Myth Symbol Web: The Odyssey by Homer, John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 242–243
Myth is the oldest and to this day the most popular of all story forms. The ancient Greek myths, wich are one of the foundation pillars of Western thought, are allegorical and metaphorical, and you should know how they work if you want to use them as the basis for your own story.
These stries always present at least two levels of beings: gods and humans. Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that this was necessarily the ancient Greeks’ view of how the world really works. The two levels in these stories don’t express the belief that gods rule man. Rather, the gods are that aspect of man by which he can achieve excellence or enlightenment. The “gods” are an ingenious psychological model in which a web of characters represents character traits and ways of acting you wish to attain or avoid.
Along with this highly symbolic set of characters, myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. When these stories ere originally told, audiences knew that these symbols always represented something else, and they knew exactly what the symbols meant. Storytellers achieved their effects by juxtaposing these key symbols over the course of the story.
The most important thing to understand about these metaphorical symbols is that they also represent something within the hero. Here are some of the key symbols in myth and what they probably meant to ancient audiences. Of course, even with these highly metaphorical symbols, there is no fixed meaning; symbols are always ambiguous to some degree.
Journey: The life path
Labyrinth: Confusion on finding the path to enlightenment
Garden: Being at one with the natural law, harmony within oneself and with others
Tree: Tree of life
Animals (horse, bird, snake): Models on the path to enlightenment or hell
Ladder: Stages to enlightenment
Undergroung: Unexplored regior of the self, land of the dead.
Talisman (sword, bow, shield, cloack): Right action
I believe that the “Odyssey” is the most artistic and most influential Greek myth in storytelling history. Its use of symbolic objects is one reason. To see the symbol techniques, you must begin, as always, with the characters.
The first thing you notice about the characters is that Homer has moved from the powerful warrior who fights to the death (the “Iliad”) to the wily warrior who searches for home and lives. Odysseus is a very good fighter. But he is much more a searcher, a thinker (schemer), and a lover.
This character shift dictates a change in symbolic theme as well, from matriarchy to patriarchy. Instead of a story where the king must die and the mother remains, Odysseus returns to retake the throne. As in most great stories, Odysseus undergoes character change. He returns home the same man but a greater person. This we see by his biggest moral decision: by returning home, Odysseus chooses mortality over immortality.
One of the central oppositions of symbolic character in storytelling is man versus woman. Unlike Odysseus, who learns by journeyring, Penelope stays in one place and learns through dreams. She also makes decisions based on her dreams.
Homer builds the web of symbolic objects in the “Odyssey” based on the characters and the theme. This is why the web is based on male objects: ax, mast, staff, oars, and bow. For the characters, these objects all represent some version of directionality and right action. In contrast to these symbols is the tree that supports Odysseus and Penelope’s marriage bed. This is the tree of life, and it represents the idea that marriage is organic. It grows or it decays. When the man wanders too far or too long in his quest for glory (the utimate warrior value), the marriage and life itself die.