Milan, 10 March 2018
A couple of days ago, my wife declared that I needed to buy some books since my supply of unread books was running low. No sooner said than done: we popped down into the basement of the large bookshop in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Duomo and I spent a happy half hour perusing their shelves of English books. As I walked off with five or six new volumes to read, I spied a book whose title was “Odyssey”.
And suddenly I was 10-11 years old again, sitting in the school library, breathlessly reading a simplified version of the Odyssey which was written in installments in some boys’ weekly magazine. Week by week, I followed the crafty Odysseus as he and his men sailed away from the still smouldering ruins of Troy in his “racing warships across the wine-dark sea”, bound for Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. I absorbed his adventures, some of which I illustrate here with Greek pottery or Roman mosaics or sculpture (and in one case with a much more recent print because I couldn’t find an example from the Classical period); I accompany the illustrations with passages from the text of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles:
In the land of the Lotus Eaters
Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
their only wish was to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’—
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.
In the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus, who is now in a drunken sleep after tossing down several large bowls of wine given to him by Odysseus
Now, at last, I thrust our stake in a bed of embers
to get it red-hot and rallied all my comrades:
‘Courage—no panic, no one hang back now!’
And green as it was, just as the olive stake
was about to catch fire—the glow terrific, yes—
I dragged it from the flames, my men clustering round
as some god breathed enormous courage through us all.
Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point,
straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard—
and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye
till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft
and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core
and the broiling eyeball burst—its crackling roots blazed
and hissed. He loosed a hideous roar, the rock walls echoed round
and we scuttled back in terror. The monster wrenched the spike
from his eye and out it came with a red geyser of blood —
he flung it aside with frantic hands, and mad with pain.
On Circe’s enchanted island
She opened her gleaming doors at once and stepped forth,
inviting them all in, and in they went, all innocence.
She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,
then she mixed them a potion—cheese, barley
and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine—
but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs
to wipe from their memories any thought of home.
Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly
she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,
all of them bristling into swine—with grunts,
snouts—even their bodies, yes, and only
the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.
So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing
as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,
common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.
Sailing by the sirens
I stopped the ears of my comrades one by one.
They bound me hand and foot in the tight ship—
erect at the mast-block, lashed by ropes to the mast—
We were just offshore as far as a man’s shout can carry,
scudding close, when the Sirens sensed at once a ship
was racing past and burst into their high, thrilling song:
‘Come closer, famous Odysseus—Achaea’s pride and glory—
moor your ship on our coast so you can hear our song!’
So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
I signaled the crew with frowns to set me free—
they flung themselves at the oars and rowed on harder.
But once we’d left the Sirens fading in our wake,
once we could hear their song no more, their urgent call—
my steadfast crew was quick to remove the wax I’d used
to seal their ears and loosed the bonds that lashed me.
Sailing between Scylla and Charybdis
Now wailing in fear, we rowed on up those straits,
Scylla to starboard, dreaded Charybdis off to port,
her horrible whirlpool gulping the sea-surge down, down
the whole abyss lay bare and the rocks around her roared,
terrible, deafening— bedrock showed down deep, boiling
black with sand— and ashen terror gripped the men.
But now, fearing death, all eyes fixed on Charybdis—
now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship,
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
backward over the decks, searching for my crew
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing, high, higher, over my head, look—
wailing down at me, comrades riven in agony,
shrieking out my name for one last time!
Odysseus killing the suitors
With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous …
just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands,
just tilting the two-handled goblet back to his lips,
about to drain the wine—and slaughter the last thing
on the suitor’s mind: who could dream that one foe
in that crowd of feasters, however great his power,
would bring down death on himself, and black doom?
But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat
and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out—
and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp
as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life-blood came spurting
out his nostrils— thick red jets— a sudden thrust of his foot—
he kicked away the table— food showered across the floor,
the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.
Ah, what stories, what stories!
Then, a few years later, when I was 13-14 years old, I caught the bug of trying to figure out the route which Odysseus had taken in the ten years he wandered the seas trying to reach home: just where were the land of the Lotus Easters, the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the rocks on which the Sirens sat and sang, Scylla and Charybdis? Sitting in the quiet school library
I would surreptitiously shove my homework aside – Latin, Greek, French, History, whatever it was – and go get myself the Times Atlas. This was a very large atlas with a lovely dark blue cover. It had maps of every corner of the world, but I zeroed in on the maps of the Mediterranean: the Aegean Sea
the North African coast up to Tunisia
Italy, especially the area around Sicily
and a glance or two across the western Mediterranean to Spain.
I pored over a translation of the Odyssey, which I found in some corner of the library, trying to tease out clues as to travel time and direction. Then, having got some information somewhere about how fast a sailing ship could go, I would examine the maps with furrowed brow, trying to turn this information into travel distance and direction. I read up on competing theories of Odysseus’s itinerary, which had maps looking like this.
I spent hours on this. But eventually reality stepped in. Either my grades were slipping or I realized that it was impossible to work out Odysseus’s itinerary with any level of certainty; I was slipping into the world of cranks. But it wasn’t all for naught: I was left with a love of maps and of the Mediterranean. And from time to time, when I have a chance encounter such as that in the bookshop, good memories flood back of this brief passion of mine.
Escaping the Lotus Eaters: https://art.famsf.org/theodore-van-thulden/ulysses-and-his-companions-land-lotus-eaters-no-5-labors-ulysses-19633015206
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/498914464951224721/?lp=true
Odysseus blinding the Cyclops: https://trecancelle.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/153-sperlongas-archaeological-museum-and-tiberius-grotto/
Circe turning Odysseus’s men into swine: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T35.7.html
Odysseus and the Sirens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey
Odysseus and the Sirens-mosaics: http://marmor-mosaike.de/FK035.html
Odysseus and Scylla: https://releaseyourkraken.com/blog-3-kraken-mythology/
Odysseus and Scylla (reconstruction): https://ontravelwriting.com/places-and-people/sperlonga-sculptures-group-ulysses-national-archaeology-museum/
Odysseus kills suitors: http://slideplayer.fr/slide/3720241/
Times Atlas Greece: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Original-Antique-Victorian-Greece-Scutari/dp/B0088WNU8Q
Times Atlas Italy: http://www.stanfords.co.uk/The-Times-Desktop-Atlas-of-the-World_9780008104986
Times Atlas Libya and Egypt: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~225480~5506188:Egypt-and-Libya,-Plate-85,-V–IV
Map with journey: https://it.pinterest.com/pin/74379831324150781/?lp=true