On September 29th, a press conference was held at the Foreign Press Association, London, to announce the discovery of the location of Ithaca, the island featured in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, and to launch a new book Odysseus Unbound: the Search for Homer’s Ithaca by Robert Bittlestone (Cambridge University Press, £25).
The discovery is no small claim. Indeed the team billed their news as ‘potentially one of the most exciting Classical discoveries for over 130 years’. It is the ‘potentially’ that is key here. For the team has not necessarily found Homer’s Ithaca; they just hope they have. Moreover, the central premise still remains hypothetical – i.e. that dramatic geological shifts have hidden the solution to the mystery of Odysseus’ island.
Ithaca was the home of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, who, having spent 10 years fighting the Trojan war, then dawdled rather and spent 10 further years making his way back to Ithaca. There his ever-loving wife, Penelope, had spent 20 years fighting off numerous suitors, all of whom had to be slain when Odysseus eventually arrived home, recognised only by his swineherd and his faithful dog (who having recognised his master, promptly dropped dead). The trouble is that Ithaca is a rather a long way from Troy: in fact it is on the other (western) side of Greece, so Odysseus, dawdling or no dawdling, would have to have sailed the whole way round the Peloponnese to get home.
But the island today called Ithaca appears to be all wrong, for Homer’s description of Ithaca does not agree with the location of modern Ithaki.
As Homer writes:
Around are many islands, close to each other,
Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos.
Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea
Towards dusk; the rest, part, face dawn and sun.
Since dusk falls to the west and dawn rises to the east, ancient Ithaca cannot be modern Ithaki, for Ithaki lies to the east of the other islands, not to the west. Furthermore, Ithaki is not low-lying but is mountainous.
Many Homeric archaeologists, notably Schliemann’s assistant Dorpfeld have suggested many possible alternatives, but now Robert Bittlestone, a businessman/management consultant has offered a new solution in this over-long (and over weighty) but nevertheless very readable new book. Bittlestone believes that Homer had in fact been essentially accurate in his description, and the mismatch occurred because of geological changes in the landscape. Since 2003, he and colleagues, have been working on a solution. They conclude that Ithaca correlates with the island of Cephalonia – an island whose literary fame is perhaps more recent: as the idyllic setting for Louis de Bernières’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
Bittlestone’s inspiration came from the geographer Strabo (64 BC – AD 21) who also sought to identify Homer’s Ithaca. In his quest, the geographer described a marine passage, dubbed ‘Strabo’s Channel’, which cuts Cephalonia to the west: Where the island is narrowest it forms an isthmus so low-lying that it is often submerged from sea to sea.
But Strabo, say the team, failed to realise the potential significance of his Channel. They suggest that over the last three millennia periodic earthquakes have caused land-mass uplift and catastrophic rockfalls to fill in Strabo’s Channel, which has now become a strip of land called Thinia. This recent landbridge would have created a single island – Cephalonia – out of two former islands: Ithaca and Same. Same, also mentioned in Homer’s descriptions of Ithaca, is equated by the team with the main part of modern Cephalonia. And Ithaca? This, they say, was Cephalonia’s western peninsula, an area now called Paliki.
Paliki marks the spot
Robert Bittlestone espouses stalwart confidence in his theory and has devoted a huge book 598 pages long to floating his idea: he has persuaded James Diggle, the Professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge and John Underhill, the Professor of Stratigraphy at Edinburgh to join him by each adding an appendix. James Diggle believes in the potential of this correlation because almost all of the 26 locations that are described in detail in the Odyssey can today be identified in northern Paliki and its neighbourhood. However, John Underhill, on whose geological expertise the entire theory rests, said more cautiously: ‘Nothing to date refutes the notion that Robert has put forward.’ The definitive geological assessment will take place over the next two years. As part of this, they plan to date the sediment in Strabo’s Channel.
Will his ideas work? Well possibly, though it would have needed a mighty big earthquake to produce such a solid looking isthmus for joining the two islands. Perhaps stratigraphic borings will produce evidence. But the other problem is that there has been no hint of a Homeric palace on the peninsula. Perhaps fieldwalking would solve this – surely a Mycenaean palace fit for Odysseus should not remain concealed for too long. One wishes Mr Bittlestone good luck in his endeavours: he is clearly a canny publicist whipping up a sense of adventure and a momentum to move the project forward. One hopes that this weighty tome will at least persuade the Greek authorities to allow him to do some fieldwalking and continue his enthusiastic researches.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 14. Click here to subscribe