Homer and the Realm of Shadows

The psyche (ψυχή) for Homer was primarily a shadowy-substance, devoid of consciousness or any form of mental proclivity. It meant the difference between the living and the dead. The dead lost all memories of their former life—this was the result of crossing the stream of Lethe, or the river of forgetfulness. Homer referred to these personas as forms of ghostly apparitions still retaining their former human characteristics; yet there is never any passage in Homer’s Epic Poems where ψυχή is utilized as anyone living or what we would refer to as a soul. The only thing that survived one’s demise was his name and recollections by others of one’s former status in life. Modern-day examinations on Homer’s realizations was first published in 1894 by Friedrich Nietzsche’s personal friend and confidant, Erwin Rohde, in his classic book Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in immortality. It’s an immense volume. I’ve been enthralled after purchasing it and reading these early formulations of the Greek Soul. Here’s a little passage to whet your appetite:

The gods could also make a mortal “invisible” for a prolonged period. When Odysseus has been so long lost to his friends they suspect that the gods have made him invisible; they do not regard him as “dead” but the Harpies have carried him away. Penelope, in her grief, prays either for swift death through the arrows of Artemis, or that a storm wind may lift her up and carry her away on dark pathways to the mouths of Okeanos, that is, to the entrance of the Land of the Dead…

Such a translation is accomplished by means of the Harpies or the Stormwind, which is the same thing, since the Harpies are nothing else but wind—deities of a peculiarly sinister kind. The Harpies and what we are here told of them, belong to the “vulgar mythology” which so seldom finds any expression in Homer; a popular folk-lore that could tell of many things between heaven and earth of which the Homeric “grand style” takes little notice. In Homer the Harpies never act on their own authority; only as the servants of the gods or of a single god do they transport mortals where no word of man, no human power, can reach.

Love these descriptions of the Harpies, those winged menaces, first introduced to me years ago while studying Dante’s Inferno. Reference was made to them in my Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn:

The Harpies (Winged Creatures of Death) keep watch outside the Charnel House waiting to feast on any residual morsels of Rupakaya (the physical body) as their demonic laughter shrieks across the somber summer sky…

Divorced from the desire to find satisfaction in temporal manifestations of defiled garbha, those Noble Warriors of Unborn Light have toppled the temples of false gods through one swift swing of Manjushri’s Imageless Sword! The dark pool of the alaya-vijnana is thus emptied as the ravenous Harpies are denied their catch.

Homer makes many references to spectral shapes, which to our understanding are principally created by the mind. In some instances these shapes can live on in houses, cemeteries and other locations as an after image–much like the scent left when one burns toast. Recollect that during my priestly ministry I was once called upon to exorcise a house for fear that the dead from an adjacent cemetery were making return visits. But in essence they are mind creations. Some minds exert tremendous willfulness that it can live on in apparition form; this is why exorcists always ask for the name of the demon, so that they can successively combat it. Although in the incident mentioned, Holy Water alone was sufficient. Homer, though, always emphasized that the deceased would be consigned to the ghostly realm of shadows. For an Unborn Mind adept, schooled in Lankavatarian principles, Mind instead dwells in Nirabhasagocara—or the imageless realm of no-shadows. Thus spectral shapes have no place in Lankavatarian formulations. The Lankavatara Sutra trumps Homer himself.  But the stories live on. By virtue of the story and only for the story. There are no stories in the Lanka except for the added introduction of the Ravana (Overlord of the Yakshas) storyline–which only serves as a construction in which to convey the salient teaching of the great turn-about. A frameology–no more, no less. Hence, stories by and large are for entertainment purposes and are not to be exclusively considered otherwise. Not meant to be embraced for the story-sake alone. But yet, they can serve as source for inspiration—provided that one can separate Self from the narrative. Mind-only insists on this. Above all, Sutras always stand above stories.

In summary, let us put Homer into proper perspective for this ongoing series on the soul:

A central feature of these mystery rites and the Orphic-Pythagorean conglomerate associated with them was the belief in the soul’s immortality. In the Homeric poems and elsewhere, until the fifth century, the dominant view of soul (psyche) was that of a complex of features and functions associated with different parts of the body, with dreams, trances, and such phenomena, and with death. Although it is clear that Greeks of the Archaic period could say “I,” it is doubtful that they had the notion of a unitary soul that was the locus of conscious events. Nonetheless, even in Homer, there is the view that some kind of soul, a shadow or vaporous image of the body, continues to exist after death. But reincarnation only seems to have become prominent through the teachings of Pythagoras of Samos in the late sixth century and then in the Orphic texts of the fifth century. It was in this Orphic-Pythagorean context, moreover, that the soul was taken to be immortal and divine. Whether the Homeric poems entertain the possibility of the soul’s immortality is doubtful, but by the fifth century the idea was available, if not yet widely accepted. (Michael L. Morgan, article “Plato and Greek Religion” in the Cambridge Companion to Plato, pg. 236)

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