Part one of Fantastic Voyages: By Ship to Nowhereland and Back continues…
THE CRUISE SHIP: MARITIME FAIRYLAND
We can associate many of these fantasies of a temperate, peaceful and luxuriant neverland in the midst of the watery deep to the present-day middle-class desire to holiday at secluded tropical paradisiacal isles. Stressed individuals crave vacation escapes to ostensibly exotic, albeit artificially enhanced, places in the Caribbean or a Pacific Ocean getaway to supposedly remote, enchanting Bora-Bora, Tahiti or Nuku-Hiva in the Marquesas. This tropical getaway fantasy can be labeled as “primitive chic”. Although they are of course on the map, the supposed primordial unspoiled aura of these island retreats is carefully nurtured by travel agencies and tourist industry developers as serene voyages to unsullied seascapes. Like Florida’s Disney World, they are artificial fairyland kingdoms for parent and children alike—sheltered places where fantasies can be indulged even if only for a few days.
The indigenous peoples inhabiting these out-of-the-way havens simply serve as stage props or backdrop for the travelers’ carefree frolic, with little consideration of their poverty and compulsory simulated happy-go-lucky servility. Never mind that while communing with this unspoiled haven, one may enjoy air-conditioning, modern kitchens, comfortable beds and even housekeeping services—luxuries that the true adventurer might shun. This tourist view of the happy lot of the “natives” is somewhat derived from Rousseau’s “noble savage” ideal. TV sit-coms such as the 1960s and 1970s era Gilligan’s Island, and Fantasy Island capitalize on this primitive other-worldly mystique. Despite the allegedly primeval surroundings, Gilligan and company seem to be living a posh life. Even the millionaire and his wife can’t complain too much.
All of these fanciful magic places are incorporated into the modern cruise ship—a mobile fantasy realm. Here traditional nuclear families interact with raucously partying young singles on a floating desert island—like Kubla Khan’s Pleasure Dome created by Coleridge’s opium-mesmerized brain—that blithely voyages to nowhere in a meandering great circle stopping along the way at neatly arranged tropical wonderlands. Within this buoyant nirvana, time and place are suspended in a dreamy haze. Grandpa and grandma can join their lighthearted children and grandchildren on these fairyland get-aways. The ship is a microcosm of the broader world of dreams-come-true. Do the tots’ parents want to blithely party as well? In that case, they may confidently consign their toddlers to a shipboard child-minding facility that mirrors their own marvelously carefree paradise, while they indulge their senses in a dazzling array of sights and sounds. Their teenaged progeny have their own tamer versions of a sensuous, albeit protected, reverie. The young couples’ elderly Mom and Pop can simply relax and loaf, read, watch lavish evening shows while sipping cocktails, or, if they are up to it, indulge themselves in some of their children’s’ vigorous pastimes. Three generations may thus unite in a sea-going fantasy, encircled by the enchanting vista of bright blue sky meeting a brilliant blue-green ocean.
Consider another tawdry TV sitcom: the 1970s Love Boat, preceded by the 1950s cruise ship fantasy, Oh, Susanna. The passengers (and crew) on these fanciful cruises fall in love in the dreamlike aura of the pampered sea journey, and then when the ship docks, must awaken to reality. And so life aboard the dream-ship turns out to have been merely a cruel delusion fostered by the sheltered, over-indulgent ambiance of the cruise ship, insulated from the harsh realities of life on land. This is much like the transit between the two worlds demonstrated by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. On the cruise ship, as with Caliban’s secret isle, one is in a kind of cocoon, within the commonplace world, yet removed from it.
It is predictable that Shakespeare locates The Tempest on an imaginary island. Although it is an island rather closer to home in the Mediterranean, such closeness is diminished by its island status, and a magical netherworld is created. Like Gilligan’s island, it eludes discovery by anyone not already touched by its magic. That Shakespeare had stories of lost islands elsewhere in mind—Bermuda and the wreck of the Sea Venture is the usual candidate—is occasionally suggested by the naming of the main protagonist’s servant-creature Caliban, perhaps a dimly understood reference to the Carib people of the Caribbean and their supposed cannibalistic nature. The island is close at hand yet strangely unlocatable, encased in a watery “black hole”. The familiar Mediterranean locale for an unknown island reinforces the aura of the fantastic. Likewise, the cruise ship sits astride the fantasy realm and grim reality.
