Bardic Conventions and the Island of Calypso
Some effects of the bardic tradition
Even to read a little of the Odyssey is to be captivated by it, but a careful modern reader is surprised by the many loose ends. Some are quite minor: for instance, in Scheria, on his first night among the Phaeacians, Odysseus tells king Alcinous and queen Arete that he came to leave Calypso?s island because of a message from Zeus; either that, or Calypso also changed her mind. But how did he know about any message from Zeus? For Hermes did not meet Odysseus when he brought it to Calypso and when Calypso told Odysseus later that she was letting him go, she said nothing about it.
If the Odyssey is the work of a poet who, knowing the Iliad, determined to take an old poem about the return of Odysseus, and make a fit companion for the Iliad out of it, he might well still have been bound by old conventions affecting epic, one of which seems to have been that its characters are allowed to know what the audience knows, at least in minor matters, so that Odysseus could be expected to know about Hermes? message even though he was absent when it was delivered. Similarly, in book 10, Eurylochus, who stayed outside Circe?s palace when she turned some of Odysseus? men into pigs and had not seen what had happened, warned the rest of the crew not to go to her feast in case she turned them into animals.
A more important discrepancy concerns Aeolus who, according to Odysseus, had been appointed steward of the winds by Zeus, ?to stop them or start them as he wanted?. Even minor goddesses like Circe and Calypso are able to send Odysseus off from their islands with a fair wind apparently on their own authority, and in book 5, when Poseidon starts all the winds blowing at once and Athene stops them, neither refers the matter to Aeolus.
Even more strangely Odysseus, when disclosing his identity at Alcinous? banquet, says: ?I live in sunny Ithaca and there are other islands round it, very close to each other, Doulichium, Same and wooded Zacynthus.? Ithaca itself ?lies low, most remote in the sea towards the dark quarter, and the others towards both the dawn and the sun? (Odyssey 9.25-6). Heubeck agrees that these words can mean only the most remote and farthest towards the west, the other islands extending out towards the east. Even in antiquity Odysseus? description was challenged because Ithaca lies north east of the group of islands. It is the other islands that lie to the west of Ithaca.
This discrepancy is disconcerting if the Odyssey is an eighth or seventh century poem, for by 700 b.c. there had been a Greek trading post at Pithekousai on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples, for about fifty years, and a colony at Cumae, on the Italian mainland nearby, and another at Syracuse in Sicily for nearly as long. Ships would sail up the west coast of Greece en route for Italy and Sicily. Cumae was colonised from Chalcis in Euboea, and the Greeks at Pithekousai had connections with Eretria. So mariners from Chalcis and Eretria, and no doubt other places in the Aegean Sea, had been sailing round Greece and past Cephallenia and Ithaca to reach Italy for the best part of a hundred years or perhaps for longer, if trading contacts between Greece and the western Mediterranean had continued in some form since Mycenaean times. How could any seafarer in Greece not know that Cephallenia (Homer?s Same) is west, not east of Ithaca? Why, then, does Odysseus say he comes from Ithaca, west of Cephallenia?
Some modern scholars have suggested that the names of various islands have been switched. Homer?s Ithaca has been identified with Leucas or even Corfu. However this has not gained acceptance, mainly because Ithaki is more like the island described in the Odyssey, even if some of the description may be conventional.
Suppose, however, that the description of Ithaca had already become conventional before the Odyssey, as we know it, was composed. In the first book of the Odyssey, the bard Phemius begins to sing of the nostos, the voyage home, of the heroes from Troy. Phemius could not have included Odysseus in the song, of course, because nobody knew what had happened to him, but in the earlier bardic repertoire there might have been a separate ?nostos of Odysseus?, sung first somewhere in the region of the Aegean Sea at a time when voyages were more difficult and less frequent, describing him as from the island farthest west. If the conventional descriptions of the old bardic tradition were preserved in eighth or seventh century epic, Aeolus could still be steward of the winds even though the gods ignore him, and Ithaca would still be called ?west of Cephallenia? although it is actually east.
