The Cattle of the Sun: Solar Spirituality as “Due Respect” in Homer’s Odyssey

The Sun is owed respect — that is my essay.

For thousands of years, the image of the sun has inspired men to emulate it, to shine forth like an undeniable force of power and beauty in the eyes of other men. For many young men seeking to establish themselves, this solar imperative appears as a desire to oppose the powers that be, like a young wolf challenging an old alpha. This adversarial approach is ancient, as is the mythical image of an antagonist seeking to “devour the sun.”

But there is an equally ancient view that approaches solar spirituality in a different manner. We see this approach depicted in Homer’s Odyssey, one where solarity is not achieved by adversarial conflict, but rather through deference and respect.

Homeric epic followed (or rather set) the rules we see in modern copywriting, where a summarizing headline precedes a somewhat more expressive subheading, an explanatory summary of an opening paragraph, and only then a chronological account of the actual story. According to Dr. Gregory Nagy, it was proper form for the epic poet to summarize the thematic content of the entire poem in the opening lines:

The singer was following the rules of his craft in summing up the whole song, all 100,000 or so words, in one single word, the first word of the song […] We see from the beginnings of both the Iliad and the Odyssey that the rules of the singer’s craft extend beyond the naming of the main subject with the first word. In the original Greek of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the first word announcing the subject–Anger, Man–is followed by a specially chosen adjective setting the mood: disastrous anger, versatile man. This, in turn, is followed by a relative clause that frames the story by outlining the plot–the disastrous anger that caused countless pains, the versatile man who wandered countless ways.

Though Odysseus “suffered many pains, heartsick on the open sea” – from Polyphemus the cyclops to the sorceress Circe; from the tantalizing sirens to the deadly gap between Charybdis and Scylla; from the narcotic trap of the Lotus Eaters to the cannibal Laestrygonians – only one challenge is mentioned in the opening lines of the epic: the Cattle of the Sun.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.

(Odyssey 1)

In the Greek, the Odyssey opens with “ἄνδρα” (andra, “man”) and establishes the primary theme of the story. Of the challenges faced by this man, the summarizing opening lines speak only of the devouring of the cattle of the Sun. This suggests that this episode is either the most significant challenge, or else symbolically summarizes all of the other challenges faced by “the man.”

From this, what comes into focus is a story of the relationship between man, the sun, and cattle, one which illustrates both what is meant by the “cattle of the sun” and what Homer believed to be the proper relationship between Man and the Sun. The Odyssey offers a path of spiritual guidance, a starting place for “solar spirituality” as understood by the priests and artists of the bronze age, but which can only be understood by connecting with these opening passages.

Only by learning the language — and therefore the minds — of the ancients will they be able to sing for our time too.

Cattle

Cattle have long been associated with various “sky-father” deities. From as early as the reconstructed Indo-European cosmogenesis story featuring the sacrifice of a cosmic cow, cattle have been identified not merely as sacrificial animals, but as animals associated with and set aside for the Gods.

As introduced by the opening lines of the Odyssey, the cattle referenced in “the cattle of the sun” represented a much broader symbol to the Greeks, a stand-in for the belongings of the gods or of the respect owed to the gods.

We see reinforcements of this understanding in two examples: first, in the Promethean origin of Greek sacrificial practice, and second, in the story of the Minotaur of Crete.

From Hesiod’s Theogony, we hear the story of how Prometheus tricked Zeus in the sacrifice of an ox:

For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. Then the father of men and of gods said to him: “Son of Iapetus, most glorious of all lords, good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions!”

So said Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting, rebuking him. But wily Prometheus answered him, smiling softly and not forgetting his cunning trick: “Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.” So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars.

This trick subsequently became a precedent for sacrifice, preserving the meat for humans, but still respecting–at least in spirit–a known and established debt to the Gods in cattle.

