Sacred Play- Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and the Homeric Epics

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Photo by Samira Morrar, @raising_windhorse

In response to Telemachus’ tale of the devastation done to Odysseus’ house, Meneleus, the grieving king, offers him the wisdom of the Greek Age: “This was the gods’ doing. They spun that fate So that in later times it would turn into song” (Homer VIII. 624-625). Now after two millennia, The Odyssey has proven this to be true. The divine “song” of heroic Odysseus, reaches out to us with the same force and beauty that it did to the ancients. But why is it that this tale still communicates to us with such power and intensity? Meneleus is wrong on one account. It is not the gods that spin men’s fate. No—fate is independent of them. Fate descends upon them as the strings of a lyre, stretching from the primordials above to man below. It is upon this eternal instrument, the immortals play their sweet music. And man casts his eyes to the heavens, trains his ear, and laments as the gods dance to his tragic tune.

In order to pierce the veil of the Homeric epics, it is important to understand the sacred notions of the Greeks in relation to play. Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens commented, “[Plato] had no hesitation in comprising the sacra in the category of play…. “God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that’s the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games”… [Plato] exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the spirit” (Huizinga 19). We must pay close attention to what Plato said. We are the “playthings” of God, and “that’s the best part of [us].” Our modern mind rebels against such a claim. How could our best attribute come in being subject to a god that plays with our lives like a child with a magnifying glass over an anthill? How is this concept exalted? Through examination of The Iliad and The Odyssey in the context of Johan Huizinga’s definition of play in Homo Ludens, we will not only see that his definition of the play-element is satisfied in Homer’s work, but that it is this very “play” that exalts the crises of human life into the realm of the sacred.

What exactly is play? Huizinga defines play as “a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary life””(28). Each of these aspects is important to our analysis and must be considered individually.

First, let’s analyze play as “a voluntary activity”. In order for something to be “play” it must be an activity that is chosen. Immediately, a chosen activity calls to our minds concepts of “free will”. But if we are merely the “plaything of the gods,” how can any activity be chosen? It would seem as though “free will” doesn’t exist within this context. Especially so when we examine the inclusion of war, politics, law and governments within the domain of “play.” To further expound on this idea, we can examine the episode of Odysseus and the Phaeacians in Books VI through VIII of The Odyssey.

In Book VI, Odysseus washes up on the shores of Phaeacia, beaten and ragged as “a weathered mountain lion.” There he meets young Nausicaa, the daughter of King Alcinous. The night before she received a visit from Athena, who instructed her to go down to the river wells to wash and prepare her clothes (Homer VI. 130). There she meets Odysseus, naked and “hungry enough to jump the stone walls of the animal pen” (VI. 134-135). The very sight of Odysseus scares off her friends, but “Athena put courage in her heart” and Nausicaa offers Odysseus hospitality in her kingdom (VI. 139). She leads him through the city past Poseidon’s temple, where it dawns on Odysseus he is trespassing in Poseidon’s realm (In fact, Nausicaa and Alcinous are even descendants of the Lord of the Deep). Odysseus has already provoked Poseidon’s anger, which brands him an “enemy of the state” in Phaeacia. His arrival sets up what will be Alcinous’ game.

By Odysseus’ presence alone in his kingdom, immediately the virtues of Alcinous’ religion are set in tension with the virtues of his culture. When Alcinous discovers that it is Odysseus seated at his table, an impossible choice is placed before him. Poseidon swore that if he gave “safe passage to men” he would “encircle [his] city within a mountain” (VIII. 611-614). Alcinous is trapped within a double-bind situation. By conforming to the virtues of hospitality intimately tied to his culture, Alcinous would choose certain death for his people. By obeying the commandments of his god, he would destroy Phaeacia’s ethos. Now it would appear that Alcinous has no “free will” in this matter. He did not choose to be born a Phaeacian, for Odysseus to wash up on his shores, or even to be born king. These things are all given circumstances that he has no power to change. But think on the situation of the “double-bind” before him. An option doesn’t exist for him to not “play”. There is no way for him to sit this one out or not participate. The clock is already ticking and one way or the other, he will be choosing a “game”- one that must be played, not only for himself but also for his people. But even in this situation choice is always present. Whatever Alcinous chooses there can be no debate that his choice was not voluntary, for he chooses the consequences that will befall him. Therefore, Alcinous satisfies both definitions. He chooses the game to be played, while simultaneously being “plaything” of the gods.