For those who recoil from the cruise ship’s disco garishness, one can find a quiet corner of this untroubled seagoing Shangri-La and relax with a book or simply settle down in a lounge chair while surveying the solitude of a turquoise sea as their vessel—a maritime cocoon—gently glides them through balmy breezes on a tranquil voyage through tropical waters. The lounge-borne traveler might drift off to slumberland, strangely dreaming (a dream within a dream?) that he or she is on a serene cruise. One awakes, not to harsh reality, but to the very world of their dreams. And don’t forget the decadently sumptuous feasts (and cocktails) offered at all hours of the day and night.
There are cruise ships to fit all ages and dispositions, from the excursion-adventure cruise down the Amazon or to Antarctica, to the mega-yacht smaller cruise ships that accommodate a more sedentary and serene lifestyle. These waterborne wonderlands integrate the fantasy atmosphere conveyed by the long-ago faux travel journals with an escape from everyday economic and societal cares. The briefest cruise, available to those of us who must work for a living, is around five nights. However, for the well-heeled, there are the circumnavigational voyages lasting anywhere from three to six and more months. For the rest of us, we can sample only a brief glimpse of what it might be like to indulge one’s fantasies on extended world cruises. If you are extravagantly wealthy, then the ultimate fantasy island is the sea-going “residence ship”. The basic idea is that you invest in a seagoing property which can be re-sold or sublet.
Whether residence ship or long-term world cruise luxury vessel, these floating dream palaces can provide the idle rich with a year-round (if on a cruise ship, you take two or three cruises per year) luxurious dwelling in which they can cozily explore the far reaches of the globe. While you track the paths of the great explorers, every physical need and whim is catered to in style—even including tutoring services for children, worship facilities, an extensive set of business and financial communications to keep in touch with your brokers and bankers, a marina for water-sports, exploration boats, and smaller excursionary pleasure craft. On the condo ships, a one-bedroom, 800 square foot unit will run you $3.8 million while the penthouse suite of 7,860 square feet will cost $40 million Typically units are leased for a 50-year term. Or, a representative world cruise of about three or four months will run you between $100,000 and $232,000.
Recall that Katherine Porter’s novel Ship of Fools was taken for a microcosm of the foibles of the social order as it was in the count-down to World War II. The prototype ship of fools is a late-medieval creation wherein a ship populated by various vain, dim-witted or insane individuals is condemned to traverse the waterways of Europe and abroad, as no place will harbor such lunatics—which, after all, are only overstated versions of those who ban them. Porter’s ship, ultimately bound for Hitler’s Germany, bridges the harsh realities to which the enchanted passengers must return at journey’s end; but for a while they are within a dream world upon the waves wherein chauvinistic bigotry and murderous race-hatred is close at hand, yet deferred. World cruising luxury ships and seagoing residences are, like the imaginary voyage, off the map. Once we disembark with our souvenirs, photographs, and memories this oceanic utopia evaporates, perhaps never to be found again.
But I digress. We are talking about the literary cousin to the cruise ship/residence ship experience—the imaginary voyage upon some fantastic vessel bearing one to an incredible island.
THE ANATOMY OF WHIMSY
Read casually, Jonathan Swift’s tales of the surgeon/mariner Gulliver are merely charming fanciful expeditions to fairytale territory. However, Swift wasn’t writing exclusively with naive children in mind. At one level, he was fashioning an allegorical satire, meant to ridicule the British political scene of his time in a roundabout manner so as to avoid deportation or imprisonment. Read as political satire, the Gulliver tales were part of a tradition that extended back at least a century before Dean Swift put quill to paper. I refer to Bishop John More’s Utopia (1515), the epitome, but by no means the first or solitary such political allegory. Plato’s renowned invention of Atlantis (4th century BC) comes readily to mind as well as Plutarch’s Lycurgus (circa AD 75) Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Bishop Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter Et Idem (literarally, “Another World and Yet the Same”) published in 1607 and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), the latter three following closely in More’s footsteps.
