Calypso: The Nymph Who Loved Odysseus
In Homer’s Odyssey, it famously took the Greek hero Odysseus a full decade to return home from the Trojan War. After ten years at war, the long journey meant that he had been away from his wife and kingdom for a full twenty years!
Odysseus famously sailed past Scylla and Charybdis, avoided the Sirens’ song, and visited the underworld for advice. All these adventures, though, still don’t account for the length of the journey.
Most of his time after the war was spent shipwrecked on a lonely island far from home.
Odysseus wasn’t a solitary castaway, though. The island of Ogygia was home to Calypso, a stunningly beautiful nymph.
Calypso started as Odysseus’s saviour but ended up becoming his captor. For seven years he lived with her while longing for home.
So was Calypso a loving surrogate wife to the legendary hero, or was she a selfish jailer who held him captive to suit her own desires?
The answer might lie in how you interpret just a few lines of Greek poetry.
Calypso was one of the many nymphs, minor goddesses of nature in Greek mythology.
Unlike the goddesses of Olympus, the nymphs were often tied to a specific place or land form. They each served a function, whether it was as the deity of a certain island or mountain or as a spirit of the ocean.
While the nymphs had some of the abilities of the major gods, they were not nearly as powerful as the Olympians. Often their abilities were confined to the place or element they were associated with.
The nymphs were almost always known for their great beauty. As nature spirits, they represented everything that is beautiful, peaceful, and graceful about the natural world.
There is no definitive count of how many nymphs existed in the Greek pantheon. Only a few were named, while many were known only for their type.
These nymphs were grouped together usually by family bonds. Sisters would be given a group name that usually referenced their parents, like the Pleiades or Oceanids, and would have similar domains and powers.
On the whole, the nymphs served only minor functions in most of the myths of the Olympians. Most often they appeared as mistresses or mothers, with little purpose or character outside of their relationships with more powerful deities.
Nymphs were consorts of the gods, objects of affection, or helpers to those in need but rarely had much in the way of defining characteristics or individuality.
A few nymphs were exceptions to this norm. Calypso, who was not grouped with her sisters and freely speaks her mind to one of the Olympian gods, was one of these.
Unlike many of the nymphs named in other myths, there is little consensus as to who Calypso’s family was and, thus, what type of nymph she was.
Some writers claimed that she was the daughter of the Titan Atlas and Pleione, one of the Oceanid nymphs. Hesiod said she was a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and thus an Oceanid herself.
A third named her as a Nereid, one of the helpful ocean nymphs who accompanied Poseidon.
Calypso was noteworthy, though, in that she was not seen with her sisters. Instead of being part of a group, she was noted specifically as being alone.
All these descriptions of her origins had one thing in common – they linked Calypso to the sea.
Calypso made her home, according to Homer, on the island of Ogygia. Like many places in The Odyssey, this was not an actual place and several islands have been linked to the mythical site.
Ogygia is linked to the word ogygia which generally refers to something primeval or from the dawn of time. It is possible, therefore, that Homer meant the island to represent somewhere completely removed from his contemporary Greece.
Later writers and philosophers gave their own theories as to the whereabouts of Calypso’s home. One popular tradition associated it with one of the Maltese islands, others said that it was near Corfu or Egypt.
By the time of Plutarch, it was widely thought that Ogygia existed somewhere in the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, several days’ journey west of Britain. This would place it at the farthest point that Odysseus traveled in the mortal world.
The island was described as beautiful and lush, but remote. Even the gods rarely visited and Calypso spent more of her existence in isolation.
The mystery surrounding the location of Calypso’s home island may be an integral part of her character.
The name Calypso comes from the Greek verb kalypto, meaning to hide or conceal. The fact that Calypto’s island was hidden may have been very intentional.
Calypso’s story featured in the story of Odysseus, most known through Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey.
When the hero had left for the Trojan War, he had been warned that it would be twenty years before he returned home to Ithaca. He attempted to avoid the conflict, going as far as to feign madness, but ended up among the Greek forces at Troy anyway.
When the Trojan War ended after ten long years, Odysseus was one of the many soldiers eager to return home. His wife, Penelope, would be waiting for him with their young son Telemachus, who had been just a baby when his father left for war.
Early in his travels, however, Odysseus had earned the enmity of Poseidon.
When his crew tricked a Cyclopes and blinded it, Odysseus had called out his name in a brash display of arrogance. Knowing his attacker’s identity, Polyphemus, the cyclops, had called to his father to avenge him.
Polyphemus was the son of Poseidon. The god of the sea was furious that a mortal had unjustly wounded one of his children.