The purpose of Odyssey 5
If the Odyssey is the work of such a later poet, particular large-scale improvements and new material could be expected, and these seem evident in our book 5, where the hero is introduced. These would include a special effort to give him a stature like Achilles or Hector in the Iliad, in which Odysseus appears, although not quite in a leading role.
Odyssey 5 has a shape of its own. It tells the events of a month like the events of a single day, beginning as dawn breaks on the summit of Olympus and the gods assemble; and ending as darkness falls in Scheria and Odysseus, having escaped from Calypso?s island and survived terrible dangers, naked and exhausted but with just a spark of life, falls asleep in the dead leaves under a twin olive tree in the wild woodland. In between are Hermes? message from Zeus to Calypso and her conversation with Odysseus (day 1), the building of the raft (days 2-5), seventeen days? plain sailing over the sea (days 6-23), the terrible storm (day 24) and two days and nights floundering towards the iron-bound shore of Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians (days 25 and 26).
There is balance in its construction, keeping the audience in suspense: the beginning involves conflict, at first subdued, between Athene and Zeus, then less subdued between Hermes and Calypso, danger when Calypso tempts Odysseus to stay with her, and success as the raft is built and Odysseus almost reaches Scheria where the Phaeacians are destined to rescue him; disaster follows, in the terrible and abrupt intervention of Poseidon. We feel relief as Odysseus is rescued by the goddesses Ino and Athene and swims near land, followed by anxiety as he is dashed on the unexpectedly rocky shores of Scheria, until barely and with difficulty he survives and, with the help of the river god, staggers ashore, naked and half drowned. In this way book 5, following the four books about Telemachus, establishes Odysseus? kingly qualities: nobility and divinity, ingenuity, determination and fortitude.
The Characterisation of Calypso
Calypso is needed as a foil to Odysseus. She presents Odysseus with the first test he has to pass in order to go home, the temptation to stay with her. For it to be credible she needs the sympathy of the audience. If his parting from Calypso, who has come to depend on him in the seven years that he has been on the island, is to affect the audience, it must know more about her personality and appreciate her point of view, as in the Iliad it has seen the parting of Hector and Andromache from Andromache?s point of view. Hence Calypso?s tirade against Zeus when Hermes delivers his message, and her rather modest (for a goddess) speech when, trying to persuade Odysseus not to leave, she compares herself with the mortal Penelope although, as she says, it is not right for mortals to be in competition with immortals. The audience knows far more about the personality of Calypso than it does of Circe, even though the same stock lines are used for both. It knows why Calypso wanted to keep Odysseus (she was lonely), but not why Circe, although an immortal and a goddess, was frightened when Odysseus drew his sword and leapt upon her as if threatening to kill her.
From book 5 the audience knew that Calypso lived in a cave or grotto. She had nice hair (a conventional epithet of goddesses). She was formidable. She rescued and nurtured Odysseus after the wreck of his last ship and sent him home on a raft, with a fair wind. It also knew that Odysseus suffered great pains while he was with her and that she wanted to marry him and promised to make him ageless and immortal. However, when Calypso was mentioned at the council of the gods with which the Odyssey begins, Athene made three significant points about her which are never referred to in book 5:
(i) Her island is where the navel of the sea is. This sounds as if it means ?in the middle of the sea?, and so might be far from land. But, on the other hand, it might not. At Delphi was a stone called omphalos ges, meaning either ?navel of the land? or ?navel of the earth?. Strabo says that those who believed this fabricated a myth according to which it was the place where two eagles released by Zeus, one from the east, the other from the west, met. But if they met at Delphi, the navel of the earth is only about ten miles from the sea; accordingly, ?the navel of the sea? need not mean somewhere more remote than that from land.
(ii) Her father is Atlas who knows all the depths of the sea and holds the pillars that keep earth and sky apart. Knowing the depths of the whole of the sea is an attribute Atlas shares with the Egyptian sea god Proteus. Hesiod, in the Theogony, says that Atlas stands holding up the wide heaven with unwearying arms at the borders of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides, the daughters of Night who guard the golden apples beyond glorious Ocean. This would place Atlas in the west, but Hesiod may have been influenced by the Odyssey. Atlas may earlier have merely held the sky up ?somewhere at the world?s end? or even just been the god of a mountain over which the Pleiades were seen to rise. In the Astronomy, Hesiod names all seven of Atlas? daughters, the Pleiades, each of whom was connected with a locality not in the west but in Greece itself. He never connects Calypso with Atlas, even when mentioning her relationship with Odysseus.
