Home » Horizons » Greek mythical lands: the Odyssey


The Homeric Odyssey describes a wide variety of fantastic locations and legendary journeys.


For nine days I was driven by fierce winds over the teeming sea: but on the tenth we set foot on the shores of the Lotus-eaters, who eat its flowery food.
- Homer, Odyssey [9.82-84].

The Lotus Eaters

After leaving the Cicones of Thrace, Odysseus' armada encounters storms which blow them well off course. They eventually make landfall in the land of the Lotus Eaters, a tribe in whose land grows a plant with narcotic effects, which is used by the Lotus Eaters as a nepenthe. Several of Odysseus' followes succumb to the effects of the drug and have to be dragged back to the ships a hasty exit is made.

The Lotus Eaters were believed to have inhabited the island of Djerba, in the bay of Syrtis Magna in Libya, where both Hecataeus and Herodotus [4.177] placed a people by the name (Lotophagoi). This tallies well enough with Homer, who has Odysseus blasted off course by the north wind twice (for a total of eleven days) before landing in the domain of the Lotus Eaters [9.82-84]. However, as Robin Hard states, "their land is located in a purely mythical realm in Homer's account," with Robin Lane Fox concurring, indicating that "they belong in 'neverland'."


From there we sailed with heavy hearts, and came to the land of the Cyclopes, a lawless, aggressive people, who never lift their hands to plant or plough, but rely on the immortal gods. Wheat, barley, and vines with their richly clustered grapes, grow there without ploughing or sowing, and rain from Zeus makes them flourish.
A fertile island lies slantwise outside the Cyclopes' harbour, well wooded and neither close to nor far from shore. Countless wild goats inhabit it, since there is nothing to stop them, no hunters to suffer the hardship of beating a path through its woods, or to roam its mountaintops. There are no flocks, and no ploughed fields: but always unsown, and untilled it is free of mankind and nurtures only bleating goats.
For this island is by no means poor, but would carry any crop in due season. There are rich well-watered meadows there, along the shore of the grey sea, where vines would never fail. There is level land for the plough with soil so rich they could reap a dense harvest in season. And there's a safe harbour where there's no need for moorings, neither anchor stones nor hawsers: you can beach your ship and wait till the wind is fair and the spirit moves you to sail.
Now, at the head of the harbour a stream of bright water flows out from a cave ringed by poplars.
- Homer, Odyssey [9.105-111; 116-124; 131-139; 141-143].

Polyphemus is blinded

From there, the crew sail to the idyllic home of the Cyclopes (which is probably the "broad Hypereia" mentioned as the Phaeacians' former abode at 6.4-8), where they have a terrifying encounter with Polyphemus, losing several men, before Odysseus' cunning engineers an escape.

Initially, Odysseus & his crew land on an island guarding the entrance to the harbour on the main island, the description of which presents an image of an earthly paradise, abounding in edible vegetation, calling to mind Plato's myth of the age of Cronus in the Statesman [271d], with the primordial anarchism of Cronus' subjects [271e] similar to the lack of centralisation prevalent among the Cyclopes [9.112-115], who live by transhumance and have no specific law codes [9.105-111]. Significantly, a stream runs from flows from a cave, bringing to mind Ogygia and the sources of Oceanus. Atlantis, though dissimilar from the Cyclops' island in many respects, is described in similar terms, as "highly fertile" [Crit. 113c]. Atlantis' fecundity is treated in Crit. 114d-115b. This islet, with its population of goats, also brings to mind the etymology of the names Eumelus and Gadeirus, given to the second twin son of Poseidon [114b]. It is also worth noting that Polyphemus, like the lords of Atlantis, was a son of Poseidon - indeed, Odysseus' injuring of the Cyclops led to the invocation and subsequent wrath of the god on behalf of his son, which would dog Odysseus' endeavours for a decade afterwards. Polyphemus and his fellow Cyclopes, with their one central eye, may represent the fearsome setting aspect of the sun, argues Douglas Frame. Frame regards the episode as complementary to that on Thrinacia covered below, which, like the encounter with Polyphemus, results in a catastrophic loss of personnel.


So we came to the floating island of Aeolia, where Aeolus lived, son of Hippotas, dear to the deathless gods. A wall of unbroken bronze surrounds it, and the cliffs are sheer.
- Homer, Odyssey [10.1-4].


Odysseus makes two visits to the island of Aeolus, god of the winds, where he is initially given a bag of winds, with the aid of which his ships manage to hove into sight of the crew's homeland of Ithaca. However, whilst Odysseus sleeps, the curiosity of his followers gets the better of them and, opening the bag, they are driven back, where they are refused any further help as a result of their stupidity.

The description of the "wall of unbroken bronze," a Homeric attribute reflecting popular beliefs about the dwellings of supernatural entities, is redolent of the wall of Tartarus in the Theogony and Atlantis' concentric walls, each covered in a different metal: "they covered with brass, as though with plaster, all the circumference of the wall which surrounded the outermost circle; and that of the inner one they coated with tin; and that which encompassed the acropolis itself with orichalcum which sparkled like fire" [Crit. 116b-c].

