Richard Hodges: Sailing to Ithaca?

8 mins read

Keep Ithaca 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,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

Looking out over Vathy, the capital of modern Ithaca. But is this island really the destination that Odysseus strove so hard to find in the Odyssey?

In his poem ‘Sailing to Ithaca’ Konstantinos Cavafy uses Odysseus’ adventures home from the Trojan wars as a lyrical metaphor for the human journey. Ithaca is an image for final destinations. This island in the Ionian archipelago, uncomfortably rugged and separated by a wide mesmerizing passage from Kefalonia, fits Homer’s story and Cavafy’s poem perfectly. Perpetually basking in a blazing luminous light, Ithaca boasts fine if unexceptional archaeological sites. With its well-signposted walking trails and numerous fish tavernas, the island is scarcely less than magical. Yet is Ithaca in fact Odysseus’ island, where Penelope faithfully weaved, steadfastly waiting for her mischievous prince in their well-appointed palace?

Well, in 1797, the nationalist activist, Rigas Velestinlis (1757-1798), published the first Greek map of his homeland, calling the island we know as Ithaca, Doulichion. Velestinlis was using the name for the island in Strabo’s 1st-century geography. This fact and the seismic geology of neighbouring Kefalonia – known to Strabo as Sami – has led a British foundation to question where Odysseus’ palace was located. The competition to own Odysseus barely exists on the islands themselves. Ithaca assumes it is the Ithaca, and Kefalonia chooses instead to champion its spectacular if spare landscape and crystalline bays.

Ithaca assumes it is Ithaca

Ithaca is not shy about claiming an association with Odysseus, and there are many statues or busts of the Homeric hero, including this one from Vathy town hall.

Across the rich screen of this island, ancient and modern names offer themselves to the mind like the translation of flesh into spectral appearances. Busts and statues of Odysseus grace every public space. Old ones convey an anonymous gravitas; modern versions project a lithe, whip-smart survivor. Guided Homer trails are marketed by fliers stapled to telegraph poles. So far so good. Yet the pantheon of archaeologists who have worked on this island are at best no more than faded archive images on sun-bleached site panels. Ithaca’s archaeology itself is left very much to your imagination. Contrast this with Ithaca’s walking paths. These rate as some of the best signposted trails in the Mediterranean.

The search for the palace where Penelope weaved and unpicked her embroidery has a long history. The story starts with one of the princes of archaeological history. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), no less, began his archaeological career on the island before his journey took him to Mycenae and Troy. In 1868, he deduced that M. Aetos, the bare cone soaring above Ithaca’s western ferry port of Pio Aetos, was the site of Odysseus’ palace. Schliemann’s excavations were the first to uncover ancient Alakomenai, a town spanning the Archaic Greek to Roman periods. The town itself occupied an extraordinary vantage point. From the saddle of the hill immediately below the cone, the town surveyed Janus views of the Straits of Ithaca to the west and east to Vathi Bay.

Schliemann should be forgiven for his error. M. Aetos towering above the Hellenistic town is a captivating ever-present seamark. Sublime though the views are from the summit, the incline is surely too great, though, for the kind of Bronze Age palace found at Knossos, Mycenae or Pylos? And yet the British archaeologist, W A Heurtley, excavating in the 1930s found Mycenean remains on the slopes. Heurtley was tempted away from his research bailiwick in Macedonia to pursue several seasons on these sharp slopes. None produced the palace he so ardently sought. Still, the trail to the top is too alluring not to take. Today, follow the red dots, remembering while catching your breath that the Trojan survivor surely scrambled up this steep path too. The dots take you past cyclopean walls of Archaic Greek date to an unimpressive acropolis with its rock-cut cistern. The archaeology scarcely matters. Here, at a heart-beating 378m above sea level the 360° panorama defies description. Suffice it to say it feels Homeric, timeless Grecian. The silence is like a discernible pulse – the heartbeat of time itself.

The acropolis commands much of rocky Ithaca and almost all the grey mountainous rib of Kefalonia. In high summer this is a landscape lying close to the sky with a palette of rich colours in heavy brush strokes. The straits that separate the two islands resemble a lake, shimmering in all directions. Only the coursing yachts leaving thin white trails mark the otherwise mirror-smooth sea.

Schliemann returned in 1878 to try his luck again to no avail. His extraordinary journey is told nowhere here, more’s the pity. Nor is the relationship of this Archaic town to the Kefalonian Tetrapolis: the sprawling hilltop towns like Krane, Pronnoi, and Sami on the adjacent island. Does it matter?

Heurtley’s research assistant, the intrepid Sylvia Benton (1887-1985), had a little more luck. Benton was born in Lahore, studied classics at Cambridge University, and found a home at the British School at Athens – although she was initially denied a scholarship for the unthinkable crime of hiking alone in the Peloponnese in 1928. Her thesis at Oxford University was entitled The Baronry of Odysseus. Caves rather than palaces were her lifelong passion – in the Ionian islands and her adopted home, Scotland. She found exactly what she wanted 10 miles to the north of M. Aetos, beside Polis Bay. Here, on the north side of the finest sandy beach on the Straits of Ithaca, she excavated a cave sanctuary that had Mycenean origins and riches from the Classical and Archaic Greek periods. The excavation in 1932-1933 was full of challenges. Part of the sanctuary lay below water and in many places the cave ceiling had collapsed. Using a pump on an anchored caique, she drained the sanctuary and with ingenuity tackled the archaeological deposits. This driven soul with her Ithacan workmen filled a good part of the island’s museums with finds. For the first time Ithaca possessed material evoking the colour of their hero’s Mycenean world.