Consider the ramifications of Alcinous’ choice upon his people. Alcinous chooses to show Odysseus hospitality, which guarantees the destruction of Phaeacia. Once again it would appear that they are without “free will”. But in reality, they now face the same choice that Alcinous faced just before them. They are in a double-bind situation absolutely. But they have a choice of how to behave in their response. Within the context of “life as play,” “free will” is an absolute given. It isn’t a choice of whether or not to play. It is a choice as to which game will be played. This is the very nature of martyrdom. The martyr retains his/her “free will” and accepts the consequences of the “rules of the game.” Therefore, even the martyr is at play. When you take the rest of Huizinga’s definition into account with the episode of Phaeacia, you can see that the entire definition is satisfied: time and space are fixed; the space of play being the island of Phaeacia and the “ticking clock” set by the wrath of Poseidon. The aim of this “play” is definitely of itself, being absorbed by the inevitability of fate. And the tension or joy resulting in a different sphere of consciousness is apparent in the change to Alcinous’ court when Odysseus is made known. Thus we have perfect illustration of the “play-element” even amidst impending destruction.

Man as plaything” is a disturbing concept to our modern psyche. It is not the way we were brought up to view the “man in the sky.” In our current Western mindset, the word “god” comes completely loaded. Most of our opinions of the Greek gods have passed down to us from St. Paul’s visit to Corinth where he named the temple “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship” as a symbol of these “idols’” impotence (King James Bible Acts 18. 23). Pantheism is looked upon with disdain and Paganism is almost akin to devil-worship. But to fully understand Plato’s meaning, we must attempt to view the gods in the same light in which the Greeks saw them. Even Virgil, hundreds of years following Homer, seemed to grasp their power with much deeper insight and significance: “There, yes, where you see the massive ramparts shattered, … It’s Neptune himself, prising loose with his giant trident… There’s Juno, cruelest in fury… sword at her hip and mustering comrades, shock troops streaming out of the ships… Even the father himself, he’s filling the Greek hearts with courage … Jove in person” (Virgil II. 752-763). These gods were not individuals in the way we think of them now, but personifications of the forces that move through humanity. In that light, we are the gods! Not individually, but collectively! When Aries appears on the battlefield, it is because the blood-lust in our hearts is Aries. It is with this insight we must approach the role of “binding rules” in play.

In Book XXIV of The Iliad, following the funeral games for Patroclus where Achilles violated Hector’s body, Apollo wrapped Hector’s body in his golden aegis, and full of pity, went before the Pantheon on the dawn of the thirteenth day. He addressed them “How callous can you get? Has Hector Never burned for you thighs of bulls and goats? … But now you cannot Bring yourselves to save even his bare corpse… No, it’s dread Achilles that you prefer… Achilles has lost all pity and has no shame left” (Homer XXIV. 37-47). According to Huizinga, “The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt… Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses… [the spoil-sport] robs play of its illusion… Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community” (11). In this situation, Achilles has broken the rules of the god’s “game” and therefore must be dealt with. Huizinga even elaborates that the “cheat” will be tolerated, but the “spoil-sport” absolutely cannot. The very presence of the spoil-sport destroys the sphere of play and this sphere is sacred. It is within this magickal circle or sphere the “gods” have influence in our lives. Achilles, through his defiance, has collapsed the game of the gods; and this and this alone stirs them to action. Of all the devastation and tragedy resulting from the Trojan War, breaking the rules is only thing that triggers true interference. Why is this?