Additionally, Aeolus lives with his six sons and six daughters [10.5-7], who can perhaps be imagined as a vague precursor Plato's description of Poseidon and his ten sons in Atlantis. Aeolus, as the son of Hippotas, also resembles the figure by the name in the Melanippe genealogy, which the late Slobodan Dušanić argues served as the model for Plato's Atlanteans. In a footnote, Dušanić reminds the reader that "Melanippe's lineage contains an Hippotes and an Hippe."


Six days and nights we sailed, and on the seventh we reached Telepylus, the great Laestrygonian citadel of Lamus, where the herdsman driving in his flock at the day's end calls to the herdsman driving his out as the day begins. There night and day is one, and a man who needs no sleep could earn a double wage, one for herding the cattle, one for grazing the white sheep.
We reached a fine harbour, with a stretch of sheer cliff on both sides, and narrow access between the opposing headlands, jutting out at its mouth. My captains took their curving ships inside, and moored them close together in the cavernous harbour, since all around us was shining calm, with never a wave, great or small.
- Homer, Odyssey [10.80-.94].

The ships next come into port in the land of the terrifying, gigantic Laestrygones or Laestrygonians, a people with a monarchical government. Entreaties for hospitality are rebuffed in a cruel manner, with the mountain-high denizens hurling rocks at Odysseus' ships & spearing his men. Only Odysseus' ship survives to sail on.

The Laestrygonians attack!

The Laestrygonians are, in common with the Cyclopes, depicted as savage creatures who regard Odysseus and his crew as potential sources of protein and little else. Dimitri Nakassis, from the description of their land as perennially sunlit, places them in the easternmost reaches of Homeric geography and contrasts the description of their realm with that of the Cimmerians. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath places the Cimmerians at "the northernmost point of its [i.e. Oceanus'] circle," which would logically put the Laestrygonians in the south. Their city, Telepylus, means "far away gate" and reflects the gate through which the sun was believed to set out on its daily journey, as well as the corresponding gate to the underworld. Frame notes the similarity in the description of the herdsmen greeting each other and Hesiod's description of Night and Day encountering one another at the gates of Tartarus [Theogony 748-750c], which further serves to locate Telepylus' origins in the eschatology of the Greek underworld. The Laestrygonians also share the distinction of gigantic stature and hostility to humans with the Cyclopes and, as Frame notes, Odysseus leaves his own ship at a safe distance before both adventures. They fit the pattern of savage or supernatural elements present on the edges of the earth and suggest the potentially terrifying effects of an invasion from such a zone, as is the case with Atlantis.


I reached a rocky height with a wide view, and standing there I saw smoke rising through thick scrub and woodland, from the wide clearing where Circe's halls lay.
They found Circe's house of polished stone, in a clearing in the forest glades. Round it wolves and mountain lions prowled, bewitched by Circe with her magic drugs.
- Homer, Odyssey [10.148-150; 210-213].


A short sail from the Laestrygonians, Odysseus lands on the island of Aeaea, the home of the powerful sorceress Circe. A small group of men is dispatched to reconnoitre the island, but they are transformed into pigs by the sorceress. Odysseus is spared a similar fate through the intervention of his ancestor Hermes [10.275-279], who gives him a herb, moly, which makes him invulnerable to Circe's magic. Defied in this way, Circe agrees to undo her work and provides considerable hospitality in her "house of polished stone" [10.210-211] with "shining doors" [10.230]. It is she who reveals the next stages of the journey, including a visit to the underworld to consult the shade of Teiresias [10.524, 537], after which they return and are given further aid by the enchantress.

Though Homer explicitly places Circe's home in the east "where Eos the Dawn has her House and Dancing Floor: [...] where the sun rises" [12.3-4d], later tradition, beginning with the pseudo-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, which places her on "the island over against Tyrrhenia" [Fr. 46], suggests that she was in the west, with Monte Circeo, a peninsula in southern Latium, representing something of a consensus, to which she was transported on the chariot of her father Helios by her brother Æëtes. The Catalogue specified the location as "Hesperian." Additionally, as Frame notes, Odysseus is unable to ascertain their location during the first visit to Aeaea due to an inability to discern where the sun rises and sets. Though Nakassis suggests that this is due to the crew's being in the furthest east, it is equally likely that Aeaea may have shared some properties with Aeolus' floating island. Vestiges of her presence in the east survived in the form of a "Circaean plain" in Æëtes kingdom of Aea (later identified with Colchis), which appears in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes [2.402; 3.200]: -

The plain, I wis, is called Circe's; and here in line grow many willows and osiers, on whose topmost branches hang corpses bound with cords.
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica [3.200-203].

The Argonautica, which reiterates Circe's western location and repeats the myth of her transportation [3.309-313], elaborates on the menagerie present on Aeaea: alongside the cowed beasts of the Odyssey, Circe now has a retinue of hemilovecraftian aberrations, generated from "primeval slime" on the island [4.671-674].

Odysseus in Erebus


All day long with straining sail she glided over the sea, till the sun set and all the waves grew dark.
So she came to the deep flowing Ocean that surrounds the earth, and the city and country of the Cimmerians, wrapped in cloud and mist.
The bright sun never shines down on them with his rays neither by climbing the starry heavens nor turning back again towards earth, but instead dreadful Night looms over a wretched people.
- Homer, Odyssey [11.11-19].

