Calypso and Odysseus

Calypso of the braided tresses was a goddess feared by all men. It was to her island that the piece of wreckage to which Odysseus clung drifted on the ninth dark night after his ship was wrecked.

At night the island looked black and gloomy, but at morning light, when Odysseus felt life and strength coming back to him, he saw that it was a beautiful place.

In the sunlight, the grey, cruel sea was violet blue, and violets blue as the sea grew thickly in the green meadows. From the sea shore he walked inland until he came to a great cave, and in the cave sat Calypso, the beautiful goddess with the braided hair.

On the hearth a great fire burned, and the fragrance of the burning cedar and sandal- wood could be smelt afar off in the island. Calypso, wearing a shining robe and a golden girdle, was weaving with a shuttle of gold and singing as she wove. Round about the cave alders and poplars and sweet-smelling cypresses grew, and in them roosted owls and falcons and chattering sea-crows, and the long-winged, white-plumaged sea-birds. A vine with rich clusters of grapes climbed up the cave, and four fountains of clear water played beside it.

Odysseus knew that Calypso was a goddess that all men feared, but he soon found that he had nothing to fear from her, save that she should keep him in her island for evermore. She tended him gently and lovingly until his weariness and weakness were gone and he was as strong as ever.

But although he lived by the meadows where the violets and wild parsley grew, and had lovely Calypso to give him all that he wished, Odysseus had a sad and heavy heart.

'Stay with me, and thou shalt never grow old and never die,' said Calypso.

But a great homesickness was breaking the heart of Odysseus. He would rather have had one more glimpse of his rocky little kingdom across the sea, and then have died, than have lived for ever and for ever young in the beautiful, flowery island.

Day after day he would go down to the shore and stare with longing eyes across the water. But eight years came and went, and he seemed no nearer escape.

Yet, although he did not know it, the days of the wanderings of Odysseus were soon to end.

It was Poseidon, the god of the sea, who had sent all his troubles to Odysseus, because he had blinded his son, the wicked cannibal giant.

It was the grey-eyed Athene, a goddess who had always been the friend of Odysseus, who helped to bring him home. When she saw him daily sitting by the sea, gazing across the water with great tears rolling down his face, her heart was filled with pity. She knew, too, what troubles his wife and son were having in Ithaca while Odysseus was far away, and at length she went to the gods and begged them to help her to send Odysseus safely back to his kingdom.

Poseidon had gone to a far-distant land, and when the gods knew through what bitter sorrows Odysseus had passed, and how his heart ached to look once again even on the blue smoke curling up above the woods in Ithaca, they took pity on him.

They called Hermes of the golden wand, their fleet-footed messenger. On his feet Hermes bound his golden sandals that never grew old, and that bore him safely and swiftly over wet sea and dry land. In his hand he took his golden wand, with which he could lull people to sleep. Like a sea-bird that chases the fish through the depths of the sea, and dips its white plumage in the rolling breakers, so sped Hermes over the waves.

When he had reached the island of Calypso, he walked through the meadows of violets to the cave. But Odysseus was not there. Down by the rocky shore he sat, looking wistfully over the wide sea, while the tears rolled down his face and dripped on the sand. Calypso was in the cave, weaving with her golden shuttle, and singing a sweet song. Food and wine she gave to Hermes, and when he had eaten and drunk he gave her the message of the gods.

When she heard that the gods commanded her to let Odysseus go safely home, Calypso was very sad.

'Hard and jealous are ye gods,' she said. It was I who saved Odysseus as he clung to the piece of wreckage that drifted in the sea, and guided him safely to my island. Ever since have I been kind to him and have loved him, and now you are taking him away from me. But how can I send him? I have no ships nor men to take him back to Ithaca.'

If thou dost not send him, thou wilt anger all the gods,' said Hermes, 'and greatly will they punish thee.'

Then Hermes sped away across the violet meadows and the violet-blue sea, and Calypso went down to where Odysseus sat on the shore.

'Sorrow no more, poor man,' she said, 'for now, with all my heart, will I send thee home. Arise, and cut long beams. With thine axe make a wide raft and lay cross planks above for a deck. In it I shall place food and water, and give thee clothing, and send a fair wind, so that thou mayest come safely to thine own country. For such is the will of the gods, who are stronger than I am both to will and to do.'

'But surely thou plannest mischief,' Odysseus said. 'Thou bidst me cross the mighty sea in a little raft. I would not go aboard a raft, unless thou shouldst give me thy promise not to plan secretly my ruin.'

Calypso smiled, and gently laid her hand on his shoulder.

'I give my promise,' she said. 'I am planning for thee as I should plan for myself were I in a like case. My heart is not of iron, Odysseus, but pitiful as thine.'

Then she gave him a great, double-edged axe of bronze, with a strong handle of olive-wood, and a polished adze, and led the way to the border of the island, where grew tall trees, alders and poplars and pines. When she had shown him where the tall trees grew, she went home.

Odysseus went gladly and quickly to work. With his axe of bronze he soon had felled twenty great trees and had trimmed and neatly planed them. That done, Calypso brought him other tools, and bolts, and a web of cloth to make sails, and skilfully and well he made his raft. In four days his work was done, and he drew the vessel down with rollers to the sea.

On the fifth day, when Calypso had given him new warm clothes, and had put plenty of corn and wine and water, and many dainties that she knew Odysseus liked, in the raft, she said farewell. She sent a gentle breeze to blow, and Odysseus rejoiced as the wind filled his sails and carried him away from the island. Calypso had told him what stars he must use as his guides, and all her advice he followed, and so in eighteen days he saw land appear.

It was the land of the Phaeacians, who were famous sailors, and it looked like a shield lying in the misty sea.

