The Voyage

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.

Psalms 107:23-30

 So you want to take to the sea, lad, ship out before the mast?" The old salt's gaze curved out over the youth's bowed head to the swells gently rocking the vessels in the bay. "It isn't an easy task, you know. It isn't something you do out of curiosity or just because you're at loose ends." He noticed the tenacious bob of the boy's head and continued, "It's dangerous out there and very heavy work and you might not find what you're looking for." The silence of the lad conveyed his determination louder than words, and the old man, sensing it, shifted his tack and demanded: "Before you make up your mind, I want you to look deeply into my eyes and tell me what you see there." The young man gazed at the old, seeing the weathered face that had endured many a gale and the furrowed patterns of lines that etched out a life hard lived on the sea. He looked at the tangled brows curving over hooded eyes which shone from his aged map like lights reflected from a far-off shore. The boy looked deeply into them and knew that they were gazing through him, beyond him, to things he could not see and maybe never would. He shivered, for he recognized in the gaze a meditation on the unknown – a native inclination to leave behind all that was familiar and predictable. He saw in the old man's eyes the passion of a quest unfulfilled and the long years of plumbing the horizon's void. "Would you do business in great waters, lad? Does not what you see cause you pause?" But the boy's eyes had seen the sketch of an uncharted shore and he shipped out on the Argo that very night.

 Thus did Jason ages ago sail in search of the Golden Fleece. From Lolchos in Thessaly he sailed to find the remains of the sacred ram given by Hermes to the mother of Helle and Phrixus. He did this in order to obtain his rightful kingdom from the usurper Pelias, a theme that is echoed in the sagas of Odysseus and later Aeneas. "The wondered Argo which . . . first through the Euxine Seas bore all the flower of Greece" takes its name from the crescent-shaped argha, arca or 'ark' that bears the sacred germ over the abyss to a new world. The voyage of the Argo witnessed a successful garnering of the Golden Fleece and return to lolchos, but it did not result in Jason regaining his rightful crown. The fact that the boat was built with Athene's help and the bow contained a piece of oak from the oracle of Zeus at Dadona contributed to its safe return. But the dire magical powers of Medea which had enabled Jason to capture the Golden Fleece became, in the end, his curse, robbing him of all he held dear and dooming him to die alone and in anguish. It was said that he met his end while resting under the Argo as it lay propped up on dry land. In a twist of irony, he was struck on the head and killed by a piece of timber that fell from its stern.

With a taut sail she forged ahead all day, till the sun went down and left her to pick her way through the darkness.

Thus she brought us to the deep-flowing River of Ocean and the frontiers of the world, where the fog-bound Cimmerians live in the City of Perpetual Mist.


 Pompey the Great once said that "living is not necessary, but navigation is". This would mark the distinction between living for oneself and living in order to transcend. In terms of this notion of transcendence, the Odyssey is an archetypal navigation myth. It is a triumph over the perils of the unconscious, as represented by the ocean, and over regression and stagnation. One can trace in it the involution of the soul into matter and its evolution back to its spiritual home. One can also see in it the age-old story of the masculine mind, the child of Spirit, striving to win its way back to its Buddhic home. From Ilium, Odysseus and his fleet sailed to the Thracian city of Ismarus, sacking it and sparing only the priest of Apollo, who, in return for his life, solicited for them the help of that god. But storms off Cape Taenaron blew them back to Cythera and the land of the Lotus-Eaters, wherein anything eaten induced forgetfulness. From thence they came to the island of the Cyclopes and the adventure which was to bring the wrath of Poseidon upon them. After this, even with the gift of winds given them by Aeolus, they failed to make a clear sail, for the men fell asleep and let the winds escape willy-nilly. Thus, once again almost in sight of their goal, they were swept back to the land of the Laestrygonian cannibals, who ate many of the men and sank most of their ships. From there the survivors reached the isle of Aeaea, where Circe turned several of them into the pitiable state of swine with human minds, and Odysseus was told he must go to the land of the Cimmerians at the fog-bound western limit of the world. There, in that sunless place at the entrance to Hades, he was instructed to call up the spirits of the dead and learn from Tiresias the way to complete his voyage home.

