He had a simple and straightforward request. That his son Theseus would let him know if he’d been successful in killing the Minotaur by raising the white sails upon returning home. If he’d been unsuccessful or died trying, Aegeus asked his son to raise the black sails, so he would know. Theseus indeed killed the Minotaur and made for home, but forgot about Aegeus’ request, and raised the black sails instead. Seeing the boat approaching, his father thought Theseus had died and threw himself in the sea. The Aegean Sea is said to have been named because of him and his fate.
In the Odyssey, Telemachus’ boats also carried black sails, as they carried the son in search of news of the father. They were famous and noticed by everyone. Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl didn’t bring anything new. We have to go back to Homer.
As I sail around Sardinia this week, I remember the wanderings of the much-enduring Ulysses, his ripped sails and his shipwrecked desires. As I find him on the beach in book 5, burning with desire for his home, his wife and his son, I raise my own set of black sails and let the Maestrale, the the Master (from the Latin word magistralis), northwestern wind, push us across the crown of the waves.
A 3day-long calm sea is a luxury Mediterranean sailors rarely enjoyed. The Mare Nostrum, the Great Sea as David Abulafia has recently pointed out, was a source of danger more than a place of enjoyment, as it is for us these days. As the wind rises and the sea becomes restless, we suddenly become aware of the forces hiding beneath the waves, the dark forces concealed under the azure waters.
In the Odyssey, the sea is never a friend or an ally. It is a force to be reckoned with, a tool of the gods, a beast whose savage language needs to be mastered in order to make it an instrument for human civilisation and personal self-attainment.
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