This week we’ve been delving deep into the stories of Odysseus’ trials on his way home from the Trojan war. We read about his little tiff with the cyclops, his tense encounter with Circe (and ensuing year of easy living), and Odysseus’ trip to the land of the dead.
That last episode turned out to be especially interesting yesterday. I did the usual English class thing and had students write for a few minutes at the beginning of class after I described the prompt:
Imagine yourself about 80 years in the future, lying in bed, surrounded by loving friends and family, having done everything you ever dreamed of in life, your heartbeat growing slower and weaker, approaching its final quiver. With sweet memories and an overwhelming sense of complete contentment, you expire your final breath and close your eyes. You are dead.
An instant later, you snap into a new kind of awareness. You open your eyes (or your mind’s eye) and behold…the land of the dead.In the descriptive mode (appealing to the 5 senses of the reader) describe what you see and experience there. Explain what you think about it and what you do once you get there.
Now, the Greeks had a pretty darned specific idea about the land of the dead, including where it was on the map. Most of the students’ ideas veered more into the metaphysical (it wasn’t an actual, physical “land,” but more of a metaphysical state of awareness or something). Interestingly, no student suggested that some sort of “land of the dead” doesn’t exist–that is, that to be dead is to not exist. I proposed the idea once or twice, but nobody liked it. And that’s good, because neither did the Greeks.
As I held these discussions throughout the day, one of the most interesting momentsoccurred when one student gave an extreme version of the “punishment” model of the afterlife, where elaborate tortures are devised by some mysterious overseer to exact retribution from common sinners. I couldn’t resist illustrating his comments by projecting a Hieronymous Bosch painting on the screen to show to what extent others have elaborated on that view. I labeled that version of events one extreme “religious” view–making clear that most religions don’t see things this way, but most people who DO see it this way are drawing certain religious ideas to an extreme.
But things got more interesting when the next student gave his version of the “land of the dead” from what I called the extreme “science” perspective. In his version, the energy of the life escapes the body in the moment of death and begins to accelerate away from the body, expanding as its momentum approaches, and then exceeds, the speed of light, as Einstein’s theories predicted. Eventually, this life energy would expand to fill all space, contacting, then enveloping and being enveloped by all the other life energies of all once-living things that are going through the same process. Several class members noted that this “extreme science-y” view of things seemed just as metaphysical as most of the class’ “extreme religious” views. Another student punctuated this thought with his sudden realization that, for all the attention paid to the little ball of “stuff” that was the seed of the big bang, no attention is ever paid to the nothing that surrounded it. What is that nothing? How can “nothing” exist right next to the “everything” that is the little ball of stuff? It seems that this kind of science still requires the leaps of imagination, and, dare I say, faith usually required by religion.
These kinds of troubling questions, which appear at the junction between religion and science, are exactly why most of the peoples of the earth have employed myth. I’ve explored some of the powerful aspects of myth on this site before, so for now, let’s just realize that the Greeks took stories like The Odyssey very seriously. Did they believe that this stuff literally happened? I don’t know if that even occurred to them. The point was, the stories helped them define their worldview and their ideas about the way of living right.
In our class yesterday, where we spun off stories of the land of the dead based on our own internal databanks of myth, it was evident that myth still carries the same power. Students’ ideas about the afterlife clearly have an effect on their actions (or at least attitudes) in life. Understanding this basic principle, I think we’re getting a little closer to understanding Homer more like the ancient Greeks did.
Now the question is, how can I work baklava into a discussion about epic similes? I will find a way.