Some critics seem to suggest that the poem ought not to be read too deeply. Stuart Small, for instance, in his article "On Allegory in Homer" suggests that
It is, however, inadvisable to take the view that Homer's chief aim in composing this passage (the visit to Circe) was allegorical or didactic; it is similarly inadvisable to attempt to extract symbolic meaning from Odysseus' encounter with Hermes before he meets Circe, or from Hermes' advice to the hero, or from the description of the famous drug moly. After all, in the tale of Circe as in most of the rest of the Alkinou apologoi the poet's intention is not primarily to instruct but to entertain, and to entertain by telling marvellous tales of romantic adventure "in faery lands forlorn." (Small, 427)
Similarly J. Gwyn Griffiths in the article "Allegory in Greece and Egypt" offers that
In its original Greek sense allegory implies that an author proclaims a meaning other than the one which is instantly apparent. The Greeks who explained Homer from this point of view were superimposing the second meaning upon a narrative which usually does not, in our opinion, bear any traces of such a meaning being deliberate. (Griffiths, 89)
Perhaps Griffiths is correct about the critics of 5th century Greece who wished to read Homer as a mere moralist; indeed there is a long history of "reading into" the work of Homer morals or values which would have been anachronistic to his own culture. Yet the implication of Griffiths statement, namely that there was no deliberate meaning within Homer's work, or even that the later critics read moralism into the work rather than ignoring or overlooking meaning in addition to the moral level, seems to be erroneous. The Odyssey reads on many levels, one of which is the moralism which the Greeks of the Golden Era in Athens still perceived within the rites and chthonic imagery of religious practices current at their time. Similarly, Small's comment that the poet sought primarily to entertain seems dismissive of the fact that great art goes beyond entertainment alone. As any artist worth their salt knows, the primary job of art is to entertain. But great artwork uses entertainment, rhetoric, beauty, as the bait to draw the audience in to contemplate the greater implications of the work, and a great artist will both entertain and intentionally (or sometimes unintentionally) use imagery in a calculated way, troping prior stories, adding nuances of his own, retelling the themes common to the culture in order to suggest meaning. Artists use the thaumatopoioi, as Plato called them, the shadow puppets in order to direct the mind toward the Eidoi, or the unchanging truths of our existence.
Thus it seems that Homer intentionally uses the imagery of pigs throughout the work to suggest something profound about the sun hero, Odysseus. The story of the Odyssey is, essentially, a retelling of the sun god story common to Western culture. In this story the sun hero descends into the world of darkness, battles his nemesis in the form of a many-headed dragon, triumphs, and returns to the world of light and consciousness with the new dawn. The story has seen incarnations in Egypt as Ra descending into the Duat to battle Apep, in Babylon in the form of Mithras battling Tiamat, in Greece as Heracles battling the Hydra. In each incarnation the powers of darkness, madness, chaos and destruction threaten failure and annihilation. The hero seems to be overwhelmed by the pain and darkness of his experience, which appears as a many-headed beast, the crowd or mob, zombies, seeking to engulf or devour him in anonymity until he becomes a faceless nobody, slave to the seeming common fate of the human race. Ultimately, though, the hero triumphs against this perilous dragon, throws off the guise of death, and returns to the realm of light, consciousness, health and joy.