But just when safety and home seemed very near Odysseus, his enemy, Poseidon the sea- god, returned from his wanderings in far-off lands.

When he saw Odysseus peacefully sailing towards the land of the Phaeacians, he knew that while he had been away the gods must have changed their minds, and were sending Odysseus safely home.

'Ha!' said the angry god, 'Odysseus thinks all his sorrows are over. Even yet I think I can drive him far enough in the path of suffering.'

With that he gathered the clouds into great stormy masses, and roused up the waters of the deep. Soon the thick black mist hid both land and sea. He let loose all the fierce storms and wild winds, and made the dark night rush down. The winds fought and clashed together and made the sea swell up into furious billows that rolled onward, mountain high, towards the shore.

Then the heart of Odysseus failed him. 'Wretched man that I am,' said he, 'would that I had met my death fighting in Troyland, and been buried like a brave soldier there.'

As he spoke, a mighty wave smote the raft and rushed over it. The helm was torn from his hand, the mast was broken in two, the sail and yard-arm were hurled far away, and Odysseus was swept into the sea.

For long the weight and force of the huge wave kept him under, and his clothes were so heavily clogged with water that they made him sink. But at last he came up, and spat from his mouth the bitter salt water that streamed down his face and head. Even then he did not forget his raft, but made a spring after it in the waves, clutched hold of it, and clambered in again.

Hither and thither the great waves carried it. Like a scrap of thistledown chased before the winds, even so was the raft of Odysseus driven. The south wind would toss it to the north, and again the east wind would cast it to the west to chase.

So pitiful was the sight of brave Odysseus thus tortured by the vengeful god of the sea, that a fair sea-nymph felt sorrow for him.

Rising like a white-winged sea-gull from the waves, she climbed on to the raft and spake to Odysseus.

'The sea-god shall not slay thee,' she said. Do as I tell thee, and thou shalt not die. Cast off these heavy, water-logged clothes, leave the raft to drift, and swim with all thy strength to the land. Take now my veil and wind it round thee. With it on thou shalt be safe, and when thou dost grasp the mainland with thy hands, turn thy head away and let the veil fly back to the sea.'

With that she gave him her veil and dived like a bird into the water, and the dark waves closed over her.

But Odysseus believed not in her kindness.

'The gods have made a new plot for my ruin,' he thought. 'I will not obey this sea-nymph. This shall I do, as long as the timbers of my raft hold together, here will I stay. But if the storm shall drive the raft in pieces, then shall I swim, for there is nought else to do.'

Then the god of the sea stirred up against him a wave more terrible than any that had gone before, and with it smote the raft. Like chaff scattered by a great wind, so were the planks and beams of the raft scattered hither and thither. But Odysseus laid hold on a plank and bestrode it, as he might have ridden a horse. He stript off his wet clothes and wound around him the sea-nymph's veil. Then he dropt from the plank, and swam with all his might.

The god of the sea saw him and scornfully wagged his head.

'Go wandering over the sea, then,' he said, 'until thou findest help.'

Then he lashed his sea-horses, with their flowing white manes, and drove away to his own home far below the sea.

But Athene also saw Odysseus and bade all the winds be still but the swift North Wind. 'Blow hard, North Wind,' she said, 'and break the way before Odysseus till thou hast carried him on to the land of the Phaeacians.'

For two days and two nights Odysseus was borne onward on the swell of the sea.

When the third day dawned the breeze fell and there was a breathless calm, and he saw the land very near. With his heart near bursting with joy he swam on until he could see the trees on the shore.

Just then a great sound smote his ear, and he knew it was the thunder of the sea against a reef. Soon he saw that on that coast there were no harbours, nor any shelter for ships, but only jutting headlands and reefs, and great, rugged crags against which the sea broke thundering and crashing, and surging back in angry foam.

Then thought Odysseus: 'At last I have had a sight of the land, but there is no way to escape from the grey waters. If I try to land, the waves will dash my life out on those jagged rocks. If I swim further round the coast and try to find some inlet, then the storm-winds may catch me again and bear me onward far from the land, or the sea-god may send a monster from the shore water to devour me.'

But as he was thinking, a great wave bore him to where the breakers thundered on the reef. All his bones would have been broken, and his life dashed from his body, if Athene had not put a thought into his heart. As he was swept in with the rush of the wave, he clutched hold of the rock and clung there till the wave had gone by. But the fierce back-wash rushed on him, and the furious surge tore off his clinging fingers and cast him into the sea. With bleeding hands he sank under the great waves, and might have perished there, had not Athene once again whispered to him. He rose and swam outside the line of breakers, always looking for some inlet, until at length he came to where a fair river joined the sea.

Then Odysseus called aloud to the river and begged it to have pity on him, and to let him at last get safely to the land.

And the river was kind, and made the water smooth, and bore him up in its shining stream until he had reached the shore.

All bruised and swollen was his body, great streams of salt water gushed from his nostrils, but he lay on dry land at last, his breath and speech gone, wellnigh swooning. When he came to himself, he took the sea-nymph's veil and let it fall into the river. Swiftly it swept down the stream, and the nymph rose from the sea, caught it in her hands, and bore it away. Then Odysseus, kneeling down amongst the reeds by the river, kissed the earth for very gladness and thankfulness of heart.

'The river breeze blows shrewd and chill in the morning,' he thought, 'and the frosty night down here by the river might kill me.'

So he climbed up the hillside to a shady wood, and crept under the shelter of two olive-trees that grew so close together that no keen wind, nor sun, nor rain could pierce them.

There he made himself a bed of dry leaves, and lay down and heaped over himself the warm and fragrant covering.

Then Athene sent sleep to close his eyes, and at last warmth and comfort and happy dreams made him forget all the terrible things through which he had passed.



[1] "Tales Beyond Belief"

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