4th Pillar

The Odyssey
Description of Ithaca. Interpretation-Analysis

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(Summary) Nearly all elements in the depiction of Ithaca in the Odyssey correspond to the present island of Ithaca. The main discrepancy, a phrase describing the island as being the most western, although it can not be attributed to present day Ithaca, it can neither refute the overall depiction. This has been determined by approaches attempted through herdsmen’s accounts, geographical descriptions, the voyages, and five comparative elements corresponding exclusively to Ithaca’s size. (General geophysical depiction and geophysical depiction for comparison to the other islands, climate, agricultural, livestock capacity, ships, and number of suitors, and all these in combination with the strategic position and importance of Ithaca within this cluster of islands.)

In the Odyssey, the poetic description of Ithaca (*) from a literary, geographic, geophysical, productive and other comparative perspectives, corresponds on nearly all points to present day Ithaca. The main, classical, ‘‘exception’’ is limited to the phrase “πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται πρὸς ζόφον” (**). This concerns a phrase of controversial and stale-mate semantics, that:

(a) on the one hand is refuted by other consistent phrases in relative Homeric narration – (Od. ι 19-28) “εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται”= stands in coastal waters and not in the open sea (pontos) – the difference between ‘‘als’’ and ‘‘pontos’’ and “ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι πολλαὶ”= surrounded both sides by many islands, et al); and,

(b) on the other hand, the above phrase falls short of these theoreticians’ high expectations when applied to theories concerning Cephalonian claims and, in general, is not consistent with other descriptive and geophysical elements.

Indeed, the αμφίαλος, κραναή and οὐδ᾿ εὐρεῖα (surrounded by sea, rocky and not wide) island of Ithaca has its own Homeric specifications and consequently the alleged as seditious phrase ‘‘πανυπερτάτη πρὸς ζόφον’’ fails to save on its own any of the morphemes that pretend to present themselves as Homeric Ithacas.

Another seditious word in the narrative is the word ‘‘αὐτὴ” (Od. ι 25) (= she) for which at least two theories believe that it concerns Zacynthus and not Ithaca. In general the geographical speculations of lines (Od. ι 19-28), which like all the others aren’t possible to be taken for granted, cannot nullify the bulk of descriptions such as those in δ 600-608, ο 245-247, υ 186-188, υ 208-210, ω 353-355, etc, that clearly point to Ithaca, as we will see in the following.

The literary gaps, to the extent that they exist, are and will perhaps remain insurmountable, while on the other hand they cannot deter identification of present day Ithaca with the Homeric. Moreover, present day Ithaca besides identifying overwhelmingly with the various descriptions found in the Odyssey, holds a central position within the island cluster, has an ancient name, tradition and unique archaeological findings of Odyssean nature.

(*)  There are four extensive passages in the Odyssey with reference to Ithaca, (Books IV, IX, XIII and XIX), while also information of interest can be found dispersed in Books I, XV, XXIV, etc.

(**) The word ‘‘ζόφος” interpreted during the times of the ancient geographer Strabo as ‘‘north’’, has not been confirmed as ‘‘west’’ by any of the four different theories (i.e. Volteras 1903, Livadas-Toumasatos 1996, Le Noan 2004 and Bittleston 2005) to which this was applied. The reason being, as already mentioned, that the rest of the descriptive elements do not concur with the position and the shape of Paliki. The interpretation of “ζόφος” as “west”, though, can be proved thus leading to an impasse. On the other hand, Paliki’s remote position could not be supported as a candidate for the seat of the Odyssean kingdom.

Analysis of the Odyssey’s text in three units

(1) The catalytic testimony (a) of Odysseus’ two herdsmen, Philoetius and Eumaeus, (b) of Eumaeus on Ctimene, and (c) of king Laertes.

All three testimonies refer to the boundaries of the two islands and point out their differences in the most eloquent way.

(a) Pasturelands off Ithaca. The practice of grazing Odysseus’ large and many herds off the island, while ferrying them to and from when needed, is clearly described by his chief herdsman Philoetius (Od. υ 186-188). The herdsman Eumaeus, on the other hand, says ‘‘who set me over his cattle, when I was yet a boy, in the land of the Cephallenians’’ (Od. υ 209-210), a fact which clearly defines boundaries between the two islands-areas such as they appear today and confirms that ‘‘the land of Cephallenians’’ was such a pastureland away from Ithaca.

(b) The testimony of Eumaeus about Ctimene. A third testimony relating to the boundaries and the diversity of the islands is that of Eumaeus (Od. ο 363-367) relating to Telemachus’ sister and Odysseus’ daughter, Ctimene, who married in Same. Same was an ancient city of Cephalonia and Homer mentions this place-name (Od. δ 671, α 246, ι 24 and Ιl. Β 634) used in present day Cephalonia.

