From CHAPTER FOUR
Homer as Trickster
That the Odyssey was written by a brilliant Coyote trickster is evident in the research that continually unveils the hidden truths so carefully and flawlessly placed within its elegant composition. The Odyssey, too, is itself a transformation of worlds from that of the wrathful, angry and war-filled lines of the Iliad, shown in detail by such scholars as Pietro Pucci, to a different kind of world at the end of the Odyssey. Pucci points out that the Iliad is about Achilles' wrath, "a fatal event in his warrior destiny," while the Odyssey is about Odysseus' life, "a bios"—a very big difference in goal (25). The Odyssey, likewise, upon closer examination, guides its outside audience (the next promising new world) as it does its hero through its process of becoming transformed and whole, stretching into our time as if there were no stopping obstacles or distance of time in its way, waking on our own shores to take back its rightful place. The artistry, the writer, the hero, intertwined, built a ship that never has to stop sail.
One might argue that the Iliad survived also, as did the following war-filled centuries and human degradation, that nothing changed: the goal of Achilles was the goal of the Western individual to the highest attainment, come what may, a goal still clearly the cultural focus, and that Hector's wife, Andromache and his child were left to become slaves because he went to fulfill his duty, even knowing that he was going to die and leave them to fend for themselves. The priestess Briseis was left alone only to be able to imagine what life with a more human Achilles would be like. Patroclus, whose binding love moved Achilles spirit like nothing else could, is left without an effect beyond his youth. It is a poem of death, a world to be moved beyond.
One could also argue that the obstacles of the Odyssey no longer exist, making its monsters and the overcoming of such irrelevant. Indeed, the study of the classics is in decline in the dwindling-in-its-own-importance classroom.¹ Uninspired students fill the walls. When the song goes silent, when the Muses are no longer seen or heard, when war rages on creating abandoned, hopeless exiles of vital human lives by the second, it is not to turn to Achilles' wrath to find a proven answer (we know his always-doomed fate), but to the Poet and artistry that knows how to emerge from those lines and carefully constructed the poetic path in eternal, pleasurable Song to do so.
The two worlds, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the volatile and destructive and the possibilities of the next one, are necessary side by side for the Coyote trickster—being the one of in-between places—to create a sphere of transformation between them, altering both. It is not too far to go to say that a Coyote could even on this day transform the Iliad, the poem itself and also that "former world," which is actually the current world we live in and the current Song we unknowingly sing. In fact, it might make one shiver when recalling the moment we sang certain lyrics, called to our own deaths never having truly lived. It might look like it would take a formidable magician to do such an act.
The poet of the Odyssey does not only show the metis (cunning intelligence) of the characters of the Odyssey, who must, according to scholar Barbara Clayton, carefully and surreptitiously weave their own ways, thread by constructive thread, taking apart the old, redefining the new, much like the poem itself is woven in order to transform their own lives, but also shows the wisdom, insight, and careful construction of the poem itself, guaranteeing it too, safe passage. In this way the poem takes on the roles of wise one, creator and protector, of deviser of plots, of voice and heart, much like Athena who, aligned with Zeus himself and even going beyond, moves the ocean to her will. (Many scholars suggest even a female author.) It is set sail, a ship and a message in a bottle, with every minutiae and intelligence it needs to come to this very moment. We will look at it and wonder if it is the real thing—it has been gone so long, its relevance weakened and usurped. We weren't expecting a different kind of hero. We certainly weren't expecting Athena to step from the lines and the bows like mighty, victorious Nike, laugh at our disbelief and for not believing. Penelope, too, along with the power of art, is long forgotten, stopped at her poetic loom, underestimated in her quiet hours for centuries on end and not recognized as a different kind of voice to be newly reckoned with from the mouths of emboldened, inspired creators. For the poem to speak now it has to pique our deeper desires to something more true. Otherwise, the world belongs to the usurpers, the anarchists, the greedy and un-insightful. What one part could I tell you to show you it is not magic alone of Song and creation—although this can be seen more clearly as the qualities, powers and connections of the characters become more visible—but also high intelligence and cunning, wisdom, and Love from across the ages?
