A Most Dangerous Sea and the Beauteous Scarf

~ A guest post by Bill Moulton ~

Below is one of the pivotal scenes in Odysseus’ long journey home. He is near drowning on a storm-tossed sea.

[It was as though the South, North, East, and West winds were all playing battledore and shuttlecock with it at once.] When he was in this plight, sweet-stepping Ino daughter of Kadmos, also called Leukothea, saw him. She had formerly been a mere mortal, [335] but had been since raised to the rank of a marine goddess. Seeing in what great distress Odysseus now was, she had compassion upon him, and, rising like a seagull from the waves, took her seat upon the raft. “My poor good man,” said she, “why is Poseidon the shaker of the earth so furiously [340] angry with you? He is giving you a great deal of trouble, but for all his bluster he will not kill you. You seem to be a sensible person, do then as I bid you; strip, leave your raft to drive before the wind, and swim [345] to the Phaeacian coast where better luck awaits you. And here, take my veil and put it round your chest; it is enchanted, and you can come to no harm so long as you wear it. As soon as you touch land take it off, throw it back as far.”
Odyssey 5.330–349, Sourcebook[1]

Leukothea’s brief cameo leaves quite a few questions for the reader. Who is she? What’s with the veil? Why isn’t she afraid of Poseidon’s wrath? Why did she save Odysseus?

Leukothea was once the princess Ino of seven-gated Thebes in Ancient Greece. Running from the wrath of her husband, she with her child Melicertes leapt into the sea, where her new sisters the Nereids graciously received them and Zeus deified them as Leukothea and Palaemon. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 224) Keep in mind that even as Ino, she was no mere mortal. Ino was the aunt and foster mother of the Olympian deity Dionysus. Her mother was born to two other Olympians. One sister was a goddess and a nephew also a god. (Hesiod, Theogony 975)

Odysseus is, of course, the long-suffering hero of the Odyssey. He spent ten years at the siege of Troy and was in his tenth year trying to get home to his wife Penelope. Just prior to this scene Odysseus was released from the care of the lovely Calypso. The goddess Calypso loved the hero, going so far as to say:

make your home with me, and be immortal, no matter how much you long to see that wife you yearn for day after day…Then resourceful Odysseus replied to her: ‘Great goddess, do not be angry at what I say. I know myself that wise Penelope is less than you, it’s true, in looks and stature, being a mortal, while you are immortal and ever young. Even so I yearn day after day, longing to reach home, and see the hour of my return.
Odyssey 5.198–202, Sourcebook

Calypso, with a little nudge from the gods of Olympus, helped the hero on his way:

…[Calypso] bathed him and dressed him in scented clothes, and watched him set out (on a raft). The goddess had placed a skin filled with dark wine on board, and a larger one of water, and a bag of provisions, full of many good things to content his heart, and she sent a fine breeze, warm and gentle.
Odyssey 5.264–269, Sourcebook

As to the veil, goddesses and women used them in many ways. Medea used her silver veil to avoid seeing Jason murder her brother. It also protected her from the blood splatter to follow.[2] When summoned to Olympus amidst the tragedy in her son’s life, Thetis made sure to cover her head with “a dark-hued veil, than which was no raiment more black.”[3] In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, we see Demeter remove her veil as signal of her terrible grief when her daughter was kidnapped “sharp grief seized the mother’s heart; she tore the head-dress upon her ambrosial hair, and threw her dark veil down…”.[4]Apollonius Rhodius records that, in an attempted rape, the Giant Tityos boldly dragged off the Titaness Leto by her veil.[5] Helen, sister to Castor and Polydeuces, recalling all she left behind one day “veiled herself in white linen and, weeping large tears, she left her room.”[6]

As Aphrodite famously lent her girdle (cestus) to Hera for magical purposes (Iliad 14.166), so Leukothea chooses to lend the drowning hero something he can tie about his waist. A.B. Cook has noted that the imperishable veils of the goddesses come in shades of saffron, night, shining, celestial blue and star-spangled.[7] Walter Burkett suggests that Leukothea’s veil was purple due to her association with the mysteries of Samothrace.[8] “Those being initiated are said to be girded with purple fillets during the ceremony, and the initiates are said to be saved from dangers at sea. So Odysseus, being an initiate, is said to have been saved from the storm at sea by using the veil [of Leucothea] in place of a fillet and placing the veil below his abdomen.”[9]

Poseidon is the god of the sea, reputed to be as powerful as his brother Zeus, king of the gods. (Iliad 15.184) And his heart was full of anger against the storm tossed hero, because of Odysseus’ blinding of his son, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus.[10] Admittedly, Polyphemus ate several of Odysseus’s crew-mates and it was all a matter of self-defense, but the gods aren’t overly understanding—as witnessed by the debate over the patronage of Argos by Hera and Poseidon. When the River Inachus and two neighboring rivers judged against Poseidon, the sea god drained the water from their beds.[11]