An important aspect of play is that it is “methectic rather than mimetic” (15). This means participatory as opposed to an imitation. The sacredness, the fun, the joy, the anguish- the full range of emotions extracted from the play sphere are only possible with a suspension of disbelief. It is necessary to lose oneself in the game in order to play. Carl Jung called this phenomenon “participation mystique” (Wilhelm/Jung 123). Jung believes that this phenomenon was an important element of primal man. This participation mystique was an ability to join in on tribal rituals, games, hunts, wars, etc.

He also believes that this element has been suppressed since the Copernican revolution and was transformed into the first occurrence of neurosis. Therefore, when man is unable to play, he becomes ill. Plato further supports this line of reasoning saying: “Life must be lived as play… making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win the contest” (Plato VII. 796).

If we interpret the gods and their actions as the anthropomorphized personifications of human values and forces of nature, it will add clarity to what we’re expounding. Apollo, the god of music, truth and the lyre, informs the other forces that the music is out of key. Apollo (Truth) angers Athena (Wisdom), Hera (Marriage) and Poseidon (Spiritual Crises), because Aphrodite (Love) has insulted their natures and blinded them to the ruthlessness of the game. Zeus (Universal Law) changes the course of their energy that their “play” may continue. He directs Thetis to visit Achilles and Iris to Troy (all the while carefully navigating the Olympians to maintain voluntary participation). Also, Zeus’ decision to send Hermes to escort Priam deserves special attention. Hermes, while mostly known as the messenger god, a “trickster” and god of travellers, is also “the god of boundaries and transgression of those boundaries”. In his hand he holds the caduceus, in which “he uses to charm Mortal eyes asleep and make sleepers awake” (XXIV. 366-367). This staff was known for its relationship to healing and alchemy or the transmutation of base metals into gold. Achilles’ actions had transgressed the boundaries laid forth by the gods and Hermes was sent to transmute this transgression into a new agreement between the hurt parties. In other words, he was sent to repair the game.

Hermes opens a path for Priam to reach Achilles’ tent. “Great Priam entered unnoticed. He stood Close to Achilles, and touching his knees, He kissed the dread and murderous hands That had killed so many of his sons” (XXIV. 507-508). It is difficult to conjure a more heart-rending scene than this situation, and almost strange to define it within the realm of “play”. But this exchange between Achilles and Priam is also a game, and exemplifies perfectly the importance of “a set time and place” or the “magic circle” of the play sphere. In the most basic terms, what we have before us is a negotiation. Priam must be gone before morning or else he will surely be killed for intruding upon his enemies’ camp. This negotiation cannot take place anywhere else except in the security of Achilles tent, a hostile, but necessary playing field in which Priam enters voluntarily. The rules are set by Olympus on high, withholding hostilities from either party. The result of the meeting is already pre-determined by Zeus. Achilles is to return Hector’s body. Therefore this is a meeting of itself. And the tensions of the situation have elevated their consciousness outside the realm of “normal life.” It is not every day you sneak into the tent of the man who murdered your son and ask for mercy. But even in this, all of the conditions of “play” are satisfied. Therefore, it is here we can observe one of the most beautiful effects of the “play” sphere- it allows us to be completely serious and therefore emotional.

This scene is “a stepping out of common reality into a higher order” (Huizinga 13). “There is no difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena… magic circle, the temple, the stage… i.e. forbidden spots… are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (10). If Priam and Achilles were not in this “forbidden” and “consecrated” place, this exchange could not take place. Because of this “sphere,” both Priam and Achilles are able to step out of their “public roles” and are finally allowed to let their humanity surface. Priam pleads, “Respect the gods, Achilles… pity me. I am more pitiable. I have borne what no man Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne. I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son… Priam, Huddled in grief at Achilles’ feet, cried… And Achilles cried for his father and For Patroclus. The sound filled the room” (XXIV. 539-551). After this tremendous break of emotion, the negotiation takes place. Hector is released and Homer completes The Iliad with his funeral. The game of war will continue after the funeral rites. Both Achilles and Priam will die. But before the violence, the strings of fate vibrate through the air, striking to our very souls as we are treated to most beautiful music, all thanks to the sacra of play.

