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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 BlissWorld.com, 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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Time Apart

solitude hiking on well worn pathAt the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, there is a great deal of emphasis placed upon community. In Joseph Campbell’s model of the interpretation of mythology, social meaning is one of four fundamental functions of myth.

Yet, Campbell also emphasized the value of solitude and lack of accountability to the demands of community. He once advised, “You must have a place to which you can go, in your heart, your mind, or your house, almost every day, where you do not know what you owe anyone or what anyone owes you. You must have a place you can go to where you do not know what your work is or who you work for, where you do not know who you are married to or who your children are.”

How can mythology at once serve to uphold the community, even as it requires separation from community?

Contemplate this mythological quandry in solitude, but come together to share your thoughts about it in the first of the mythology discussion series in the Adult Religious Education program at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, 9:00 AM on November 20, and again at 12:00 Noon on the same day.