Ogygia or Patmos?

Calypso is a “fair haired nymph with every beauty crowned.” “Dreadful in her charms,” she once reigned alone on her island of Ogygia, “remote from Gods or men . . . amid the terrors of the rolling main.” When shipwrecked Odysseus washed ashore on her island, Calypso met him on the beach with “open arms,” and then detained him seven years “with more than human charms.” She is, you see, a lusty nymph. Living remote from Gods, her erotic desire was boundless; living remote from men, her appetite was voracious. This is why, for seven years, she and Odysseus dallied on her “ambrosial couch,” Odysseus torn (but not too torn) between destiny and desire.

Calypso tried to ensnare Odysseus by drawing a veil over his destiny. This was to be expected, as her name comes from the Greek kalyptein, which means to cover or conceal. With the pleasures of her bed and the luxury of her loins, she schemed to “banish” from his mind all thoughts of Ithaca and Penelope. Her sweet caresses were calculated, Odysseus later understood, to “banish from my breast my country’s love.” Destiny “calls him to his country, and his friends”; Calypso casts a cloak of carnal pleasure over this, and draws him down into the dark stupor of concupiscence.

When at last (with Olympian assistance) Odysseus frees himself from Calypso’s wiles, it is because he has experienced an apocalypse, for an apocalypse discloses that which was concealed. The word is compounded of apo (to remove) and kalyptein. This apocalypse broke the spell of Calypso, and emancipated Odysseus sets sail from her island. “The soft enchantress pleased no more” and he was, at last, able to tear himself from “her desiring arms.”

Patmos was also a prison isle, although unequipped, so far as we know, with an “ambrosial couch.” It was a penal colony, to which the emperor Domitian banished St. John at the end of the first century. If this was, in fact, the disciple whom Jesus loved, he was by that time an aged man; and if he was, in fact, as tradition holds, condemned to work in the marble quarries of Patmos, we may suppose that evenings found him, wracked and exhausted, on a very unambrosial couch.

Tradition tells us that John took his rest in a grotto, and in this respect alone his incarceration resembled that of Odysseus. There was in John’s grotto no table spread with “ambrosial cates [delicacies] and nectar rosy red,” nor any “fair haired nymph.” There was, instead, a stone on which the old man lay his aged head, and a triangular fissure whence issued the words, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending . . . which is, and which was, and which is to come.”

This is the voice of Being itself. Not Being in some mode, or aspect, or phase, or variation, but Being absolute and perfect. And what this voice related was the most famous apocalypse of all.

I do not propose to interpret of the Apocalypse of St. John, only to reflect on the nature of apocalypse as such, and to compare Patmos and Ogygia.

An apocalypse is a disclosure of the world sub specie aeternitatis, which is literally “under the aspect of eternity,” but more properly “in the light of Heaven.” And not only the light of Heaven, but the light of Hell also. The word “nothingness” is hyperbolic, but William Samuel Lilly was essentially correct when he wrote that, in an apocalypse, “the visible world fades into nothingness before the ‘vision splendid’ of the open heavens,” and that it is by such apocalyptic visions that men have come to know that “it was the unseen which was true and real; the seen which was delusive and phantasmal” (1).

An apocalypse removes the delusive and phantasmal veil of Calypso, the artificial fabric of history seen sub specie temporis. It is no coincidence that Calypso is a weaver as well as a seductress, for what she weaves upon her loom is the curtain she will draw over the gates of eternity. She weaves this curtain, hangs it and draws it shut, in order to trap men on Ogygia, to make them what St. John called “kindreds of the earth.”

It should be obvious that apocalypse is what contemporary slang is trying to express when it speaks of the “red pill,” and that the so-called “blue pill” is nothing but Calypso’s veil.

Men who “take the blue pill” are pleased to live on Ogygia. They love the “blissful haunt” with its “ambrosial cates,” its “nectar rosy red,” its “soft enchantress.” They laugh to think of Ithaca and Penelope, which they don’t do often or for long. They are perplexed by Patmos. Calypso has drawn her curtain over the gates of eternity and the invisible world has faded before the vision splendid of her ambrosial couch. Such men are “kindreds of the earth.”

Men who take the red pill, kneel before that fissure in that grotto on Patmos, and are astonished to hear the voice of the Alpha and the Omega. Lilly described their posture this way: “their eyes were steadily fixed on [death] as a janua vitae, and in the illumination from the next world which streamed through it, they looked at their present scene and judged human life.”

When illuminated from the next world, much that had appeared fair is revealed as foul. This illumination is not only the glorious radiance of Heaven, but also the flickering firelight of Hell, for to see a sinful act sub specie aeternitatis is to see it in the light of hellfire. Only the light of hellfire reveals the eternal significance of Ogygia and its terrible queen. That is why she weaves a curtain to shut it out.