The final element of play to examine is the concept of play “having its aim in itself”. This is the element most directly tied to our experience of “fun”. Outside of an intuitive understanding, it is difficult to concretely define just what this element means. Even Huizinga goes in circles when trying to pin down the definition of “fun” or this “thing”. This “of itself” helps to demonstrate its fleeting nature. But it is not devoid of meaning. The game played between Odysseus and Poseidon helps illustrate this point.

From the very beginning of The Odyssey, we learn “All the gods pitied [Odysseus], except Poseidon, Who stormed against the godlike hero Until he finally reached his own native land” (I. 25-27). We learn from Zeus that Poseidon’s anger is kindled against Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclopes. While Poseidon is away, the rest of Olympus has gathered for a feast and Zeus muses with the gods towards ways to help Odysseus out, for “Poseidon will have to Put aside his anger. He can’t hold out alone Against the will of all the immortals” (I. 84-86). Here we are introduced to a new game being played by the Olympians. The entire pantheon has agreed to help one mortal man, Odysseus, to see if he can outdo the wrath of an immortal. From here we derive the “rules of the game.” Can eleven forces moving through one man overcome the full force of a single element? The “sphere of play” will be defined as the sea. It is the realm of Poseidon and he gets home-field advantage. Not only does the sea belong to Poseidon, but every land that either Odysseus or Telemachus sets foot belongs to Poseidon as well. The time is set at Odysseus’ death. And both Odysseus and Poseidon volunteer to “play.” Odysseus chooses his journey by refusing Calypso and making his decision to return to Ithaca. Poseidon chooses in when he declares, “Damn it all, the gods Must have changed their minds about Odysseus while I was away… But I’ll bet I can still blow some trouble his way” (V. 272-291). The game is set. But why play at all?

Once again, it is important to understand what it is Poseidon represents to the Greeks. Poseidon is one of the most rich and wonderfully complex figures in all of mythology. Along with his siblings Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia, Poseidon was devoured at birth by his father Cronus (Time). Zeus, the youngest, was hidden away by his mother Rhea and eventually killed his father, setting his siblings free. For this reason, Zeus sits upon the throne of Olympus. Poseidon, Zeus’ elder brother, was given domain over the sea. What separates Poseidon from the other Olympians is that the realm of his power is on Earth and not on Olympus. He is positioned between Zeus on high and Hades below, where the light meets the darkness. Thus he’s known as “Lord of the Threshold.” In the same way he’s lord over the seas, he’s lord over matter as well; his kingdom exists in physical reality and not the mystical higher and lower realms of the spirits.

From the beginnings of time, man has looked to the sea with a sense of wonder and awe. Life began in the sea where the primordial ooze crawled upon land and offered a fearful shriek that gave birth to the animal. When we gaze upon the violent tempests of the sea, we see a home we can never return to. The “crises of man” matches that of Poseidon. We as mortals are caught upon the open waters, lacking the knowledge of where it is we came from and veiled from whatever life may exist for us after death. We are stuck in the middle and a bridge to nowhere. For this reason, Poseidon is the god of “spiritual crises” and therefore, the true god of man.

It is no coincidence that when the gods gathered on Olympus in Book I of The Odyssey, Poseidon was away “among the Ethiopians, Those burnished people at the ends of the earth” (I. 27-28). With this in mind, Odysseus’ journey across the deep becomes representational of the spiritual crises rising within the Greek ethos. Odysseus (representing humanity) must square off against his own spiritual crises, and although guided by the invisible gods, must face this trial alone upon the Earth.

In so doing, Odysseus learns a valuable lesson and it is this lesson that speaks to us from across the millennia of time. When Odysseus descends to the underworld in Book XI, Achilles warns him that any thoughts of “fame and glory” will eventually come to naught. When Odysseus returns to the sea he immediately passes by the island of the Sirens. He is warned not to listen to the Siren’s song, but Odysseus ignores this counsel. He has his men tie him to the mast and he listens to the song regardless. This passage offers one of Homer’s most valuable insights into “the spiritual crises” of life. It is here Odysseus learns to play. Listening to their song will bring him no reward and could possibly even bring to pass his pre-mature death. But he listens to the song for “the thing in itself”. He listens because it is fun.

