The Story of Calypso
Originally told at Queen of Hearts XVII by Elder Duncan
I would like to tell you the story of Calypso. Not Calypso my gyspy wife, but another Calypso from a time long past.
This story of Calypso is also the story of Odysseus. Odysseus was an ancient Greek hero who fought in the Trojan war and then had many adventures on his way home once the war was over.
Now the Trojan war was fought over a beautiful woman, Helen of Troy. That in itself is an excellent story, but it's not this story. This story starts with the end of the Trojan war.
Troy was sacked. It was utterly destroyed, reduced to ashes. The heroes of Greece had defeated the great warriors of Troy. Everything was great, but one of the Greeks made a minor miscalculation. Minor, that is, in the way that angering the gods, incurring their wrath and getting most of your comrades either hopelessly lost or killed could be considered "minor".
The Greeks found the King of Troy's daughter, Cassandra, clinging to the feet of a statue of Athena amidst the smoking ruins of the city of Troy. Before I tell you what happened to Cassandra, you should know a little bit about her.
Cassandra was both cursed and blessed with a unique power. She was able to know what was going to happen in the future. You might think that would be a great gift. You can just imagine her in the morning as her father, King Priam, comes down to start his day...
"Dad, whatever you do - DO NOT make toast for breakfast. There are two slices of bread left, you'll burn the crap out of 'em and you'll be in a piss-poor mood all morning."
Unfortunately, if she told anyone what she knew was going to transpire, they were fated to never believe her.
"What do you mean, darling? I've made toast hundreds of times, and look, we have two slices of bread left. I'll just bring them over here and toast them over the coals and OH MY GOD THEY'RE ON FIRE WHY DIDN'T YOU WARN ME, WORTHLESS DAUGHTER OF MINE!?!?!?"
So you can imagine how Cassandra felt when the Greeks built an enormous wooden horse, put it before the gates of Troy while the war was still raging, and proceeded to withdraw their forces and sail out of sight. Cassandra and King Priam looked down from the walls of Troy upon the now empty battlefield at the enormous wooden horse and probably had a conversation something like this:
PRIAM: "Wow. That's one big-ass wooden horse."
CASSANDRA: "Yes father, but I have a bad feeling about-"
P: "No, really. Have you EVER seen a wooden horse that big??? I'm impressed. Not only did those Greek bastards admit defeat and leave, but they left us a gift for all the harm they brought us these past 10 years...
C: "Daddy. I think it's a trick."
P: "Cassandra, don't be such a Debbie Downer. What are you talking about?"
C: "That wooden horse is hollow. If you bring it into the city, tonight Greek men will come out of it through that hatch in its belly. Their ships are just out of sight around that far island. The men from the horse will set a bunch of our houses on fire and will open the gates so the Greeks can sneak back and sack the city. Whatever you do, DO NOT bring that horse into Troy."
P: "Really? Wow. That would be terrible."
C: "Um... yeah, Dad. It would be terrible."
P: "But look at the size of that horse..."
P: "I've NEVER had a wooden horse that big. It must be 30 feet tall! It's a BIG horse. I can't wait to tell all my friends. None of them have a horse this big."
P: "I wonder how many men it would take to bring it through the front gate. Good thing I had those doors built so damn big. It'd be a shame to leave it out there. We could put it smack dab in the middle of the market square as a monument to our glorious victory over the Greeks!"
C: "Okay, Dad. Whatever. I'll just be over here slamming my head against a wall. Don't mind me."
So you get an idea as to the kind of life Cassandra led. As fate would have it, she was the one found by the Greeks clinging to the feet of a statue of Athena in the smoking ruins of the sacked city of Troy.
The Greeks had plenty of experiences with the gods by now, but for some reason they had utterly failed to learn from their many adventures the one great lesson of the Homeric epics - DON'T MESS WITH THE GODS. Thus, when they found Cassandra under the protection of Athena, literally clinging to her feet (or to the next best thing, the feet of her statue), what did they do?
