The absence of Odysseus: part one


Students of Classical Civilisation sometimes ask whether the places in The Odyssey can be identified.

People have been arguing about this for longer than two millennia. Even the identity of Ithaca remains in doubt: recent geological discoveries have suggested that it was the western peninsula of Cefalonia, joined to it after ancient times by seismic activity. It certainly fits Homer’s description far better than the island that now bears the name of Ithaca.

There is a book by Ernle Bradford called Ulysses Found. Bradford had a copy of The Odyssey with him while serving with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean; and later he sailed around in his own boat, searching for the various places. The work ends up as a charming and informative book about the Mediterranean.

Surprising things emerge, and some reminders of what should be obvious. For example:

  • The actual wanderings lasted two years, the remaining eight being accounted for by the sojourns with the immortals Calypso and Circe;
  • Those two years consisted of Odysseus and his men, whose navigational skills were minimal, bouncing around the perimeters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, which is 70% surrounded by land, knowing that they needed to sail eastward but unable to get out (Ernle Bradford’s map is downloadable from the Images menu above);
  • The harbour of the Laestrygonians is identified as Port De Bonifacio at the southern end of Corsica. It fits Odysseus’s unusual description (Book X lines 87ff).

However, this last is a reminder of how fact is blended with fantasy. It is difficult to believe that the people on Corsica were giants or that they were cannibals; nor can we believe Odysseus that Corsica was a land ‘where nightfall and morning are so close together that a sleepless man could earn a double wage’: that must have come from Phoenician stories about Britain, or even Iceland.

Students may need reminding that Odysseus is a liar: and the passage where Athene describes him as such to his face is amusing: see Book XIII lines 287ff.

Next post: The absence of Odysseus, part two.

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