The Odyssey in a Bottle (‘Til the Bottle Gets Busted in a Car Wreck Blues)
 
Well I roam from town to town, I go through life without a care,
And I'm as happy as a clown,
With my two fists of iron, but I'm goin' nowhere.
  - Dion, The Wanderer

Happy as a clown? Boy, does that sound out of place. Try this instead.

He who has tried it knows
how cruel is
sorrow as a companion
to the one who has few
beloved friends:
the path of exile holds him,
not at all twisted gold,
a frozen spirit,
not the bounty of the earth.
- The Wanderer, anonymous, Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book

That's better. Ready to celebrate the singular thrill of turning in my wretched, poorly-penned research paper, I did what any conscientious partier would do: pour him or herself a nice glass of adult beverage and watch some Supernatural. Sticking with our recent old school theme, I decided to start with the pilot. And then my ever-churning geeky brain confirmed its long-held suspicion: John Winchester and his sons aren't merely obvious examples of Der Wanderer, aren't just experiencing the Quest, they're living in an alternately thick-n-thinly veiled, (very) broadly narrated version of the greatest quest ever told.
 
The Greatest Story Ever Hulaed
 
Who hasn't read Homer's Odyssey? If you haven't, seriously, fix that tragic loss right now. I'll wait.
 
Back? Good. Eric Kripke and the other writers are pretty smart folks, and I can't imagine that such archetypal imagery didn't subconsciously bleed into their work, for they reflect integral threads of the human condition (conflict, love, family, home, death) that have remain unchanged over thousands of years. From the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu; Aeneas following his destiny after the fall of Troy; Ariosto's Orlando Furioso; Cervantes' Don Quixote; Captain Ahab forever searching for his white whale; the protagonist of Schubert's moving song cycle Winterreise; Rabelais' Pantagruel and Panurge (Sam and Dean? In some respects, yes!); numerous tales of the Old West such as the novels of Zane Grey; Kerouac's On the Road; any number of blues songs, to television's Kung Fu, the notion of the wanderer, of the quest is as old as civilization itself, and that's what we watch every Thursday at 9 p.m.. "Road show" is merely the latest incarnation of this timeless framework.
Back water blues done caused me to pack my things and go,
'cause my house fell down, and I can't live there no more.
- Bessie Smith, Back-Water Blues
 
Truer words never spoken, huh, sisters (and brothers)? The Winchesters certainly did have the tide of fate wash over them, as the gods are wont to do to mere mortals. The Winchesters entered their war, our war, on November 2, 1983. Their home as they knew it and expected it to forever be was gone, and now they have the dubious, difficult double task of keeping the ideal of home alive - for that's all it is now, an internalization of exterior trappings and vice versa, a fragmented whole - while they drive with the vanguard shielding the abode of each and every one of us from what lurks in blackest pitch. So, about that joining of conflict and its consequences, that odyssey...

The Road So Far
 
"And as to stratagems, no man would claim
Odysseus' gift for those. He had no rivals,
your father, at the tricks of war."
 - Nestor to Telemachus, The Odyssey, book III
 
Credit fraud, fake IDs, hustling pool, all small fry compared to the epic drama played out on the slopes of Ilion and the town itself, thanks to the famous rogue's wooden horse, right? Au contraire, for that was a mere regional conflict, whereas here, we've got the apocalypse looming ahead. Only we didn't quite know it back in 2005. Score one, I guess, for Team Winchester, that most cursed of families.
 
"My distinguished father is lost,
who ruled among you once, mild as a father,
and there is now this greater evil still:
my home and all I have are being ruined."
- Telemachus, The Odyssey, book I
 
"Dad's on a hunting trip. And he hasn't been home in a few days."

 
The muse is singing, and through Sam and Dean Winchester the story is told. Right from the first scene of the first episode, we see a father's love for his family lashed and burnt by tongues of flame. He's already been through a war; he certainly wouldn't have wanted to experience another. We know from a nonextant fragment of Cypria that Odysseus attempted to avoid joining the Achaeans against Troy by pretending to be mad. Palamedes exposed his antebellum ruse when, catching Odysseus sewing his fields not with seeds but with salt, he placed the infant son in front of the father's plow, thereby prompting him to turn. Like John, his family was his number one concern, and their life would always take precedence over his. Thus, the Greek taught his son the ways of proper kingship, as John was to teach Sam and Dean the ways of hunting. 

