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No. 1663:
Swallowed by the Sea

Today, our guest, classicist Hilary Mackie from Rice University, asks us to quiet our fear of engulfment with stories. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our fears about traveling have recently been heightened in unfamiliar ways, but those fears in themselves are nothing new. Ships and the sea terrified the ancient Greeks. But death at sea was not what they feared. The sea was a risk more threatening than death: that you could die not leaving any trace, or even anyone to tell the tale of how you died. Death by drowning meant you got no glory. You simply disappeared; friends and loved ones lacked even the comfort of closure.

In her book on death in Greek art, Emily Vermeule describes the Greeks' fear that the sea would eat them: hide them from view by swallowing them down, devouring them. The metaphor is everywhere in Homer's Odyssey -- the poem that tells how Odysseus faced the dangers of the sea on his way home from Troy. The ocean is a "great gullet"; it swallows him down, then "belches" him up on the shore. At calmer times, the tide "spits up" pebbles on the beach. The sea teems with voracious monsters. Scylla, who "yelps" like a dog, has six frightful mouths, with three rows of teeth in each. Charybdis, the whirlpool, "sucks" black water down three times per day, and three times daily "spews" it up again.

When the poem begins, it is twenty years since Odysseus left home. His son, Telemakhos, was a new-born infant then. By now, the Greeks have all sailed back from Troy -- except for Odysseus. Where is Odysseus? No one knows, or even if he is alive or dead. Now a young man, Telemakhos bitterly complains that his father is lost at sea:

The gods have made him invisible. If he were dead, I would not grieve for him so much -- if he had been killed at Troy, or died in the arms of friends after the war. Then, the Greeks would have made a tomb for him, and he would have won great glory for me, his son, as well as for himself. Instead, the storm fiends have snatched him away and left no word of him. He has perished unseen and unheard of.

Drawing of shipwreckTo lose a parent is disorienting. If we are young, like Telemakhos, it can feel as if the floor has fallen out from under our feet. Our sense of who we are is changed in a confusing way. With time, this passes: we move on, and live life in a new way. How much worse to be Telemakhos. He longs to move on, but he can't.

The Greeks felt threatened by the sea's power to leave a person unaccounted for. We have our modern versions of this fear; for many, recent events have made them a reality. In the end, Odysseus survived the sea, and his skill at telling stories helped to save him. Shipwrecked on the isle of the Phaeacians, he earned his passage home by entertaining them with tales of his adventures. Perhaps, in times like these, hearing stories can also be helpful. Stories cannot take away our fears, but they can comfort and console us -- most of all when they show us that our fears are not new, unique, or isolated; stories can show us that we are in fact living out human patterns much older than we are.

I'm Hilary Mackie, interested in stories as timeless testament to the ways in which inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Vermeule, E., Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. See Chapter VI (pp. 179-209).

Excellent translations of the Odyssey are available by Robert Fagles (Viking, 1996; now also available in paperback [Penguin]), Robert Fitzgerald (Noonday, 1998), and Richmond Lattimore (Perennial 1999 [reprint of 1967 edition]). Each has different strengths. I like Lattimore because it seems so close in sound and spirit to Homer's Greek. However, many readers especially like Fagles' translation, which makes the poem highly readable and accessible to the modern ear. Fitzgerald's translation captures especially well the sense of magic and enchantment that pervades much of the poem. Ralph Hexter's Guide to the Odyssey (Vintage Books, 1993) is a commentary on Fitzgerald's translation.

George Chapman's translation, which may be read online, was first published in 1614-1616 and has become a classic in its own right. It inspired John Keats' poem, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.

Hilary Mackie is Associate Professor of Classics at Rice University and author of Talking Trojan: Speech and Community in the Iliad (Rowman and Littlefield Press 1996), and "Song and Storytelling: An Odyssean Perspective" (Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 127 (1997): 77-96). Her interests include Greek poetry, myth and folklore, oral tradition and performance, heroic literature (in particular, Homeric poetry and the Icelandic sagas), the Victorian novel, the classical tradition, and children's literature.

Drawing of a man lost at sea