Grove Koger – Uncertain Landfalls: In Search of Odysseus

Grove Koger
Uncertain Landfalls: In Search of Odysseus

Along with a myriad translations into a myriad languages, a small library of books have been written about the Odyssey, one of the two ancient Greek epics credited to a Greek poet named Homer.
      But we don’t know whether Homer actually existed, or even when, although the epics themselves seem to have assumed their final form in the eighth century BCE. We don’t know how much of the works he (or she) might actually have composed, but it seems likely that they combine individual traditions that had been handed down orally for generations. In the case of the Odyssey, we have no reason to think that Odysseus (or, to use the Latinized form of his name, Ulysses) actually existed or, if he did, that he underwent any of the experiences that he’s credited with. We can be sure that he and his men didn’t encounter a one-eyed Cyclops, but, on the other hand, his voyage from Troy just might reflect ancient Greek sailing techniques and knowledge of actual places.
      As Ernle Bradford puts it in Ulysses Found (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), ‘Anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the Odyssey is likely to ask himself…whether the whole poem must be regarded as fiction or may have some basis in fact.’
      People have been asking themselves that question for millennia, and their answers have ranged widely. Ancient Greek geographer Strabo thought that some of the locations in the Odyssey lay in the Atlantic Ocean, beyond what we know as the Strait of Gibraltar. Closer to our own day, nineteenth-century Belgian lawyer Théophile Cailleux argued for similar settings, and placed Troy on the coast of Great Britain. Serbian commentators have identified the locations of Odysseus’ adventures within the Adriatic Sea, which, after all, lies within a few days sailing time of Odysseus’ home on the Ionian island of Ithaca. A Brazilian professor thinks that Odysseus reached South America.
      I’ve mentioned Bradford because, of the legion of writers on the subject, he was one of the few with sea legs. A veteran of the Royal Navy, he could boast of experience aboard vessels ranging from a twenty-ton cutter to fishing boats. ‘For at least three years,’ he writes, ‘I sailed the Mediterranean with the Odyssey in one hand and the charts and Admiralty Pilots … in the other.’
      There’s little point in trying to work out the details of the exact route Odysseus and his men might have taken as they sailed down the Aegean Sea from Troy. Their goal lay off the western coast of Greece, so it would have been necessary to round the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula. However, a north wind carried them southward past the peninsula, and nine desperate days later they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters. And it’s here, as Bradford admits, that both he and Odysseus are ‘entering upon a world of speculation.’ Having said that, Bradford makes the traditional identification of the land of the Lotus-Eaters with the Tunisian island of Djerba, which lies far to the southwest on the African coast. As for the forgetfulness-inducing fruit itself, he suggests that the sweet, plum-like Cordia myxa or the jujube, Rhamnus ziziphus, might fit the bill, although here his guess is no more convincing than anyone else’s.
      The route of the Greeks’ eventual escape lay to the northeast, toward Ithaca. Instead, they reached the land of the Cyclopes—and it’s at this point that they may have re-entered a geographically identifiable world.
      ‘I find that the navigations of Ulysses from now on bear the distinct hallmark of truth,’ Bradford explains. ‘So many of the places, weather conditions, and even geographical descriptions seem to be accurate.’ He goes on to identify the land of the Cyclopes as the western shore of Sicily, and the much smaller island where the hungry Greeks slaughtered goats as Favignana. Lying about four miles off Sicily itself, Favignana was, it turns out, actually known as Goat Island in classical times!
      Still striving to reach Ithaca, the Greeks next made landfall on the island of Aeolus, King of the Winds. Bradford argues in this case for the little island of Ustica north of Sicily. He thinks that the hapless Greeks were then blown northwestward to the port of Bonifacio in southernmost Corsica, where they encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. When they made their way eastward once again, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, they reached Circe’s island, which Bradford identifies as Cape Circeo on the coast of Italy. While Cape Circeo is not an island, Bradford points out that, from a distance, it appears to be one.
      The next leg of Odysseus’ travels took him (in Robert Fagles’ 1996 Viking translation) to ‘the outer limits, the Ocean River’s bounds’—in other words, to the edge of the known world. Bradford explains that the ancient Greeks had no direct knowledge of the western Mediterranean or the Strait of Gibraltar. They had, however, heard frightening stories from the Phoenicians, who controlled those seas and aimed to keep others out. Bradford also suspects that this episode, in which Odysseus visits the underworld, represents a separate tradition that Homer incorporated into the larger framework of his epic.