A faded sign within the bathing paraphernalia shows the evocative British School at Athens’ archive photographs of the formidable archaeologist and her dig. Sadly, the cave itself is largely no more; it collapsed after a devastating earthquake in 1953. Polis Bay, though, protected from northerly and westerly winds, is a gem. With its glittering waters and happy families, you cannot resist imagining Odysseus beaching boats here. A ruined Byzantine chapel tucked into the hillside makes one wonder, if no more, that later mariners liked to recall their Bronze Age forebear.

Palace intrigue

Above Polis Bay a leafy saddle between peaks is home to the village of Stavros. Odysseus is important to these villagers. In its piazza under a canopy of tall trees there is not only a lugubrious bronze statue of Homer’s hero but also a virtual museum. At first sight the museum resembles a bus shelter. It does, however, contain a precious new angle on the search for Odysseus. Its centerpiece is a scale model of an archaeologist’s interpretation of the nearby ‘Homer’s School’ as the palace of Odysseus. It makes little sense here, except to excite the visitor to find the archaeological site itself. That said, the model-maker spent long hours infusing his or her reading of recent excavations to fit the description of this great palace. The result is a sprawling flat-roofed complex erected from the flimsiest of archaeological evidence.

Greek excavators from Ioannina who dreamed up this maquette were not the first to associate Stavros with Odysseus’s home. First up was a Derbyshire antiquarian better known for his books on Pompeii, the environs of Rome, and Aegean Turkey, William Gell (1777-1836). His trip to Ithaca was made in 1806 – at the height of the Napoleonic War – when the island had just come into British hands. Gell, as always, settled down at Stavros and not only drew ‘Homer’s School’, but immediately published a book, The Geography and Antiquities of Ithaca, which won him admission into the Society of Dilettante and the admiration of Lord Byron.

A model of Homer’s School, presenting the archaeological site as a palace, on display at Stavros.

Not much has changed since Gell’s visit. The site still inhabits a charmed landscape. Finding ‘Homer’s School’ is not exactly straightforward – amazingly. It lies north of Stavros museum (shut in these times) on the east-facing slope below the monastery of Aghia Panagias. Inevitably hiking trail signs lead you right to the site. Like M. Aetos this is a magical place loud with insistent cicadas and the faint tinkling of goat bells echoing through the dense groves of olive trees. The calm is absolute. Unlike the cone that detained Schliemann, ‘Homer’s School’ sits on a mid-slope terrace overlooking the deep vales reaching to bays at Afales on the north and Frinkon to the east. The land is rich in ravishing acadias, reds, pinks, and white, while far beyond are the dreamlike silhouettes of the distant Pindus mountains. Penelope might have weaved to her heart’s discontent on such a treasured hillside.

The archaeology is not quite as noble in its promise. Yes, the rock-cut steps and even a miniature odeon alluringly depicted by Gell are visible below later Greek remains. Set within a farm abandoned in 1953, the most commanding feature is a well-preserved Hellenistic tower-house made of elaborately cut blocks. This was a powerfully built project that surely commanded northern Ithaca and its maritime approaches. The untidy ground around is peppered with abandoned ‘Wheelerian’ box trenches – some covered with galvanized tin rooves, some open to the elements – exposing stubby lengths of walls of unknown date. Making sense of these is impossible. The virtual museum in Stavros piazza identifies each tell-tale block and attributes it to the palace. On site, though, without a site map, the puzzle is infuriatingly incomprehensible.

Why, one wonders, did Schliemann ignore Gell’s romantic description? Was the German archaeologist too taken with the vaunting physicality of M. Aetos? Did the location of ‘Homer’s School’ appear too effete and sumptuous to satisfy Schliemann’s view of Odysseus as a king from a poor island?

Vathy, the capital of the island, lies in the centre of Ithaca, 15 miles south of ‘Homer’s School’. When the Ionian Islands were under British hegemony, the governor, the Earl of Guildford, proposed a University of Ithaca be created here. The governor’s contemporary, Jervis White-Jervis was not persuaded: ‘Visionary ideas of academical groves and of the birthplace of Ulysses do not form men to be useful citizens; and from one student who would have been sent there, a hundred men would have been turned out upon the world with their ideas confined to a barren rock and a few goats.’

Today, the busy little town occupies the head of a horseshoe-shaped bay. Its modest museum possesses a few grave goods from Mycenean tombs as well as later Hellenistic pots and grave goods from Alakomenai. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, I recall more cases stacked with objects, mostly from the sanctuary pumped out and excavated by Benton. These, it seems, are in store or elsewhere. Ithaca’s archaeological story has been eclipsed by its status as a yachting hub and with its eye on hikers too. In the port square a helpful map encourages visitors to explore the island’s many waymarked trails. Up above Vathy is a path that connects the Homeric-era Grotto of Nymphs where excavations produced Bronze Age material and the so-called Fountain of Arethusa. The archaeology is as underwhelming as the long hazy views across the Ionian Sea to the mainland are dazzling and well worth the journey.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 106 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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