Malta’s encounter with Homer’s greatest hero
In his travelogue The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean (published in 1995), the renowned American novelist and traveller Paul Theroux writes: “You cannot do better than use the authority of the Odyssey to prove that your home-town was once important”.
The Maltese Islands’ association with the Odyssey, written in about 800 BC by the great Homer, reputedly the Father of European Literature, goes back to the third century BC.
Homer’s monumental epic poems, namely the Odyssey and the Iliad record in verse oral traditions based on much older events involving the adventurous Mycenaeans whose Empire endured from 1600 to 1200 BC.
For centuries Gozo has been identified as the abode of the sensuous nymph Calypso. For seven long years Odysseus (Ulysses) was detained by the pining nymph who exercised all her charms to seduce him, even offering him immortality.
But in spite of Ulysses’s daunting spirit and tough exterior, his longing to be back home in Ithaca with his wife Penelope was stronger than Calypso’s vain attempts, so beautifully expressed in a very sad lament – one of the most moving passages in the Odyssey.
According to an erudite study by Anthony Bonanno of the University of Malta, Gozo’s connection with the Homeric island of Calypso is not a recent fabrication, and he quotes the Alexandrian scholar Callimachus (c. 305-245 BC.) to prove this.
Prof. Bonanno points out that this identification of Gozo with Homer’s greatest hero lingered on through the ages; in fact a renowned German scholar, Philipp Cluver, in his travelogue on ancient Sicily published in 1619, was convinced of this theory.
Cluver only shifted his location of Ulysses’s amorous sojourn to Mellieħa Heights with its caverns, verdant vegetation and azure sea. The mysterious Ġnien Ingraw overlooking Mellieħa Bay also fits in perfectly with Homer’s glowing description in the Odyssey: “It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight”.
It is no coincidence that a contemporary of Cluver’s, the celebrated Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), painted an amorous scene of Ulysses and Calypso in a cavern with a Maltese dog lurking underneath.
Further Maltese links with Homer’s Odyssey emerge after the discovery of Troy in 1870 by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who was encountering enormous difficulties with the Turkish authorities to continue excavations on the plains of Troy now called Hissarlik (Turkish for fort).
Schliemann had to rely on the support of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Austen Layard, who was for a long time a special correspondent in the Orient for the Malta Times.
Nora Kubie, in her book Road to Niniveh, states that the Malta Times was “an excellent paper widely read in the Levant”.
Another episode in this long sequence of Malta’s connections with Homeric encounters relate to the Mycenaeans’ treasures.
Schliemann’s lust to amass more treasures similar to the gold mask and diadems he unearthed in Mycenae where hero-knights preserved quantities of decorated gold cups, jewellery and other personal adornments in their tombs, made the German archaeologist cast his envious eyes on Malta. In January 1883 he dispatched to Malta one of his closest collaborators in Troy, A.H. Sayce (later Professor of Assyriology in Oxford), to study and report back to Schliemann “the spiral motifs on the northern island of Gozo” as these reminded him of those on the Mycenaean tombstones.
A few years ago, while researching the incunabula section (books printed before 1500) at the National Library in Valletta, I experienced the poet John Keats’s elation, feeling “like some watcher of the sky/When a new planet swims into his ken” as, included in the list of these very precious books, was an invaluable copy of the History of Troy, a very rare edition printed in 1499 in Venice.
In fact, the Homeric collection of our prestigious National Library boasts of another 11 rare editions. That such a small island possesses such ancient literary gems speaks highly of the essentially European culture of the Maltese Islands, especially with the coming of the Knights of St John in 1530, when the need of establishing a prestigious library was immediately felt.
The character of Ulysses has been extensively adopted in international literature, offering a rich trawl through Classical, Renaissance and contemporary sources, from Dante’s Inferno to Primo Levi at Auschwitz concentration camp when, in those terrifying conditions 70 years ago, the shipwreck of Ulysses became the guiding metaphor of his survival.
For my generation, brought up on a strict diet of Victorian poets, the figure of Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) stands high and mighty as his memory was recently rekindled when the last line of his poem ‘Ulysses’ was engraved at the entrance of the Athletes’ Village in London for the 2012 Olympic Games.
By sheer coincidence these final evocative words – “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield” – portraying the resolute determination of Ulysses, had been etched on a huge Latin cross erected to commemorate Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s death in 1911 in Antarctica during a blizzard while attempting to reach the South Pole and “secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement”.
I must confess that Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’, expressing the eternally wandering spirit of man, has been a defining moment in my life, as in the twilight of my turbulent life I find it extremely “dull to make an end/to rust unburnished, not to shine in use”.
In this poem I experience an uplifting of the spirit with its striking metaphors, imaginative exploration of the myth of Ulysses as well as the expert weaving of history and tradition.
Tennyson’s poem projects Ulysses’s cravings to pursue knowledge for its own sake as well as to find meaning in life. Its impact on my young but fertile imagination was immense, viewing Ulysses in my mind’s eye as a resolute and determined adventurer intent “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.
I have to admit that I have great reverential respect for genuine poets in any language partly because of their mastery of imagery, metre and measured lines, heightened by colourful language and figures of speech. Perhaps my occasional habit of waxing lyrical is due to this adulation, an indulgence hopefully forgiven as I venture into “the realms of gold”.