An excerpt from The Origin of Consciousness in the Break Down of the Bicameral Mind By Julian Jaynes

First Published in 1976

Photo by Michael on Unsplash

After the Iliad, the Odyssey. And anyone reading these poems freshly and consecutively sees what a gigantic vault in mentality it is! There are of course some scholars who still like to think of these two huge epics as being written down and even composed by one man named Homer, the first in his youth and the second in his maturity. The more reasonable view, I think, is that the Odyssey followed the Iliad by at least a century or more, and, like its predecessor, was the work of a succession of aoidoi rather than any one man.

But, unlike the predecessor, the Odyssey is not one epic but a series of them. The originals were probably about different heroes, and brought together around Odysseus at a later time. Why this happened is not hard to unravel. Odysseus, at least in some parts of Greece, had become the center of a cult that enabled conquered peoples to survive. He becomes “wily Odysseus” and later aoidoi perhaps inserted this epithet into the Iliad to remind their listeners of the Odyssey. Archaeological evidence indicates important dedications made to Odysseus some time after 1000 B.C. and definitely before 800 B.C. These were sometimes of bronze tripod caldrons curiously connected with the cult. They were such dedications as formerly would have been to a god. Contests in worship of him were held in Ithaca at least from the ninth century B.C., even as that island was about to be overrun again by new invasions from Corinth. In a word, Odysseus of the many devices is the hero of the new mentality of how to get along in a ruined and god-weakened world.

The Odyssey announces this in its very fifth word, polutropon = much turning. It is a journey of deviousness. It is the very discovery of guile, its invention and celebration. It sings of indirections and disguises and subterfuges, transformations and recognitions, drugs and forgetfulness, of people in other people’s places, of stories within stories, and men within men.

The contract with the Iliad is astonishing. Both in word and deed and character, the Odyssey describes a new and different world inhabited by new and different beings. The bicameral gods of the Iliad, in crossing over to the Odyssey, have become defensive and feeble. They disguise themselves more and even indulge in magic wands. The bicameral mind by its very definition directs much less of the actions. The gods have less to do, and like receding ghosts talk more to each other — and that so tediously! The initiations move from them, even against them, toward the work of the more conscious human characters, though overseen by a Zeus who in losing his absolute power has acquired a Lear-like interest in justice. Seers and omens, these hallmarks of the breakdown of bicamerality, are more common. Semi-gods. dehumanizing witches, one-eyed giants, and sirens, reminiscent of the genii that we saw marked the breakdown of bicamerality in Assyrian bas-reliefs a few centuries earlier, are evidence of a profound alteration of mentality. And the huge Odysseyan themes of homeless wanderings, of kidnappings and enslavements, of things hidden, things regained, are surely the echoes of the social breakdown following the Dorian invasions when subjective consciousness in Greece first took its mark.

Technically, the first to note is the change in the frequency with which the preconscious hypostases are used. Such data can be compiled easily from concordances of the Iliad and Odessey, and the results ae dramatic in showing a very definite rise in frequency for phrenes, noos, and psyche, and a striking drop in the use of the word thumos. Of course we can say that the decrease for thumos from the Iliad to the Odyssey is due to what the poem is about. But that is begging the question. For the very change in theme is indeed a part of this whole transition in the very nature of man. The other hypostases are passive. Thumos, the adrenalin-produced emergency reaction of the sympathetic nerve system to novel situations, is the antithesis of anything passive. The kind of metaphors that can be built up around this metaphrand of a sudden surge of energy are not the passive visual ones that are more conducive to solving problems.

In contrast, over this period, phrenes doubles in frequency, while both noos and psyche triple in frequency. Again, the point could be made that the increase in the use of these words is simply an echo of the change in topics. And again that this is precisely the point. Poetry, from describing external events objectively, is becoming subjectified into a poetry of personal conscious expression.

But it is not just their frequency that we are interested in. It is also the change in their inherent meanings and the metaphiers used for them. As the gods decrease in their direction of human affairs, the preconscious hypotases take over some of their divine function, moving them closer to consciousness. Thumos, though decreased, is still the most common hypostatic word. And its function is different. it has reached the subjective phrase and is like another person. It is the thumos of the swineherd that ‘commands’ him to return to Telemachus (16:466). In the Iliad, it would have been a god speaking. In the earlier epic, a god can ‘place’ menos or vigor into the ‘container’ of the thumos; but in the Odyssey, it is an entire recognition that can be ‘placed’ therein. Eurycleia recognizes Odysseus under his disguise by his scar because a god has ‘put’ that recognition in her thumos (19:485). (Note that she has recognition but not recall). And the servants of Penelope have knowledge of her son’s departure in their thumos (4:730).

