon's advice on how to detect infidelity in women is particularly useful.

Up until his journey to Hades and meeting with Agamemnon, Odysseus hasn't seemed in a great hurry to return home to his wife and kingdom; receiving a warm welcome from Circe was enough to cause him to remain a year with her until his own crew had to beg him to leave. But Agamemnon's advice also seems to strengthen Odysseus' resolve to return home. In the second half of the book (after his return from Hades) Odysseus seems to be more eager for a return to Ithaca as soon as possible.

 

This advice also appears to resolve the Great Mother fight. Such knowledge helps to "depotentiate" the Great Mother by making her less threatening. Knowledge of the workings and deeds of the opposite sex leads to confidence, mutual respect, and eventually trust.

The Great Father fight

In the first half of the book Poseidon has been punishing Odysseus and his crews by repeatedly blowing them off-course and keeping them wandering around the Mediterranean Sea far from home. But in doing so, Poseidon hasn't acted out of any personal animosity; he has simply been doing Athena's bidding and acting as her consort: A "daemonic father." 

 

That changes when Odysseus and his ships blunder into one of Poseidon's sons, the Cyclops, in the course of their travels. Odysseus knows that he isn't currently on the best of terms with Poseidon, so he conceals his identity and simply demands that the Cyclops honor the sacred hospitality laws, known as "Xenia," and treat himself and the sailors as guests. The Xenia hospitality laws are considered one of the highest duties of mankind, and the rules are enforced by Zeus himself. (See the endnote at the bottom of this supplemental essay for an explanation of the significance of Xenia at greater length.[1]) However, the Cyclops states that he is a god himself and doesn't fear Zeus, and he captures Odysseus and the sailors and begins killing and eating them over the next couple days. Odysseus and his crew escape by getting the Cyclops drunk and then blinding him.

 

The sailors reach their ships with the blinded Cyclops in pursuit. As they sail away, Odysseus and the Cyclops get into a shouting match. Odysseus again berates the Cyclops for not honoring Xenia, and the Cyclops taunts him back: He says that he and his father Poseidon are gods, and the blinded eye can be replaced; and in the future he will continue to kill when and whom he pleases. Finally in a fit of rage Odysseus reveals his identity as Odysseus, King of Ithaca. With that information in hand, Cyclops delightedly calls upon his father Poseidon to exact revenge; Odysseus' crew are horrified because as sailors they know their fate is dependent upon the goodwill of the god of the seas.

 

Enraged at the injury done to his son, Poseidon subsequently becomes the implacable enemy of Odysseus and his crew, thus launching the Great Father fight that dominates the second half of the book. If Odysseus had left quietly, there wouldn't have been any problem. But that final quarrel with the Cyclops and the revelation of his identity represented heroic hubris; Odysseus was trying to enforce patriarchal Cultural canon (Xenia), but in doing so he challenged a representative of the Great Father himself. As I said in the supplemental essay entitled "The Great Father Fight":

 

What does patriarchal castration look like? As the old patriarchal order becomes hidebound and rigid, it turns tyrannical. The vibrant Men's society degrades over time into inflexibility and authoritarianism: The Good Father becomes the Terrible Father. The child is too invested in the patriarchal order to simply walk away: Instead he struggles and then rebels, initiating the Great Father fight. Neumann describes patriarchal castration as a type of possession, an excessive identification with spiritual ideals to the point of hubris and angering the heavenly gods or earthly spiritual authorities. Neumann says, "This leads to the possessed state of heavenly inflation, 'annihilation through the spirit.'"

 

Odysseus is infuriated at a divine figure such as the Cyclops flouting Xenia, and Odysseus takes it upon himself to castigate Cyclops repeatedly about it. But it's hubris for mortals to reproach divinities with lapses in manners, and Odysseus must pay.

 

There are further wanderings, adventures, and disasters. The storms plaguing the ships become more devastating and shipwrecks ensue. Finally Odysseus' ships and crews are destroyed entirely, and Odysseus alone winds up shipwrecked for seven years on the island of Ogygia in the company of the sea-nymph Calypso. 

