The Odyssey and Seeds of the Word

by on October 26, 2015

A college professor once told me that a Catholic liberal arts education is incomplete if one does not read, and have a working knowledge of, three texts: Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s dialogues, and the Bible. Having not read Homer’s Odyssey in its entirety, I was embarrassed by my lack of education. At least I knew the difference between Homer the Poet and Homer Simpson! But trying to remedy this gap in my education, I attempted to read the Odyssey this summer. I started reading the translation I bought for fifty cents back in grade school, but I had to stop because the English was too old fashioned; no wonder, it was translated in the 1930s. I eventually bought Robert Fagles translation, which is great. He made the story come to life, and I actually looked forward to reading it…nerd alert!

Now I can see why this epic poem is a classic — it’s brimming with truth about mankind. But something was bothering me: is truth in pagan literature the same truth of Revelation? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? I couldn’t easily reconcile the truth of the Odyssey with the truth of Christ. My friend, Fr. Steve Grunow, recommended that I look to the Church Fathers and how they were able to find such a reconciliation through the idea that seeds of the divine logos (logoi spermatikoi) were found in cultural forms of their day. This, he said, was the Catholic way to read.

Throughout culture are seeds of the Word. This is why we can say non-Christian forms can find some connection and relation to the truth of Christianity. As mentioned above, the Church Fathers called them logoi spermatikoi (seeds of the truth). Underlying their understanding is the assumption that the truth of Christ is cosmological, hence, the basis of everything! Since human culture inevitably has a relation to the true and the good, every human culture inevitably reveals being, albeit without the purifying light of Revelation. This is why we can find anticipations of Revelation in pagan literature such as Homer’s Odyssey.

Hugo Rahner and Louis Bouyer, both Catholic theologians of the 20th century, worked from logoi spermatikoi logic by seeing Greek myths as participating in the pattern of Christ. They attempted to retrieve the Patristic vision by seeing everything through Christological eyes. Hugo Rahner’s (Karl Rahner’s brother) Greek Myths and Christian Mystery and Louis Bouyer’s The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism are great examples of logoi spermatikoi thinking. This reasoning is simple: if Christ is truly God, the ultimate horizon of being, everything inevitably points ans shares in Him. Unfortunately, many Catholics do not see the world through this lens. It seems awkward and forced to our modern vision. But maybe there is simply something lacking in this vision.

Someone more amenable to modernity is Sir James Frazier whose famous book The Golden Bough inspired much comparative religion throughout the 20th century. He attempted to show how certain archetypes were ubiquitous throughout world mythology. According to him, Christianity was not unique but one more expression of these primitive human archetypes. Explanations as to why these common features were found within myths from cultures that did not have any connection were of a secular cast: human consciousness somehow collectively shares in these archetypes without finding its source within a divine mind. Such thinking is behind Star WarsBut any reasonable person should find Frazier’s merely human account inadequate. It begs the question of what it is that unites and informs these diverse expressions of the truth of man? It cannot simply be mankind or collective consciousness, can it?

Guadium et Spes 22 should help us here. It says: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Only by finally looking to Christ will man fully understand himself. We all know that man better knows himself through great literature. But the value of this literature is dependent upon its participation in the mystery of the incarnate Word. The implication of the incarnation is that everything participates in the Intelligibility of Christ. He is the mysterious source (archê) shining  through all things. With this confidence, the Church Fathers looked to humanity’s great cultural expressions to see how they communicated the mystery of Christ to man. Homer’s Odyssey is no exception.

While the logoi spermatikoi can be found throughout the Odyssey, I will focus on Odysseus and Penelope’s Great Rooted Bed, their marriage bed, and its hidden Christological/nuptial meaning. Upon returning home after a twenty-year exile, Odysseus is put to the test by his wife Penelope to determine whether Odysseus is who he claims to be, for such attempted disguise was not unheard of. She asks him if he can name a secret sign that they share. Distressed by the skepticism of his wife, Odysseus tells her of their great rooted bed:

“Woman – your words, they cut me to the core!

Who could move my bed? Impossible task,

Even for some skilled craftsman–unless a god

Lifted it out with ease and moved it elsewhere.

Not a man on earth, not even at peak strength,

Would find it easy to prise up and shift it, no,

A great sign, a hallmark lies in its construction.

I know, I built it myself – no one else…

There was a branching olive tree inside our court,

Grown to its full prime, the bole like a column, thickset.

Around it I built my bedroom, finished off the walls

With good tight stonework, roofed it over soundly

And added doors, hung well and snugly wedged.

Then I lopped the leafy crown of the olive,

Clean-cutting the stump bare from roots up,

Planning it round with a bronze smoothing-adze­–

I had the skill–I shaped it plumb to the line to make

My bedpost, bored the holes it needed with an auger.

Working from there I built my bed, start from finish

I gave it ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings,

Wove the straps across it, oxhide gleaming red.

There’s our secret sign, I tell you, our life story!

This passage from the Odyssey can be interpreted as a logoi spermatikoi of the Cross (a tree) and the Tree of Jesse, of which Christ is the flowering.

Christians understand the Cross to be the site of Christ’s mystical union with his Bride, the Church. Odysseus’ tree bed is also the place of his union with his Bride, Penelope. For Odysseus and Penelope, the tree bed was the sign of their love from which descendents sprung. For Christ and the Church, the Cross is the ultimate sign of love. Both enact the New Life that is to come.

Notice how Odysseus constructs his bed around a branching Olive Tree. Trees symbolize life, and from the specificity of the Bible we can see this tree as the Tree of Jesse from which Christ is sprung. Ultimately, this tree finds its fulfillment with Christ on the Cross. The Cross is the secret sign of the Resurrection and our Salvation — our life story!

One can find the logoi spermatikoi throughout Homer’s poetry. This is just one instance. But it should be an example that Athens (a non-Christian culture) has a lot to do with Jerusalem to the extent that it participates, albeit to a lesser degree, in the Truth.

The Fathers of the Church set about finding the logoi spermatikoi in the cultural forms and styles they inherited from the pagans. We might seek the deeds of the Divine Logos in the cultural forms and styles of our own time.