Poseidon swore that he would do everything in his power to keep Odysseus from reaching Ithaca. If the hero ever did make it home it would be after many years of hardship and to a home that was in disarray.
The crew wandered for nearly three years, encountering many trials and dangers along the way.
All but one of Odysseus’s ships were destroyed by the cannibals of Laestragonia. The remaining ship, which the hero had been commanding, sailed on.
The crew were waylaid for a year by the sea witch Circe, bypassed the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and avoided the deadly Sirens. Odysseus even travelled to the underworld to learn how to reach home again, encountering the ghosts of many great heroes.
After all these dangers, the crew met their end when they ignored their commander’s warnings and landed on the island of Thrinacia. Their food supplies destroyed in a storm, the men hunted the sacred cattle of Helios that lived on the island.
They did so when Odysseus was resting, knowing that he would forbid them from touching the animals.
The offended god demanded justice. When the ship set sail again, Zeus sent a storm that destroyed it.
Everyone but Odysseus, who had not taken part in the killing of Helios’s cattle, drowned.
Now alone, he drifted on the sea, narrowly avoiding another run-in with Charybdis.
After ten days, he washed up on the island of Ogygia. He was met by the island’s only inhabitant, its resident nymph Calypso.
The lonely nymph nursed her visitor back to health, and soon made the man her husband. With no ship or means of navigation, Odysseus had no choice but to stay with her.
Calypso made her home in a spacious cavern on the island, and she shared this home with Odysseus for seven full years.
She had a lovely singing voice and spent her days weaving with golden thread in the comfortable home she had made on the island. Her grace and beauty were enough to make even a god feel more peaceful and happy than he had anywhere else on earth.
Calypso loved Odysseus deeply, to the point that she seemed rather obsessive. She even offered to make him immortal so he could be with her forever.
But, while the island had provided a welcome respite from his troubles, Odysseus would not remain happy with the nymph who lived there for very long.
As time passed, Odysseus grew distraught on Calypso’s island. He still longed to return to his own home and human wife, no matter how lovely the nymph was.
While Calypso sang to herself and worked at her loom, Odysseus established a new routine to fill his days.
He spent his time sitting on the shore, looking out over the ocean toward Ithaca and crying. When the sun went down he would return to Calypso’s cavern and perform his duties as a husband without any passion or joy.
The image of the Ithacan ruler crying alone on Ogygia was relayed to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, by Proteus. The ancient sea god knew he was on Ogygia and that Calypso held him under her sway.
The Spartan king then told Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who had by this time grown into adulthood and was searching the kingdoms of Greece for his lost father. Odysseus had long been presumed dead, but Telemachus and his mother remained convinced that he was still trying to get home to them.
The story soon reached Athena, who had been a patron and protector of Odysseus throughout his long ordeal. She wished to see him return to his home, but she knew she would have to contend with Poseidon.
Athena waited until Poseidon was away from Olympus to receive a sacrifice, then she took her appeal to Zeus. She begged her father, in his position as king, to show mercy on the beleaguered human.
She reminded her father that Odysseus had been a good king, but that goodness was already being forgotten. His just and kind rule would be wasted if his name faded out of memory too soon.
His son was also in danger, as the many suitors who had come to woo Penelope were plotting to kill the young man to get him out of their way. Even as Telemachus was hearing news of his father at the court of Menelaus, the jealous suitors were planning to kill him when he returned.
Zeus agreed that Odysseus had paid more than enough for his crime against Poseidon’s son. The king of the gods sent Hermes to Ogygia to speak to the nymph that held Odysseus.
When the messenger god arrived, Calypso immediately knew who he was, and hinted that she cold guess why he was there.
Hermes relayed Zeus’s command that Odysseus needed to leave the island and return to his human family. Odysseus was not destined to live out his life with Calypso, and Zeus ordered the nymph to obey the dictates of fate.
Calypso was furious that Zeus had commanded her to send Odysseus away. She accused him, and the rest of the gods, of hypocrisy.
All of the Olympians, particularly Zeus, had enjoyed affairs with many mortal women. But, according to Calypso’s view of events, when a goddess did the same with a mortal man he became jealous and ordered an end to the relationship.
She noted that Demeter’s human lover had been hit by lightning and Eos’s husband had been killed by Artemis, while Zeus continued his many affairs with impunity. Now that she had taken a mortal husband he was jealous of her, as well.
Still, she could not disobey the king of the gods without bringing his wrath down on her and her peaceful island. She had no choice but to obey destiny and her king and let Odysseus go.
Even then, he had no ship or crew to help him reach Ithaca. Zeus had commanded that Odysseus was to build a raft to set off from Ogygia.
