When I was in my early 40’s I spent a month traveling around the Greek islands. I didn’t have a fixed itinerary: I left Athens early one morning and took the seven-hour ride to Santorini. After a few days I studied the ferry schedule and decided to visit another island in the Cyclades, and then another and then another. The third or fourth island I visited was Ios, an island known for its decadent night life.
The ferry arrived near midnight so I found a hotel room and went to bed.
The next morning, at an intersection near the center of town, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing to the left. The sign read: “Homer’s Tomb.” I stopped and read the sign over and over as if it might change. Then I thought: “Homer was from Ios, I knew that. How did I forget?” Then I remembered a grainy photograph of Homer’s tomb on the frontispiece of a high school textbook. I decided that I’d visit the tomb the next day.
The tomb, I learned, is on the deserted side of the island, about 8 kilometers from town, and reachable only by dirt road. All the trees on the Cycladic islands, except cultivated olive trees, have long since been harvested for lumber or firewood, with the result that the 8-kilometer walk to the tomb would be entirely without shade, an unthinkable hike in the summer sun.
The next morning I rented a scooter, packed a day bag–meat, a bottle of wine, a box of matches, some newspaper for tinder, a water bottle and sun-block–and rode out of town.
The road was rough and hard to ride and meandered over deserted hills covered with nothing but scrub brush. Every now and then a car would pass and I’d have to stop and wait for the dust to settle.
The road ends in something like a cul-de-sac, and when I arrived there was a small car parked in it. There was an obvious footpath leading up a hill and a sign indicating that the path led to Homer’s tomb. For some reason I decided to hide my helmet in a bush off to the side and then took my day bag and began walking up the hill. I became unexpectedly emotional and found myself choking back tears as I walked.
When I reached the tomb I found a woman sitting cross-legged on a rock next to a marble tombstone, a book in her lap, and reading out loud. Although my Greek is weak, in a few seconds I realized that she was reading Homer. She paused to look at me, saw that I was crying, and kept reading. We sat together like that–the woman reading and me silent–for about 10 minutes. Two tourists, a man and a woman, appeared and started taking pictures. The tourists were British and asked some questions to the woman who had been reading. She answered the questions in English and then, without further prompting, gestured to the marble tombstone and said that it was cracked because vandals had desecrated the tomb. Then, rather suddenly, the man said: “I feel like we are interrupting something. We’ll go now.” And they left.
The women looked at me and in English said: “I see that you love Omeros very much. I can read with you here.”
I looked at her and said: “I brought matches to build a fire and meat and wine to make an offering.”
She paused and said: “Let’s build the fire when I finish the first rhapsody.”
The tomb is on the highest hill over a point of land on the north side of the island. The view is stunning and the place desolate. I sat silently and looked out over the sea as she read. Then something caught my eye in the water just off the edge of the land. I looked closely and saw two dolphins.
When she finished reading we exchanged a few words and then set about gathering firewood, twigs and roots from dead bushes.
We built the fire about 30 feet downhill from the tomb. Once the fire was burning strongly I put the meat directly on the flaming wood, and handed the woman the bottle of wine. She poured the wine around the fire in three places, then handed me the bottle and I did the same with the remaining wine.
We stood together and as we watched the meat sputter and burn I asked her: “How long do you think its been since someone made an offering like this here?”
“I don’t know” she said. “I’ve been coming here 20 years and I’ve never seen it. It never occurred to me to do it. It may be centuries since someone has done this. You have made me very happy today.”
As we walked away, me to my scooter and she to her car, she invited me to dinner and then to a festival happening that night at local monastery.
At dinner I asked her how it happened that she was reading Homer at his tomb.
“I do it a few times a week. I was a heroin addict in London–that’s where I learned English–I got straight with Homer and moved back to Athens. Then, after a few years, I bought a little place here so that I can spend my summers with Homer.
This is beautifully written and full of great Greek imagery. I sat there in the dusty ground with you and smelled the burning meat.
So many echoes here of so many works, Greek and otherwise. But rendered with a raw bone simplicity that focuses our attention on each step and moment of this encounter. Very nice job, Phil.
Thanks for sharing, Phil. That was something special.
So, two more today. Thanks.