When Achilles decides not to murder Agamemnon in the Iliad, we are told he refrains because Athena pulls him by the hair and asks him to hear a better plan. We might say his conscience or reason won out, but surely something essential is lost in that translation of ideas. We believe that our seat of motivation is in our head, but Achilles and Odysseys looked to the diaphragm for courage. When Odysseus rouses his midriff remembering the cave of the Cyclops, we wonder what part of himself he is exhorting, and might well consider whether we possess such a capacity of spirit to arouse. As Pausanias wrote, the myths of the Greeks are “a strange sort of wisdom,” and in this seminar we will be more concerned to preserve and appreciate this strangeness rather than to make it comprehensible to the worldview we already possess. It may even be that strange and ancient epics prove lucent mirrors for discovering fresh perspective on our own life-projects. Homer reveals that Helen and Penelope are intentionally crafting the stories to be sung about them in times to come; their self-conscious construction of narrative might inspire us to reflect on our own self-generated legacies. Campbell considered myth “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” In this seminar, the Iliad and Odyssey will be our passageways to find out how that overflow happens, and why such strange wisdom matters to us.
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