 
And what of Mary? As Penelope, who for three years warded off the long siege of her suitors and thus, the destruction of her house, through the brilliant deception of continually weaving and unthreading a burial shroud for Laertes, Mary, too, wished to protect her children from the war she knew was raging in the shadows by keeping silent about the truth. But, like virtually everything in Supernatural, that choice had a tragic denouement.
 
This mission, quest, thing
 
 "He's gone, no sign, no word of him; and I inherit
trouble and tears - and not for him alone,
the gods have laid such other burdens on me."
- Telemachus, The Odyssey, book I
 
Sam was willing to assist his brother in searching for their father, all but playing chicken with a very important date, his "entire future on a plate." When the case that John begun had been solved and their father again disappeared, Sam was more than eager to go back to his girlfriend and his education; his home. Other burdens were required for Sam to join the Quest and just as Telemachus was finally pushed by the suitors' dark cloud slowly engulfing his home, Sam was pushed by Jessica's death, his surrogate domicile literally and figuratively burnt to the ground.
 
"The son is rare who measures with his father,
and one in a thousand is a better man,
but you will have the sap and wit
and prudence - for you get that from Odysseus -
to give you a fair chance of winning through."
- Athena, The Odyssey, book I
 
"We've got work to do."
 
The Impala roars down the road, fueled by a set of coordinates and years of training, experience and not a little bit of vengeance. John, being a military man like Odysseus, knows to use the tools at his disposal to make contact, albeit limited, with his sons, and these coordinates direct them to cases in more than one episode. The crucial difference that they are even able to remain in touch over vast distances certainly places this Quest in our day and age, but one can be sure that if the Greek hero had had a way to alert his son without having Poseidon hear about it, he most certainly would have. He was, after all, trying to get back home. As is John.
 
So where is he? As Sam pointed out in Dead in the Water, the trail was getting colder but in the next episode, they believe they've caught a break when Jerry Panowski mentions just how he got in contact with the brothers in the first place. Of course, it turns out to be another dead end, and remember the words of Dean a few episodes down the road: "I'm telling you, I don't think dad wants to be found." In time, we'll get a most tantalizing hint as to why.

In spite of Sam's reply to Jerry that he's not quite a match for his father yet when it comes to the business of hunting (a sentiment that Dean silently shares about himself as well, externalized in one aspect through a willingness to acquiesce to his father's directives when he's proven to be a capable hunter in his own right), just as Telemachus was not quite ready to assume the mantle of king and hero, Supernatural inverts and dramatically enriches the father/son(s) relationship by adding tension between both parties. And it certainly helps that there's a second son to further explore this dynamic through its familial and militaristic aspects. But through it all, Sam finds out in Bugs that his father was indeed looking out for him, in his own way:
 
DEAN: Sam, Dad was never disappointed in you. Never. He was scared.
SAM: What are you talking about?
DEAN: He was afraid of what could've happened to you if he wasn't around. But even when you two weren't talking, he used to swing by Stanford whenever he could. Keep an eye on you. Make sure you were safe.
SAM: What?
DEAN: Yeah.
SAM: Why didn't you tell me any of that?
DEAN: Well, it's a two-way street, dude. You could've picked up the phone.

 
Good advice, some that the brothers wished John would have followed in Home, the pivot point of the entire season and arguably, the series. In the process of searching for his father, Telemachus journeys from court to court and hears from Nestor and Menelaus and his wife Helen tales of his father's exploits of bravery and, above all, cunning. Jerry recounts such a success to Sam (I love that movie, too, unseen employee) and in this episode, the mechanic at the garage where John was once employed does the same:
 
OWNER: Well...he was a stubborn bastard, I remember that. And, uh, whatever the game, he hated to lose, you know? It's that whole Marine thing. But, oh, he sure loved Mary. And he doted on those kids.
 