The Odyssey tells a similar story; Odysseus lost at sea (the realm of chaos and darkness) and at odds with Poseidon (the god of chaos, uncertainty - earthshaker) and Odysseus in his travels and Odysseus amidst the Phaeacians is like the sun hero, Ra, who descends into the dream realm of the underworld. Facing the many-headed mob of the Phaeacians, and of his own voracious crew eating the cattle of Helios, Odysseus faces Apep and returns, asleep, to his home of Phaeacia. Yet even there the story repeats itself in a different form. He associates with the pigkeeper, Eumaios, (a comic version of the underworld god and of Circe), returns to his home and confronts the many-headed Apep of the suitors. Only in defeating them does he fully emerge resurrected as the sungod, Helios Apollo Ra. It may seem a form of prestidigitation to note that the characters of Poseidon and Circe are forms of the underworld god of darkness, Seth, in Egyptian mythology. But the stories of Egypt predominated throughout that part of the Mediterranean and it is not a far stretch to conjecture that Homer must have been influenced by such common stories. As Ruth Ilsley Hicks writes in "Egyptian Elements in Greek Mythology"
Egyptian influence on the architecture and art of Greece has often been noted. The Greeks believed that they owed a debt to the country of the Nile in the fields of mathematics and philosophy. Mythology is another realm in which there are Egyptian elements, as the stories of Io, Helen, the Danaides, and Busiris show. These reveal in their plot and visual form features drawn from the religion, art, and history of Egypt. (Hicks, 108)
Thus the myths of the Greek culture are related to the Egyptian myths. Therein, the sun god, Ra, takes on the form of Helios, of Heracles, and even of Persephone and her mother Demeter. The nemesis, lord of darkness and decay, Seth, is transformed into Hades and his queen Persephone. In Homer these figures are mirrored in Odysseus and in Circe. The pig, which embodies the excessive pleasures of desire and the mindless animalian wallowing in chaos and destruction which such pleasures tend to bring, seems an animal particularly suited to be sacred to both Seth and to Demeter; Seth, it would seem, because of the affinity between the god of darkness and the pig, Demeter because of her triumph and control over the creature. Lewis Farnell notes the connection between the pig and the cults of Persephone and Demeter in his article "The Cults of the Greek States." There he points out that the names of Demeter and Persephone are occasionally synonymous within the cult practices;
In the rare cases where the name Persephone was the official title, we may assume that a specially chthonian character attached to the religion. It attached also to most of the leading Kore-worships. Among these we may specially note the Potnian, with its sacrifice of sucking-pigs thrown into the subterranean shrine, a sacrifice that reminds us of the Thesmophoria; the Argive, with its singular fire-ritual, in which lighted torches were thrown into the sacred pit; and the somewhat similar Mantinean, in which a perpetual fire was maintained in the shrine of Demeter and the daughter. (Farnell, 122)
Elswhere he notes the ubiquitous use of pigs in the ritual celebration of death and rebirth which were at the heart of the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter;
At Potniae, in Boeotia, we hear of an underground megaron into which a sucking-pig was thrown as an offering to Demeter and Kore, to miraculously reappear at a certain season of the year at Dodona; and a Potnian inscription speaks of “a priest of Demeter and Persephone,” the latter being the special name of the chthonian goddess…In Attica this aspect of Demeter is sufficiently salient in the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian mysteries, and the curious statement of Plutarch that at one time the buried dead in Attica were called Demetreioi shows, if we can trust it, a reminiscence of an earlier period when she was recognized as one with the earth-goddess, and as the Power that ruled over the departed. (Farnell, 64)
The pigs which were thrown into cavernous regions seemed to have represented the death of the old piggish self, the mindlessness of the animalian nature and its sublimation into the earth from whence grows new and plentiful life. As Martin Nilsson points out in "Greek Popular Religion" the pig and this cult of death / rebirth were intimately united;
At a certain time of the year, perhaps at another festival of Demeter and Kore, the Skirophoria, which was celebrated at the time of threshing, pigs were thrown into subterranean caves together with other fertility charms. At the Thesmophoria the putrefied remains were brought, mixed with the seed corn, and laid on the altars. This is a very simple and old-fashioned fertility magic known from Athens, Greece, the swine was the holy animal of Demeter. (Nilsson, 22)
The ancient world saw pigs as seemingly mindless creatures, driven by desire and the more base aspects of nature, eating, sleeping, rutting. Not only were they sacred to Demeter and to Seth, they were also closely associated with the Egyptian goddess of lust and fertility, Taweret, the wife of Apep, who later, when Seth replaced Apep as god of evil and darkness, she became Seth's concubine. Her counterparts in other cultures were Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, and Aphrodite. The flesh of the pig was eaten at celebrations of Taweret as it was at the celebrations of her counterparts in other cultures, followed, at least in Babylon, by mindless orgies of sexuality and narcotics (the very thing the Jews objected to in their edicts against eating pork). To succumb to pigishness, then, would mean failure for the rational creature; it would mean darkness and inevitable death - the very thing which Seth threatens against Ra. Yet Demeter controls the pigs in her cult. If the maiden, the kore, Persephone is thought of as the young Demeter, then she could be the youthfulness driven by piggish desire which dies in the underworld and rises again to the new life of rational control.
