The Odyssey versus Oceaniden – A Danish take on the Ancient Myth?

Introduction

The Odyssey – a work surrounded by myths almost as legendary as the contents of the story itself. The Odyssey, whose writer remains unknown,[1] has inspired film makers, cartoonists, playwrights, our language, and much more and thusly the work has retained its significance despite being approximately 2800 years old. The Odyssey, therefore, cannot be ignored even in our modern world, and in 2010 the Danish short film Oceaniden (The Oceanid) premiered[2] – a film which partly lends its storyline from a passage in the Odyssey. In the following a summary of the film is provided after which the differences and similarities between the works will be addressed as well as possible reasons why these exact elements from the Odyssey were recreated.

Oceaniden

The captain, the crew and the mermaid

The short film Oceaniden only consists of seven minutes running time, yet it holds some strong connotations to the Odyssey. The film features a rugged captain, whose name is never mentioned, and starting off with a focus on him as he drinks what appears to be rum directly from the bottle, our thoughts about how a stereotypical drunken sailor should look like are confirmed. His crew is comprised of two people; a burly sailor called Ibsen and a newbie called Squeak.[3]

Suddenly the radio on board starts emitting noises reminiscent of whales singing, and commotion breaks out on deck.[4] The captain goes outside to find that they have caught a mermaid who lies timid yet defensive at the sailors’ feet. The captain takes one look at her and orders her thrown back into the sea. Ibsen is unsatisfied by this saying: “Think about how much one of those is worth.”,[5] but the captain insists they throw her back.

Disobediaent sailors

During the night he catches Squeak carrying canned fish products below deck. The two sailors have opposed his orders and have kept the mermaid on board. Ibsen knocks out the captain as he enters the room. The captain has a vision of himself and the mermaid under water after which he wakes up stunned and starts yelling at the sailors for not following orders.[6] The mermaid, now looking very sick, refuses to eat and Ibsen hits her too. The mermaid, clearly angry, starts touching the walls in a circular manner apparently invoking help from the sea.[7] Ibsen tries to hit her again, but Squeak defends her saying: “She’s mine now”.[8]

The radio then goes berserk and the mermaid’s face changes character – her soft looks are replaced with those of a monstrous vampire with large fangs.[9] The scene fades to black, and the next thing we see is a pair of bloody boots walking across the deck. It is the captain carrying the blood-soaked mermaid to the railing. Blood streams from her mouth as she smiles at him, and he throws her overboard. He takes out his bottle, now nearly empty, and drinks again. The film ends with a look at a poster in the wheelhouse picturing a woman who looks like the mermaid.[10]

Oceaniden
The captain (By courtesy of Gorm Just)

A Danish Odyssey?

Oceaniden and the Odyssey

So, what does this have to do with the Odyssey? Readers familiar with the ancient epic will probably have raised a brow already at the “sailor with no name”-part, but if this has not done the trick the clear parallel with the sirens of the Odyssey certainly should.

The Odyssey is centered around the captain and warrior Odysseus who is trying to find his way home after the siege of Troy – a journey which takes him ten years to finish. During his travels he encounters many fantastic beings and undergoes severe hardships as he is shipwrecked and loses his crew. The general similarities with Oceaniden are direct, as the characters in Oceaniden encounter a mermaid and the crew is killed.

The sea and ancient epics

Starting with a bird’s eye view, the beginning of the title Oceaniden “Ocean” underlines the setting of the film – it obviously takes place at sea – which is also the case for a substantial part of the Odyssey. Concerning the genre of the film it can be found listed as drama and comedy respectively.[11] Much the same can be said about the Odyssey. Odysseus’ voyage and his encounters are most dramatic, but in an ancient setting the tale would have been considered a comedy because of its happy ending[12] – the protagonist finally arrives at his destination and is reunited with his family.

Moreover, we find that Ancient Greek epics in general consist of several standardized scenes, hereunder people eating and drinking. In the Odyssey we are repeatedly told how Odysseus and his crew make sacrifices, eat and drink,[13] and the same goes for the characters in the Iliad.[14] Food and drink also appear as elements in Oceaniden; the sailors try feeding the mermaid and the captain is intoxicated by rum.

Intoxination and hospitality

Zooming in, this intoxication brings another passage from the Odyssey to mind; in one specific scene Odysseus’ crew is under the influence of the drug-like lotus flower by this forgetting their purpose.[15] In Oceaniden this is also depicted by how the captain, after being hit on the head, momentarily forgets what is happening on board. The “no name” part of the Odyssey takes place as Odysseus and his men have entered a cave on an island. Here they feast on the food available in the cave without having met the cave’s inhabitant.

