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Throughout history, humans have always been on the move. For thousands of years, they have transported themselves from one place to another, crossing geographical borders as well as cultural boundaries. The motivations and reasons behind this widespread mobility are innumerable; they vary from person to person and from group to group. Some travel out of curiosity, to explore new places. Others immigrate to foreign lands in search of a new home. Still others are forced into exile. Although everyone’s individual experience of migration is different, there is one commonality, a shared experience, that can be widely observed. This is the fact that migration and border crossing often have an effect on one’s identity. A person’s identity is a complex, multilayered combination of things that defines who that person is. It encompasses one’s conceptions of self and home and a more general sense of belonging. Identities are subject to change as a person experiences major changes in their life. Thus, it makes sense that mobility and migration have, throughout history, disrupted how people see themselves. Many historical texts from around the globe illustrate this central concept, the idea that prolonged movement and resettlement have a profound effect on one’s identity. One text that demonstrates how movement across borders can greatly impact one’s identity is the story of The Odyssey, composed by Homer.
The events of the Greek epic take place twenty years after the character Odysseus left his home to sail across the Mediterranean Sea and fight in the Trojan War. From the very beginning of the story, it is made clear that after twenty years away from home, Odysseus is not the same man he was when he left Ithaca. Aside from the inevitable, natural aging that has occurred, Odysseus’s sense of self and identity have shifted. Twenty years earlier, when he still resided at his home in Ithaca, Odysseus was a powerful figure. He was the revered king of Ithaca. He was a husband and father, the master of his household. He was a widely respected warrior with many friends and allies. Twenty years later, across the sea separating him from his homeland, Odysseus finds himself in a very different position, one in which he has been rendered virtually powerless. In isolation, without his friends, family, or a vast supply of resources at his disposal, he finds himself helpless, vulnerable to the whims of the gods. This powerlessness has taken a huge toll on Odysseus, and he has lost the confidence he once had, now spending his days sobbing in grief. The narrator describes Odysseus’s misery, “His eyes were always tearful; he wept sweet life away, in longing to go back home… By day he sat out on the rocky beach, in tears and grief, staring in heartbreak at the fruitless sea”.
In this epic, Odysseus’s lengthy resettlement across the barrier of the Mediterranean Sea has such a great impact on his sense of self because his identity has always revolved around his roles in positions of power – as a king, patriarch, and warrior. In his current predicament, he is unable to fulfill those roles, and so he feels lost in his identity. To Odysseus, the only way to reestablish his identity is to cross the dividing sea, return to his home and regain his power, even if it means turning down an offer of immortality in the process.
Another historical text that displays the profound way in which relocation disrupts identity is the Exeter Book, which contains a collection of Old English elegies. One of these poems, The Wanderer, depicts the sorrows of a warrior in exile. As the elegy progresses, it becomes evident that the subject has undergone a major transformation in identity over the course of his life. The wanderer’s thoughts reveal glimpses of his youth, the lively and joyous days spent alongside his lord and kinsmen. As the poem explains, “He remembers hall-holders and treasure-taking, how in his youth his gold-giving lord accustomed him to the feast… it seems in his mind that he clasps and kisses his lord of men, and on his knee lays hands and head, as he sometimes long ago in earlier days enjoyed the gift-throne”. However, those days are long gone. In the years since then, it appears that the warrior has lost all of his companions to war and other causes of death, and he has been forced out of his homeland, across the sea and into exile. He now wanders alone in a foreign land, completely isolated from other humans. It is clear that this relocation has had a deep impact on the subject’s sense of self. The man, once a bold and loyal warrior, is now a friendless drifter consumed with sorrow and longing, who spends his days in deep contemplation and introspection. In the poem, he reflects on wisdom and the transience and instability of the earth. The phrases the wanderer uses to describe himself, such as a “winter-bound spirit” and a “wretched exile”, are especially indicative of the changes to his conception of self and identity that have occurred as a result of his movement into isolation.
One last text which presents a change in identity resulting from migration is the scripture of Ezekiel from the Hebrew Bible. At the time of the events occurring in the scripture, King Jehoiachin and the Judean elite have been exiled from Judah by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. This forced departure from Jerusalem is a very significant event because, not only is the city their home, but it is also the center of their religion. The Temple in Jerusalem is believed by the Jewish people to be the permanent house of God, which means that all spiritual connections to God, and the Jewish identity itself, revolves around the Temple. Consequently, the Judeans who are involuntarily resettled in Babylonia are faced with a difficult situation. In the end, their migration out of the land of Israel requires the Judean exiles to modify their conception of the Jewish identity so that they can maintain their faith under their new circumstances. One of the exiles, a prophet named Ezekiel, is instrumental in allowing this change to traditional beliefs to happen. As he describes in his scriptures, in the fifth year of the exile, Ezekiel receives visions and the word of God despite being outside of Israel, in Babylonia. He explains, “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month – it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin – the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of the Lord came upon him there”. Seven days later, he is visited by God once again: “I arose and went out to the valley, and there stood the Presence of the Lord, like the Presence that I had seen at the Chebar Canal; and I flung myself down on my face”. Following Ezekiel’s receipt of the word of God, as well as visions of what appears to be a divine chariot, he delivers his prophecies to the other exiles. Ezekiel explains to the Judeans that the divine Presence has left the Temple in Jerusalem and is traveling on a journey. These revelations from the prophet are key in the exiled community’s process of reshaping their beliefs about Judaism in a way that allows them to bring their religion and their God with them outside of the land of Israel. The changes to traditional ideas of Jewish identity and faith during the Babylonian exile are yet another example of movement and relocation having a direct impact on a person or group’s identity.
In conclusion, even though everyone’s experiences with migration and resettlement are unique, there is one thing that can be observed almost universally, which is that prolonged movement often greatly affects one’s sense of self and identity. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in many parts of the world and throughout history, from ancient Greece to Biblical times to tenth century England, and it is still seen in the present day. Clearly, travel and movement have always played a central role in people’s lives, and they probably always will.
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