Such control means a harsh knowing of self, a gnothi seauton. It also means experiencing and delivering pain. But as G.E. Dimock suggests in his article "the Name of Odysseus" this is precisely what odyssasthai means;
...for Odysseus to grow up, to achieve his full stature, will be for him to "odysseus"--to live up to the meaning of his name, whatever that may be. "To odysseus" (odyssasthai in Greek) is usually said to mean "be wroth against," "hate," and to be connected with Latin odisse... in the Odyssey odyssasthai means essentially "to cause pain (odyne), and to be willing to do so." (Dimock, 1, 53)
Essentially, Dimock claims, the story of the Odyssey is about finding oneself: "the whole problem of the Odyssey is for Odysseus to establish his identity" (Dimock, 1). It is a story about being a somebody rather than a nobody. I would suggest the story is more than just that, just fame. The Nobodies of the world are the mob, the average, unthinking, desire-driven slavish man. To be somebody is to be "one man alone"; to oion; a man in control of himself constantly. In order to accomplish this one has to live polytropically, by twists and turns. One has to wear a mask, a persona, of tricks and stories. One has to become, to a degree, like the snake in order to beat the snake of Apep, the mob.
Odysseus is a man who lives by his wits. He has learned early on, when he received a wound delivered to him by a boar, that the world is a cruel and brutal place. He has also learned to mistrust the many headed mob. Mobs can turn dangerous quickly. They are self-serving, driven by passions, swayed by entertainment and rhetoric. Mobs, basically, are piggish and Circe, in her role as the counterpart to Persephone, threatens engulf Odysseus in this state of existence. As Stuart Small suggests,
The meretrix Circe offers men not knowledge, but the pleasures which degrade and brutalize the human body without diminishing the mind's capacity for grief and remorse. (Small, 427)
Yet in changing the crew to swine she becomes a prophetess of sorts, revealing the true nature of the crew who later will, despite numerous warning, consume the cattle of Helios, the symbols of gloriously divine beauty and the representations of home. The crew, in this case, led by Eurylochus, are Apep. They are the mob. They do not wear a persona mask, they are not wary of the world, and they do not live by twists and turns. Rather they charge directly into what appears to be a banquet in order to satisfy their own carnal desires. The crew represent conventional thought versus nuanced introspection - they are, to a degree, civilized pigs. As Richard Ruderman in "Odysseus and the Possibility of Enlightenment" notes, such men are incapable of achieving resurrection because they have become enslaved to the status quo;
People who have come to think of themselves as “civilized” or not in need of “myths” in order to be moral are apt to overlook this essential ground of morality. Comfort with the status quo, taking pride in the civilization one is a part of, or even the lazy preference for the safety of morality to the risks and daring of its opposite – all these can lead people simply to equate morality with reason and civilization. (Ruderman, 151)
Eurylochus and the others consider their lives to be fairly swell. Like Richard Adams' rabbits in the warren of snares in "Watership Down" they no longer believe in the myths and tales of old. Their pigishness, consequently, makes them slaves to devouring darkness because they think things are due to them. Their eating of the cattle of Helios, like Goldilocks eating the porridge of the three bears, denies them entrance back into the holy bliss of home.