At the end of The Odyssey, after Odysseus has faced every trial and reclaimed his kingdom, his family, and his home, he surprises Penelope with a curious announcement: “I must go To city after city carrying a broad-bladed oar, Until I come to men who know nothing of the sea… When I meet another traveler who thought The oar I was carrying was a winnowing fan. Then I must fix my oar in the earth And offer sacrifice to Lord Poseidon… And death shall come to me from the sea” (XXIII. 273-286). What is Odysseus doing? He has just fought off Penelope’s suitors, reconnected with his son, reclaimed his kingdom and returned to Ithaca, where his heart longed to be. Why does he want to run off again? It’s because Odysseus has chosen to continue the game. The “set time” has not expired and as long as he carries a symbol of Poseidon, the “set place” will expand wherever his life takes him. Through his “play” with Poseidon, Odysseus has fallen in love with his own mortality- with life. Through the tensions and joys of “play” he has expanded his consciousness into the realm of the sacra.

Play is sacred. Huizinga states: “it seems to me highly significant that in none of the mythologies known to me has play been embodied in a divine or daemonic figure, while on the other hand the gods are often represented as playing” (29). Krishna plays his flute, Allah whirls around the Sufi dervishes, Christ turns water into wine, the Olympians throw their dice and Shiva dances upon Maya. What are we to gather from these images? Why are the gods, our anthropomorphized ideals of highest human virtue, always depicted in the act of play? Is it not an invitation to join their game?

The realm of play is full of laughter and tears; poetry, victory, defeat- joy and devastation. It embodies all of the highs and lows of life. But most importantly, “play” elevates the existential crises into the upper realms of spirit and gives birth to the human soul. It lifts us out of apathy and allows us to treat life as a gift as opposed to a mistake. Our fates are bound with death, but our lives reverberate upon those strings and echo into eternity. “Play” is our dance with immortality. It is the forces of nature and “the gods” moving through us. It is what creates unity between the chaotic forces of our universe and the will of man seeking order. It is the transmutation of darkness into light.

The genus homo sapiens was coined in 1802, meaning “the wise hominid”. This classification followed the empiric “spirit” of the times, writhing in the aftermath of the “death of god.” It was in these times we learned man is alone- “an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star” (Hawking 1). Just as Odysseus, we found ourselves abandoned at sea. The beautiful, blue “play-sphere” of the Earth is set, and the ticking clock is 2 ½ minutes from midnight. Our rules are bestowed upon us by the “gods” of imperialism and commerce, with a madman, bent on destruction, at its helm. We’ve been given an impossible choice: eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die or build an ark with yet undiscovered technology for the coming deluge. The tensions of the times have elevated our reality into something that feels surreal. This is a very intense game with terrible stakes. If we are “the wise man,” then our wisdom has been made folly. But if we are homo ludens, I could not think of a more noble game to play. Do we learn from Odysseus and fall in love with our mortality? Do we tie ourselves to the mast and listen to the Siren’s song? Because if we do, and play with “methectic rather than mimetic” enthusiasm, we have an opportunity to elevate the spiritual crises of our lives into the realm of the sacred. We will propitiate the “goddess” of freedom that stirs men’s and women’s hearts to the very pinnacle of human genius and she will give birth to a new age of humanity. That’s my prayer and my hope. Though our fates are bound, those lyric strings reach from the heavens and anchor themselves within our hearts and our souls. May the “gods” of our better nature, play upon those strings that “in later times it [will] turn into song.”

Works Cited

Hawking, Stephen. “Ted Talk”. TED.

Homer. “The Illiad”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Edited by

Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.

Homer. “The Odyssey”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Edited by

Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Martino

Publishing, 2014.

The King James Bible. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day

Saints, 1989. Print.

Plato. Laws. Cambridge Texts, 1926.

Virgil. “The Aeneid”. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. A. Edited by

Martin Puchner. Third Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.

Wilhelm, Richard and Jung, C. G. The Secret of the Golden Flower. Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt, 1962.

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