And indeed, we see a description of this sacrificial method of wrapping bones in fat in the Iliad, not as some attempt to trick the Gods, but as custom:

His prayer went up and Phoebus Apollo heard him.
And soon as the men had prayed and flung the barley,
first they lifted back the heads of the victims,
Slit their throats, skinned them and carved away
the meat from the thighbones and wrapped them in fat,
a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.
And the old man burned these over dried split wood
and over the quarters poured out glistening wine
while young men at his side held five-pronged forks.
(Iliad 1)

Cattle are not the only animals sacrificed to the gods, but they are the primary and ideal sacrificial animal, and are the sacrificial animals of choice in texts like the Theogony and the Iliad.

We see this association reinforced in the breach in the story of the Minotaur, as described by Pseudo-Apollodorus, where an attempt to exchange the bull of a God for a man’s bull results in disastrous consequences:

Asterius dying childless, Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another.

But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daedalus, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur.

(Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca)

Here the association between the gods and cattle doubles back on itself; the bull-man that Pasiphaë gives birth to becomes a reminder of the refusal to sacrifice correctly. The corrupted image of the bull is associated with a failure of due respect, just as the beautiful and pure image of the bull is associated with the proper sacrifice, with favor from the gods, and even with the gods themselves.

As the story of the Minotaur makes clear, the cattle are not fungible. One cannot swap a beautiful white bull – a bull sent by and reserved for Poseidon – with an ordinary bull without consequence.

Both the Prometheus and the Minotaur stories illustrate the importance of cattle as a symbol of sacrifice to the gods, rightfully belonging to them. But they also demarcate the line of distinction between the cattle of men and the cattle belonging to the Gods. The Odyssey does not assert this understanding on its own authority, but rather summarizes a deeper cultural understanding of these beliefs, depicting them visually as the challenge of the Cattle of the Sun.

The Sun

Let us turn to the sun.

In the Odyssey, the “cattle of the sun” belong to Hyperion/Helios.

The Greeks have at least seven “Solar” deities. Helios is arguably the most well-known, driving his chariot across the sky every day. Helios is the son of the Titan Hyperion, who also personifies the Sun (this distinction is made in later works, but in the Odyssey, Hyperion and Helios are used interchangeably). The Greeks had goddesses associated with the dawn, with sunrise, and the day – Eos, Elektryone, and Hemera, respectively. One of the most repeated and famous epithets in the Odyssey – “Eos rhododactylos” (“rosy-fingered dawn”) – explicitly refers to this Dawn in its personified and divine form. Although primarily a God of thunder, Zeus also has solar associations — the sun is sometimes referred to as the “eye of Zeus.” Finally, Apollo is a god of light and vision and is associated with the Sun, and is particularly important as a solar god in the story of the Iliad.

The character of this sun — and thus, of Hyperion — can be seen in aggregate across these solar deities. They are not all alike, but are owed respect in a similar fashion, and one can see the consequences of failure to give this respect in each.

We see, for instance, the the entire conflict of the Iliad instigated by Apollo, after Agamemnon insults one of his priests:

What god drove them to fight with such a fury?
Apollo the son of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at the king
he swept a fatal plague through the army–men were dying
And all because Agamemnon spurned Apollo’s priest.

The primary epithet of Apollo is phoibos, which means “radiant.” Apollo is a god of light, as well as poetry, archery, prophecy, and healing. But the earliest depictions associate him specifically with plague and illness, and his role in the spread of illness was the reason Bronze Age Dorians (like the Trojans) appealed to him to rid them of disease. When the priest Chryses prays for redress against the Greeks, Apollo is addressed as “Smintheus, god of the plague.”

The solar associations of Apollo appear almost as an addition, like an appellation given to a god who was not solar by birth, but who became solar by virtue of his powers. His skills are wide-ranging and his character complex, reflecting a complex origin and place within the Greek pantheon. Apollo, in other words, was “solar,” but not “the sun”. His power and beauty made him like the sun in the mind of the Greeks. These qualities render him “radiant.”

Beyond the gods, we see this kind of appellation applied to certain mortals, most notably to the most famous warrior in the Iliad:

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles
.

The word for “brilliant” in this opening is δῖος (dios), which is variously translated as “brilliant,” “shining,” “noble,” “heavenly,” even “god-like.” Achilles is not a god, but he has qualities that earn him a “solar” epithet in his poetic depiction.

