Mythology Mondays: Odysseus and Calypso

Part of my ongoing retelling of the adventures of Odysseus. Part I and Part II are previous Mythology Mondays.

Book Four of the Odyssey is the last of the introduction, the Telemachy. In this book, Telemachus travels to Sparta to meet with Menelaus and Helen in order to find out more from his father. After the Trojan War, Helen returned to Sparta supposedly happily with Menelaus, Paris and his brothers were all dead anyway. Interesting fact, Homer refers to Menelaus as red-haired. Not what you typically picture a Greek hero, eh?

Book Four passes much as Two and Three did, but Book Five is where it gets interesting.

Our hero Odysseus is “held captive” in the house of the nymph, Calypso. The extent to which she is holding him there is debatable. They are lovers, he has been there for a long time and he has only now started to “pine… racked with grief” for Ithaca.

It is Athena, again, who interferes. She approaches Zeus and begs him to let Odysseus return home. Zeus cannot agree right away - Odysseus has incurred the wrath of a couple of gods, most particularly Poseidon. So Zeus decrees that if Odysseus is to return it must be “on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains.” He has to return to Ithaca not as a King but as a man with nothing. If he can survive this last test, he can return.

Calypso is a Nereid - a sea-nymph and a daughter of Atlas. She’s imprisoned on an island when she supports Atlas and the Titans against Zeus. Odysseus has lived on her island, under her protection, for seven years. She is both his nurturer and his captor - she embodies the power of women. She has imprisoned him not with chains or walls, but with seduction.

Hermes is sent to tell Calypso that she must release Odysseus. Calypso has no choice but to obey. She is furious - she had planned to make Odysseus immortal and she believes that they are taking him away because they’re scandalized that she’s taken a mortal lover. But she has no choice. Zeus has ordered her.

She goes to find Odysseus. There is something very sad about this passage:

The queenly nymph sought out the great Odysseus-
the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears-
and found him there on the headland, sitting, still,
weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away
with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home
since the nymph no longer pleased. In the nights, true,
he’d sleep with her in the arching cave - he had no choice -
unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing…

It’s not Odysseus I’m sad for but Calypso. She loves him. He was happy to have her once, but has now grown tired of her. The truth is that Odysseus, by modern standards, is not the sympathetic character in the Odyssey. While his wife labours each day in Ithaca against the proposals of other men, Odysseus is never faithful to Penelope. But, of course, the Greek audience wouldn’t expect him to be.

But Calypso, like Dido in the Aeneid, is just a pawn in the heroic journey. She’s given him everything he’d want - even offered him immortality. She loves him, and yet he leaves her.

She addresses him kindly,

“No need, my unlucky one, to grieve here any longer,
no, don’t waste your life away. Now I am willing,
heart and soul, to send you off at last.”

Right away, Odysseus accuses her of plotting against him, sure that she has some plan to kill him as he leaves. He makes her swear an oath that she will never plot to hurt him. She swears on the River Styx, as all gods must, and leads him to his raft. He floats off into the sunset. In some versions of the myth, she tries to kill herself. But because she’s a goddess, she can’t die. And so her suicide is just an incredible amount of pain for her, with no release.

Odysseus bobs along in the ocean for a few days. It takes a while, but finally Poseidon notices him. He had been promised that Odysseus would remain in exile, and he’s furious. He crashes Odysseus’ little raft into the shore, rendering him shipwrecked once again in a foreign land.


  • By Faebala, July 6, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    Monty’s Mythology Mondays.

  • By Sebastian, July 9, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Aw, poor Calypso! I wondered where that name came from too!

    What form do the original poems/stanzas take? Are they rhymed ancient Greek? Or just… a tale?

  • By Hezabelle, July 9, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    Not rhymed, but verse in dactylic hexameter.

    The best translations are in verse too, it’s easier to follow. :)

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