A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Smyrna, Ithaca, Troy: just reading the names of these lost cities conjures for me scorched plains and a dazzling sun, azure bays and olive groves, and the bleating of sheep and goats.
And the heroes Odysseus left behind: Achilles, Menelaus, Agamemnon; simply speaking their names is poetry.
If I could visit the setting of just one story, it would have to be Homer’s Odyssey.
When I was little, we had a beautiful edition of the Iliad and the Odyssey written by Jane Werner Watson and illustrated by two American artists, Alice and Martin Provensen, which I would pour over, even before I could read it, dreaming always that I was Athena with an owl on my shoulder and power over mortals. For me, the Roman names for the Gods still lack the magic of the Greek.
Among the first books I read to my son was the Orchard Book of First Greek Myths, and I’m sad to say we’ve now lost our illustrated version of the Greek creation myths about Gaia and Uranus, their battling Titan children, and their children, the Gods of Mount Olympus.
Along with the wonderful sea-faring rat in The Wind in the Willows, who tempts Ratty with wanderlust over a late summer’s afternoon picnic, I think the Odyssey ignited my love of travel to hot, distant places where the sky is a deeper blue than over England, and volcanos smoke.
Last month this unending ache to travel took me and my husband and father to the island of Sicily, part of the Hellenic world in ancient times, and the Temple of Athena in Syracuse, where the great Doric columns, dating back to around 480 BC, have been incorporated for millennia into a Christian structure: a continuing sacred place.
Homer told his listeners that Sicily was home to Polyphemus the Cyclops. In Jane Werner Watson’s words, Odysseus stopped at “a tree covered island … given over to wild goats.”
“At the head of the harbour was a spring of fine water gushing out of a cave, with poplar trees around it. This was where providence guided the ships of Odysseus, through the moonless mists of night.”
That same spring still flows today – if the harbour head was Ortygia, at the tip of Syracuse. Ducks now nest among the papyrus that grows in the ornamental pond built around the little cave mouth. There are seafood cafés along the sea-front beside it, and a small wine bar where we drank cocktails and ate local sheep cheese, dried meats and olives – a far nicer time than Odysseus’s crew had of it: a cyclops dashed two of them against the rocks and ate them.
We didn’t see the Strait of Messina, reputed to be the channel where Scylla, the ghastly six-headed monster, snatched another six of his men, a sacrifice Odysseus judged worth making rather than losing his entire crew to the dread, sucking creature, Charybdis; but I have walked in Acadia – sadly burnt and blackened after wildfires the year before – and entered Greek harbours on blindingly bright days after crossing the glistening Aegean, with flying fish skimming alongside the ferry.
How amazing, then, to sail into ancient ports on one of Odysseus’s oared galleys, and set foot in fabled cities kept alive for centuries in our collective imagination.
Just think of the awe when Athena appears, and the terrifying thrill of that first glimpse of a mythical monster.
And how extraordinary to drop anchor at last by Odysseus’s island home at a time before pollution and our plundering of nature, when butterflies could be so plentiful that people talked about plagues of them, and the Mediterranean still teemed with octopuses and swordfish, dolphins and porpoises.
Rowena is an historical author for teens and a creative writing mentor as well as a journalist. Her debut novel, THE GOOSE ROAD, is out with Walker Books in April, 2018.