The solar qualities of Apollo and Achilles are not qualities of being the sun, but are qualities of being like the sun. The primary quality of being like the sun is visible in the epithets ascribed to solar beings: “shining,” “radiant,” “brilliant.” These epithets connote power and beauty that is undeniable, and which is most visible in absentia, as in when Achilles withdraws from the battle, or when Hyperion threatens to withdraw from the sky.

But this distinction between being the sun and being like the sun must not stop us from remembering that nothing is more like the sun than the sun itself. The sun may serve as a metaphorical depiction of greatness, but as a baseline, nothing “solar” supersedes the sun. The sun is both a source of this “brilliant” quality in the beautiful and powerful among gods and men, but is also a stand-in for this very concept of greatness.

The Cattle of the Sun as “Due Respect”

With these interpretations in mind — derived both from the structure of the poem and from the broader context of the Greek mythic imagination — a more direct understanding of “the cattle of the sun” comes into view. The “cattle of the sun” can be seen as “respect owed to those like the sun.”

We see this theme reinforced throughout the Odyssey.

When Odysseus departs from king Aeolus’ kingdom, he is given a bag that contains the winds so that he can sail home smoothly. However, just as he is nearly home and Ithaca’s shores are in sight, his companions become suspicious and jealous. They open the bag — believing it to contain treasure — and release the unfavorable winds, blowing them all the way back from to Aeolus again, whereupon the king declares:

Away from my island–fast–most cursed man alive!
It’s a crime to host a man or speed him on his way
when the blessed deathless gods despise him so.
Crawling back like this–
It proves the immortals hate you! Out–get out!

This reaction illustrates both a violation and an observation of the principle. Odysseus’ compatriots fail to trust their captain and disrespect him in the process. They disrespected their superiors who are the relative solar beings and brought misfortune upon themselves. But Aeoleus, sensing the dysfunction, respects the gods and sends them away so their trouble does not spread by association to him. 

The most explicit example of this theme of due respect is that of the episode with Polyphemus, the cyclops. After telling the cyclops his name was “Otis” (“no man”), Odysseus and his crew manage to blind Polyphemus and escape his cave. They make it out to the shore, and Odysseus’ willingness to shun glory– which is associated with one’s name–appears to have paid off, since when the other cyclops ask Polyphemus who has blinded him, all he can say is “no man has done this!”

But when their boat was leaving the shore, Odysseus lost his sense of propriety and respect and began to taunt the blinded cyclops. Even the crew began to check Odysseus:

They threw themselves in the labor, rowed on fast
but once we’d plowed the breakers twice as far,
again I began to taunt the Cyclops–men around me
trying to check me, calm me, left and right:
‘So headstrong–why? Why rile the beast again?’

In his hubris, Odysseus revealed his true name. Armed with this name, the cyclops prayed to his father Poseidon.

And so Poseidon delayed Odysseus’ homecoming by another decade.

The anger of Poseidon is, in a sense, the reason for the story of the Odyssey. It is the reason Odysseus’ journey home is an epic story, and not just a few weeks’ journey. The Odyssey is — distilled — the story of a man who, in his pride, failed to show due respect and was punished for it.

This theme is reiterated ceaselessly across the whole Odyssey. We see “due respect” paid to foes by properly anticipating their power and not underestimating them. In anticipation of the Sirens, Odysseus does not trust in his willpower to resist their song, but instead does as he has been instructed by Circe and has his crew tie him to the mast. This is a form of respect; the proper demonstration of respect in this case involves sacrificing personal freedom and autonomy for a brief moment out of an appreciation for the danger he is about to encounter.

By following the formal ritual and showing the proper respect, Odysseus gains insight and wisdom from the seer Tiresias in the underworld. It is notable that in Book 11, the dead seer Tiresias says nothing of the sirens, Charybdis, or Scylla, but warns Odysseus not to harm the “herds and fat flocks, the cattle of Helios, god of the sun who sees all, hears all things.”

