Ulysses was NOT here

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Shortly after my article “The Ship in the Cave: the Greek and Nautical Origin of Greek Architecture” was accepted for publication, I discovered that I didn’t need Ulysses and his treasure kept in the cave, nor the identification of this character with Buddha, which are by far the most hypothetical elements of the argumentation.

If I mentioned the cave of the port of Forcis (Odyssey 13.102-112), the treasure kept at the bottom of that cave (13.366-371) and I proposed a hypothetical identification of Ulysses and Buddha, it was because the first Homeric passage I provided, the clearest one, seemed to me too irrelevant to inspire Buddhists believers of Greek origin an architectural form. It says: “And as soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, we dragged our ship, and made her fast in a hollow cave, where were the fair dancing-floors and seats of the nymphs” (Odyssey 12.316-318). Although the passage perfectly explains the similarity of the chaytia carved into the rock with an overturned ship, it is actually quite anodyne. In contrast, (a) the figure of Ulysses sleeping and his kept treasure are much more relevant to the plot of the Odyssey, (b) the piled up treasure would explain the shape, placement and etymology of the stupa (“mound”) and, finally, (c) the term meros “booty” seemed a good etymology for Mount Meru, which is identified with the stupa.

Domestic composition with a small Buddha before a photo of the entrance to the cave of Lomas Rishi, a civil ensign and a mermaid

Domestic composition with a small Buddha before a photo of the entrance to the cave of Lomas Rishi, a civil ensign and a mermaid.

Now, however, I see it differently. Buddhist teachings maintain that Buddha preached respect for animals and vegetarianism, because of the transmigration of souls. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the other hand, Homeric heroes are represented celebrating hecatombs, sacrifices in which 100 bulls or cows are sacrificed and eaten. In this context, the Buddhist believers of Greek origin, the yavana, would often bear reproaches as “You shut up, yavana, wild-eater-of-a-hundred-cows”. The passage in Odyssey 12.316-318 where the Greeks drag her ship into a cave is part of the episode of the island and the cows of Helios (the Sun), in which Ulysses and his companions submit precisely to the ban on eating cow meat because of a prophecy they received from the magician Circe. It says (translation by Murray):

“And thou wilt come to the isle Thrinacia. There in great numbers feed the kine of Helios and his goodly flocks, seven herds of kine and as many fair flocks of sheep, and fifty in each. These bear no young, nor do they ever die, and goddesses are their shepherds, fair-tressed nymphs, Phaethusa and Lampetie, whom beautiful Neaera bore to Helios Hyperion. These their honored mother, when she had borne and reared them, sent to the isle Thrinacia to dwell afar, and keep the flocks of their father and his sleek kine. If thou leavest these unharmed and heedest thy homeward way, verily ye may yet reach Ithaca, though in evil plight. But if thou harmest them, then I foretell ruin for thy ship and for thy comrades, and even if thou shalt thyself escape, late shalt thou come home and in evil case, after losing all thy comrades.” (Odyssey 12.127-141)

Probably the monks who gave the shape of an inverted boat-hull to the entrance to the Lomas Rishi cave said in so doing that “We are Greeks, yes, but we don’t eat beef”.

Entry arch to the Lomas Rishi cave, in Barabar, India (black and white)

Photo: Neilsatyam. Wikimedia Commons. Licencia Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

The island of Thrinacia

The geography of the Odyssey is unreal, but the ancients identified Thrinacia, which means “three points”, with the island of Sicily which has a triangular shape; we know that others believed that it was “very far” where the Sun lives and rises every day, in the Black Sea. But it would not be strange if the Greeks of India, for their part, or the mariners who sailed from Hellenistic Egypt to there, identified their country with Thrinacia for being “very far” in the east, and for the respect due to the cattles. That would explain the abundance of the ornaments called triskelions in the Buddhist temples, which due to their etymological meaning (“three legs”) are associated with the island of Sicily, and would also be associated with the Homeric Thrinacia (“three-pointed”). It is taken for granted that rock-cut temples were used by the first Buddhist monks as a refuge during the monsoon months; similarly, Ulysses and his companions had spent a month on the island of Trinacria waiting for the east and south winds, that prevented them from sailing towards their homeland, to pass (12.326-327). If those who created or used these temples were Greek mariners, they would take very seriously the recommendation not to consume meat, because in Odyssey 12.403-419, for not obeying the prohibition, a lightning strike of Zeus destroys Ulysses’ ship and all his companions.

Finally, the presence of the stupa at the bottom of the cave does not require Ulysses or his treasure. As I indicate in the same article, the bottom of the cave corresponds to the stern of the ship, and the stupa is the memorial formed by the remains of the ship’s captain: a base, his ashes and the stylus that represents him.


I take this opportunity to mention naval curiosities that I kept quiet in the article because they were not very relevant to what was being discussed there. The gavaksha arches, like the arches of the Lycian tombs, represent hulls built with the shell-first system, as corresponds to the tradition of Mediterranean naval architecture of the time, but their longitudinal reinforcements indicate that they are specifically sewn ships or πλοῖα ῥαπτά (Strabo VII 4.1). Finally, the arch of Lomas Rishi, and the arches on the ground floor of the Guldara Stupa do not have a prominent appendix, suggesting that they represent keelless hulls. Such hulls are common in river navigation, and both constructions are close to tributaries of the Ganges and Indus rivers respectively. The keel is a useful course stabiliser on sea crossings, while on rivers it is necessary to make turns continuously to follow its winding course. The upper apex of the gavaksha arches of the temples in the Maharashtra region, and the ogival arches of the Lycian tombs, corresponds to a keel, and suggests that the Indian and Lycian builders represented sea-going ships.

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