We Followed Odysseus
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Ithaca on the western shore of Greece. The distance there from Troy, Hal Roth tells us, is only 565 nautical miles. But due to some celebrated doings (and undoings), Odysseus wound up logging several thousand sea miles along the way. He got home, to be sure, but the journey took ten years.
Hal and Margaret Roth made the same trip in two, with time out to winter in Malta. They roamed the eastern Mediterranean in the 35-foot sloop Whisper, hungry for real and mythical history. Armed with half a lifetime’s sailing experience, equipped with the latest navigation gear, up to their necks in charts, treatises and translations of the Robert Fagles), they followed his presumed route, rowing ashore for fun, fresh water and local research wherever he was supposed to have landed.
Setting out from Troy in Turkey, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, the Roths land, at last, in Ithaca, where Odysseus, after a good meal and a warm bloodbath (briskly administered to Penelope’s suitors), at last gets to bed with his ultra-patient wife.
Happily for readers, along the watery way Roth not only synthesizes the salty lore of famous scholars and seamen, like Lionel Casson and Ernle Bradford, but retells much of the Odyssey in brisk and knowing prose.
This is important. The narrative is chronologically intricate. Its best parts are not about sailing, or our hero’s grim and goofy goings-on with man-eating monsters and sirens, but involve prewar politics in Ithaca, and Odysseus’ tricky homecoming.
Like the Iliad, the Odyssey may have been written by Homer, who may or may not have been blind, or by a committee of poets. Whoever put it together did so more than 400 years after the siege of Troy, which probably happened about 1200 B.C. Despite that gap, the story often describes Odysseus’ landfalls so precisely that oceans of scholarly ink have been expended, and thousands of nautical miles sailed, by passionate folk like the Roths trying to pin-point his progress around the Mediterranean world.
Odysseus seems to have set out with more than 600 men in 12 "black" ships. All 12 eventually were wrecked. Except for our hero, all the men were smashed up, drowned or eaten alive. Of course, the sea god Poseidon had it in for Odysseus. Roth makes clear, however, that even without being turned into swine, spending seven years with the wrong woman (see Calypso) and the sea god’s baleful attentions, the Greek way home might have proved to be one long nautical nightmare.
Those dramatically "black" ships were black because they had to be treated with pitch almost daily to keep them more or less waterproof. Little more than fragile 55-foot war canoes, they were light enough to be handily hauled out on any beach. They swamped easily in heavy seas and carried a scrap of square-rigged sail, good only to run before the wind; going to windward at all required 20 oarsmen. This pretty much entailed coastwise sailing or island-hopping, near enough to land to run up on a beach in storm weather, to spend the night, or even go ashore for lunch.
Today some of Odysseus’ presumed landfalls are full of tourists, lavish hotels and tiers of new villas. Some are backwaters with no electricity or potable water. The Mediterranean is always beautiful, however, and many coasts the Roths sailed were lonely and lovely. For this reader at least, one particular stop, the little port of Bonifacio on the south coast of Corsica, was a wonderful surprise, as well as a convincing proof of how literally Homer’s text can sometimes be relied upon. This is where surly Laestrygonians, hurling boulders down from towering cliffs, sank 11 of the Greek ships. Bonifacio’s harbor, Roth writes, "is one of the few places in the Mediterranean with complete shelter behind high cliffs; the anchorage mirrors Homer’s description: ‘A harbor ringed on all sides by precipitous cliffs, with a narrow entrance channel between two bold headlands.’" Charts and photographs make clear how easily you could simply drop great rocks on vessels moored below.