Despite initial inclinations to fight the monster Scylla, Odysseus obeys Circe’s instructions to pass by the cliffs as fast as possible:

‘So stubborn!’ the lovely goddess countered.
‘Hell-bent yet again on battle and feats of arms?
Can’t you bow to the deathless gods themselves?
Scylla’s no mortal, she’s an immortal devastation,
terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense–
just flee the creature, that’s the only way.’

Odysseus wins favor and life itself by his deferential and respectful approach of Nausicaa among the Phaeacians. But the Phaecians paid a price for assisting him; angry Poseidon wrecked the assisting ship and enclosed their port with a mountain, perhaps justifying king Aeolus’ refusal to associate with those hated by the gods.

There are also examples of this theme emerging in characters besides Odysseus. Notable examples include the loyalty of the swineherd Eumaeus, and the good manners of Telemachus in Pylos and Sparta. And of course, the nearly superhuman patience and devotion of Penelope. Each of these is rewarded for preserving what belongs to someone else — in this case, not the Sun or another god, but Odysseus.

On the other hand, the Odyssey shows two key examples of this principle in violation. The suitors in Ithaca abuse the hospitality of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. Odysseus is not a god, but is loved by Athena, and has solar attributes of his own. For their disrespect, the suitors are eventually butchered in the palace by Odysseus and Telemachus.

But the most critical and first-named example takes place in Book 12 (the significant middle-point in a 24-book poem). Odysseus and his crew, having narrowly survived Charybdis and lost six men to Scylla, come to the island of Thrinacia. Circe had just warned the men to steer clear of there, for the island belongs to the Sun God Hyperion. But if they had to land, they must not touch the God’s cattle. Odysseus is outvoted by his men, who insist on landing for a while as a reprieve from the toils of sea. After making his men swear an oath not to touch the cattle, they land. The winds promptly stop, and after a month trapped on the island, the ship runs out of food and the men begin to starve. While Odysseus was asleep, the men decided they’d rather drown then starve to death:

Listen to me, my comrades, brothers in hardship.
All ways of dying are hateful to us poor mortals,
true, but to die of hunger, starve to death–
that’s the worst of all. So up with you now,
let’s drive off the pick of Helios’ sleek herds,
slaughter them to the gods who rule the skies up there.
If we ever make it home to Ithaca, native ground,
erect at once a glorious temple to the Sungod,
line the walls with hoards of dazzling gifts!
But if the Sun, inflamed for his longhorn cattle,
means to wreck our ship and the other gods pitch in–
I’d rather die at sea, with one deep gulp of death,
Than die by inches on this desolate island here!”

The men captured some of the cattle, killed and ate them, in a sacrificial manner. But as with the Poseidon’s bull for king Minos, a sacrifice does not serve as atonement and does not justify taking what belonged to the Sun. When Odysseus awoke, he upbraided his men for breaking their oath, but there was no way to un-kill the animals. After a week of eating the god’s cattle, the winds returned and the men set out. But Hyperion threatened to withdraw his sunlight from the sky if Zeus did not repay the blood with blood. As the men set out, Zeus darkened the sea and the sky, and struck the craft with his thunderbolt:

…Helios burst out in rage to all immortals:
‘Father Zeus! the rest of you blissful gods who never die–
punish them all, that crew of Laertes’ son Odysseus–
what an outrage! They, they killed my cattle,
The great joy of my heart… day in, day out,
when I climbed the starry skies and when I wheeled
back down from the heights to touch the earth once more.
Unless they pay me back in blood for the butchery of my herds,
down I go to the House of Death and blaze among the dead!’
But Zeus who marshals the thunderheads insisted,
‘Sun, you keep on shining among the deathless gods
and mortal men across the good green earth.
And as for the guilty ones, why, soon enough
on the wine-dark sea I’ll hit their racing ship
with a white-hot bolt, I’ll tear it to splinters.’

All aboard died except Odysseus.

Heroic Idealism and Solar Idealism

The “due respect” we see throughout the Odyssey can be seen as the initial phase of a process by which one achieves a kind of theosis — the transformative union with God or godliness. A similar aspiration is seen in the Iliad, but the approach in the Odyssey is very different from that taken by the Iliadic warriors at Troy.

