Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rethinking Captivity

Odysseus, drifting in an endless sea of despair, washed ashore on an unknown island. All he understood was that his face was against the rough, grainy sand of a beach, and that he was for the moment safe from Poseidon’s apparently unyielding wrath. His vision skewed due to lack of sleep and his taxing ordeal, he came upon a shimmering apparition. He asked this strange being where he had landed. With voice enticing, she assured him that he was now home. Feeling the hope arise in his heart, the hero supposed that he had arrived in Ithaca; however, he was very much mistaken, for he had actually landed on the island of the sea nymph, Calypso.

Homer tells us that this intoxicating divinity had fallen in love with the mortal Odysseus. The poet gives us no indication that this love wasn’t the real thing. Calypso passionately loved Odysseus. Nonetheless, he knew that his fate lay along another path. His heart's longing was for his true home and for his family. The sea nymph’s tidal passion for Odysseus caused her to, in essence, imprison him on her island. Being battered and faint from his horrendous trials, the hero collapsed into the loving embrace of Calypso.

Calypso’s beauty and strong enchantments powerfully diverted Odysseus from the hurts and pains of his past. For close to two years, the Greek hero set aside his ultimate goal, the return to his dear Penelope and Ithaca. Lost in the haze of Calypso’s charms, he began to believe that he would remain eternally with this alluring beauty—that this was, as Calypso had declared, his home.

If Odysseus had ended his journey on the island of this sea-nymph, we would have been left wanting more. True, this island and its beautiful mistress provided a sharp contrast to the ferocity of Poseidon’s anger, but they did not provide what Odysseus ultimately wanted most. The aching hunger to return to his home and family resurfaced, and tears began to flow. Painful, yes, but the sorrow often reflects a good pain, an emptiness that moves us on, that forces us to remember that we were made for more than this. The romance and beauty that Calypso gave to Odysseus had only served to thwart his quest. Does this story have a familiar ring to anyone?

The gods of Olympus heard the cries of the hero-king and, considering his destiny, sent the messenger-god to the island prison. Hermes came to Calypso and relayed the will of Zeus. He declared that Odysseus was to be set free from the bonds of this island and was to be permitted to continue his quest. Embittered by this word from on high, Calypso protested. Finally, Hermes warned the goddess that dire consequences drive her island to the bottom of Poseidon's sea if she insisted on keeping Odysseus captive. Calypso relented at last, and Odysseus was free to journey on!

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