Finding Ulysses

Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford.

When you have sailed the Mediterranean at the age of nineteen with the Odyssey in your kitbag, and when you have come back of your own volition, to the same sea in your twenties and thirties— and still kept the same book at the foothead of your bunk— it is not surprising if you come to wonder whether some of it may not be true. This is particularly the case if you find out of your own experience, that great sections of the poem seem to read like accurate reportage.

When Ernle Bradford was 19 years old in 1941 he was an ordinary British seaman. A conversation in a bar in Alexandria with a Greek man named Andreas, who had never read Homer but who knew the stories well, made him reconsider the character of Ulysses. “He was in Andreas’s reckoning the Artful Dodger, not the Romantic Hero.” Andreas put him in touch with the man behind the myth. Andreas and a great deal of time sailing about the Mediterranean.

I grew to know this sea, and in doing so I also grew to know the Odyssey, almost as thoroughly as the charts that led me through the Messina straight, or across the Ionian to the islands and to Ithaka. In the course of my wanderings I came to a number of conclusions about Homeric geography and the navigation of Ulysses.

In this delightful book Bradford retraces the wanderings of Ulysses, as he calls our hero, from the time he leaves Troy until he returns to Ithaka. Can a modern knowledge of geography, of winds and currents and harbors, really piece together the actual route that the great hero traced? Bradford’s reasoning is quite convincing. And the way he tells the story is captivating. He’s not an academic, but he is a scholar. He’s quite familiar with the literature, both ancient and modern, about The Odyssey. And he tosses the names about like household words. But the tone of the book is more like kicking back on the deck of a boat as you sit in harbor sipping a glass of wine than it is like sitting in a lecture hall.

Throughout it’s sprinkled with interesting tidbits, like this one about the name “Ulysses”:

His Homeric name, Odysseus, meaning ‘Son of Wrath’, is appropriate enough for a man destined to become an avenger. In the west— and especially in popular speech— he was generally known as Olysseus, which Latin writers were to render as Ulysses. Now the name Olysseus derives, as does that of his maternal grandfather, from the Greek O Lukos, ‘The Wolf’. So where we find that Autolycus means ‘The Very Wolf’, Olysseus means simply ‘The Wolf’. This wolf strain is apparent in many of the tales about the hero.

It’s a book I read with a pencil in hand because I wanted to make notes and underline.

If the Voyage of the Argonauts is the story of how the Greeks first discovered the trade routes to the Black Sea, the voyage of Ulysses, himself an Argonaut’s son, is the story of how they first began to break into the western Mediterranean. Ulysses’ voyage is comparable in many ways to that of Columbus. From the moment that he leaves Greece behind him, he becomes more than the hero of Troy— the cunning strategist who devised that great city’s downfall— he is now the archetype of all explorers.

The crux of the book is Bradford’s argument about the historical Ulysses, his attempt to identify the historical places and events, to unravel the factual artifact of the sailor’s descriptive narrative from the embroidery of the poet and the mythology:

The story of Ulysses is, it seems, the story of the first Greek sailor to explore the unknown Western Mediterranean. The reasons why so many of the places and events described here have been over-laid with fantasy and myth is because even when Homer was writing, some three or four centuries after the events described, this part of the Mediterranean was still practically unexplored.

Throughout my search for Ulysses I have always remained somewhat sceptical of minor geographical details like caves and springs. Such things can change considerably over the centuries and the lapse of three thousand years can see landslides which lose up caves, volcanic disturbances which destroy or alter old springs, and the sad process of deforestation which, as in Greece, can completely change a landscape. On the other hand, I take it that the main geographical descriptions in Homer’s account of Ulysses’ voyage are accurate. They read as if they were meant to be, and in fact they often bear an uncanny resemblance to our own Admiralty Pilots. The moment when myth and fantasy intrude into the story is immediately apparent, for there is abut these passages a completely different atmosphere, a ‘generalized’ feeling. But whenever the poet sets himself out to describe a harbor, an anchorage, or some navigational hazard, there is a remarkable air of authenticity— something quite different from a poet’s invention.

Whenever possible in the Odyssey, the nature of a harbour is described and its suitability in various winds and weather, while the mariner’s second thought— water— is also mentioned.

The Odyssey is the epic poem of a nation to whom navigation was all-important, so I do not find it strange that so much factual detail is incorporated into it. It is the very authenticity of the winds and weathers, ports and harbors, which acts as a solid backbone to the poem.

But it’s not a demythologizing impulse, really. It’s not a denigration of the work of the poet or a dismissal of the myth. It’s rather a celebration of the voyage of discovery. It’s thrilling to accompany Bradford and to share with him the joy of identifying the places that you hadn’t realized were real places you can actually sail to.

It reminds me of Father Maguire’s lectures at UD when he discussed the catalog of ships in the Iliad, the poet’s love for details, the encyclopedic impulse to record minutiae out of love for things. You get the same delightful impulse in Melville’s cetology chapters in Moby Dick, a love for the thingness of things.