 

Calypso is a beautiful goddess and she wants Odysseus to become her consort; she showers Odysseus with gifts and love and sensual pleasures and even promises to make Odysseus immortal if he will remain with her. But Odysseus refuses her entreaties at every turn and spends the seven years weeping for home and trying to leave the island.

 

In her role as jailer for the hero, Calypso very likely serves as a "daemonic mother" figure: She represents both an enticing "Bower of Bliss" and at the same time an emasculating end to the hero's quest of Odysseus. Furthermore, Poseidon is quite happy with Odysseus' captivity on the island of Ogygia and blocks any attempts by other immortals to rescue Odysseus and send him home. 

 

As I said in the supplemental essay entitled "The Great Father Fight": The distinguishing feature of the daemonic mother is that she is acting in concert with or at the command of the Terrible Father as part of a Great Father Fight. [...] Thus the sea-nymph Calypso may have been pursuing her own ends with Odysseus, but in the larger sense Odysseus's encounter with her was a facet of Odysseus's Great Father fight with Poseidon, insofar as Calypso's ends also served Poseidon's needs.

Athena as Helpful sister

In the meantime Athena has been trying to secure Odysseus' release from Calypso's clutches so that Odysseus can return home and reclaim his kingdom. But Poseidon is so angry with Odysseus that even Zeus doesn't dare cross Poseidon. Athena is only successful after seven years, when Poseidon travels to Ethiopia for a tribute there and Athena convinces Zeus to help her free Odysseus in Poseidon's absence. 

 

Athena has come to respect Odysseus' fidelity toward his wife and home; and the journey to Hades represented a turning point in the Great Mother fight: A willingness to travel to the depths, confront the Great Mother in her lair, and come away with her secret knowledge. Thereafter, Athena becomes a "Helpful sister." In his book The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann says that after a "princess" is rescued by a hero, she may become a "helpful sister" and assist him in further fights and conflicts against other enemies.[2] As I said in the supplemental essay entitled "The Great Father Fight": Such "helpful sisters" are Anima figures representing restoration of the connection between ego and the Feminine influence within.

 

Thus, having been a foe for the first half of The Odyssey, Athena defies Poseidon to aid Odysseus in his escape from the "daemonic mother" as represented by Calypso, and Athena becomes Odysseus' staunchest ally and protector in his ongoing Great Father fight. Furthermore, as a goddess herself, she brings divine powers to aid Odysseus. In this sense the journey to Hades represents a death and rebirth: A death of the mortal, flawed, vulnerable Odysseus, and a rebirth of a more powerful Odysseus with divine resources to aid him in the Great Father fight ahead.

 

So when Poseidon returns from Ethiopia to Olympus and finds Odysseus sailing homeward on a raft, Poseidon is furious and causes one more storm that again blows Odysseus off-course. This time Odysseus unexpectedly washes up on the island of Scheria, where he encounters the kingdom of the Phaeacians. The Phaeacians are dedicated followers of both Athena and Poseidon, and they represent a utopian society in ancient Greece. Odysseus and the princess of the Phaeacians are instantly attracted to one another, but Odysseus understands the implications of his position and keeps a very respectful distance from the princess and then the queen. Meanwhile, he studies King Alcinous for the purpose of learning to be a great leader: Alcinous monitors his nobles closely, is quick to punish violations of the Xenia hospitality rules by the noblemen underneath him, but is also forgiving and generous when he encounters true repentance and contrition.

 

The sojourn in the kingdom of the Phaeacians is intended as a centerpiece of The Odyssey. Phaeacia is depicted as a utopian society, and it represents Homer's ideas on proper leadership, structure, and hierarchy. Because the Phaeacians are devotees of Poseidon, the sojourn confirms Poseidon's role as not only punishing Great Father but also a representative of order, hierarchy, and good government. In other words, the Cyclops, Calypso, and shipwrecks represent the "Terrible Father" side of Poseidon in one manner or another, and the Phaeacians represent Poseidon's "Good Father" side.

