My own Greek Odyssey: sailing the Aegean sea as Europe went into lockdown

In retracing the footsteps of ancient Greek heroes, historian Bettany Hughes found timeless tools to deal with a modern crisis

Bettany Hughes explores the Corinth canal by boat
'If there’s one thing lockdown has taught us – nostalgia matters' says Bettany Hughes, exploring the Corinth canal by boat Credit: Channel 5

I was not expecting my favourite M&S pants to become an offering to Poseidon, God of the Sea. But on a spine-tingling voyage between the islands of Samos and Fourni on the trail of the legendary Greek hero Odysseus I was being guided through what has been described as a ‘graveyard of ships’. Freakish winds in this sea channel, just 20 miles from the Turkish coast, and unusual rock formations, mean that waters are frothed up like whirlpools – the seabed is too deep to provide safe anchor, and sheer cliffs offer no purchase. Ancient vessels crossing the Mediterranean – taking this shortcut East to West – often ended up wrecked, in the shadow of what some researchers have described as ‘The White Cape of Death’.

I was here to look for underwater archaeology, but, investigating the remarkable, submerged late-Roman remains that our dive revealed – whole stacks of plates, lamps emblazoned with gladiators, jars of wine from Chios and oil from Samos – we were in danger of suffering the fate of the ancient mariners we’d come to investigate. Winds started to lift sea-spray 20 metres high, we were warned we had to evacuate fast, risking being marooned on the nearby island of Fourni.

Soaked, sodden to the skin by the rising waves, I tried to make a quick change into spare clothes but mid-process the wind snatched my dripping cast-offs and hurled them out to sea. With a billhook we eventually rescued the tearaways, all apart from my underwear – the only littering I’ve ever knowingly committed. The ride back to Samos (going commando) in our swaying fishing boat was, politely put, invigorating, but thanks to our fifth-generation captain, we navigated the storm and found safe harbour.

Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes followed in the footsteps of Odysseus for a new documentary Credit: Channel 5

Straightaway, the stories of Greek myth felt vividly close – of whirlpools like Charybdis appearing to suck men and boats to a watery grave, of the comfort of a skilled helmsman guiding his sailors through a storm, the value of collaboration in the face of unexpected danger.

And that was the very point of my maritime quest – to try to better understand the original Odyssey and the adventures of Odysseus, to trace the truth of the epic stories of Ancient Greece – and to test whether these millennia-old myths still have traction and relevance today.

Myths are often about dealing with challenges – well, we had a few. Making a bespoke journey to Crete in January to enjoy the historic theophany festival, where a wooden cross is thrown into the sea to be rescued by divers, we didn’t expect the Force 10 sea-storm on the Beaufort Scale. While a crucifix was being thrown in, squid were being thrown up into the town square by nine metre waves; I was saved with shelter and cognac by a cigar-touting Cretan priest. And of course there was Covid-19 – ‘do not enter’ signs being slapped up on archaeological sites on our final day of filming – leaving us just hours to get home ahead of lockdown.

Archaeological sites, including the Ancient Agora, picture here, were closed as a precaution against the spread of Covid-19 Credit: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP

But the Odyssey is about nothing if not using wit and will to deal with the unexpected. The world of Odysseus, Achilles et al is a brutal one – and the facts we discovered seem to buttress the fantasy. On the Greek mainland I was allowed access to the skeleton of a 19-year old who had fallen in battle 3,500 years ago. His lower skull had been pierced by a lead sling shot that would have hit with the force of a bullet, his cranium was smashed by a blunt instrument. Bone evidence from this period – the most likely epoch for the history that helped to inspire the oral memories behind the epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, collected and set-down centuries later by bards like Homer – shows frequent and massive trauma. Shinbones are split by the repeated banging of the massive ‘tower shields’ that we hear were sported by heroes like Ajax in Homer’s tales, soldiers have arrows through their eye sockets, then are patched up and sent back out to fight, and in Crete, there is evidence of human sacrifice.

In one of the most shocking episodes of my journey, I was escorted to a dig in the backstreets of the port town of Chania – ancient Kydonia. A Bronze Age mansion here had been rocked by earthquakes, around 1250 BCE. Archaeologists have recently discovered the skull of a young, high-born woman, decapitated and left as an offering to appease the gods – I was looking at evidence of virgin sacrifice. Suddenly ancient stories of the teenager Iphigenia slaughtered by her own father to ensure fair-winds for Troy, and of Achilles’ Trojan lover, princess Polyxena, sacrificed on the hero’s grave in retribution for his death, felt horribly real.

But blindly turning myths into history is a specious exercise. It is the bigger truths of the myths that really matter.

Travelling through the Aegean, islanders from Siphnos to Mykonos regaled me with ancient legends: the story of Perseus (now a bestseller in his modern incarnation as ‘Percy Jackson’), who had to face his fears in the form of the Medusa – a snake-haired creature whose very gaze turned men to stone. It’s a myth that tells us many things, that fear of fear itself can be the greatest of all challenges, that misogyny has deep roots – potent female figures were, in the Greek world, almost always monstrous, and that the ‘Greek myths’ often have origins in Asia and Africa (one of Perseus’s heroic challenges was to rescue the ‘Ethiopian’ princess Andromeda from a devouring sea-monster).

And walking through the remarkable ruins of the colourful, cosmopolitan and sophisticated Bronze Age town of Akrotiri on Santorini – buried in metres of pumice and ash by the eruption of the massive Theran volcano in c. 1615 BCE, as cubic miles of sea-water rushed into the caldera it created – it was impossible not to think of Atlantis. Where a bustling civilisation over-reached itself and was swallowed up by the sea. A lesson in pride coming before a fall – and the hubristic pitfalls of complacency, of presuming life-threatening dangers won’t be around the corner.

Waylaid by many adventures, it took our hero 10 years to make it from Troy to his home island of Ithaka – for me, six months. I’ve been travelling the Aegean for three decades in search of ancient history; in some ways I’m trying to re-discover the off-piste, virgin, welcoming land I first encountered in the Eighties. Nostalgic perhaps, but Odysseus’ homecoming, and those of his comrades in arms from the Trojan War, was called in ancient Greek ‘nostoi’ – the return.

If there’s one thing lockdown has taught us – nostalgia matters. And some timeless qualities have indeed endured. The ancient Greek etiquette of xenia – an obligation to welcome strangers as friends saturated our journey. On Ithaka, an earthquake – 4.9 on the Richter Scale, rocking my room to its foundations – failed to prevent our grandmother landlady making us fresh milk-pies for breakfast.

My Greek odyssey prefigured life-lessons we have all re-learnt through the corona crisis, that resilience and collaboration helps us survive and thrive, that home is where love is. The Odyssey, and the very best Greek myths, then and now, are timeless tools, that help us understand the world, and ourselves.

A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes starts on Friday June 12 at 9pm on Channel 5 for the next 6 weeks. Bettany’s new Secrets of Pompeii’s Greatest Treasures is available on My5