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On the Track of Ulysses Together with an Excursion in Quest of the So-called Venus of Melos

Two Studies in Archaeology, Made During a Cruise Among the Greek Islands

200 pages
Library of Alexandria
What remains for exploration to find on the surface of our little earth? The north and south poles, some outlying bits of Central Africa, some still smaller remnants of Central Asia,—all defended so completely by the elements, barbarism, disease, starvation, by nature and inhumanity, that the traveler of modest means and moderate constitution is as effectually debarred from their discovery as if they were the moon. What then? I said to myself, searching for adventure. Let us begin the tread-mill round again and rediscover. I took up the earliest book of travel which remains to us, and set to burnish up again the golden thread of the journey of the most illustrious of travelers, as told in the Odyssey, the book of the wanderings of Odysseus, whom we unaccountably call Ulysses, which we may consider not only the first history of travel, but the first geography, as it is doubtless a compendium of the knowledge of the earth’s surface at the day when it was composed, as the Iliad was the census of the known mankind of that epoch. Spread on this small loom, the fabric of the story, of the most subtle design,—art of the oldest and noblest,—is made up with warp of the will of the great gods, crossed by the woof of the futile struggles of the lesser, the demi-gods, the heroes, and tells the miserable labors of the most illustrious of wanderers, the type for all time of craft, duplicity, and daring, as well as of faith and patient endurance. But as Homer’s humanity mixes by fine degrees with his divinity, so his terra cognita melts away into fairy-land, and we must look for a trace written on water before landing on identifiable shores. The story opens finding Ulysses the prisoner of Love and Calypso, in Ogygia, a fairy island of which the Greek of Homeric days had heard, perhaps, from some storm-driven mariner, or which may be a bit of brain-land. The details of the story make it very difficult even to conjecture where Ogygia was, if it was. How Ulysses leaves the island alone on a raft is told by the poet in the fifth canto; how he got there the hero recounts in the narration to Alcinoüs in Phæacia. Leaving Troy, he stops at Ismarus, a town on the coast of Thrace, which he surprises and sacks; but, repulsed by the inhabitants of the lands near by, rallying to the defense, and visited by the wrath of the gods for his impiety, he is punished by a three days’ gale, and reaches Cape Malea, where, unable to stem the north wind which still persecutes him, he runs past Cerigo down to the African coast, which he reaches in nine days. Here we enter into semi-fable. The Lotophagi seduce his men with their magic fruit which brings oblivion, and he is obliged to fly again. This time he goes north, and comes to an island which lies before the port of the Cyclops, a terrible race: giants with one eye, and cannibals, over whose land the smoke hangs like whirlwinds—evidently Sicily. This little island, where the Greeks debark, is not to be identified, but is probably one of those to the west of Sicily, called later the Ægades. Thence, after the famous adventure of the Cyclops’ cave, one of the poet’s most marvelous inventions (since every detail shows that there was no positive knowledge of the land or its people—only a fantastic tradition), they fly and arrive at the floating island of Æolus, still a creation of mythology, and thence to the shores of the Læstrygonians, another fabulous, man-eating race, in whose land the days are separated only by a brief pretense of night; escaping thence with his single ship and crew, Ulysses arrives at Æa, the island of Circe, from earliest classical times identified with Cape Circeo, between Naples and Cività Vecchia.