She called Odysseus home when Hermes had left and told him that he was free to leave. She omitted the demands of the Olympians, however, and tried to make him believe that she had decided it was time on her own.
After seven years he couldn’t believe that she would help him leave. He feared it was a trick of some kind and would not begin work on a raft until she pledged an oath that she meant him no harm.
Queenly Kalypso smiled; and caressing him with her hand she answered: ‘You are all too cunning. No innocent could have mustered such words as those. So be it then–let Earth be witness to me in this, and the arching Heaven above, and the downward water of the Styx–most solemn and most fearsome of oaths with the blessed gods–that I will plot against you no new mischief to your ruin. No; I have in mind–I will ponder now–the very plans I would shape for myself if ever need pressed as hard on me. My whole bent is to honest dealing; in this breast of mine there is no heart of iron; I have compassion.’
The two spent one last night together, Odysseus finally happy for her company again, and the next day set to work building and provisioning a raft for his journey.
She showed him where the best trees were on the island and gave him bronze tools to work with. While he cut the logs he needed she began fashioning a sail.
It took four days for the work to be completed. On the fifth morning the nymph filled the raft with food, water, and wine and presented Odysseus with fine new clothing.
Calypso summoned a gentle breeze to fill the sail she had made and sent Odysseus on his way.
When Poseidon learned that Odysseus had escaped Calypso’s island, he sent a storm to capsize the raft. The hero was now under divine protection, however, and the sea nymph Ino came to his rescue.
He reached the land of the friendly Phaeacians. When he tells his tale they agree to help him return to Ithaca.
Homer does not mention Calypso again. Many centuries later, a Roman poet would imagine her distress after Odysseus sailed away, saying that she sat by the sea and wept every time she remembered the happiness she had once shared with him.
While most stories of love affairs in Greek mythology end with the birth of a child, or many children, Homer does not mention any children that Calypso may have had with Odysseus.
While it would have been unusual for a relationship in Greek mythology to last so long without producing any offspring, it is of course entirely possible that Calypso didn’t have any children during her time with Odysseus.
Homer may have an alternative reason for not naming any children, as well.
His story centres around the hero’s efforts to return to his lawful wife and the son he had with her, his rightful heir. Any other children he may have fathered along the way would add an unnecessary complication to his story.
Other stories named the sons of Odysseus’s mistresses, including Calypso. One lost poem even recounted the hero’s eventual death at the hands of one of his sons by Circe.
Like many of the minor characters in Greek mythology, the identities of the possible children of Calypso vary from source to source. Lacking documentation from Homer, later writers sometimes embellished or changed parentage when they recounted the tale.
Circe is usually claimed to have given birth to at least three sons, although Odysseus only spent one year with her. Alternate sources often name one or more of them as being Calypso’s children instead, which seems more consistent with the timeframes involved.
Odysseus’s relationship with Circe was usually depicted as more positive, as well. The discrepancies in the number of children each of his mistresses bore could be a commentary on how valid and ideal their relationships seemed to the writers.
A few accounts, however, do name children born to Calypso during the seven years Odysseus spent with her.
- Nausinous – Hesiod names him as one of two sons of Odysseus and Calypso.
- Nausithous – This is the name of the other son mentioned in Hesiod.
- Latinus – Although most accounts give his mother as Circe, others say he was born to Calypso. He became a king of the Latins in Roman tradition and the father of Lavinia.
- Telgonus – While the figure in the lost work Telgony is usually said to be a son of Circe, at least one description from the time says the story was of Calypso’s son. In a case of mistaken identity, the grown Telgonus kills Odysseus when he arrives at Ithaca to find him.
While Odysseus worked hard, even in defiance of the gods and Fate, to get home to his son Telemachus, his other children are rarely mentioned again. Latinus had differing and often contradictory legends in Rome, and the only story of Telgonus is lost.
Telemachus was a driving force in the Odyssey, but the other children Odysseus fathered along the way remained little more than footnotes in the story.
Calypso comes across as a difficult figure in the Odyssey. She held Odysseus on her island despite his growing unhappiness and only released him when commanded to.
The reader realizes that she could have helped him build his raft at any time. She produces the tools and shows Odysseus where to find the materials he needs only after she is left with no choice.
She also lies about her motivations for helping him leave her island. She does not tell him that Athena has petitioned Zeus on his behalf, but rather tries to paint the idea of his freedom as her idea.
Odysseus is never sure of Calypso’s honestly. When he returns to Ithaca, he is still uncertain whether Calypso had let him go willingly, as she tried to claim, or if the gods had intervened to force her.
In the Odyssey, then, Calypso is generally interpreted as an egocentric and obsessive character. She may truly love Odysseus, but that love is made selfish by her lack of concern for his wants and happiness.