"How can you say we'd let a fight go by,
ever, at any time when we Achaeans
against the Trojans whet the edge of war?
If you will make it your concern you'll see
the father of Telemachus in action,
hand to hand in the enemy's front ranks.
Your bluster is all wind!
- Odysseus to Agamemnon, The Iliad, book IV
 
Nope, no similarity there.
 
In book XI of Homer's second work, Odysseus follows Circe's advice and journeys to Hades to speak with the dead, who will be able to direct him towards the proper course home. Inversion appears again, for does not Sam, the son, speak of a sort with the dead through his visions? These visions are the product of demon blood, the ichor of beings that are, for all intents and purposes, denizens of the underworld.
 
"Yet, it is true, each day
I long for home, long for the spirit of home."
— Odysseus to Calypso, The Odyssey, book V
 
After many travails and close brushes with death, Odysseus was soon the captive of the nymph Calypso and one readily sees a parallel with John where he was held captive by the memory of his wife, of what he had and subsequently lost and the desire to avenge her death and the breaking of his home. But first things first:
 
MISSOURI: John Winchester, I could just slap you. Why won't you go talk to your children?
JOHN: I want to. You have no idea how much I wanna see 'em. But I can't. Not yet. Not until I know the truth.
 
Quite a wrinkle.
 
The island hopping continues in Asylum, this time by phone where Caleb, Jefferson nor Pastor Jim has heard anything about the whereabouts of John Winchester. But they presume he's alive, for yet another set of coordinates comes in, and by the end of the episode, they know for sure.
 
1.11: The Episode We Make Contact
 
Seems you prophesized all of this would end
Were you burned away when the sun rose again?
- Alice In Chains, When the Sun Rose Again
 
JOHN: Look, we don't have time for this. This is bigger than you think, they're everywhere.
Even us talking right now, it's not safe.
SAM: No. Alright? No way.
DEAN: Give me the phone.
JOHN: I have given you an order. Now, you stop following me and you do your job.
You understand me?

 
Their ultimate goal, the reason that Dean came to get Sam in the first place, was surprisingly burned away by the object of their search himself, dissension growing out of the ash. The range of sibling conflict is wide, from such battles eventually resolved like that of Orlando and Oliver in Shakespeare's As You Like It, to more disastrous fare like Richard I and John Lackland, The Iliad's Hector and Paris, or, among the worst, the quarrel between Eteocles and Polynices over the Theban kingship leading to open warfare. Hell, even the bitterness between Ray and Dave Davies was a hallmark over the career of The Kinks. Sam nearly snuffing out his brother's life in When the Levee Breaks à la Cain or Romulus is something else entirely, but thankfully at this point in the tale, we're not quite sinking into those tenebrous depths, for in the very next episode, it isn't John who comes to Dean's aid, but his brother.
 
We have met the enemy and she is, hey, I know you!

"but then someone made him rash,
so that he sailed away to sandy Pylos
to hear news of his father. Now the suitors
lie in ambush on his homeward track"
- Eumaios the swineherd to a disguised Odysseus, The Odyssey, book XIV
 
Aside: Is it me, or could we consider the Benders as this story's Laestrygonians? Tastes like chicken.
 
Meg is a certainly a complex character, an amalgamation of multiple traditions (femme fatale, devoted child, skilled soldier). The trap cited above was for Telemachus, whereas the trap here was for the father, with the sons as bait, the crucial difference being that the forces of evil in The Odyssey presumed that Ithaca's king was dead. Meg knows that John is not. With her demonic powers and aptitude in summoning magic, she could be seen as this story's Circe, a sorceress who was daughter of the Sun, the god Helios. There's another inversion at play for, though she is a daughter (of a sort) as we later learn, she is not the offspring of light, but of darkness, of the Black Sun, that alchemical, and later, Jungian, symbol of misery, rot and death.
 
Her "father" is no less than Azazel, who in 1 Enoch 8:1-3, "taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways." One could say the mirror image of another teacher/pupil relationship, John Winchester and his sons, and observe the flowering element of corruption, the mortificatio of the Black Sun in the persons of Sam, Andy, Ava, Jake, and so on.
 