(iii) The name of Calypso?s island is Ogygia. Ogygos or ogygios, often translated ?primeval?, ?ancient? or ?ancestral?, is an adjective whose etymology is obscure, and meaning not exactly known.
With respect to this last point, the best-known occurrences of it are as follows:
(a) Styx? unwasting ogygian water (Hesiod, Theogony 806);
(b) under the ogygian mountains of Phlius (Pindar, Nemean 6.44);
(c) ogygian (primeval) fire confined within membranes (Empedocles, fr.44);
(d) and ogygian Thebes (Aeschylus, Persians 37);
(e) and beholding hated ogygian Athens (Aeschylus, Persians 975);
(f) for it is a pitiful thing to hurl the ogygian city [Thebes] into Hades (Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes 321-2);
(g) in the ogygian [primeval] depths of earth (Aeschylus, Eumenides 1036);
(h) and into the ogygian gateways [of Thebes] (Euripides, Phoenician Women 1113);
(i) and to you, child, all this ogygian [ancestral] authority has come (Sophocles, Philoctetes 142);
(j) send us to ogygian Thebes (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1770);
(k) the teeth of the dragon whom Cadmus slew in ogygian Thebes (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3.1178).
Pausanias, in the 2nd century a.d., noticed how often ?ogygian? occurs in connection with Thebes. He had an explanation, that the first occupants of the Theban lands were the Ectenes, whose king was Ogygus. From his name Pausanias derived ?Ogygian?, an epithet of Thebes used by most of the poets. A probably fictitious king will not suffice to explain the word, but it is remarkable how often it is either applied to somewhere in north-eastern Greece, or used by or about someone with a north Greek connection (Hesiod himself was from Boeotia). There are exceptions. Phlius is south west of Corinth and Empedocles was a Sicilian (but he might have copied the word from Hesiod). Nevertheless, Ogygios may have had a regional quality and have been used particularly in north and eastern Greece, rather as ?gradely?, meaning ?excellent?, is associated with the English dialect of the north Midlands.
The name Ogygia is only avoided in Odyssey 5. Once his eastward voyage is completed, Odysseus calls Calypso?s island Ogygia in book 6 when talking to Nausicaa.
Developments in Odyssey 5
As the book begins and the gods open the second council where Odysseus is discussed, Athene says that he is still a prisoner in the halls of Calypso because he has neither a ship to carry him across the sea nor companions to row it. (The availability of a ship, though important, was not mentioned at the first council of the gods.) She also says that the matter is now urgent because the suitors are planning to kill Telemachus. Zeus is reluctant to listen to her; he is ?cloud gathering?, as he was when in the Iliad Thetis asked for help for Achilles, and he uses the same reproof to Athene that he had at the first council in Odyssey I: my child, what kind of word has escaped the fence of your teeth, i.e. don?t talk to me like that! Nevertheless, he commands Hermes to go and tell the nymph to release Odysseus, who will reach Scheria (where the Phaeacians live) after a lot of trouble on a raft tied together with many bonds. Once he arrives there, he will be well treated, given valuable presents, and taken back to his own country. Zeus leaves Athene to deal with the suitors.
Hermes? departure is described in the same way as Athene?s from the first council in book 1. This is Athene leaving Olympus:
So saying, under her feet she bound fine sandals, immortal, golden, which on the one hand used to carry her over the wet and on the other over dry land along with the breath of the wind, and she took her mighty spear tipped with sharp bronze, heavy, huge, thick, with which she tames the ranks of men that are heroes, with whom her mighty father is angry, and went like a flash down the slopes of Olympus and stopped at Ithaca ?