 

Furthermore, this is a lesson that Odysseus badly needs to learn. He is the king of Ithaca and a battle-hardened war veteran, but he is actually a terrible leader. In the first half of the book during his wanderings with his ships and crews, his crews were constantly disobeying his orders or committing outright mutiny. Odysseus tried to demonstrate good leadership by treating his crews fairly and humanely at every turn, but they only rewarded him with disobedience and mutiny. In turn, Odysseus tried to ignore all the bad behavior of the crews rather than addressing it and punishing it, which only allowed it to continue.

 

In a way, the problem goes back to the rape of Cassandra: There too, Odysseus had let a junior officer run amok and had done nothing to punish Ajax the Lesser after the fact, leading to the destruction of everyone involved.

 

So Odysseus takes his stay in Phaeacia as an opportunity to learn leadership lessons from the good example set by Alcinous. And finally the Phaeacians return Odysseus home to Ithaca.

 

Back home in Ithaca, trouble has been brewing. Odysseus has been away for 20 years at this point and is presumed dead. All the young noblemen of the island are courting the widowed queen Penelope in the hope of marrying her and assuming the throne of Ithaca. Penelope has been putting them off in the hopes that Odysseus might still return; in the meantime the young suitors have physically moved into the palace and have been throwing lavish parties at the queen's expense for years while they await her decision.

 

Upon landing in Ithaca, Athena appears to Odysseus himself for the first time in her role as "helpful sister" and advises him to disguise himself as a beggar while he scouts the situation. After 20 years away he can't count on the loyalty of anyone, even his wife Penelope. So Odysseus disguises himself and eventually ends up in his own palace, begging scraps from the plates of the noblemen courting his wife while he surveys the situation.

 

The partying and impertinence of the suitors is an affront to the sacred Xenia hospitality rules of the Greeks. Odysseus' son Telemachus has gone to court to have the suitors evicted; but the suitors perverted the court process and even plotted to kill Telemachus.

 

The reference to the Xenia hospitality rules thematically ties the suitors back to the Cyclops: Odysseus' complaint against Poseidon's son was over the issue of Xenia. So the suitors represent a continuation of--and indeed the culmination of--the Great Father battle. The suitors are clearly in violation of the Xenia hospitality rules; furthermore, the fact that they plotted to kill Odysseus' son means that they will certainly oppose Odysseus himself if he were to reveal himself. The situation ties together all the lessons Odysseus has been learning about leadership, testing for loyalty, and dealing with disloyalty.

 

However, Odysseus is having trouble moving forward. The suitors are his own subjects and kinsmen, and he is dreading having to war against them. Also, he has only been able to locate two or three allies in the household whom he is able to trust. Athena pops up occasionally to urge Odysseus to take action. Odysseus has friends among the kings in neighboring kingdoms, and he complains to Athena that he needs more people on his side. But Athena wants to keep the situation in-house, refuses him additional forces, and promises that she will aid him herself in the combat when the time comes.

 

Odysseus languishes for a time as a beggar in his own house, living off crumbs and scraps discarded by the suitors. In a sense, this is a Great Father "trial," that is, an equivalent to the night sea journey that occurs in the Great Mother fight. The turning point comes when another beggar present in the household argues with Odysseus. The nobles, amused at the conflict between the beggars, convince the beggars to fight each other for a monetary prize. It's a horrible abuse of Xenia, but at the same time it gets Odysseus' blood running. He finds that he welcomes the fight, and he flattens the other beggar with a single blow. It wakes Odysseus up, and he finally finishes his preparations for the slaughter of the suitors.

 

Odysseus prepares the fight against the suitors as favorably as possible, but the suitors still badly outnumber Odysseus and his two or three comrades. But Athena shows up as promised in her role of "helpful sister" and guides their weapons so that every blow is deadly. Eventually the suitors are all killed off, and the bodies are hidden and burned to buy some time.

 

There is still the question of Penelope's loyalty. Odysseus tests Penelope as instructed by Agamemnon in Hades, and she proves her loyalty and love. On the other hand, the palace maids who serve Penelope have been partying with the suitors and committing adultery with them; the maids are rounded up, taken out back, and strangled.