They could have left her there, they could have pleaded with Athena to allow them to take Cassandra away, they could have made offerings to Athena, they could have found a more powerful god to pit against Athena, or they could have just dragged Cassandra off, kicking and screaming and calling for Athena to avenge her.
I'm sure you can guess which choice they made.
Ajax, a greek hero, was the one that dragged her off. This wasn't Ajax the great greek hero that everyone has heard of, but another Ajax, less great, less noble, and apparently far less wise. Think of this guy as the real Ajax's stunt double.
Athena was pissed that the Greeks would drag Cassandra off from under her statue, and she went to have a chat with Poseidon. Poseidon was more than happy to help Athena out and get the Greeks back for their little transgression. When the Greeks finished celebrating their victory and went to sail home, they were beset by storms. Not just storms, but such bad weather that the Greek fleet was scattered and many boats and heroes were lost.
The great hero Menelaus was blown to Egypt. Odysseus was blown terribly off course as well. Ajax (the stunt double) had all of his ships destroyed, though he nearly survived. Ajax was clinging to a rocky outcrop and had the presence of mind to turn his head back towards the sea and call out, "I am the mortal the gods could not kill!" Needless to say, Posiedon was paying attention, responded "OH NO YOU AREN'T!" and promptly caused waves to sweep over Ajax, pulling him back into the water and drowning him.
Let's turn our attention back to Odysseus.
Poseidon's terrible storms blew Odysseus so far off course that he was completely lost.
He managed to find his way to the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Why lotus eaters, I don't know. I'm sure there is some reason they were lotus eaters and not cantalope eaters or rutabega eaters, but that particular detail is lost to me. Odysseus and his men went onto the island and met the King of the Lotus Eaters. Unfortunately, some of Odysseus' sailors missed the memo to not drink the water or eat anything weird, and the next thing you know a bunch of his men had eaten lotus leaves. Lotus leaves make you not want to leave the Island of the Lotus Eaters, so Odysseus had a hell of a time getting his weepy, distraught sailors back onto the ship so they could keep looking for their home, Ithaca.
The next island Odysseus and his men found was an island inhabited by the Cyclops Polyphemus. This is a particularly long and interesting part of the story of Odysseus and his adventures, but it boils down to this. If you have a big red button with the words "PUSH ME" on it, it doesn't take a wizard to figure out that the thing to do might just be to push the button. Well, when you have a huge one-eyed freak keeping you captive and killing and eating your men, it doesn't take a wizard to figure out what to do. You take a big wooden stick, light it on fire and poke the creature's eye out. The fire part is just for fun. Eye poking is always better with fire. Long story short: Cyclops. Wooden stick. Fire. Poke eye. Escape. Odysseus lost a few men, but was on his way to more fun adventures.
After two not-so-fun island getaways, Odysseus was very pleased to find that the next island he landed on was the Island of the Winds, ruled by King Aeolus. There was a big feast and King Aeolus took care of Odysseus and his men and after a while sent them on their way with a valuable gift. He gave Odysseus the Bag of Winds. This was a bag that Odysseus could use to control the winds and help guide his ship to where he wanted to go.
You might think that with the Bag of Winds, Odysseus would be all set. Sadly, Odysseus' men got it into their heads that the special bag Odysseus was given by King Aeolus must have something REALLY cool in it. Maybe they didn't buy the whole "Bag of Winds" story and figured there was gold and jewels in it. Maybe their curiosity got the better of them. Whatever the reason, one night the sailors got their hands on the bag when Odysseus was sleeping and opened it up to see what was inside. It was like Pandora's box was opened, only this time with wind. They were again blown off course and were again completely lost. This is the point where the story of Calypso, which turned into the story of Odysseus, now turns into the story of Odysseus and his dumb-ass sailors.
