Calypso, a painting by John William Waterhouse

Calypso, a painting by John William Waterhouse

 It is curious and it is quirky but nevertheless totally factual. Anybody who was anybody in the Mediterranean area has had some kind of foothold on Malta stretching back to the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors and Ottomans, the Knights and later the French, the British and NATO. There is however one outstanding absence from the list – Ancient Greece.

Although very dominant in Sicily and parts of southern Italy there was never any Greek dominance in Malta. Perhaps Malta and Gozo were classed as being too small – despite their strategic position – or maybe the Greek presence in Sicily was deemed to be sufficient. Some Greek artifacts have been found, but otherwise……..

Yet, the name Malta is attributed to ancient Greece and was originally Melita coming from the Greek word for honey, Melit a word that originated from Hittite and passed into Greek. The Hittites were from what is today Turkey and parts of Northern Syria. When the Phoenicians arrived in Malta circa 1,500 BC they referred to the island as Maleth. In St Luke’s description of St Paul’s shipwreck in Malta (60 AD) there is reference to “the island of Melita” and the population described as being “barbarians” which meant of non-Latin origin.

Melissa, a popular female name, is a “honey bee”, with various variants like Malissa, Melesa, Melessa, Meliza, Mellisa, Melosa and Molissa. For a number of years females were also given the name Melita, not so popular nowadays.

Ancient Greek hero Ulysses

Ancient Greek hero Ulysses

The Ancient Greeks may not have bothered with Malta, but they were certainly well aware of it and none more so than the classical Greek poet Homer who based one of his most prominent tales in The Odyssey on the island of Gozo in the hills that overlook the small but beautiful red and golden sanded Ramla Bay.

This bay is enclosed by two hills and on the western side of the bay there is the legendary Calypso’s Cave. The chances of poet Homer having actually visited Malta or Gozo are remote. However, his description of the geographical location and the terrain are accurate. Homer is known to have had several “faces” and several “personalities” and collected tales from acquaintances and then scripted them. Just as reputed to William Shakespeare whether he actually wrote all the plays and poems attributed to him or whether he used script writers for some and lent his name to the final script is also attributed to Homer.

In his classic Odyssey, Gozo is known as the island of Ogygia, a minute island on which the Love God Queen Calypso resided in a hillside cave overlooking a bay of blue sea and golden sands. In far away Troy, the Greek hero Ulysses had taken part in the siege of the city and now longed to return home to his waiting wife Penelope, children and family, particularly his son Telamon.

The Greek poet Homer

The Greek poet Homer

However, as was often their wont, the Gods decided to play mischief with humanity and decided to make his return journey difficult and full of obstacles. In a violent storm all his shipmates were killed and Ulysses struggled single-handed   for nine whole days and nights while his ship was battered by a raging storm and blown towards an unknown destination but a destination moving him in the opposite direction to home.

To add to his problems, the Gods continued to pile on the pressure and his ship was violently struck by a thunderbolt but Ulysses managed to survive all the trials and he finally sighted the safety of shore where he landed and slept for many hours on the luxurious sun-laden golden sand.

When he awoke it was as if in a reverie. He could hear the strange music of pipes and up on the hill at the mouth of a large cave he could see girls dancing merrily around a huge fire. Now refreshed but driven by hunger, Ulysses approached the cave cautiously and was stunned to see the most beautiful woman he had ever set eyes on. She was tall with a beautiful figure, had deep blue-grey eyes, long golden hair which descended to her shoulders and was very scantily clad.

 Penelope faithful wife of Ulysses

Penelope faithful wife of Ulysses

It was a ravishing sight that was beckoning him to approach the cave and when he entered he was allowed to bathe, was provided with new princely clothing and was plied with food and drink. The enchantress said she was Calypso, the Queen of Ogygia and the daughter of Atlas, the God of War and she was the God Queen of Love.

Ulysses described his Troy adventures and explained his anxiety to return to his homeland Itaca to see his loving wife Penelope (daughter of Icarus) and his son Telamon once more. However, Calypso did not pay too much heed to his wishes as she had instantly fallen in love with him. She promised to make him King of Ogygia, to bring him wealth and to grant him eternal youth and happiness.

The Greek hero would have none of it and pleaded to be given a ship to return to Itaca. Bitterly disappointed and deeply jealous of Ulysses’ enduring love for Penelope, Calypso moved to her next best alternative, ensuring no vessels were ever available in the vicinity and keeping him as her love slave for a whole seven years. It must have been an erotic seven years for Ulysses, making love to a beautiful God Queen whilst being plied with the choicest of foods and wines and wanting for nothing.

 Poet Homer was attributed to have many faces and many personalities as depicted in this tableau

Poet Homer was attributed to have many faces and many personalities as depicted in this tableau

Yet, his focus on Penelope and home endured and he prayed daily to the uppermost God of Gods Zeus who finally pitied him and sent his winged messenger Hermes to order Calypso to release him and provide him with a ship, to which she duly complied. The ship was piled with riches and food and she even ordered the westerly wind to blow the ship steadily to Itaca where he was finally reunited with beloved Penelope and his family.

In a sad final scene, with tears in her eyes, Calypso sang her lover to final departure as his ship sailed away and recalled the seven blissful years of love she had spent with him.

All stuff and nonsense, far-fetched and utterly improbable – yes for sure – but what a romantic story and even today as one stands on the cave’s promontory overlooking magnificent Ramla Bay and its red, golden sands, one can sense the presence of the beautiful Calypso and hear the sad strings of her lyre lamenting the departing Ulysses as his ship sailed away and finally disappeared over the horizon.

ALBERT FENECH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.