The Bow of Odysseus (Book XXI)

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Penelope fetched the bow, arrows and axes that were stored with Odysseus (Ulysses)’ treasure in a locked room.

The bow was a present from Iphitos whom Odysseus (Ulysses) had met one day at Orsilochus. Odysseus (Ulysses), then a young man, had been sent to the Messenians to obtain compensation for a theft of three hundred sheep carried out by them in Ithaca. On his side, Iphitos had gone in search of twelve mares and their mules that had been lost. Iphitos was the son of Eurytus, the master of Heracles in archery, who gave him his bow when he died. During this encounter, Odysseus (Ulysses) gave Iphitos a spear while Iphitos gave him his bow. But they were not to see each other again, for Iphitos was killed by Heracles who seized his horses in defiance of the hospitality laws.

Odysseus (Ulysses) never took this bow with him when he left for war.

Penelope then announced to the suitors that she would marry the one who would succeed to bend the bow with the most ease and shoot an arrow through the twelve axes. She ordered Eumaeus to bring the bow and axes.

Antinoos ordered the cattleman and the swineherd to wipe their tears because, he said, no one could compare himself to Odysseus (Ulysses) and achieve this feat. But in his heart, he hoped to succeed.

Telemachus put up the axes and then tried three times to bend the bow. Perhaps he would have succeeded in the fourth attempt, but Odysseus (Ulysses) stopped his effort with a sign.

Leiodes the haruspex, son of Œnops, who blamed the impiety of the suitors, was the first of them to try his luck, but he could not bend the bow because he had delicate and weak hands. Then he challenged the others to do so, declaring that this bow would bring misfortune to many of them. All the young people tried in turn but none succeeded. Only the two leaders, Antinoos and Eurymachos with the face of God, had still to compete.

The swineherd Eumaeus and the cattleman Philoetius then left the room, followed by the beggar-Odysseus (Ulysses). The latter, after having tested their loyalty and made sure of their commitment to support him, revealed his identity and showed them his scar on his leg as proof. To thank them for their loyalty, he assured them that he would give them wife, house and property. All three wept with joy at finally being reunited. Odysseus (Ulysses) explained to Eumaeus that he should bring him the bow that the suitors would have refused him and order the women to close the doors of the room and stay in their apartments, no matter what happen.

All three returned to the room while Eurymachos tried in vain to bend the bow. As he complained of being so weak compared to Odysseus (Ulysses), Antinoos comforted him by assuring him that the festival of Apollo celebrated that same day was not conducive to such an exercise, but that the next day would see their victory.

Then the beggar asked to test his vigour with the bow; this provoked the wrath of the suitors who feared that he would succeed. Antinoos, accusing him of drinking too much, evoked the unreason of the Centaur Eurytion. The latter, drunk, wanted to abduct Pirithoos’ wife, thus triggering the Lapiths’ war against the Centaurs, where Eurytion lost his life first.

Antinoos even promised the beggar to send him to King Echetos. But Penelope pleaded for him to be allowed to try his luck, assuring the suitors that she could not marry him. Eurymachos, Polybus’ son, retorted that what he feared was not this unlikely marriage, but the shame that would fall upon them if he succeeded. Penelope then insisted, saying that she would be content only to clothe him anew and give him spear and sword. But Telemachus said he was the only one who could decide on lending the bow and begged his mother to return to her apartments where Athena gave her sleep.

The swineherd Eumaeus took the bow but, frightened by the boos of the suitors, put it back in its place. As Telemachus threatened him, he took the bow again and brought it to the beggar. Then he asked discreetly the nanny Euryclia to close the doors of the room remaining on the maids’ side while the cattleman barricaded the door of the courtyard.

The beggar-Odysseus (Ulysses) took the bow, held it out and made the rope sing. Then Zeus flashed his lightning and this omen delighted the hero. He took an arrow and shot straight at the target through the holes of the axes. Then he gave the signal to Telemachus who took his sword and seized his spear.

Considering that Hermes, the god of the overmind, is the great-grandfather of Odysseus (Ulysses), the beginning of this Book is the link between the work of purification-liberation and that of the ascension of the planes of consciousness.

We already have met Eurytus “a great tension towards the spirit”, the master of Heracles for archery, that is, the one who taught him the art of achieving the goal. He himself had received his bow from Apollo – psychic light – and his name indicates that he could lead to spiritual liberation. But he could not lead beyond: Heracles killed him at the end of the twelve labours because he refused to give him his daughter Iole, a greater “liberation.” Others say that he died at the hand of Apollo because he pretended to compete with the god (only the psychic is able to discern in Truth the evolutionary path).

Some say that Eurytus was the son of Melaneus “a black or perverted evolution” and Stratonike “victory in battle”, Melaneus being himself the son of Apollo and the nymph Pronoe “who furthers evolution”: this parentage indicates that the quest for liberation in the spirit, called by the psychic light, and experienced by renouncing the world, was the result of an inescapable deviance, a sort of consequence of the “fall” in separating duality.

