Friday 11 November 2011

Mystical Voyages (9) ...Or Were They Real?

Argo's sail against the light

Well, what if they were real?  What if some or any of the Mystical Voyages I've been talking about during this series actually happened?  What if they weren't mystical at all, but physical voyages to real physical places? Perhaps Odysseus, Jason, Maeldune, Bran, and Brendan were real people whose adventures simply got added to over the centuries and millennia - as real as Arthur anyway, who scholars suspect did exist, even if he never had a Round Table, even if he isn't sleeping in some cave surrounded by knights and white horses, waiting in suspended animation for the day when he will arise to save Britain from its last peril.

It doesn't affect the magic of the legends to suppose that there may be a core of truth in some of them.  In fact, it'd be odd if there wasn't, and reams of paper and pints of ink have been expended in attempts to trace the actual course of Ulysses or the Argo from port to port across the ancient Mediterranean world.  And why not?  Not only are Ithaka and Sandy Pylos and Troy, Cape Malea and Colchis real places: but there are intriguingly detailed descriptions like this:

There is a rocky island there in the middle channel
halfway between Ithaka and towering Samos
called Asteris, not large, but it has a double anchorage...

White-capped waves mean dangerous sailing

Sometimes, though, better than paper and ink is to get out there and do it yourself.  So thought the explorer Tim Severin when, in May 1976, he set out from the west coast of Ireland in a boat named Brendan, stitched together from forty-nine ox hides, heading for the Faroes.  Rowing and sailing, he and his crew got there in June and carried on, arriving in Iceland in July.  The following summer, Severin and his crew set out again, sailing from Iceland to Newfoundland, which they reached less than two months later, thus proving - not the unprovable, that Saint Brendan had really sailed to the coast of North America - but that an early medieval Irish coracle was at least capable of making the voyage.

Perhaps when you've done one voyage like this, you ache to do it again: at any rate, like Thor Heyerdahl before him, Tim Severin has famously continued to recreate archaic voyages.  His second expedition, in 1984, was in  'Argo', a reconstruction of a Mycenean galley, following as nearly as possible the course of Jason and the Argonauts across the Mediterranean and up the Bosphorus and on to Georgia, land of the Golden Fleece.

Argo's beaked prow

And here it gets personal, because in summer 1984 as the expedition was returning from Georgia via Istanbul, a sunburnt young man called David, who happened to be my boyfriend and who had decided that the way to relax after three years of studying physics at London's Imperial College would be to back-pack solo around Turkey, had a certain encounter in an Istanbul post-office.   I'll let him take up the tale:


David does the dishes, Argo fashion

Three men with arms like legs approached me.  "Are you English?" They'd observed me apparently cracking the code of the Turkish phone system - 5 minutes puzzling over a huge, flabby directory in a dingy Istanbul post office, 1984 - and getting as far as making a call (to the British Embassy, unsuccessful).  I clued them in on how the phones worked. "But what's that?" said I, peering intently at their T-shirts, from which protruded their Olympic scale arms:


At anchor

Now any self respecting physicist, but more especially a graduate of Patrick Moore's 'Observer's Book of Astronomy', c.1969 (alpha-this, gamma-that is conspicuous in the winter sky, etc), should be able to read alphabetical greek... "Argonautica... is that the Tim Severin expedition?" - the one I'd read about in my father's Telegraph supplement? I'd just sailed back from Trebizond on the regular ferry after back-packing around Turkey. They'd just rowed a thousand miles in the opposite direction from Volos (Iolcos) to Georgia; their tremendous callouses bore witness to that fact, and to pretty useless winds. But they'd reached Jason's destination and found that people still "pan for gold" using sheep fleeces there, in the mountain streams.

Rowing hard...

