HIP CLASSICS: The Odyssey: The Pursuit of Paradise
In almost my most favourite book, The Mark and The Void by Paul Murray, a Greek waitress hands a customer some baklava and says: “In Greek we say nostimo. Which means, hmmm, something you want to come back to. You know, like nostalgia, the pain to want to return home… That’s Greece, you cannot even eat a cake without the past come looking for you.”
The term ‘nostalgia’ was invented by Johannes Hofer, a medical student in 1688. At the time it was thought to be a condition treatable by opium, leeches and a trip to the Swiss Alps. There’s a tougher psychological realism in the Odyssey, despite its being wrapped in enchantment and romance. The word nostalgia comes from two Greek words: nostos, a return home, and algea, pains. Odysseus endures terrible experiences in his desire to return to Penelope and his homeland, yet when he gets there, he doesn’t stay. This longing for connection with home and ancestry which is so central to the Odyssey is plaited with a restless searching, for, call it what you will, but paradise is a good word; all the examples are fantasies and, with one exception, all dangerous.
Calypso’s cave seems to offer pure sensuality: “Thick, luxuriant woods grew around the cave, alders and black poplars, pungent cypress too, …and round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine… bursting with ripe grapes. Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold… Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets, lush with beds of celery.” However, an ancient Greek audience would have known that violets were linked with a legend from Phrygia (central Turkey) in which they represent the loss of blood from Attis, a vegetation god, through castration. It’s one of the many threads reaching back through the centuries to Near Eastern
(or sometimes Egyptian, Babylonian or Assyrian culture) and has a huge symbolic part to play here, for despite being Calypso’s sex slave, Odysseus feels psychologically castrated. The alder which can leak a red sap is linked with death, so too are poplars, cypress and even celery! So this picture of Calypso’s cave would have sent shivers down the spines of ancient Greeks that had nothing to do with the thought of those chilly streams.
At the palace of Alkinoos, however, where Odysseus pitches up after being freed by Calypso, things are very different: “luxuriant trees are always in their prime, pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red, succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark. And the yield will never flag or die…for the West Wind always breathing through will bring some fruits to the bud and others warm to ripeness…”*. It’s an image of unfailing abundance, a rich, sustaining environment. Ruled in regal equality by Alkinoos and his queen Arête, who are supremely empathetic and emotionally intelligent, from a palace radiant with gold statues made by the god Hephaistos, this is an idealised paradise, as near to heaven as one can get on earth.
Wall paintings at Thera, a Minoan city destroyed around 1500 BCE, have the joyous spirit of Alkinoos’ palace. They show young girls collecting crocuses, lilies, birds and monkeys.
*The translations are by Robert Fagles. The audio version of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation read by Dan Stevens is also delightful.
• If you are interested in finding out more about the Odyssey join us on Saturday 22nd at Kassa, where we meet every fortnight.
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