In this lesson we explore the ancient Greek nymph, Calypso, and her role in Homer’s ”Odyssey.” Though just a nymph, Calypso challenges the Olympian gods and tries to hold Odysseus captive.
Have you ever been in a relationship that you just could not seem to end? The spark was no longer there, you didn’t share the same interests anymore, and the two of you just seemed to be going through the motions. Yet, despite that, your partner seemed more into you than ever? The relationships where one person wants out and the other does not can be hard to navigate.
Humans have surely confronted these exact circumstances for millennia. For proof, we can look to classical literature for examples. For example, such a predicament faced Odysseus with Calypso in Book V of Homer’s The Odyssey.
According to Homer, soon after Odysseus landed on the island of Ogygia, Odysseus met the minor goddess and nymph, Calypso.
Calypso soon fell madly in love with Odysseus, and she forced the traveler to remain on the island as her husband and hostage. Though Odysseus humored Calypso at first – by taking her to bed – he soon wanted to leave and continue his return home to Ithaca and his family. Athena, who championed Odysseus throughout The Odyssey, saw his plight and brought it to the attention of the other gods. After an impassioned speech, Zeus agreed that Odysseus must be freed.Zeus then sent Hermes to the island to tell Calypso that the Olympian gods determined that Odysseus must be let go. The irony of a noted adulterer like Zeus forcing Calypso to give up her mortal lover was not lost on Calypso, and she delivered a scathing rebuke of Zeus and the other male gods who often took up relations with mortal women.
In the end, Calypso eventually agreed and helped Odysseus to build new boats and supplied him with food and fresh water for his voyage. In all, Odysseus spent seven years on the island as Calypso’s captive.
Background and Depictions
Calypso was believed to be the daughter of the Titan Atlas, though speculation varies widely as to who her mother was.
Calypso was a nymph and not a full goddess. Her only real role in any Greek literature or myth is in The Odyssey.Regardless, Calypso’s role in The Odyssey often caused her to be the subject of Medieval and Renaissance artwork. She is often depicted showing the passionate love she exhibited for Odysseus.
Calypso is not the only stereotypical woman searching for a man that Odysseus encountered in The Odyssey.
The tale of Odysseus reaching Calypso’s island has many parallels with the story of Odysseus and Circe. Attributes used to describe both women are often similar, their palatial homes are similarly described, and magic plays a strong role in both stories. However, it is far more overt in the encounter with Circe: she literally turns Odysseus’s men into swine before attempting to trap Odysseus forever with a similar potion. In addition, Odysseus is saved in both accounts by receiving advanced knowledge from the messenger god, Hermes.Furthermore, both of these stories – but Calypso’s most of all – portray an arguably misogynistic view toward women held in ancient Greek culture. For instance, Homer tells us that Calypso was so beautiful that she could sleep with any man on the island, but forsook all because of her love for Odysseus.
Generally, in Greek literature and myth it is the mortals who are fundamentally flawed and not the goddesses. In this case, since the deity is a woman, she is stereotypically portrayed as the proverbial slave to her emotions.
Let’s now go through the main observations of Calypso that we covered in this lesson:
- Calypso, a minor goddess and nymph, was a main character in one episode of Homer’s The Odyssey.
- Calypso kept Odysseus on the island as her slave/captive for seven years before freeing him at the behest of the Olympian gods.
- Still in love with Odysseus, Calypso helped him off the island by building his boats and giving him supplies.
- Calypso’s storied beauty and uncompromising love caused her to often be the subject of Renaissance or Medieval artwork.
- Calypso’s portrayal is stereotypical and misogynistic, but it is consistent with ancient Greek views of women in general.