This turns out not only to be a breach of the ancient Greek law of hospitality, but also a very bad idea, as the cave is inhabited by a hostile cyclops called Polyphemos, who instead of showing them hospitality in return, eats the crew. Odysseus tricks Polyphemos by calling himself “nobody”, which means that Polyphemos loudly declares that “Nobody is hurting me” to the other cyclopes after being blinded by Odysseus and his men.[16] In this way he escapes just like the captain in Oceaniden does, although his name or lack of same is not used explicitly as a reason for this. It can be stated though that the crew acts almost as barbaric as Polyphemos not honouring their guest but abusing her instead – something that leads to their deaths but not the captain’s as he treats her with respect.

The mermaid and the sirens

The mermaid herself appears to be related to the sirens of the Odyssey luring sailors astray with their singing. The captain in Oceaniden clearly senses something is wrong as he hears the “singing” coming from the radio, and just like Odysseus he is the only one who hears the strange “song”.[17] The sirens and the mermaid function as femme fatales and in the case of the mermaid this is accentuated by the poster in the wheelhouse depicting her as a sexy vamp.

Fact or fiction?

Finally on friendly ground, Odysseus loudly expresses himself to the Phaiakians about his adventures,[18] but the captain in Oceaniden must tackle his newly obtained knowledge of strange creatures and the death of the sailors alone. The truth of Odysseus’ experiences is of questionable character, and the probability of him inventing parts of the story to get the Phaiakians to pity him is large. The captain of Oceaniden has no one to tell his story and therefore no incentives for lying, but the veracity of the mystical encounter is still debatable – we see him drinking heavily which makes us wonder how much of what we see is real.

Clearly, similarities between the two works exist, but how intentional are they and who put them there?

Die Odyssee
Picture: Louise Jensby

The who’s and the why’s

Intentional parallels?

The abovementioned parallels may be more or less obvious, yet they are in fact there for the Odyssey-savvy user to notice. Whether or not the similarities are intentional can be answered by looking at the title Oceaniden itself. This title invokes attention as the suffix “iden” is the same used for Aeneiden (the Aeneid) in Danish. Thusly, this alludes to a great ancient epic which lends parts of its storyline from the Odyssey.[19] This indicates that the writer was, at least, knowledgeable of the ancient epics at the time of writing.

Gorm Just and Martin Mortensen

Unfortunately, not much information is available about the film’s director Gorm Just and writer Martin Mortensen. Yet, a short quote by Just about the film can be found on Det Danske Filminstitut’s homepage:

“I made “Oceaniden” halfway through my course in Super8 over a period of approximately a year. It is a tale of two archetypes clashing – the most feminine, yet simultaneously dangerous and alluring – the mermaid – in opposition to something that cannot be more manly than sailors. The tale can be described as a magical-realistic tale where a foreign object is placed in an everyday setting and how this provokes a shift in the otherwise established constellation between these men.”[20]

Supernatural elements and sexual tension

Obviously, this does not say much about Just’s familiarity with the Odyssey, but it accentuates the parallels between the two works and their use of both ordinary and supernatural elements. Additionally, the Odyssey is also characterized by the sexual tension between the manly warrior and sailor Odysseus and several women he encounters along the way; the goddess Calypso, the witch Circe, the princess Nausikaa, and finally his wife Penelope. Therefore, opposing Odysseus we see extraordinary women, both magical and realistic, testing him and his desires – likewise the captain and crew in Oceaniden are tested as hinted in the quote above.

The only other information about the creators of Oceaniden found online lists the names of Just’s and Mortensen’s other productions,[21] thereby complicating an analysis of their knowledge of ancient literature and their incentives for reusing parts thereof. Still, the title of the film and the many parallels point to a familiarity with ancient works that go beyond mere circumstance.

Supernatural creatures and fictional relationships

One can state that the relationship between men and women, be it real or magical archetypes, is a subject eternally relevant. In fact, supernatural creatures and fictional relationships between magical and real characters was indeed in at the time of production. The first century of the new millennium was marked by the surge of literature and films depicting exactly this, be it Twilight with its human/vampire-relationship, the Harry Potter[22] universe with a mix of magical and mundane people and creatures, or the Pirates of the Caribbean[23] franchise which gave us undead sailors and a reference to Calypso among other things.

The inclusion of the „foreign“

This indicates a narrative trend which obviously gained popularity around this time, but why was this the case? The inclusion of a “foreign object” in an established constellation, to use Just’s words, could refer to a person like Angela Merkel who became the first female Chancellor of Germany in 2005, or Barack Obama who was elected as President of the United States as the first person of colour in 2008. Both events can be considered milestones which marked a shift in how we now perceive a given position and what that position connotes.

Subsequently both Merkel and Obama were reelected and both examples show us the need of going beyond the historical and established framework, here understood as the historical precedent of electing middle-aged white males as head of state, and that new terms of reference can be in order. Moreover, it accentuates the need of embracing those who are deemed “different” in all aspects of life.