The philosophical and political significance of the aforementioned texts have been analyzed and cogitated for centuries. A similar dissection has been performed on Swift’s travelogue describing parts unknown. But I prefer to let Gulliver’s tale rest on its considerable merits as a fable about a sea journey to mythical islands and kingdoms somewhere on the globe nonetheless unrevealed to all except the voyager. I want to evoke the wonderment I felt at first reading the books when I was about 10 years old—even though I stumbled over the complicated parts and kept a dictionary handy.
The assumed underlying ideological message doesn’t diminish the book’s primary appeal to kids—and their elatedly credulous parents, for that matter—as a make believe adventurous sea voyage to unmapped wonderlands. In fact, up until the point where our protagonist is deposited on the shores of the imagined islands, his maritime passage seems quite genuine. In this respect, Swift resembles an 18th century Homer, regaling us with the saga of his enlightenment-era Odysseus, or a western adaptation of Sinbad or Aladdin. Significantly, Swift didn’t self-identify as an allegorist (he was on political thin ice), but rather seemed to be writing in the familiar faux travelogue tradition, actually, lampooning that form. In a sense—one shared with Raspe’s Munchausen fantasy—he was simply playing with the minds of such of his readers as were wont to enjoy the “suspension of disbelief” and enter into his reverie of exotic island realms.
Daniel Defoe’s Crusoe is likewise infused with deeper meaning, even though couched in realistic terms from beginning to end. The uncharted island in Defoe’s case was a desert atoll which Crusoe would tame and convert into his own kingdom. Swift’s crafty employment of double-meaning in his picaresque travel adventure was apparent to a small number of savvy 18th century readers. But Defoe’s metaphorical basis is discerned only in retrospect. Modern literary theorists interpret the book as an allegory for British colonialism in which the shipwrecked Crusoe succeeds by typical English fortitude and technological know-how to overcome extreme adversity. Crusoe was subsequently to rule over and thereby improve the lot of the benighted local heathen. This premise was so ingrained in the reader of the 18th and 19th centuries that it was unnecessary to scrutinize the text to decipher veiled connotations. At a time when Britannia not only ruled the waves, but exercised self-appointed benevolent authority over “backwards” colonies, supposedly in the best interests of the inhabitants, Defoe’s tale simply celebrated the obvious. However, it’s not a particular underlying political or moral message that concerns me here, but the quest voyage itself, the discovery of the unheard of isles, and their position on the charted world.
It’s important to note that there were influences from outside the European colonialist powers upon imaginary travel adventure literature. Most notably, Sinbad, or sometimes, Sindbad (Sindibād al-Bahri), one of Munchausen’s named co-conspirators, is apparently a Persian sailor from Basra, who lived and voyaged during the Abbasid Caliphate, circa AD 900. The episodes themselves were probably first written down around AD 1000 but the oldest manuscript we have (in Arabic instead of the original Persian) dates from the mid 1200s. Like their counterparts in the Western tradition, the tales are a mixture of the real and the legendary. They are based partly on genuine experiences of sailors around the Indian Ocean, partly on ancient poetry including echoes of Homer’s Odyssey reverberating eastward, the Indian Vishnu Sarma’s Panchatantra, and somewhat upon Arab, Indian and Persian collections of orally transmitted fables. They recount the fantastic adventures of the intrepid seaman Sinbad during his voyages throughout the seas east of Africa and south of Asia—roughly encompassing the Indian Ocean and a bit beyond.
The French, and slightly later English, rendition of the tales were published around the time that the Swift and Defoe romances were becoming known. Even though outside the Western tradition of such anecdotes, it is included mainly due to its influence on European fantastic literature. It gained enduring esteem through its famous translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton in 1885. Sinbad and its derivative adventure yarns embroider and enrich our tapestry of fantastic voyages and were likely influences upon the 18th century European and English creators of imaginary travelogues. Recall that Munchausen’s creator pays homage to the intrepid Arab seaman.
Perhaps Sinbad’s far-fetched exploits should be lumped with the noted outrageous adventures of Baron Munchausen, first published in 1785, as a rollicking good entertainment, meant to both poke fun at the genre and carry it to a new level of absurdity—but not to be taken seriously. Recall that the intrepid Persian mariner, along with his colleague, Aladdin, were “signatories” to the affidavit verifying Munchausen’s veracity. Meaningfully, the adventures of the two Indian Ocean explorers were embedded in the collection A Thousand and One Nights, which the frame story attributes to a series of fables told to a sheikh by his concubine in a frantic effort to entertain him and thereby preserve her life. But at a deeper level, the tales contain germs of misread actual seafaring experience, much as did the Odyssey and the Argonautica centuries before.
The Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Munchausen is most definitely in the fashion of “travel imposter” or “travel liars”, which may have commenced with Homer and Herodotus. It is difficult to assess whether the ancient readership of The Odyssey and The Histories swallowed the tales whole, or took them with a large dose of salt. Readers, or listeners, in the time of Homeric Greece did not expect precise scientific geography from works purporting to chart the world, much less epic poetry. The “affidavit” by way of a preface to the Munchausen farce demonstrates that the author likewise did not concoct his tale in order to fool his readers, but only wanted to tease and amuse them in the accustomed manner. This playfully deceptive offshoot of the imaginary voyage is not always neatly separable from the main body of such works, nor should it be. It is usually presented in the lighthearted spirit of entertaining the reader who was in on the joke, rather than the through the malevolence of the swindler who enjoys hoodwinking an unwary victim for fun and profit.
Eric Raspe, the revealed author of the Munchausen charade, was an accomplished polymath and delighted in analyzing early art-works. He was an expert on Renaissance painting methods and adept at detecting fakes. He mischievously poked fun at the pretentious mannerisms of contemporary members of Parliament and governing bodies of the European powers by concocting his own mocking fake. His authorship of the Munchausen farce comes as no surprise.
But Munchausen’s travels were not primarily of the nautical variety, which is my main concern here. They were chiefly overland and aerial, entailing heavy involvement with urban and rural populations—more in the nature of picaresque escapades than the maritime voyages to uncharted isles that concern me here. I only mention them because they are a clear exposition of the playful spirit of a good number of the imaginary sea voyages. To be sure, there is any number of journeys to land-locked undiscovered realms, those hidden by vast impassable deserts, encircling daunting mountain peaks, or a trackless primordial forested labyrinth. Consider Shangri-La, the fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.
In the book, Shangri-La resides a mystical, harmonious valley, which can only be reached under the guidance of a monk from a secluded monastery high in Tibet’s formidable mountain ranges. Shangri-la is allegedly enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. It has become synonymous with any earthly paradise but particularly the mythical Himalayan utopia—a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world. However these land-locked wonderlands are, in fact, terrestrial island havens reached through heretofore impassable wilderness paths. It is the ever-changing untamed seas that comprise the natural habitat for “lands apart”.
Observe also that although a few of the early fantastic voyages of literature involved inter-planetary travel, this category is sui generis. Pre-science fictional feigned voyages to the moon, the sun, other planets and the stars did not as a rule cloak themselves in verisimilitude, as did the imaginary ocean voyage. The outer-space imaginary voyage had become a natural medium for promoting new astronomic ideas. The first literary space flights after the ancient Greek author Lucian were: Juan Maldonado’s Somnium (1541), Johann Kepler’s similarly named Somnium (1634), Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638), John Wilkins’ The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638), Athanasius Kircher’s Itinerarium extaticum (1656), David Russen’s Iter lunare (1703), Cyrano de Bergerac’s late-17th century chimerical lunar and solar expeditions, Diego de Torres Villarroel’s Viaje fantástico (1723), Eberhard Kindermann’s Die geischwinde Reise auf dem Luftschiff nach der obern Welt (1744)—the first flight to planets—Robert Paltock’s The life and adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751), and Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752). Baron Munchausen’s fantastic tale likewise consists largely of airborne adventures, although within the earth’s atmospheric envelope.
The galactic travelogues were flights of the imagination pure and simple, and rarely attempted to impart a sense of authenticity in the manner of the sea journey narratives. Therefore, I won’t discuss the cosmological works of Lucian, Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, or Francis Godwin and the other mentioned science fiction precursors. As for subterranean excursions, a few of these—most notably the “hollow earth” tales—are adjuncts to maritime voyages, rather than purely overland excavations into caverns and extinct volcanoes. Therefore some of the former are included. Regardless of the setting, the ocean voyage is the chief means by which to reach fabled realms.
