Home to Ithaca

Quite some time ago, I think when I was in my teens, I remember reading an article in the National Geographic magazine purporting to pinpoint the locations of several of the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan war. I remember in particular the photo of a crescent moon shaped bay, likely the remnant of an ancient volcano, where a ship would be totally surrounded by cliffs and thus, of course, the location where Odysseus and his men were pummeled by rocks thrown from above by the angry Laestrygonians.

Charting the route home from Troy and locations of various events has been a popular parlor game for the past couple of thousand years. As far back as Strabo the Geographer in 1 AD we see suggestions and theories.

What route did Odysseus and his men follow to return home? Where was Aeolus’ island, or Circe’s or Calypso’s? Where was Scheria? Where did the Cyclops live, and where was the entrance to the underworld? Charybdis could possibly be the whirlpools at the Strait of Messina, and Skylla the monster is probably long dead.

Most modern scholars now regard the stories told by Odysseus to the Phaeacians in Books 9 to 12 as fantasy; Odysseus was, if nothing else, a great story teller, and we see other instances in the Odyssey where he told fantastic stories. His telling such tall tales, stories of his valour and great sacrifice, were sometimes to support a disguise but more often intended to impress and increase his stature with a possible benefactor, both mortal and immortal. The trick worked with the Phaeacians; Odysseus was well rewarded and given a trip home. So while some of these adventures may have been based on actual experiences they were very likely well embellished for the retelling. Where the events occurred doesn’t much matter. There are hundreds of islands on the route home where Circe and Calypso could have lived. We can only guess why Odysseus and his men decided to delay their returns home for extended stays with these women; perhaps they were prostitutes who became goddesses in the retelling. Other tales such as the battle with the Laestrygonians are obviously embellished accounts of Odysseus’ raiding parties.

So if the route home is an embellished fantasy, what about the start and end points? Where were Troy and Ithaca?

In 1868 Heinrich Schliemann published his finding, based on his excavations in Turkey, that the city of Troy is found in modern-day Hissarlik. The geography was right, the time period was right, the strata were right. All that was lacking was a sign on the city limits that said “Welcome to Troy, population 10,000”. Today no one really disputes Schliemann’s conclusions as to the location of Troy.

But there are still alternate theories of various degrees of credibility. Just one example: In his book The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, an amateur classicist named Felice Vinci proposes a Baltic location for the events of the Trojan war. Why? Vinci points out the number of instances in the Iliad where the warriors are huddled around fires, bundling up to keep warm. This obviously meant to him a northern latitude location for the story, rather than the warm Mediterranean. But most importantly the author finds significant, to him, correlation between a list of names of villages around the Baltic and the names of cities listed in the Catalog of Ships in Book 2 of the Iliad. Some of the matches are possible, though others are quite strained. But are they a better fit than any other possible location?

Tasked with pinpointing a specific location for Troy, Vinci suggests the village of Troija, probably based solely upon the name similarity. But the town is unfortunately located ten miles inland, so Vinci suggests that the Greeks beached their ships closer on the shore and hiked a few miles inland to set up their camp around the walls of Troy, despite Homer’s locating the ships near the camp. Vinci gets around the problem by suggesting that sea level was much higher back then because of a warmer climate than today which would have melted the ice caps, raising the sea level, and an uplift of the continental shelf since the days of Troy. But he provides no scientific evidence of this melt during the period, or an uplift occurring during the last three millennia; he simply suggests it then accepts it as fact.

As for the location of Ithaca, Vinci suggests an island named Lyo in the western Baltic sea in Denmark. While it is indeed the western-most of a group of islands as required by Od. 9:19-26, it is not the western-most out to sea as it is located in a bay surrounded by Denmark on all sides. A bigger problem , though, is that the candidate island is so small, low, and flat that it would have been covered with water if sea level was high enough to allow his suggested location of Troy. Also, Lyo is not rocky, as Ithaka is described, and as a roundish island less than two miles wide it would probably not be big enough to support a town and royal palace — plus 108 hungry suitors.

Finally, and to particularly jarring effect, Vinci’s matches Baltic place names with the name “Ulysses”, when Homer wrote in Greek using the name “Odysseus”.

So much for that theory. I’ll stop short of calling it crackpot, but I think that I could probably do better. This is just one of many that have been proposed over the past couple of millennia.

There’s one recent theory that actually holds up, and may put to rest the question of the location of Ithaca. In his book Odysseus Unbound, Robert Bittlestone suggests Kephalonia in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece as the true island of Ithaca.

Kephalonia is a low lying island, the furthest west of a group of islands that includes one now named Ithaki. This modern Ithaki doesn’t meet the “western-most” description of the island in the Odyssey, but Kephalonia does. The locations of the other islands in the group in relation to Kephalonia are correct as described in Telemachus’ return voyage and aborted ambush by the suitors. Bittlestone has found probable locations for the harbor, the cave where Odysseus hid his loot, the palace complex, and the goatherd’s shack.

The only problem with his theory, to start, was the presence of a narrow valley where a sea channel needed to exist to allow Telemachus’ ship to return home while the young man took a shortcut on foot. Bittlestone didn’t take Vinci’s easy way out by calling up the deus ex machina of a differing sea level. Instead he has had extensive geological studies done that show that the valley was indeed at some point in time a narrow sea channel which had since been filled in by landslides and tectonic activity.

It all fits. I’m convinced. Since the book was first published in 2005 Bittlestone and his colleagues have done further studies, which are published their web page at http://www.odysseus-unbound.org/

So we’ve got the location of Troy, and the location of Ithaca. And we can assume that the adventures in between were tall tales. I think that we’ve got it covered.

Now who the heck was Homer?

A postscript: A few years ago, when I lived in Ithaca, New York I was out on the motorcycle for the day and found myself in the city of Troy, New York, near Albany. At the end of a long day on the bike I suddenly realized what I was doing: heading home to Ithaca after having been to Troy. I’m happy to report that the trip took much less than ten years, with only a stop for gas, and that all that waited for me when I got home was (happily) a couple of hungry cats instead of a horde of 108 hungry, lusty suitors, but (sadly) no Penelope.

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About pininforthefjords

I'm pinin' for the fjords. That's all.
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