Ithaca, or the long way back

By Paulo Coelho

One of the great classics of all literature, Homer’s “Odyssey,” tells of the return of the hero Ulysses to the island of Ithaca, where his wife Penelope has been waiting for him for over ten years. Although courted day and night by men who claim to have seen her husband die in combat during the war of Troy, she never loses hope. Ulysses undergoes all sorts of challenges but eventually returns home.

Many centuries later, another Greek poet, Konstantinos Kavafis, dealt with this homecoming in a different manner, creating one of the most beautiful metaphors of this journey in search of our dreams. While the drama of the “Odyssey” centres on the difficulties in arriving and in the suffering of the beloved wife, in Kavafis’ poetry exactly the opposite is asked of Ulysses: he should enjoy the journey and experience all that needs to be lived.

I learned this poem on the Way to Santiago at a moment when I was crazy to reach Compostela quickly and so put an end to what seemed to me to be an absurd pilgrimage. Below are some extracts from the masterpiece by Kavafis:

When you leave for Ithaca,
may your journey be long
and full of adventures and knowledge.

Do not be afraid of Laestrigones, Cyclopes
or furious Poseidon;
you won’t come across them on your way
if you don’t carry them in your soul,
if your soul does not put them in front of your steps.

I hope your road is long.
May there be many a summer morning,
and may the pleasure of seeing the first ports
bring you great joy.
Try to visit the markets of Phoenicia
and buy the very best.
Go to the cities of Egypt
and learn from a people with so much to teach.

Don’t lose sight of Ithaca,
for that’s your destination.
But take your time;
better that the journey lasts many a year
and that your boat only drops anchor on the island
when you have grown rich
with what you learned on the way.

Don’t expect Ithaca to give you many riches.
Ithaca has already given you a fine voyage;
without Ithaca you would never have parted.
Ithaca gave you everything and can give you no more.

If in the end you think that Ithaca is poor,
don’t think that she has cheated you.
Because you have grown wise and lived an intense life,
and that’s the meaning of Ithaca.

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  1. Sanchari says:

    Thanks Paulo….as usual you made my day and my year…Thank Lord for you…Wish you a wonderful new year and waiting for your next work…madly…

  2. Angela says:

    Feb. 2008 I left New York for Paris to pursue my dream of living in France and learning French for 1 year. This poem spoke to me and my journey. As I am nearing my time here I find myself in a hurry to move forward and think about my next project…my next adventure. This Poem just made me realize to stop and enjoy the now…what today has to offer.

    Paulo, thank you for continueing to share your light. Its a beacon for us who like yourself travel the world for knowledge and truth.

    Peace and Blessings,

  3. THELMA says:
    Ithaca, read in the language it was written, Greek. Now that you know that translation, you will be able to follow the …music of the Greek language.
    Do you know the the Gospel – Evangelion was written in the Greek language? I remember the hours spent at school reading and explaining it.
    “Ithaca” and all poems of Constantinos Kavafis are taught to our schools extensively.I have now in front of me the book of my younger daughter and in the margins her notes..!! Where the poem speeks about the new harbours e.t.c. there is a note saying : the sense of Seeing – Όρασις, then the ..ebony = touching-Αφή και ¨ÎŸÏƒÏ†ÏÎ·ÏƒÎ¹Ï‚- and Smelling. The word ‘to learn’ and ‘to learn’ is repeated maybe to put emphasis on knowledge sensual, material and spiritual…
    I wish you, my Paulo Coelho, a long – long way, back to Ithaca.

  4. twylah says:

    the first time i’ve readthe poem in your novel, i fell in love with it. i once felt the impatience of heading for one’s goal. I ended up being depressed why time moves too slow or why unimportant things have to come my way. The poem teaches that the journey counts. That the places, the people and the experiences we meet on our way to our goal is as important as the goal itself. This I realized. I’ve just reached one of my goals and I felt empty. Why is that? It seemed the journey, the difficulties along the way was richer and more exciting that sitting here, where I once dreamed of being. Now, I’m looking for another goal, another dream in order to start another journey. In the end, I’d like my life to be like that in Ithaca, going home richer with all that has come before.

