I’ve long been fascinated by the legends and histories associated with the ancient city of Troy, the focus of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as many other Greek (and Latin) tales. Give me a time-machine and I’d probably set the coordinates for north-western Turkey, circa 1000 BCE. The British historian Michael Wood and his seminal television series, In Search of the Trojan War, can be blamed for that one. Here are some interesting thoughts from C D C Reeve, professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, over on Aeon asking: why did Odysseus leave the nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas, and return to his faithful middle-aged wife Penelope? I would suggest some alternative interpretations, ones more grounded in ancient Greek thought, but the article is worth a read.
The Trojan Wars ended in Troy’s defeat at the hands of the Greeks, many of whom returned to their homes. But the great Odysseus was not among them. He became marooned on the faraway island of Ogygia, enjoying – or tiring of – the favours of the beautiful nymph Calypso. Homer’s Odyssey, as we all know, is the story of Odysseus’ long journey away from Calypso and home to Ithaca, where his wife Penelope waits, courted in his absence by 117 princes young enough to be her sons.
There are two erotic mysteries at the heart of the Odyssey: the mystery of why Odysseus leaves Calypso, and the mystery of why the suitors are so hot for Penelope. These mysteries shall be deepened in a moment, but first I want to add two others that are equally perplexing, though not, perhaps, equally erotic. The first concerns the savage punishment – death – imposed on the suitors. What have they done to deserve it? In the poem, their behaviour is often likened to that of Aegisthus, who took Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra as his lover, and then murdered Agamemnon on his return from Troy. Yet, on the face of it, the suitors have done nothing nearly so bad. Then there is the mystery presented by the form of the Odyssey itself, with its odd mixture of realism (the suitors and Penelope) and magic (the unreality of the realms that Odysseus visits between the fall of Troy and his return home). The fantastic nature of these realms seems completely mismatched to the reality of what is taking place in Ithaca. In the end, these four diverse mysteries have the same solution.