The realm of the Cimmerians is close to the entrance to the land of the dead, termed Erebus [10.528], meaning "darkness" and this is stated to be in the extreme west of the Homeric world [ibid., cf. 12.80-81]. "there was a tendency to place the abode of the dead in the West," writes H.J. Rose, who continues by stating that "the two ideas [i.e. an underground & extreme western land of the dead] were reconciled at an early date (we find the process complete in the Odyssey) by supposing some locality in the farthest known West to be the entrance, or at least the normal entrance, to" Hades' realm. In addition, Robin Lane Fox proffers a tantalising suggestion for the origin of Homer's description of "a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron, Cocytus, which is a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon" [10.513-514] from the dimly-known west: -

Near Huelva two great rivers meet, the Rio di Huelva and the 'fiery' Rio Tinto with its famous red water, a true Pyriphlegethon. They collide at a conspicuous rock which is now the site of the Catholic Christian monastery of Santa Maria da Rabida. Had Homer or his fellow-poets heard of this memorable landmark which lay so far away towards Outer Ocean in the west? Had it passed into their imagined topography of the distant underworld?

With regards the relationship between the Homeric Cimmerians and the historical group of nomads who bore this name, it may be mear coincidence, or else it could betray the influence of an early Argonautica which knew of Cimmerians dwelling in the area east of Colchis, as was the case during their entrance into historical record in around 714 BC.


Circe describes to Odysseus the perilous route he must take to reach the underworld, and the precise nature of the rituals he must perform in order to make his enquiries of Teiresias: -

Odysseus, man of many resources, scion of Zeus, son of Laertes, don’t think of finding a pilot to guide your vessel, but raise your mast and spread your white sail, and take your seat aboard, and the North Wind’s breath will send her on her way. When you have crossed the Ocean stream, beach your ship by the deep swirling waters on a level shore, where tall poplars, and willows that shed seed, fill the Groves of Persephone. Then go to the moist House of Hades. There is a rock where two roaring rivers join the Acheron, Cocytus, which is a tributary of the Styx, and Pyriphlegethon. Draw near then, as I bid you, hero, and dig a trench two feet square, then pour a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then pray devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when you reach Ithaca you will sacrifice a barren heifer in your palace, the best of the herd, and will heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock.
And when you have petitioned the glorious host of the dead, with prayers, sacrifice a ram and a black ewe, holding their heads towards Erebus, while you look behind towards the running streams. Then the hosts of the dead will appear. Call then to your comrades, and tell them to flay and burn the sheep killed by the pitiless bronze, with prayers to the divinities, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. You yourself must draw your sharp sword and sit there, preventing the powerless ghosts from drawing near to the blood, till you have questioned Teiresias. Soon the seer will come, you leader of men, and give you your course, and the distances, so you can return home over the teeming waters.
- Homer, Odyssey [10.504-540].


A siren

Next you will come to the Sirens who beguile all men that approach them. Whoever encounters them unawares and listens to their voices will never joy at reaching home, his wife and children to greet him. Instead the Sirens' tempt him with their limpid song, as they sit there in the meadow with a vast heap of mouldering corpses, bones on which hangs the shrivelled skin.
- Homer, Odyssey [12.39-46].

Circe describes Odysseus' forthcoming encounter with the Sirens and the precautions he must undertake to ensure his safety should he (as he inevitably does) wish to hear their song. The Sirens appear to have preternatural knowledge of who it is they are addressing . The Argonauts, who have also passed this way, are fortunate to have among their number the peerless musician Orpheus, whose music drowns out the Sirens' song. The name Anthemoessa is derived from Hesiod and means "flowery meadow."


One leads to sheer cliffs, against which green-eyed Amphitrite hurls her vast roaring breakers, the blessed gods call them the Wandering Rocks. Not even birds can pass between them unscathed, not even the timorous rock-doves that bring ambrosia to Father Zeus. The slippery rock always takes one, and Zeus must send another to complete their number. Crews that reach the rocks can never escape, instead ships' timbers and human corpses are tossed by the waves or in gushers of cruel fire. Only one ocean-going vessel has passed between them, the celebrated Argo fleeing from Aeetes, and the waves would have quickly broken her on the massive crags, if Hera had not seen her through, because of her care for Jason.
The other course leads to two cliffs, one whose sharp peak towers to the wide heavens. A dark cloud caps it that never vanishes to leave clear skies, even in summer or at harvest. No mortal could climb it and set foot on the summit, not though he had twenty hands and feet: the rock is smooth as if it were polished.
In the centre of this cliff-face is a dark cave, facing West towards Erebus.
- Homer, Odyssey [12.59-81].

As soon as the Sirens had been passed, Odysseus comes upon "spray, and huge breakers, and heard their thunder" [12.202]. He has been given a choice of two courses by which to reach Thrinacia, the island of Helios, either via the twin dangers of the sea monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis or the Planctae or Wandering Rocks, which had been encountered by Jason during his flight from Aea.