Odysseus, on the other, is the man of reason and this sets him apart from the piggish mob;
Reason, after all, as the wily Odysseus knows all too well, might counsel the performance of an unjust action, especially where one’s life or safety hang in the balance. And social influences, however powerful within a given society, seem unreliable in the fluid, many-cultured world of the wanderer. (Ruderman, 151)
Society might suggest satisfaction of the baser instincts but also paradoxically common courtesy to a hostess and sexual fidelity to one's wife. But if Odysseus is to master Circe, the power of the underworld, if he is to escape the pull of pigishness, he must make her his equal. Charles Segal in "Circean Temptations: Homer, Vergil, Ovid" suggests this very thing;
If Homer's Circe embodies the pleasures of the flesh in both their restorative and dangerous aspects, she is yet more than an allegory of sensuality, as she becomes in later literature. While on the one hand she can transform men into swine, on the other she is surrounded by beautiful and highly wrought furnishings tokens of a civilized refinement…. It belongs to the paradoxical mystery surrounding this character that the men who are to be transformed into swine meet her more civilized aspect, the beautiful singing and weaving, while Odysseus, wary of her charms, engages at once in a head-on conflict with her magic and her sexual allure. Recognizing the danger for what it is, he sees Circe as his men cannot. Hence he meets the goddess on her own terms: the counter-magic of Hermes against her potions, his sword against her wand. (Segal, 425)
Odysseus puts upon himself the mask of death by eating the moly flower, whose white blossom symbolizes the glory of light, and whose black stem represents the underworld. Thus he comes into her abode disguised as a nobody, a dead man, an Outis. Norman Austin notes that in doing so, in wearing a mask, Odysseus displays the great cunning, polymetis, for which he is known;
Odysseus’ polymetis, when he is exercising his Metis, then is he invariably Outis. His mask is his Metis; the face it displays to the world is Outis. Odysseus negates himself qua Odysseus, either by remaining anonymous, or by adopting, together with a pseudonym, a fictitious unreal persona. (Austin, 16)
Metis (widsom, skill, or craft) is, after all, the mother of Athena, Odysseus' patron deity. Only after he has avoided Circe's potions and held a knife to her throat does the witchrecognize him as that famous Odysseus of whom she has been warned. Only after he joins her in sexual union does he become her equal; thus making himself metaphorically controller of the pigs, king of the underworld, and lord of the breathless dead. But, as Achilles notes, such a lordship is not desirable; life isn't merely about eternal power or even about remaining separate from the crowd. The epic nature of the Odyssey suggests that the resurrection story, the sun god story, is really a return to full humanity; a restoration of the individuality of the man. As George de F. Lord proposes the encounters throughout the work jeopardize this revelation of Odysseus as a divine being;
In one way or another all these encounters jeopardize his human individuality, or at least that of his followers. ... Circe transforms men into pigs who yet retain the same minds they had before. Calypso promises to make him immortal and ageless if he will only live with her forever. ...Odysseus' recognition at this point that his innermost identity is inseparably bound up with his home and wife is the key to his escape from the fantastic world, just as his unprovoked attack on society... opened the door to his entrance into it. (de. F. Lord, 416)
Odysseus must still return to his own home and face the Apep mob of the suitors. To do this he must put himself at great risk. The first part of the epic, however, especially his experience of descending into the mob-like world of the breathless dead has prepared him to put himself forward. He survives the test of the cattle of Helios because he has seen what such piggishness results in, namely slavish oblivion. Odysseus is thus willing to risk himself in order to regain the beauty of his home. Howard Clark notes in "The Humor of Homer" that this risk is what makes the work a comedy rather than a tragedy;
...the curve of tragic action, then, is self-discovery; the comic curve is self-exposure. And whereas the self-discovery provided by tragedy is an emotional experience, the appeal of comedy is hard and intellectual. This seems to bring us to that old saw that life is tragedy for the man who feels and comedy for the man who thinks. It certainly brings us back to our initial definition of the comic: that it is an intellectual apprehension of incongruity. (Clark, p. 252)
When he returns to Ithaca, Odysseus is one with the comic ruler of pigs, Eumaios. He then adopts a remarkable persona mask in order to infiltrate the lair of Apep. E. Coughanowr suggests that this mask is related to pig imagery as well through the Greek word, μολοβρὸς.
