James Joyce, Ulysses, Calypso, Leopold Bloom

Ulysses & The Odyssey: Calypso

“… I found that for [Joyce] human character was best displayed – I had almost said entirely displayed – in the commonest acts of life. How a man eats his egg will give a better clue to his differentiation than how he goes forth to war… Cutting bread displays character better than cutting throats.”  – Frank Budgen

Part of an occasional series on the Homeric parallels in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Odyssey: Book 5

The gods are having a council. The nymph Calypso has imprisoned Odysseus on her island, Ogygia, and Athena persuades Zeus to intervene. Hermes the messenger is sent to Calypso, delivering Zeus’ message to release Odysseus or else. Calypso wanted to make Odysseus her immortal lover, but he was not interested. While on the island, he was forced to spend nights with Calypso and then spent the days weeping on the beach. Calypso lets Odysseus go, but not before reminding him that she’s way hotter than his wife. Odysseus builds a raft and sails away. Poseidon is not impressed, though, and sends thunderstorms to destroy Odysseus and his raft. After more divine intervention, Odysseus makes it to land.

Is it just me, or is it incredibly satisfying when, after finishing those last few pages of “Proteus,” you turn the page and it says “II” in giant Roman numerals? If you’re feeling a pronounced sense of accomplishment, feel free to raise your fists aloft like Rocky. You deserve it. Maybe stop for ice cream on the way home tonight.

Calypso calling heaven and earth to witness her sincere affection to Ulysses, Angelica Kauffmann, 18th c.

Here in “Calypso,” the fourth episode of Ulysses, we finally meet our hero, Mr. Leopold Bloom, namesake of Bloomsday and our Odysseus stand-in. Like his son Telemachus, the reader spends the first three episodes of Ulysses searching for their own lost Odysseus, and here he is! Though Joyce’s novel runs parallel to Homer’s epic, the characters and situations are not always direct correlations. Rather, they are sideways versions of Homer’s archetypes. When we meet Odysseus in The Odyssey, he is languishing on the island of Ogygia where he is held captive by the nymph Calypso. Mr. Bloom is also languishing, but more subtly. Rather than weeping on a beach, he is preparing breakfast for his household. While Odysseus’ emotions are powerful and effusive, Bloom represses and evades his frustration as best he can.

Odysseus is a traditionally masculine hero – heroic, courageous, a king and war hero. Bloom, on the other hand, is a model of a feminine man, gentle and contemplative. Stuart Gilbert describes him as embodying “ewig weiblich,” or the principle of the eternal feminine. When we meet Bloom, he is carrying out traditionally feminine care work – preparing a morning meal for his wife and cat. Odysseus has a dog, while Bloom has a cat. Bloom has reared a daughter while Odysseus has a princely son. Odysseus is trapped by a randy, supernatural creature who won’t allow him off her island. Bloom’s nymph is a mortal woman, who he could theoretically escape, but instead remains in her service despite his awareness of her disloyalty. He even hands her a letter from her bold, adulterous lover, addressed to “Mrs. Marion Bloom,” rather than “Mrs. Leopold Bloom,” as was the style at the time. While Odysseus wanders in search of adventures, Bloom wanders in search of advertisements to make money to buy gifts for Molly. He  remains in servitude to his “inconstant nymph,” as Gilbert calls her. Views on the roles of men and women have changed quite a bit since 1904, but Bloom stands out as an oddity amongst his peers because he is out of step with the masculinity of his time and place. James Joyce saw himself as a “feminine man” and endowed his protagonist with a similar disposition.

Both Odysseus and Bloom are exiles, though one more obviously so. Odysseus, with the permission of Zeus, builds a raft and escapes his island prison, while Bloom returns to his nymph’s abode at the end “Calypso.” Like Stephen, Bloom is an exile in his home city. Though he was born in Dublin, Bloom’s Hungarian Jewish ancestry makes him foreign in the eyes of his peers. The other Jewish men Bloom knows in Dublin are all memories from his youth, while his peers are largely Irish Catholic men. The closest he experiences to a connection to his roots is visiting Mr. Dlugacz the butcher, from whom he purchases his pork kidney, a most un-kosher choice of breakfast meat.

Odysseus aches to see the smoke rising from his home in Ithaca, while Bloom desires to “smell the gentle smoke of tea” while on his voyage through the neighborhood. We know from Bloom’s internal monologue that he dreams of journeying into a fictional Orient. Bloom, like Odysseus, is a wanderer in search of an ancestral home. Ogygia can be found at the extreme western end of Odysseus’ world, so he too desires to return to Ithaca in the East. Bloom’s “Zion” is totally imaginary, though, glimpsed through his private flights of fancy and through his escapist plans of buying a plot of land in the Levant through the Agendath Netaim company. The home rule sun on the banner of the Freeman’s Journal rises in the West, representing a dream of a free Ireland to his countrymen, but Bloom’s dreams of a new life in the East leave him out of step in his social group.

Odysseus and Calypso, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1616

If Leopold Bloom is our sideways Odysseus, Molly Bloom is our sideways Calypso. You might be asking yourself, “Wait a minute, isn’t Molly Penelope? Penelope is Odysseus’ wife, afterall, and Molly’s episode is called ‘Penelope.’” Molly sees herself as a Penelope figure – a wife whose husband has disappeared (metaphorically in the case of the Blooms), but to Leopold, she is Calypso, a veiled nymph holding him captive and not particularly reverent towards the bonds of matrimony.

