In the short story “The Gospel According to Mark,” Jorge Luis Borges writes, “Generations of men, throughout recorded time, have always told and retold two stories—that of a lost ship which searches the Mediterranean seas for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who is crucified on Golgotha.” This map examines where the story of Odysseus’s perilous homeward journey came from, and what has become of it in our own time.
Homer is the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey—at least that is the tradition. Scholars have debated for centuries whether these works share the same author. In any case, both are part of an oral tradition in which poetry was sung by traveling bards. Stories change with each retelling, especially long ones; thus, even if there were a single historical Homer, authorship of the two poems could as well be attributed to a lineage of rhapsodes as to any one man. In The Odyssey, the blind bard Demodocus sings at the court of the Phaeacians. It may be that Homer was believed to be blind because of Demodocus or that Homer used Demodocus as his stand-in.
Legendary Odysseus fought in the Trojan War, which dragged on for 10 years until he ended it with the infamous Trojan horse. The Odyssey chronicles his voyage home to Ithaca. Odysseus’s fleet stops at the island of Aeolus, king of the winds, who binds within a bag every wind but the fairest. When in sight of Ithaca, Odysseus’s men open the bag while he sleeps, thinking it holds treasure, and the unleashed winds blow them far from home.
One legend holds that Homer was Odysseus’s grandson, and what more fitting ancestry for the consummate confabulator? Perhaps the grandson couldn’t resist the temptation to manipulate the truth on behalf of his illustrious silver-tongued ancestor.
The Odyssey is an ancient story, but it has modern—even postmodern—characteristics. It is a tale told from many perspectives, and the narrative is out of sequence: It begins in medias res, with Odysseus marooned on Ogygia, the nymph Calypso’s isle, and the gods arguing over whether to free him. In the essay “The Odysseys Within the Odyssey,” Italian writer Italo Calvino suggests the epic has an accretive character, as revealed in the account that Odysseus gives Athena. His tale of shipwreck, raiders and other mundane travel problems is much more credible than the magical events that form the middle part of The Odyssey. Interestingly, Athena, usually so attentive to Odysseus, is absent throughout his long voyage home. Quite possibly, the magical island-tales are older narratives stitched into the Trojan War story. Calvino speculates that Odysseus’s mundane account is how his story originally went, only later to be displaced by a sequence of wonder tales.
The Odyssey is the record of Odysseus making his way from one island to the next. Most are inhabited by women, whose relationships with the hero are, in large part, the subject of the poem. The nymph Calypso loves and imprisons Odysseus. The witch Circe tries to turn him into an animal but, defeated, takes him to her bed. The sirens sing to Odysseus and would destroy him if they could. Monstrous Scylla slakes her hunger on his crew, and princess Nausicaa meets him with courage and innocence. At the beginning is Helen of Troy, for whom one man is as good as another, and at the end is Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who remains faithful. At both the beginning and the end is Athena, who loves Odysseus best among mortals and delights in his lying mind.
Since antiquity, scholars have tried to locate The Odyssey’s islands. Some think they are a fairy archipelago of no particular latitude and longitude; others claim that Sicily is the island of the Cyclopes and that Scylla and Charybdis dwell in the Strait of Messina. There isn’t even agreement on whether Ithaca, which appears on every map of Greece, is the Ithaca of Odysseus’s wanderings.
Around the 500th night of The Arabian Nights we read of Sinbad the sailor, who makes seven (or so) voyages, often to win wealth, sometimes just to wander. He finds many islands and the prodigies inhabiting them—snakes that swallow elephants, gigantic birds called rocs, whales impersonating islands. On his third voyage Sinbad and his companions meet a one-eyed cannibal ogre whom they blind with an iron cooking spit; the encounter is unapologetically stolen from The Odyssey.
On the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus and his men discover a cave, which they happily begin to loot—until the return of its inhabitant, the Cyclops Polyphemus. He blocks the cave’s only entrance with a great stone and starts devouring the intruders. Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is No Man, gets him drunk and then puts out his eye with an improvised olive-wood spear. When the other Cyclopes hear Polyphemus’s cries of agony and run to his aid, Polyphemus tells them No Man has hurt him, so they shrug and go away.
The Arabian Nights preserves only the rudiments of this adventure. There is no tricky nom de guerre, no escape under cover of livestock.
Scheherazade is the protagonist and narrator of The Arabian Nights, a collection of tales of disparate Near Eastern origin. In the framing story, King Shahryar puts his wife to death when he discovers her adultery. Reasoning that all women are as unfaithful as his wife and should be treated just as harshly, he takes to marrying a new virgin each night and executing her in the morning. When virgin supplies run low, he marries his vizier’s daughter, Scheherazade. On their wedding night and each subsequent night she cleverly tells him a new story, leaving off at a crucial point every morning before dawn, so her life is spared for 1,001 nights.
Scheherazade manages to survive her husband and would-be murderer through cunning, also the principal weapon of the resourceful Odysseus. Unlike Odysseus, however, she lacks physical strength and must rely solely on her wits. There also is something of Odysseus’s long-waiting wife, Penelope, to Scheherazade. While Penelope’s stalling tactic of choice is to weave a shroud by day and unwind it at night, Scheherazade spins out a seemingly infinite narrative. Both women endure a siege by hostile men, but in Scheherazade’s case no one is coming to rescue her.
