Homer in the Wilderness

We suggested in the last two posts that some form of “sojourn in the wilderness” seems to be necessary for the evolution of the soul. Let’s check in, then, with the seminal myth of Western Civ on this subject: Homer’s Odyssey.

Odysseus’s ten-year ordeal in the aftermath of the Trojan War is the Ur-saga of this type of passage. There’s a reason the tale is still around, three thousand years after it was written.

” … the various-minded man …

Let’s examine one specific passage. See if Homer’s verses below comport with whatever “odyssey” you yourself might be on right now (or have been in the past).

…. this song of the various-minded man, who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the seafaring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home.

I don’t know about you, but that’s my wilderness story to a “T.” 

There’s too much here to unpack in one post, so let’s start with just one takeaway (we’ll get to the others in subsequent posts):

” … after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy … “

In other words, the Odyssey starts with a crime. A crime committed by Odysseus. In story terms, this is the “inciting incident” that kicks off the great warrior’s ten years in the wilderness.

Note: Homer could have used any adjective (or none) to describe Troy. He could have said “windswept” or “glorious” or “doomed,” as he did in other contexts. 

Instead he chose “hallowed.”

In other words, Odysseus has not just committed a crime but a crime against heaven.

Here’s my theory: I think ALL sojourns in the wilderness start with a crime. For sure, mine did. I hurt someone I loved deeply. That was what cast me out. 

But every crime against another is really a crime against ourselves because, in committing that crime (and it may be one of omission as well as commission), we betray and violate the Self we were born to be. This crime is against heaven because the Self we’ve betrayed is that which the gods have vouchsafed us at birth as their noblest and most precious gift.

Let me jump ahead to the third of the five takeaways in this passage from Homer:

” … while his heart ached with an agony to redeem himself … “

The “criminal,” on his or her passage through the wilderness, knows he/she has done wrong.  

Again, I don’t know about you, but that describes my feelings exactly on my own passage. I was excruciatingly aware, every second, that I had committed some betrayal, not just of another, but also of myself and of heaven (even though I refused to bring it specifically into consciousness) … and I wished like hell that I could atone and be released.

To be clearer on the definition of “crime”in this interpretation … the violation doesn’t have to be a literal felony or even a conscious act. The crime you and I commit may be one of naivete. We were clueless. We knew not what we did.

Our crime can be well-intentioned. We only tried to do what our parents/elders/tribe/religion told us was the right thing.

Or we may simply have failed to act. We took a job/enrolled in a school/married a spouse and stuck with this choice even though it was taking us—and others—straight to hell (and even if we were utterly blind to this.)

The crime, nonetheless, is against heaven, i.e. our Highest Self, the self we were born to be. And for that, we must pay, like Odysseus, by an ordeal “in the wilderness.”

More on this passage in Homer next week.

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54 Comments

  1. JL on October 26, 2022 at 4:09 am

    This is the most meaningful post I’ve ever read. Thank you.

  2. Yvonne on October 26, 2022 at 4:49 am

    Wow–so much here to unpack. This hits home for me on many levels. Thank you, Steve!

    • Tom on October 26, 2022 at 8:37 am

      I too hurt someone I loved deeply. I did not realize the hurt until I looked into her eyes and felt the pain. I knew there was nothng “I” could do to redeem myself. All was lost. A hopeless state surrounded me. The hopelessness was total. Once experienced, an opening appeared. Information began to flow into my brain. It was a communication from other than my self. “I” was out of the way. All “I” could do was sit and receive. The communication came from a higher source. “I” was being informed by a much wiser source and the information was flawless. To this day, not one piece was incorrect.

      This is the first Key. Correct Information produces Correct Action if “I” is out of the way. Effortless wisdom is the result. 20 years later, I am still living the results of that transmission from beyond my capabilities.

