The Mediterranean of the Nostoi and Lotus-Eaters

‎“For the ancient Greeks, the fall of Troy did not simply result in the collapse of the heroic ‎World of Mycenae and Pylos. It was also remembered as the moment when Greeks set out ‎to wander the Mediterranean and beyond; it was a time when sailors grappled with the ‎dangers of the open seas – animate dangers, in the form of the singing Sirens, the witch ‎Circe, the one-eyed Cyclops. The storm-tossed seas recorded in Homer’s Odyssey and in ‎other tales of heroes returning from Troy (a group of men known as the Nostoi, or ‎‎‘returners’) remained places of great uncertainty, whose physical limits were only vaguely ‎described.‎

‎(…) The aim of wanderers, whether Odysseus in the west, or Menelaos of Sparta in Libya and ‎Egypt, was, ultimately, to return home. The world beyond was full of lures, islands of lotus-‎eaters and the cave of Calypso.” – David Abulafia, The Great Sea

The history of the Mediterranean was shaped –and remains to be shaped- by travel and migration. ‎The cycle has turned though, because more than any other time, the aim of wanderers is no ‎longer to ‘return home’, but rather to leave it behind.‎ During he first 9 months of 2014, 75% of migrant mortality in the whole world occured in the Mediterranean. These people were neither wanderers nor returners. They did not have to survive the Sirens or fear the Cyclops; they had escaped a far worse enemy: human injustice; a miserable human condition.

There are no more nostoi in our Sea…only lotus-eaters.

Menelaos & Patroklis

The Mediterranean History by David Abulafia – Lecture Review

Yesterday’s lecture by Cambridge Professor, David Abulafia, at Barcelona’s CaixaForum was a time capsule; a review of the Mediterranean history since the time of the Neanderthal Man (which he insisted should be called the Gibraltar Woman) and all the way to the Roman Empire.

The famous author of ‘The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean’ emphasizes the ‘human agency’, stressing the lasting legacy and the profound changes provoked by individuals like Alexander the Great and others throughout the Mediterranean history.

Following an initial review of the prehistoric civilizations and cultures of Malta and Sicily, he moved on to the Bronze Age Civilizations of present-day Greece and the nearby islands (Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilization). Mediterranean islands like Malta, Cyprus and Sicily became ‘stepping stones’ (to put it in his own words) that facilitated the contact between both shores of the Mediterranean. Trade and the search for resources brought people closer, triggering a massive cultural exchange, but then came a rupture and a wave of violent migrations by the mysterious Sea Peoples. Abulafia compares the effect of the Sea Peoples on the Eastern Mediterranean to that of the Barbarians on Rome much later.

Integration was made possible again –and at a greater scale- through the Phoenicians. The Mediterranean flourished again, the Phoenicians came in contact with Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians…and a Phoenician outpost in Carthage, Tunisia, became a super maritime power in the Mediterranean that vied for dominating the sea.

Abulafia’s lecture formed part of the cultural programme accompanying a wonderful exhibition at CaixaForum, titled ‘The Mediterranean: From Myth to Reason’. I would like to share a quote from that exhibition’s brochure that captures the exhibition’s essence: “In the 6th century BC, on the coasts of Ionia and Magna Graecia, thinkers such as Thales and Heraclitus abandoned the belief that the universe was a divine creation and attributed its existence to the action of primordial elements: water, earth, air and fire. It was a fundamental change. Myths were no longer sufficient to explain the origins and sense of the cosmos. Humans were faced with an enigma that they had to resolve by themselves, without any supernatural interventions.”

In his book ‘The Great Sea’, Abulafia speaks of the current Mediterranean as the fifth Mediterranean…a sea divided and dominated by political turmoil and economic crises on both shores. I’m half-way through the book, and I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in the Mediterranean history.