      Odysseus’ remaining adventures return us to a recognizable world. Bradford argues for the Li Galli Islands (otherwise known, suggestively, as the Sirenusas) off the southwestern coast of Italy as the lair of the deadly Sirens. He then identifies the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the toe of the Italian boot, as the setting in which the Greeks encountered the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and the island of the Sun God as Sicily itself. Calypso’s island is Malta or nearby Gozo, both of which lie directly south of Sicily—another traditional identification. From there, a course of east by northeast would have taken Odysseus home.
      Bradford’s reconstruction is something of a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, but he argues from personal experience. It is, after all, the ‘accuracy of the framework’ of the poem that concerns him. The same could be said of another British writer/sailor, Tim Severin, whose book The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey (Hutchinson, 1987) also attempts to retrace Odysseus’ route.
      Severin specialized in actual recreations of epic voyages, and was a winner of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He also had a particular advantage: he was sailing a 54-foot replica of a Bronze Age galley. His expedition turns out to be a circumscribed one confined to the waters of Greece and the African coat south of Greece. But he concludes to his own satisfaction, that ‘the Odyssey is demonstrably true to the realities of sailing and rowing a galley in the Mediterranean.’
      Severin agrees with Bradford and others that a strong north wind blew Odysseus’ fleet past the Peloponnesian Peninsula. He believes that they continued southward under a ‘controlled drift’ for nine days until they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters on the coast of what is now Libya. This location is much farther east than Bradford and others have argued for, but Severin believes that most commentators have misjudged the abilities of the Bronze age Greeks.
      When it comes to the actual fruit that the Lotus-Eaters consumed, Severin, like Bradford, suggests the jujube, but adds that ‘why it was supposed to make men lose their memories is not clear.’ The problem identifying the lotus highlights the dilemma that any writer on the subject of Odysseus faces: what to accept as possibly genuine and what to ignore as folkloristic embellishment.
      Since Severin locates the land of the Lotus Eaters farther east than other commentators, he places the land of the Cyclopes farther east as well, on the southwestern coast of Crete. He then makes the case for the island of King Aeolus as tiny Gramvousa, off the northwestern corner of Crete. According to the Odyssey, it was here that Aeolus gave Odysseus a leather bag holding the winds—a bag that the foolish sailors later opened while Odysseus slept. Gramvousa was once known as Korykos, which might seem to be of little consequence except that a korykos signified a leather bag to the ancient Greeks!
      Where was the land of the Laestrygonian giants? Severin finds a possibility in the harbour of Mezapo on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. And Circe’s island? The little Ionian island of Paxos fits the bill. But Paxos lies farther north than Ithaca, as do the remaining sites that Severin links to Odysseus’ voyage. The renowned wanderer seems to have ‘sailed straight by his homeland.’ How can that be?
      Severin believes that here we’re reading another interpolation, a ‘separate cycle of tales’ involving the Ionian Islands. He finds confirmation among the geographical features of particular islands and the folktales associated with them, but he doesn’t explain the skewed geographical order of these final adventures.
      Severin supplies a more satisfying answer to a larger question: How did the ‘sites of Ulysses’ adventures, which are first on the logical coasting route homeward-bound from Troy and then in his native archipelago, come to be transferred hundreds of miles [as in Bradford’s reconstruction] to the western Mediterranean?’ He theorizes that as the Greeks spread westward into Sicily and southern Italy, ‘they took their folktales with them,’ pushing the mysterious edge of the world farther and farther west.
      Severin’s reconstruction of Odysseus’ travels is a departure from previous ones, and, after Bradford’s Grand Tour, it’s something of a letdown. That’s no argument against its validity, of course, and it’s not the last word on a subject that, after all, can have no last word. It would be gratifying to listen to Bradford and Severin debate the subject some evening in a seaside taverna, but, alas, Bradford died in 1986 and Severin in 2020.
      And that, in turn, leads to yet another consideration. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that at the moment of his death, Shakespeare learned from God that he, like God Himself, was ‘everything and nothing.’ Studied and debated for millennia not just by geographers and explorers but by novelists, poets, anthropologists and philosophers as well, Odysseus, it seems, is everywhere and nowhere.                        AQ

Bob Ward – Frontiers

Bob Ward
Frontiers

Halfway up a mountain we stepped from a swaying cable-car onto a narrow platform, a transfer point where uneasily we boarded another swaying cable car which would take us near the top. It was difficult knowing where a steady point in the world might be.

