Travelogues and travelogue-like passages appear in ancient literature, in more than a few places. Some of the travel descriptions of ancient Greece which have been transmitted to us, appear to be dedicated to geographical and cultural education of the reader, seeing as to travel very far given the ancient transportation facilities was a noteworthy feat. Another sub-category of travelogue is the historiographic, in which the military exploits of an army and its men are recounted not only in terms of their skills in battle, but also expanding upon their courage and endurance at making their way to the location of the battle.
Homer’s Odyssey typefies the saga of the long return, the homeward journey from a faraway place. In the Odyssey, readers are first introduced to Odysseus as an absentee father who had left behind his wife and young son in order to take part in the Trojan war, in his capacity as the king of Ithaca. The last part of the book focuses on how Odysseus eventually arrives back home after his long absence and is faced with a barrage of suitors to his wife, his mansions in decay and the city under very bad administration, all of which he has good mind to reclaim for himself. If we are to believe the legend, twenty years have passed since Odysseus was last in his home town: he fought for ten years in the Trojan war, and then took ten years to get back home. When he arrives, the youth has grown, nothing is like it was, and Odysseus himself, after the war and the long road, is quite a different man as well.
Sandwiched in between these scenes from Odysseus’ home at Ithaca, are the surreal and extraordinary tales of what Odysseus saw and did on his ten year long journey, which, as readers are informed, took so long because an angry Poseidon kept sweeping his ship astray – for revenge.
In the story, Odysseus lives to tell the tale, so that his adventures amongst witches, ogres and monsters, his descent into the underworld, and visit to Lestrygonians, his shipwrecks, entrapments, and ingenious explorations out in the great unknown, have since become some of the most popular legends. Nearly everyone has heard of the Cyclops, the one-eyed giant who eats human flesh and lives in a cave, and whom Odysseus squarely overpowered by feeding him wine and blinding his one eye with an incandescent wooden beam. Or the beautiful sirens, whose enthralling charm and irresistible singing Odysseus was able to bypass by putting wax in the ears of all his crew.
Interpretations of the Odyssey have traditionally pointed out the strong focus on loyalty that is implicit in the will to take on challenge upon challenge only to come back home, and attached to this loyalty towards his home town and family, is a commitment to the Greek culture, of which the forms and values appear especially in relief by contrast to the strange lands wandered by Odysseus in the meantime. At Circe’s, the witch who can turn men into swine and wants to make Odysseus the king of her little kingdom :
But venomed was the bread, and mixed the bowl,
With drugs of force to darken all the soul:
Soon in the luscious feast themselves they lost,
And drank oblivion of their native coast.
The fear of never making it home is ever-present, and the lure of the sometimes rather enticing propositions made by the fairytale-like creatures in equal parts attractive and revolting seems to intensify at each turning of the road. Here is another passage :
We plied the banquet, and the bowl we crown’d,
Till the full circle of the year came round.
But when the seasons following in their train,
Brought back the months, the days, and hours again;
As from a lethargy at once they rise,
And urge their chief with animating cries:
Is this, Ulysses, our inglorious lot?
And is the name of Ithaca forgot?
Shall never the dear land in prospect rise,
Or the loved palace glitter in our eyes?
The travelogue description introduces many episodes of arriving on strange shores and meeting unknown cultures and hybrid, half-awesome, half-scary species of character beings. The places Odysseus goes to seem to appear at first from a distance, enclosed either by walls, or thick vegetation, or water, so that they are each in their own way a closed universe and a microcosm in a capsule – at times it seems like the Odyssey draws up a map of warped mircocosm after warped microcosm before our eyes, and each time, a new breed of fantasmagoric characters hop on the scenery as if they belong to a surreal film set. For example, Odysseus travels to :
A floating isle! High-raised by toil divine,
Strong walls of brass the rocky coast confine.
Six blooming youths, in private grandeur bred,
And six fair daughters, graced the royal bed.
These sons their sisters wed, and all remain
Their parents’ pride, and pleasure of their reign.
All day they feast, all day the bowls flow round,
And joy and music through the isle resound;
At night each pair on splendid carpets lay,
And crown’d with love the pleasures of the day.
This 1873 verse translation I have been quoting from is by T. A. Buckley and in the public domain. As I commented in another blog post recently, the digital media revolution increases the use of public domain books, but these books often are in the public domain by virtue of being 100 years old or more. Looking at this 19th century translation, which I very much enjoy for what it is and I hope you have as well, adds a specific flavour to the story. As I have commented in another post, the Odyssey was very popular in the British colonial Empire and Odysseus‘ character, by no means one beloved by all ages, had a distinct appeal with his explorer’s nature and experience of the great unknown. A contemporary of this translation was Tennyson, whose famous poem „The Lotos Eaters“ conflates the pleasures of a Victorian opium smoker with the adventures of Odysseus on the Lotophagi island:
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.
The painting above titled „Land of the Lotos-Eaters“ (1863) by Robert Duncanson also epitomizes the conflation of 19th century exoticism with Hellenism which is yet another aspect of the same phenomenon. As much as it is important to notice these identifications and projections, the real interest lies in finding out what the Odyssey can mean to „us“, and now.