 

All this killing may seem a bit much, but it's the culmination of the Great Father fight. In the past Odysseus had been too lenient and a bad leader, and it has caused tremendous death and destruction. With the slaughter of the suitors and the killing of the maids, Odysseus is putting into practice the lessons he learned in Hades and from the Phaeacians: Testing for loyalty and moving quickly to punish those who come up short. It's a test of Odysseus' own leadership capabilities in order to see whether he is ready to assume the throne of Ithaca.

 

In the meantime, the families of the suitors learn of the slaughter, raise an army, and declare civil war. But Odysseus has passed his leadership test and survived the Great Father fight: The treasure he obtains consists of true leadership skills and legitimacy as a true king. He is now able to call upon friendly forces. He and his comrades escape to the hills and make contact with Odysseus' father Laertes. Laertes and his people join their force, and Zeus and Athena make their presence known in support of Odysseus. The leader of the rebellious forces is killed, the rebels sue for peace, and Odysseus assumes the throne of Ithaca. Odysseus makes a vow to present offerings at a nearby temple dedicated to Poseidon. 

 

Summing up

Odysseus' development occurs along two tracks, represented by his conflicts with the Great Mother and Great Father:

  • Under the deadly tutelage of the Great Mother, Odysseus has to move from a mentality where women are treated as spoils of wars and raped by soldiers to a mentality where women are loved and respected as wives. But that is not an easy task; almost every monster in Odysseus' travels is female (with the notable exception of the Cyclops); and the example of Agamemnon in Hades and the killing of the maids in Ithaca is a reminder that love isn't to be taken for granted; one must test and separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • And under the deadly tutelage of the Great Father, Odysseus learns leadership and how to rule a kingdom. He learns that it's not enough to set a good example and treat his subjects fairly; it's also necessary to test people's loyalty and punish violations. You can't just be a placeholder on a throne; you actually have to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a ruler. 

 

The form of the two fights diverge somewhat. The Great Mother fight includes a traditional visit to Hades to take away a treasure. The return from Hades represents a rebirth of Odysseus as a hero with divine powers in the form of a Great Mother figure (Athena) now operating in his favor as "helpful sister." Such "helpful sisters" are Anima figures representing restoration of the connection between ego and the Feminine influence within.

 

Meanwhile the Great Father fight tends to be more of a trial or initiation: The Hero has to prove his legitimacy as a leader, that is, as the Hero who brings Order to society. Once the trial is successfully completed, the Hero earns the right to unite with the Great Father and draw upon the power of the latter. As I said in the Supplemental Essay on the Great Father fight: Thus success is not measured in terms of overthrowing the old authority and Cultural canon, but rather by redeeming and restoring them; the son or daughter becomes the next phase of the Cultural canon by learning to reconcile their voice with the existing canon and lift the latter along with themselves. Mythologically this process is expressed as the union of the hero-son and the divine father, resulting in Christ's declaration that "I and the Father are one."

 

So the Great Father fight often ends with a rapprochement and unification of the Hero and Great Father, which is symbolized in The Odyssey by Odysseus enlisting the aid of his father Laertes to end the civil war.

Link: Return to Sensing (S)

~Posted November 14, 2023

References and Endnotes

[1] The so-called "hospitality rules" (Xenia in Greek) pop up repeatedly in The Odyssey as a Great Father theme. They were mandatory rules governing the relations between hosts and guests and were supposedly policed by Zeus himself; violations were avenged by the Furies. From Wikipedia: "Xenia was considered to be particularly important in ancient times when people thought that gods mingled among them. If one had poorly played host to a stranger, there was the risk of incurring the wrath of a god disguised as the stranger." Violations of Xenia turned men into implacable enemies and even led to wars between countries. Thus, the Great Father fight in the The Odyssey is initially marked by clashes over Xenia between Odysseus and the Cyclops and then later again between Odysseus and the suitors. Xenia is at the center of the rules that Odysseus must enforce as a good leader, so Xenia-related conflicts become part of the leadership trials of Odysseus. Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenia_(Greek)

[2] Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R.F.C. Hull, with a forward by C.G. Jung, Bollingen Series XLII (Princeton University Press, 1954, First Princeton Classics edition, 2014), pp. 200-201.

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