The mountain was the Zugspitze which straddles the frontier between Austria and Germany. As an act of amiable diplomacy, an Austrian Emperor had gifted a spare alpine peak to his German counterpart who could lay no claim to any mountain reaching 10,000 ft in altitude. A line was given a nudge aside on the maps.

We were making our approach from Erwald, an alpine village on the Austrian side. The second cable car brought us to a mountain hut established for skiing, still in Austria. Our intention was to walk into German territory, then make our way back down the mountain to our base. What that involved was unexpected. We had to pass through a dimly lit tunnel hewed from the solid rock. When we set out the walls were slippery with ice. There was only just enough head room as we walked in single file, on and on. Then we reached a plain blue wooden door, which we needed to pass beyond. It opened readily enough, and we entered Germany. This was the frontier: no border guards, no passports, no delays. Deep in the bowels of a mountain we had moved from one country into another with its distinct legal system, even if the language was held in common.

How deeply do national frontiers go? At the centre of the Earth they must all converge on a point and become irrelevant. Conversely how high do they rise? In outer Earth-space there seems to be a free for all where anyone can toss up a satellite.

Eventually we came out into daylight at the top of an enormous scree slope dropping away in front of us. As mountains weather under the action of frost and snow, ice gets into cracks in the rock and flakes pieces away. Trying to find secure footholds where the scree was liable to shift, we picked our way down the slope, noting that even at this altitude in such a barren terrain a few plants managed to grow.

Our immediate destination was a mountain hut, (currently assailed by bedbugs). Refreshments would be available there, much needed after what was already becoming a strenuous walk. So, this was indeed Germany, for some of us a first entry. To mark the occasion, at the hut we made sure to sign the Visitor’s Book, a trivial sort of act yet it felt significant at the time. When arriving in the USA I had to allow the border official to take a mug shot but I didn’t leave my signature anywhere to show that I’d been.

After a rest we spent the rest of the day descending the mountain on foot to return to our base. Rough paths led us up to a long ridge, an arête, which must have provided the frontier, though not marked in any way. This was the back door into another country. The route up to the ridge was steep. On the other side the slope fell away sharply. We had to edge down a series of steps holding onto a reassuring fixed rope. But the final step proved very deep and at that point the rope ran out which did nothing for the more nervous members of our party. Beyond that we just had a long trudge descending to Erwald, where the cows were let out in the mornings to saunter along the main road down to their meadow. Later in the day they would return unaccompanied to the security of each one’s own stall, just a stone frontier between them and the humans next door.

Perry McDaid – Landscapes of Memory

Landscapes of Memory
by Perry McDaid

The first time I saw our new home, I was buzzing with excitement. There was a football pitch beside us where the children were allowed to play, and what looked like a mains leak proved to be an overflowing burn which gurgled between a break in the houses offering a glimpse of a woody lane.

I wanted to explore immediately, but mother insisted she check the lay of the land first, saying hello to the neighbours and sifting through the small talk for vital information on where children were allowed to play: the grass of the park near our previous one-room home being off-limits to children, and the parkie wasn’t shy of laying about himself with an old blackthorn stick.

I didn’t mind the delay. There was such a lot of garden at the front and gable of our house that it dizzied me. Francis street – our old hovel – had a front door which would have brushed the pedestrians off the pavement had it opened outwards, and the only greenery was either off-limits inside the gates of Brooke Park and Saint Eugene’s Cathedral grounds or on the dinner plates.

In this comparative palace there was plenty to roll about in, play in, and… Good God, there was a back garden as well. I had to run indoors and exit via a back door to make sure it was ours as well. It was only later that I registered having the space to run indoors. At the bottom of what seemed a huge garden was a pond … A POND.

It wasn’t fancy or installed; it was just surface seepage from the houses up the street. Rain would pool there because of topography, not financial investment. All manner of beetles swam in that pond and various insects skimmed or hummed over the surface.