But is Meg pure, undiluted, nihilistic darkness? "I'm doing this for the same reasons you do what you do. Loyalty. Love." Like the Greek gods, the demons have their own desires (alright, mostly destructive) and foibles and personality traits, save for the endless cavalcade of subdemon number threes. Witness Casey the bartender and even Ruby, for after her two-year deception culminating in the coming of Lucifer - the ultimate suitor(s) who wished to take control of this worthy kingdom, that of humanity - she wasn't about to throw Sam to the side as the discarded means to an end, but sincerely felt that he deserved his reward. Contrast such sentiment with Meg who, even in season five, wishes for the Winchesters' destruction.
 
And we certainly can't ignore one further inversion, the sexual interplay not between sorceress and hero, but sorceress and son, Meg and Sam. Good thing they didn't bump uglies or we'd have a second Antichrist running around. Or crawling, at any rate, though I imagine he or she could throw a mean tantrum.
 
Back in ancient Greece, Odysseus returned home in disguise, whereas John reunited with Sam and Dean moving stealthily in shadow. The three of them together, this is their home and this is all it will ever be, wherever they may roam. But how can this abstract abode be protected? Of course, through other classic tropes that Supernatural uses to great effect, the quest within the Quest and foreshadowing:
 
JOHN: It knows I'm close. It knows I'm gonna kill it. Not just exorcise it or send it back to hell.
Actually kill it.
DEAN: How?
JOHN: I'm workin' on that.
 
We don't see the fruits of John's labors until Dead Man's Blood, but like Perseus collecting the head of the Gorgon, Beren retrieving a Silmaril from Morgoth's Iron Crown or Thor stealing back his hammer from the giant Thrym, these mini-quests serve to propel the narrative forward or foreshadow events to come, as we also see in Sigemund's mead hall tale within Beowulf. The long-term problem for the brothers, both personally and within the wider range of the war is foreshadowed as well:
 
SAM: I know. I'm just saying, what if we did? What if this whole thing was over tonight?
Man, I'd sleep for a month. Go back to school - be a person again.
DEAN: You wanna go back to school?
SAM: Yeah, once we're done hunting the thing.
DEAN: Huh.
SAM: Why, is there something wrong with that?
DEAN: No. No, it's, uh, great. Good for you.
SAM: I mean, what are you gonna do when it's all over?
DEAN: It's never gonna be over. There's gonna be others. There's always gonna be something to hunt.
SAM: But there's got to be something that you want for yourself—
DEAN: Yeah, I don't want you to leave the second this thing's over, Sam.
SAM: Dude, what's your problem?
DEAN: Why do you think I drag you everywhere? Huh? I mean, why do you think I came and got you at Stanford in the first place?
SAM: ‘Cause Dad was in trouble. ‘Cause you wanted to find the thing that killed Mom.
DEAN: Yes, that, but it's more than that, man. You and me and Dad—I mean, I want us….I want us to be together again. I want us to be a family again.
SAM: Dean, we are a family. I'd do anything for you. But things will never be the way they were before.
DEAN: Could be.
SAM: I don't want them to be. I'm not gonna live this life forever. Dean, when this is all over, you're gonna have to let me go my own way.
 
Even their father, bloodied and beaten like his sons, says as much: "You've got to let me go," literally and symbolically. It's slowly becoming evident that the expectation of not surviving is beginning to seep into the veins of John's soul and he wants his sons, his heirs, ready to take over.

Death to the suitors, part one

After a few exceptional standalones, one of which brilliantly fleshes out those early days of war, we begin the endgame with Daniel Elkins, a Promethean figure, which both taught John much about hunting and also had the object of the quest within the Quest, Samuel Colt's mystical gun, the bow of Odysseus bow, if you will. And, at last, the sons are finally reunited (permanently, it would appear) with their wandering father.
 
"He took his fast ship down the gulf that time
for a fatal drug to dip his arrows in
and poison the bronze points."
- Athena, The Odyssey, book I
 
See Sam, you should ask those vamps if they think bowhunting is an important skill. Another important antithesis comes when exploring the sons' differences. Whereas Telemachus expresses doubt to his father in the ultimate success of their plan to take on the suitors, Sam and Dean are the ones that convince their father that only by working together can they eliminate the threat to their ‘home.'
 