  Fulfilling the nekuia rite at that shadowy place, Odysseus found himself surrounded with the souls of the dead. His mother, partaking of the sacrifice, said to him: "My son, how have you descended, while still alive, to this gloomy realm which is difficult for the living to behold? Great rivers and terrible waters lie between; first Oceanus which, if one does not have a sturdy ship, he cannot in any way cross on foot." Indeed, it was only Circe's instructions that had enabled them to find it, just as the prophetic warnings of Tiresias would guide them in their further travels. Nonetheless, despite the wise counsel which got them safely past the dangers of the Sirens and of Scylla and Charybdis, some of the men could not resist killing one or two of the sacred cattle of Helios when they landed on the isle of Thrinacie. As a result, a storm sank the ships and all but Odysseus were drowned. Clutching the mast and part of the keel, he floated, eventually arriving at the island home of Calypso, in whose fragrant bower he remained entangled for seven long years. Only the order of Zeus, brought by Hermes, finally forced the enamoured daughter of Atlas to help Odysseus build a raft and send him on his way. But even then Poseidon did not relent and, as the raft neared the island of the Phaeacians, he sent a storm that destroyed it and left the struggling voyager adrift in the water for two days and nights. On the third day he was washed ashore and found by the noble Nausicaa, who took him to the palace of her parents, Alcinous and Arete, who ruled a nation of magnificently skilled seamen. It was in their good care that, sunk in a deep sleep, Odysseus was finally able to return at last to the shores of his Ithacan home.

O God! thou mayest save me if thou wilt, and if thou wilt, thou mayest destroy me; but whether or no, I will steer my rudder true.

Michel de Montaigne

 Nausicaa bears a name of central importance to the theme of the voyage. Stemming from the Greek root nautes (ship), it is linked with nauta or sailor, and, ultimately, with the Latin naves and such derivatives as 'nave' (of the church), 'navel', 'naval', 'navy' and 'navigation'. There is a wealth of Greek terms evolved from this root and reflective of a people much involved with the sea. This includes now obscure terms that define Egyptian measurements and suggest that the Greeks derived much of their basis for measuring from their marine experiences. The trackless character of the ocean would seem to defy measurement. One can readily grasp how its depths might have been plumbed, but how did the ancients measure their passage over it and how did they, or even later seamen, know where they were upon its surface? To the landlubber the question is merely academic and, in recent times, seems to have been answered. Taking for granted instruments that have evolved over centuries of seamanship, modern man tends to entertain a casual or utilitarian view of the world's great oceans, shrinking them to suit a world-view largely devoid of wonder.

Where lies the land to which the ship would go?
Far, far ahead, is all her seamen know.

Arthur Hugh Clough

 After his long voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin felt moved to express the awe that he had come to feel for the sea. He wrote that it was necessary to sail it in order to begin to comprehend its immensity. Flying over it, we arrive at a destination, never knowing what lies between where we started and where we have come. In a very deep sense, we do not know where we have come because we have not found our own way there. We have not struggled and dreamt and overcome all the risks while charting each phase of the journey. This is in marked contrast to the few master navigators who have charted their own courses from shore to shore over many seas and do not suffer from a delusive sense of time and distance or the limits of the passage. To one who simply follows a course or is hurtled from one position to another without grasping the nature or significance of what has intervened, the whole world is likely to become shrivelled and stuffed into tidy socio-political categories that provide a false sense of order and understanding. This condition is so common that it appears to be normal, and one experiences a slight jolt to consciousness when confronted with the arbitrary and superficial nature of one's sense of direction, distance and time.

