Homer’s Odyssey … in Canada?

Odysseus bei den Laestrygonen
Image via Wikipedia

Once upon a time, there was almost an annual event of some guy coming up with a new theory about where Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad really took place … haven’t had one for quite a while, but in the Toronto Star I was gobsmacked to read this one:

The first thing to know about George Fowler is that, strictly speaking, he is not a full-time classics scholar. He’s just a couple of courses short of a degree in that field.

The other thing is that Fowler is a retired engineer, late of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia. So he knows a thing or three about currents, tides and trade winds.

It’s that curious combination of amateur and professional interests that has fuelled Fowler’s belief that the seafaring Odysseus, hero of Homer’s Odyssey, actually ended up in, well, the Bay of Fundy.

He first dreamed up this theory back in 1997 for a conference of the Marine Technology Society, whose organizers wanted a session on exploration to mark the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. “I just sort of got carried away,” says Fowler, 69.

Not that he makes a point of mentioning all this to his literary colleagues. The classics crowd tends to pooh-pooh such speculations. For them, it’s the poem’s allegorical meanings that resonate, which is partly why Fowler hasn’t done much to publicize his views.

Fowler certainly isn’t alone in his pursuit. Over the centuries, countless scholars have tried to plot Odysseus’s exact voyage, culling clues from 12,109 lines of hexameter verse.

It may be the ultimate parlour game, matching landmarks in the poem with current geography, figuring out which natural phenomenon might have inspired the descriptions of various monsters.

And while others have situated Odysseus somewhere in the vicinity of Nova Scotia, Fowler may be the first to detail his ramblings around the Bay of Fundy.

The Odyssey is , of course, an epic journey filled with all sorts of extravagant perils. It begins with Odysseus (known as Ulysses in Latin) departing the ruins of Troy around 1200 BC, ostensibly homeward bound to Ithaca. (Homer’s recounting of the journey dates from much later, likely about 700 BC.)

Odysseus is, in other words, sailing all the way around modern Greece, from the Aegean Sea to the Ionian Sea in the eastern Mediterranean.

But he and his men get blown off course, and sent further west for nine days into relatively unknown waters. Most of those who’ve attempted to chart Odysseus’ subsequent travels have him bouncing around the western Mediterranean, which, in Homer’s day, was starting to be actively explored and colonized by the Greeks.

A few outliers, however, figure Odysseus got past the Straits of Gibraltar to the “Ocean River” mentioned by Homer. Fowler is one of them. “If you go outside, you’re no longer in control of your own destiny,” he says.

Fowler’s account of where Odysseus journeys from there is long and detailed, and even includes descriptions of the stars as they would have appeared in 1200 BC.

But the general outline first puts Odysseus in the grip of the Great North Atlantic Gyre, the massive system of currents and winds that circles the Atlantic, moving from Europe to North America and back again. That would carry him south to the Canary Islands and then across the ocean to the Caribbean, roughly the same course followed by Columbus.

Assuming Odysseus then opted to follow the Gulf Stream, he would have sailed up the coast of North America toward Nova Scotia.

On its own , this wouldn’t take him to the Bay of Fundy. Fowler’s assumption is that, faced with a crew anxious to get ashore anyplace, Odysseus decided to make landfall. That would mean crossing the cold Labrador Current that hugs the shore of Nova Scotia, flowing southwest and rotating around the southern end of the province.

The poem tells us that Odysseus “saw smoke and heavy breakers, heard this booming thunder.”

Fowler equates this “smoke” with the heavy fogs in that part of Nova Scotia, while the “thunder” could be the roar of water making its way around Cape Split into the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Basin.

Then come the whirlpools, which the poem describes as “awesome Charybdis” gulping dark water. “Three times a day she vomits it up, three times she gulps it down.”

It turns out that, in addition to having the highest tides in the world, the Bay of Fundy is home to three major whirlpools in the course of each tidal cycle. “It really does look like a hole in the water,” says Fowler.

So, what about the nearby monster of the poem, yelping Scylla in her cave? Masses of writhing seals, says Fowler, and the black, basalt columns jutting upward on Cape Split.

He figures Odysseus, having escaped, turned up next in the Annapolis Basin, where the Annapolis River flows into the Bay of Fundy, the spot where Samuel de Champlain camped out much later.

It’s there that Odysseus’s starving men do the forbidden. They slaughter and feast on the Sun god’s cattle, “those splendid beasts with their broad brows and great curving horns,” as Homer puts it.

Fowler maintains these cattle were such a wondrous novelty because they were actually moose, a beast unknown in the Mediterranean. Killing them comes with a price. Zeus destroys Odysseus’s ship, and he’s left to float alone on a makeshift raft, first deep into the Bay of Fundy and then back toward the ocean.

He eventually hooks up with the goddess Calypso on the Island of Ogygia (which Fowler takes to be Grand Manan Island), and spends his time eating grapes (reminiscent of the Vikings’ Vineland).

But Homer also mentions “spread-beaked ravens of the sea, black skimmers who make their living off the waves.”

As it happens, black skimmers — a tern-like seabird — aren’t native to the Mediterranean, or at least not in recent memory. They do, however, show up with regularity in the Bay of Fundy, whenever storms blow them north from Cape Cod.

It turns out that Odysseus would have seen a great many black skimmers. He seems to have grown quite fond of the Bay of Fundy. Or maybe this “tough cookie,” as Fowler calls him, just needed a lot of rest after his adventures.

Odysseus ends up staying with the lovely goddess Calypso for seven years before duly heading back across the Atlantic to his actual home and lawful wife.

Well being a (rogue)classicist, I am duty bound to “pooh pooh” this, although I have to admit that when one sees the tides in the Bay of Fundy, one does think of Scylla and Charybdis … of course, what all these ‘relocations’ actually are are just a testament to the universality of Homer’s text: people can and do make personal connections, and sometimes those connections are geographical … sadly, what will likely happen is that someone will now make the ‘logical’ leap and notice the ‘similarity’ between the words “Mi’kmaq” and Mycenean and subsequently make connections between M’ikmaq writing and Linear B (Barry Fell notwithstanding)  … or maybe someone can take it even further (and Odysseus too) and have him go as far as the site of the Peterborough Petroglyphs; I’m kind of surprised that no one has made an Odyssey connection there …

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8 thoughts on “Homer’s Odyssey … in Canada?

  1. Mark Davidson says:

    “The first thing to know about George Fowler is that … he’s just a couple of courses short of a degree…”

    This made me think along the lines of

    A few cards short of a full deck
    A few sandwiches short of a picnic
    A few pecans short of a fruitcake

    etc.

    (Not to disparage anyone who hasn’t completed a degree.)

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