The evolving of the human race

As to magical creatures like mermaids, real-life examples remain absent, but in 2009 researchers announced the discovery of a new human ancestor based on a fossil found in 1994.[24] Although not supernatural like mermaids, and though this ancestor may not have looked completely different from what was known from other fossils, it still helped add valuable knowledge about human evolution and how we changed from quadrupedal beings to bipeds. This underlines how much we yet have to discover about our planet, our history, and ourselves; that the human race is, still, evolving.

Oceanide
The Mermaid (By courtesy of Gorm Just)

Conclusion

The parallels

Though different from the Odyssey, Oceaniden contains both clear as well as more obscure references to the ancient epic. A title alluding to ancient epic tales, a setting at sea, and the encounter between real and magical creatures all contribute to the understanding of the film as a modern interpretation of parts of the narrative. Yet, lack of additional information about the film’s creators makes a closer analysis of their intentions for applying the ancient work in this new setting difficult.

Contemporary connections

Some contemporary connections could point to how women and people of colour with increasing frequency hold high positions in society. Addressing this issue is relevant and seeing Oceaniden as an allegory of such provides the viewer with a more tangible way of incorporating “foreign elements” and how to treat them than encountering mermaids at sea. Through history our viewpoints about everything from women, magic, and the existence of mythical creatures have changed. Science keeps challenging our notion of what is “normal” at the same time as new species keep surfacing – which resonates with the use of the mermaid (a new human-like creature) and the new human fossil.

Don’t judge a book by its cover!

In that respect, what we deem “normal” today might be considered superstition or ignorance in a century. What the captain experiences can be questioned as the viewer is forced to consider his mental state; is he drunk, or does he see things clearly as the only one on board? The rugged and manly captain is the only one who treats the feminine and alluring mermaid with respect – something the younger crewmembers do not manage. Therefore, introducing him as a typical drunken sailor that turns out to be the only honorable person on board might change the viewers preconceived view on him and his type. Thusly, the film clearly underlines the importance of embracing diversity at the same time as it elegantly questions what is real and what is not, and that one should not judge a book by its cover.

Bibliography

Andersen, Lene. 2010. Epos. 1. edition, Klassikerforeningens Kildehæfter

Homer. 1999. Iliaden. Translated by Otto Steen Due. 2. edition, Gyldendal

Homer. 2002. Odysseen. Translated by Otto Steen Due. 2. edition, Gyldendal

Gibbons, A. 2009. “A New Kind of Ancestor: Ardipithecus Unveiled” in Science 326, 36-40

Vergil. 2007. Aeneiden. Translated by Otto Steen Due. Gyldendal

Films:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 2001. Warner Bros., Heyday Films, 1492 Pictures

Oceaniden. 2010. Super8

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. 2003. Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. 2007. Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Second Mate Productions, LSG Productions

Twilight. 2008. Summit Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films, Imprint Entertainment, Goldcrest Pictures, Twilight Productions

Links

IMDb: IMDb: Ratings, Reviews, and Where to Watch the Best Movies & TV Shows

Ekkofilm: Filmmagasinet Ekko (ekkofilm.dk)

Super8.dk: Super8 | Vestdanmarks frie filmuddannelse

Notes

[1] See for example Lene Andersen, Epos, 21 and 29-32

[2] IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1857807/

[3] These are the names given to them in the credits – they are never called by name in the film. The name “Squeak” is my translation of “Splejsen”, which means something like skinny or weakling

[4] Oceaniden, 0.57-1.26

[5] Ibid., 1.57-2.00. My translation

[6] Ibid., 3.11-4.40

[7] Ibid., 5.00-5.26

[8] Ibid., 5.32. My translation

[9] Ibid., 5.44-5.54

[10] The poster of the woman is also seen in the opening sequence of the film. Here it is blurred as it is seen through the captain’s bottle

[11] IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1857807/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1, Ekkofilm: https://www.ekkofilm.dk/shortlist/film/oceaniden/

[12] Andersen 2010, 25

[13] The Odyssey, see for example VIII, 470-484, IX, 85-87, XII, 306-308

[14] The Iliad, see for example I, 458-468, IX, 206-221

[15] The Odyssey, IX, 91-102

[16] Ibid., IX, 216-414

[17] Ibid., XII, 153-200

[18] Ibid., VII-XII

[19] The Aeneid is divided into twelve songs – six of which relate to the Iliad and the other six to the Odyssey

[20] Det Danske Filminstitut: https://www.dfi.dk/viden-om-film/filmdatabasen/film/oceaniden. My translation. Super8 is a three-year film-education with four different lines: Om uddannelsen | Super8 – Vestdanmarks frie filmuddannelse

[21] IMDb, Gorm Just: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3630053/?ref_=tt_ov_dr, Martin Mortensen: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1694495/?ref_=tt_ov_wr

[22] The parallel world inhabited by witches and wizards is introduced early in the first book and film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone after starting off in a normal suburban setting

[23] We see undead sailors in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Calypso has a significant role in

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

[24] A. Gibbons: Science Magazine (rero.ch)

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