This is how Hermes leaves the second council of the gods:
So he (Zeus) spoke, and the slayer of Argus, the guide, did not disobey but immediately under his feet he bound fine sandals, immortal, golden, which on the one hand used to bear him over the wet, and on the other over the dry land along with the breath of the wind. And he took his staff, with which he both charms the eyes of men whom he wishes, and again awakens others when they sleep; holding this in his hands, the mighty slayer of Argus began to fly and having stepped on Pieria he swooped down on the sea ...
Nothing corresponds with the name ?Ithaca? in the description of Athene?s flight. We only learn Hermes? destination four lines later: ?but then, when he arrived at that island, being far away.? A description of Calypso?s grotto follows, and of the beauty of the woods and meadows that surround it. There are no animals like those which guard Circe, but there are birds and, when visitors call, Calypso, like Circe, is singing while she goes to and fro at her loom. She greets Hermes in words reminiscent of Iliad 18.385-7, where Charis, the wife of Hephaestus, greets Thetis who has come to ask for armour for Achilles:
Why, Thetis of the golden robe, do you come to our house, both revered and dear one? Indeed, previously you have not come often, but follow me inside, so that I may place guest-presents beside you.
Here is Calypso welcoming Hermes:
And Calypso, noble of goddesses, was questioning Hermes after making him sit on a bright, glittering chair. Why, Hermes of the golden staff, have you come, both revered and dear one? Indeed, previously you have not come often. Say what is in your heart; and my spirit bids me fulfil it, if I can fulfil it and if it is something that must come to pass. But follow me inside, so that I may place guest-presents beside you.
This has been criticised because Calypso is made first to ask Hermes to sit down and then to follow her into her home. It is difficult to speak of quotations when comparing the Odyssey with the Iliad because of the nature of formulaic poetry. Both may be using a stock description of a situation common in the courtly world of heroes, where a noble guest is being welcomed by a hostess. The point is that Hermes and Thetis are on similar errands. Thetis wants armour for Achilles because the armour he brought to Troy has fallen into the hands of his enemy, Hector; Hermes wants a raft for Odysseus whose last ship has been sunk by Zeus. In the Iliad, Charis, whose name means ?Grace?, exhibits perfect courtesy, and her husband, who is the smith of the gods, is going to make such perfect armour that it will outlast Achilles himself, and be a bone of contention after his death. Things will be much more rough-and-ready with Calypso in the Odyssey; though we shall be surprised by what they achieve, Calypso can only supply materials and implements, and the raft that Odysseus makes for himself will in fact not last longer than its first voyage. If the first audience knew the Iliad well, the comparison would have been striking and we can surmise that the poet may have intentionally made Calypso fumble her welcome. A comparison between Odysseus and Achilles is already being suggested.
The building of the raft falls, significantly, into two parts: at first, Odysseus fells dead trees and trims their trunks as would be expected for a raft tied with many bonds; but then Calypso reappears bringing teretra, borers or gimlets, and in four days, single-handed, he has made a seaworthy sailing ship with planks joined by mortise and tenon joints and with bored timbers fitted together with pegs. This is work which in Odyssey 9, when the Cyclops? eye is being bored out, is described as requiring at least three men, and perhaps, good craftsman though he is, Odysseus is helped by Calypso?s magic. The ?raft? Odysseus builds on Calypso?s island is described as a fully rigged sailing ship, as used for cargo. Thus he meets the difficulty mentioned by Athene, that Odysseus has no companions to row him, and he will cross the sea under sail. The word for the boat which Calypso tells Odysseus to make and sail home is schedie, ?an improvised ship?, and perhaps, even if we call it a raft, we should not think of it too much as one of the Kon-Tiki kind.
The building of the ship ends with another echo from Iliad 17. When Calypso had provisioned his boat, Odysseus set sail:
nor was sleep falling on his eyelids as he watched the Pleiades, and late-setting Bootes (the Ploughman) and the Bear, which also they call by the title ?wagon?, which turns there and keeps an eye on Orion, and alone has no share in the baths of Ocean, her did Calypso, noble of goddesses, order him to voyage across the sea keeping on his left hand.
Compare the description of part of the decoration on the shield which, in Iliad 18, Hephaestus made for Achilles:
The Pleiades and the Hyades and mighty Orion and the Bear, which also they call by the title ?wagon?, which turns there and keeps an eye on Orion, and alone has no share in the baths of Ocean.
