Monday, March 22, 2004
This slim volume captures the mystery and beauty of ancient sea travel. He retells the stories of the Odyssey, the Argonautica, the Polynesians, and the Muslims with a focus on the sailing journey, and he relates his own personal experience sailing the same paths as these heroes. The photographs of different islands and harbors, printed in black and white, are uninteresting and tend to look the same, but the photographs of maps, wind and water currents, and navigation tools are fascinating.
However, I am wary of his history. There are no footnotes, and the bibliography contains about half a dozen sources. I know little about sailing, but I know a fair amount about history and mythology, and I know some of his broad, background statements are simply false. He claims, “The giant Heracles (Hercules), after being left behind by the Argonauts and completing his labors, settled into the firmament as Orion, which resembles a giant with a sword and shield” (12). The constellation Orion actually represents the human hunter Orion, friend and perhaps lover of the goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Diana). The god Apollo, jealous of the new man spending time with his sister, tricks her into killing the human then helps her set him in the stars. Orion is not Heracles. He also discusses “Cairo, today the capital of Islam” (98), a description I would have thought more aptly applied to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
Inaccuracies like these make me wonder about his knowledge of sailing. His descriptions of navigation, sailing, and global weather patterns seem truthful and do inform the ancient epic stories he seeks to expand on. However, he claims to be an expert on sailing (whereas he never claims to be an expert in mythology), his credentials are all sailing-related, and the history and mythology bits seem to be filler to give the book a broader appeal and a deeper significance.
He offers interesting historical tidbits as he traces the ancient journeys and thoroughly examines the texts. He locates Calypso’s island in the Odyssey based on her statement that “Big Dipper is ‘the only constellation which never bathes in Ocean’s stream.’” He concludes, “In order for the Dipper to be the only constellation that never set, Homer must have been familiar with only latitudes south of thirty-seven degrees north” (24).
He proposes a reason for the Polynesians’ migrations against, instead of with, the prevailing winds: “if, like Columbus, one is going to sail across as ocean toward a great continent, one goes with the prevailing wind, as Columbus did; but if, like the Polynesians, one is going to sail out into an apparently limitless ocean in search of an island that may or may not be there, it is wiser to wait for one of those days when the wind blows contrary to its prevailing direction. Then, if the island does not turn up, instead of being blown indefinitely, one can simply wait for the prevailing wind to return, and can sail home to try again another day” (40).
All in all, this book was a fun, light read, though I am very glad I bought it used and didn’t pay full price.