Is Ithaca Ithaka?

A personal note: Joseph Campbell frequently advised his students, “Follow your bliss!” I happen to be working today just a few hundred feet down the street from Bliss. It’s a spa, with the web site name, right next to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Might we find more modern art in Bliss than in the museum?

spaThe very word museum comes out of ancient Greek mythology, a derivation of the word muse, the name for inspiration anthropomorphized into the semblance of a healthy young woman. As seen in the clipped graphic to the left, Bliss has muses of its own.

As I flew to San Francisco yesterday, I was musing on the process of travel, and the odd sensations it brings about. Perhaps the earliest mythology of travel comes from the ancient Greeks as well – the Odyssey.

Our area was established as an echo of the anchor of the Odyssey, the home that was being returned to by the hero of the great epic. Ithaca is named after the home island of Odysseus, and Trumansburg, where I live, is in the Town of Ulysses, another name for Odysseus.

So, in its origin, Ithaca and the surrounding communities were set up to be a recreation of a widely known mythic space. Yet, actually living in the Ithaca area, we see little of this epic in application. We have no annual theatrical production of the Odyssey. We have a street renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but no Telemachus Street. We have a Sagan planet walk, but no Penelope Plaza, no Circe Cinema.

The question I’m thinking about today is why this is so. Why, when the founders of our local communities clearly had classical Greek mythology in mind, have Ithaca and the adjoining Ulysses not adopted the ancient story of the travels of Odysseus as a living part of the local identity?


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9 responses to “Is Ithaca Ithaka?”

  1. Robin Cisne says :

    Simply put, myth is not what it used to be. Homer inscribed what had been a venerable oral tradition, recited in company for generations. This is what myth requires: a universal tradition of story. Our culture no longer has universally shared stories. Television is not myth, nor are YouTube, mass-market paperbacks or high-def Blu-Ray. The last real mythology (i.e., stories that have genuine emotional pull, respected meaning that informs the lives of individuals and communities) our culture has is Christianity, and even that is losing dominance. (Ever watch a UU get antsy when asked to seriously consider stories from Christian mythology?) Our culture is now too fractured to truly partake of myth. Unless you’re some variety of fundamentalist, myth is over.

    Besides, when Upstate NY was mapped, I don’t think Simeon DeWitt was invoking a powerfully felt mythology as much as he was signalling his erudition.
    (Dryden, anyone? Still, one of my all-time favorite signs reads “Hamlet of Varna.” Elsinore may boast of their Melancholy Dane, but we at least have Hamlet of Varna!)

    • ithacamyth says :

      “Our culture” only has the mythology of Christianity if the people you’re referring to in the word “our” are Christians. Maybe the profound discomfort you see when Christian mythology is promoted in the UU sphere is due to the fact that many UUs do not come from Christianity, and that they feel that they’re asked to accept Christianity as an aspect of “our culture” when it isn’t. There’s a false “our” there.

      However, there has always been conflict within culture. Reading on background about myth and ritual, I see that one of the struggles for 20th Century anthropologists was to move away from the static, unitary concept of culture, which supposed that there were single, agreed upon cultural meanings that remained the same over time, to a more dynamic model that recognized that meaning is always contested.

      Perhaps what the Odyssey represents is not a universally agreed upon set of values among the ancient Greeks, but the reflection of the interests of a certain part of society. Others among the ancient Greeks might have resented the Odyssey, and its political implications – implications that we can’t understand out of context.

      My personal opinion is that our belief in a lost age of unified mythology in the past, and the accompanying belief that we have now lost mythology, are a part of a modern myth we tell ourselves about our society, a mythology of a people who have escaped nature, and gone beyond history. That’s a myth that was also told in ancient cultures that worried that the old, unified ways had been lost, and that the age of mythology was over.

      Unitarian Universalism doesn’t live up to its potential when people try to make it unified for the sake of the appearance of community solidarity. Unitarian Universalism at its best promotes the idea that we don’t all need to believe the same things in order for us to have meaningful religious, and mythological experiences. If we can only have a life with a genuine mythological level of meaning if we all share the same background, then the only story we can tell ourselves is a story of doom and decline into meaningless chaos. I believe that we have other options. I believe that people can finding meaning in experiences with difference.

      That’s what the ancient Greeks did. They didn’t live in isolation from other cultures. They grappled with difference all the time. They lived on the Mediterranean superhighway, with frequent contact with other cultures and other mythologies. The Odyssey itself is a story of a person struggling to move through strange foreign lands in order to get back home. Odysseus would never have had adventures if he just stayed bottled up at home, listening to the same old stories told over and over again at his own fireplace.

      Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides didn’t create their performances of mythological works in an environment of unified, uncontested story telling. They wrote their plays for competitions in which other playwrights offered different works. We have the illusion of a singular mythology because the majority of the stories from that time simply haven’t survived. The material we have now barely survived, and is just a fraction of a staggering multiplicity of ideas.

      So, if the ancient Greeks could have mythology in a diverse cultural environment, why can’t we? If mythology could be put up onto a stage, then why can’t it be put up onto television, and onto YouTube? Stories on YouTube have emotional pull. Television shows have respected meaning. You may disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a mythic element. They’re only a mythology that doesn’t speak well to you – kind of like how Christian myth doesn’t speak well to a lot of people.