Choosing the former, a precarious passage is made between Scylla and Charybis with the loss of several hands. Both the Planctae and the strait between Scylla and Charybdis seem to carry vestiges of an axis mundi: the Planctae are described as "sheer cliffs" [12.59] while the strait is located between "two cliffs, one whose sharp peak towers to the wide heavens. A dark cloud caps it that never vanishes to leave clear skies, even in summer or at harvest" [12.73-75]. In the case of the latter, the description is highly reminiscent of Herodotus' account of Mount Atlas [4.184]: "so lofty, moreover, that the top (it is said) cannot be seen, the clouds never quitting it either summer or winter."

Homer makes Scylla the daughter of Crataiis [12.124], probably a form of Hecate: The Great Eoiae [Fr. 13], also ascribed to Hesiod, makes her the daughter of Helios and this dread goddess. A possible chthonic resonance for Scylla also appears the description of her cave, which is described as "facing West towards Erebus" [12.80-81]. Scylla's normal diet was "dolphins and seals or one of the greater creatures that Amphitrite breeds in countless numbers in the moaning depths" [12.96-97], though she was not averse to supplementing this with hapless passing sailors, as several of Odysseus' crewmates found to their cost.

Odysseus, you will notice the other cliff is lower, only a bow-shot away, and a great fig-tree with dense leaves grows there. Under it divine Charybdis swallows the black waters. Three times a day, she spews them out, and three times darkly sucks them back again. No one, not even Poseidon, could save you from destruction if you are there when she swallows.
- Homer, Odyssey [12.101-107].

With regards to Charybdis, the description of this monster, whose origins certainly lay in sailors' tales of whirlpools and who was later rationalised as such a phenomenon, alternately sucking in and spewing out the waters of the sea suggest some measure of commonality with Ogygia: whereas Ogygia is described as being located at the ὀμφαλός [...] θάλασσα [1.50], Charybdis has the functions expected of the "navel of the sea." Paulus Diaconus, a.k.a. Paulus Warnefridi, makes mention of northern whirlpools and draws comparisons with Charybdis: off the shore wherein seven sleepers dwell in a cave (a story transported hence from the south, where early Christian sources place seven sleepers in a cave at Ephesus) near the Scritobini ("Skridfinns," almost certainly a Sami population) "on the west, where the ocean extends without bounds, is that very deep abyss of the waters which we commonly call the ocean's navel. It is said twice a day to suck the waves into itself, and to spew them out again; as is proved to happen along all these coasts, where the waves rush in and go back again with fearful rapidity. Such a gulf or whirlpool is called by the poet Virgil Caribdis" [1.6]. Viktor Rydberg, in his idiosyncratic exploration of Germanic mythology, associates the navel of the ocean with the Grotte-mill and Hvergelmir.

As the medieval period drew on, the great whirlpool which drew in the waters of the ocean came to be located at the North Pole. A 13th century English friar purported to provide a description of the region, which he had visited as an emissary of Edward III of England, wrote a work called the Inventio Fortunata, which was summarised by Jacobus Cnoyen, a Brabantian traveller. Cnoyen's summary formed the basis for the speculative depictions of the northern polar region which appeared on maps of the Early Modern period. On them, the Pole itself is marked by a great black stone with significant magnetic properties, the Rupes Nigra, beneath which the whirlpool which drew in the waters of the ocean was located. Four rivers converged on the spot, each flowing at an angle of 90° from the next, creating four large islands and forming a sea, the Segenum Sea, around the Rupes Nigra. The islands were named "Aronphei, Insula Deserta, Hyperoborei and Europa, and another Insula Deserta with Pilapelanti Peninsula" on Johannes Ruysch's 1508 map Universalior Cogniti Orbis Tabula Ex Recentibus Confecta Obsevationibus. Hyperoborei is clearly intended as the home of the classical Hyperboreans, while Aronphei, to the north of the Americas, also has a possible precedent. According to Alan G. Macpherson: -

Greenland ("Gruenlant") and "Terra Nova" both appear on Ruysch's map as eastern extensions of Asia, the latter between 42° and 51° north; between them lies the "Sinus Gruenlant" (Greenland Gulf), which contains an island at 56°-58° north inhabited by people called "Arumfeie."

The "Arumfeie" are presumably identical to Gerardus Mercator's "Pygmei" who inhabit the polar island to the north of Greenland in his 1595 map Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio, of whom he states "in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant." Both would thus originate in Norse accounts of the Skrælingjar, given to various Inuit and First Nations peoples (as well as legendary creatures) encountered by the Norsemen during their exploration and settlement of Greenland and the eastern seaboard of Canada.

Odysseus' men steal the cattle of the sun


Journeying on you will reach the island of Thrinacia, where the Sun-god’s cattle and rich flocks graze: seven herds of kine and as many of sheep, with fifty head per herd. They bear no young, but never die, and the goddesses with lovely tresses, the nymphs Phaethusa and Lampetia, the daughters of Neaera and Helios Hyperion, are their shepherdesses.
- Homer, Odyssey [12.127-133].

Another disastrous failure to control his men invokes the anger of the sun god Helios, who implores Zeus to thrash the transgressors. All but Odysseus pay with their lives. Helios, for his part, is content to withdraw his threat to shine instead on the underworld dwellers. His flocks of kine and sheep number altogether 350 of each, which is often compared to the number of days in the year, which would be appropriate for the god of the sun.