Odysseus (and his dumb-ass sailors) sailed their way to another island. This island was a very bad place. It was populated by the Laestrygons. The Laestrygons were mean and nasty, and they were big. Not only were they giant, but they were cannibals. For some reason, this didn't mean that they liked to eat each other as much as it mean that their favorite diet consisted of greek heroes and their not-so-bright sailor sidekicks. I honestly don't know why the original bards didn't just go all out and make them giant cannibal pirates, or giant cannibal pirate zombies, or even giant cannibal ninja pirate zombies. Maybe they just weren't all that creative. To make another long story short, Odysseus and his dumb-ass sailors barely escaped with their lives from the island of giant cannibal ninja pirate zombies, losing all but one of his ships in the process.
You can imagine the level of enthusiasm Odysseus was met with when he and his sailors reached the next island.
"So men, we need volunteers to go ashore and scout out this next island..."
Odysseus' men all probably looked around uncomfortably, trying not to make eye contact with him and invariably wearing "here we go again" expressions on their faces.
"No, I'm not insane - somebody has to check it out. How bad can it be? If we can survive the war, a cyclops and giant cannibal ninja pirate zombies, we can survive anything. Guys? Come back here, guys! Don't jump into the water! Really - it'll be alright!"
So somehow Odysseus convinced a small group of his sailors to scout out the island. This just happened to be an island ruled by the witch Circe, who promptly turned his scouting party into swine and imprisoned them in her pigpen.
Fortunately for Odysseus, he was actually a favorite of Athena's. She gave him a magical herb that made him immune to Circe's magic. When Odysseus went onto the island and eventually found Circe, she tried to transform him into a pig as well and was astonished when he resisted her spell. For reasons unbeknownst to... well, anyone, Circe was so impressed by Odysseus that she fell in love. His dumb-ass pig sailors were all transformed into plain old dumb-ass sailors again and she kept them there and took care of them for quite a while. Eventually Odysseus had to get on his way, and Circe was able to give him the first good directions he had been given yet on his journey. I like to think that conversation might have gone something like this:
ODYSSEUS: "So, Circe..."
CIRCE: "Yes, Big O?"
O: "I asked you to stop calling me that."
C: "Sorry, lover. I did stop calling you that in front of the men. It's just that I've never had a man like you before."
O: "Other men aren't like me, Circe?"
C: "Men are pigs. Did you get it? When I turned your sailors into swine? Did you get that I was being clever there?"
O: "Yes, dear. It was very clever. Now... I need to leave and I need your help."
C: "Do you really have to go, Odysseus?"
O: "Yes. I have a family to get back to. You don't want me to get killed or lost at sea, do you?"
C: "Of course not. Here's what you need to do. You need to talk to Teriesias."
O: "Got it. Teriesias. He can help me?"
C: "Yes. He's a prophet."
O: "He's got more than one eye, right? I have this thing about pointy sticks and folks with one eye."
C: "Umm... no - he isn't a cyclops."
O: "Good. He isn't a giant either?"
O: "Or a cannibal?"
C: "Not that I know of."
O: "Or a pirate?"
C: "He's a prophet, Odysseus. He can help you."
O: "OK. Last thing I need is a giant cannibal cyclops pirate ninja zombie prophet, and the way this trip's been going..."
C: "I understand. So, he's dead, and..."
O: "He's DEAD???"
C: "Yes. He's dead. You need to sail across the river Ocean."
O: "Not a zombie?"
C: "NOT a zombie. Now - you need to sail across the river Ocean."
O: "River Ocean. Got it."
C: "And you need to land at an island that has a big cave that is an entrance into the underworld of Hades."
O: "OK... River Ocean. Cave into Hades. I'm liking this less and less, Circe."
C: "You'll be fine. Just dig a short trench."
C: "Did a short trench and fill it with goat's blood."
O: "You're putting me on."
C: "No, really. The spirits will come up out of Hades to drink the blood."
C: "You have to fend off the spirits until Tereisias shows up. Let him drink and he'll tell you everything you need to know."