ILLUSION, DELUSION AND THE MYSTERIOUS OCEAN-SEA
The enduring appeal of this body of literature suggests a propensity in humankind to embrace a self-contradictory proposition: there are phenomena meant to remain beyond our understanding. And this incomprehension is recognized as a good thing. We might call this vogue “fairyland amusements for adults” if you will. Some of these mysterious phenomena are real, some imagined and others straddle the incompatible planes of being and seeming. These diversions tap a rich vein of longing for the “other world”. We take pleasure in hearing of a far-distant and mysterious domain of giants, or tiny people, dragons, demons or otherworldly monsters, of kingdoms far beyond any conceivable maritime journey. We are delighted to learn of stately galleons traversing unknown ocean deeps to lands filled with gorgeous palaces, golden ornaments, enormous jewels, spices and wealth untold; of arcane knowledge, miraculous cures, and fountains of youth, or lands where life is everlasting. Some readers will regard such tales as idle fantasy, naïve yarns for dreamers. Others will call to mind the likes of Plato with his Atlantis anecdote, possibly reflecting a folk memory, which has so deceived solemn searchers, or Jules Verne, H.Rider Haggard or other pioneers of science fiction or “lost civilization” books. And such “dark age” tales as the Irish Immerama and the St. Brendan lore also fulfill a religious mission. Significantly, the mantle of religion covers most of the literature, whether as a quest journey or an irreverent excursion among blissful heathen. Indeed, religious imagery is indistinguishable from that set out in “secular” fables, as Tolkien devotees can attest.
The imaginary voyage is characterised by a certain ambiguity which originates to a considerable extent in the deliberate blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction. This technique, which can be traced back to Lucian’s True History, a parody of the type, is perhaps most clearly reflected in the care and attention which even authors of very obviously fictional texts devote to providing a plausible geographical setting for their invented travels and lands. While the imaginary nature of many works is evident, the opening and closing sequences, describing the outward and return journeys, are almost invariably realistic in nature, and the countries visited by the traveller are usually located on the fringes of the known world, readily mapped yet fundamentally un-mappable.
ANCIENT PARABLES AND TRAVELOGUES
In the earliest time in Greek myth, the time before Homer and the early epic poets, the extent of the world was a mystery and the shores of the Great Ocean bounded an infinite unknown. To the Greeks, what lay beyond the Mediterranean Sea was a land of the imagination rather than of physical reality. Two known examples from Greek literature are Euhemerus’ Sacred History and Iambulus’ Islands of the Sun. Their utopian islands are apparently modeled from mythological Fortunate Isles, believed to lie far to the West beyond the watery circumnavigational belt surrounding the known world. In the Fortunate Isles, also called the Isles (or Islands) of the Blessed, heroes and other favored mortals in Greek mythology and Celtic mythology were received by the gods into a blissful paradise. These islands were thought to lie in the Western Ocean near the encircling River Oceanus; the Madeira, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde have sometimes been cited as possible matches
Lucian’s True History parodizes the whole genre of imaginary voyage, and in his foreword Lucian cites Iambulus as one of objects of parody. Photius states though in his Bibliotheca that its main object was Antonius Diogenes’ The incredible wonders beyond Thule, a genre blending of fantastic voyage and Greek romance which popularized Pythagorean teachings. But these tales were patently excercises in pure fantasy.
The earliest quasi-imaginary exploration of the shore of the Great Ocean, as far as the land where the sun rises, took place in the Heroic Age, before the Trojan War. This was the expedition of Jason and the Argonauts, who were said to have sailed from Greece across the Black Sea to the far-off land of Colchis, today’s Georgia, to find the mythical Golden Fleece.
The Argonautica is a fairy-tale of heroes and princesses, dragons and magic. It is a journey to the land of death, which takes readers inwards into the dark corners of the human psyche. But, real or imagined, it is also a sailor’s story: the tale of a seemingly actual sea voyage, of a bid to explore beyond the edge of the known world, or, as a modern version of the myth puts it, “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.
While the first complete record of the legend of Jason is that set down by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century BC, it reflects a much older tradition, going back to perhaps 1400 BC. We first find it mentioned seven centuries later in the age of Homer. Composing perhaps not long before 700 BC, the author of the Odyssey says that the story of the Argo was by then well known to everybody. The sorceress Circe tells Odysseus in his wanderings about the legendary ship the Argo in her account of the Wandering Rocks. Yes, the Argonautica is a fable, but, like many fables, it incorporates corrupted early accounts of actual sea voyages to the mysterious East.