Nakassis' "western" counterpart of "oriental" Thrinacia is found on Erytheia, home to the pastures of Hades, lord of the dead. Heracles, in the course of his adventures, had cause to visit there to drive back the cattle of Geryon (perhaps identical with Hades' herd) on behalf of his tormentor Eurystheus. As a side note, Hades' cowherd Menoites may be identical with Menoiteus, a brother of Atlas and Prometheus damned by Zeus for his hybris.


So Hermes travelled over the endless breakers, until he reached the distant isle, then leaving the violet sea he crossed the land, and came to the vast cave where the nymph of the lovely tresses lived, and found her at home. A great fire blazed on the hearth, and the scent of burning cedar logs and juniper spread far across the isle. Sweet-voiced Calypso was singing within, moving to and fro at her loom, weaving with a golden shuttle. Around the cave grew a thick copse of alder, poplar and fragrant cypress, where large birds nested, owls, and falcons, and long-necked cormorants whose business is with the sea. And heavy with clustered grapes a mature cultivated vine went trailing across the hollow entrance. And four neighbouring springs, channelled this way and that, flowed with crystal water, and all around in soft meadows iris and wild celery flourished.
- Homer, Odyssey [5.55-73].


Seven years out of the ten spent by Odysseus between his leaving Troy and landing in Ithaca were spent on Ogygia, the far western homeland of the nymph Calypso, a daughter of Atlas. According to Dimitri Nakassis, as noted elsewhere, Calypso possibly originated as a geminant of Circe in the confusion engendered by the transition from a unipolar to a bipolar view of the solar journey through the heavens. According to Nakassis, "Kalypso's geographical location corresponds to her genealogy as the daughter of Atlas (Od. 1.52), since Atlas supports the earth from Tartaros" and, reviewing previous scholarship, notes that "[Douglas] Frame has noted the close correspondence between the Homeric description of Kalypso and the Hesiodic description of Styx, where 'Ogygian' is used of the Stygian water (Th. 805-6) as an adjective meaning 'primeval.'" Calypso's intimate connection with Atlas' role in supporting the cosmos is found in Homer's description of Ogygia, where at "the fringes of the island [...] stands of alder, poplar, and fir rose to the sky" [5.238-239]. Atlas is also found in the west in the Theogony: "Atlas through hard constraint upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms, standing at the borders of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides" [275], as is Tartarus [731], as well as beneath it [721-722; 746-747]. Similarly, Nakassis notes that, despite its remoteness, Ogygia is described as being in the "navel of the sea" [ὀμφαλός [...] θάλασσα, 1.50].

With regards to Ogygia's being the "navel of the sea," it is worth noting that the term ὀμφαλός can signify either a central point or a "plug or valve closing outlet of bath." These definitions coincide in the medieval vision of the Rupes Nigra at the North Pole, which sucks in, or alternately sucks in and spits out, the waters of the sea and tally with the Homeric description of Charybdis: "[...] divine Charybdis swallows the black waters. Three times a day, she spews them out, and three times darkly sucks them back again" [12.104-106]. Compare the four fountains around Calypso's grotto: "four neighbouring springs, channelled this way and that, flowed with crystal water" [5.70-71], which have a configuration similar to the four rivers leading to (admittedly as opposed to radiating outwards as is the case on the Ogygian isle) the Rupes Nigra on early modern maps. As such, it may be possible to trace the origins of medieval beliefs about the nature of the North Pole back to Homer. Projecting these notions back further, it may be possible to see Ogygia's (and perhaps Charybdis') function as omphalos of the sea back to Mesopotamian cosmological notions of the apsû or abzû, a sea of fresh water which lay beneath the earth. In the Enûma Eliš, the surviving examplar of which was found in the Library of Assurbanipal at Nineveh, which was set up in the 7th century, Apzû is the primordial personification of fresh water: -

When the heavens above did not exist,
And earth beneath had not come into being -
There was Apsû, the first in order, their begetter,
And demiurge Tiâmat, who gave birth to them all;
They had mingled their waters together
Before meadow-land had coalesced and reed-bed was to he found -
When not one of the gods had been formed
Or had come into being, when no destinies had been decreed,
The gods were created within them[.]
- Enûma Eliš [1.1-9].

It may be that the water of Calypso's fountains, described as flowing "with crystal water," represent the production of fresh water, with Charybdis recycling brine. The notion of the four streams also appears in the Biblical Book of Genesis [2.9-14]. Though not explicitly called by the name, the four fountains may also represent the pegae or springs from which the river Oceanus has its source, as mentioned in the Theogony [280-282]: -

And when Perseus cut off [Medusa's] head, there sprang forth [...] the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs (pegae) of Ocean.

Furthermore, Hesiod records Pegasus' being conceived "in a soft meadow amid spring flowers" [279], a description markedly similar to that given by Homer for the course of the streams, lending further weight to the suggestion.