 Arguing that ancient people experienced a deeper and richer involvement in these dimensions, one naval historian observed that it is we who have had our conception of distance destroyed. The men of the Stone and Bronze Ages knew no frontiers nor did they need any passports, identity papers or tickets. The earth was free, the oceans lay open, and they wandered across them, acquainting themselves with their myriad dangers and havens. Thus they came to know the seas and lands as well as themselves, never separating themselves from them or from the journey they had made across them. It is for this reason that in their myths and religious ceremonies, all the ancient cultures merged into one the path of migration and the voyage of self-discovery. One might argue that the same experience can be garnered by one who runs the obstacle course of growing up in a ghetto or simply survives the psychological odyssey of modern life. But one intuitively realizes that there was a greater collective depth in the ancient experience, that the continual and progressive checking and counter-checking between man's nature and greater Nature surrounding him had resulted in a truer sense of his place in the universal scheme of things. In attempting to understand the nature of the spiritual voyage, one comes to realize the same necessity of confronting every phase of the journey oneself. As with the seamen of old, the goal is unknown, and the need for a means of establishing location, distance and direction is equally pressing. The example of early seamen and their struggle to evolve the art and science of navigation provides rich clues for those who would venture upon the great ocean of the Self.

 Much of the earliest knowledge of seamanship involved what is known as piloting: going from point to point along a coast and relying upon a highly developed memorization of numerous variables operating in any one locale at various times of the year. Navigation relies upon the same use of the senses, but the reference point shifts from the coastline to celestial bearings observable on the open sea. As with the cyclic motion of the evolving soul, the ancient navigator had to act upon a spherical world. The flat mental map of a local coastline no longer provided him with accurate calculations of location. Long centuries were to elapse before the logarithmic tables that eventually made spherical calculations a simple matter would have been so painstakingly evolved. The errors and disasters wrought by plane sailing (sailing according to flat-earth charts, where meridians were parallel to one another) persisted among Europeans until the end of the sixteenth century, when the Mercator chart was developed and plane sailing became a term used to describe what appeared to be the uncomplicated business of sailing in a straight line from one point to another.

  The discovery of a means of steering a ship with some degree of certainty was a mechanical problem whose complexity appeared originally to be no less than that of discovering how a sense of direction could be maintained when out of sight of land. If one is sailing north before a southwest wind and finds oneself further east than estimated, there must be a current moving the ship eastward, and in the future one must tack a little more to the west rather than straight to one's destination. To do this, navigators must know where they are. They learn that ships may have to sail a greater distance to avoid being pushed to the lee shore (on the lee of the ship is the shore onto which the wind is blowing). In later centuries, during the great voyages around South America, it was essential that they beat hard to westward in order to clear the Horn when going from west to east.

 The eight Mediterranean winds were named after the countries from which they blew and were charted in a circle of directional points called a wind-rose. Their relative seasonal regularity enabled early seamen to sail by them with some confidence, just as navigators elsewhere voyaged with the various monsoons and trade winds. Where the winds were less reliable, however, checks were made by observing sunrise and sunset during the day and the pole-star during the night. In the Far North, if the winds changed and the sky was obscured, the Vikings released ravens, whose flight would indicate the direction of land. They also used sun-stones, which were crystals believed to indicate the direction of the sun even through a cloud.

 In his initial voyage Columbus relied upon dead reckoning, which involves a continuous record of speeds maintained over known periods of time by a log-line (a rope run out from the stern until the log at its end had drawn it taut). This sort of method had been used by earlier seamen, and it would later be sophisticated by the English, who tied the line in knots every forty-two feet. This was set in conjunction with a fixed interval of time (usually half a minute) so that one length of forty-two feet measured one mile (or knot) per hour. While using this mode of reckoning as well as the pole-star to determine latitude, Columbus found that his compass was unreliable. In earlier times a lodestone was floated in a vessel of water and navigators attempted to ascertain when it was freely and truly pointing to the north. By the twelfth century the lodestone was fixed in its own container but generally kept out of sight by the navigator, who wished to preserve his reputation for skill and avoid being accused of witchcraft. This latter threat was due to ideas associated with the mysterious property of magnetism, for, as Brunetto Latini wrote in the thirteenth century, "No master mariner dares to use it, lest he should fall under the supposition of being a magician; nor would even the sailors venture themselves to sea under his command if he took with him an instrument which carries so great an appearance of being constructed under the influence of some infernal spirit."

