As I write these words, I am sitting on the balcony of a studio apartment in the tiny village of Kapetaniana (in Crete) perched high on the southern slopes of a mountain overlooking the Libyan Sea, taking a short break after a week-long storytelling course on the Odyssey with Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden in Amari.
It was stunning week: inspiring teaching interspersed with visits to Hermes’ Gorge (where we invoked the Olympian Gods); to Pan’s Cave high up on Psiloritis (where the ancient one is still revered); to Rethymnon for a performance of the Iliad by Hugh and Daniel. Add to that, delicious home-cooked Cretan food (apparently there are no Greek words for “I’ve already eaten enough thank you”) and time to dwell in the world of Homer’s Odyssey and you have a recipe for storytelling heaven.
Under Hugh and Daniel’s guidance, eight of us studied the text and prepared for a shared performance of the Odyssey. I was to tell the story of Odysseus’s seven year sojourn with the nymph Calypso and of his eventual escape from her island: Odysseus is rescued from the sea by a goddess who takes him to her bed, provides for all his material needs, and even offers him immortality. Yet when the opportunity presents itself, he spurns her, builds a raft and sails away, back to the land of men and to his mortal wife, Penelope.
I have always been drawn to the fantasy of Calypso’s island. I told the story in Edinburgh last year during the Scottish International Storytelling Festival; I’ve written my own prose version and several poems about some of the key moments; I’ve visited a cave in Gozo that the locals swear was the very one Calypso lived in; 20 years ago I sailed to Ithaca in a 30ft yacht; I have even had real-life relationships with several Calypsos – nymphs who held me in their possessive gaze and promised to love me for ever.
In the end I left them. Not because it wasn’t blissful, but because such bliss was confining and claustrophobic. I left them in the hope of finding a deeper love and a bigger, more meaningful life. I’m fortunate beyond measure to have found both with my partner Chris Seeley (definitely a Penelope not a Calypso). We love each other and support each other in taking our work out into the world.
And yet, some part of me must have felt a degree of nostalgia for my Calypso years because, as I rehearsed the story, Hugh told me that he thought I had not quite grasped the intensity of Odysseus’s desire to leave the island “It’s all a bit too lovey-dovey,” he said.
So I changed the language: made it clear that Odysseus only slept with Calypso because she was a Goddess and had no choice; showed him on the seashore pining for Penelope everyday; said how pleased he was to be going home. But still, come the dress rehearsal, two colleagues – Dawn and Mark – pointed out that the tone of my voice was flat when Odysseus left the island: “You say that he is pleased to be going but you don’t show it.” I thought about it over lunch and – over the washing up – found myself asking Stella Kassimati our Cretan hostess to tell me the Greek word for freedom. “Eleftheria,” she said.
That afternoon the whole group told all of Odysseus’s island adventures, book-ended by Hugh and Daniel holding the piece together with a suitable beginning and ending. I told the Calypso story as well as I could and when I described Odysseus sailing away from the island (“open skies above me – open seas before me”) I opened my arms and bellowed “ELEFTHERIA, ELEFTHERIA, FREEDOM, FREEDOM.” I hadn’t intended to bellow, it just came out that way.
In that instant I knew that I had really left the island of Calypso behind me for ever. I feel no yearning for those days now – a certain fondness and gratitude to the nymphs who loved me – but no desire whatsoever to return to Ogygia.