Many happy returns

Although Homer's Odyssey is now nearly 3,000 years old, the story of Ulysses's journey home to Ithac

The Return of Ulysses: a Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey

by Edith Hall I B Tauris, 256pp, £20

The main port on the island of Ithaca is a secret place, invisible from the sea. Experienced mariners know which inlet to take to find its principal anchorage, a large bay with a simple name: Vathy, meaning "deep". It is an island particularly loved by sea captains, many of whom come to retire here. There are said to be 400 of them living on Ithaca today, many spending their days on the harbour front, drinking coffee and telling yarns.

The story of how one sea captain returned from war to Ithaca to reclaim his family and his kingdom is arguably the most significant narrative ever told. It is nearly 3,000 years since a collection of tales was brought together by Homer in the Odyssey and yet, as Edith Hall tells us early on, "few people in the world today do not know a language in which the epic is available". It appears to have shaped epics as diverse as Sundiata in ancient Mali and the Yuriwaka-daijin in Japan. But as well as its almost universal accessibility, the Odyssey has influenced so many works of art, so many ideas, that trying to encompass them is a hugely ambitious task.

As Hall observes: "No later author could ever again make a fresh start when shaping a narrative or a visual representation of a voyage, a metamorphosis, a run-in with savages, an encounter with anyone dead, a father-son relationship, a recognition token or a reunion between husband and wife." The study that substantiates her claim is scholarly, elegant, thought-provoking and often extremely good fun.

There are, of course, the obvious and conscious homages - James Joyce's modernist masterpiece Ulysses, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, Derek Walcott's Omeros and the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But Hall seems to take special pleasure in discovering the less well-known. There is the Dane Jess Ørnsbo's play Odysseus from Vraa, in which Odysseus, disguised in sunglasses, returns to his seedy seaside boarding house where his son, Telemachus, nicknamed Telle, wipes out the occupants with rat poison.

There is Rushdie's discursus on the relative demerits of the United States and Osama Bin Laden: "Polyphemus, after all, is a sort of evil superpower, a stupid creature of great, brute force who respects no laws or gods and devours human flesh, whereas Ulysses is crafty, devious, slippery, uncatchable and dangerous."

The one-eyed Polyphemus has proved as usefully flexible in representing causes and ideas as the Odyssey itself. Polyphemus has numerous literary progeny, including Caliban, but Hall demonstrates that one writer's grotesque monster is another's symbol of the colonially oppressed. As for Polyphemus's murderous response to the intrusion of strangers on to his territory and into his home, "classical scholars have now had to accept that, at least in a Texan court, the Homeric Cyclops would today have a watertight defence".

The Return of Ulysses is much more than an inventory of texts and films. Hall's skill lies in showing how and why the Odyssey has always been capable of mirroring so many interests, anxieties and dreams. There are sections on extreme violence, class, science fiction, psychoanalysis and communing with the dead, as well as the more predictable ones on exile, masculinity and storytelling.

The potential pitfall of the project is that resonances of the Odyssey are so ubiquitous that it could be hard to identify themes as individual entities. Hall takes control of the mass of material by accepting that hers must be a largely personal journey. It is seductive stuff. One of the enjoyments of this book is that it is hard to avoid setting out on one's own quest for examples. I found myself recalling J Meade Faulkner's Moon fleet, a childhood favourite: here is a boy in a vault with the dead and a shipwreck which exactly echoes that of Odysseus on Calypso's island. How had I missed the allusion in Eliot's "Little Gidding"?

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And what about John Cleese's determined, though flawed, protagonist in the film Clock wise? Serially diverted or impeded by rustics, a nubile schoolgirl and silent monks, and followed by a harassed but patient wife until he reaches his final destination? Odysseus in an Athenian tragedy. Obviously.