With regards to Styx, who is, as noted by Frame and Nakassis, given the epithet Ogygian by Hesiod [Theogony 805-806], "she lives in her famous palace which is overroofed with towering rocks, and the whole circuit is undergirded with silver columns, and pushes heaven" [777-779]. The river itself "is one horn of the Okeanos stream, and travels off that holy river a great course through night's blackness under the wide-wayed earth and this water is a tenth part of all, for in nine loops of silver-swirling waters, around the earth and the sea's wide ridges he tumbles into salt water, but this stream, greatly vexing the gods, runs off the precipice" [789-792] (cf κατειβόμενον Στυγὸς ὕδωρ, Odyssey 5.185). The "towering rocks" which top Styx's palace render it easy to imagine said palace as being similar to Calypso's "vast cave," whilst the "silver columns" which "push [...] heaven" are reminiscent of "the great columns that separate earth and sky" which Calypso's father Atlas supports in the Odyssey [1.53-54]. The issuing place of Ocean also appears in a lament of Penelope [20.61-78], in which she implores Artemis to "let the storm wind snatch me up, carry me over the darkened ways, and abandon me at the mouth of Ocean's backflow [ἐν προχοῇς δὲ βάλοι ἀψορρόου Ὠκεανοῖο]" [20.63-65].

Another potential connection between Calypso and Styx is her swearing a grave oath by the river not to harm Odysseus [5.184-187]. Despite the gravity of such an undertaking, Calypso, though well aware that Odysseus will reach home after many further trials [5.205-210], gives the hero a parting gift of a set of clothes [5.262-264] which almost prove to be his undoing after Poseidon attempts to drown him [5.321]: eventually, he is forced to heed Leucothea's advice [5.343] and jettison them in order to save himself from drowning [5.372]. Thus, it is evident that Calypso likely attempted to bring about the demise of the lover who spurned her in spite of the severity of the consequences of breaking an oath which is said to bind even the Olympians [Theogony 400-401, 782-787]. That no specific punishment for this transgression is mentioned in the case of Calypso, in contrast to the Phaeacians [13.159-187], may suggest that Calypso is, at least in part, a cipher for Styx. An identification of the "mouth of Ocean's backflow" with Ogygia may further connect Calypso to the underworld: Pandareus' daughters, who are cited by Penelope as an example, were transported hither to serve the Erinyes [20.77-78].


The name of Ogygia also coincides with that of the Boeotian and Attic flood hero Ogyges or Ogygus, whose name has been compared to that of Oceanus, and his legend associated with the defeated primordial god Ophion, by Joseph Eddy Fontenrose and Tomislav Bilić.

There are other resonances with regards to Plato's villains: writing in the century after Plato, Lycophron calls Calypso by the epithet "Atlantis," in the tradition sense of a daughter of Atlas [Alexandria 744-745]. It is not without the bounds of possibility that Plato's association of the name of his island with a word bearing this meaning is partially influenced by Calypso and other figures described as daughters of Atlas who inhabit the far west.


Interestingly, despite the chthonian resonances associated with Ogygia, Nakassis also adds that "[b]oth [Circe and Calypso] live on islands with pronounced affinities to the 'Isles of the Blessed,'" and both are associated by the scholar with the passage of the sun: "as one who 'covers' (or 'conceals') and lives in a cave, [Calypso] is associated with the setting sun, darkness, and death," echoing the similar treatments of the Laestrygonians and Cimmerians. Additionally, "despite the close similarities between Kalypso and Kirke, a number of authors have noted that Kalypso is the more sinister of the two." Circe's later transportation to a western locale, however, led to some measure of confusion between the two: in a number of sources [Propertius 3.12.21; Pomponius Mela 2.120; Fabulae 125], Calypso is specifically stated to inhabit Aeaea rather than Ogygia.

Though later associated with the island of Gozo in the Maltese archipelago, Ogygia's place in the far western reaches of the Homeric geographical schema can be gleaned from the time it takes to travel between Ogygia and what is presumably the nearest land to the east: -

At night he never closed his eyes in sleep, but watched the Pleiades, late-setting Bootes, and the Great Bear that men call the Wain, that circles in place opposite Orion, and never bathes in the sea. Calypso, the lovely goddess had told him to keep that constellation to larboard as he crossed the waters. Seventeen days he sailed the seas, and on the eighteenth the shadowy peaks of the Phaeacian country loomed up ahead, like a shield on the misty sea.
- Homer, Odyssey [5.270-281].

Returning once more to Nakassis, we read: "Skherie [the land of the Phaeacians] is situated on the remote western fringes of the Greek world, hence Ogygie must be located even further to the west." It is also worth noting that Strabo, who placed most of Odysseus' ports of call firmly on the map, regarded Ogygia and Scheria as as "imagined in fantasy" [1.2.18] and being located in Oceanus [7.3.6]. Plutarch also had Ogygia in a remote location "a run of five days off from Britain as you sail westward," inspiring the Irish historian Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh to name his magnum opus after Calypso's island. Whilst pondering why, if this was the case, Odysseus managed to avoid Britain on his way to Scheria, or why Calypso was apparently ignorant of its existence, it is worth noting that Plutarch is here relating a philosophical myth in the tradition of Plato. In it, the Carthaginian Sulla relates what he has heard from a mysterious traveller of Greek stock who has come from far afield. According to Sulla's informant, Ogygia has: -

[T]hree other islands equally distant from it and from one another lie out from it in the general direction of the summer sunset. In one of these, according to the tale told by the natives, Cronus is confined by Zeus, and the antique Briareusc, holding watch and ward over those islands and the sea that they call the Cronian main, has been settled close beside him. The great mainland, by which the great ocean is encircled, while not so far from the other islands, is about five thousand stades from Ogygia, the voyage being made by oar, for the main is slow to traverse and muddy as a result of the multitude of streams. The streams are discharged by the great land-mass and produce alluvial deposits, thus giving density and earthiness to the sea, which has been thought actually to be congealed.

