07 May 2024

The Greeks have a word for it:
39, Odyssey, Ὀδύσσεια

A poster at the bus station in Rethymnon reminded me I was setting out on an Odyssey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

As I set out to leave Rethymnon last month, a poster on the door at the bus station reminded me of how, in English, we often speak of a long journey as an Odyssey, without ever thinking of the arduous ten-year journey home that Odysseus endured. Still less do we remind ourselves of the awful origins of the name Odysseus had to carry all his life.

Would James Joyce have had the same success with his magnum opus had he decided to name it Odysseus rather than Ulysses?

The etymology of the name Odysseus is unknown. Ancient authors linked the name to the Greek verbs ὀδύσσομαι (odussomai), ‘to be wroth against, to hate’; to ὀδύρομαι (oduromai), ‘to lament, bewail’; or even to ὄλλυμι (ollumi), ‘to perish, to be lost.’

Homer relates the name to various forms of this verb in references and puns. In Book 19 of the Odyssey, where Odysseus’ early childhood is recounted, Euryclea asks the boy’s grandfather Autolycus to name him. Euryclea seems to suggest a name like Polyaretos, ‘for he has much been prayed for’ (πολυάρητος). But Autolycus, ‘apparently in a sardonic mood’ decided to give the child another name that recalled ‘his own experience in life’:

‘Since I have been angered (ὀδυσσάμενος, odyssamenos) with many, both men and women, let the name of the child be Odysseus.’

The form Ὀδυσ(σ)εύς (Odys(s)eus) is used starting in the epic period and through the classical period. But there are other forms, including Oliseus (Ὀλισεύς), Olyseus (Ὀλυσεύς), Olysseus (Ὀλυσσεύς), Olyteus (Ὀλυτεύς), Olytteus (Ὀλυττεύς) and Ōlysseus (Ὠλυσσεύς). And so, In Latin, he became Ulixēs or Ulyssēs. The change between D and L is common in some Indo-European and Greek names.

None of us had any choice in the names we were given at birth. I, for one, would have preferred a name that indicated I had much been prayed for, rather than one that recalled how a previous generation had been angry with both men and women. In fact, my mother wanted to name me Paul (and continued to call me Paul for the rest of her life), but my uncle and godfather gave me the name Patrick.

As I checked out from the Hotel Brascos in Rethymnon at 12 noon, I knew there was a long odyssey ahead of me. I had a long amble through the streets and squares of the old town, by the former town beach and around the harbour, calling into some churches, coffee shops and small shops, making sure the memories of this town would not only linger but stay fixed once again in my mind and my affections.

A lingering moment at the harbour in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

I tried to make lunch near the Porta Guora last as long as possible, as though I was some lotus eater, unwilling to leave yet knowing the journey was ahead of me.

The walk from the hotel by the municipal gardens to the bus station is only five minutes, but there was no direct bus to Chania airport. The 1½-hour bus route is along the scenic north coast of western Crete, and took me by small coves, rocky beaches and places I have visited in the past, including Vryses, Georgioupoli and Souda Bay.

But I met my clashing rocks at KTEL bus station in Chania. The toilet facilities were closed, and the row of temporary cabins was filthy, each one dirty, uncleaned and cramped. The risks were great, and using one would also mean leaving my luggage outside.

I tried to make a complaint, but my voice was drowned out by the noises created a large group of students, and no-one at the station could see or hear, or was willing to deal with the problem. Compared with the facilities at the new bus station in Iraklion a few days earlier, I could only hope things get better before the tourist season gets truly busy, making the journey more comfortable for other travellers.

The station is only 10 minutes from the harbour in Chania. But rather than indulging in a quick visit to Chania, I decided to get the next available bus to airport, where I was certain the facilities would be comfortable.

This last bus journey brought me through the old town, by the municipal gardens, along Andrea Papandreou street (and what memories that street name evokes) and by the old clock tower. Outside Chania, as the bus passed the monastery of Saint John the Merciful near the village of Pazinos or Gagalado on Cape Akrotiri, I reminded myself of the many times I had promised myself to visit this beautiful monastery, a rare sample in Greece of western monastic architecture.

A strong storm was already blowing across Crete from north Africa. It was hot and dusty and already some flights were being delayed. But Chania Airport is a pleasant place when it’s not busy, and there was time to eat, to catch up on emails, and even to write for an hour.

Despite a short delay, the flight from Chania to Luton was still only a little over three hours. But there was still a coach journey from Luton to Milton Keynes, and a taxi from Milton Keynes to Stony Stratford. I arrived home almost 15 hours after I had checked out from the Hotel Brascos in Rethymnon.

At the end of his Odyssey, Odysseus arrives back in Ithaka, where Penelope is waiting faithfully for his return.

My odyssey was over, but I shall set out again soon.

Penelope waiting for Odysseus … Μαριάννα Βαλλιάνου, Η επιστροφή, Mariánna Valliánou, ‘The Return’

In the poem ‘Ithaka,’ Cavafy transforms Homer’s account of the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War to his home island. This transformation is a variation on how Dante and Tennyson handle the same theme. They offer an Odysseus who arrives home after a long absence only to find Ithaka less than fully satisfying and who soon makes plans to travel forth a second time.

However, Cavafy answers them by telling Odysseus that arriving in Ithaka is what he is destined for, and that he must keep that always in mind: one’s destiny, the inevitable end of the journey, is a thing to be faced for what it is, without illusions.

‘May there be many a summer morning when,/ with what pleasure, what joy,/ you come into harbours seen for the first time’ … the Venetian harbour in Réthymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The meaning of Ithaka is in the voyage home that it inspired. It is not reaching home or again escaping its limitations once there that should occupy Odysseus so much as those elevated thoughts and rare excitement that are a product of the return voyage.

As Edmund Keeley says, this new perspective is what frees the voyager’s soul of the monsters, obstacles and angry gods, so that when the voyager reaches his Ithaka he will be rich not with what Ithaka has to offer him on his return, but with all that he has gained along the way, including his coming to know that this perspective on things, this unhurried devotion to pleasure and knowledge, is Ithaka’s ultimate value.

‘As you set out for Ithaka/ hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ιθάκη, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ’ έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά
σε πόλεις Aιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Aλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν

Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

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Next word: 40, Practice, πρᾶξις

A promise to return … Pavlos Beach in Platanias, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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