Justice in the Wilderness
Today I want to get to my favorite—and the most provocative—phrase in that passage from the Odyssey that we’ve been examining for the past two weeks.
To refresh our memory, here’s the full text:
… 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 ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home.
What part hooks me the most?
… was made to stray …
Specifically, “was made to.”
Who “made” Odysseus undergo his ten years in the wilderness? The translation I’m quoting from is by T.E. Lawrence, i.e. Lawrence of Arabia, who was an Oxford-educated Classical scholar and, for sure, no one to be imprecise. So …
If Odysseus, after he had committed a crime against heaven—plundering the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy—“was made to stray grievously etc.,” doesn’t that imply some cosmic engine of justice? The Fates? The Furies? Almighty Zeus himself?
Which brings up a Big Question. Is there in the fabric of the universe some scale-balancing force of Justice or karma or whatever we might choose to call it? Could this possibly be true? And if it is, did this entity somehow enforce punishment upon Odysseus?
We could say that something in the hero’s psyche—a sense of guilt or remorse perhaps—drove him himself to create his own ordeal. But that seems, to me at least, like an overly modern interpretation of this mysterious mechanism.
I believe there IS some force of Justice in the Cosmos. I believe Homer chose exactly the phrase and the sequence of crime and punishment he intended.
Our hero commits a crime against heaven.
No earthly tribunal judges him. Seemingly Odysseus gets away with it.
But some unseen force of payback or retribution intervenes. This force. by some mysterious means, sends storms to blow our hero’s ship off-course; it maroons him and his crew on god-forsaken isles. The force is always one step ahead of Odysseus. It buffets him from catastrophe to ordeal to disaster, foils his enterprises and stratagems, brings his most cunning designs to nothing.
Is any of this sounding familiar? In our own passages through the wilderness, yours and mine, isn’t there a feeling of some Cosmic Hand pushing us this way and that, tugging us back just when we seem to be making progress, shoving us over a cliff when we lapse even a little?
The good news—if this scenario contains any element of truth—is that our odyssey through exile POSSESSES MEANING. It is not random. It is not without significance.
If you and I have been “made to” suffer an ordeal of exile and banishment from ourselves, there must be meaning to it. Otherwise, why is some unseen force making us to stray grievously?
In other words, the mystery of our ordeal is not without a solution. The passage is not devoid of a culmination.
If you and I were made to stray, then there was a cause. Something we had done or failed to do. And hidden within that action or inaction was a violation of some law or precept. Not a human law perhaps, but a law that the gods know. And our way out, if this is true, can only be found in identifying this felony and coming clean about it, if only to ourselves—and then serving our sentence, doing our time.
Oh, by the way. If you and I are writing a story—any story, fiction or nonfiction—the scenario above is our spine.