Monthly Archives: January 2014

On letting go and choices: Calypso the concealer

But it was I who saved him […]

I fed him, loved him, sang that he should not die

Nor grow old, ever,

Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Brooding, Odysseus looks out to sea. Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus Calypso tells Hermes about saving Odysseus from shipwreck. After Odysseus has spent seven years on her island, Ogygia, Hermes has come with the message from Zeus that she must let Odysseus go.

Despite the lush beauty of the island and the option of an eternity sharing the bed of a goddess, Odysseus pines away, longing to return home, to Penelope, to rocky Ithaca.

Calypso provides the tools for Odysseus to build a raft and food for his voyage. Like Circe, the other seductress, she gives him directions and insight into what he might expect: namely, continued danger at the hand of Poseidon, god of the sea. After all, Ogygia is an island.

Odysseus will gladly will undergo another baptism through salt, another storm at sea, another shipwreck, to return home.

Odysseus cannot escape Ogygia without Athena’s intervention

While Poseidon is visiting Ethiopia, Athena seizes the opportunity to tell Zeus that it is time for Calypso to let Odysseus go.

Could Odysseus, man of a thousand schemes and devices, not build a raft earlier? Apparently not. He had sunk into apathy, victim to a deep depression. Any potential escape is hidden from him.

Perhaps because Calypso is the concealer. Her very name announces it: from the Greek kalyptein “to cover, conceal.” After the visit from Hermes, she tells him that she has no more spells.

Ogygia is a liminal place

Like the Castle of No Return in Blancaflor, Ogygia is on the far far side of a great sea. It is not of the real world and it is not a place the gods want to visit. Only Hermes, the messenger god, will travel there, but not willingly.

It is another Lost Island. As Eva Brann explains: it is the absolute “address unknown.” Robert Graves suggests that Ogygia is under the same spell that cloaks Morgan le Faye’s Avalon and other fabled lands of eternal youth.

He goes on to say that Ogygia is death: its alders and cypresses representing resurrection; its fields of parsley, associated with Persephone, symbol of mourning and of letting go.

Caves of immortality and of death

Calypso’s cave is mentioned almost every time that she comes up in The Odyssey.

The other cave in the story is that of Polyphemus, where Odysseus and his men are held prisoner and some meet their deaths. Polyphemus, a barbarian, violates the Greek compulsion of hospitality. Odysseus must use his considerable skills to save himself and his remaining men.

Not looking very reluctant. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus reluctant? Ogygia also seems terribly crowded. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Calypso, by contrast, is the personification of hospitality: not only does she treat him like a god, she offers him her bed and eternal youth.

Looking for Ogygia

Ogygia lies to the west but its actual location is source of much controversy. It could be as close as Ionia, Gozo (the largest island of Malta), or as far as the Strait of Gibraltar (Perejil Island, another place that is neither here nor there) or even the Atlantic.

Plutarch proposed that Ogygia was a five-day sail west of Britain in the Irish Sea. It could even be America.

Looking at the images of Mediterranean candidates, one wonders whether Ogygia could be anywhere. Or nowhere.

Neither here nor there. Betwixt and between. Not of mortal men nor of the gods.

Odysseus chooses to leave, he chooses to die

Before he leaves, Calypso offers Odysseus eternal youth one more time. Life without death, in an island separated from all that is human, all that decays and ages, all conflict or strife.

Odysseus chooses mortal life, that is, to die. He chooses suffering.

Odysseus explicitly acknowledges that Penelope is but a shade beside Calypso. But Penelope is the woman he loves.

Double standards and the other woman

Following the wittingly named  Accidental Pornomancer trope, Odysseus spends time with not one, but two beautiful goddesses: Circe and Calypso. According to tales composed after the Odyssey, he fathered children with them.

Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Penelope must deploy her wiles to fend off the suitors.

Calypso angrily mentions another double standard among the Olympians.

You hate it when we choose to lie with men.