  3. Tolis Alexopoulos on October 26, 2022 at 5:20 am

    Thank you very much dear Steve,

    One idea that pops in my mind often is the theme of the bag of Aeolus. Like you wrote beautifully in the war of art, we should beware of that bag of winds that we may open, because like Odysseus and his men, if we open it, even if we are close to our homeland, it will send our ship away, far away, and it will take us years -instead of days if we hadn’t opened it- to reach our homeland (could be, our self).

    Yet there is that thought that tells me, “If Odysseus hadn’t opened that bag of winds, he would never had lived the adventures, and he would never be glorious and one of a kind. He wouldn’t have met the extraordinary obstacles and wonders of the world. He would only be a name among others in the multi-named nature of the Iliad.”

    Which means that, if we don’t open that bag, we may be condemned to live an ordinary but not original life.

    Ordinary but not original may be the only life we have in this infinite universe of galaxies. What a dark choice.

    Could it be that the bag of winds is actually our means to reach self-fulfillment, and not something that we should not tap into? Should we open it with a smile?

    My bag of Aeolus is these last three or four chapters of my book. There I sit on that chair every day, and behold, all Resistance is hitting me and so I can only sit for maximum 3 hours instead of 5 that was my goal. And you should see what happens in my life! Even within those hours, I can’t finish those chapters for years now. It’s like a mist that you keep on walking through, but you never reach an end. Strangely, the first chapters would only need a couple of weeks each I think. They would flow like water and be beautiful like nature. These here however, flow as good as a rock: they actually don’t even move. It’s like the Muse left, like there is a final mystical judgement/trial that we must go through, that’s called “emptiness” or “the mist”.

    It’s so strange. And Resistance is right out of my window, waiting to come back in. I can tell it still flows like water. And -remember?- it doesn’t want to wound. It wants to kill. Definitely.

    Well, openers of the bag of Aeolus, Exiles on first sight, let us write history or die trying.

    • Joe on October 26, 2022 at 6:41 am

      You can do it, Tolis.

    • Jackie on October 26, 2022 at 7:10 am

      I think you can do it Tolis, but you must think you can. Think it and it’s done. You got this.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 27, 2022 at 3:44 am

      Thank you for giving me courage, dear friends! Thankfully, I express deeper anxiousness but in my heart I say, “I’m Unstoppable”! Just trying to get those “demons” out there, I think the creatures of the darkness don’t like the light so much. Do they? ­čśë

      I believe we ALL can do it. NO exception. How powerful dynamic of the world is that?

      Reach the dream. Go through hell or die trying: Fame after death.

      If we never stop, we even win death. <3

      Wish the best of the best to you for now!

    • Lin Keeling on October 27, 2022 at 9:27 am

      Wonderful insights, Tolis! I agree with Joe and and Jackie, you will get there. Perhaps, you have to venture further through the emptiness and mists before you have the tools/knowledge you need to complete your book. I went through this several times, setting aside my book, getting stuck and as time passed, things came to me and I could move forward with it and the book is becoming more than it was, more than I could have imagined because I was blown off course for a while. Don’t give up, it will happen.

      • Tolis on October 28, 2022 at 8:52 am

        Thank you so much Lin! I believe you express a deep truth, the fact that beyond the emptiness there are… many unexplored aspects of our self that will lead us much further ahead.

  4. Gwen Abitz on October 26, 2022 at 5:20 am

    The “forgiveness of self”, the most important and most difficult to do.

    • Brian Nelson on October 26, 2022 at 7:37 am

      Gwen,
      I agree 100%. Infinitely easier to forgive others than to forgive oneself. I wonder as I type this if that is another example of Pride…or, as it has been at times for me, not taking 100% responsibility. Blaming others or circumstance to rationalize the crime, so my inner Self knows I cannot be forgiven because I haven’t owned it.

      I never get away free here on Wednesday mornings…Steve continually challenges me.
      bsn

    • Gene C on October 26, 2022 at 9:47 am

      So true.

  5. Gwynn on October 26, 2022 at 5:27 am

    Nailed it again Pressfield.

  6. jodypaynesays on October 26, 2022 at 5:48 am

    It never quits. When do we get to walk out of the wilderness and start our lives where we left off?

