Why, then, does Odysseus leave Calypso? Or, putting it the other way around, why doesn’t he stay? Maybe you think you know. But I believe the poem intends you to be puzzled. First off, Calypso is a nymph – she will always be a babe. Her breasts will never sag. Her bottom will always be firm. Her hair will be forever luxuriant and silky. She’ll always be fun in bed, and always, it seems, willing to go there. Moreover, she can make you immortal and give you eternal youth.

That mystery is a confounding one, but it is nothing compared with the second. Penelope is a middle-aged woman of around 40 – not old, certainly not in our terms, but not nubile either. Past childbearing, or soon to be past it, she is not a babe. Yet more than 100 princes (117 by my count), young enough to be her sons, have been paying court to her for three years, camped out in her palace, eating and drinking, while she and they grow older.

Contrast Odysseus with the suitors, again, and with his own son. We would never have heard of them if Odysseus had not killed the former and fathered the latter. They are not fit subjects for heroic poetry; he is. Consider the contest with Odysseus’ bow, in which Penelope challenges the suitors to string it. They cannot so much as draw it. Odysseus not only can draw it, but shoots an arrow through a line of axe heads with it. He is; they are wannabes.

But the Cyclops is only a very clear case of what is true of everything that happens to Odysseus from the time he leaves Troy to the time he leaves Calypso. Circe, who turns men to swine; the Lotus-eaters, who make men forget their homes and who they are; Hades, where the dead enjoy a semi-life: they are all threats to identity – all forms of death in life.

The threat Calypso poses to Odysseus, therefore, and the reason he describes her as ‘a dangerous nymph’, is a threat to his identity – a threat she carries out by depriving him of the world that gives him meaning, the world that provides the coordinates which give him a location in reality. The eternal life and youth she offers come at too high a price. To be Nobody forever is a living death.

When Odysseus leaves Calypso, and begins to travel towards the reality that is Ithaca, his first port of call is Phaeacia, which is semi-real (Phaeacian ships are self-piloting, for example, but they travel to real places). There he meets his own true self in the songs of the bard Demodocus, and begins to take on his real identity:

I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world
for every kind of craft – my fame has reached the skies.
Sunny Ithaca is my home.