Leukothea’s area of responsibility, her sphere of influence was rescuing mortals adrift on the briny deep with “her son Palaemon they help sailors beset by storms.”[12] Rescue seemed to be the specialty of mortals directly descended from gods. Witness Glaucus of Anthedon in Boeotia, a fisherman, who had the good luck to eat a part of the divine herb, which Cronus sowed, and which made Glaucus an immortal marine deity.[13] Another example is the brothers of Helen of Troy, Castor and Polydeuces, called the Dioscuri “The Dioscuri are deliverers of men on earth and of swift-going ships when stormy gales rage over the ruthless sea.”[14]

Additionally in answer to the question of who Leukothea is, Mills sees her as an agent of liminality.[15] She aids Odysseus in his transition from the goddesses Circe and Calypso (via herself a the daughter of a god) to the mortal women Princess Nausicaa and Queen Penelope. From the sea to the shore. From life through the gray waters of death to life again. From eternal life as a god to inevitable death as a man. So, now Odysseus’ rescue continues:

His knees gave way, and his arms fell slack, his strength exhausted by the sea. All his flesh was swollen, and streams of brine oozed from his mouth and nostrils. So he lay there, breathless, speechless, with barely energy enough to stir. But as he revived his spirits rose, and he unwound the goddess’s veil and dropped it into the ocean-bound flow: the current sweeping it downstream, so it was soon in Ino’s hands. Odysseus turned from the river, sank into the reeds and kissed the earth, giver of crops: and deeply shaken he communed with his valiant spirit
Odyssey 5.452–456

Our naked hero is soon rescued and dressed by Princess Nausicaa of Phaeacia. Why was the goddess Leukothea insistent on getting her scarf back? Because, according to Donald H. Mills it was magical. “The focus of this gift centers on the immortal and life-giving veil she offers the hero…it has the implicit power to confer immortality (hence) she says to Odysseus, ‘there is no need for you to suffer, nor to perish.’”[16] It was magic, just like the herb Glaucus consumed that made him invulnerable to death, like the ambrosia and nectar Calypso offered Odysseus at their final meal. Keeping Leukothea’s veil would have had the same effect as staying with Calypso and wearing her scented, immortalizing garments. Odysseus would have lost himself, his glorious destiny, his famous return and the loving arms of his wife Penelope.


[1] Homer, Odyssey, Translated by Samuel Butler, Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power, Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies
[1] Apollonious Rhodius Argonautica 4.468–474, translated by R.C.Seaton, Loeb Classical Library Volume 1 London, William heinemann Ltd. 1912, accessed May 20, 2015 Online at theoi.com
[3] Iliad, Homer 24.93 translated by Murray, A.T., Loeb Classical Library, Wol 1 Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, William Heinemann Ltd. 1924, London Online at theoi.com
[4] David G Rice and John E. Stambaugh, Source for the Study of Greek Religion: Corrected Edition, (2009), 130
[5] Argonautica, ibid 1.758
[6] Homer, Iliad 3.143, translated by A.T.Murray, Online at Perseus
[7] Respectively Orphic Hymns; I to Hecate, VI to the Stars, XLII to the Seasons, to Museaus; and Zeus: A study in Ancient Religion: Vol 3, Part 2, A.B. Cook in discussion of figure 836
[8] Walter Burkett, Greek Religion; Archaic and Classical, translated by John Raffan, page 267
[9] N. Lewis, “Scholiast Parisina to Apollonius Rhodius 1.917” in Samothrace 1: Ancient Literary Sources, (New York) accessed May 20, 2015 http://scholarblogs.emory.edu/samothraciannetworks/the-ritual-promise/literary-texts/#ApolloniusScholia2
[10] Homer, Odyssey 13.341 translated by A.T.Murray (1919) Loeb
[11] Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.15.4 translated by W.H.S Jones (1918 Loeb)
[12] Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.28, translated by Sir J.G.Frazer (1921 Loeb)
[13] William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. London. John Murray: printed by Spottiswoode and Co., (1873)
[14] Homeric Hymn 27 to the Dioscuri, translated by H.G.Evelyn-White (1914 Loeb)
[15] Donald H. Mills, The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth, Bolchazy-Charduccit Publishers Inc, 124
[16] Ibid. 176

Image credit

John Flaxman: Neptune excite une tempête, qui brise le bâtiment d’Ulysee ; Leucothée donne son voile à ce prince pour le sauver du naufrage(from Illustrations of Odyssey), via Wikimedia Commons


Bill Moulton is a life-long independent researcher in Greek Mythology, starting in fourth grade when his fondness for the topic threw off the grading curve.  Bill is a graduate of HeroesX and active with Hour 25. He blogs and tweets on Classical Studies.