Cornell University Press

Human Minds and Homer’s Odyssey

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Ancient Greek audiences used to gather for episodic or monumental performances, when they would hear large portions of the Iliad and Odyssey and other epics. How did these performances shape their view of the world and human life? How can their records—our texts—provide us with evidence for ancient beliefs about human minds? 

Narrative and Theories of Mind

Modern critics, drawing on cognitive science and psychology, have written about how contemporary novels convey or explore a ‘theory of mind’ while cognitive scientists like Mark Turner have argued that narrative itself is critical to human consciousness and thought. Other disciplines like sociology have also acknowledged the importance of cultural narratives in shaping who we think we are. As a pervasive performance genre, Greek epic was both a product and a producer of cultural narratives—of the stories that shape what people think is possible in their lives—and provides critical evidence for an ancient ‘theory of mind’, what the psychologist Jerome Bruner has described as “folk psychology”.

As a pervasive performance genre, Greek epic was both a product and a producer of cultural narratives—of the stories that shape what people think is possible in their lives—and provides critical evidence for an ancient ‘theory of mind.

Looking for such a “folk psychology” in Homer produces powerful parallels for modern approaches. At the beginning of the Odyssey, as Zeus looks down on human actions, he laments, “Mortals! They are always blaming the gods and saying that evil comes from us when they themselves suffer pain beyond their lot because of their own recklessness!” (1.32-34). Classical scholars have debated for many years whether or not this statement is programmatic for the epic as a whole. That is, whether we should understand it as framing the action and directing the audience’s attention to who is responsible for human suffering. From a psychological perspective, the answer seems clear: Zeus’ statement invites us to a complex contemplation of determinism and human agency.

Agency and Epic Inaction

Once we make questions of human agency central to our approach, the Odyssey can be read as a prolonged rumination on the conditions that help human minds function (and fail to function) in the world. The epic shows a series of central figures in a state of paralysis caused by a lack of choices, by a diminished sense of agency. Both Telemachus and Penelope are shown waiting at the beginning of the epic for someone else to act. When we first see Odysseus, he has spent seven years staring at the sea, weeping. From the perspective of modern psychology, this paralysis is a ‘freeze’ in the fight-or-flight instinct, creating what has been called a state of learned helplessness.

In its twenty-four books, the Odyssey provides parallels for modern studies of the effects of severe isolation, complex grief or loss, and the impact of harmful narratives on individual psychology.

The Odyssey shows its main character suffering from different types of trauma, as Jonathan Shay has shown: he faces the myriad challenges of a warrior returning home. Nevertheless, the epic is also deeply concerned with how all the people depicted relate to trauma, and what it takes to recuperate a sense of agency in the world. In its twenty-four books, the Odyssey provides parallels for modern studies of the effects of severe isolation, complex grief or loss, and the impact of harmful narratives on individual psychology. In addition, it explores how we can cope with some of these challenges. The epic’s narrative demonstrates how Odysseus needs to engage inaction and tell his own story, echoing practices offered by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and narrative therapy as described by Michael White.

The Social Impact of Stories

This narrative, however, also invites us to consider the minds and experiences of a traumatized public (the people of Ithaca), of the marginalized (women and the aged), and of those subject to violence and oppression (enslaved peoples). In exploring a corollary to Zeus’ statement—whether or not people can lessen their suffering through intelligent action—the Odyssey shows that to be a successful agent in the world is to control your own story, to be a master of your mind and an influencer of others’.

Reading the remains of Greek literature alongside modern psychological theories helps us both to appreciate the complexity of ancient thought on the human mind and to apprehend why such works remain vital to this day.

The consideration of how human minds work and how suffering and trauma can be mitigated is central to the Odyssey’s therapeutic impact for ancient audiences and modern readers. Reading the remains of Greek literature alongside modern psychological theories helps us both to appreciate the complexity of ancient thought on the human mind and to apprehend why such works remain vital to this day. The Odyssey’s end, however, reflects on the perils of taking such stories to heart. The epic close with Zeus proposing an eklesis, an erasure of the memory of Odysseus’ murders of the suitors when he returns home. The sudden deus ex machina points to the impossibility of resolving some conflicts and the danger of using narratives of the past to guide our decisions of the future.

In the end, this is Homer’s most challenging message: the human mind with the most agency (Odysseus) is the one who controls stories instead of being wholly under their control. Ultimately, the Odyssey asks its audiences to consider a world beyond the bounds of its tale, one where they live and have the power to make their lives better or worse.

Ultimately, the Odyssey asks its audiences to consider a world beyond the bounds of its tale, one where they live and have the power to make their lives better or worse.

*Featured photo: Unknown Artist, possibly from Brussels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Joel P. Christensen is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is co-author of A Beginner’s Guide to Homer and Homer’s Thebes. Follow him on Twitter @sentantiq.

See all books by this author.

Also of interest:

sententiaeantiquae.com

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