In the Odyssey, where the word μολοβρὸς occurs, Odysseus, disguised by Athena as a wretched old beggar, is also deprived of his hair. This may perhaps have caused the inference to the ringworm disease and / or baldness in both passages where the epithet μολοβρὸς appears in Homer. In Od. 17.219 Melanthios addresses Eumaeus, at the sight of Odysseus:
πῇ δὴ τόνδε μολοβρὸν ἄγεις, ἀμέγαρτε συβῶτα, πτωχὸν ἀνιηρόν δαιτῶν ἀπολυμαντῆρα;
In Od. 18.26 Iros, referring to Odysseus, says:
ὢ πόποι, ὡς ὁ μολοβρὸς ἐπιτροχάδην ἀγορεύει, (Coughanowr, 229)
μολοβρὸς might also mean ‘young’; molobria ‘the young of wild pigs’ (probably so called because hairless when born).
Consequently, Odysseus disguised as the beggar is Odysseus Molobros, a word associated with 'the young of wild pigs', or molobria. He comes into the palace as a pig man; a man of the underworld; thrown into the chasm as in the Eleusinian rites. But as the slaughter of the suitors indicates this is not his final form.
After proving himself with the bow, Odysseus immediately throws off the pig guise and stands dazzling before them all. Here he is Helios, shining, bow in hand like Apollo, and ready to slay with graphic carnage the many-headed mob dragon that threatens to metastasize in and destroy his home. Odysseus who has traveled through the darkness of failure, terror, war, loss, and death has risen from the dead and wreaks havoc with the forces of darkness that threatened to engulf him.
Piggish imagery serves a crucial purpose in rendering the resurrection story of the sun god in the Odyssey. Ultimately, Odysseus survives this piggishness of the mob mentality. He rids his home of the slavish fate, ananke, which threatens to benight his family and loved ones. Like a man awakening from a dream the hero rises with the dawn and comes back to the empyrean of eternal bliss, the home for which he is truly destined. This is the story of Western culture, a story which suggests that our failures are not eternal, death is not final, the underdog can triumph, and the home for which we are bound is not ultimately darkness, but light.
- Austin, Norman. “Name Magic in the Odyssey". Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5 (1972)
- Clarke, Howard W. “The Humor of Homer”. The Classical Journal, Vol. 64, No. 6 (Mar., 1969)
- Coughanowr, E. “The Meaning of Molobros in Homer”. The Classical Quarterly, new Series, Vol. 29, No. 2 (1979), pp. 229-230. Cambridge University Press
- de F. Lord, George. "The "Odyssey" and the Western World". The Sewanee Review, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1954), p. 416
- Dimock, G.E., jr. "The Name of Odysseus". The Hudson Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Spring, 1956)
- Farnell, Lewis Richard. "The Cults of the Greek States". Vol. III. 2005 Adamant Media Corporation.
- Griffiths, J. Gwyn. “Allegory in Egypt”. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 53 (Dec., 1967)
- Hicks, Ruth Ilsley. “Egyptian Elements in Greek Mythology” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 93 (1962)
- Nilsson, Martin Persson. Greek Popular Religion. Forgotten Books, 2007.
- Ruderman, Richard S. “Odysseus and the Possibility of Enlightenment”. American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 43, No. 1, (Jan. 1999)
- Segal, Charles. “Circean Temptations: Homer, Vergil, Ovid”. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 99 (1968)
- Small, Stuart G. P. “On Allegory in Homer”. The Classical Journal, Vol. 44, No. 7 (Apr., 1949)