I enthused, madly, and was told Tim was planning to sail Αργο next year, this time following the homeward trek of Ulysses from Troy. Versus the geographically exact Apollonius who wrote down 'Jason', Homer gives few recognisable locations for the Odyssey (and so providing Tim with the rationale for another clue searching expedition) but all the book-men agreed that the land of the Lotus Eaters simply must have been Libya. That sounded exciting! so I managed to persuade Tim to take me on for that (middle) leg of the voyage.  Unfortunately, Colonel Gaddafi wasn't in the mood even for a bunch of adventurers in a Mycenaean galley and Tim spent days away on a fruitless trip to various Libyan consulates in search of promised visas (and that was before the Reagan / Thatcher raid on Tripoli). 

Old and new

But we did find plenty of traces of the legend around and along the Cretan coast, from the island whose earlier name was "Leather Bag", situated at the crossroads of the Aegean, to a very good candidate (with local backing) for the Cyclops cave, complete with British wartime ration tins in the back, dropped for the Resistance. One could imagine P.L. Fermor having been another visitor, once.

Viewed from the cliffs

And we did find out what a very difficult job it is sailing a square rigger with no keel and simple rig in a season with way too much wind: and it's pointless rowing with 30 degree roll - so our callouses were nothing much to show. No wonder it took him 9 years to get back. Our particular Argo is no more (a sad story) but I did hold one of her great, heavy oars again in a ship museum in Eyemouth of all places. And identifed the black ring where the lead counterweight was jammed on, perfectly positioned to thwack into the spine of the rower in front if you got your stroke wrong. A thousand miles of that? They must have been heroes.

Argo under full sail

Stuck at home like Penelope, I was extremely envious, of course. (I finally got the envy out of my system a few years ago learning to sail a reconstructed Viking age ship on a Danish fjord.)  But there were no women on the voyage and in any case I obviously didn't have the Olympic-style muscles required for the job.  So I whiled away some of the time by thinking up adventurous things I could do on my own, such as going up in a glider -  I know - feeble by comparison - and some of the time composing and illustrating my own spoof Mystical Voyage, 'Jason and the AgonyAunts: a silly tale in eight fits', which I gave David when he got back and which I'm going to post on this blog over the next few weeks, beginning on November 25. (For the benefit of American readers, an 'Agony Aunt' is the cheery British term for an advice columnist in a magazine or newspaper.)  It's just a bit of fun, but I enjoyed making it and I hope you'll enjoy reading it. 

And David?  Well, what do you think?  Reader, I married him.

Picture credits:  All photos by David Gahan, except for 'Argo under Full Sail' by Rick Williams: all photos copyright Tim Severin and used by kind permission of Tim Severin

Further reading: The Jason Voyage and The Ulysses Voyage by Tim Severin


  1. I love this post and am so glad it ended with your marriage! Fantastic!

  2. Loved this entire post - stirred up my blood to go do something exciting and adventurous, just how I imagine the Argonauts must have felt.

    The reference at the end, though ... that's just going to leave me smiling all day long :-)

  3. This is utterly brilliant. In one single post you've made a whole ancient world of exploration become real. David's details are particularly evocative - eg the positioning of the counterweight 'to thwack into the spine of the rower in front', which I'm sure happened a lot!

    And I'm very jealous, Katherine. To meet and marry an 'ancient hero' of your own...

  4. Fabulous story built on the foundations of many fabulous stories - just like Troy.

  5. What wonderful adventures - and what pictures! I wouldn't say the sea looks wine-dark, but it certainly looks amazing....

  6. Just right to cheer you up on a dank, grey going-nowhere day

    Frances Thomas

    (google won't let me sign in any other way)

  7. So enjoyed this. So Mary Renault was right in her interpretation of the Golden zFleece! I'd always wondered. Looking forward to the AgonyAunts! Lovely photos, too - oh, that wonderful Mediterranean azure sea and sky!

