In one of the CHS discussions on the Odyssey, Gregory Nagy makes an interesting point about the name Calypso (or Καλυψώ), about 40 minutes in. We moderns tend to associate the word with Caribbean music (“Harry Belafonte with his shirt open to the navel.”) and/or the ship used by Jacques Cousteau for his research on the oceans, or John Denver’s song about it–happy, life-affirming stuff. And pretty much all the art that’s been produced
on the subject depicts Calypso’s island of Ogygia as an erotic wonderland. What’s not to like?
Well, as Nagy goes on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, if you sleep with goddesses you may wake up dead. The root “Cal” (Καλ) is related to the English “Hell,” and the whole name basically means “hidden” or “concealed,” and has to do with deprivation.(Apocalypse, its opposite, means “revelation.”) He draws a parallel with Calypso and the River Styx in Hades.
While all the other heroes from Troy have achieved their nostos (some with better results than others), “Odysseus alone, filled with longing for his return and for his wife, did the queenly nymph Calypso, that bright goddess, keep back in her hollow caves, yearning that he should be her husband.” (Odyssey, 1:13-16) Just as Penelope is dealing with the raft of suitors wanting to marry her, Odysseus has his own suitor in Calypso, who in a way is devouring his substance. So this is a long stretch of time when Odysseus has a memory of Ithaka and his fatherland, but not the knowledge needed to get there. To me this represents one of the plateaus we can achieve on the spiritual quest, what Brian Hines calls “Lake Partway,” where we may think we’re doing pretty well, where we can really feel superior to others who are content not even to try. But it is only a plateau, not the peak, and to reach that we have to give up everything we think we know about ourselves and be prepared to get washed up like flotsam on some other unknown shore.