The story line of the Odyssey is well-known and, rather than dwell on the epic hero’s troubles, I will just note the most significant aspect for my purpose. The Odysseus journey is the archetypical nostos, or voyage of return—in the words of the Simon and Garfunkel classic tune—‘homeward bound’. In this case, the framework is Odysseus’ recounting his arduous homewards struggle towards his long-suffering faithful wife Penelope. In varying degrees of realism, it recaps his 10-year effort to return from the Trojan War to his home and family. The mixture of realistic maritime events and settings with the fantastical realms and actions of the gods and demigods is a hallmark of this primeval literature. Some of Homer’s material interacts with the equally ancient tale of Jason and the Argonauts and is mirrored in the subsequent seafaring aspects of Virgil’s Aeneiad and Dante’s Inferno.
The vivid and precise descriptions of Odysseus’ ship handling and navigational skills demonstrate that Homer was likely basing his fable on some actual epic voyages of his time. Perhaps he is reflecting factual incidents when some storm-tossed mariners were blown far off their customary protected coastwise (“from cape to cape”) travels to the very fringes of the known world. As noted above, some writers hypothesize that Homer was influenced by tales told by Phoenician mariners, who, it is believed, traveled far beyond the restricted eastern Mediterranean circle traversed by the early Greek sailors and cloaked their information in menacing flourishes in order to discourage competitors.
In the blend of the fantastic and the real, Homer (and the anonymous author of the Argonautica, to which Homer alludes and which probably predates his tale by several centuries) set the pattern for the entire genre. It is unlikely that readers (or listeners) of the Odyssey in the ancient epoch made any such distinction. Bear in mind, sea voyages in the ancient world—and even into the late medieval period—were fraught with unknown hazards. Returning voyagers reported chimerical events and objects that their awestruck senses told them were true. This is not unlike those who have been brought up on solemn tales of UFOs convincing themselves that otherwise rationally explicable phenomena are “sightings”. So Homer reiterated tales of shifting reefs as being magically “clashing rocks”, and music-like sounds of winds coursing through a narrow ravine might seem like beckoning “siren songs” luring over-curious mariners to founder on the shoals. His audience cherished this blend of the fantastic with the possible. Was Homer, or his informants, fantasizing, or caught up in some kind of mythological reverie? Or was this tale of lost ships and strange islands based on some combination of fact and inaccurately recollected or embellished nautical lore?
A late 19th century school text edition of the Odyssey states the following opinion: “Throughout these books [books 9-12] we are in a wonderland, which we shall look in vain for on the map”. The expansion of Odysseus presumed itinerary expanded with the passing of the centuries. The most daring early scholars held that Homer’s invented traveler sailed as far west in the Mediterranean as Sicily and Libya. Even this constricted circuit is in distinct contrast to the yet more circumspect analysts who believed that the wanderer never strayed beyond the vicinity of the Greek Isles. More intriguingly, there is a modern school of thought that has Odysseus moving out beyond the forbidding Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic Ocean. Since it agrees with my penchant for voyages to the ends of the earth, I’ll concentrate upon this most enterprising thesis, even though most modern classicists regard the bulk of the tale as pure imagination.
The ancient geographer Strabo’s (early 1st century AD) opinion that Calypso’s island and Scheria (home of the Phaecians) were projected by the poet as being in the Atlantic Ocean has had significant influence on modern theorists. Two centuries ago, a French academic argued that the Underworld visited by Odysseus comprised the islands at the mouth of the river Rhine. A more extreme view, that the whole geography of the Iliad and the Odyssey can be mapped on the coasts of the northern Atlantic, occasionally surfaces. According to this, Troy is in southern England, Telemachus’s journey is in southern Spain, and Odysseus was wandering the Atlantic coast. Another example: a 20th century author, argued that Circe’s island is Madeira, Calypso’s island one of the Azores, and the intervening travels record a discovery of North America: Scylla and Charybdis are in Canada’s Bay of Fundy, and Scheria in the Caribbean. Another authority proposed that Odysseus’s journey to the Underworld takes place in South America. For that scholar, the river Acheron is the Amazon; after a long voyage upstream Odysseus meets the spirits of the dead at the confluence of the Rio Santiago and Rio Marañon.