The gods seduced, or raped, many mortal women, but when the goddesses fell in love with men, they were punished. Calypso reminds Hermes that Zeus tends to kill the mortal lovers of goddesses.

But perhaps, the greatest punishment is that Odysseus doesn’t choose her. That she has ceased to please him. Like Medea’s Jason, he is done with the woman who saved him.

Suzanne Vega’s lovely song ends

I do not ask him to return

I let him go

What do you think? Is Calypso the other woman? Is Odysseus victim or seducer, hero or fool? 

A comb, a knife, and a fistful of salt: the escape of Blancaflor

Blancaflor, the Spanish tale of wonder, tells of star-crossed lovers in a fairy-tale landscape, where names matter more than appearance, and love, with a little help from magic, conquers all.

Like many great stories, you discover something new every time you read it

It’s the story of a prince fated to tangle with the devil, because his parents had made a Faustian deal. It’s a story where kindness is rewarded with help and where sacrificing that which got you here is necessary to take the next step. It tells of love at first sight and of betraying one’s father for one’s beloved. It’s about a woman with power over life and death losing herself in despair when her beloved forgets her.

The flight of Blancaflor by the wonderful illustrator Tesa González  from the adaptation of Antonio Rodríguez Almodóvar.
The flight of Blancaflor by the wonderful illustrator Tesa González  from the adaptation of Antonio Rodríguez Almodóvar. For more illustrations, visit her website.

Also, ultimately, it is a tale that ends well

You can read Blancaflor in Spanish here, in the wonderful adaptation of Antonio Rodríguez Almodóvar, award-winning author and one of the pre-eminent scholars of Spanish tales of wonder. Another adaptation in Spanish can be found here. This version set in a fishing village has been translated into English. As with any story rooted in the oral tradition, there are at least as many versions as story-tellers, and that is part of its charm.

Here is the super short version.

A king and queen are so desperate for an heir that they admit they’d be willing for him to lose his soul to the devil

And so the almost perfect son has a weakness for gambling. When he comes of age and encounters the devil, he loses all his money at cards, and then wagers, and loses, his soul. The prince leaves his heart-broken parents to embark on the perilous voyage to the devil’s Castle of No Return. There he meets the youngest daughter of the devil, Blancaflor, and they fall in love.

With Blancaflor’s help, the prince is able to complete the three impossible tasks that the devil sets for him. When he recognizes her, by her hand alone, from amongst the three sisters, the devil allows him to marry Blancaflor.

However, as Blancaflor knows well, her father intends to kill them.

So they must flee

Using various magical devices, Blancaflor guarantees a head start for their escape. The prince ignores her instructions and instead of taking the skinny old nag called Thought from the devil’s stables, he brings her the spirited stallion, Wind. Blancaflor must use magic to prevent the devil from catching them on Thought and finally he gives up. When the devil realizes that he’s been deceived, in his fury he casts a spell on the prince to forget Blancaflor if someone embraces him. Blancaflor warns the prince but his grandmother hugs him from behind and he forgets everything.

Blancaflor takes a job in the castle

When the wedding of the prince to a suitable princess is announced, like all the servants, she’s offered a gift in celebration. She asks the prince for a stone of pain and a knife of love. The prince searches far and wide before finding them. After delivering her present, his curiosity piqued, he eavesdrops and hears Blancaflor conversing with the stone of pain (yes, it speaks) about the prince and their adventures. The prince, who has been slowly remembering as he listens, stops her from killing herself at the last moment.

He now recognizes her fully, cancels the arranged wedding, and marries Blancaflor instead.

I’m fascinated by Blancaflor and the prince’s flight, a different kind of chase scene

Blancaflor showed no impatience when the prince rode up on Wind for their escape. After all, it was the only time the prince had willingly ignored her instructions. She could just imagine him looking in the stable thinking: “Girls don’t know anything about horses.”

As Blancaflor and the prince race away, they are soon overtaken by the devil, mounted on Thought. He turns into a wild beast, immense, bloodthirsty. But Blancaflor knows his tricks and is determined to escape, alive. When she hears him roar, she throws her comb over her shoulder.

Blancaflor flung her comb behind her and it turned into a towering thicket.
Blancaflor flings her comb behind her and before it hits the ground it becomes a thicket, dense and thorny.

Before the comb can hit the ground, there is the sound of a thousand sticks hitting each other and snapping into place. The comb becomes a thicket, so dense and thorny that her father hunches over before trying to gallop through it. In his concentration he takes on the form of the devil once more. It slows him down, but he is, after all, the devil, and he breaks through. But not without snagging clothes and skin on the thorns and receiving a thousand cuts and scratches.

Only a few minutes later, Blancaflor hears him gaining on them again and she flings her knife into the devil’s path.

Before the knife can hit the ground, there is the clash of a thousand knives crossing blades. The knife becomes a wall of knives, each blade reflecting the moonlight. The devil instinctively pulls on the bridle. He blinks, and swears silently at the audacity, the nerve of this youngest favorite daughter.

But for all these reasons, he loosens his grip on the reins and kicks Thought forward, into the wall of knives. The blades slice through his beautiful fur cape, through the leather gloves he wears to ride. Each edge traces a line of crimson, a criss-cross of strokes over his entire body. He pushes on, through the wall of knives, leaving the blades dulled by the impact with his bulk and stained in his blood.

Blancaflor knows that these devices were never enough to stop the devil who raised her. So she isn’t surprised to hear the hooves of Thought in the background, underneath the sound of Wind’s jagged breath, underneath the heartbeat of the prince through the thin cloth of his shirt. She shifts and looks backwards.

“You stopped him, right?” asks the prince.

“No, he’s gaining on us,” she says, disappointed that her beloved still had so little understanding of her father’s power.

Well, that’s what she was here for.

Blancaflor hears her father approaching and throws a fistful of salt into his path. Before the grains hit the ground, they lock together into a wall of salt.
Blancaflor hears her father approaching and throws a fistful of salt into his path. Before the grains hit the ground, they lock together into a wall of salt.

She reaches into her pocket for a fistful of salt and tosses it into the air behind her. The grains of salt shine like diamonds, drawing an arc of falling stars. Before they can fall to the ground, in a hiss of a thousand angry snakes, the grains of salt glue to each other to create a wall of salt. The wall is wider than sky, taller than the depths of the sea. It holds the brine of a thousand forgotten oceans, the dried tears of a thousand broken hearts.

Blancaflor looks back at the grainy white wall behind her and knows that no matter how the salt will burn her father’s scratches and cuts, that it’s just a matter of time before he catches up with them again. She turns to the front, to the path they’re following between the trees of the wood.

Blancaflor rests her cheek on the prince’s back and closes her eyes, preparing for the magic she’ll have to perform.

A comb, a knife, and a handful of salt

These are everday objects that any woman has access to. No need to be the daughter of the devil, no need for fairies or witches. This is daily magic, of appearances and of food, of cleanliness and of flavor, of tears and the pain we can all understand.

These are women’s tools that are also beyond gender: a comb to look beautiful, or simply proper; a knife as weapon, or tool; salt, a currency, and in alchemical terms that which is corporeal and real. Not the devil.

They are an everyday incantation: a comb, a knife, a fistful of salt.

As Almodóvar points out, these could be wards so that the dead won’t follow.

A deep magic familiar to the Indo-European tradition in which these tales were born

Or, he continues, they could correspond to the archetypal nightmare of pursuit.

Blancaflor and the prince are in flight from a supernatural being, one that can take any form and can defy death itself.

Blancaflor also has powers over life and death. She chooses to invest them in these everyday objects to leave the only home she has ever known and to be with the man she loves.

It is a story of independence and courage, of growing up.