A motif frequently appearing in literature is "journey to a distant land." The content of the destination changes with the ideas of each writer, but the motif is always expressed in terms of a journey to some distant location expressed as a far away land, a distant city, or far country—but always somewhere away-from-here.
The son of an indulgent father received what likely amounted to half the father's personal worth. The son journeyed to a far country (Luke 15:13), a location that likely represented to the lad freedom from parental influence, which translates into fun and good times—since he squandered everything in "loose living." When Abram lived in Haran, he was directed by God "go to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1), where, he was promised, his progeny would become numerous and he would be a blessing to "all the families of earth." In this case the then unknown distant land (Canaan) held the promise of material prosperity and universal influence. The author of Hebrews took the image of the distant land and conceived it as a celestial city, "whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:8-12). The imagined destination was a spiritual ideal, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24), representing to this author a place of heavenly rest (Hebrews 4:1-13), and the journey led ultimately to the afterlife.
In John Bunyan's thinly disguised allegory of the Christian experience, the protagonist (Christian) journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is imagined as a 17th century vision of Heaven. The journey to that ideal place is cast as a pilgrimage, which is fraught along the way with temptations and threats to Christian's progress in faith.
After the ten year long Trojan War, Odysseus, King of Ithaca returns to his native land. In terms of physical distance Ithaca is not far, but in terms of time, it still takes him ten years to reach home, beloved Ithaca and wife Penelope. His journey home is an epic tale filled with numerous dangers, and "home" is everything positive that the word evokes.
Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick (1851) describes the ill-fated voyage of the Pequod, a whaling ship commissioned ostensibly as a profit venture. Her captain (Ahab), however, had another goal, and turns their journey into a quest to kill the white whale, Moby Dick, that earlier had destroyed another vessel and maimed Ahab in body, mind, and soul. The ultimate destination is thereby changed from a successful and profitable return to home port, to Ahab's revenge on the whale. The poem by William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (1892) poetically imagines a getaway house in the wood amidst natural surroundings, but thematically the poet is yearning for what can only be found away-from-here: "an ideal place where he will find perfect peace and happiness."
In the modern world we conceive journeys and destinations in linear terms: a beginning that leads forward to some destination—somewhere in a different location. The ancients, on the other hand, thought in cyclical terms, perhaps because their lives were more obviously dependent on the cycles of nature: the earth dies in the winter but renews itself every year in the spring—a perennial cycle of life. Neither one's personal history nor history as human experience was conceived by the ancients as linear progress toward some ultimate goal.
For example, Empedocles (5th century BC) introduced the idea of repeated world cycles: because periods of "Love and Strife" alternated, the history of the cosmos was viewed as a series of cyclical periods (Nahm, Greek Philosophy; fragment 66, 110). Hesiod (around 700 BC) saw reality as an alternating series of five world ages (Works and Days, 106-201). Marcus Aurelius said "…the universe is governed according to finite periods (of coming to be and passing away)" (Meditations 5.13)—each period began and another cycle ended at the same point.
Might the ancients have been correct after all? Our tiny blue and white planet, for example, is on an infinite journey of repeated twenty-four hour cycles around its sun. Hence one's personal physical age should not be thought of as linear sequence, but rather should be calculated in terms of a succession of repeated cycles around the sun. We don't really go anywhere in life; we just repeat the cycle every twenty-four hours.
That is not true of the universe, however, which is expanding outward all around (if it is circular) at a rapid rate of speed on a wild ride toward some unknown destination; hence the universe clearly appears to be moving "somewhere" in linear fashion.
Whether we conceive our journey as being locked into repeated centripetal cycles or caught up in a linear centrifugal force, which concept adds more significance to life, the journey or the destination?
The Greek poet C. P. Cavafy in a short poem about Odysseus's journey home (Ἰθάκη, Ithaka), claimed that journeys were more significant. What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University