Review of Why Odysseus Came Home As a Stranger and Other More Puzzling Moments in the Life of Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Abraham, and Other Great Individuals

Reprinted from the C.G. Jung Society of Montreal Newsletter

Review written by Mary Harsany

Why Odysseus Came Home As a Stranger and Other More Puzzling Moments in the Life of Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Abraham, and Other Great Individuals

This unassuming little volume packs a lot of information. Each chapter poses a curious question—e.g. “Why Arjuna Refused to Fight”—with the rest of it offering a response. The book flows so easily that sometimes the reader feels like a child listening with wonder as the stories unfold. Mostly the book offers wisdom, musings on what happens to the great individuals in myths or stories, and why. As a Jungian analyst Henry Abramovitch explores the background to the question in each story.  He also introduces examples of his therapeutic work with his patients, demonstrating how these questions have relevance to our psychological lives. 

Asking questions is an important tradition in Judaism, e.g., Job in the Bible asking God why he has made him his target when he is a righteous man, and indeed most of the individuals featured in these essays are Biblical characters. However, the stories are not limited to the Bible; heroes of Indian and Greek myths are also included.

The book begins with the story of Arjuna, that great warrior in the Hindu sacred text, The Bhagavad Gita. When Arjuna realizes that he is facing members of his own family in battle, he stops his chariot and refuses to fight. The Gita is one section of the much larger saga, The Mahabharata, and from it the author fleshes out how Arjuna came to this battle. One of Arjuna’s brothers, Yudishthera, gambles everything and loses all. He and his brothers are exiled and in the last year of banishment each has to wear a disguise. Masculine warrior Arjuna becomes a woman, a dancing master for the princesses of the kingdom. In doing so he becomes in touch with his anima. In amplifying this story Abramovitch tells us about the Berdache, transgendered members of American Plains Indian societies, and he relates this to the phenomenon of transgendered people of the present day.  

The iron warrior that was Arjuna has learned to develop compassion from his experience with his feminine side. This is why he initially chooses not to fight his cousins. In the end Arjuna does engage in battle, as it is his fate to do so. Yet, he has not lost his empathy as he offers time for his archrival to change the stuck wheel of his chariot before fighting him. 

The longest chapter in the book is “Why Abraham Agreed to Kill” his own son Isaac, when instructed to do so by God. This question is one laboured over by many a Biblical scholar and continues to be difficult to understand to this day. The author wonders if the story is better understood by Christians than Jews, as it prefigures the sacrifice of Christ. “Like Isaac … Jesus carries wood on his back up a mountainside; like Isaac, Jesus asks one poignant question of his Father. There is however one crucial difference between the Old Testament and the New. Isaac is saved at the very last minute, while Jesus, the archetypal abandoned son, dies alone on the cross … For Jesus, death is a prelude to resurrection; for Isaac it is the beginning of his initiation as a man who has experienced Divine Presence.” (pp. 99-100)

Abramovitch ends with the rather bizarre and X-rated story of Lot in a chapter entitled ”Why Did Lot’s Wife Look Back?” Abraham, Lot’s uncle, tried to spare the towns of Sodom and Gemorrah from destruction by bargaining with God over how many righteous people would need to be found for the towns to be saved. He manages to bargain down from fifty good men to ten, but even that number was too large and so the town was destroyed. 

Lot offered hospitality to two angels who came to visit, fearing for their safety. The men of the town clamoured around his door demanding he release the strangers so they could have intercourse with them. Lot staved them off by offering them his two virgin daughters instead! It was these two daughters and Lot who survived the catastrophe. Hiding out in a cave the daughters realized they needed a man to have children; since there was no other man available, one night after the other, they made Lot so drunk that he lay with them without his conscious awareness! 

Salacious details aside, we know that in fleeing from the conflagration of the city, Lot and his family were told to not look back and Lot’s wife did. Abramovitch explains that Lot was a wanderer, a relative newcomer to the city, while his wife was not. It may not be surprising that she nostalgically looked back, but why did she turn into a pillar of salt? In an interesting interpretation, the author relates her petrification to how one may react to a trauma. Often, as it was after the Holocaust, it may take time before survivors of trauma can “look back,” that is, process the shocking events they have lived through. If they do so too soon, they may metaphorically turn into pillars of salt, become numb or stuck, that is, suffer from PTSD. 

Two of my favourite essays in the book are on Odysseus and Socrates, both of which are the subjects of Henry Abramovitch’s presentation to us in January. Why does Odysseus first disguise himself when he finds himself at the shores of his homeland? After long absence home itself may feel disguised, unrecognizable. 

Odysseus, that clever trickster, knows to reconnoiter before revealing himself to his countrymen, and to protect himself, especially from the suitors gathering around his wife Penelope.  And why did Socrates remember his debt at the very end of his life; his last words were to his slave: ”Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” In answering this question the author elucidates Socrates’ attitude towards the body, discusses the importance of dreams, the phenomenon of somatic memory, and the need for a ritual to mark the end of an illness. 

This book can be read and reread as each time one peruses it, more gems of wisdom are perceived. What a wonderfully curious mind Abramovitch possesses and what ingenious associations and explanations he offers! I recommend this book and the upcoming lecture to all curious minds among you. You will be pleasantly amused and instructed at the same time.