Riding the wave

THE MYTH OF ULYSSES

Ulysses, in greek Odysseus, king of Ithaca and son of Laertes and Anticlea, is the most famous hero of antiquity. His legend has been subjected to alterations and additions since ancient times and, even more than the one of Achilles , gave rise to symbolic and mystical interpretations.

In the Iliad he is the faithful collaborator of Agamemnon and of the other heroes, valiant warrior and shrewd and cunning. In the Odyssey, where he is the main character, he is inspired by genuine nostalgia for home and family, and devises ways of escape for himself and his comrades; he is protected and guided by the goddess Athena in the adventures that take him to face strange peoples, scary monsters and the terrible fury of the sea, unleashed by Poseidon against him.

Ulysses had led to Troy a fleet of twelve ships, but all were lost during the long journey back to Ithaca, where he arrived finally after ten years on a ship made available by the king of Phaeacia, Alcinous.

Ulysses receives a skin Ulysses receives a skin that will be used for Polyphemus drunk. Seceliotas crater, fourth century B.C., Aeolian Museum

Already at the beginning of the navigation he had some difficulties: a storm had separated him from Agamemnon, with whom he left Troy, forcing him to take land in Thrace, the land of Cicones; then a north wind had pushed him in the country of Lotus Eaters, but the real misfortunes fell upon him and his ship after he provoked the wrath of Poseidon, who never forgave him to have blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. Escaped from the Cyclops, Ulysses reached the island of Aeolus , king of the winds, who received him hospitably and gave him a cowskin, containing all the winds except a favorable breeze, which had to direct him back to Ithaca. He was already in sight of the fires set by shepherds on the island, when the hero fell asleep; his comrades, believing that the skin of Aeolus contained gold, opened it and the winds ran off causing a storm that drove the vessels in the opposite direction, making them land again at Aeolus, whom he asked again a favorable wind.

Aeolus replied that it could not do anything for him, now that the gods had so openly expressed their hostility to his return. Ulysses then sailed randomly toward north and landed in the country of Lestrigons , then identified with the coast near Formia and Gaeta.

There he lost all ships except his own, because the Lestrigons, eaters of men, chased down the sea the sailors that he had sent on ahead, stoned and smashed the Greek ships, and only Odysseus was able to cut the cord that held his ship and take off.

The Lestrigons attack Ulysses The Lestrigons attack Ulysses and his comrades. Wall painting from the House on the Esquiline, the first century. Vatican Museums

With only one ship and its crew, the route continued northward and soon landed on the island of Ea, where dwelt the enchantress Circe. He left the island after a few months, maybe a year, of adventures with his companions and Circe, and managed to overcome, following the advice of the sorceress, the perils of the Sirens , the Wandering Rocks and of Scylla and Charybdis , and came somewhere in the island of Trinacria, where grazed the white cattle of the God Sun. Here, driven by hunger, the sailors killed some cattle, despite the express prohibition of Ulysses.

This time, when the ship resumed sailing, it was no more Poseidon with pitfalls, but Jupiter, with whom the Sun had complained of the affront suffered with the murder of his oxen, requesting repair; the father of the gods unleashed a violent storm, the ship was struck by lightning, and only Odysseus, who had refused to participate in the feast of sacrilege, could save himself clinging to a tree, bounced from the sea for nine days, till he came, very badly reduced, to the island of Calypso.

The Sirens bewitch Ulysses The Sirens bewitch Ulysses, a crater of the fifth century B.C. (detail) London, British Museum

The nymph held him with her many years, until Athena, protector of the hero, prayed Zeus, who sent to Calypso by Hermes the order to let him go; Calypso, reluctantly gave him the necessary wood to build a raft and Odysseus sailed eastward. But still the anger of Poseidon had not calmed down, and he aroused a storm that broke up the raft; the hero, clinging to a wreck, completely naked, finally arrived on the island of Phaeacia, that in the Odyssey is called Scheria and is likely identifiable as Corfu.

Odysseus interrogates the shadow of Tiresias Odysseus interrogates the shadow of the fortune-teller Tiresias, who had received the gift of prophecy by the goddess Minerva , as compensation for the blindness with which he was punished for having seen her naked. Detail of calyx krater , IV century B.C., Paris, (new window)">Bibliothèque Nationale

Here end the wanderings of Odysseus at sea: back to Ithaca by a ship of the King Alcinous, he has to face the suitors, who wanted to seize the kingdom by marrying his wife Penelope; he exterminates them all in a race with the bow, held in his own palace , is recognized by Penelope and the father Laertes, and thanks to the intervention of Athena, restores the peace in the island. This episode concludes the story of the Odissey.

Poets later added an infinite series of mysterious adventures and journeys made during the remainder of his existence; some of these wanderings came from the prediction of Tiresias, who asked Odysseus, in the Odyssey, to offer sacrifices to placate Poseidon, especially where the sea and rowing were unknown.

So took up his presence in Arcadia and Thesprotia, in Italy, where in Tirrenia (the Etruscan region) he founded thirty cities; they also attributed to him the foundation of Lisbon , and spoke of his travels in Gaul, in Caledonia and in Germany until the banks of the Rhine.

The myth of Ulysses is present in all modern literature, starting with the famous episode of Inferno, where Dante makes him the symbol of man, not made "to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge", and following with many plays, musical works, up to the Ulisside, the word invented by D'Annunzio to identify the prototype of the indefatigable explorer, seeking new knowledge and experience.

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