The climax of the Odyssey is the hero’s arrival in Ithaca but a harbinger of that pivotal moment is his sojourn on the island of Scheria (Phaecia), which I have written about here. William Blake also connected these two events, i.e. arrival in Scheria and subsequent arrival in Ithaca, into a unified vision. In his painting “The Sea of Space and Time” the left side is occupied by Odysseus and goddess Leukothea, the right side presents the magical Cave of Nymphs found on Ithaca. Having rejected Calypso’s gift of immortality, Odysseus chose life in the body – incarnation. This is the theme of Blake’s painting.
Here is how Homer describes Odysseus’ encounter with the White Goddess Leukothea (transl. Fitzgerald):
“Across the foaming water, to and fro,
the boat careered like a ball of tumbleweed
blown on the autumn plains, but intact still.
So the winds drove this wreck over the deep,
East Wind and North Wind, then South Wind and West,
coursing each in turn to the brutal harry.
But Inosaw him—Ino, Kadmos’ daughter,
slim-legged, lovely, once an earthling girl,
now in the seas a nereid, Leukothea.
Touched by Odysseus’ painful buffeting
she broke the surface, like a diving bird,
to rest upon the tossing raft and say:
“O forlorn man, I wonder
why the Earthshaker, Lord Poseidon, holds
this fearful grudge—father of all your woes.
He will not drown you, though, despite his rage.
You seem clear-headed still; do what I tell you.
Shed that cloak, let the gale take your craft,
and swim for it—swim hard to get ashore
upon Skhería, yonder,
where it is fated that you find a shelter.
Here: make my veil your sash; it is not mortal;
you cannot, now, be drowned or suffer harm.
Only, the instant you lay hold of earth,
discard it, cast it far, far out from shore
in the winedark sea again, and turn away.”
Swollen from head to foot he was, and seawater
gushed from his mouth and nostrils. There he lay,
scarce drawing breath, unstirring, deathly spent.
In time, as air came back into his lungs
and warmth around his heart, he loosed the veil,
letting it drift away on the estuary
downstream to where a white wave took it under
and Ino’s hands received it. Then the man
crawled to the river bank among the reeds
where, face down, he could kiss the soil of earth,
in his exhaustion murmuring to himself:
“What more can this hulk suffer? What comes now?
In vigil through the night here by the river
how can I not succumb, being weak and sick,
to the night’s damp and hoarfrost of the morning?
The air comes cold from rivers before dawn.
But if I climb the slope and fall asleep
in the dark forest’s undergrowth—supposing
cold and fatigue will go, and sweet sleep come—
I fear I make the wild beasts easy prey.”
But this seemed best to him, as he thought it over.
He made his way to a grove above the water
on open ground, and crept under twin bushes
grown from the same spot—olive and wild olive—
a thicket proof against the stinging wind
or Sun’s blaze, fine soever the needling sunlight;
nor could a downpour wet it through, so dense
those plants were interwoven. Here Odysseus
tunnelled, and raked together with his hands
a wide bed—for a fall of leaves was there,
enough to save two men or maybe three
on a winter night, a night of bitter cold.
Odysseus’ heart laughed when he saw his leaf-bed
and down he lay, heaping more leaves above him.
A man in a distant field, no hearthfires near,
will hide a fresh brand in his bed of embers
to keep a spark alive for the next day;
so in the leaves Odysseus hid himself,
while over him Athena showered sleep
that his distress should end, and soon, soon.
In quiet sleep she sealed his cherished eyes.”
Like Odysseus, Leucothea used to be mortal. She was Semele’s sister, who helped her nurse young Dionysos. That enraged Hera, who made Leucothea jump into the sea in an act of insanity. Gods took pity on her and turned her into a sea goddess worshiped for her oracular gift of dream interpretation (she had a dream sanctuary dedicated to her in Laconia). In an interesting parallel, she was the one who discarded the veil of mortality while Odysseus consciously accepted it.
Hans Meyer, “Leukothea Appears to Odysseus”
Wikipedia traces the origin of the word “veil,” which further links it to the sea goddess:
“Veil” came from Latin vēlum, which also means “sail”. There are two theories about the origin of the word vēlum:-
Via the “covering” meaning, from (Indo-European root) *wel– = “to cover, to enclose”.
Via the “sail” meaning, from Indo-European *weghslom, from root *wegh- = “way” or “carry in a vehicle”, because it makes the ship move.
Both in Christian and Pagan traditions veils were used to protect the holiest of mysteries against profane eyes. The goddess offering her veil to Odysseus means that he as the only mortal is allowed to peek behind the veil of great mystery into the sea of space and time. I see how the white foam adorning sea waves, so precious and delicate, could have invoked the veiled goddess for the ancients, while their ships gliding across the waves’ white foam were carried to safety by the benevolent white goddess. The dark bed of leaves he rests upon is like the arms of the earth goddess embracing her son in her bosom, like a veil covering his radiance from curious eyes.