While some write off these speculations as the work of over-imaginative eccentrics or myth-spinners in the glory days of mythical lore, it is at least feasible that seafarers of the ninth and eighth centuries BC ventured westward beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar). Certainly, the cagey Phoenicians did, and it was known that they spread deliberate lies about monsters and malevolent gods who shattered ships that dared to violate these forbidden straits They did so in order to discourage any competitors from destroying their monopoly of the tin and woolen trade from the Normandy coast, Cornwall in the British Isles and the amber and copper imports from the Danube basin and the Baltic seacoast. And there is good evidence to support a few probes by the master Greek seaman, the Phokians, in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. So, yes, it is quite possible that the voyager or voyagers that provided the prototype for Odysseus actually entered the tempestuous Great Ocean to the West, however briefly and encountered great wonders there. It’s likely that Homer’s tale contained echoes of the twice-told tales of Phoenician adventurers, both the daunting fibs and the few scraps of factual reporting. It’s not necessary to accept the most far-fetched ocean-crossing itineraries of the analysts discussed above to grant that Homer’s hero may well have been propelled through the forbidding Pillars of Hercules as a result of storms brewed by malevolent gods.
In general, Greek literary genres are sharply defined, and each has a set of themes (topoi) peculiar to itself. Conforming to this usage, Iambulus’ work, Islands of the Sun, exhibits themes frequently found in the Greek utopia. The Sun-islands are circular in form, the favorite geometrical pattern for a utopian country. So, for example, Plato’s Atlantis is composed of a series of concentric circles of land and sea, and Hecataeus’ temple of Apollo on the island of the Hyperboreans is spheroid. Similarly, the utopian climate is always pleasant; there is always an abundance of sweet and healthful spring water, and a super-abundant food supply. Further, utopians are usually tall and well-built. Iambulus’ Sun-men are also long-lived and free from disease, but most utopians outstrip them in this matter: the Uttarakuru of Sanskrit sources live one thousand (or 10,000) years, and so too the Hyperboreans; according to Herodotus the Ethiopians live to 120 years or more, and Onesicritus in Pos Alexandros ekhthe (in Strabo, Geography §15:1:34) attributes 130 years to the people of Musicanus; the Meropes of Theopompus live twice as long as ordinary mortals, and never know disease. Utopians, however, not only live pleasantly, but also die pleasantly. On the island paradise of Syria (Odyssey §§15:403-14), Apollo of the silver bow and Artemis slay the happy natives with their gentle shafts; in Hesiod’s Golden Age men die as overcome with sleep (Works and Days §116); the inhabitants of Theopompus’ Eusebes die laughing. Similarly, Iambulus’ Sun-men have a magical plant which induces the sleep of death.
So we turn now to the Hiera Anagraphe of Euhemerus of Messana (ca. 300 BC), an extraordinary voyage with a special philosophical-religious theory as its purpose. It seems to have been an elaborately detailed work in at least three books, and exhibits every mark of a careful effort at authentication. Euhemerus speaks of his many voyages in his official capacity on behalf of King Cassander of Macedonia (301-297 BC) and specifically of a long southerly ocean-voyage he once made from the eastern coast of Arabia Eudaemon (i.e. from that NE part of Arabia lying opposite the modern Baluchistan), which took him to the Panchaean isles. A detailed description of three of these islands follows, including the names of the notable cities Hyracia, Dalis, Oceanis, and especially Panara, whose citizens are called “Suppliants of Zeus Triphylius” (Zeus of the three tribes).
Whenever he can, Euhemerus gives exact dimensions and distances on and between the three islands; from Panchaea’s eastern promontory one can catch a glimpse of India through the misty distance. Another realistic touch is the elaborate description of the nature of frankincense and its preparation on the island of Hiera, to which may also be added that there is nothing very strange or incredible in Euhemerus’ account of the political setup of the Panchaeans. Finally, perhaps following the lead of Hecataeus, Euhemerus provides scientific documentation for his religious theory that the gods were nothing more than great rulers from the remote past deified for their admirable deeds on behalf of men, by referring all his information in this area—aside from supposed conversations with the priests—to various inscriptions, and especially to a gold stele in the sanctuary of Zeus Triphylius on which are inscribed in summary fashion, in the writing employed by the Panchaeans (apparently Egyptian hieroglyphics), the deeds of Uranus, Cronus and Zeus. Combining geographical and botanical detail with sober political narrative, Euhemerus produced a most persuasive voyage extraordinaire, which easily deceived Diodorus into taking it as straight history.