    • Nom de Plume on October 26, 2022 at 7:06 am

      Methinks that’s the point, Jody — we don’t resume our lives where we left off. The wilderness changes us, burns off the dross. I’m not sure yet where Sensei is going with the rest of this analysis, but I think my comment last week that in the action movie of your life the wilderness part will be the training montage is on target (so far). I’m thinking of any Rocky movie as that stripped to its essence (literally — there is minimal dialog in them). You just know, after the first movie climaxes in his going the distance in the big fight, he is never going back to being a bum and mob enforcer.

      And Tolis, your comment above, what if Odysseus hadnÔÇÖt opened that bag of winds, he’d have been boring and ordinary — wow. I’m gong to have to think about the implications of that!

      • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 28, 2022 at 8:59 am

        Thank you for considering it, Nom de Plum! It seems like a double edged sword. I wish you a great week.

    • Gerry Lantz on October 26, 2022 at 9:01 am

      A philosophy professor in college shared this most important thought when talking about existentialism: “Life is a greased pole. It’s not about reaching the top, but how hard you shinny.” (Of course, this is “The Myth of Sisyphus” as interpreted by Camus. Sisyphus is victorious as he descends the hill to take up the rock again.) If you can accept this seemingly dark view of the “grumpy existentialists” as professor called them, it frees you from a lot of whining. Get on with the job at hand no matter how much you have suffered or sinned even. We’re back to Odysseus aren’t we? He had no idea, he was an existentialist! He got his Penelope back, so maybe he’s merely a romantic hero. You pick: the hamster wheel or puppies and daisies. Which, usually, makes the better story?

  7. Leigh on October 26, 2022 at 5:55 am

    WowÔÇŽIÔÇÖll be reflecting on this for awhileÔÇŽyou unearth that which has been buried and cast an obvious light on itÔÇŽlove your beautiful insight. Thank you.

  8. Melanie Ormand on October 26, 2022 at 6:13 am

    Zowee, Steven – you nailed my journey here. The past decade explained in this pithy post. Thank you!

  9. Trina Morgan on October 26, 2022 at 6:18 am

    Good stuff. Good. All true, in my case. Naïve, innocent, blind, stubborn . . . blaming my heritage, my tribe, for holding me back, all the while ignorant to the realization that only I could bring myself out.

  10. CK on October 26, 2022 at 6:56 am

    This is an outstanding post that required deep work to produce. I personally am stunned and appreciative. Thank you.

  11. Jackie on October 26, 2022 at 7:11 am

    Food for thought Steve. Must pull that book out and reread. Thanks.

  12. Steve on October 26, 2022 at 7:14 am

    A few years back I walked the length of the John Muir trail. Twenty days in high Sierra wilderness. I confronted myself every day. I found strength and peace that reside in the citadel of my being for all of my days.

  13. William Nelson on October 26, 2022 at 7:21 am

    What a powerful, amazing post! My entire life just made sense.

  14. Frank Gugino on October 26, 2022 at 7:53 am

    Wilderness is as much a state of mind as a physical place, and we all have been there. The myths and legends tell us of heroes who were forced to confront, not run away from their demons on their journeys. In order to attain their destiny Gawain faced the Green Knight, Theseus the Minotour, Heracles the seven labors, etc. Even after Ulysses returned to Ithaca, Neptune pursued him relentlessly. Sitting in the comfort of your study with mundane distractions aplenty may just as easily become a mental wilderness. Challenging yourself to answer the call to your destiny is the only answer. I was fortunate enough to persevere and publish my debut historical novel, but the wilderness still lurks. The price of success is constant vigilance. Thank you.
    PS: Read Tennyson’s “Ulysses” which ends “… but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”

  15. Maureen Anderson on October 26, 2022 at 8:25 am

    Okay, I get it now. Taking a prescription drug for a so-called flaw was a crime. I worried that by “fixing” one thing I’d create so many other problems, which happened, and I did it anyway.