In rounded wholeness, all of the things that are necessary for this to arrive breathing on our own shores, able to give us complete new delight in its return, is embedded within the careful construction and the liveliness of the text. There is a checklist of what it must arrive with and to: the authority of the Poet has to be reestablished. The poetry has to be evocative to us again, arousing our true longings (knowing our true selves) and to listen once again and hear the Song so that we will actually hear and understand anew and be stunned by its brilliance and forgotten powers. We have to be able to recognize it, its ways and its immense and vastly different heroics. We have to transform along with its obstacles, beaten ourselves by the waves or the long awaiting, coming more into awareness every minute. We have to reawaken to the vitality, powerful continuity—its foreverness. When we see it, living, breathing powers come to life. With the recognition of the eternally true inspirational flow and work of the powerful feminine in the Muses, its arrival brings back true music that reaches into the depths of both ourselves and all of time. This ship, this poetry and music on our shores, this arrival of the feminine, then, right with Odysseus' arrival, must come to be known.
From different vantage points Odyssean scholars can show the unique detailing so necessary to the completion of such a quest. One compelling episode of the Odyssey that is a turning point, the Song of the Sirens, demonstrates these important requirements for us and how they come about. Homerian scholar Pietro Pucci in his book The Song of the Sirens and Other Essays examines the Poet's careful choice of wording and phrasing, while Lilian Eileen Doherty in her article "Sirens, Muses, and Female Narrators in the Odyssey" from The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey examines the strategic importance of the poet's deliberate framing and structure to limit and finally eliminate the threat of the Sirens. Barbara Clayton in her Penelopean Poetics: Reweaving the Feminine in Homer's Odyssey looks at the weaving together of both poetry and cunning, a marriage that I will show also becomes the coming together of the power of the feminine and poetry that opens the possibilities of infusing culture with new understanding. Together these scholars give us the groundwork for recognizing the potential of these discoveries. What we come to understand is that by looking at both the heroic passage and the powerful force of the feminine, there is indeed a necessary return to Poetry and Song. Not only is the Poet returned, but the feminine also returns with a long-forgotten yet immensely powerful and important creative voice. It would not seem that we would have to be lured away from the path and text to come to see it, but this is exactly what happens. The luring and the subsequent awareness of how deep the threat actually goes—although, as Doherty points out, it is actually a very short episode limited to thirty-five lines in total—breaks free the hero from the past, the story, the voice and for us the opportunity for the reestablishment in solid form of these foundational transformations. It distills what we need to know in order to break free and know our own powers.
To pass from one world, one has to become wise to it. Lillian Eileen Doherty points out that in the carefully constructed lines of the Odyssey lie merely eight lines of this particular "fixed text," lines of the embedded "Song of the Sirens." Pucci demonstrates how it is just enough to show but not endanger us from leaving one story for another (and returning to the death world of the Iliad), leaving one true voice for another that is false—so that we may be tipped off to what we actually need to know in order to begin that awareness. Awareness—and furthermore, cunning—because the need for it has been brought to prominence—then comes to be of central importance. Its value should skyrocket, as life depends on it. Coming into this knowledge we come to understand why the Coyote tricksters, Poet included, move as they do and to what deeper goals towards their careful, imperative transformations of worlds. The Muses themselves, surprisingly have these same characteristics. They are described as being able to tell the truth, or, if they need to, lies that resemble the truth, for they protect the path and powers also and have the abilities to open up such things as life through epic poetry and prophecy--the bringing forward of eternal truths. The weaving is on a grand scale and depends on a large interconnectivity of characters. The Muses are not heard, for example, if the Sirens are successful in their attempts to annihilate their role along with the hero, the Poet, and the poem, and so they depend on the steadfastness of Odysseus' knowing his own heart to see them all through. While the Coyote tricksters' actions appear on the surface duplicitous, the deeper waters show a binding together of community that does transform the past and carry forward to life itself.