On the surface, it would seem readily apparent that, prior to this moment, Dean was ready to assume the mantle whereas Sam was not, but the older sibling demonstrates a willingness to assume his younger brother's view on family, on home, and the accepted course of action to protect that home. We recognize a growing complexity of personality types and thus, a graduation from being merely a child to the heir(s) apparent. Dean, with his youthful, irreverent energy and commitment to combat discipline and Sam's external maturity and rebellion have inverted, Dean now openly disobeying his father, Sam following orders as demonstrated in the closing scene of Salvation. And now father and son(s) are ready to take on the suitors:
 
JOHN: You ignored a direct order back there.
SAM: Yes, sir.
DEAN: But we saved your ass.
JOHN: You're right.
DEAN: I am?
JOHN: It scares the hell out of me. You two are all I've got. But I guess we are stronger as a family. So, we go after this damn thing. Together.
SAM and DEAN: Yes, sir.

 
In Salvation, John demonstrates his Odyssean cleverness, channeling the successors to both ‘nobody' and waxed up ears through an impostor firearm and making the factory's water supply nice and holy. Epic heroes find cunning and unorthodox ways of defeating their adversary and if one wishes to further peel away the layers of myth, one could compare Odysseus being tied to the mast in order to gain information from the sirens (while, thanks to those waxed ears, his crew avoids their fatal spell) with Odin hanging from a tree, perhaps the World Tree itself, Yggdrasil, for nine days to gain wisdom. John's wife Mary was ‘hanging' from the ceiling in between wooden beams and this sacrifice propelled John to a greater understanding with the ultimate goal of recapturing whatever he could of what he had lost: "No, Sam. I want to stop losing people we love. I want you to go to school. I want Dean to have a home. I want Mary alive. I just….I just want this to be over. "
 
This deeply-held, visceral sentiment dominates the thinking of both sons.
 
DEAN: It's suicide.
SAM: I don't care.
DEAN: I do!
 
Sam appears to be the external simulacrum of his father, combining proper kingship and a willingness to finish the war once and for all. Contrast this against Dean as the episode wraps up and their original places way back in the pilot. The fluidity of emotions, one dominating before the pendulum oscillates back with changing forture, the pressure of the Quest and the primal desire for home:
 
DEAN: Sam, I wanna waste it. I do, okay? But it's not worth dying over.
SAM: What?
DEAN: I mean it. If huntin' this demon means you gettin' yourself killed, then I hope we never find the damn thing.
SAM: That thing killed Jess. That thing killed Mom.
DEAN: You said yourself once….that no matter what we do, they're gone. And they're never comin' back.
SAM: Don't you say that! Don't you—not after all this, don't you say that!
DEAN: Sammy, look….the three of us—that's all we have. And that's all I have. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely holdin' it together, man. Without you and Dad….
 
At the end of the season finale, we will see Sam's state of mind swing back once he witnesses the terrible situation they are in, and the wavering health of his older brother.

 
Death to the suitors, part two
 
We are introduced to Bobby, yet another Promethean figure that gifts the brothers their second vital weapon against the demon world, the devil's trap.
 
While Circe didn't wish Odysseus destroyed by the machinations of Poseidon and the seas and creatures he controlled, and Meg certainly desires the Winchesters dead (witness her dismissal of ‘the master plan' while possessing Sam in Born Under a Bad Sign), both are crucial to future events. Circe directed Odysseus to Hades for knowledge, and Meg, admittedly under the influence of the devil's trap and some choice Latin, reveals that John isn't dead, and we discover further information after the successful exorcism.
 
The brothers use this information and weaponry to recapture their father, their home, even inventing their own Trojan horse, firefighters' outfits. And though blood is shed, and Sam's jaw is pummeled longer than he'd like, their father has been rescued and now all that remains after regrouping is to find the demon and kill it.
 
Oops.
 