    I paid my penance, though, and emerged a different person. Better!

  16. Barbara Newton-Holmes on October 26, 2022 at 8:41 am

    Wow. Bless you. Thanks

  17. John Scott on October 26, 2022 at 9:12 am

    Thank you for the great post, Steven. It seems we are all more alike than different.

  18. Bing on October 26, 2022 at 10:08 am

    I knew this post was above my pay grade right away when Steve used the word comport, but I hung in there believing I could learn something. I have not read Homer or any books like that, but I have read other books with similar themes like the bible. The first thing I did was look up in the dictionary the words comport, hallowed, omission, commission and vouchsafed. I especially paid attention to SteveÔÇÖs remark, ÔÇťand for this we must pay, like Odysseus, by an ordeal in the wilderness.ÔÇŁ
    My first thoughts were this is all about shame and guilt. I heard you can fix guilt by making amends, etc, but you cannot fix shame, shame goes very deep and it is about disliking yourself. Steve used the words omission and commission but left out the word remission, which means forgiveness of sins.
    I personally am going through some of my hardest trials at this time but on another level I know they are all blessings. Thanks Steve!

    • Brian Nelson on October 26, 2022 at 11:06 am

      Bing,
      Vouchsafed had me staring at it trying to pronounce it myself. I continue to read aloud to myself in my head, which likely slows down my reading speed…but it is as ingrained as picking up something with my right hand.

      Brought me back to DLI when I was confronted with a new Russian word that I had to completely sound out…I’ve come to believe that frustration is the indication of learning.

      Anyway, when I just searched for it on dictionary.com–the pronunciation makes it super clear: vouch- safe. I vouch he/she/it is safe. So rare that English pronunciation is actually phonetic!

      Steve improves my vocabulary 1-2 words a week.

      Your last sentence that your hardest trials are actually a blessing shows profound wisdom and courage!
      bsn

      • Bing on October 26, 2022 at 12:33 pm

        Thank you Brian1!

  19. Gene C on October 26, 2022 at 10:22 am

    Steve: You are not my muse but you’re definitely driving the bus for it.

    I sustained a personal hell that lasted almost 15 years. And through it, one thought sustained me: “No matter what happens, I will be a better person from this.” That mantra was carved over my heart. And it worked.

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 27, 2022 at 3:49 am

      Gene, “Steve: You are not my muse but youÔÇÖre definitely driving the bus for it” -what a phrase! I liked it a lot, thanks.

  20. Joe Jansen on October 26, 2022 at 11:02 am

    I’m enjoying this serial exploration of the wilderness theme. I was trying to think of other stories where the protagonists were exiled (or find themselves thrown into a wilderness) and are now trying to find their way home. The Battlestar Galactic remake, for sure. I’m a couple chapters into A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, where an “unrepentant aristocrat” is exiled by a Bolshevik tribunal to house arrest in the years after the Russian revolution.

    The big one, though, seems to be the “Garden of Eden” story from Genesis. If we go along with Joseph Campbell’s interpretation, this story is a metaphor for the birth of conscious awareness. They didn’t partake from “the tree of good and evil,” but the tree of “knowledge of good and evil.” The were so a part of the natural world that they didn’t recognize the differences between them, or any separation between themselves and the natural world (they were naked, but then covered themselves in “shame”).

    So this birth of awareness of this and that, man and woman, light and dark, joy and pain… it came at a cost: Being exiled from the garden, separated from that which created them, separated from nature and from each other.

    And this the template for great stories (and for the Hero’s Journey)? Exiled and disconnected from that well of universal consciousness, from God, from each other, from the natural world — and the struggle to reconnect with all those things. And reconnecting consciously in this domain, before we exit the stage and the reconnection happens with or without our participation.

    • Joe on October 26, 2022 at 11:07 am

      Please excuse typos… trying to get something coherent to say, in between meetings.

    • Brian Nelson on October 26, 2022 at 11:15 am

      Joe,
      Love it as always. This hit me directly, “…before we exit the stage and the reconnection happens with or without our participation.”