Coyotes are seemingly duplicitous in action in order to maneuver without being trapped. Barbara Clayton gives a description of Perdotto's "middle voice," as "the putting into play of a mediated dialectic" which itself is the creation of a voice, part of the creation that holds at its core the transforming truths. On the surface the voice and intent cannot be known. We are taught in our Puritanical mindset culture that deception is morally "bad," and yet, coming to know that the transformation of culture depends on Coyote tricksters, as author Lewis Hyde says, for the creation of values and the creation of culture, we have to become vulnerable to deception's awful possibilities. In Hyde's findings, Coyotes are the oddly necessary and desired disruptors of culture and yet we do not want to be deceived. (Other cultures find great humor in the deceptions of the trickster. Their cunning is valued as foundational, the beginner of new worlds. Joseph Campbell even points out that Yahweh is a mythological trickster in being a flood-causer and new world creator.) Despite our own cultural trepidation, it is nonetheless important to create that opening, as Coyotes must, with all the dangers included, and step onto the boundary where scholar Richard Brilliant says there will be monsters, that "the hybrid monster exemplifies the very fact of the transgression of boundaries" (qtd. by Lillian Eileen Doherty in Cohen 89). It behooves us then to become more keenly aware of the perilous place we have entered when the Song of the Sirens is heard and with whom we have come. The Coyote trickster will show us ourselves. It might not feel heroic at all and we might long for the old days. To make things even more unnerving, even terrifying, the monster will be for us, the deep down exact thing we seek. If we are searching for the feminine, we will find it. It will be pretty, desirous, and say the right things and promise us exactly what we want to hear. It will fit our definitions, our intuitions, our psyche's long lostness. It will promise, but cannot deliver, the return to home. We will, without fail, at some point want to get off the ship and stay, to listen to the intriguing story of the past, making us believe in a future that draws us in with the promise of knowing truths. All of it is pretty, conducive, heartfelt, promises to be true and wonderful and . . . have things ever been this good? We have arrived. Have we ever been more heroic? Aren't America's treasures lovely beyond measure already? Yes, please stay awhile. Listen to the Song. Come closer. Join in. You are heroic in that you listen, that you have a heart and understand. It makes you a better person who knows more than others do. We are together in this, you and I. Everything here is pleasurable and then you will be able to go on your way and know these amazing things and be the better for it. Stop right here in this chapter and you will know all you ever need to know, right here where we have arrived at the truth and heroism of the ages and do no further work forward. (It is a scary thought since this is indeed what I've been writing towards.) What will be revealed looks the same on purpose. Deceptions are everywhere. Pucci points out that the goal of the Sirens is to stop the entire ship. The heroic goals are to get it home.
On the surface it is nearly impossible to tell what is truly happening. It is below the surface where the important truths lie and if we are a culture that values only surfaces, our fate is pre-determined. We might reach heights of individual grandeur, but we will never transform our world and know life. We know Coyote is a deceiver, a deviser of identities and tales. Song is about life, about pleasure, memory, coming to know and understand and be fulfilled, and here it is—we have the forms already (each day on streaming), and in our complacency to not know the real value and difference, we carry on in the same way, and in this instance in Pietro Pucci's discussion for the Odyssey, it is Book XII, a number that itself promises Olympus², a clue that we will be enticed and given truths by the most powerful themselves—the Muses. And yet, Olympus is not present or active in this scene and the Muses are no where to be seen and in fact may have not been at work for the entire previous epic, a point Pucci shows in the minute detailing of the phrasing of the lines. It is a subtle sign. And so the weaver of the Odyssey, knowing we need to make it through even though we easily become victims of the boldest monsters—ourselves—does two small things according to scholar Lillian Eileen Doherty, to orient and prepare us for this moment in advance: the poet gives a small warning in a round-about way (not his/her own words, but through another suspect deceiver: Circe) by simply calling the honesty of the Sirens, the singers of these eight lines of song into question beforehand. (The Sirens are possibly given as plural because of the duplicity of character: Doherty writes, "The dual number used twice of the Homeric Sirens may serve as a metaphoric reflection of their essential doubleness." A further clue is that the Muse will be referred to in the singular.) We have already been prepared beforehand even for this moment by an episode with Helen whereby the poet also stops short a destructive, self-centered narrative by limiting that kind of narration by continuing the narrative after in the form of a rebuttal from another character, Menelaus—who knows better (but purposefully never given the authorial voice of the epic Poet alone as the primary source or of Odysseus himself offering a rebuttal according to Doherty) which also calls the honesty and genuineness into question quickly afterwards, drawing back attention to the heroic narrative, so that you, like Odysseus, have the possibility of becoming prepared and aware enough to pass by, albeit heart-wrenched like he is for a past gone, desperate and undesirably more aware that he is not home—for where we would like to stay is like Odysseus in that moment, proven to ourselves in our own heroic pasts, having already arrived as intelligent, well-informed, comforted people.