A BRIEF PSYCHOLOGICAL GUIDE
I thought that it might be useful to share some of the broad brushstrokes of the psychology underpinning the story of Finding Ithaka, which I hope you, the reader, will find interesting. In my clinical psychology background, I’m very influenced by evolutionary psychology and this interest is reflected within my writing. I will do my best not to disclose any plot spoilers or key story lines. So please feel free to read on.
The story opens with the hero, Odysseus, receiving from his father the importance of gaining kleos in shaping his adult life. Kleos in ancient Greece meant gaining lasting fame from heroic deeds performed on the battle field which then enabled one to live on in the memory of future generations. This represents the accumulated human wisdom and knowledge passed from parent to child through the generations which acts as an internal map for steering the individual. Although ancient agricultural societies tended to be more static in terms of change, each new human generation can be presented with a different set of challenges and concerns to navigate. In the world Odysseus inhabits, the delicate balance of Peace and Harmony is under constant threat of disruption through Strife and War.
Evolutionary psychology has identified a number of key psychological survival strategies that humans have employed throughout time and also to ensure the next generation (for more details, see Paul Gilbert 2017). In the Bronze Age, Odysseus is born into a world which privileges a male warrior class, where physical strength and fighting ability are a prerequisite above all else for entry into that elite group. This social mentality is connected with competitiveness for resources, predominantly physical such as farmlands, precious metals and territory, as well as security. These are very brutal and barbaric times, without the protection of the checks and balances now taken for granted, such that whole communities lived with the ongoing threat of enslavement or being wiped out by more powerful forces.
The world of Odysseus is a very hierarchical society based on social ranking of dominants and subordinates. Male warriors were the dominant group and occupied the upper echelons, while other lesser valued groups, such as servants, farmworkers, slaves but also women members, were expected to subordinate their own needs in order to fit into this social rank system. Similarly early religion in Ancient Greece reflected this hierarchical structure, where the gods were perceived as the dominant authority and favour was sought through subordinate appeasement.
In the Iliad, this competition for winning and therefore gaining a high social rank, often had tragic consequences such as Ajax’ suicide after losing in a wrestling match. Similarly on the battlefield, fighters didn’t work together as a cohesive unit but rather competed for individual glory, taking bigger risks or wrestling over the spoils of war to gain greater prestige. The choice of mate was also a powerful aspect in conveying the warrior’s status, power and therefore social dominance. This is the reason why Helen’s elopement with a Trojan prince causes such outrage and humiliation not only to her husband, Menelaos, but also to Agamemnon and the whole House of Atreus, as it potentially undermines their elevated social rank.
In many respects Odysseus represents a timeless hero. Although he is a man of his time and not outwardly disobedient, nevertheless he challenges the status quo and does not rush into war. Many of these elements were present when I researched into the original epic stories and myths surrounding Odysseus. He initially feigns madness to avoid going to war at all and then turns up late with a diminished contingent of warriors. He seems to have been involved in an initial delegation suing for peace with Troy, prior to Agamemnon assembling the Greek forces at Aulis. It is also his strategy of using the Trojan Horse rather than brute physical force which ultimately wins the day. In addition, Odysseus is instinctively curious and open to the world with all its complexities, both the good and the bad, getting himself trussed to the ship’s mast just so that he can hear the sirens’ singing. But what particularly singles Odysseus out more than any other Greek heroes is his mental flexibility. He has a prodigious capacity to be able to formulate, improvise and respond to the circumstances in which he finds himself using his intelligence and ingenuity, a very modern characteristic.
By contrast the virtues traditionally associated with female care-providing roles are played down within this masculine Bronze Age warrior culture. Care-giving, care-seeking, attachment, cooperation and altruism, requirements for the successful nurturing of children, have limited value except in raising the next generation of elite male fighters. Indeed it has been suggested that in war conditions, compassion and empathy that help cultivate relationships may be significant handicaps giving those with psychopathic dispositions an evolutionary edge. I have tried to address this in the writing by introducing a strong female voice. Kirke herself embodies these affiliative relationship qualities, traditionally split along gender lines. Even for the progressive Odysseus’ sensibilities, Kirke’s egalitarian outlook and presentation of herself as his equal, are challenging for our hero to accept and tolerate.
In the contemporary story, both social mentalities are present. The physical prowess of the warrior has been replaced by the acquisition of wealth, which bestows on the individual higher social status, privilege and power (Gilbert describes this as Social Attractiveness Holding Power). Being rich and possessing things are esteemed, even though the need to control and exploit people, creatures and the planet may store up bigger problems for the human race. This is crystallised in the notion of hubris, where competitive narcissism or self-interest taken to excess, threatens the delicate balance of the earth, making homo sapiens the most dangerous creature on the planet (Harari 2011 also arrives at a similar conclusion).
There is some suggestion that this present day focus on exploitation and the manipulation of the external world may be due to the way the human brain has evolved over time. In his seminal work, McGilchrist argues persuasively that this shift took place sometime after 650 BC leading to the dominance of the left brain hemisphere, the part of the brain linked with tools, language and the representation of the world. This shift appears to have coincided with an increasing bias in western culture towards the imposition of laws, ethics, systems of government and intellectual thought. Without the right hemisphere to counter-balance and ground the human mind firmly in reality, it is believed that thinking can become distorted by self-delusion, self-interest or detached from the external world.
In some ways, the story presents a pivotal crossroads for us in an ongoing tussle between the old social mentalities of dominance and social competition versus mutuality and cooperation. When I first began writing Finding Ithaka, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet had not yet burst upon the scene which led to a huge increased awareness of climate change and a shift in public opinion within the UK and elsewhere. However as the world now wakes up to the realities of climate change and combating global issues such as a pandemic, it is perhaps those latter traits of common good and collaboration that are sorely needed today.
Gilbert, Paul (2017) Living Like Crazy. (Anwyn House)
Gilbert, Paul (ed 2010) The Compassionate Mind (Constable: London)
Fuller, Robert (2004) Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank. (New Society Publishers)
Harari, Yuval Noah (2011) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. (Penguin)
McGilchrist, Iain (2012 ed) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (Yale University Press.