Odysseus And Siddhartha: One Hero With Two Faces?
Joseph Campell implores his students to study mythology with the enticing argument that myths are keys to unlock the spiritual truths of humanity. Latent in his statement is the idea that truth is universal; the unique interpretations of different cultures are no more than adaptations to support functional societies based on individual customs. “Essentially,” he states, “it might even be said that there is but one archetypal mythic hero whose life has been replicated in many lands by many, many people.” One cannot help but be intrigued by this notion, largely because of the inherent possibility of a worldwide understanding. Such an accord could be accomplished by recognizing the similarities of mythological systems and comprehending the cultural predispositions that necessitate their deviations.
Homer’s Odysseus and Siddhartha, as portrayed by Hermann Hesse, are two heroes from two very different cultures. Siddhartha engages in a pursuit of truth, while Odysseus’s goal is to return to his homeland. Is it possible to find a common thread that would unite these heroes? Can we dismiss their differences as cultural?
Campbell summarizes the beginning of the heroic journey:
“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there’s something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir.” The Power of Myth, p. 123
Siddhartha’s journey begins with him living as a prince, his father a Brahmin. He is admired and loved by his family, friends, and society. In spite of this, he feels discontent. He leaves the security of his home in a search for something greater, declaring, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking– a detour, error.”
Odysseus, similarly, is a king, the son of a heroic father, when he leaves for war. Successful in war, too, he now must return home.
While a feeling of something lacking in everyday life inspires Siddhartha’s journey, Odysseus seeks to regain what he has lost—a home life with his wife and son. Odysseus’s journey will ultimately unite him with his family; and Siddhartha’s, comparably, to his own Self.
The transformation of consciousness (which, Campbell declares, is the reason for the hero’s journey) is accomplished through trials themselves or illuminating revelations.
Odysseus’s trials consist primarily of temptations to distract him from his goal. The Goddess, Calypso, exemplifies this when she coerces him to spend seven years on her island, giving him the option to live with her eternally. He, finally, refuses her offer, saying:
“…I wish—yes, every day I long—to travel home and see the day of my return. And if again one of the gods shall wreck me on the wine-dark sea, I will be patient still, bearing within my breast a heart well-tried with trouble; for in times past much have I borne and much have toiled, in waves and war; to that, let this be added.” The Odyssey, [V. 215]
This declaration represents a decision, one that Odysseus must make several times throughout his journey, to steadfastly adhere to his goal to return home.
Siddhartha becomes a Samana when he leaves his father’s home. He leaves this lifestyle, however, upon the realization that asceticism is rejection of the self—not self-mastery. He informs his friend:
“Govinda,” “I believe that amongst all the Samanas, probably not even one will attain Nirvana. We find consolations; we learn tricks to deceive ourselves, but the essential thing—the way—we do not find… I suffer thirst, Govinda, and on this long Samana path my thirst has not grown less.”
The motif of a metaphorical death contributes to the necessary transformation of consciousness found in myths. Out of each of these ‘deaths’ comes a rebirth. Campbell explains, “In order to found something new, one has to leave the old and go in quest of the seed idea, a germinal idea that will have the potentiality of bringing forth that new thing.”
Siddhartha first ‘dies’ as an ascetic upon the realization that reality and meaning were not hidden behind things, they were in them.
How deaf and stupid I have been, he thought, walking on quickly. When anyone reads anything which he wishes to study, he does not despise the letters and punctuation marks, and call them illusion, chance and worthless shells, but he reads them, he studies and loves them, letter by letter. But I, who wish to read the book of the world and the book of my own nature, did presume to despise the letters and signs. I called the world of appearances, illusion. I called my eyes and tongue, chance. Now, it is over; I have awakened. I have indeed awakened and have only been born today. Siddhartha, p. 40
He later renounces his life of the flesh when he falls asleep under a coconut tree by the river. He awakens, now understanding that he had to become nauseous with worldly power in order that the ‘Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property’ could die.
Odysseus also ‘dies’ twice– once when he descends into the underworld, and later when Poseidon thrashes him into the depths of the ocean and is ‘reborn’ on the island of Scheria.
“Before he can achieve his goal of returning home to Ithaca, Homer’s Odysseus must meet with the dead. He learns of his destiny from Tiresias and of the nature of death. Having so “descended,” he can begin to rise into his true self, in a motif that relates him and many other heroes to the ancient sun gods, who seem to die each night only to be reborn each day.” The World of Myth, p. 295
Leeming states that, “The myth that emerges from the many cultural versions of the hero, then, must be seen as a universal metaphor for the human search for self-knowledge… To follow the hero is to lose our selves in order to find our selves…”
It is easy to see how Siddhartha fits this description. He is, without a doubt, pursuing knowledge of himself; and the theme of losing himself to find himself is repeated with his casting away of old dispositions for those more awakened. Odysseus’s quest is harder to decipher. Although the death and rebirth motif is present, we must read the epic with the belief that his journey home is a metaphor for the search for his true nature. The undeniable similarities in their journeys, as well as their mutual fit into the mold of the hero as described by Campbell, is evidence to motivate such an understanding.
Edited by Betty Sue Flowers; Doubleday Press, 1988
The World of Myth; an Anthology, David Adams LeemingOxford University Press, Inc, 1990
Siddhartha, Hermann HesseTranslated by Hilda Rosner, Bantam Books, 1951
The Odyssey, Homer
Translated by George Herbert Palmer, Edited by Howard Porter, Bantam Literature, 1971
Myths and Legends, Neil PhillipeDK Publishing, Inc, 1999
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