Phrenes too has acquired the spatial qualities of Phase III. Even the description of a possible future event can be put in the phrenes, as when Telemachus, as a pretext for depriving the suitors of weapons, is asked to claim that a daimon (it would have at least been a god in the Illiad) has put fears of quarrels among them into his phrenes (19:110). There are no secrets in the Iliad. But the Odyssey has many of them, and they are ‘held’ in the phrenes (16:459). Whereas the Iliad the preconscious hypostases were almost always clearly located, their increasingly metaphorical nature is middling up their anatomical distinction in the Odyssey. Even the thumos is at one point located inside the lungs of phrenes (22:38).

but there is another and even more important use of phrenes this word that originally referred to the lungs and then to the complex sensation of breathing. And this is in the first beginnings of morality. No one is moral among the god-controlled puppets of the Iliad. Good and evil do not exist. But in the Odyssey, Clytaemnestra is able to resist Aegisthus because her phrenes are agathai, which may have been derived from roots that would make it mean ‘very like a god’. And in another place, it is the agathai, godly, or good phrenes of Eumaeus which as him remember to make offerings to the gods (14:421). And similarly it is the agathai or good phrenes that are responsible for Penelope’s chastity and loyalty to the absent Odysseus (12:194). It is not yet Penelope who is agathe, only the metaphor-space in her lungs.

And similarly with the other preconscious hypotases. Warnings of destruction are ‘heard’ from the kradie or pounding heart Odysseus when he is wrecked and thrown into tempestuous seas (5:389). And it is his ker, again his trembling heart or perhaps his trembling hands, that makes plans for the suitors’ downfall (18:344). In the Iliad, these would have been gods speaking. Noos, while being referred to more frequently, is sometimes not changed. But more often it is also in Phase III of subjectification. At one point, Odysseus is deceiving Athene (unthinkable in the Iliad!) and looks at her ever revolving in his noos thoughts of great cunning (13:255). Or noos can be like a person who is glad (8:78) or cruel (18:381) or not to be fooled (10:329) or learned about (1:3). Psyche again usually means life, but perhaps with more sense of a time span. Some very important exceptions to this will be referred to later.

Not only is the growth toward subjective consciousness in the Odyssey seen in the increasing use and spatial interiority and personification of its preconscious hypostases, but even more clearly in its incidents and social interrelationships. These include the emphasis on deceit and guile which I have already referred to. In the Iliad, time is referred to sloppily and inaccurately, if at all. But the Odyssey shows and increase spatialization of time in its use of time words, such as begin, hesitate, quickly, endure, etc., and the more frequent reference to the future. There is also an increased ratio of abstract terms to concrete, particularly of what in English would be nouns ending in ‘ness’. And with this, as might be expected, a marked drop in similes: there is less need for them. Both the frequency and the manner with which Odysseus refers to himself is on a different level altogether from instances of self-references in the Iliad. All this is relevant to the growth of a new mentality.

Let me close this necessarily short entry on a toweringly important poem by calling your attention to a mystery. This is that the overall contour of the story itself is a myth of the very matter with which we are concerned. It is a story of identity, of a voyage to the self that is being created in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. I am not pretending here to be answering the profound question of why this should be so, of why the muses, those atternings of the right temporal lobe, who are singing this epic though the aoidoi, should be narratizing their own downfall, their own fading away into subjective thought, and celebrating the rise of a new mentality that will overwhelm the very act of their song. For this seems to be what is happening.

I AM saying — and finding it work to believe myself — that all this highly patterned legend, which so clearly can be taken as a metaphor of the huge transilience towards consciousness, was not composed, planned, and put together by poets conscious of what they were doing. It is as if the god-side of the bicameral man was approaching consciousness before the man-side, the right hemisphere before the left. And if belief does stick here, and we are inclined to ask scoffingly and rhetorically, how could and epic that may itself be a kind of drive toward consciousness be composed by nonconscious men? We can also ask with the same rhetorical fervor, how could it have been composed by conscious men? And have the same silence follow. We do not know the answer to either question.

But so it is. And as this serious of stories sweeps from its lost hero sobbing on an alien shore in bicameral thrall to his beautiful goddess Calypso, winding through its world of demigods, testings, and deceits, to his defiant war whoops in a rival-routed home, from trance through disquise to recognition, from sea to land, from east to west, defeat to prerogative, the whole long song is an odyssey toward subjective identity and its triumphant acknowledgment out of the hallucinatory enslavements of the past. From a will-less gigalo of a divinity to the gore-spattered lion on his own hearth, Odysseus becomes ‘Odysseus’.



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