 In addition to the unreliability of his compass, the sailors with Columbus steered badly. In one night they covered one hundred and twenty miles and found themselves twenty-two and one-half degrees off by dawn. The fact that they could calculate their error was a result of being able to establish their latitude. This could be ascertained by measuring the angle between a line from the eye to the horizon and a line from the eye to the North Star (the smaller the angle, the further south one was), or by measuring the altitude of the sun at noon, allowing each day for the difference caused by the sun's apparent movement between the tropics as the seasons changed. Quadrants, cross staffs, back staffs, sextants and astrolabes were gradually developed to facilitate these measurements. The compass too was improved and, overcoming superstitions about witchcraft, was openly fixed on the ship. Its magnetized needle was fixed to a wind-rose card so that, as the ship altered its course and the needle and card remained pointed to the north, the direction in which the ship was moving (in line with the central axis of the vessel) could be read off the card. Thus it was that fairly early on in the great voyages, speed, direction and latitude could be measured with some degree of confidence. There were still the currents, fluctuations of wind and weather, reefs, icebergs, rogue waves and many other uncontrollable factors to concern these sailors, but, leaving aside bad steering, enough navigational knowledge had been garnered to make possible the extraordinary circumnavigations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

 The great problem that remained was establishing accurate longitude. It had long been known that the earth revolves at a rate of fifteen degrees per hour relative to the sun. Thus longitude could be got from accurately measuring time. The problem lay in the inaccuracy of the means that had been traditionally used to measure it. On Chinese junks intervals of time were measured with incense sticks. Sand-glasses were used on European ships and noon readings were obtained each day, enabling the exact division of the watches (from which we take the name for our portable timepieces). The extent of the problem can be appreciated when one learns that a thirty-degree error in longitude is equal to eighteen hundred sea miles at the equator. Captain Edwards of the Pandora, who tried to find the mutineers of the Bounty, used a chart which marked Pitcairn Island far to the west of its real position, due to such a thirty-degree error. The distance between the moon and certain fixed stars (called a lunar distance) proved somewhat helpful in establishing longitude, but it was difficult to rely upon in obscure weather or when the ship was rolling in a heavy sea. It was the development of chronometers which eventually solved the problem and provided a major advancement in the science of navigation. Invented by the British, they were extremely well-made clocks which were set on London time before the journey began. This time had to be checked against the time calculated with an astrolabe at sea, the difference between them giving the longitude. The astronomer and first lieutenant aboard each of the sloops Resolution and Adventure (commanded by Cook) kept the keys to the boxes containing the chronometers and were always present when they were wound up. Greater and greater precision thus marked the subtle transition of navigation from an art to a science. But there were still the imponderables – the unexpected changes of sea and weather and the weaknesses, strengths and sometimes purely capricious behaviour of the ships themselves.

The sea has ever been more conservative than the land, for the simple reason that at sea every attempt to step forward has to be paid for in human life rather than the coin of the realm.

Basil Lubbock

 Ships are living vessels possessing temperaments and hidden potentials. This is how sailors have always seen them, and indeed the complex interrelationship between strengths, strains, stresses and supports in their makeup results in constant adjustment. One especially thinks of the creaking and groaning of a wooden ship in heavy seas, but a metal ship equally adjusts, flexing its entire body as it breasts rolling swells and dips down again into the troughs. A good navigator comes to know his ship intimately and ever charts his course with her capabilities in mind. He is like the mind striving to win its way back home, and he must act in total consonance with the vessel's captain, who orders from the bridge and could be seen to represent the higher mind which is already linked to the Buddhic goal. Among captains in the world there have been few who could be said to have fully incarnated this lofty condition, but there have been some notables who, helped by the gods or by their own wisdom and breadth of soul, have inspired generations. Good captains always know the worth of discipline and morale, but captains like Cook have that indefinable 'something more'. To sailors, service under such a one is an honour as well as a benefit. Along with supreme confidence, Cook possessed a sense of presence, movingly affirmed by a Maori boy who once said in reference to him, "A noble man cannot be lost in a crowd."