    Thank you for such inspiring stories and insights.You are a blessing.

  5. Fernanda Signato Marques says:

    De julho de 2007 a julho de 2008, estagiei como Psicóloga Comunitária em uma Instituií§í£o de Alfabetizaí§í£o para Jovens e Adultos.
    Muitos adultos, que nunca haviam frequentado a escola, se punham ansiosos e, a vontade de aprender a ler e escrever era tanta que eles queriam aprender a ler em uma semana de curso, ou em dois, tríªs dias frequentando as aulas, já esperavam ter algum resultado “milagroso”, querendo já ler de tudo, propagandas nas ruas, letreiros dos í´nibus, produtos no supermercado. etc.
    Alguns culpavam a educadora pelo “fracasso”, que, prestativa, tentava explicar que a aprendizagem era assim mesmo, que demorava um certo tempo e que cada um tinha seu ritmo de aprender. Compreensí­vel a reaí§í£o desses alunos, tanto para a educadora quanto para mim, pois já passavam dificuldades demais e preconceitos mil por conta de ní£o estarem inseridos no mundo letrado. Dificuldades, falta de oportunidade, tudo isso e muito mais…
    Assim, tentando intervir nessa questí£o, a educadora da turma e eu fizemos uma atividade em que mostrávamos aos alunos uma história em quadrinhos de um homem escalando uma montanha, mostrando seu percurso e sua jornada e, logo depois, este olhando para a vista em direí§í£o ao caminho que percorreu, no topo da montanha, em frente a uma paisagem magní­fica. Depois, a educadora e eu abrimos para uma discussí£o entre os alunos.
    Os resultados foram muito positivos. Os alunos compreenderam o sentido da atividade de uma forma maravilhosa!
    Concluí­ram que, para chegar ao topo da montanha, é necessário, a priori, seguir o caminho, passar pelas experiíªncias e concluí­ram que, mais importante do que chegar no topo da montanha, é caminhar até ela, é passar pelas experiíªncias e aprender com elas sempre.
    No decorrer do curso, para nosso contentamento, a ansiedade dos alunos se abrandou e o desempenho da turma melhorou significativamente.
    Esta história aconteceu no Distrito de Paranapiacaba, em Santo André, Sí£o Paulo, Brasil e fiz parte dela. Tenho orgulho de ter trabalhado com aquelas pessoas maravilhosas e de ter passado pelas vidas delas… E posso garantir que aprendi muito mais com elas do que elas comigo…

  6. Tania says:

    Hmm just love this poem -so much -it is good to read often as a reminder ,blessings Tania

  7. Tina says:

    To nho(spain), love your movie clip, love the film Amelie from Montmarte…

  8. Subomanyam says:

    Dear Sir

    I am facinated on reading your novel The Alchemist – at one page I stopped for an hour looking at myself. I just reproduced those lines in my blog

    I read your writings in local paper – thanks to Deccan Chroncle of Hyderabad, India – in which you mentioned your unfulfilled objectives. Well my wish is to born again in Brazil or South Africa. I also want to meet you – I know it may not be possible – but let me die with that wish – with a satisfation of expressing my desire to you through this blg. Thanks once again.

  9. Suzanne says:

    I love this poem. I’ve recently moved in with my mother, brother and grandmother to save money. I have been very eager to get back to my home in Colorado. Awhile ago I realized that if I did not slow down and enjoy the time I am spending here I would miss some great opportunites to learn, to enjoy their company, and live as a family, together under one roof, as well as other things I am not yet aware of. I will keep this poem to remind me. Thank you!

  10. nho(spain) says:

    Todos podemos ejercer de Ithaca en algún momento determinado, …

  11. Lewis says:

    Hi Paulo,

    It really is an encouraging poem. Thanks for sharing with us. My life is full of ups and downs, and sometimes something like this is what pulls us back to our feet after falling over with exhaustion.

    Thanks and peace,