Epic journeys occupy a central place in Ancient Greek literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey are among the oldest texts of Western literature. Travel is cultural and its meaning varies over time and space.
During Ancient Greece, foreigners who do not travel to trade goods are called nomads, or barbarians if they do not speak Greek. Nomads are not a moving population. Instead, they are individuals perceived as both monsters and gods, or as Aristotle says: “a man who has no need to live in a community, because it is self-sufficient, has no part in the city”. Those travelers are pictured as solitary and erudite heroes, similar to Odysseus.
Odysseus, the main protagonist of the Odyssey, is a great example of the Nostos theme, a theme used in Greek literature depicting an epic hero returning home by sea.
The journey isn’t just a homecoming. It is also about how it changed the hero’s identity. The term Nostos would later bring out the expression Nostalgia, meaning the condition of longing for the past: Odysseus travels only to come back a better man, transitioning from a war machine to a family man after longing for his son and wife for years. Traveling as an apprenticeship, a rebirth to integrate more successfully into daily life.
Achilles is another aspect of the Greek notion of travel. Achilles never gets to come back home. When he left Phthia, the hero knew he was destined to die on the battlefield: ”my nostos has perished, but my kleos will be unwilting”. Achilles renounced the comforts of his home and the instant gratification a life of material pleasures would have offered him. Instead, he travelled to Troyes to meet his fate: death, but glory (kleos).
The philosopher Diotima explains in Plato’s Symposium that people are driven by a search to reach some form of immortality. Sex, art, and most of our creative endeaviors are an attempt at defying the bindings of time. Achilles’s desire for glory is so strong that it ends up costing his life. Achilles represents this idea of living a short existence filled with hardships to achieve glory, in contrast with a long and average happy life. Kleos means “what others hear about you”, your reputation. A Greek hero earns kleos through accomplishing great deeds, traveling being the mean.
What is the lesson here? The most important aspect of Achilles’s character is not his search for glory. It is his ability to stay true to himself. I see Achilles knowing his fate as a metaphor for self-knowledge. He clearly understands what it is he needs to do to accomplish his authentic self. More than love or glory, Achilles seeks truth.
Unlike Achilles, Odysseus never sought glory. He didn’t want to leave Ithaca and has to suffer his fate instead of reaching out to it. But again, despite him unwilling to travel, he is compelled to it and ends up transformed.
Consequently, the main characteristic of a fruitful travelling experience is that it is not sought out. It is but the byproduct of a higher motive.