So Odysseus, possibly against his better judgement, and probably after pleading with Circe to just turn him into a pig and be done with it, set sail again, this time for the river Ocean. Why Ocean is a river and not just an ocean, or why it isn't the river River, I can't really tell you. What matters is that he sailed across the river Ocean and found the entrance to Hades.
I haven't the foggiest idea how he managed to convince his dumb-ass ex-pig sailors that it was a good idea to dig a hole and fill it with goat's blood so all the spirits of the underworld would march up out of Hades, but somehow he pulled it off. I suspect alcohol was involved. They were able to fend off the spirits until Teriesias showed up, though to be honest I don't know how he knew which spooky-looking goat's-blood-craving underworld apparition WAS Teiresias. After all, he'd never met the guy. I can only assume they had nametags on the order of "Hello. I'm dead and my name is Teiresias" on their lapels to tell them all apart.
So, Teriesias drinks the goat's blood and spills his guts, figuratively, of course.
TERIESIAS: "Hey, thanks for the trench full of goat's blood there, buddy."
ODYSSEUS: "The name's Odysseus. Teiresias, I need your help."
T: "How did you know? Oh... Nametag. Right. I forget it's there sometimes."
O: "Right. So, I need to know how to get home."
T: "Well, Odysseus, I can help you, but you have to pay attention. The first thing to do is sail past the Island of the Sirens. Their song is so powerful that if you and your sailors hear it you will change course to go to their island and your ship will be dashed to pieces on the rocks."
O: "Got it. Sirens. Song bad. Rocks worse."
T: "Then you need to sail past Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a horrible sea monster and Charybdis is a vast whirlpool. Both are very deadly and either could easily be the death of you and your crew."
O: "OK. Sirens. Scylla. Charybdis. All bad."
T: "Once you get past Scylla and Charydbdis, you need to sail to the Island of the Sun."
O: "Sirens. Scylla. Charybdis. Island of Sun."
T: "The Island of the Sun has sacred oxen on it. Whatever you do, DO NOT harm the sacred oxen."
O: "OK. Sirens. Scylla. Charybdis. Island of the Sun. Something something sacred oxen."
T: "Are you paying attention? Let no harm come to the Oxen of the Sun."
O: "OK. OK. Sirens bad. Scylla bad. Charybdis bad. Sacred Oxen good."
T: "Good luck, Odysseus, you're gonna need it."
At this point, the spirits were swarming out of the entrance to Hades and Odysseus and his dumb-ass (ex-pig) sailors were freaking out just a little. They thanked Teriesias and hauled ass back across the river Ocean.
At this point one must assume that Odysseus had learned from his experience with the bag of winds to tell his sailors as much as possible. For this next stage in their journey, he had to have their cooperation. You see, Odysseus is a hero, and I think that's the ancient equivalent of what we might now call an extreme sports adrenaline junkie. When any NORMAL person is told that they need to sail past an island where the creatures will sing a song so powerful that you will be drawn to them and will get killed by being dashed against the rocky shore, they simply go the other way. If they're smart and if they really have to go that way they might realize that all they have to do is plug up their ears so they don't hear the song.
So what does the "Big O" do?
Odysseus has his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and then tie him to the mast so he can listen to the song.
I consider myself a music lover, but this is the ancient equivalent of bungee jumping over a mosh pit covered head to toe in "Punch Me!" bumper stickers. This is unnecessarily dangerous showboating, but Odysseus is a Greek Hero and he needed to hear the Sirens' song for himself. To their credit, his dumb-ass sailors were able to tie decent knots and despite his every effort to free himself so he could leap from the ship and swim to their island (and be dashed to pieces on the rocks), he and his sailors made it safely past the Island of the Sirens.
Now past the Sirens, all they had to do was sail between the terrible sea monster Scylla and the raging whirlpool Charybdis. The exact details are lost to us now, but somehow they managed to lose six sailors in the process. What I think happened is that six of his dumb-ass sailors forgot to take the wax out of their ears. They were probably on deck leaning up against the rail as they neared Scylla's waters. She reared up out of the sea behind them, and they the hapless sailors watched their buddies point at them, gesticulate wildly and yell something that they couldn't understand because their ears were still full of wax.