In the Iliad, aspiring warriors pursued immortality by means of what can be called “heroic idealism.” To the thumotic young warrior, the stories and songs of great men are, in a sense, more real than the mundane physical reality of life — not merely because real life is mundane, but because it is also transient, whereas great stories offer kleos aphthiton, “unwilting glory,” which is never forgotten. The Homeric hero of the Iliad aspires to live in this linguistic domain of glorious song, the price of which is his life… but life is not enough. He must take arms against a sea of troubles, against a force far greater than himself.

The Iliad contains numerous passages in which a character becomes daimoni isos, “equal to a god,” but this moment of glory is usually achieved by challenging a god, and almost always immediately anticipates death:

Three times Patroclus charged the jut of the high wall,
three times Apollo battered the man and hurled him back,
the god’s immortal hands beating down on the gleaming shield.
Then at Patroclus’ fourth assault like something superhuman [īsos daimōn],
The god shrieked down his winging words of terror: “Back–
Patroclus, Prince, go back! It is not the will of fate
that the proud Trojans’ citadel fall before your spear,
not even before Achilles–far greater man than you!”

Patroclus is pursuing the heroic glory of the Iliadic hero by antagonizing a God, who — upon the fourth charge — kills Patroclus. In this way, Patroclus achieves heroic immortality, alongside Achilles, in the greatest epic poem in the Western tradition.

But in the Odyssey, we see signs of uncertainty over the desirability of this aim, or at least of this method. When Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld, the greatest of the Iliadic heroes expresses deep regret over this path:

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
‘No winning words about death to me, shining [phaidim] Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.’

Perhaps as significant as Achilles’ regret is the epithet he gives to Odysseus: phaidim (from phaidimos). The term means “shining” or “radiant,” and pronounces a god-like [daimoni isos] quality in Odysseus, who did not fight the gods but respected them.

This quality could be taken as an observation of the god-like quality of the living compared to the dead — Achilles is, after all, among the dead in this scene.

But we see similar transformations that elevate mortals not merely above the dead, but above other mortals. Two such transformations, in fact, bookend the Odyssey. First, we see Telemachus transformed in the first book. The goddess Athena arrives in Ithaca disguised as an old man, speaks with Odysseus’ son Telamachus, and then departs:

off and away Athena the bright-eyed goddess flew
like a bird in soaring flight
but left his spirit filled with nerve and courage,
charged with his father’s memory more than ever now.
He felt his senses quicken, overwhelmed with wonder–
this was a god, he knew it well and made at once
for the suitors, a man like a god [isotheos] himself.

This god-like transformation of Telemachus is not a prelude to death, nor is the transformation of Odysseus’ father, Laertes, that we find in Book 24. After reuniting with his son Odysseus, the disheveled and ragged old man takes a bath and emerges an entirely different person:

Before they ate, the Sicilian serving-woman
bathed her master, Laertes–his spirits high
in his own room–and rubbed him down with oil
and round his shoulders drew a fresh new cloak.
And Athena stood beside him, fleshing out the limbs
of the old commander, made him taller to all eyes,
His build more massive, stepping from his bath,
so his own son gazed at him, wonderstruck–
Face-to-face he seemed a deathless god [àthanátoisi theois ènalígkion]. . .
“Father” –Odysseus’ words had wings–“surely
one of the everlasting gods has made you
taller, stronger, shining in my eyes!”

For both Telemachus and Laertes, this god-like transformation is brought about by connection with Odysseus, not by antagonizing the gods so as to become glorious martyrs, as seen throughout the Iliad. Similarly, Achilles’ address of “shining” Odysseus comes just after Odysseus has reconnected with his dead mother. In each case, these mental connections are facilitated, usually by the goddess Athena.

What we see then is a kind of solar path of theosis, one that begins by respecting the cattle of the sun, rather than taking arms against the gods. This deferential respect for the gods and the god-like protects the man from the wrath of Sun, and also leads to a mental connection. This is simultaneously a connection with the respected higher powers and a connection with others, which the gods facilitate.

This solar theosis can itself be thought of as a kind of idealism, for the connections which exist in the mind are not exactly “real” in the physical sense — and yet they exist in the world of the living. Though these connections sometimes incorporate the glorious dead, solar idealism is not limited to the dead like the idealism of the hero because it does not begin with confrontation with the immortal. Rather, it begins with deference, with “due respect” for the sun and the cattle of the sun. Through this deferential respect, the man establishes mental connection; through mental connection, the man can shine like the gods who love him for his piety.

Solar Idealism Today

We see much of the antagonistic, heroic impulse in youth culture today, and there is no reason to assume that this tendency is unique to our time. Indeed, works from the past give us every reason to believe it was as prevalent in 1200 BC as it is now. Punk anarchists and counter-cultural hippies have probably always been with us. It is an expression of thumos, of that passionate spiritedness that seeks recognition and glory. These people will always be with us, and as Homer tells us, most of them cannot be saved:

the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools [nepioi], they devoured the cattle of the Sun
And the Sungod wiped from sight the day of their return.

“Nepioi” is translated by Fagles as “fools,” and Greg Nagy translates the term as “the disconnected.” But the most literal translation is “children,” and conveys a kind of unregulated desire that we might associate with children.

To embrace the solar idealism of Odysseus, then, appears to be a rejection of the childish impulse that drives heroic idealism. It is more mature, more circumspect, more realistic because it begins with the real world, and not with abstractions.

It would be unrealistic (even “heroic,” with all the tragic connotations of that word) to try to save everyone from this thumotic desire that so often leads to self-destruction. But for today’s young men with an ear for the most respected and highly praised of the past — among which Homer is supreme — there may be wisdom in perceiving this juxtaposition of the heroic and the solar approaches of theosis, and where those who pursued each found themselves. For most of the men who died on the fields of Troy, glory was not achieved, and was not worth it to those who were glorified. But for the more mature man who did not “fight the power” and the Gods themselves, but respected them, glorification and theosis became possible, despite becoming “no man.”

In today’s world, such a solar path might begin by recognizing and respecting the power of existing institutions.

In theory, when these institutions deviate from their source — from a “higher god,” — then they lose their legitimacy and take what is not theirs. The principle of solar deference may call for fasting from the ill-gotten harvest of illegitimate credence, because the grounding principle of legitimacy is a greater, brighter, more powerful god than the institution.

But the story of Odysseus does not call on young men to go looking for these deviations, and jumping into the ring with one’s name blazoned high on a “death-or-glory” war-banner. The solar character of Odysseus is one of overt deference, even to those unworthy of such respect. In the case of the suitors, this anticipates and facilitates their massacre; in the case of disguised Athena, it earns greater aid and avoids offending a powerful Olympian god.

In a similar manner, Iliadic heroism fuels an impulse to oppose and antagonize great powers. These powers may be deemed false or malicious, but are nevertheless acknowledged as powerful. By opposing them, the naive young hero does not end them. But he may end himself.

The solar path is more strategic whether dealing with friends or foes, and especially in circumstances of ambiguity.

The path of solar deference stands apart from the heroic path in the spiritual domain as well. The hero approaches the gods as equals. Like Phaethon or Icarus falling from the sky, he is struck down for his hubris — this is his goal and perhaps a worthwhile sacrifice. But the hero who sees the high gods as equals has no room for improvement or transformation. He is only what he has been made, and is therefore guided by fate, as are all the Iliadic heroes. Brilliant Achilles is godlike because of forces beyond his control.

Shining Odysseus radiates because deference guides his eyes upward, and connection with greatness brings greatness. Whereas heroism reveals greatness among demi-gods, solar spirituality creates greatness in mortals with no divine lineage. Solar deference creates men who shine like the sun in their excellence, connected as they are with the greatness that they respect.

But to accomplish such a transformative connection, one must abstain from the hubris of taking what belongs to the gods, and from devouring the cattle of the sun.


Images created with MidJourney AI by Jack Donovan

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C.B. Robertson is the author of Letter to Anwei, Holy Nihilism, and forthcoming The Hero and the Man. He lives with his wife and children in the Inland Northwest.