Calypso is queen of the modern world, for the modern world is Ogygia. Some men are down on the shore, looking out to sea, judging the “terrors of the rolling main,” longing to sail away to Ithaca, or even Patmos. But they don’t because they are timid, Calypso is sweet, and Olympian assistance is not forthcoming. Most men are in the nymph’s grotto, delighting in her bed and board, congratulating themselves on their enlightened stupor of concupiscence. In the corner, Calypso’s loom stands silent, for the thick curtain has been woven and now hangs across the gates of eternity. Nowhere on Ogygia does one see the alarming light of a lurid and lambent flame.

 

(1) William Samuel Lilly, Chapters in European History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1886)

 

17 thoughts on “Ogygia or Patmos?

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  3. Dear J.M.:

    By the usual fantastic coincidence, the Calypso-episode was the topic in my Western Heritage course today. There is a case to be made for Calypso and Homer makes it eloquently. The Calypso-episode is tragic – from Calypso’s not unmotivated point of view. Perhaps the better counter-example to Patmos is Lotus Land. Consuming the lotus flower takes away remembrance of home and leaves a man without identity or purpose. Nevertheless, I take your meaning and envy you the economy of your prose.

    Sincerely,

    Tom

    PS. When Zeus portioned out the cosmos to his relatives, Calypso received the remotest tract of the earth, where few visitors come, and no men, until Odysseus. Calypso’s trespass is that she would like to be married, and Odysseus is the only man to come her way. When Zeus sends Hermes to remind Calypso that keeping a guest beyond the time when he wishes to return home is a violation of Xenia (the law of hospitality), she relents. That is, she agrees to observe the law, which is certainly virtuous. Calypso has offered Odysseus immortality, will he only wed her. He tells her (I paraphrase): I have a mortal wife, who while aged like me, and in no wise eternally youthful like you, is my wife; and I am matched long with her unto death, no matter the length of my alienation. Previously Calypso has told Hermes that although she will no longer detain Odysseus, she will not aid him in leaving Ogygia, but in this too she relents, and helps him generously. It might almost be a Traditionalist parable. No doubt the Christian Platonists of Alexandria interpreted it that way.

    • Thanks, Tom. Painters have also tended to depict Calypso as a tragic character, a lovelorn victim of her own boundless desire. She has great powers, but she’s not really artful. I’m trying to work out a style that is laconic but not constipated.

    • I’m interested in Calypso’s Island as part of the mythical geography of the ancient West, which always placed wonders at or beyond the “ends of the earth.” The “ends of the earth” were, of course, the outer edge of the world island, where it was swept by the encircling Ocean, as registered in such wonderful names as Cape Finisterra, Portugal, or Lands End, Cornwall. I’m particularly interested in the mythical geography of the Western Ocean, or Sea of Saturn, because it strikes me as vaguely prophetic in an ominous way. Do you think there is a connection between Calypso and Caliban? They are hardly the same, of course, but is Caliban something like Calipso gone to seed?

      • Caliban is rapaciously male, but he has a mother, as I recall, named Sycorax – and Sycorax might be your Calypso-gone-mad. According to an extra-Homeric story about Odysseus, the hero fathered a son with the demigoddess during his stay. Many years later when this son, Telegonus, finds his way to Ithaca, he kills his father.

        There is a consistent pattern in Odysseus’s voyages. A characteristic of far-flung places is that, in them, either the law is unknown or being known it is laxly observed or flagrantly unobserved. Even the sophisticated Phaeacians, who outwardly are urbane and civilized, are at first lax in extending hospitality to Odysseus, and one of Alcinous’s sons is inexcusably rude to Odysseus, so much so that his father rebukes him.

        Returning to your theme of the mythical geography of the Western Ocean – Plato puts Atlantis there; the Hesperides are there; Saint Brendan’s Isle is there; Ultima Thule is there; and Vinland is there. Before Lucian’s voyagers travel to the moon, they spend a long time navigating the sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

  4. Such truth in grandiose poetic form.

    “Calypso has drawn her curtain over the gates of eternity and the invisible world has faded before the vision splendid of her ambrosial couch”

    Perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the age!

  5. Interesting, the parallels between not only Calypso and Sycorax, but also those between Grendel’s mother and Medea. I would invite you to consider those as well. And, by the bye, you have a lapidary and elegant style of writing. Do please continue.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words. I’ve thought of the similarity between Ogygia and Prospero’s Island, and imagine if Calypso and Odysseus had had a child, it might have resembled Caliban. The Western Ocean was such a remarkable part of the mythical geography of Europe, I sometimes find it hard to believe I live on the other side of it.

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