Penning a route for lost Odysseus


Luxury pen-making company Montblanc keeps sending me press releases, though not yet any pens. Its latest release celebrates those ancient foundations of Western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and thus writing, and hence, presumably, very expensive pens, by means of a party in Greece.

It was held at Costa Navarino in southern Greece, “the region where much of Homer’s Odyssey took place”, says the release, and at Pylos, where the palace of the Homeric King Nestor is supposed to have been.

Now there’s a bit of a cultural fudge going on here. Obviously the Montblanc party-planners are unfamiliar with the fact that very little in the Odyssey (and nothing in the Iliad) takes place on mainland Greece. Odysseus’s son Telemachus goes from Pylos to Sparta in search of news of his missing father, but as far as one can tell from the Odyssey, its protagonist never sets foot on mainland Greece at all.

Admittedly the island retrospectively named Ithaka is off that western coast. Pylos may have been the home of King Nestor but King Nestor probably didn’t exist.

Troy, where the Iliad takes place, is in Asia. Odysseus spends his decade getting home from Troy to Ithaka, lost among the islands in the sea between the Asian coast and the eastern Greek coast. He was lost and confused because the gods kept obstructing him, not because he went a very long way. We are given a nine-day count for one voyage in the Odyssey, and that could take his ship to the coast of Africa, which, for prejudiced cultural reasons, was deemed to be the land of the Laestrygonians, who were of course cannibals.

Yet Montblanc’s fogginess is minor compared with the outright invention of something called, which provides an itinerary for Odysseus’s wanderings and landings that goes a very long way beyond a bit of island-hopping in the Aegean. Some of their locations aren’t even islands. Do the people of Agrigento on the coast of Sicily know they are identified with the home of those one-eyed giants the Cyclopes?

Yes, ancient dons speculated that Odysseus might have gone beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and that the Island of Circe was somewhere in the wild and mysterious Atlantic, but that notion was pooh-poohed by centuries of scholars. Tradition placed Circe, logically, on Malta. As for Tripline’s wild imaginings, you don’t need to take Odysseus all the way to Ibiza to meet the enchantress, though it’s a charmingly trippy idea.

Placing Scylla and Charybdis in the Straits of Messina, between Sardinia and Italy, is slightly more plausible, but still unnecessary. Other locations given by Tripline are simply bizarre, and it’s all presented as though it was solidly researched fact, not the purest thumbsuck. (Frighteningly, it is applauded by readers for providing information for “grade seven” essays!)

The oddest attribution is placing the Underworld in or at Valencia in Spain. They mean, surely, an entrance to the Underworld — but even so.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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