It is significant that Calypso tells Odysseus to keep the Bear on his left hand. Odysseus does this, sailing across the sea eastwards for seventeen days.
From the time of the Odyssey it was recognised that at least some of the adventures of Odysseus happened in the western Mediterranean, and that it was from the west that he returned from Calypso. So Thucydides, at Histories 1.25, says that the Corcyreans, living in what is now Corfu, claimed that they had taken it over from the Phaeacians (the Odyssey does not actually say whether Scheria was an island), and at Histories 6.2, beginning to describe the Athenian disaster at Syracuse, he says that the first recorded inhabitants of Sicily were Cyclopes and Laestrygonians.
The clash with Poseidon
Just as Odysseus came in sight of the coast of Scheria, he was spotted ?from afar? by Poseidon, the sea god. Because Odysseus had blinded Polyphemus the Cyclops, who was Poseidon?s son, Poseidon was his enemy. Poseidon had been absent both from the great council of the gods with which the Odyssey opens and from the second council at the beginning of book 5. He had spent Odyssey 1-4 being feasted by the Aethiopes, the remotest of men, who are divided into two groups, one living towards the sunrise and the other towards the sunset. He was returning to his temple at Aegae, either in the Aegean sea, perhaps on a headland opposite Lesbos or on an island near Euboea, or near Helice in the Gulf of Corinth, where at Iliad 8.203, the Danaans are said to sacrifice to him. At Odyssey 5.283 he is over the Solymian mountains when he sees Odysseus nearing the coast of Phaeacia. This is remarkably inconvenient for the poet of the Odyssey as these are the Lycian Taurus mountains overlooking what is now the southern coast of Turkey. Since their two highest peaks are over 10,000 feet, higher than Olympus itself, they would have provided Poseidon with a magnificent viewpoint for the eastern Mediterranean and the southern entrance to the Aegean. However, in Odyssey 5 Odysseus is approaching from the west, and all Greece lies between.
Poseidon, exclaiming angrily that the other gods must have changed their minds about Odysseus who, if he reaches Scheria (which is near) is fated to return home, raises a great squall of wind from all directions. Odysseus, of course, cannot see Poseidon and thinks that it is Zeus who is filling the sky with storm clouds.
The raft is completely wrecked at the first blast of Poseidon?s storm and only a rough collection of timbers fastened together is left. In this way, part of Zeus? prediction is fulfilled. Odysseus is informed by Leucothea, a sea goddess who had previously been a mortal woman, that it is Poseidon who is angry. She gives him her veil to wear as a kind of life-jacket, and advises him to abandon ship. Odysseus, soliloquising, decides to stay on board ?as long as the timbers stay fast in the joints? since he fears treachery from the gods; but the storm increases and the timbers are driven hither and thither and come loose; at that point, Odysseus gets a leg over one of them, takes off the clothes Calypso has given him, ties Leucothea?s veil round his midriff, and falls into the sea, deciding to swim for it. Poseidon then addresses him personally, bidding him to wander across the sea until he meets once more with men fostered by Zeus; ?even then,? Poseidon says, ?I don?t expect that you will find fault with the misery.? Poseidon whips up his horses, and makes for Aegae.
It is surprising that both Poseidon and Odysseus talk to themselves so much. Both Hainsworth and Stanford note in their commentaries that there are six soliloquies in this short passage and only four in the rest of the Odyssey. The gods seldom soliloquise in the Iliad either, although Zeus does so twice in Iliad 17; both times he is expressing his own inability to intervene; once when he sees and pities Hector, who is putting on the armour of Achilles which he has captured after killing Patroclus, and does not realise that his own death is near; and once when he pities the horses of Achilles, which are weeping for Patroclus, their dead driver. Here, Poseidon both soliloquises and intervenes, and the second soliloquy is a taunt which is pointless, since Odysseus is too far away to hear it.
