Even if we don’t always realize it, myths are a part of everyday life. Historic places we visit during travels, aside from the obvious monuments, often hide remarkable, interesting and mesmerizing stories. Myths and legends have been transferred through generations of storytellers in Dubrovnik and the whole county.
Mljet is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful islands of Croatia. One-third of Mljet is a national park and it is also the oldest sea park in the Mediterranean. Also, it is the greenest island, alongside Lastovo, in the Dubrovnik- Neretva county. Two lakes, simply named Small and Big lake, accent the island in a blue-greenish color. They are connected by a bridge which was renovated recently. The Big lake is the home of a small islet on which the church of St. Mary is located. The church and the islet are the most visited sight of Mljet.
Mljet is a place of remarkable beauty and thousands of stories, but only one is the topic of today.
Looking for Odysseus
The ancient island legend tells a story of Odysseus who was the only survivor of a shipwreck near Mljet, on the cliff Ogiran. Odysseus then swam across, with little strength he had left, to a cave a mile away, now known as Odysseus’s cave. He found shelter there. In the other, bigger, cave of the island, the nymph Calypso resided. After Odysseus swam across the Mljet canal a storm washed him onto the shore. The ruler of the island, Calypso, ordered the people who found him to bring him to her cave. She then helped Odysseus but refused at the same time to allow him to leave the island.
„There all the rest of my loyal shipmates died
but I, locking my arms around my good ship’s keel,
drifted along nine days. On the tenth, at dead of night,
the gods cast me up on Ogygia, Calypso’s island,
home of the dangerous nymph with glossy braids,
and the goddess took me in, in all her kindness,
welcomed me warmly, cherished me, even vowed
to make me immortal, ageless, all my days—
but she never won the heart inside me, never. „
Nevertheless, the great warrior succumbed to the charms of the nymph on the island of mesmerizing beauty, described as „the most beautiful island of all the seas“. Out of this affair, twins were born: Nausithous and Nausinous. Aristid Vučetić, a native to Dubrovnik, and an admirer of Homer’s Odyssey developed the thesis of the Adriatic being the place of Odysseus’s wanderings. One of the things Vučetić based his hypothesis on is the description of the island.
„Four springs in a row, bubbling clear and cold,
running side-by-side, took channels left and right.
Soft meadows spreading round were starred with violets,
lush with beds of parsley. Why, even a deathless god
who came upon that place would gaze in wonder,
heart entranced with pleasure. Hermes the guide,
the mighty giant-killer, stood there, spellbound“
„And round the mouth of the cavern trailed a vine
laden with clusters, bursting with ripe grapes“.
Indeed, on the island of Mljet, there are four freshwater springs, which never dry out: the spring in Polače faces north, in Vrbovica and Goveđari it flows southward, the Vilinsko spring flows west, and the spring near Babino Polje flows in eastern direction. Viticulture has been nourished there since ancient times. Aristid Vučetić wrote: „On the high seas to the south the islanders call Pelag (Greek Pelagos), located on a small desert island: a rock Ogiran stands, by name only remnant of Homer’s Ogigija. The well-known Indo-European word Ogiran has no meaning so it would be logical to conclude that it comes from a forgotten time and by twisting of the original name of the island Mljet – Ogigija.“
„Thick, luxuriant woods grew round the cave,
alders and black poplars, pungent cypress too,
and there birds roosted, folding their long wings,
owls and hawks and the spread-beaked ravens of the sea,
black skimmers who make their living off the waves.“
Mljet has been and remains to this day, the only island in the Mediterranean with dense forests, lush vegetation, caves and the distance described in Homer’s Odyssey. Also, taken as proof by Vučetić, was the position of the stars described by Homer. The star of Orion was Odysseus landmark in the open sea all the way to Corfu, as well as the Great Bear, always on his left. Vučetić stated that the stars in the fall, when Odysseus sailed, were deployed exactly as described looking from Mljet, and that the constellation of the Great Bear was visible all night, which is not the case today.
„The wind lifting his spirits high, royal Odysseus
spread sail—gripping the tiller, seated astern—
and now the master mariner steered his craft,
sleep never closing his eyes, forever scanning
the stars, the Pleiades and the Plowman late to set
and the Great Bear that mankind also calls the Wagon:
she wheels on her axis always fixed, watching the Hunter,
and she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean’s baths.
Hers were the stars the lustrous goddess told him
to keep hard to port as he cut across the sea.
And seventeen days he sailed, making headway well;
on the eighteenth, shadowy mountains slowly loomed …
the Phaeacians’ island reaching toward him now,
over the misty breakers, rising like a shield“.
Whichever of the existing theories beeing true, Homer sang it beautifully. The possibility that even a part really happened right here on Mljet, just makes one’s imagination run wild. Visit Mljet and look for the less obvious, search for the mythical and maybe you will find something others overlooked, a proof of the adventures of Odysseus right at the spot you are standing on.