"On the coast of the mainland," Sulla continues, "Greeks dwell about a gulf which is not smaller than the Maeotis and the mouth of the Caspian sea" and "call themselves continentals and the inhabitants of this land islanders because the sea flows around it on all sides." The Greek settlers reached the opposite continent in two waves: first with Cronus and thereafter thanks to Heracles "and were left behind by him and that these latter so to speak rekindled again to a strong, high flame the Hellenic spark there which was already being quenched and overcome by the tongue, the laws, and the manners of the barbarians." The tale continues by stating that expeditions are dispatched by these Greeks at thirty year intervals, and "those who survive the voyage first put in at the outlying islands, which are [also] inhabited by Greeks, and see the sun pass out of sight for less than an hour over a period of thirty days, - and this is night, though it has a darkness that is slight and twilight glimmering from the west." On one of the islands, as noted, Cronus is confined and "sleeps confined in a deep cave of rock that shines like gold - the sleep that Zeus has contrived like a bond for him."


[W]hile we are in the country and among ploughed fields, walk quickly behind the mules and wagon with my maids. I will lead the way. But on the approach to the city, which is ringed by a high wall, there's a fine harbour on both sides, and the causeway between is narrow, and the curved ships are drawn up to the road, each man having his own mooring. There's a meeting place, as well, next to Poseidon's fine temple, paved with huge stones bedded deep in the earth. Here the crews are busy with the black ships' tackle, with cables and sails, and here they carve the their thin oar blades. For Phaeacians are indifferent to bows and quivers, caring only for the graceful ships they delight to sail over the grey sea.
- Homer, Odyssey [6.259-272].


The last stage in Odysseus' arduous journey takes him to the land of the Phaeacians, Scheria. The inhabitants of the place are again somewhat more than human: "[e]ven if one of us walking the road alone were to meet [the gods], they used no disguise, since we are next of kin to them, like the Cyclopes and the wild tribe of Giants" [7.204-206]. Their genealogy reflects their kinship with these less civilised liminal groups: "Arete is her name, of the same lineage as the king, Alcinous. Nausithous was founder, born of Earth-Shaker Poseidon and Periboea, loveliest of women, youngest daughter of valiant Eurymedon once king of the insolent Giants." [7.54-59]. They enjoy a high culture and are masterful sailors, boasting supernatural powers over their vessels: "Phaeacian ships have no helmsman or steering oar, for the ships themselves know our thoughts and wishes, and the cities of men, every fertile country, and hidden by mist and cloud they speed over the sea's wide gulf, and never fear damage or shipwreck" [8.557-563]. Their city has a high wall [6.9-10] and the palace of King Alcinous is a wonder to behold, featuring automata created by Hephaestus: -

Odysseus approached Alcinous' glorious halls. He stood there reflecting, before crossing the bronze threshold, since the radiance of sun or moon shone over the vaulted halls of valiant Alcinous. The walls that ran from the entrance to the innermost room were topped with a frieze of blue enamelling. Gold doors fronted the well-built house, with silver doorposts set in the bronze sill. The lintel above was silver too, and the door-handle of gold. Gold and silver dogs stood either side, fashioned by Hephaestus with consummate skill, to guard valiant Alcinous' palace. They were ageless and immortal. Inside, seats were fixed along the walls from the entrance to the innermost room, covered with cleverly woven fabrics worked by the women. There the Phaeacian princes would sit, eating and drinking, living lavishly. Golden statues of youths on solid pedestals stood there, with flaming torches in their hands, to light the banqueting hall by night.
- Homer, Odyssey [7.82-102].

Alcinous also has a garden whose production of two crops a year: -

Beyond the courtyard, near to the doors, lies a large four-acre orchard, surrounded by a hedge. Tall, heavily laden trees grow there, pear, pomegranate and apple, rich in glossy fruit, sweet figs and dense olives. The fruit never rots or fails, winter or summer. It lasts all year, and the West Wind’s breath quickens some to life, and ripens others, pear on pear, apple on apple, cluster on cluster of grapes, and fig on fig. There is Alcinous’ fertile vineyard too, with a warm patch of level ground in one part set aside for drying the grapes, while the labourers gather and tread others, as the foremost rows of unripe grapes shed their blossom, and others become tinged with purple. Beyond the furthest row again are neat beds with every kind of plant, flowering all year round, and there are two springs in the orchard, one flowing through the whole garden, while the other runs the opposite way, under the courtyard sill, near where the people of the city draw their water, towards the great house.
- Homer, Odyssey [7.112-131].

The legendary wealth of hyperstelean Tartessus is one potential source for Homeric Scheria, though Douglas Frame, as part of his deep investigations into the roots of the Homeric mythology surrounding Nestor, proposes that the rulers of the Phaeacians are ciphers for the family of that hero, and that the Homeric description of the Phaeacians was intended as a means to flatter the wealthy rulers of the Ionian Dodecapolis (Miletus, which traced the descent of its ruling class from Nestor's line, in particular), developing a hypothesis that the Homeric epics were formalised, at least in part, for use at the Panionion, with propagandistic elements aimed at normalising the Milesian-derived myth of the descent of the founders of the cities of the Dodecapolis from the sons of the Neleid Codrus.

