Perhaps the most prevalent practice in the Odyssey as well as other works of ancient Greece, is that of ritual transformation. It is not of course just limited to Classical studies–there is the transformation of base metals into gold in the alchemical tradition, for example–but in Greek it is in the words themselves. We lose this when we read works in translation, and have only the one (usually base metal) meaning; but we need to remember that the other higher meaning is always there.
I was thinking about this and remembering our visit to Pylos on the Harvard trip back in March. The highlight for me was seeing the bathtub (asaminthos) that supposedly is the one where Telemachus bathed when coming to visit Nestor in his palace. Our tour guide, Greg Nagy, Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, pointed out that this was not just an ordinary bathtub, but a kind of altar whereon Telemachus is transformed from a mere human to one ‘looking just like the immortals’. (The full text of his piece is here.)
He goes on to discuss the different meanings of homoios (ὁμοῖος), which means ‘the same kind’, and alloios (ἀλλοῖος), which means ‘a different kind’. (Allos, one root of allegory, is the basis for all that we see as “different” or “other.”) But his major point is that, through the magic of transformation, the “other” came become the “same.” We widen our circle of what we see as ourselves to include the other. And by doing so we eliminate that distinction. We are all humankind; we are all the same kind.
The same with our speech. For example the word psukhe, which is usually translated as “life,” can also be translated metaphorically as “soul.” The limited can also have the other meaning of the unlimited. We can have a life, but also a soul that outlives the life. Like Telemachus, words can also have a meaning that outlives its base metal, that can be transformed into godspeech. This is the real meaning of muthos, myth, ‘speech for the record’, usually thought to be untrue, but in reality the truest speech since it is for all time. This is the domain of the rhapsode, whose speech transcends that of the historian, who knows what the muses know, and who can record it for us forever.