This was a new world to me. I stumbled, the blue sky, green earth and limpid pond threatening to spin. Next thing I knew I was sitting in the kitchen with diluted orange in my hands being instructed to ‘take a good glug’. The mother neighbour was chatting confidentially to my own as she hovered around me. I was sitting. That was good.

“Our May went through the same thing when we first came up – she was sick for a week.”

“Were you stung?” My mother pulled at my clothes embarrassingly, looking for a welt at the neck, waist and thigh. Short trousers.

I shook my head, immediately regretting it.

“God, the inquisition I put our May through about that. No matter how many times she said no–”

“What is it?”

“Oh I sorry, I forgot how frantic I got back then. It’s the air, dear.”

“What?”

“It’s so much cleaner and richer up here – that’s what the doctor told me – that their wee lungs aren’t used to it. It’s like hyperventilating!”

There was a lot more conversation after that, but I was too busy trying to finish off the juice before surrendering to the sudden tiredness.

“Overexcited as well, he reckoned,” the neighbour continued. “He’ll be alright in an hour or so. They just have to take it slow.”

Her words faded into my dream of exploration beneath the leafy boughs of the sycamore, oak, and poplar I had noticed at the bottom of that mysterious lane. I wondered what it would feel like to paddle up through the little brook to the hills beyond.

I wondered … and slept.

Joan Z. Shore – France Gives Stephen King a Royal Welcome

France Gives Stephen King a Royal Welcome
by Joan Z. Shore

Paris is the destination for all young, aspiring writers. So why did it take Stephen King so long to come here? — waiting until he was 66 years old and the acclaimed author of 50 books that have sold 350 million copies and spawned numerous films.

He can’t explain this, as he holds a press conference with nearly 200 fawning journalists on a rainy Paris afternoon. “I guess I felt dumb not speaking French,” he says with a shrug.

Nor can he explain where he gets his ideas for his extraordinary tales of horror. He grew up without television, so movies were his inspiration, and he says the emotional and visual impact of a story is still his focus. He says he never writes with a film in mind, yet several of his books were made into successful movies and have become embedded in American culture: “Carrie” and “The Shining” for example.

King works every day at his writing, but admits that “stories don’t come as frequently as they used to – in my 20’s and 30’s.” Also, as a younger man, he battled with alcoholism and wrote with a background of Heavy Metal music; today, he says, it’s more likely to be country music “and Heavy Metal for the re-writing!” He rarely works on more than one thing at a time: “It makes me crazy.” And he admits, “When you look back at the books you wrote, there’s some embarrassment, so it’s better not to look back at all.”

Asked about the surge of violence in films and television today, King says simply, “There are some people like time bombs. They would find other ways. Art imitates life and vice-versa.”

He thinks there is still an appetite for “a safe scare,” especially in the age group of 15 to 32, “because at that age, you feel bullet-proof! It’s harder at 50 or 60 when, like me, you’re scared of things like Alzheimer’s or dementia. I’m more interested in the experience of dying than I used to be because I’m closer to it.”

Just days away from the tragic Kennedy anniversary, King discussed his recent book, “11/22/63 A Novel” — a historical fiction about the assassination for which he had to hire a research assistant. “It wasn’t easy,” he admits, “but it was an interesting process. I love that book!”

He continues: “The assassination was one of those rare moments when someone, a little schmuck, got on the world stage. Sometimes someone gets lucky and the rest of us get catastrophically unlucky. It’s comforting to believe that things happen for a reason. But we don’t know what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t been killed. I think in life there are more happy endings than unhappy endings. But it’s a very surrealistic moment in America right now. It’s a slow motion tantrum, where the two sides (Republicans and Democrats) won’t talk to each other.”

Asked about the self-publishing revolution and what it means for the future of literature, King is critical but resigned. “It’s Mommy Porn,” he says. “There’s really nothing you can do about it. There are no gate-keepers. “Fifty Shades of Gray” is very badly written, like so many of them, but has been a huge success. I can only say ‘caveat emptor’ — read a sample and decide for yourself.”

Although King admits he doesn’t know where his ideas come from, his ghoulish humor must be a constant inspiration. (He admitted he hoped to visit the Père Lachaise cemetery and “kiss the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison”.) When a journalist asks him what is the most horrifying way to die, he reflects a moment, and then replies, “Having a heart attack right here!”

Then he adds, “But if one of you guys had a heart attack, that would be a novel!”