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Sailing to Ithaca

- Abstract

I first set foot on the island of Ithaca by swimming ashore. This was not how it was done by Odysseus, who was carried from a ship in early dawn by the sailors conveying him on the final leg of his long journey home. “Then they stepped forth on the land,” Homer tells us, “and first they lifted Odysseus out of the hollow ship . . . and laid him down on the sand, still overpowered by sleep.”1 He would have had to be sleeping quite soundly not to awake, for we have just been told that, in beaching, the ship “ran full half her length on the shore in her swift course, at such pace was she driven by the arms of the rowers.” That must have given her a powerful jolt. One cannot beach a modern yacht, which has a keel to give it stability in the water. Ancient Greek ships lacked true keels and so—at least to judge from Homer—they often capsized in rough seas. Nor did ancient Greek harbors have docks or piers. The Greek coast is rugged and its mountains continue down to plunge beneath the water line, making the drop-off too steep to allow for the sinking of pilings in Homer’s time. And while one could always moor or anchor offshore, this made loading and unloading cumbersome. The best harbor was a protected spot with enough sand or gravel for oarsmen to put a ship on. Our yacht, chartered this summer on the nearby island of Levkos, had cast anchor in a little cove. It was morning and the turquoise transparency of the water, through which the anchor seemed to ripple on the bottom, was still unruffled by the day’s breezes. The first to dive into it, I swam to land.

The beach was small and pebbly, boxed in by the headlands of the cove. At its rear, where it ran for a few more yards before starting up the mountainside, grew an olive tree and some mastic and burnet bushes, typical scrub of the eastern Mediterranean. I could have been anywhere on the Greek or Turkish coast. But I wasn’t. I was dripping wet on Ithaca, as excited as on the day when, a twenty-one-year-old student of English literature from New York City, I stepped off the Queen Elizabeth onto English soil

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.