This brings us to one of the most detailed and popular of these narratives, Iambulus’ Islands of the Sun. The original of Iambulus’ narrative (written sometime between 165 and 50BC) has perished, and were it not for the excerpts made by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheke we should have to rely on two meagre references in Lucian and Tzetzes. In introducing his parody of imaginary-voyage literature, True Histories, Lucian singles out Ctesias and Iambulus as representative. The latter, says Lucian, wrote much that was incredible about the lands in the great sea, but though obviously fabulous, it was not an unpleasing story. Ionnes Tzetzes (Chiliades §§727-30) noted that Iambulus wrote of round animals found in the islands of the Ethiopians, of double-tongued men who could converse with two different people simultaneously, and numerous other things.
From Diodorus’ excerpt of Islands of the Sun , in spite of its disorder, it has been possible to reconstruct the form and content of the work in some detail. Rather than describe the specifics of this fabulous journey, suffice it to say that the hero’s ship was seized by pirates off the Somali coast (shades of the 21st century epidemic) and that he was compelled by the natives of that land to undertake a long, six month journey directly to the south (i.e., in the western portion of the Indian Ocean) until they reached a blessed isle of utopian bliss where they could participate in the purification of the Ethiopian folk who commissioned the voyage.
Iambulus’ extraordinary voyage can now be seen in its proper setting. Uniting all the techniques of his predecessors, he uses astronomical, geographical, botanical, zoological and anthropological data of all sorts to authenticate his narrative. It should be noted that one of the most accurate and influential of the genuine voyage narratives, the Paraplous (a kind of narrated seaman’s chart) of Nearchus, was especially rich in scientific information, above all astronomy, meteorology, and botany. Iambulus’ marked use of such data, therefore, is clearly understandable. The scientific charlatan employs an abundant scientific terminology to convince the audience that he is rigorously scientific; similarly, Iambulus affects the best scientific-voyage terminology of the age in an effort to win the confidence of his audience. His unusual success can today be measured only by the long list of geographers who have taken him in full earnest and have bravely defended him against his defamers.
Summing up, Iambulus’ main source beside travel narratives on India was the Greek utopian tradition of extraordinary voyages which preceded him (as well as various philosophical works). Shaped by his imaginative genius, however, these varied elements blended into a distinct utopian art-form, which found a permanent place in European literature.
Perhaps five hundred years after the Odyssey yarn made the rounds, there was another legend, also plausibly based on snippets of fact, that of Pytheas, the daring merchant from Massilia (Marseilles). The anecdote claims that this adventurer had traveled to England on his tin-seeking quest and not only circumnavigated the British Isles, but strayed as far north as the Arctic Circle before turning back to his Mediterranean homeland. His story embellished the established myths embodied in the “Ultima Thule” (Hyperborea) cycle, telling of a paradisiacal wonderland at the northern extremity of the earth. Bear in mind that the concept of Ultima Thule was an ancient fantasy long preceding Homer and was linked with the equally ancient geographical expectancy that there were Fortunate Isles or Blessed Isles somewhere far out in the Western Sea (the vaguely known Atlantic Ocean). However, instead of reaching this allegedly balmy territory to the far northwest, near the North Pole, Pytheas was compelled to turn back by impassable gelatinous waters—no doubt referring to the ice packs at the southern fringes of the frozen wastes.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this first of three installments of Fantastic Voyages: By Ship to Nowhereland and Back. Please stop by next week when part three, beginning with MEDIEVAL MYSTERY MAPS, goes live.
James J. Bloom began writing on military history as a consultant to the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization. His contributions have appeared in The International Military Encyclopedia and 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
His latest book, The Jewish Revolts Against Rome, A.D. 66–135, A Military Analysis published by McFarland Publishers, is due out in late Spring, 2010 while his book on the ancient Roman Empire as a sea power is under contract with McFarland. He has written over 100 journal and encyclopedia articles on history and seafaring. He writes bedtime stories with a nautical twist for his five young grandchildren.