As with virtually all peoples, the Maltese have their fair share of myths and legends, some of them outgrowths of classical mythology. Passed down from one generation to the next over the centuries, they often add to Malta’s allure. Notably, the geographic features of the country, an archipelago with a hilly landscape and shoreline cliffs, emerge as far more than mere backdrop in these tales.
One legend in particular will resonate far and wide, owing to its origins in Homer’s The Odyssey. In Malta, it is held that the Maltese island of Gozo is in fact the mythical Ogygia, home to the nymph Calypso and the location of Odysseus’s imprisonment at her hands. Local lore has it that the medium-sized cave nestled within the Xaghra cliffs, which overlook Ramla Bay, is the nymph’s abode as described in the Greek epic poem.
In days of yore, nymphs were considered minor goddesses entrusted with the task of protecting and caring for animals and plants within their domain. They often lived in locations at once verdant and near the shore. In The Odyssey, Calypso is a ravishing and powerful nymph who dwells on the island of Ogygia. She makes her home in a cave surrounded by a sylvan paradise. (As it happens, modern-day Gozo remains the greenest of the Maltese Islands, with plenty of lush and scenic hills and valleys.) Odysseus, fabled hero of the Trojan War, suffers a shipwreck during his voyage from Troy back to his home of Ithaca; much weakened, he finds himself stranded in Ogygia.
Calypso, immediately smitten with the new arrival, nurses him to health. She urges him to stay, offering him immortality should he accept. Odysseus is captivated by Calypso’s beautiful singing voice and her enchanting green eyes, and becomes her lover.
Yet Odysseus is homesick. His longing for his wife Penelope and son Telemachus only grows, and his amorous feelings for Calypso quickly dissipate. Calypso, however, remains unmoved. For seven long years, she keeps the hapless Odysseus as a virtual prisoner on the island.
Only with the intervention of Hermes, whom mighty Zeus dispatches to Ogygia in order to resolve the matter, does Calypso relent. Grudgingly, she furnishes Odysseus with the tools needed to build a boat, and commands the winds to take him home. A heartbroken Calypso then returns to her cave overlooking the sea, and watches Odysseus sail into the horizon.
It is said that on certain evenings, silent and often starlit, you can hear the immortal nymph’s mournful song from her cave high up in the Xaghra cliffs of Ramla Bay.