Searching for Homer: A Brief History of Travel
By Samuel P.N. Cook
Since we were small, we have been regaled with stories of epic journeys. The most famous of those, that every school child reads, is Homer’s Odyssey. This epic tale recounts Odysseus’s long journey home to reunite with his family. His journey takes 10 years, and along the way he encounters locus eaters, cannibals, beautiful sirens, and manages to participate in a pentathlon and fight a few battles for good measure.
It is little wonder that we are obsessed with travel. With stories like these etched in our consciousness, we have seen a constant effort to recreate this mythical journey throughout our history. The classical world, with its advanced economy and well established roads, allowed for widespread travel. The collapse of Rome, and the subsequent economic and security vacuum that followed, essentially limited travel to intrepid envoys and Armies, who were mainly carrying out the business of their kings.
While the educated elite saw precious little opportunities to travel outside of official state business, they kept the dream alive by nursing the classical texts… and the legend of travel lived on. The advent of the age of discovery in the late 15th Century ushered in a new age of adventure travel. In the 16th and 17th Century, English merchants and trader and wealthy sons of nobility captured the imagination of their country with travel journals that became best sellers by telling stories of exotic encounters from China, to the West Indies, and with American Indians in the new world … Pocanantas… a story that Disney continues to retell with great commercial success.
Through the 18th and early 19th Century, adventurers such as Captain James Cook in England became legendary for their exploits in discovering distant lands such as Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand. And as the wealth of the Western World grew on the strength of their global domination in the 1840s, the desire of the people to follow in their footsteps allowed travel visionaries like Thomas Cook to create travel agencies that allowed the middle class, for the first time, to travel across the world, to places like the United States, Japan, and Egypt.
Since the days of Thomas Cook, travel has become an industry for the masses, first across Europe and the United States, and now for a new wave of travelers from emerging economies such as China and Brazil.
And now the internet, ironically, has brought us full circle back to the mythic days of Homer. Until the last 20 years, major travel companies enabled mostly group trips across the world with packaged groups of travelers combining to embark on a rather scripted itinerary. Now, with the internet creating an age of independent travelers, many of us have again set off on our own in search of the mythic travel story we can hopefully write about, or at least tell long stories to their friends over dinner, detailing their encounters like Homer once did.
The advent of blogging and social media has made the travel journal easy, and now almost instant. While people might not have encountered locus eaters and cannibals, if you go onto the internet and read some travel blogs, you can actually get pretty close to the hyperbole and myth that made Homer’s epic tale something we still read until this day. And the beauty of independent travel is that there is nobody to verify the tales you tell, so go ahead and live and write your own “Odyssey.”