“Calypso” is filled with veiled, hidden secrets, as both the Blooms are concealing truths from one another. These secrets are subtle allusions at this stage, but if you’re re-reading Ulysses, they stand out. The note tucked in the brim of Bloom’s hat. The letter written in bold hand swiftly tucked beneath Molly’s pillow. Molly has no physical dominion over Leopold, but Molly-as-Calypso follows Bloom throughout his day in the form of nagging thoughts, memories and anxiety. Secrets are holding both the Blooms in bondage to one another. Calypso’s name in Greek derives from the word “kalupto,” meaning “I hide.” The name Ogygia is derived from a Semitic root while The Greeks referred to the island as Nesos Kalupsous, meaning “island of the hiding place.” Molly is portrayed as veiled throughout Ulysses. In “The Lotus-Eaters,”  Leopold thinks of her with “the sheet up to her eyes… smelling herself,”or as “a handsome woman in Turkish costume…. A white yashmak violet in the night, covers her face, leaving free only her lace dark eyes and raven hair” during his hallucination in “Circe.” Molly’s character is defined by her secrets. Even if Bloom were to make it to his promised land, he must plant eucalyptus on the land from the planter’s company Agendath Netaim. “Eucalyptus” is derived from a Greek phrase meaning “well-covered.” Molly the secretive nymph will follow him to the ends of the Earth. 

Jebel Musa

In fact, the end of the Earth is exactly where you would expect to find Calypso. In mythology, she was the daughter of the giant Atlas who held the world on his shoulders. According to Herodotus, Atlas supported the world at it’s western edge, near the Pillars of Hercules, the northern pillar being the Rock of Gibraltar. The southern pillar’s exact location is disputed, but many believe it’s the mountain Jebel Musa, which was known in antiquity as Abila, the semitic name of Atlas, and which means “the supporter.” Ogygia would therefore be located somewhere near these landmarks. While one 17th century historian argued that Ogygia was actually Ireland, there’s far more evidence that it would be near Gibraltar.

In The Odyssey, Ogygia is described as an island covered in violets and parsley, with a cave in its interior. While Gibraltar is not an island, there’s a lot of evidence that it is Ulysses’ Ogygia. The Rock of Gibraltar was called Calpe Mons by the Greeks. “Calpe” means a bowl or pitcher, referring to the shape of the Bay of Gibraltar. Thematically, this connects Dublin and Gibraltar, since Stephen at the same hour of day likens the waters of Dublin Bay to “a bowl of bitter waters.” In “Cyclops,” Molly is called “Pride of Calpe’s rocky mount, the ravenhaired daughter of Tweedy,” so it seems clear this is the parallel that Joyce intended to highlight. Molly’s father’s name – Brian Cooper Tweedy – is also an allusion to her dual identity; “Cooper” alludes to “Calpe” and “Tweedy” refers to Penelope the weaver.


Despite the old cliché “as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar,” it’s actually riddled with caves. Molly is comfortably ensconced in her “cave,” the Blooms’ bedroom, in  “warm, yellow twilight.” As cosy as this sounds, the yellow light holds a hint of treachery. Stephen’s foil Buck Mulligan also appears clothed in yellow atop his omphalos, the Sandycove Martello Tower, that same morning. Yellow is traditionally associated with traitors, particularly Judas. Molly has betrayed Leopold through sexual infidelity, even hiding a letter from one of her suitors this very morning in her marital bed (the site of near-future disloyal acts with Blazes Boylan). Ogygia is referred to in The Odyssey as “the omphalos of the world.” Therefore, we see both Stephen and Leopold facing betrayal at an “omphalos” at 8 a.m. on Bloomsday.

Both Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus face off with a version of Antinous at this early hour. The most vocal of Penelope’s suitors, Antinous is a slippery figure in Ulysses. To Stephen, he is the gay betrayer, Buck Mulligan, but to Leopold, he is Blazes Boylan, Molly’s current lover. Boylan and Mulligan are connected through a character who never appears on-screen – Bannon. At the Forty Foot bathing area, Mulligan tells Stephen and Haines about his friend Bannon, currently in Westmeath, who’s fallen for a young “Photo Girl.” 

Calypso from Ulysses, Henri Matisse, 1935

Leopold, meanwhile, receives a letter from his 15-year-old daughter Milly who is working as a photo assistant in Mullingar, a town in County Westmeath.  Milly writes: “There is a young student comes here some evenings named Bannon his cousins or something are big swells and he sings Boylan’s (I was on the pop of writing Blazes Boylan’s) song about those seaside girls. Tell him silly Milly sends my best respects.”  So, Milly Bloom is “Photo Girl,” and the link to the Tower boys, via Bannon, is the song “Seaside Girls.”  Moreover, we can infer that Blazes Boylan is quite a fixture in the Bloom household, enough so that not only does he have a nickname for Milly, but she also mentions him in her letter to her father. Molly is in bed reading Boylan’s letter while Leopold reads Milly letter in the kitchen, giving him reason to fret over both his wife’s suitors and his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. Stephen is able to cast off the intrusion of his Antinous by choosing to abandon his life in the Martello Tower. Leopold, however, is much further from such a liberation. As Anthony Burgess wrote, “Bloom’s Antinous seems already to have conquered without the bending of a bow.”


Further Reading:

Budgen, F. (1972). James Joyce and the making of Ulysses, and other writings. London: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/JoyceColl/JoyceColl-idx?type=header&id=JoyceColl.BudgenUlysses&isize=M 

Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books. 

Homer, translated by Palmer., G.H. (1912). The Odyssey. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. 

Kenner, H. (1987). Ulysses. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=Ajlz5rzPBOkC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA19#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Image of Jebel Musa

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