      From another of Steve’s books: 1 COR 13, “…For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears…Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

      Even as I am fully known. That is both dreadful and relieving.
      bsn

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 27, 2022 at 3:56 am

      Thank you very much Joe.
      Battlestar Galactica? Hmm, this sounds interesting too.

  21. Brian Nelson on October 26, 2022 at 11:31 am

    Love this theme, maybe because it is the only theme. Would love to hear Steve and Victor Davis Hanson discuss the classics together, and how they remain the underpinnings of Western thought/ideals.

    The first thing I noticed in myself while reading this was, “How could this have been written 3,000 years ago..”

    The implied belief is that shiny, new, improved, version 5K.0 is ALWAYS better–the arrogance youth and the attitude of disposability I picked up somewhere on this journey. When did veneration of the past turn to dismissal and maybe even disgust? I shouldn’t project completely, but I know I picked up this attitude while swimming in our culture of materialism. There is more to it, but for now materialism seems to encompass nearly everything I’m finding to be wrong in our current times.

    Many thoughts last week were about whether the ‘wilderness’ is a one-stop shop, or a place we return. This is a repeat thought, but it seems there is no there there. There is no destination. Steve frequently posts about the struggles he CONTINUES to have with Resistance YEARS after his breakthrough.

    For so many years I’ve had the reoccurring thought of, “…Once this is over, then things will be easy(ier).” It has hamstrung me time and time again. What seems obvious to me in physical pursuits (lifting weights, running, sports of any type) is that I’ll never achieve perfection. I will always need to add another plate, even if only 1lb plates, to maintain growth. The struggle is to gain strength so we can handle an even greater challenge. The moment things become easy, I begin to atrophy in mind, body, spirit–and yet, I’m ALWAYS seeking the comfort of the familiar, the safe, the easy. My mind continues to wander off towards a life of ease. It continues to be a knife fight with myself.

    This mindset, I’ve come to believe, is intrinsic to the same adoption of materialism over virtues. It has infected me stem to stern. I think the only anti-biotic is the smelting in the wilderness, again and again and again and again.
    bsn

    • Tolis Alexopoulos on October 27, 2022 at 4:05 am

      Thank you so much Brian, I can identify with your thoughts always.

      So, there is no perfection. There is no destination.

      On the other hand, there is. When we look back, we ‘ve conquered or been conquered a thousand times, we destroyed castles and stood glorious above the ruins.

      What I want to add is my belief (not yet proved) that we must strive for balance. But balance between what?

      Between desire and necessity. Between having some really good and relaxed time and working hard. Between recognizing Resistance and Fake Resistance, if I can call it that way, that may turn the precious balance towards one side of the scale.

      What balances there must be for us out there!

      I wish you my best. Statera Diem ­čśÇ

  22. Bing on October 26, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Amen & Amen Brother!

  23. Beth Goldberg on October 26, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    For all of us who have lived long enough, and now with our eyes open, we see the truth and it is painful and, yes, excruciating at times. Why did I do that? Why did I go left when I could and should have gone right?
    We cannot go back and change it, redeem it nor be someone that we weren’t then, but we must look, really examine ourselves in order to correct our thinking now, to discover a forgiving God and a more compassionate person, and to pony up by taking responsibility for our “unconscious” self. I am slowly but surely stepping into me; a balanced, authentic me. You know it when things consistently get better. More peace, more acceptance, more love……

  24. Bob on October 26, 2022 at 5:10 pm

    Understood to a “T”, as in true. Thanks for sharing, Steve:-)

  25. Jody Pike on October 27, 2022 at 1:16 am

    Absolutely right on, Steve. Thank you for the inspiritation

  26. omwow on October 30, 2022 at 6:28 pm

    I’d love to read more about the different kinds of crimes we commit against others, and how they’re crimes against ourselves. I have thought about this, but it still feels like I’m on the outer layers of this truth, and there’s much more that remains to be explored.

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