Homer and Ithaca

 

The whereabouts of Ithake has been a mystery since ancient times and there have been differing theories. But in the 2005 book Odysseus Unbound* there is an apparently new suggestion – that Paliki, the western peninsula of the modern Cephalonia and joined to it by an isthmus, was in Homer’s time an island, and none other than the ancient Ithake.

The theory goes that this once island has since been joined to Cephalonia by seismic movement. However, it could be asked whether that is a necessary proviso. The word νῆσος was not used so technically in those chartless days. It seems far-fetched that the people who bestowed the name Peloponnese—Island of Pelops—did not know that it was joined to the rest of Greece by the Isthmus of Corinth. After all, it was the route their immigrant ancestors had taken.

More important is that Paliki does seem to fit Homer’s description. Odysseus tells his hosts on Phaeacia that his home is Ithake, situated amongst many other islands close to one another, and he mentions Dulichium, Same and Zakynthos:

  • αὐτὴ δὲ χθαμαλὴ πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται
    πρὸς ζόφον, αἱ δέ τ᾽ ἄνευθε πρὸς ἠῶ τ᾽ ἠέλιόν τε…
  • But Ithake, low-lying, is sited furthest off in the sea towards the west, while the others face towards the dawn and the sun…
    Odyssey IX, lines 25-26.

Equally significant is the description of the rocky island of Asteris, midway between Ithake and the coast of Same, where the suitors laid their ambush for Telemachus (end of Book Four). There is exactly such an island between Paliki and its mainland.

These two descriptions apply to Paliki, not to the modern Ithake.

It can be imagined that during the ‘Dark Ages’ of Greece, harassed continually by pirates and probably by earthquakes, the inhabitants vacated the peninsula, thenceforth to be known as Παλαιὰ Ἰθάκη (later shortened by frequent use to Παλική), took refuge on the less hospitable but safer island on the other side of Cephalonia, and took their name with them.

Migrations and depopulations are recurrent in the history of these islands, both then and in the Middle Ages. The ruthless predations of the corsairs from Barbary in the 16th century and the consequent movement of refugees was a repetition of what had happened over millennia.

Old Ithaca, on this theory, was the private fiefdom of Odysseus and Penelope for their estate, and for their people and their households. The whole island of Same (Cephalonia), referred to as ‘the mainland’, was his kingdom, whence the cowherd Philoetius brings his beasts on the short ferry crossing in Book 21. The kingdom also included Zacynthos to the south, which later the Venetians called Zante— ‘Fiore di Levante’.

The modern island of Ithake is enchanting—crouching with its rounded humps on the hazy sea, beautiful with hills encircling the bay of Molo to the east, and glimpsed enticingly in the film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But if this new theory is correct, the traveller who wishes to breathe the air and view the landscape that was reintroduced to Odysseus by Athene on that misty morning ten years after the sack of Troy, may want to visit Paliki also.

 

*Odysseus Unbound, Robert Bittlestone, with Professor James Diggle of Cambridge University and Professor John Underhill of the University of Edinburgh, CUP 2005 (recommended).
See also the website http://www.odysseus-unbound.org/