Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld. Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld. Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:
Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.
It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters. The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage. Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance. Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:
I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you. There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant. Who was it? And where? Did you and the other gods talk about it? We look at your statues, but you are not there. Were you jealous of the gods who came after you? Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?
The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful. On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity. But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:
What is a human being to the gods? Do you despise us for being mortal? Or is the opposite the case? Are you jealous because we are allowed to die? Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.
No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts. It is as if you have simply vanished.
In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.) Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality. As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:
Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year? Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life? Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?
This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality. Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody. But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”
About the Author:
His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.