After my last blog post, The Ruins of Troy, where we travelled to the site of Homer’s Troy, I thought it only fitting to turn to that other conundrum of Homeric archaeology – Ithaca.
This is the homeland of Odysseus, the endpoint of his ten-year-long wandering on his way back from Troy. Homer gives us considerable descriptions of the island itself in his epic poem, the Odyssey:
I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world
for every kind of craft – my fame has reached the skies.
Sunny Ithaca is my home. Atop her stands our seamark,
Mount Neriton’s leafy ridges shimmering in the wind.
Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side,
Doulichion, Same, wooded Zacynthos too, but mine
lies low and away, the farthest out to sea,
rearing into the western dusk
while the others face the east and breaking day.
(Odyssey 9.19-26, trans. Robert Fagles)
So Ithaca lies furthest to the west of a group of islands; it lies low towards the sea, so it isn’t particularly mountainous; but it does have one mountain, Mount Neriton.
This does not, at first glance, appear particularly problematic. One of the islands to the west of Greece is still called Zakynthos today, and – even better – a smaller island just to the north retains the name of Ithaka (it’s the island on the Google Map below that says ‘Vathi’, which is Ithaka’s capital).
So is this Homer’s Ithaca?
It would be very tempting to want to say yes. But what has troubled scholars for around two thousand years is the fact that the modern island of Ithaka definitely doesn’t lie the furthest to the west of its group of islands – Cephalonia, which you can see to its left marked by its capital Argostoli, does that – nor is it ‘low-lying’. In fact, as you can see in the photograph, it’s quite conspicuously mountainous.
Scholars throughout the centuries have proposed tens if not hundreds of alternative locations for Odysseus’ Ithaca, from the island of Lefkas just to the north all the way to Scotland. But then, in 2005, a new solution to the problem was put forward with an ingenious answer to all our difficulties.
I have just finished reading Robert Bittlestone’s Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca, and I have to admit it’s an astonishingly persuasive hypothesis. Bittlestone – a businessman and classical enthusiast – was on holiday with his family in Cephalonia (the large island to the west of modern-day Ithaka) when he suddenly had an earth-shattering revelation. What if the Cephalonian peninsula of Paliki, the peninsula to the west, was once separated from Cephalonia by a sea-channel? The island of Cephalonia lies directly above a fault-line and is subject to numerous earthquakes, some of which can be devastating – the earthquake of 1953 bears awful testimony to that. During the 1953 episode the entire island of Cephalonia was lifted up out of the sea by 60cm; rockfall devastated the surrounding area, and over 90% of the population fled the island in the wake of the disaster.
Bittlestone’s hypothesis – supported by Professor James Diggle (who taught me Greek tragedy at Cambridge and is a leading expert in ancient Greek philology) and the geological expertise of Professor John Underhill of Edinburgh University – is that the slopes of Mount Imerovigli to the east of the peninsula of Paliki collapsed during a particularly vicious earthquake and slid down into the channel dividing the Palikian peninsula from the mainland of Cephalonia, joining them into a single island. This would have happened, he suggests, sometime shortly after the events of the Odyssey are supposed to have taken place, destroying the material evidence of the Odyssean palace and erasing the memory of the island of Ithaca from the public memory. The adjoining island of Doulichion was then re-christened Ithaka in tribute to the ancient legend.
The geological evidence, provided by experts such as Professor Underhill, is perhaps the most convincing part of Bittlestone’s argument, although his theory of the island of Asteris (from which the suitors undertake their failed ambush upon Telemachus) as, in fact, the peninsula of modern Argostoli is ingenious to say the least. But Bittlestone doesn’t stop there. He continues to identify, not only the location of Odysseus’ palace, but the precise positioning of Eumaeus’ pigfarm, the Ithacan harbour and the harbour to which Odysseus returns from the Phaeacians, the spring of Arethousa and much more.
You might ask why I was reading Bittlestone’s book, which, at nearly 600 pages, is no quick summer read. Well, my love of Classics and a desire to get to the bottom of the Ithaca mystery was definitely part of it. But my husband and I also happen to be flying out to Cephalonia – and if I have any say in the matter we will certainly be spending some time tracing the route of the Atheras Walk, which follows the quest in Odysseus Unbound! Stay tuned next time for details of how we get on finding Odysseus’ palace!
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.