 Good seamanship can save a vessel even in violent storms or when run aground. The leadsman of the Endeavour had just called out seventeen fathoms (off the east coast of Australia), and before he could heave another cast, "the ship struck and stuck fast". Under Cook's command they downed the sails so she would not press forward, put the anchor out at a distance to haul against and tossed all their extra weight overboard. With a little help from the gods, perhaps, the coral from the reef on which they had run remained in the hole and acted as a plug as she was eased back into deeper water. In contrast to this there is nothing sadder than the wreck of a majestic and spirited ship through the inadequacies or lack of skill of a captain and navigator. Many a noble ship has been lost at sea or dashed upon rocks by uncontrollable natural forces, but many another has been doomed by foolhardiness or by lamentable errors in judgement. The long list of ships which have disappeared with all hands lost at sea is a melancholy roll that reads like an ancient lamentation for vanquished hopes and dreams of discovery. The voyages of men upon the sea have, indeed, been paid for in human life and the spiritual journey on the ocean within has been no less hazardous. Many are the wrecks that hang broken upon the astral reefs ringing its continents and many more have been lost in unknown seas.

Alone, alone, all, all alone;
Alone on a wide, wide sea.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 Deep within the individual where one's higher sense of self arises, the desire to make this lonely voyage awaits. As Pompey recognized, the navigational quest is more essential than life, and the voyage, sooner or later, must be made. Thus one follows the journeys of Odysseus or Jason or Aeneas, sensing the immediacy of their trials in one's own inner life. Every human being must reach his true home and regain his rightful crown and queen. Until the mind is fully united to Buddhi, the vessel of the personality will drift helplessly with the tides and cross-currents of the worldly sea. The voyage must be made and the individual, as his own captain and navigator, must confront every phase of its vicissitudes. One cannot reach and realize the goal by simply boarding another's ship, for such a passenger crawls ashore and never understands where he has arrived. But the inner ocean is as trackless as an unexplored astral wasteland wherein no landmarks present themselves. The lone sailor on that sea cautiously feels his way through the mists and is startled to come upon suddenly the wreckage of failed voyages and the ominous presence of great reefs and bergs looming in the whirling currents. The journey takes him to the very entrance of Hades, or even through its realms, and his astral eyes and ears are accosted by the horrors and woes that reside there. But it is only by journeying through death and back into the realm of the living while alive and still in a body that one may learn how to navigate one's craft through the dangers and trials that abound along the way.

 One learns true navigation when one gains the courage to sail away from the shore where mere piloting suffices and enter the open sea, to the River of Ocean beyond. As the reference point shifts from the land to the celestial bodies, one slowly learns to place more and more trust in the inner lights that rise upon the night sky of one's deepest meditations. Voiding the mind of all known landmarks, one learns to rest upon the great Ocean of Being and await with alert confidence the appearance of that fixed guiding star. Thus gradually is the door of the mind opened to divine breezes which, like the gift of Aeolus (so pathetically squandered by the men of Odysseus), will reverberate through one's instrument and melodiously waft one towards the destination.

Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.