Their last words were probably something like "Hey, what's wrong? Why are you pointing at me? What? Are we playing charades? Lemme guess! First word, first syllabAAAAAAIIIIIIUUUUGH!!!!" as they were pulled into the sea by one of Scylla's serpentine heads.
So now, with Odysseus' sailing crew's average IQ slightly higher as a result of their latest adventure they made land on the Island of the Sun. If you've been paying attention you can probably guess what happened to the sacred oxen that once inhabited that island.
Odysseus made the mistake of taking a nap...
"Oh MAN I needed that nap. I feel much better now. Rested... and... hungry! I wonder if the men found anything on the island worth cooking. Hey... What's that smell? Do I smell.... Barbeque?"
Needless to say. Odysseus' men killed and cooked up all of the sacred oxen. I'm sure when asked, they insisted that our hero kept saying "Sacred Oxen GOOD" over and over again.
Odysseus high-tailed it out of there as quickly as he could get his men together, but it didn't do them much good. Not far from the island, their boat was shattered by a bold of lightning, no doubt the result of their dinner of sacred oxen. Odysseus was the only survivor and drifted for days on the open sea before he was washed up on the shores of Calypso's island.
This is a story about Calypso, after all.
So, Odysseus is from Ithaca, has a wife, Penelope, and a son, Telemachus. I know I said this is a story about Calypso, but this is important.
Odysseus was at war for 10 years. During that time, every man on the island of marrying age moved into Odysseus' hall, ate his food, drank his wine, and tried to convince his wife Penelope to marry them.
Penelope, like Odysseus, was not without a certain amount of guile and cunning. Also, as you will soon see, Penelope's suitors were no smarter than Odysseus' sailors - which is to say not very smart at all.
In order to buy time for Odysseus to eventually return home she tricked the suitors. She told them that she needed to weave a burial shroud for Odysseus' aging father Laertes, and that once she had finished the shroud she would consider possibly choosing a suitor.
Every day she dutifully wove the shroud.
Ever night she would carefully UN-weave the shroud.
You can just imagine their daily conversations...
SUITOR: "Good morning Penelope. I see you're back to your weaving again..."
PENELOPE: "Uh... yeah. I'm still working on it."
S: "How's it coming along?"
Penelope holds up a tiny 3" by 3" square of fabric, so small it couldn't even serve as a potholder.
S: "And how long have you been working on it, Pen?"
P: "Oh, five or six years so far."
S: "You're not very good at this weaving thing, are you, Penelope?"
Needless to say, the suitors eventually saw through Penelope's ruse and the pressure was on for her to choose a suitor. At this point, her son Telemachus stepped in. When Odysseus left for Troy, Telemachus was but a child. Now he was a young man, eager to take on the world and prove he was a man, but not old enough to impress the suitors.
Telemachus wanted to go to neighboring islands to get word of what had happened to his father. The suitors refused to help and mocked him. Fortunately, Athena was still looking out for Odysseus and helped his son to get a boat and go looking for news of his father's fate.
Telemachus sailed to visit Nestor, one of the Greek heroes, but Nestor didn't have any news of Odysseus. He then went to visit Menelaus and there he found out what had happened to his dad.
Menelaus had been blown to Egypt when Poseidon unleashed his fury on the Greek fleet as they departed for home. He was swept up on the shores of the island of Pharos where he met a sea goddess. He begged her for aid and she told him that her father, Proteus, would tell him anything he needed to know, including how to get home.
All Menelaus and his men had to do was catch Proteus and keep hold of him. The problem was that Proteus was a shape-shifter.
Proteus' daughter instructed Menelaus to take three of his men down to the beach, dig four holes, hide in the holes covered in sealskins and wait. Proteus came up onto the beach every day around the same time and all they had to do was leap out and grab him. They'd be all hot and sweaty (and probably half naked), but as long as they held on they'd be fine.
