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The figurehead on the bow of the R/V Odyssey is named for a hero of the Greek War of Independence - a woman named Lascarena Bouboulena.
Photo : Chris Johnson

July 23, 2004
The Mythology of Odyssey
Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

"Who would willingly roam across a salty waste so vast, so endless?"
Homer, The Odyssey

After more than four years of roaming across this vast "salty waste", it seems most appropriate that the Research Vessel Odyssey is in Greece - the origin and setting of the ancient poem by Homer that gives our boat its name. While we may understand a little more about the ocean today than the ancient Greeks did, the seas still hold for us the same spirit of adventure and mystery they did back in the time of Homer, more than 2500 years ago.

In modern English, the word "odyssey" has come to refer to an epic voyage, after Homer's epic poem. Odyssey is understandably one of the world's most popular boat names, as most of the poem's adventures take place at sea. Our own R/V Odyssey was first built in 1975, and named by its previous owners, Greeks themselves, who wanted their boat's name to inspire the same sense of maritime adventure that Homer wrote about.

Homer's The Odyssey tells the tale of the hero Odysseus (called Ulysses by the Romans), and his journey home to his wife and son in his native land of Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War, where he led the Greek army in conquering the city of Troy. In attempting to return home to Ithaca, he was waylaid for several years and encountered numerous fantastical adventures as he travelled the seas between Troy and Ithaca. Soon after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his crew were taken captive by a Cyclops. In order to escape, Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, angering Poseidon, the Cyclops' father. Odysseus was then cursed to face the sea god Poseidon's wrath for the remainder of his journey. Along the way he encountered various mythical creatures and lands, many of which have become well-known staples of Greek mythology. The travels of Odysseus and his crew brought them to Hades, the land of the dead; past the Sirens, whose song is so beautiful as to be deadly; and past the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, who reside in narrow, dangerous straits that must be traversed along the way.

Until recently switching their currency to the Euro, Bouboulena's portrait appeared on the Greek 50 Drachmas note.
Photo : Chris Johnson

After Odysseus's crew killed and ate the sacred cattle of the island of Helios, belonging to Zeus, they were shipwrecked as punishment. Only Odysseus survived, washing up on an island, where he was held captive by the nymph Calypso for the next eight years. When the gods instructed Calypso to free Odysseus, he finally returned home to Ithaca after ten years away, arriving only to find that a host of men were attempting to woo his wife and steal his possessions. After he and his son killed the suitors, Odysseus was finally restored to his rightful place with his family.

There is much uncertainty surrounding the origins of this poem. It is commonly believed that The Odyssey was written sometime in the late 8th century or early 7th century B.C. Virtually nothing is known about Homer; some scholars even doubt his existence, arguing instead that The Odyssey was a collaborative story written by multiple authors. Other scholars have tried to pinpoint the exact geographical location of the story. Some of the places mentioned within the poem are fantastical settings, while others exist in modern Greece. The R/V Odyssey will pass or visit some of the settings of the poem during our time in Greece, including Ithaca, on an island in the Ionian Sea, Sparta and Pylos, on the penisula of Pelopponesia, and the island of Crete, mentioned frequently in the poem, where sperm whales are commonly sighted.

In addition to bearing a Greek name, the figurehead on our bow is named for a hero of the Greek War of Independence - a woman named Lascarena Bouboulena. Bouboulena was a wealthy widow with a large fleet of trade ships. The only female member of an underground organization seeking independence for Greece, she used her wealth to secretly arm her ships for the oncoming revolt. In 1821 Bouboulena commanded a fleet of eight vessels in the uprising against the Turks, and became one of the leading military figures of the war. After her death, the Russians bestowed Bouboulena with the title of Admiral, and she remains the only female in naval history to have received the title. Until recently switching their currency to the Euro, Bouboulena's portrait appeared on the Greek 50 Drachmas note. Her figurehead has graced the R/V Odyssey's bow throughout our journey, keeping watch over us.

The Odyssey is docked outside of the gates to the World Heritage listed old town of Rhodes ('Rhodos' in Greek). Rhodes is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe.
Photo : Chris Johnson

We have been very much looking forward to beginning our research in Greece. In addition to boasting beautiful scenery and delicious food, the waters around Greece are thought to be home to numerous sperm whales, as well as dolphins, loggerhead turtles, and other animals. The R/V Odyssey will remain in Greece for the next month, tracking and researching whales among this nation's sun-bleached islands and blue waters.

Throughout the past four and a half years, the R/V Odyssey has been on an odyssey of our own; an epic voyage wrought with adventure and excitement. We are hopeful that calm seas, numerous whales, and some of the adventurous spirit of our heroes Odysseus and Bouboulena will mark our stay in Greece.

This is Sarah Smith speaking to you from the Odyssey in Rhodes, Greece.


  • Homer. The Odyssey.
    Translated by Robert Fagles. Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox. 1996.


Log written by Sarah Smith.

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