Though Scheria was later identified with the island of Corfu, whose local football team bear the nickname Φαίακες ("Faiakes"), the Phaeacians themselves inhabit a distant realm: Scheria is specifically said to be "far from men" [6.8] and the Phaeacians "live far-off, over the turbulent sea, the remotest of races, and deal with no other peoples" [6.204-205]. They did, however, transport Rhadamanthus to Euboea on one occasion [7.321-324]. The most likely scenario is that the Phaeacians are intended as a people of the far west, following Strabo [1.2.18, 7.3.6], though Timothy Bridgman places them instead in the far east. Their name may derive from φαιὀς meaning "grey" or "blackish," related to φαικὀς meaning "bright," with a theory developed by Friedrich Welcker, which has not met with a universally positive reaction, suggesting that they have their origins in the ferrymen of the dead. However, their idyllic island and carefree lifestyle do not sit easy with such a role and mark them as a similarly fantastical people of the margins of the earth as the Fortunate Isles, realm of the Hyperboreans and, during the earlier phase of its history, Atlantis. Indeed, Erwin Cook's review and update of Welcker's theory, in which the Phaeacians are made ferrymen working specifically to and from the Elysian Fiends, is far more satisfying and works well given the mention of Rhadamanthus, who is elsewhere given rulership of the happy realm of the blessed dead.

Their habit of providing free and efficient transport incurred the wrath of Poseidon, who has previously threatened to punish them: Alcinous relates that "[t]hough I heard a story once from my father Nausithous, who used to say that Poseidon was angry with us because we conveyed all men, in safety. He claimed that some day, when a well-built Phaeacian ship was crossing the misty sea, returning from such a journey, Poseidon would strike her, and then ring our city with a mountain chain" [8.564-569]. After they finally ferry Odysseus back to Ithaca, the incensed sea god petrifies the transport ship as it reaches the Phaeacians' harbour [13.159-167]. They are last heard of desperately trying to ward off his threat to ring their land with mountains [13.184-187].

A serpent-legged giant


The only other place mentioned is the enigmatic Aperaea or Apeire, the homeland of Nausicaa's nursemaid Eurymedusa, from where she was abducted in "curved ships" and awarded to Alcinous as a prize [7.8-11]. The name of this place signifies a "limitless land" which could easily be interpreted as a forerunner of Plato's "opposite continent" [Tim. 24e-25a]. Whether it is related to Hypereia ("high land"), the Phaeacians' former home, is unclear but would appear unlikely, given that, as the Cyclopes drove them from Hypereia, that country was likely the otherwise-unnamed land in which Polyphemus dwelt. Furthermore, the name of the servant woman, Eurymedusa, is the female form of that of Eurymedon, the villanous leader of the giants who served as the Phaeacians' maternal ancestor. Both names are related to εὐρυκρείων and mean "wide-ruling."


After great suffering and many wanderings, in truth, I returned home with my riches in the eighth year. To Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, I strayed: visited the Ethiopians, Sidonians, and Erembians, and Libya where the newborn lambs have horns. There the ewes lamb thrice a year: master or shepherd never lacks meat, sweet milk, and cheese, for the ewes give milk all year round.
- Homer, Odyssey [4.81-86].

Menelaus himself experienced an arduous journey on his way back from Troy. His contendings with the "Old Man of the Sea" Proteus off the Egyptian coast are well-known. Indeed, later writers imagined that the "real" Helen, Menelaus' supposedly-errant wife, was whisked off to Egypt during the course of the conflict at Troy, with Paris having to content himself with a phantasm.

Many of the peoples visited by Menelaus are real enough: Cyprus, Phoenicia and the Sidonians and, of course, Egypt are self-explanatory. The Ethiopians are, however, often located at either end of the earth: Poseidon, among other gods, is wont to visit them. The Erembians are unidentified, with later writers suggesting the Arabian cave-dwellers. The Libyans Menelaus meets appear to dwell in a shepherd's paradise, with Lane-Fox suggesting that they are to be found in the regions around Carthage and Lake Tritonis in modern-day Tunisia, rather than the Cyrene region familiar to later Greeks.


There's an island called Syrie, you may have heard of, beyond Ortygia, where the sun turns in its course. It is sparsely populated, yet a fine land, rich in flocks and herds, yielding plenty of wine and wheat. Famine is unknown there, and the people are free of the dreadful sicknesses that plague wretched mortals. As the generations of men grow old, Apollo of the Silver Bow visits their cities, with Artemis beside him, and strikes and slays them with gentle arrows. There are two cities, dividing the island between them, and my father, Ctesius, son of Ormenus, a godlike man, was king of both.
- Homer, Odyssey [15.403-414].

Not to be confused with Syria in the Levant, Eumaeus' homeland of Syrie is located at the turning point of the sun, perhaps in the extreme west or north-west. Ortygia, which appears in the myth of Orion, is commonly identified by later writers with the small island in the harbour at Syracuse.


Sir Graham