Odysseus Unbound; In Search Of Odysseus' Ithaca
A multidisciplinary project may have found the legendary Greek heroes home.
More than a century ago, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann located the spot where the great city of Troy – the former kingdom of Paris, Hector and Priam – once stood. It had been the dramatic and splendid setting of the Iliad. The exact places described in the Odyssey, a tale of many islands, have all been sought for many years, especially the one most missed of all; Ithaca, the home of Odysseus and his beautiful wife, Penelope.
But where is the Ithaca described by Homer with such detail in the epic poem? There are many theories and possible locations for the territory, but most experts agree that it’s one of the many islands in the west of Greece, in the Ionian Sea. The Odysseus Unbound project, begun in 2003, came up with a surprising theory and assembled an impressive team of geologists, archaeologists, and experts in classical culture, to prove that the island of Odysseus is located on an island today called Kefalonia.
For centuries, scholars have noted that the characteristics of the island currently called Ithaca (near Kefalonia) don’t correspond to the Homeric descriptions of Odysseus’ home. The island has been dismissed as the possible location of the Ithaca of the ancient hero. What’s more, because it was a “fictitious” land, the description may have been the result of poetic license taken by Homer. If it existed at all, Homer never saw Ithaca because he’s believed to have lived in Asia Minor, the eastern side of today’s Turkey. Complicating matters further, the events narrated in the Iliad and the Odyssey happened around 1200 BCE, and the poet recorded them only hundreds of years later.
Robert Bittlestone, the project leader of Odysseus Unbound, raised the possibility that Homer may have been more or less precise in his descriptions but that the earth from which the islands emerge may have risen over the more than 3,000 years that have passed between the Trojan War and today. The argument makes sense as the tectonics of the region are among the most unstable in the world.
When Odysseus arrived on Esquiria, at the court of King Antinous, he presented himself and described his home as a flat island. It was one next to several others, and among these, he named the island of Zacinth. He also explained that Ithaca is the furthest island in the sea in the direction of sunset, that is to the west. These and many other clues have been reviewed by the experts in ancient Greek, history, and geology led Bittlestone to be sure that the Homeric Ithaca is located on the Paliki Peninsula, just west of the Greek island of Kefalonia. The team posed and tested the hypothesis that this peninsula was once separated from Kefalonia, and was joined to the larger island at some point as a result of earthquakes and landslides from the mountains.
“Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years,” Constantine Cavafy wrote in the poem Ithaca. In light of the poet’s words, the search for the home of the astute Odysseus isn’t beautiful merely for accuracy or truthfulness (the theory has several detractors). The project is beautiful because the search for an island within a multitude of other islands begins with a book written thousands of years ago. It allows us to see the Ithacas for what they really are: dazzling, timeless ideas which, like the Cyclops and the fearsome Laestrygonians we carry within us, like territories we’ll always seek, despite having found them.
*Images: 1) Ithaca by Edward Dodwell, 1821; 2) Stories from the classics by Eva March, 1907 / Boston Public Library; 3) Odysseus Unbound; 4) Cephalonia from Zante by Lord Windsor, 1882 / Public Domain
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