Herman Melville

 Odysseus learnt from divine guidance. He, unlike his men, used his native intelligence in its service. Thus, even the sorceress Circe, who destroyed others, aided him, and Calypso too ultimately helped him on his way. Nymphs of the sea and aspects of the astral matrix that can either ensnare or help, they, in their turn, served him. In the case of Jason this was not so, for he neither understood nor did he ultimately control the powerful sorceress who played such a dominant role in his quest. Taking her love and her malevolent magical practices equally for granted, he was unprepared for her violent revenge and her curse when thwarted. Thus do foolhardy seamen challenge a stormy sea with all sails set but without knowledge of the jagged rocks that lie ahead. In contrast to Jason, brave adventurer though he was, Odysseus demonstrated the heightened powers of memory and observation required of those who know very well the nature of what they experience during the course of their journey and come to realize fully what lies at its conclusion.

 The ship in which the journey is made is a living vesture, the ark that will give one birth. The compass needed within is one's conscience, the small voice of one's soul which always points to the unchanging Truth and which comes into conscious development (just as it was invented and slowly improved in worldly navigation) as one hushes extraneous directives and learns to listen to its faithful instruction. One's chronometer can be found in the steady pulsation emanating from the cave of the inner spiritual heart. This is the true basis for all measurement while moving around the inner and outer world. When its beat has been consciously charted, the voyager can discover how its rhythm complements and blends with the fixed point of Truth. Just as the invention of the chronometer solved the problem of establishing longitude, so too the discovery of one's spiritual heart facilitates any real progress towards the goal. Compassion possesses a pulsation which can be consciously experienced and is the motor force of true navigation. Hearkening to this inner beating, and with meditative eyes fixed on the star of Truth, the sailor upon the inner sea can navigate wisely, latitudinally and longitudinally, moving at ease around its shoals and doldrums and myriad dangers. Such a voyager thus recapitulates the navigational myth of Odysseus and comes to triumph over the astral abyss of the unconscious. Skirting the trap of forgetfumess presented by the Lotus Lands and Calypso's cloying affection, the sailor-disciple can avoid the fate of the men of Odysseus who were turned into animal-men or drowned in the mother sea. Even if others fail around him and are carried away on the mindless tide, the resourceful and devoted navigator presses on. Even if the ship itself is lost, he can, like Odysseus, hold fast to the axis mundi of the mast and the balancing power of the keel while drifting towards a temporary haven.

 Each of the arduously garnered rules of worldly navigation provides profound analogies for the inner voyager. Captain Cook was wise to act swiftly and decisively when the Endeavour ran aground. Just so must the sailor-disciple respond when confronted with a challenge to his further passage. He should be ready and willing to throw overboard all his excess baggage. It will have to be done at some point in any case. And he would be foolish to keep on sail when the winds of adversity would only drive him further towards destruction. It is unwise to jeopardize one's vessel before the other shore is reached or until, like Odysseus, one is assured of divine guidance. Even when the shore is sighted, resorting to plane sailing is not wise. Winds of unexpected change may force one to temporarily tack away from the goal in order to circle around towards it at a later point. Thus, even in sight of the goal, one may be blown back and forced to assimilate the lesson that the soul's evolution, like all real growth, takes place in cycles. Thus the spiritual navigator circumnavigates the globe many times over, circling back over the same track but never meeting the identical seas. Always the trials are varied and of an ever more subtle nature.

  The old salt, who requested the youth to look deeply into his eyes before taking to the sea, had, in this way, voyaged many times around. His far-gazing orbs were filled with mirrorings of the struggles and wonders he had experienced. On many a night he had followed his fixed star and sensed the beating of his spiritual heart, but he had not yet wedded the two and made of his mind a pellucid and eager servant to the divine within him. It may be that in this life he had become too old to make the voyage again, and yet his concern for the boy revealed his hope that the lad, in taking precautions, might succeed in realizing the goal. He recognized that quality in the boy which would rise up incontestably within himself in subsequent lives, namely, the longing to "go down to the sea in ships" and "do business in great waters". The voyage for such souls is undeniable. It must be made whatever the dangers. For a haunting though misty sketch of an uncharted shore has been glimpsed by them and it can never again be forgotten.

West of these out to seas colder than Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young star-captains glow.

James Elroy Flecker