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The Theme of Forced Journey in The Literature of The Ancient World

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The topic of travel is as multifaceted and controversial today as it was in the ancient andmedieval worlds. The characters and stories encountered in the Culture and Expression readings embody this fact, revealing the spectrum of feelings and values associated with various aspects of crossing geographical divides. On one hand, the act of crossing boundaries can bring about asense of sadness, degradation, and loss of identity. On the other hand, the act of crossingboundaries connotes glory, social mobility, and splendid adventure. I agree with these concepts presented throughout Culture and Expression, but I particularly believe that the resulting experience one has while traveling to a new place has everything to do with the circumstancessurrounding their journey, particularly whether the catalyst for their migration relates to externalforce or internal desire. Whether referring to the ancient and medieval worlds or the current time period, the given catalyst for migration is the main factor in the journey’s outcome.

When a journey is forced onto an unwilling traveller, the ensuing trip away from home isfilled with heartbreak and sorrow. Due to home’s association with identity, exile from home canbring out overwhelmingly negative emotions and experiences. In the literature of the ancient world, a forced journey is often the result of the divine punishing mortals for their transgressions.

As mentioned in the introduction to “The Book of Ezekiel” in The Jewish Study Bible, the peopleof Israel’s task was to “preserve their sanctity, but according to Ezekiel, the sins of the people, primarily idolatry, throughout their history, have desecrated the people, the Temple, and thedivine name, and have ritually defiled the city of Jerusalem”. Thepeople of Israel are therefore exiled from the holy land of Jerusalem because “in order to attaintheir sanctity, the people must be purified and all impurity must be removed from the land upontheir return”. In this sense, the journey out of Israel carries a heavy, painful burden. It is exile, and the people being exiled are unwilling to leave their home. Their travels are a punishment and therefore bring about anguish and repentance. And cast out of their native land, they are degraded as a society; they lose a vast piece of their identity when they are no longer in their true home. The main journeys of Odysseus, the titular character of The Odyssey, are also forced by adivine vengeance. While dining with the Phaeacians, Odysseus tells King Alcinous how hedeceived the savage Cyclops, Polyphemus, by getting him drunk and blinding him with a heatedolive spear. Out of hubris, Odysseus reveals his name to Polyphemus, asserting that“if any mortal asks you how/ your eye was mutilated and made blind, / say that Odysseus, thecity-sacker, / Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca, / destroyed your sight”. Polyphemushappens to be the god Poseidon’s son, and he prays to his father to “grant that Odysseus, thecity-sacker, / will never go back home. Or if it is/ fated that he will see his family, / then let himget there late and with no honor, / in pain and lacking ships, and having caused/ the death of allhis men, and let him find/ more trouble in his own house”. Poseidon, angry at Odysseus’ transgressions against his son, makes sure Odysseus is set back in his journey, killingall of his men in a shipwreck and putting multiple obstacles in Odysseus’s path home. Poseidon forces Odysseus to journey even farther from home, setting his path back years. Odysseus suffers nothing but anguish during this time, even as he takes up with the beautiful goddess, Calypso.

Although Odysseus is offered comfort and immortality, his distance from his home in Ithaca, andtherefore his identity as glorious warrior, King of Ithaca, husband, and father, makes himhopeless and despondent until he finally gets the opportunity to make his way home again. But the peril and heartbreak of a geographical journey can become quite exhilarating inthe context of desire. When a journey stems from desire, the traveler is bound to have a marvellous, if not entirely perfect, experience. As seen in the works presented to us, the desire totravel usually corresponds to the acquisition of something greater, whether that be glory, or one’s personal social mobility.

The fifteenth century Egyptian folktale “The Taking of Joppa” provides an explicit example of desirous border crossing stemming from want of glory. In the story, Djehuty, the Egyptian general of Thutmose III, purposely uses trickery to get his men inside thewalled city of Joppa; he makes those in charge believe that they have captured him, “together with his wife and his children, ” and that they have won. This perceived victory leads the authorities of Joppa to let two hundred baskets believed to be tribute into the city, although the actual contents of the baskets was “people, manacles, and rope” ready to be released and to“seize all the people in the town”. As a result of this clever tactic, Djehuty ends uptaking Joppa, bringing glory to the Egyptian people and to the Egyptian emperor. The choice to cross borders into a new place can therefore enhance a culture’s perceptions of itself through pride and conquest.

Sinbad the Sailor, a character in the The Arabian Nights, actively seeks new travels and adventures as a means of providing for himself and becoming rich and powerful. In the “Night 546” story, he tells Sinbad the Porter all about how his travels helped him to gain wealth andstatus, he “stayed in Baghdad for a time, enjoying his good fortune with happiness andcontentment, but then he began to feel an urge to travel again and to see the world, as well as tomake a profit by trading”. Sinbad is well aware of the dangers of traveling to newplaces; he encounters all manner of monsters each time he sets out. But nevertheless, he desires to cross geographical borders; he longs for the excitement and social mobility his adventures will bring him through acquisition of wealth, making the experiences ultimately positive.

Just as the negative connotations of forced travel are cohesive from ancient times up to today, the overwhelmingly positive connotations of desired travel are also present today. During my own personal adventures over the past month, I frequently find myself relating my own experiences to those relayed in the Culture and Expression literary texts. Lately New York Cityhas held a special lure for me; I have frequently sought it out during my time at Hofstra. Thedesire to better acquaint myself with the geographical, intellectual, and cultural borders and my own capacity for crossing such borders has lead me to venture into New York City alone. Thislonely venture comes with many challenges, including the issue of navigating through a maze oftrains, people, and streets as well as the issue of the vulnerability that comes with being alone, but I am willing to risk this for the chance of having an enjoyable set of adventures and the ability to say I challenged myself. However, I also think about the less personal and much larger modern day crisis involving travel and migration: how groups of people such as the Syrian refugees are forced to leave their homes to escape violence and horror. The problems arising from the forced exile of the Syrian refugees span not just the personal turmoil of those without ahome, but a greater geopolitical turmoil strikingly similar to problems of migration and hospitality represented in ancient literature.

It is truly astonishing just how relevant ancient texts are to modern day issues. The texts from the ancient and medieval worlds almost blur the borders between time and space, helpingme to see that although cultural traditions differ from each other and are constantly evolving, there are certain truths and archetypes that prevail throughout all of humanity. No matter the time period, the positive or negative connotations involved in a journey’s outcome have ultimately depended on the given journey’s roots in either force or desire.

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