More about the Odyssey

 

Homer’s depiction of the Ionian Islands is half imaginary, as becomes clear from his account of Phaeacia, an island that Odysseus has not seen before and will not see again, although it is less than a night’s voyage from his home.

Homer had not ‘passed that way’. So it is no wonder that his account of Ithake and the other islands does not add up, but seems like a conflation of several places, whose geography has come from hearsay; but into it, as a constant, comes Mount Neriton, still the name of the highest peak on modern Ithake.

Information is lacking also about Meges, named in the Iliad as coming from the neighbouring island of Dulichium and bringing forty ships to Troy—in contrast to Odysseus, so honoured among the Greek leaders, who brought twelve. (Iliad II.627-30).

At least four possible women have been suggested for the mother of Meges, including Ctimene, the sister of Penelope. The relation of Odysseus to Meges, and to the island of Dulichium, remains unexplained; Telemachus tells him that fifty-two of the suitors have come from there (Odyssey XVI.247).

Students fall under the spell of the Odyssey and become engrossed in its perceptions of human behaviour. But they do notice and question things, as when the Phaeacian ship carries Odysseus home to Ithaca under cover of night:

So she sped swiftly on, cutting the waves of the sea,
Bearing a man with counsels like to the gods…
(XIII.88-89)

“Hang on a bit!” said a sixth form student. “Counsels like to the gods? This is someone who didn’t even think of saying to his men, ‘Don’t touch that bag: it’s got winds in it.’”

“Yes,” said another, “and this is the man who gave his ID and contact details to the Cyclops, even when his men warned against it.”

” I disagree,” said a third. “The gods’ counsels were pretty basic—a lot of the time they carried on like spoilt brats. I think Odysseus’s counsels were often similar.”

Pupils come out with this kind of thing, and thoughtful ones even spot some of the anomalies, one of which appears shortly after this same voyage. Athene waits until Odysseus is ensconced in the hut of Eumaeus before setting off for Sparta to urge Telemachus to come home. But after that, Homer’s account almost synchronises the two arrivals.

However, this is a story, and in many a good story there comes a time—in this case approaching the denouement—when events become so much more important than the timing or the geography of them, that the writer feels free to skate over such details; and so perhaps did the committee of rhapsodists who collated the Odyssey.

 

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/