Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey is full of archetypal situations, characters, and events. In other words, it is brimming with elements that seem deeply rooted in common human experience – elements that appear in much of the literature of the world, regardless of time, place, or culture. One example of archetypal events, situations, and characters occurs in Book XXIII, when Penelope tests the man who claims to be her husband. She asks him questions about their marriage bed – questions whose answers only her true husband could know. Odysseus answers the questions successfully, and Penelope speaks as follows:
“Now you have told me the true secret of our marriage bed, that no other mortal knew but you and I and a single maidservant, Actoris, who was my father’s gift before I came to you, and guarded the door of our fine bridal chamber – Now, you convince my stubborn heart.”
Her words stirred his heart to a greater longing for tears: and he wept, clasping his beloved, loyal wife in his arms. As welcome as the sight of land to the few surviving sailors, who swim to shore escaping the grey breakers, when their solid vessel driven over the sea by wind and towering waves has been shattered by Poseidon, who, saved from drowning, are overjoyed when their brine-caked bodies touch the land: welcome as that was the sight of her husband, as Penelope gazed at him, never unwinding her white arms from round his neck.
This passage illustrates a number of common archetypes, including the following:
- THE TEST. Characters in myths and literature are often forced to pass tests before they can achieve their desires.
- THE SKEPTICAL WIFE (OR HUSBAND). Often in myths and literature, one of the partners in a marriage is skeptical about a claim made by the other partner; often a TEST must be passed before the skepticism is allayed.
- LOVE BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE. This archetype is also often an ideal in myths and literature. Since so much of the stability of human societies depends on true love between married partners, it is not surprising that genuine love between husbands and wives is often celebrated in myths and literature.
- THE DESIRE TO PRESERVE LIFE. This is one of the most common and most deeply rooted of all human desires.
- JOY WHEN DEATH HAS BEEN CHEATED. This archetype is the natural partner of the preceding archetype.
- THE PLEASURE OF PHYSICAL EXPRESSIONS OF AFFECTION. Genuine love between two people – especially between a husband and wife – is often expressed, as it is here, by intimate physical contact.
Although The Odyssey is the product of a time, place, and culture vastly remote from our own, most people today can easily relate to the kinds of behaviors and emotions described in the passage above. Homer has managed, here as so often elsewhere, to employ archetypes that make his poem seem, in many ways, as familiar to people today as it was to the people for whom it was originally composed.