In some depictions of the nymph, however, a much more favorable view is given.
Because Homer did not specify what happened to Calypso after she released Odysseus, later writers and artists had the freedom to portray her as they saw fit.
They were inspired by her final scenes in the Odyssey, in which she both dutifully prepared for her lover’s departure and railed against the hypocrisy of the gods.
Zeus’s order, in the eyes of many later thinkers, was more than just hypocrisy on his part. The fact that Calypso was entirely powerless to defy him painted her as the most tragic figure in the legend.
Homer made it clear that Calypso felt more than just duty or lust toward Odysseus. She acted as his wife, creating an environment of domestic bliss even if he did not share her joy.
Despite this, her life and love were completely at the whims of a far-off ruler. He didn’t just order her to let Odysseus leave, he condemned her to a return to solitude.
After Homer, some writers expanded Calypso’s story to tell about how she pined for her lost love for the rest of time. A few went so far as to say she committed suicide in her grief, a rare event among the immortal gods.
Calypso became symbolic of every lonely woman who felt little control over her own destiny. While Penelope warded off hoards of suitors and Helen’s lovers went to war over her hand, Calypso was a figure that remained isolated and lonely through no fault of her own.
Calypso became a figure of loneliness, heartbreak, and the inability to fight back against the cruelties of fate.
She was often depicted in later works of art as a tragically melancholy character. Painters often showed her sitting on the rocks staring wistfully across the ocean.
These artists ignored Calypso’s more selfish traits to portray her as a beautiful figure of longing and lost love.
Calypso is thus a figure that is open to interpretation. Whether she is a domineering and selfish seductress or a loving victim of circumstance depends entirely on how the reader views her words and actions as Odysseus prepares to sail away.
Calypso’s character and her ultimate fate contrast against the other two female characters in Homer’s work. Penelope and Circe, Odysseus’s wife and the sea-witch who seduced him, provide very different characterisations of women and love.
Penelope is often held as the ideal wife in Greek society. Even when her husband is assumed to be dead, she remains loyal to him.
As a wealthy widow, she attracted many suitors when her husband failed to return home. For many years, though, she avoided a second marriage.
This ideal of a faithful and obedient wife stands in stark contrast to Calypso and the other lover Odysseus took on his travels, Circe.
Circe was an enchantress who turned the ship’s crew to swine when they arrived on her island. Hermes advised Odysseus on how to avoid falling under her spell, part of which involved going to bed with her.
When Odysseus did not fall to her shape shifting magic, Circe softened to him. She returned the men to their human forms and even advised Odysseus on how to reach the underworld so that he could continue on his journey.
Circe did not hold Odysseus captive, but he remained with her for a year. After that time his men still had to plead and argue with him to convince him to leave.
The relationships started off much differently – Circe threatened Odysseus while Calypso saved him – but they had very different conclusions. The threatening Circe softened and became helpful while Calypso grew possessive.
Odysseus stayed with Circe willingly, while he had no choice with Calypso. While Calypso lied about being ordered to let him go, Circe obliged the moment Odysseus told her he wanted to be off.
The three women in Odysseus’s story represent three very different types of relationships. While Penelope is subservient, Circe treats Odysseus as an equal, and Calypso dominates the relationship.
While our modern ideals are different, to the Greeks Penelope was the perfect mate. She remained the hero’s lawful wife even after everyone else had given him up for dead.
Circe’s more equal relationship was not the ideal in the Greek world, but it was not inherently bad.
Calypso, however, broke all the ideals of femininity by putting her desires over her husband’s. While she acted out the ideal image of the Greek wife, weaving and singing for her beloved husband, her possessiveness and manipulations marked her as domineering.
Odysseus’s time on Ogygia remains one of the most widely debated and discussed chapters of his long epic.
Amidst all the tales of bravery, heroism, and near-death experiences the inclusion of seven years of relative peace seems somewhat out of place.
Odysseus spent more than two-thirds of his long journey home on the island of Ogygia.
This long stay could be interpreted as almost like a prison sentence. Despite the comfortable surroundings and kind hostess, Odysseus was still unhappy and convinced he would not be able to leave.
Homer implies, however, that at least for a while Odysseus was happy with Calypso’s company. His insistence when he returned to Ithaca that his heart had never been attached to the nymph is at odds with Homer’s description of their last night together.
Calypso has been variously interpreted as a domineering and controlling or loving and devoted.
In truth, there are no definites about her character. Just as Odysseus may not have been entirely honest about their relationship, the nymph whose very name meant “hidden” may have concealed her true nature and feelings throughout.