Athene, speaking to Zeus at the beginning of the Odyssey:
ἀλλά μοι ἀμφ᾽ Ὀδυσῆι δαΐφρονι δαίεται ἦτορ,
δυσμόρῳ, ὃς δὴ δηθὰ φίλων ἄπο πήματα πάσχει
νήσῳ ἐν ἀμφιρύτῃ, ὅθι τ᾽ ὀμφαλός ἐστι θαλάσσης.
¶ But as for me, my heart is wrung for Odysseus—wise man,
ill-fated—who has long been suffering sorrow, far from his friends,
on a sea-girt island, a place in the remote midst of the sea. (I.49)
Ernle Bradford in his book Ulysses Found* is determined to identify Calypso’s Island of Ogygia with Malta, and he goes to some length to find evidence, going so far as to stretch the Phoenician word maleth, whose primary meaning is a haven or shelter, and from which Malta took its name, to mean also a hiding place, thus connecting it with the the name of Calypso.
Malta was indeed, to a Greek sailor, in the remote midst of the sea: it is more than 100 miles from the nearest coast, whether Sicily or North Africa—an almost unthinkable voyage for most Greek mariners. Even the Phoenicians, who revelled in the open sea, and are repeatedly mentioned by Homer, probably discovered Malta after the time of Odysseus, and did not start settling there till 850 BC. After that, it was to them a superb stopping place, and even perhaps entrepôt, between Africa and Sicily, with its magnificent harbour and multiple creeks.
But Greek sailors did not do Malta or open seas—not even in 1844, when A W Kinglake went on his travels. He relates a voyage from Smyrna to the coast of Syria:
‘I felt less anxious than most people would have been about the probable length of the cruise. I knew enough of Greek navigation to be sure that our vessel would cling to earth like a child to its mother’s knee, and that I should touch at many an isle before I set foot upon the Syrian coast… My patience was extremely useful to me, for the cruise altogether endured some forty days…
‘It is true that they have so far availed themselves of modern discoveries as to look to the compass instead of the stars, and that they have superseded the immortal gods of their forefathers by St. Nicholas in his glass case, but they are not yet so confident either in their needle, or their saint, as to love an open sea, and they still hug their shores as fondly as the Argonauts of old. Indeed, they have a most unsailor-like love for the land, and I really believe that in a gale of wind they would rather have a rock-bound coast on their lee than no coast at all.’ A W Kinglake, Eothen, 1844.
To Greeks in the time of Odysseus, and for nearly 3000 years after, a voyage—πλοῦς—meant hopping from island to island or cruising along coasts. To Greeks who heard or read Homer, the voyages of Odysseus were a matter of wonder because they were unhellenically across open seas.
*Hodder & Stoughton, 1963
- See also earlier post: The absence of Odysseus: part one