image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In the Odyssey of Homer, Odysseus is frequently saved by divine intervention, often by a goddess (Athena especially), but in one important instance by the goddess Leucothea (or Leukothea), a sea goddess who was once a human woman.
Having, by the intervention of Athena, been released from his many years' captivity on the island of Ogygia, Odysseus makes his way across the sea in a raft he has fashioned himself -- but he doesn't get far before Poseidon notices him and, infuriated, sends a mighty storm which churns the waves into mountains and unleashes powerful winds roaring from all directions.
Odysseus is washed from his deck and nearly drowns, but the poem tells us that someone noticed him:
Ino, a mortal woman once with human voice and called
Leucothea now she lives in the sea's salt depths,
esteemed by all the gods as she deserves.
She pitied Odysseus, tossed, tormented so --
she broke from the waves like a shearwater on the wing,
lit on the wreck and asked him kindly, "Ah poor man,
why is the god of earthquakes so dead set against you?
Strewing your way with such a crop of troubles!
But he can't destroy you, not for all his anger.
Just do as I say. [. . .]
Odyssey 5. 367 - 376, translation of Professor Robert Fagles (discussed here).
A shearwater is a long-winged ocean bird: the goddess is compared to a shearwater two times in the Odyssey, once in the passage cited above, and again in line 389 when after speaking with Odysseus (presumably in the form of a woman, as she gives him her scarf to tie around his waist for protection), she again disappears into the storm-tossed seas, in the form of a shearwater.
In light of the fact that Leucothea is a goddess who was once a mortal woman, it is extremely interesting that she is described as appearing to Odysseus in the form of a bird.
In the New Testament accounts of the event known as the Epiphany (celebrated after Twelfth Night, and discussed in this previous post from a year ago), the divine nature of the Christ is revealed in the form of a dove, at the moment of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
The Epiphany is a recognition of the divine hidden nature -- the goddess Leucothea was once a mortal woman but is now a goddess.
The symbolism in each case involves a bird and the immersion in water (or the pouring of water upon). The parallels are striking, and argue that the same celestial pattern is being clothed in different metaphors in the different cultures or sacred traditions. The celestial foundation for the Baptism in the Jordan are discussed in the post linked above from a year ago -- and the celestial foundation for the Odyssey event likely involves many of the same figures.
In the Orphic Hymns, ancient mantras for the invocation of the divine, used by those initiated into the Orphic Mysteries, there is a hymn to the goddess Leucotheia (Hymn 74). Each Orphic Hymn specifies the type of incense to be used when meditating upon that particular hymn and the divinity who is the subject of the hymn -- in the hymn "To Leucotheia," the incense to be used is "aromatic herbs."
In the excellent translation of Professor Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Hymn 74 (which he spells "To Leukotheia") reads in part:
I call upon Leukothea,
daughter of Kadmos, revered goddess,
of fair-wreathed Dionysos.
Hearken, O goddess,
O mistress of the deep-bosomed sea,
you delight in waves,
you are the greatest savior to mortals [. . .]
The hymn proceeds to make specific requests to the goddess, to come to the aid of all those upon the sea -- but note that in the passage cited above, she is addressed as "the greatest savior to mortals" without qualification (the hymn does not say "to mortals who venture out to sea" or "mortals who sail in ships" -- it says "to mortals").
Later on, the hymn describes her as a savior especially of those at sea, but the hymn begins by calling to Leucothea as the greatest savior to mortals without qualification -- and I believe that is because the sea was anciently used as a metaphor for this incarnate life (when we are plunged down into a human body which is, as we are frequently told, made up primarily of water, and when we cross the lower region of the great cycle, the realm of the lower two elements, massy earth and salty water, as opposed to the realms of air and fire above through which the sun, moon and stars travel and were used by the ancient myths to convey truths about the realm of spirit).
Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who wrote at length regarding the metaphor of the sea as the incarnate condition, through which we toil (a "crossing of the Red Sea," he called it at more than one point), argues in Who is this King of Glory (published in 1944), that the name of the New Testament character Pontius Pilate (under whom the Christ suffered) is suspiciously similar to the Greek word pontus, meaning "sea" (as in the Hellespont). He argued that the name originally came from words meaning "dense sea" -- the dense "sea of matter" in which we are immersed when we come down from the realm of spirit to inhabit a body.
This connection has been vigorously disputed by those who reject Kuhn's proposed origin of the name of Pontius Pilate, but the linguistic similarity, at least, does seem difficult to dismiss entirely, and conceptually the idea appears to be worthy of at least some consideration.
In his discussion of the significance of the sixth of January (as the day of the revelation of the divinity hidden in the incarnate Christ) beginning at about page 250 of that book (in the original pagination), Kuhn discusses the possible symbolism of the day, and then beginning on page 252 begins to explore the significance of the crossing of the Great Deep. He argues that this is how we should understand the phrase in the Apostles' Creed:
"he suffered under the dense sea, was crucified, dead and buried." "Dense sea" would have been merely a euphemism, familiar to all in Mystery Ritual custom, for "he suffered under the limitation of dense matter" -- a shorthand expression in Mystery language. 253.
Note also that in artistic representations of the Baptism of Christ (shown in several examples in the blog post on Epiphany linked above), the hand gesture that the Jesus figure is almost invariably depicted as making is one of "palms together" -- the very mudra (sacred hand gesture) used in India and other related cultures and traditions for the namaskaram or namaste greeting, a greeting which literally means a recognition of the divinity in another person, and in oneself.
It is also the same hand gesture which is traditionally used when saying Amen, a word which is also the name of the Hidden God in ancient Egyptian sacred mythology: Amun or Amen.
And note, of course, that in virtually all of those depictions of the baptism scene, in which that hand gesture is used, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove is shown at the top of the painting. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Jesus figure in the paintings almost invariably wears only a sash around his waist.
Which brings us back to the scene in the Odyssey, in which the goddess rescues the long-suffering Odysseus, as he crosses the stormy sea. It is only by her aid that he is able to survive the storm.
This tells us something about our own present condition: in fact, I believe that all these incredible details in the inspired ancient wisdom imparted to humanity in the form of myth were put there to teach us, not about the adventures of a cunning warrior returning from the Trojan War (as fascinating as his story is) but about the adventure of each and every human soul in this dual material-spiritual cosmos in which we find ourselves right now, in this life.
Leucotheia is a goddess who was born a mortal woman. The myths are in fact filled with stories designed to show that, although we do not realize it, we all have a divine component within us. And Odysseus cannot negotiate the Great Deep of this incarnate life without the help which comes from somewhere beyond the material realm, and to which (as he demonstrates throughout the epic) he has unique access.
But, as the Orphic Hymns show us, we also at all times have access to the same infinite realm. The Orphic Hymns typically begin with a call to the god or goddess in question to come and be present, and that is not just a literary device but a request that was made with the expectation that it could be instantly granted.