With no other options, Menelaus got three of his men, dug four holes and lied in wait for the sea god to come up out of the water. Sure enough, Proteus came onto the beach and the men jumped out and grabbed hold of Proteus. The next thing you know, Proteus turned into a horse, then a lion, then a dragon and on and on while Menelaus and his men tried to keep hold of him.
What I can't understand is that if gods are supposed to be ancient one would assume they're also fairly bright. I have to figure Proteus must have at some point decided to turn into a mosquito.
Have you ever seen four hot, sweaty, half-naked men try to wrestle a mosquito?
I'm guessing that was probably the point at which one of the local fishermen came along looking for a good spot to cast his line in and bring home some supper for his family.
FISHERMAN: "Excuse me. You, there on the beach. What are you doing there?"
MENELAUS: "Uh... we're wrestling a mosquito."
F: "Oh really? That's what they call it these days? You know, there's another beach for that sort of thing just a little way down from here."
M: "No, really. We're... wrestling a mosquito. Earlier it was a horse!"
F: "Oh my... Well, I don't think we have a beach for THAT around here. I, uh... I think I'm going to find another place to fish... Good luck with your uh... wrestling. Hope everything comes out OK in the end!"
So the local fisherman, now rather stunned, ambles away and the four men trying to hold onto the mosquito are relieved when Proteus changes into the final form he would take before giving up the fight. Proteus turned into a tree.
You just know that after all that hard work, now that they're holding onto a tree, one of them excitedly yelled out, "Hey guys - I've got wood!!!"
From over the edge of the sand dune you can be sure the fisherman heard him and yelled back, "I KNEW you guys were up to something funny over there!"
Once Proteus gave up the fight, he told Menelaus how to get home. He also told him that Odysseus was stranded on an island with Calypso.
Let's get back to Calypso. This is a story about Calypso, after all.
Calypso... was a Nymph.
At this point it's unclear as to whether that title is an abbreviation, a classification, or both, but as the story goes for nine years Odysseus spent every night in Calypso's bed and every day on the beach crying.
The original storyteller implies heavily that Odysseus was crying every day because he missed his home, Ithaca, his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.
I look at the fact that Odysseus was at war for 10 years, had scores of perilous island-hopping adventures with his dumb-ass sailors and watched everyone he sailed with drown or be killed. They he got to spend nine years on a desert island with a nymph.
Sure, I'd miss Ithaca, Penelope and Telemachus, but my tears?
They'd be tears of joy.
So after 10 years of hell and almost as many years of heaven, Telemachus found out where Odysseus was and Athena took advantage of a weekend when Poseidon was off partying in Ethiopia (yes, really) to send Hermes down to Calypso with instructions that the Big O had to be sent on his way.
Calypso was devastated, but would not defy the gods. Odysseus build a ship and sailed home. The last leg of the voyage was not without incident, but the bottom line is that he got home, killed a bunch of the suitors and was reunited with his family.
So why is this the story of Calypso?
When you look at it, Odysseus' journey home was marked with brief moments of high adventure and many, many years shacked up with a nymph on a desert island. Most storytellers, perhaps with good reason, focus on the trials and tribulations of his journey from Troy back to Ithaca. However, when you look at the true time he spent, the vast majority of it was spent with Calypso.
Many men are seen for their achievements and for the brief moments of high adventure they are lucky enough to live through. The truest story of their lives is often not the story of the dragons they slayed or the battles they fought in, but rather the way they shared their lives with the women they loved.
Given that Calypso was a Nymph, it's possible that a full and detailed accounting of the days and nights Odysseus spent with Calypso would not be appropriate for younger audiences, so let it suffice to say that she was the biggest part of his life for the greatest part of his journey home. For that reason, the story of Odysseus is the story of Calypso.
We each just have to think about what we know about his adventures, and what we know about life and love, and decide for ourselves if we think the tears he shed on the beaches of Calypso's island were tears of sorrow or tears of joy.