The  Mediterranean  Sea

-  a brief history   Page 6a  -

The Odyssey of Ulysses 

Ulysses was the Greek hero who conquered Troy, by hiding himself in the wooden horse, which was then drawn inside the city walls by the enemy Trojans.

The Greek storyteller Homer, wrote of Ulysses’ many adventures of his navigation around the then unexplored Mediterranean Sea. This purely fictional epic is called “The Odyssey” and is surely based on the many awesome and extravagant tales told by the many returning pioneering sailors who first explored the unchartered Mediterranean.

Homer uses fictional place-names in his story and it has been a favorite passtime of historians, going right back to ancient Greek and Roman times, to try and localise the actual places described in the Odyssey. There has also been a marked rivalry of competing towns in claiming their authenticity as original stop-over points of Ulysses himself. 

However there is now a general consensus for placing several of the Odyssey locations in the Western Mediterranean, that is West of Greece. These are located in Sicily, on the south-western coast of mainland Italy and in the north-eastern part of Sardinia. In very ancient times, this area was in fact for the Greeks, an unexplored part of the Mediterranean Sea and was therefore a suitable place for the setting of an adventurous yarn.

Incidentally, a recent theory elaborated by the Sardinian writer Sergio Frau, has it that the Columns of Hercules are erronously considered to be at the Gibraltar Straits, but were much closer, between the African coast and Sicily and Atlantis therefore was actually the isle of Sardinia. This theory is based on the fact that the sea level was much lower after that last ice age, so that the strait between Tunisia and Sicily was much narrower and beyond it, for ancient mariners, lay the unknown.

However many historians underestimate the sailing capabilities of even the most ancient mariners, as there is evidence of navigators having reached Malta by boat 6000 years ago and even aboriginal sailors reaching Australia 40,000 years ago. Consequently it should be accepted that the Mediterranean Sea was thoroughly navigated soon after man reached its inviting shores.   

In Homer’s Odyssey, the narrow Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Calabria, with their freightening whirlpools (though harmless) are a most suitable location for the Scilla and Cariddi sea monsters. The nearby Etna volcano was the natural inspiration for placing the cavernous home of Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant who ate part of Ulysses’ crew.

North of Sicily, the Eolian Islands, including Stromboli and Vulcano, with their ever-present wind, are the obvious home, even today, of Eolo, the wind god.

The suggestive rock columns emerging from the sea around Capri, became the home of the luring sirens, who tempted Ulysses, lashed to his boat’s mast, with their enchanting singing.

The Campi Flegrei close to Naples is an active volcanic area, where the ground is subsiding and the ancient Roman ruins are disappearing below the waves. Where else but here could Ulysses descend into Hades and speak with the dead?

Just south of Rome is the rocky promontory of Circeo, which has revealed human presence from pre-historic times, with the discovery of neanderthal man bones in the caves. It was here that Ulysses was charmed by the beautiful witch Circe.

Our hero mariner must have ventured as far as Sardinia, for our historian-geographers have identified the bay of Porto Pozzo in the north-eastern part of the island, in the Bonifacio Straits, as the location of the Lestrigoni.

Ulysses, along with all the ancient mariners, had no charts, GPS or satellite weather immages to guide them in their wanderings and they required much sailing skill, as well as a certain amount of luck, to navigate the many islands and safely find their way back home. In fact many did not make it and the Mediterranean floor is scattered with ancient sunken boats and is littered with their cargoes and broken anfora vases.

Today the modern sailor can safely and comfortably navigate the Mediterranean and visit its many wonders, retracing the courses followed by our famous ancient heros.

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  The Mediterranean Sea
    Copyright L. Camillo 2011