Sinbad is the protagonist in a sequence of nautical wonder tales in The Arabian Nights. He is a fictional Persian sailor (or perhaps Arab, or perhaps Indian, if one looks back far enough) who makes about seven voyages, almost every one of which leads to shipwreck. The archipelago Sinbad sails through is full of monsters, riches and strange customs, much like the islands Odysseus visits. Some of the men’s adventures (among the Cyclopes, on Circe’s island) are more or less identical.
At one point Sinbad is marooned on an island that turns out to be nothing more than the back of a whale. As the place is unremarkably island-like—we can imagine sand and palm trees—the whale must have been at rest for some time. This adventure prefigures the theory of plate tectonics, which was, when first proposed, widely ridiculed, as it was intuitively obvious that the continents were fixed and immovable.
Odysseus is moved by a desperate longing for home, but Sinbad travels for pleasure—after his first few adventures he has wealth enough, but restlessness drives him to sail away, his tendency toward shipwreck notwithstanding. Great indeed, we infer, was the tedium of Sinbad’s home in Baghdad.
Surrealist Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Maker” (1960) is an account of how Homer became Homer. The figure of the bard captivated Borges, who, like Homer, also went blind. In another Borges story, “The Immortal” (1947), a soldier seeks the river that grants eternal life, finding it in the desert near an abandoned city apparently built by gods. Near the banks of the river dwell mute, filthy, naked philosophers (an allusion to the gymnosophists of ancient Greece) with vacant eyes and an evident indifference to the world. One of them takes to trailing after the soldier, who, not uncultivated, at one point mutters a few words of Homer’s. His follower, speaking for the first time, says that the line is familiar, that it has been a long time since he wrote it. He is Homer, and he has drunk of the water of immortality and lived for centuries, seeing everything; now he dwells in a world of pure thought.
With Homer, some say, literature was perfected. In the eternal ennui of Borges’s Homer, however, is the despair of later, and thus lesser, poets.
It is said of the sacred Indian epic the Mahabharata that “What is here, is elsewhere. What is not here, is nowhere.” The same is true of The Arabian Nights, whose contents are immense. The stories are sometimes satirical, sometimes serious, and often involve the supernatural (djinn, ghouls, the seal of Suleiman the Magnificent, cities of fire). They are sometimes exciting and at other times unreadably dull. The book is hugely syncretic—though Antoine Galland’s 18th-century translation seems to be the first to feature “Aladdin; or, The Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” The Arabian Nights would be unimaginable to modern readers without these two tales.
The stories told within the Scheherazade framing device themselves contain frames that contain other stories, sometimes with their own frames, and so on, in a supposedly postmodern structure that dates back millennia. At one point the deeply nested narrator in Scheherazade’s tale tells the story of Scheherazade, a conceit worthy of Jorge Luis Borges—or, given Borges’s lifelong affinity for The Arabian Nights, perhaps even the inspiration of his cyclical story “The Circular Ruins.”
Jorge Luis Borges wrote stories involving dreams, labyrinths, libraries, language and myth. His tale “The Maker” fictionalizes how Homer the man became Homer the poet: He started out like most young men, thoughtless and avid, but as he aged and his eyesight began to fade, he transmuted the casually observed experiences of his youth into The Iliad and The Odyssey. Borges too went blind.
In William Gibson’s novel Count Zero (1986), a derelict satellite is inhabited by an artificial intelligence (AI) that plucks fragments from the cloud of detritus floating around it—rotten cloth, old books, the rusted fragments of ancient machines—and arranges them in boxes that, like the shadow boxes of assemblage sculptor Joseph Cornell, have a profound resonance. An art patron, obsessed with these boxes, sees loss and isolation in them, though the AI says they refer only to time and distance.
HAL, the AI from 2001, embodies the opposite style of cognition—its thinking is ruthless and relentless. When ordered to keep the astronauts on its ship ignorant of the mission’s true purpose, HAL is launched on an inexorable chain of deduction that is both tragic and flawed, and that leads to their destruction.
2001: A Space Odyssey is light on dialogue and exposition. Director Stanley Kubrick said his intent was to communicate on a visceral, prelinguistic level. He named the opaque but compelling film after Homer’s Odyssey because the Greeks, he thought, must have seen the wastes of ocean in the same way we see outer space. The film ends with what appears to be the sole surviving astronaut’s apotheosis—a happier fate than that of Odysseus, who, though he does reach home, is destined to die.
Spacefaring is commonplace in the 2001 of this film, but when the ship’s onboard artificial intelligence turns against the astronauts, the void of space becomes as threatening as Homer’s “wine-dark sea” must have been for the Greeks. Interestingly, in early drafts of the script, HAL is named Athena. The two have much in common: Both are inhuman and immortal, the embodiments of reason, the guardians of wandering heroes. Athena, Odysseus’s protector, vanishes for a long stretch of the hero’s trip home, and HAL’s programming, too brittle for the weal of his charges, must be disconnected for the journey to continue.