      Myth is not what it used to be. It is something different. As culture changes, myth changes. Myth that can’t keep up with changes in culture will shrink in influence, in comparison to new myths that arise out of contemporary experience.

      If mythology is now dead, then religion is dead too. If that’s the case, what is the point of participating in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, other than mourning an ideological corpse?


  2. Mary Kirkpatrick says :


    That’s all good, but how do you expect to get a blog going if you come back at someone almost immediately with a post about four times as long? Life is short. Put yourself in the shoes of a reader — we UU’s want to hear from each other, not be lectured to about what it means to be a UU… A simple “Thanks, Robin! Any other ideas?” would be more encouraging!

    Star Trek was/is a great myth. I see a danger these days in negative myths emerging, as varied as “technology will save us so why worry” and “technology won’t save us, so let’s band together in the hills with plenty of guns and ammo for when the shit hits the fan.” (Hey, maybe I’ll sign up for Dan Evett’s flintknapping lesson…) But I am a NOVA junkie, and I do think that emerging science is where new *constructive* myths will come from — new understandings of how we and other species function — along with black holes and dark matter and all the other new hard-to-grok stuff.


    • ithacamyth says :

      Mary, I think we need to get past the idea, in our congregation, that in-depth conversation about ideas is a negative thing. If we’re going to learn from each other, don’t we have to actually speak with each other? The goal of this mythology Adult Religious Education series is to have a depth of discussion that isn’t found in brief interactions like Coffee Hour. I keep on hearing Unitarian Universalists criticize each other by saying “Unitarian Universalists talk too much”, but I don’t see it.

      If I were to respond to Robin’s provocative contention about mythology by saying “Thanks, Robin! Any other ideas,” that would take a great start to a powerful conversation and close it off into a dead end, and I think it would be disrespectful to her contribution. I want to show Robin that I have heard what she said, and that I think what she has said matters, even if I disagree with her.

      In mythology, there are many possible interpretations, and a great depth of meaning. To begin to understand that depth, we’re going to have to do more than just listen to each comment, and then move on without a substantial reaction. We have to talk with each other, and grapple with what we’re hearing and saying, to wrestle with the meaning, especially if we disagree.

      I know this approach is different from what we often see at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. Some people are likely to be uncomfortable with that, I know, but I sincerely believe that more engaged interaction with each other is essential to a responsible search for meaning and honest, critical encouragement of each other’s development. Mythology isn’t about staying in a comfortable place.

      • Mary Kirkpatrick says :

        Thanks for the reply! I like it… I am new to blogs, so I don’t know quite how the balance should/could be; it will emerge, I’m sure, and I hope we have many taking part in the way you suggest. I will think about all these things, and I’m sure I will have more to say 🙂

        Mary Kirkpatrick

      • ithacamyth says :

        Thanks for your response, Mary, and I hope you DO have more to say – even, especially to say that you think that what I’m saying is off-target, wrong, balderdash, offensive, etc. In mythology, understanding what makes us upset or uneasy is really important, and so being open about disagreements in interpretation is essential. No balance is going to be right for all of us, but my hope is that this will work out for enough people in the congregation – and beyond – to provide a core of meaningful movement.

  3. Mary Kirkpatrick says :

    Okay, I could take some offense, to be honest, at your implying that my first comment was not in depth. I’m not quite clear actually whether we’re talking about myth as an overarching concept of morality shared by a whole culture (as in Robin’s view of Christianity as something we Americans no longer have so much in common as we used to) or a good story that everyone knows that has something universal about it — or a bit of both…? ( — or a symbol, like Coke? — what you’re getting at there I have no idea…) Ulysses is a good story — I’ve always loved the bit about Penelope undoing the weaving she’d done during the day to foil the suitors. Come to think of it maybe we’re taking a leaf out of her book by managing to stall the hydrofrackers (so far) — by saying things like the GEIS was inadequate, there has to be more study… We may not be expecting a long-lost husband to return, but instead I see us stalling long enough, one hopes, for common sense and a long-term view to return, and to win out over short-term profit. So the morally steadfast and clever Penelope may turn out to be a better mythic character for today than, say, Paul Bunyan, who’s like: bigger, faster, more trees…

    Mary Kirkpatrick

    • ithacamyth says :

      Mary, I didn’t mean to imply that your comment was not adequately deep. I was only intending to speak about your reaction to the length of my response to Robin’s comment.

      I don’t think that mythology at all depends upon being shared by a whole culture. There’s always conflict about ideas within a culture, and I think it’s likely that for the entire history of Homo sapiens, people have been dealing with cultural differences, and incorporating that struggle in mythology. Subcultures can have their own mythologies, and in large societies, there are mythologies that aren’t known to everyone.

      Mythology can be reflected in stories, of course, but it’s not limited to stories. Mythologies are more broadly defined as systems of symbolic meaning. Joseph Campbell, when asked to define mythology in one sentence, said this: “Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion.” I think we can discuss what the term mythology means for a good long time, and come up with many good, different, answers.

      I appreciate your connection between local political stall tactics and Penelope’s weaving shenanigans. A great metaphor.

  4. ithacamyth says :

    By the way, in the book version of The Power of Myth, there’s a direct reference to the mythical name of Ithaca, NY, with Campbell noting that “somebody in Upper New York State had the Odyssey and Iliad in mind – Ithaca, Utica and one classical name after another.

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