  8. Of course the voyages were real! Yet another wonderful blog, Kath and David's adventures on an actual galley are fascinating. I've always read about those kind of re-enactments with awe and think that they go a long way to proving that the ancient stories are based on real voyages. I'm full of admiration for those who set out to sea at the mercy of tides, wind and weather with only oar, sail and muscle to power them. Experiences like David's give us extra insights into how difficult and dangerous those ancient voyages were. What a hero! None of my boyfriends did anything half as exciting. No wonder you married him!

  9. Yes,bring on the AgonyAunts! But it was also lovely to hear about the journey. Actually the way it's told, it takes on a fabular quality of his own, as if the Fair Lady Katherine set her Swain an Oceanic Task to accomplish in order to win her (Fair) Hand.
    Michelle Lovric posting as anonymous as Blogger Is Doing That Thing Again.(Blogger, PLEASE help!)

  10. This is terrific insight. I'm so grateful for the information and the further reading recommendations. After devouring them myself I intend to pass these on to the ten and twelve years boys I know who are utterly besotted with Rick Riordan's adventure books based on the Greek and Roman legends.

  11. Brilliant stuff and SO romantic. A real modern day hero! You were right to marry him Kath! I think I read the Thor Heyerdahl books to complete bits and spent hours in the Kon Tiki and Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. Michelle, a quick aside... I think Google does that 'thing' when you get redirected to a post. If you open it from scratch by physically typing in, say, steelthistles, you get given the proper option of posting under your own name. At least thats how it works for me.

  12. The photos are just astonishing - the colour of the sea! And the adventurous spirit of the crew! Being absolutely the opposite of intrepid I can only marvel at the voyages both you, Kath, and David have undertaken. What a fascinating way to explore the ancient stories. And I'm another one who loved the detail about being clonked in the back!

  13. Great stuff!
    (if ever anyone feels like sailing a tall ship as my buddy, let me know! (look up Jubilee Sailing Trust).

  14. Wonderful!!! I read Tim Severin's "The Voyage of the Brendan" when I was about 13. It was riveting, I was fascinated with all the details of how the boat was built, all the wonderful historical information they discovered but also all the knowledge of those ancient craftsmen and boat builders that still survives and is used today. I dreamed of one day doing something as marvelous. Then I read about his adventures in the Argo in the 'National Geographic' magazines my parents subscribed to, and found that equally as exciting. He was a great hero of mine at the time. And as it happens, at the age of 12 I was obsessed by vikings and their wonderful I'm insanely jealous of both you and your argonaut!

  15. Great story, Kath, and I love piccies, the voyages, and of course the happy ending! Looking forward to the Agony Aunts.

  16. I am much concerned with sea voyages at the moment as my youngest daughter is currently sailing round the world in her own Argo with her own Naut, who is much nicer than Jason.

    So this was timely as well as interesting. I remember seeing the film of the Kon-Tiki expedition when I was a child and being amazed that anyone could be so intrepid.

    And of course Kath would need to marry a man of legendary hero status - completely fitting.

  17. What a wonderful real life tale, how exciting it must have been! I love the fact that he found people still panning for gold with sheeps fleeces, things like that just keep on authenticating the legends and bring a continuing thread onwards from the past.
    It must have been like having the shadows of those past voyagers fleeting always from the corner of the eye, feeling the exact same strain at the rowing bench, the same sea spray... footsteps echoing in time...
    I'm getting all fanciful now so I'll stop, but it is fascinating!

  18. What a wonderful post! And of course, Trebizond is a place with echoes all by itself - a lesser Byzantium...

  19. Wonderful story! Travel, history, adventure, romance. Everything one could ask for.

  20. Oh! Oh! WHY did I not know this when I was painfully constructing Atticus's journey round the Mediterranean, and retelling the stories of Jason and Odysseus? I wish I could have talked to David and got a flavour of the real thing. What an absolutely lovely post, Kath. Enjoyed it more than I can tell you. Thanks to you both for making my morning.

  21. Wonderful post and photos and the perfect ending!

  22. I've come to this wonderful post at the end of an exhausting week and thank you for bringing that glorious blue sea into a grey day. What an adventure. What an ending.