Almost 19 years earlier, he had set out from his home to fight at Troy. The journey from Troy would normally take three weeks in good sailing weather, across the Aegean Sea, around Cape Malea and up the Ionian coastline to Ithaka. But Odysseus has angered Poseidon and the sea-god has killed off his men, banished him to his fate as an eternal wanderer, a refugee, an exile, never quite home.
In many ways he is a modern figure, who appeals to 21st century daydreamers in much the same way he did more than two and a half thousand years ago when storytellers recited the Odyssey from memory. We live now in an age when the old gods from the ancient times have been toppled — Poseidon is dead -- and now man hopes, fears he has become god. Yet the Odyssey is modern in quite another sense: The women he met along the way, perhaps?
Most men, upon encountering her, would never return to their wives. Once word got out, other men would be abandoning their wives and going in search of perfect women and who knows where that would end? Only one man was ever washed ashore though, and when he was, Odysseus was impressed.
She did not wear on his nerves as the witch Circe had done the year before. She did not grow and change and mature as the young princess Nausicaa would do. She would not judge him or seek to control him in the way his wife Penelope would do. Was she the perfect mate? Does a wise man really seek the perfect woman and if he does, is he wise to?
Do only fools believe in perfect soul-mates? In the ancient Greek world such decisions required consensus. Zeus and the gods agreed that something must be done and Hermes was dispatched to inform Calypso that she must release Odysseus. Perhaps only a goddess could say such things to a god; a human woman would not have dared. But the decision of the gods is final. Calypso sits in her garden at the edge of the cave she calls home. The air is thick with the scent of flowers and a natural spring trickles past her feet.
The birds are singing, she has a great fire blazing. She moves to her loom, weaving and singing, in the hope he will decide to stay of his own choice.
There has to be friction. So, like the mistress who watches her lover go home to his wife, Calypso watched him go on the morning tide. She would not have helped him build the raft.
He did not say goodbye and she did not seek him out to make him say it. Seven years together is a long time and some things are better left unsaid. Odysseus knew that he must move on. This was just an interlude in the natural progression from birth to death, where we are all alone to pursue our fates.
He chose to leave, and that is why the gods helped him, and why Calypso gave in. Although a goddess, she did not do it without experiencing a deep anger. The cycle of life should not be interrupted for too long or the poem itself is threatened. If Odysseus had stayed with Calypso there would be no poem. Perhaps for this reason Calypso has never won the hearts of the male translators who over the years have had quite definite ideas about getting Odysseus back home to Penelope.
Some have played up the psychoanalytical implications: Certainly Odysseus complains of the pains of rebirth that were deferred constantly while he lived with her. Or was it that the thread she wove -- the myth of the perfect relationship, the perfect woman — would mean that he would lose everything else that made him a man? There is a fundamental sadness associated with Calypso. She has never been invited back into other myths and legends.
Goddesses who defy time and space are rare in western literature. They just pop into stories occasionally and then disappear again, which is totally unfair of course. The critics would have us believe that her dangerous appeal lies in her timelessness, the oblivion, the denial of self, and these can be a powerful siren call in the 21st century when many western men no longer know what they want.
However, one could equally argue that second marriages are just fine, thanks, and Odysseus would have been happy with her if only the storyteller had given him a choice in the matter. Odysseus sent an advance party inland to scout out the island and they soon found Circe, the sea witch, who entertained the bullies hospitably.
She fed them, sang to them, flirted with them, all the while encouraging these distant travelers to forget their homes and their wives. But it can be assuaged with alcohol and sex and drugs, and Circe knew her drugs.
When she waved her long magic wand, presto, she turned them all into grunting swine, the archetypical image of men in the thrall of sexual heat. Could Circe ever find a real man? Eventually Odysseus came looking for his crew and he seemed to know how to overpower her sexually. This was only because Hermes, sneakiest of the gods, gave him an antidote to her drugs and no doubt some precise instructions on a seduction sequence that would appeal to her.
The antidote turned out to be moly, a small herb black at the root but with a milky flower garlic, speculate the scholars. Circe liked a natural man, an earthy man, a man who was a match for a fertility goddess.
She lived in an open plan house of well polished stone and shiny doors surrounded by forest and she could charm wild animals -- the wolves, the lions who lived on her island -- and so too she charmed Odysseus.
Into her arms came this rugged handsome fellow, his hairy chest guarded by those piercing eyes. He was wiry and weather-beaten, like a hunter, hard, tangible, scented. Her erotica must have a touch of the perverse and she made love that way.
In her terrific bed he learned of the future frights he would encounter with similarly dangerous feminine figures: Men must learn to hate themselves before they can love women. Odysseus went along with it for a whole year and it was only when his crew became impatient that he agreed to leave.
But it was modernist writers such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound who fully embraced her. Circe puts in an appearance as Bella Cohen, mistress of the local whorehouse, helping Bloom get in touch with his feminine side and satisfying his longing for punishment by turning him first into a woman and then into a pig!
Only through ritual humiliation and castration can Bloom emerge out the other side purified and ready to go back to his wife. Why he needed to go through all this and why he needed to be Jewish, we will never know, but it seems to have been important to Joyce.
Ironically, Ulysses was published originally by two women the American Sylvia Beach and her partner Adrienne Monnier , who launched it in France, in the English language no less, in They succeeded where another woman in England and two women in the United States had already tried and failed. Beach got no satisfaction for her pains; Joyce took the money and ran. But why should she have been surprised? The lessons were there in the novel. She was his compromise halfway between those flirtatious bitches the Sirens and the unattainable goddesses Aphrodite and Athena.
Circe represented the sensual world, she was seduction, she was the sexual act itself. So again Odysseus takes center stage: Feminist writers eventually came to rescue Circe, and if Penelope is their choice today, Circe was their favorite in the early fifties, particularly for Southern women writers. A fifties housewife, she has discovered feminism and is just waiting to take flight. Resentful at being tied to her island, she wishes she could be a wanderer like Odysseus: I believed that I lay in disgrace and my blood ran green, like the wand that breaks in two.
My sights returned to me when I awoke in the pigsty, in the red and black aurora of flesh, and it was day. For this she was rightly dreaded and feared; her very name was a word of terror. How dare he act cold and aloof in bed when she is tender and loving. How dare his men complain to him behind her back about how bored they are on her island.
They are lucky to get fed at all! If Circe enjoys superiority over the weakness of men, it is not in an arrogant or egocentric way; it is simply that she is smarter than they are. One day, will Odysseus see that and will he be back, alone? Several were washing clothes nearby when Odysseus appeared out of the bushes with no clothes on.
Just an olive branch held discreetly in front of the embarrassing parts. It must be quite difficult to listen to a naked man and take him seriously, but Nausicaa was nothing if not modern. But they fled the moment the olive branch slipped a bit.
Was he the One? Nausicaa arranges for Odysseus to go into town to meet her parents, the king and queen, where he can tell his story for posterity and she says she will follow. No need to feed the gossips by going together.
When Odysseus washed up there on her island of Scheria, here was an opportunity to be had. Did she miss it? Should she have invited Odysseus to stay with her? This also encouraged Robert Graves to expand on it in his novel Homer's Daughter Other male translators have confessed their love for her in suitably extravagant terms -- Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki takes her name for one of his heroines.
What is a girl to do? Would Nausicaa have preferred being given credit for seducing Odysseus or for having authored the Odyssey? But the thread being woven here is the one that is not being woven: