MALTA DIARY: The legends and myths of Calypso’s Cave – was Greek hero Ulysses detained there as a captive lover?
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The name Malta, previously known as Melita, derived from the Greek word “Melos” meaning honey and in general the small islands of Malta and Gozo, are a honeycomb network of underground tunnels, passages and caves.
It follows that such a geophysical, porous, limestone formation should be the breeding ground for a wealth of myths and legends tied to mysterious happenings, some of them of a sinister nature.
Over the centuries stories have been bandied about of persons and groups disappearing by entering tunnels and passage ways to never return.
In the Qrendi area there is an enormous hole known locally as ‘Il-Maqluba’ (The Upside Down One), legend having it that the inhabitants of the area changed from Christian to Pagan and in his wrath God somersaulted the area and buried all the sinners there. The scientific explanation is that the area is surrounded by underground streams that gradually sapped away the rock foundations and resulted in a wholesale collapse – creating the enormous hole.
The ease of cutting into the limestone rock also gave rise to a large prehistoric Hypogeum at Tarxien and underground burial chambers in various parts of the islands – all of which have their own myths and legends. Our editor Lyn Funnel – who lived in Malta for some time – loves to recount the story of a party of children who were taken underground to visit the Hypogeum but never re-emerged.
Another popular story is that of a goat that entered Ghar Hasan (Hasan’s Cave) and then created a stir by surfacing in Valletta, several kilometres away.
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, this 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.
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.
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.
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.
Over the years the cave’s soft limestone has deteriorated and the cave was closed off to the public long ago although an adjacent veranda affords considerable and beautiful views of the bay and the blue Mediterranean. Now, Heritage Gozo is seeking to have the cave restored and strengthened to have it re-open to the public.
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.
Oh – and to boot, yet another legend. It is said that scores of years ago a party of schoolchildren entered Calypso’s Cave with their teacher, never re-emerged and disappeared forever. Oh well.
“Everything he touches turns to gold”.
A description of the Midas Touch, the hallmark of a lucky person who always comes up trumps.