He appeals to “the genius of Schliemann’, who ‘acting largely on the Homeric poems’ found Troy ‘in the very place where the earliest reports had said that it was.” And also to a the similar genius of Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the Kingdom of Minos, also purported to be a fiction “according to many once-reputable authorities.” And so he follows the evidence of the poem itself to find that both the details in the poem and ancient tradition seem to be in perfect agreement:

As we have seen from Ulysses’ description of a voyage from Crete to Egypt, the speed for his type of ship with the wind astern was about three knots. A speed of three knots for nine days and nights (216 hours) gives one a distance travelled of 648 miles. Not the island of Jerba lies approximately 650 miles from a point mid-way between Cape Malea and the island of Cythera. Ulysses, at an average speed of three knots, would have
accordingly reached there on the tenth day– which is what the Odyssey says that he does. With a Levanter blowing, an in an open boat running before the wind and sea, somewhere near the Gulf of Gabes (where Jerba lies), is exactly where one would expect to find Ulysses and his squadron. I see little reason why it should be considered ‘foolishness’ to agree with the ancient ascription that Jerba was the Land of the Lotus-Eaters.

And yet amid all the technical details of sailing and currents and harbors and celestial navigation, Bradford doesn’t lose touch with the human element, Ulysses the man:

Ulysses cannot be accused of being reluctant to get back to his wife and child, for what is the Odyssey but the story of one man’s determination to return home at the end of a war?

One thing that strikes me particularly about the story of Ulysses is the sadness and the melancholy that seems inseparably associated with his seafaring. Although the Mediterranean is more often blue than any other colour, it is almost invariably described as ‘grey’. Almost the only weather we hear about is bad. Storms, tempests, whirlpools, angry seas, these abound; but no easy, halcyon days.

Along the way we also make the acquaintance not only of the historical Ulysses but also of Ernle Bradford himself, for the book is also a sort of memoir both as the young sailor during the war and as older man who returned to sail the sea in small boats. He tells us about his own voyages, his encounters.

There are a couple of passages which were particularly striking. One is a sort of ghost story, how one night in September of 1943 when on patrol in the escort destroyer H.M.S. Exmoor, he and only he heard the Sirens singing.

I think it was about two o’clock int he morning when we had just reached the far end of our patrol. The procedure was to lie there stopped for a brief period, while the radar and asdic sets combed the area off the islands.

One’s ears, like one’s eyes, were sharply in tune in those days. The intervening years ahve not only blurred my memory but have given me perhaps a greater artifice with words– something always suspect if one is looking for the truth. I fall back then on an account of the incident which I wrote in 1948, only five years afterwards.

“This music crept by me upon the waters. . . . I hear then what sounded like singing. I cannot describe it accurately, but it was low and somehow distant– a ‘natural’ kind of singing one might call it, reminiscent of the waves and wind. Yet it was certainly neither of these, for there was about it a human quality, disturbing and evocative.

[. . .]

I nudged Nobby, and asked him if he could hear anything. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Nothing at all.’ Even as he spoke I could hear the singing– it wasn’t one voice but several. I could not make out any words, nor any particular tune. Thinking about it later on, I found a word which seemed to me to desribe it exactly– ‘mindless.’ There was a kind of ‘abstract’ quality about it. Jsut then the Captain came up on the bridge. He, too, could hear nothing. But, as I insisted that I had definitely heard something, he agreed to go in close to the rocks and see if we could make out anybody. The idea had flashed through my head that there might be survivors from some sunken craft who had crawled out on to the rock, and were either trying to attract our attention, or were keeping up their spirits with a song.

[. . .]

Then gradually, as I listened, it became more personal. Somehow or other I knew that it was feminine, for no man’s throat could have made that low, sweet noise.

[. . .]

Eventually we had to turn back on our ‘leg’ out into the bay. I’ll admit I was glad when we did for I had now reached a point when the singing somehow began to make sense. First of all, it was very old. Don’t ask me how I knew that, but I did. And secondly, it has a direct bearing on me— of that I felt quite sure. It began to draw me so that I wanted to join it– and this ‘joining it’, I knew in some obscure was, meant going back into the past. When we stopped by the last of the roks, just before turning, I was gripping a stanchion and the sweat was on my forehead. It meant, I knew, going back in time, retreating in some way or another into a different world. I kept getting a picture, as it were, of temples by the shore: white shores under the sun and, where the waves ran up to the land, there was a small temple.

The other passage that particularly charmed me was about how he cooked lobsters with his wife off the coast of Sicily:

The Greeks anchored their vessel, and then disembarked and made ready their evening meal. It is sad to think they did not know that this small rock-fringed cove holds some of the sweetest lobsters in Sicily. The last time I was here, on my way south to Syracuse, I bought five of these sea-green beauties for approximately one English pound. [. . .] At sea that night, a few miles south of Ulysses’ sheltered cove, we put them all in a bucket of salt water on the roaring galley stove. One needs little more in this world than a fair wind, the sun going down behind Etna, the sound of the sea, hot lobster, good rough bread, and a little red wine from Taormina. Which brings me back to Ulysses. . . .

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