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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