It seems churlish to talk of omissions. The only area where Hall is thinner than might be expected is in the literature of the First World War. Poems such as Owen's "Strange Meeting" and Sassoon's "The Rear-Guard" carry unmistakable echoes of Odysseus's conversations with the dead in Book II of the Odyssey. Hall may, of course, feel it is the imagery of the Iliad, rather than the Odyssey, that dominates the anguished literature of 1914-18. Nevertheless, the hegemony of classical Greek in elite education, and of the images of masculinity this offered, was finally ended by that war. The writer and poet Edmund Blunden said afterwards that it "seemed a horrid impiety" to open his Homer.

Hall points out that the Odyssey is inevitably a gendered text. Though its themes of exile, belonging, fidelity, truth and falsehood are universally and timelessly experienced, it has at its heart an action hero. As the novelist Inge Merkel puts it: "A man can be a man only if he has returned from some other place." The women of the Odyssey are more of a challenge for a modern readership, but Hall draws on both feminist scholarship and some witty recasting of the intelligent but passive Penelope as less patient, more her own woman, or even, as in Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, less admirable.

Yet it is primarily men for whom a quite different kind of mapping is the essential way to understand ancient texts. Hall deliberately avoids examining any empirical reality behind the text. Questions as to whether the Sirens were monk seals or whether Alcinous's gold and silver guard dogs were precursors of the cyborg have value as entertainment, she feels, but nothing more. However, attempts to turn myth into physical territory have a long history. Perhaps the best-known of these explorers is Heinrich Schliemann, who, with the Iliad as gazetteer, found the site of Troy to his own, if not everybody else's, satisfaction. There have been several similar attempts to locate Ithaca within a modern geography. One lavish account of such an inquiry, the businessman and Homerist Robert Bittlestone's Odysseus Unbound, was published in 2005 and claims Cephalonia as the true location of Ithaca and, therefore, Odysseus.

Bittlestone's is an extraordinary quest; in 3,000 years, the topography of the volcanic Ionian islands has changed significantly; one of the most violent of its several earthquakes occurred in 1953 and devastated much of Cephalonia. The project's supporting website announces: "An unprecedented array of gravity, seismic, marine and helicopter-based electromagnetic techniques is being used to test the theory."

This project could only be possible with the current armoury of scientific machinery and computer modelling, but it is hard not to see Odysseus's challenges reflected in the geophysical adventures of Bittlestone and his crew.

Today, the island of Ithaca has no great tourist industry. It is largely mountainous, and its few settlements follow the coastline. The 1953 earthquake destroyed many of its neoclassical houses. Archaeological digs have failed, so far, to uncover more than sparse finds that could be connected with the home of a Mycenaean ruler. The island is more persuasively connected with the 1823 sojourn of that great exponent of Greek nationalism and would-be warrior, Lord Byron.

But Ithacans believe this is where Odysseus returned. On Ithaca now, the young man watching football is called Omeros, the septuagenarian hotel owner Odysseas. Telemachus is laying water pipes. And Popi, a popular Ithacan women's name, is the diminutive of Penelope. Only recently has it been possible for young Greek academics to question the received wisdom that the modern Greeks are descended from those of antiquity, rather than - as is widely understood outside Greece - from successive waves of immigrants from the east and north. On Ithaca, the association with the distant past is very specific. Ithaca is the end of the journey: the homeland.

It is, of course, also the title of Greece's most famous and much-loved modern poem. "Ithaka" was written by Constantine Cavafy and travelled with him for 16 years before he finally published it in 1911. Hall's account of Cavafy' s life and journeys and the inspiration for his poem, with its powerful articulation of exile and nostalgia, is excellent. "It is this exilic tension between spiritual home, cultural-ethnic ancestry, and chosen residence that Cavafy understood, and which underlies all the Odyssey's afterlife in the hands of migrants and exiles."

But perhaps Hall's most compelling chapter concerns Proteus, the shape-shifter whose influence Hall follows from antiquity to the present day. It is the ability to shift - to be so many things to so many people - that has made the imaginary landscape of the Odyssey so central and so enduring to how we think about our world. The changing, unstable and ultimately elusive geography of Odysseus's contested kingdom is an intriguing pendant to Hall's account.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Elizabeth Speller is the author of "Following Hadrian: a 2nd-Century Journey Through the Roman Empire" (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet