The sea that separates Odysseus from home was the lifeblood of ancient Greece. Homer’s story of return takes us on a journey that goes beyond geography
This is the first one, the big one, the ur-road movie: the Odyssey. Homer’s poem tells of Odysseus’s decade-long attempt to return to his home island of Ithaca – a “man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy”. (Robert Fagles’ translation for Penguin, which I recommend.)
Here’s some context. Banish the thoughts of modern nation-state Greece and think instead of the Hellenes as they were, a widely scattered, littoral people, linked by language and custom, spread thinly from Massilia (now Marseille, founded by the Greeks in about 600BC) to the Black Sea. Edith Hall’s book Introducing the Ancient Greeks reminds me that Plato said his people liked to live “like frogs or ants around the pond”. They were traders and colonists and explorers. One Marseillais, Pytheas, circumnavigated Britain and perhaps got as far as Denmark and Iceland, and wrote about it in his lost book On the Ocean. The trackless wastes of the sea were the Greeks’ element. Aside from the Odyssey, in antiquity there existed an epic account, called Returns, of other Greek heroes’ homecomings from Troy, thought to have included the stories of Agamemnon’s catastrophic return to Argos, only to be slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra, and Menelaos’s journey back to Sparta, via a long detour to Egypt. A fragment of Sappho, discovered on papyrus last year, has the narrator-poet anxiously awaiting her brother Charaxos’s return from a voyage. The perilous maritime journey was not only a Greek poetic theme, but part of Greek lived experience.
Like the myriad literary successors that have grown like branches and leaves from the great trunk of this epic poem, the Odyssey is a story about the journey through life and time, as well as through space. Homecoming is more than a physical arrival. For Odysseus, half the adventure continues after he has seen off Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops and Circe, the Lotus Eaters and the Cattle of the Sun. Having found himself washed up – after 10 years of trying to get there – on the shores of his beloved Ithaca, he manages to avoid the pompous mistake that got Agamemnon killed. Instead of arriving all puffed up and victorious, he disguises himself as a beggar. Undercover, he scopes out his palace, his domain, works out what he has to do to regain his kingdom and sets about it carefully, cleverly and ruthlessly. The Odyssey is an object lesson in the power of human cunning. He is, we are told in the earliest lines of the poem, the only one of his comrades who gets home alive: “The recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all.” Meantime his son, Telemachus, embarks on a journey, too: the goddess Athene sends him away from Ithaca on a voyage to visit the heroes Nestor and Menelaos, to discover news of Odysseus – Telemachus’s own Bildungsroman. It is on this journey that he learns to be the true son of his father.
As well as all of this, the Odyssey is a poem of extraordinary pleasures: it is a salt-caked, storm-tossed, wine-dark treasury of tales of terrifying monsters and sexy witches, of alluring sirens and inscrutable queens, a poem that takes you down to the coldly echoing chambers of the dead and back up to the coves and cliffs and winding paths of Ithaca. A poem of many twists and turns, like life itself.