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? 

6 thoughts on “On letting go and choices: Calypso the concealer

  1. Hmm, I don’t know. I took mythology in college, but it’s amazing how fast it slips away. I love coming here for refresher courses and your expansions and interpretations. Always a pleasure. 🙂

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