Eurytus’ son, Iphitos,”who tends strongly towards the spirit,” Iole’s brother, also died at the hand of Heracles, either at the same time as his father, or later, when the reorientation of yoga occurred. At this point, the seeker wants to keep the powers acquired in the mind (Heracles wants to seize the horses of Iphitos and for this, kills his host).

The proposed challenge seems to require two things: on the one hand a will power forged in endurance, on the other a “skill in works” defined in the Bhagavad Gita as the realization of unity with the Supreme in action and not only in a static bliss of the mind, that is, the realization of transparency enabling exactness (one must be able to bend the bow of Odysseus (Ulysses) and then send an arrow accurately through twelve axes).

It seems obvious that “the struggles of the future”, resulting from the realization of transparency, must be able to meet the challenge, but it is not yet time for them to take over (Telemachus, was about to succeed but he was stopped by his father).

The first achievement that presents itself to the seeker’s mind as having any chance of being able to work for the future (to marry Penelope) is “harmony” from the state of joy provided by the paradises of the spirit (divine ecstasy). Realizing that even this realization does not have the necessary power to start the yoga of the body, the seeker understands that no other past achievement will be able to, even if they still believe themselves capable of it (Liodes “the sweet song”, son of Oenops “the divine drunkenness descending into the being” could not bend the bow and defied the others to do so). Homer points out that Liodes could not hold the tension of the bow because he had delicate and weak hands: this means that the paradises of the spirit cannot transform the outer nature if the corresponding purification is not performed (in the lower vital strong desires and bodily habits).

Then the seeker examines other potential realisations in his consciousness, but sees that none is capable to work for “greater freedom” or even modify circumstances through “the vision of the weft”. This possibility of modification is based on the fact that everything is linked and that an action on a tiny point can generate upheavals in other points with no apparent causal link and in a different space-time (all the suitors have tried their luck except for the two leaders, Antinoos and Eurymachos). (See Satprem, Mère, L’espèce nouvelle (not translated).)

Before the great reversal, the seeker must ensure that “what has looked after his basic vital energies” and “what has increased his illuminations” are on his side, that is, that the highest of the mind and the deepest vital give their full agreement for the work of complete purification (Odysseus (Ulysses), after having tested the loyalty of Eumaeus and Philotios and ensured their commitment to support him, revealed his identity). Sri Aurobindo himself says that if he had known beforehand the immense difficulty of the yoga in the body, he might not have started it.

Then the seeker examines in his conscience what the chances of “holiness” are in obtaining greater freedom, but “wisdom” in him understands that no realization of the ancient yoga can attain it if the psychic does not give his consent (while Eurymachos tries in turn to bend the bow, Antinoos says that the day of Apollo was not propitious and that first they had to sacrifice to the god). 

At this point, what in him remains still attached to the forms of the ancient yoga measures the “derisory” power of this yoga without fearing it could be a tool for a greater freedom (the suitors feared that the beggar would succeed but did not imagine that he could marry Penelope).

In the most spiritually advanced being, the “shame” that would befall the suitors is the sign of a persistent attachment to one’s own vision of the true path. It is also a sign of spiritual pride that considers unthinkable that a yoga of the “insignificant” would surpass those that offer illuminations, extraordinary experiences, etc.

“The vision of a more total freedom” is then the most likely to feel that what looks insignificant deserves consideration without knowing what it is. But she has to retreat to the background while “the fights of the future” assert themselves (Penelope insists that the beggar tries his luck and offers, if successful, to gift him new clothes and weapons. But Telemachus asserts himself as the only one to decide the lending of the bow and asks her to withdraw.) 

Then the old realisations attempt to prevent what is taking care of the basic vital and which is deeply under their influence, to serve the movement of union (While Telemachus had sent Eumaeus to look for the bow and hand it over to the beggar, Eumaeus was frightened by the words of the suitors. But Telemachus encourages him).

According to what he had imagined, the seeker doesn’t allow himself any escape and gathers in the “enclosure” of consciousness what must first be eliminated (according to the plan, the doors of the room and the courtyard are closed).

Then the “will for spirit-matter union” orients his force towards the New, with the approval of the highest of the super-conscious (Odysseus (Ulysses) bends his bow, made the rope sing, and Zeus flashed his lightning).

If the axe can be seen as the symbol of separation necessary for the individualization process, the arrow that crosses the twelve axes would represent the end of all duality in an overall experience. It would no longer be only the liberation from what maintains the spirit/matter dichotomy – the realization of wisdom and holiness that is a beacon for present-day humanity – but the entry into a process of transformation towards integral divinization, where personal liberation alone no longer makes sense since nothing can be separated.

Then, what in the seeker worked for union and accomplished transparency, initiates the fights of the future (Odysseus (Ulysses) signalled to Telemachus who slung his sword around his shoulder).

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