SAM: I wanna know why. Why'd you do it?
JOHN: You mean, why'd I kill Mommy and pretty little Jess?
SAM: Yeah.
JOHN: You know, I never told you this, but Sam was gonna ask her to marry him. Been shopping for rings and everything. [to SAM] You wanna know why? Because they got in the way.
SAM: In the way of what?
JOHN: My plans for you, Sammy...you, and all the children like you.
 
vlcsnap 00092

Azazel proves himself a master of emotional manipulator, sticking red-hot pins in all their weakest points, channeling Mercury towards Aeneas (for was Dido not in the way of his destiny of founding the Roman state?) and though Dean is able to muster a retaliatory quip, he's no match for the demon's power, nor is Sam a match for the power of home, passing up a chance to fulfill the Quest because he couldn't stand to be the murderer of his father, no matter the gain, no matter the notion of some greater good, expressed by Dean far in the future (or the past, as it were):
 
JOHN: I'm surprised at you, Sammy. Why didn't you kill it? I thought we saw eye to eye on this—killing this demon comes first. Before me, before everything.
SAM: No, sir. Not before everything. Look, we still have the Colt. We still have the one bullet left. We just have to start over, all right, I mean, we already found the demon. 
 
And Sam comes full circle, sharing the evolved feelings of his brother, that nothing is more important than home, which now consists of three hospitalized bodies and a totaled Impala. Unlike The Odyssey, where the goddess Athena helps Odysseus and the families of the slain suitors reach reconciliation, that isn't obviously the case here. Told you that Supernatural isn't prone to happy endings.
 
Epilogue
 
In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home
- Led Zeppelin, In My Time of Dying
 
AZAZEL: It's very unseemly, making deals with devils. How do I know this isn't just another trick?
JOHN: It's no trick. I will give you the Colt and the bullet. But you gotta help Dean. You gotta bring him back.
AZAZEL: Why, John, you're a sentimentalist. If only your boys knew how much their daddy loved them.
 
Even the demons, the 'gods,' recognize his cunning ,his willingness to sacrifice for his family, for home.
 
John isn't the only heroic father to have ended up in hell, for Odysseus made such an appearance in Dante's Inferno. In Canto XXVI, Ulysses is found in the Eighth Circle for the sin of fraud, deception, having tricked Achilles back into the war. Now, he was certainly there in order for Dante to patriotically contrast his wanderlust as being fueled by a thirst for knowledge compared to that of Aeneas who only did so in order to found the Roman state (did not John do what he did for his patria?), but there's also the angle of John himself having committed such a sin of fraud:
 
AZAZEL: You know the truth, right? About Sammy and the other children?
JOHN: Yeah. I've known for a while.
AZAZEL: But Sam doesn't, does he? You've been playing dumb.
 
There is evidence from the fragmentary Epic Cycle that Telegonus, Odysseus' son by Circe, unwittingly killed his father, so on one level, one could say that Dean 'killed' John, but like Brunnhilde in Wagner's Gotterdammerung who immolates herself with the Ring in order to end its curse, he's willing to give up his nearly twenty-five year obsession to save his son, defiant, like the title character of Byron's Manfred, to the last, "Old man! 'tis not so difficult to die." The spirits may not have taken his soul whereas the demon receives John's, but he never falters in hell.
 
Whether he faltered on earth is another question for another essay.
 
Oh I shall soone despaire, when I doe see
That thou lov'st mankind well, yet wilt'not chuse me,
And Satan hates mee, yet is loth to lose mee.
- John Donne, Holy Sonnets, II
 
The Real Epilogue Or, Being the Conclusion Of This Essay
 
'Tis a dangerous proposition interpreting such creations through an anachronistic lens, and I'm certainly not saying that season one of Supernatural is a paint-by-numbers, carbon copy of The Odyssey, but it's my belief that each of us brings to any work of art our own unique perception, our own influences. A word in a poem may have been placed there by the author for an entirely different reason than that which strikes our fancy, leading us to others realms of emotion than what the author had originally drawn upon. Or, more appropriately for the show, think of one of the numerous classic rock songs. For some, they might conjure up particular memories; carry an emotional weight beyond its intended use. So for those, their appreciation and sympathy for the show is going to be a shade different from someone else, at variance with the creators. But this never diminishes the creation itself, only that we enjoy its power in a different light. To this observer, even if placed subconsciously, there are many parallels that exist between Supernatural and The Odyssey (or any number of legends and literary works), but how could there not be, when both tales feature world-spanning drama and epic heroes?