Ulysses’ Decade Long Journey from Troy to Ithaca

Odysseus departs from the Land of the Phaeacians, painting by Claude Lorrain (1646)

Today, an intrepid yachtsman can trace Ulysses’ almost mythical journey around the western Mediterranean. Odysseus, Ulysses’ Homeric name, derived from ‘The Wolf’, implying he was a man nimble with words and cunning in action.

Ulysses Mythical Journey

Ulysses, immediately after the destruction of Troy c.1,200 BC set sail north-west of Troy, with his 12 ship squadron, to plunder the land of the Cicones who were allies of the Trojans. Each ship with twenty oars, ten to each side, carried at least forty men. His twelve ship squadron consisted of 500 crewmen.

Ulysses men delayed too long and lost 72 men, 6 from each ship, when the Cicones gathered allies and attacked them on the shore.

The Land of the Lotus Eaters

Ulysses’ squadron set sail and a terrible gale from the north drove them southward down the Aegean, past Cythera and for nine days they were swept along until they reached the coast of modern day Libya. The landed on Jerba, the Land of the Lotus Eaters. Three men were sent ashore and consumed the Lotus, desiring to remain on land, they were brought on board ship and chained. Ulysses set sail with his squadron east of north.

Goat Island

Modern Favignana off the west coast of Sicily was Ulysses squadron’s next landfall. 9 goats fell to each ship. Ulysses intended to sail across the sea to investigate the fires on the land to the east.

The Cave of Polyphemus

Ulysses picked his twelve best men and ordered his squadron to remain on guard until their return. The Cave of Polyphemus remains extant. Cyclopes means round head, they may have had a tattoo of an eye on their foreheads as a clan mark, they were not giants. Ulysses and his men were trapped by Polyphemus when he closed his cave with boulders. Ulysses gave his name as Ouedis – the Greek for Nobody. Ulysses blinded Polyphemus and escaped with 6 of his men under his sheep. Ulysses rejoined the other eleven vessels of his squadron.

The Island of the Winds

Ulysses set sail for north and east hoping to regain Ithaca and home. Ulysses reached Ustica, 100km north east from Favignana. The island was inhabited by Aeolus his wife and twelve children. Aeolus gave Ulysses the gift of a westerly wind in a bag. After twelve days of sailing north-east they sighted Cephallonia, the island sheltering Ithaca. Ulysses content, slept. His crew opened Aeolus’ gift of winds, a storm blew up and pushed them south of Sicily. All memory of Ulysses’ homeland faded.

The Laestrygonians

Both the Cyclops, Polyphemus and the Leastrygonians, emerge as anthropophagoi – cannibals. Modern day Port de Bonifacio, Corsica was the cove where the Laetrygonians rained rocks down on Ulysses fleet. Only Ulysses ship’s company escaped.

Circe’s Island

Ulysses sailed to Cape Circeo off the coast of Italy where his men encountered Circe. Circe was an enchantress and a goddess. Ulysses left Eurylochus in charge of 22 men, they entered Circe’s glade and were turned into animals. Hermes intervened and gave Ulysses a sacred plant to protect him from Circe’s spell. The surviving Greeks stayed on Circe’s island for a year. The youngest crew member, Elpenor died. Ulysses never expected to see Circe’s island again. A northerly wind drove Ulysses between Sardinia and Corsica.

The Pillars of Hercules

Ulysses ship sailed to the end of the known world, the Straits of Gibraltar, where Ulysses met the God of the Underworld, Hades, who was related to Circe. Ulysses pours libations to the Underworld in a trench. This was an unreal, poetic episode. Ulysses fate was revealed, he was destined to return to Circe’s island. Should his crew slaughter the Sun God’s cattle they would perish.

The Sirens and the Wandering Rocks

Ulysses’ ship returned to Circe’s island ensuring Elpenor’s spirit was buried. Circe directed Ulysses sailing route. Ulysses’ ship sailed south to the Siren’s Rocks at the entrance to the Straits of Messina, he ensured his crew plugged their ears and he was lashed to the mast. The Sirens lured sailors to their doom. Their ship then faced the wandering rocks of volcanic, Stromboli Island and the whirlpool of Scylla and Charybdis in the Straits of Messina. Scylla snatched six men from Ulysses’ ship.

The Sun God’s Island

Taormina, Sicily, fits the description of the Sun God Hyperion’s Island tending his healthy cattle and sheep. Ulysses repeated Circe’s warning that if the cattle or sheep were harmed, the ship would be lost and everyone drowned. Ulysses’ forty strong crew endured a month long lack of favourable winds when his crew went hungry. Eurylochus killed the sacred cattle while Ulysses slept. Ulysses ship set sail due east, during the winter storms, attempting to escape their fate. The ship was wrecked in the whirlpool of Chaybdis with only Ulysses clinging to the fig tree of life above the boiling sea.

Ortygia, Calypso’s Island

Ulysses drifted alone on his driftwood raft for nine days landing on fair Calypso’s Island. The Dingli region of Malta fits the description for Calypso’s Island where Ulysses was detained for seven years. Neesos Kalupsous (Greek) – The Island of the Hiding Place. Ulysses withered slowly at the quiet limit of the world. Calypso was forced to let him go. Calypso directed Ulysses to build a strong pine log raft and told him to keep the Plough to his left hand side. Within eighteen days Ulysses landed on Corcyra (Corfu) where the Phaecians returned him to Ithaca where he slew Penelope’s suitors with his son Telemachus.

Ulysses Wanderings Inspired Many Writers

Ulysses odyssey, favoured by the Gods, inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses. Leopold Bloom, the anti-hero, was an uninspiring figure, yet he returned home a hero after a night of wandering around Dublin in 1904.