In the first book of the Iliad, you will recall, Achilles is up against it. To help him, Hera sent Athena, who came down from heaven (194-5: … ἦλθε δ’ Ἀθήνη / οὐρανόθεν …), appearing to him alone (198: οἴῳ φαινομένην); and about 150 lines later Thetis, ἡμένη ἐν βένθεσσιν ἁλὸς (358) hears him and comes up from the depths like a mist to give her support (359: καρπαλίμως δ’ ἀνέδυ πολιῆς ἁλὸς ἠΰτ’ ὀμίχλη). The hero is helped from on high and from on low, as it were: the entire universe comes to his aid.
Similarly in the Odyssey, in Book 5 the hero needs help. The pattern here is the same. To assist him, Zeus sent Hermes to tell Calypso to let Odysseus go, and Hermes carried out the order. Down he came from heaven (50: … ἐξ αἰθέρος ἔμπεσε πόντῳ·) like a sea-gull (51 λάρῳ ὄρνιθι ἐοικώς); about 300 lines later Leucothea takes pity on the endangered hero and comes up from the sea like a gull (337: αἰθυίῃ δ’ ἐϊκυῖα ποτῇ ἀνεδύσετο λίμνης) and sits down next to him on his shattered raft (cf. ἀνέδυ πολιῆς ἁλὸς of the Iliad with ἀνεδύσετο λίμνης of the Odyssey).
The first time I read this passage from the Odyssey in Greek was in the fall of 1959, my first year of graduate school. I still recall the dismal room in a dark apartment in an old Cambridge building near the Harvard Yard that looked out on an ugly flat roof fissured with cracks and inhabited by a squabble of ugly pigeons that seemed to do nothing but defecate and copulate. This contrast of present place and time with what I was reading evoked for me all the more vividly memories of carefree years growing up in a halcyon Southern California in the late forties and early fifties, where the beach and surfing was all that up to that time had ever really mattered to me.
And now reading about how Leucothea just popped up out of the sea I was, still reminiscing, unwilling to attribute the emergence of the goddess from the sea to the magical realism of traditional folktale θαύματα. No, I thought to myself, watching the ugly pigeons waddling about obscenely in the early dawn light, no, this is something I have experienced myself, and I think I know something of how Odysseus felt.
Off shore, hanging on to an inner-tube with a net attached to it to hold abalones and catching my breath before the next dive (this was before scuba gear!), or lolling on a surfboard in the deep swells waiting for the next big one to roll in from Hawaii, you would be momentarily out of sight of the beach and see only water around you, wondering more than a little what benthic beast might be trolling just beneath the surface. Then, suddenly, a beautiful gull comes popping up out of the sea or, rather, the neighboring trough of the undulant surface. I’m not alone out here! Sometimes I could, quite literally, see the nictitating eye of the gull as it glided past with serene majesty.
Yes, it definitely did seem as if that beautiful bird, rising from a mere trench in the waves, had emerged from the depths, much as Leucothea did for Odysseus amid those turbulent waters off Scheria so many millennia ago.
Only a modern surfer could fully understand what ancient Homer was up to here and how Odysseus must have felt when that magical gull appeared out of nowhere!