The reference to Aegae is a reminder of Iliad 13.17-30, where Poseidon comes down from a mountain on Samothrace to Aegae, and then goes to the Greek camp at Troy:
So presently he came down from the craggy mountain, striding on rapid feet, and the tall mountains trembled and the timber under the immortal feet of Poseidon?s progress. He took three long strides forward and in the fourth came to his goal, Aigai, where his glorious house was built in the waters? depth, glittering with gold, imperishable for ever. Going there he harnessed under his chariot his bronze-shod horses, flying-footed, with long manes streaming of gold; and he put on clothing of gold about his own body, and took up the golden lash, carefully compacted, and climbed up into his chariot and drove it across the waves. And about him the sea beasts came up from their deep places and played in his path, and acknowledged their master, and the sea stood apart before him, rejoicing. The horses winged on delicately, and the bronze axle beneath was not wetted. The fast running horses carried him to the ships of the Achaeans.
In Odyssey 5 there is only a curt description (380-1):
Then having said this he (Poseidon) whipped up his fair-maned horses, and arrived at Aegae, where his famous palace is.
When Poseidon goes across mountain tops, he seems to proceed on foot with giant strides; he uses his chariot and horses to go over the surface of the sea, accompanied by porpoises and dolphins. Perhaps in older versions of the nostos of Odysseus there was a traditional scene in which Poseidon, driving his chariot over the sea, sweeps past Odysseus and shouts taunts which in Odyssey 5 have to form a soliloquy. This scene has been compressed so much in the Odyssey that Poseidon has no time to descend from the lofty heights of the Solymian mountains and his horses (which are surely the ?white horses? which are waves in stormy weather) have to take to the skies. However, the audience are satisfied with this brief reference because something more dramatic is afoot; the survival of the hero in realistically bad weather off a realistically rocky coast.
The poet cannot afford to omit Poseidon, who has a function at journey?s end, in Odyssey 23, when Penelope at last acknowledges Odysseus. The beginning of Odysseus? journey is linked to the end by two similes: in Odyssey 5, when Athene has stilled Poseidon?s storm and Odysseus comes once more in sight of land, it is like the relief felt by children when the gods have spared unexpectedly a father whose life has been despaired of. When Penelope finally recognised Odysseus at Odyssey 23 (231-9):
She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping; He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous and as when land appears welcome to men who are swimming after Poseidon has smashed their strong built ship on the open sea pounding it with the weight of wind and the heavy seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil, so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him...
The reference to Poseidon in Odyssey 5 is crucial, for only when he has escaped from Poseidon, the god of earthquakes and wild horses as well as of the sea, can Odysseus and Penelope be reconciled in tranquillity. However, if it was according to bardic tradition that Poseidon spotted Odysseus from the Solymian mountains, and this originated in an older poem which was a precursor of the Odyssey, the natural place for their confrontation is near the southern entrance to the Aegean; perhaps in such a poem Scheria was in Cyprus or Crete or even Egypt. But if Odysseus was leaving the Aegean in the older poem, where was Calypso?s island? The name Ogygia suggests somewhere near the eastern coast of northern Greece; perhaps this is why the poet of the Odyssey does not name Calypso?s island in Odyssey 5, in which Odysseus approaches Scheria from the distant west.
 I am grateful to Dr Hainsworth for his comments and help, and to those present at the research seminar at Warwick who discussed an earlier version of this paper.
 *Oxford edition of the Odyssey, Clarendon Press, 1989.
 *The difficulty was noticed, but not explained clearly, by Strabo (Geographia, book 10) in the time of Augustus.
 *There is no positive evidence that the division of the Iliad or Odyssey into twenty-four books was made before the Alexandrian period (N. Richardson, A Commentary on the Iliad, vol. VI, p. 20).
 *M.L.West, on Hesiod, Works & Days, 383-4.
 *fr.1 (Evelyn-White (Loeb ed.) p. 66).
 Description of Greece 9.5.1.
 *Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, p. 257.
 *See R. Janko, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. IV on Iliad 13.21-2, who cites Huxley (GRBS 10 , 5-11).
 *Stanford, Odyssey I-XII, p. 304.
 *See L.H.S. Jones? note on Strabo, Geographia 1.2.9 (Loeb ed.).
 *A Commentary on Homer's Odyssey (Oxford) vol. I, p. 280.