(c) The testimony of Laertes. The words of Odysseus’ father, Laertes, indicate the fearful atmosphere prevailing in the Palace of Ithaca after the assassination of the suitors as he was concerned with the avenging fury of ‘‘the cities of Cephallenians’’ which would manifest if the Ithacans brought them the news and asked for their help: “lest straightway all the men of Ithaca come hither against us, and send messengers everywhere to the cities of the Cephallenians“ (Od. ω 353-355).

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(2) Ithaca geographically.

A) Ithaca through related words or verses in the Odyssey

Six Homeric references outline Ithaca’s geographic position within the cluster of the Ionian Islands. Ithaca is the only island located in an enclosed sea surrounded by many islands and coastal areas. It appears that the small islands (αἱ δέ) are to the east/south-east of Ithaca (as they actually are), whereas those mentioned by name (the larger ones Cephalonia, Dulichium and Zacynthus) are to the west. Ithaca is the most northern of the islands of the kingdom.

(a)  The phrase ‘‘εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται’’ = Ithaca is located in an enclosed sea and not in an open sea (pontos) (Od. ι 25).

(b)  The phrase ‘‘ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι μάλα σχεδὸν ἀλλήλῃσι’’= there are around her many islands, one close to the other (Od. ι 22-23). Confirming the interpretation of lines 22-23 (Book IX) are lines 65-66 (Book II) “ἄλλους τ᾿ αἰδέσθητε περικτίονας ἀνθρώπους, οἳ περιναιετάουσι” = “have regard to your neighbours who dwell round about.”

(c)  The phrase ‘‘αἱ δέ τ᾿ ἄνευθε πρὸς ἠῶ τ᾿ ἠέλιόν τε’’ (Od. ι 26). With ‘‘αἱ δέ’’, the poet refers to the many small islands east/south-east of Ithaca, while he omits “αἱ μέν” which refers to the larger islands namely Same, Zacynthus and Dulichium (*) which he has already cited, with Dulichium placed in Paliki.

(d)  The phrase ‘‘πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται πρὸς ζόφον’’ (Od. ι 25-26). Ithaca is the most northern of all and last in the enclosed sea, with the word “ζόφον” interpreted as north.

(e)  The phrase ‘‘αἵ θ᾿ ἁλὶ κεκλίαται’’ = a place/island that leans upon the sea, which is circled by an enclosed sea (Od. δ 608), and finally:

(f)  The words ‘‘ἤπειρον’’ = mainland and ‘‘ἀντιπέραι’’ = on the shores over against the isles (Ιl. Β 635) in relation to Ithaca (Ιl. Β 632), refer chiefly to the island which has to its right Leucas (connected to the land of Acarnania at that time) and to its left the coast of Cephalonia. These two places have been of vital importance to Ithaca through the ages, and in hard times ensured its safety and prosperity. The reference to ἤπειρον and ἀντιπέραι corresponds ideally to the central position of Ithaca within the island cluster.

(*) Dulichium. This is the enigmatic, unknown island of the Odyssey, which Homer describes as rich in crops, all green, with a large fleet, which means access to ship building timber – 40 ships were sent to Troy – and as the strongest contender to the throne of Ithaca, with 52 suitors and 6 servants. The name Dulichium with variations wandered until recently from the Echinades islands to the Acheloos river estuary, even as an alternative name for Ithaca or a place in Cephalοnia where there was a municipality under the same name and the bay of Dolicha opposite the islet Asteris/Daskalio. Homeric Dulichium, based on the Homeric verse ‘‘ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι μάλα σχεδὸν ἀλλήλῃσι, Δουλίχιόν τε Σάμη τε’’ (Od. ι 23-24), and on other evidence, was positioned by a number of ancient authors (Pherecydes and others) and by later researchers (including the author D. Paizis, also Metaxas and prof. Kordosis) in Paliki, using sound arguments.

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B) Ithaca through the Homeric voyages (A new approach).

Six Homeric voyages referring to destinations between Ithaca and renowned or identified present day places (such as Pheia-Katakolo, Elis, Thoai-Echinades islands, Thesprotia, Phaeacia-Scheria, Porthmos, Same, Asteris, place of Taphians-Meganisi, Temesis of Cyprus, Leucas Petri (doubtful identification), together with the places mentioned along the voyages, establish a strong and convincing network which alone defines the geographical position of Ithaca or corresponds more ideally to its position. Almost any approach to Cephalonia, would presumably pass by Ithaca, a fact not mentioned by Homer, who knew the area well. An area with his own place-name imprint.

The voyages include:

a.         The return of Telemachus from Pylos (Od. ο 295-300).

b.         The transit between Ithaca – Polis – the channel – Asteris – Same (Od. δ 671).

c.          The misleading voyage of Odysseus from Thesprotia via Ithaca, a haven, with final destination southern Dulichium (Od. ξ 334-335).

d.         The return trip of Odysseus to Ithaca from the island of the Phaeacians, Scheria to the Ithacan port of Forkys (Od. ν 65, 96 etc).

e.         The voyage of Athena disguised as Mentes (King of Taphians), from the land of the Taphians (Leucas-Meganisi) to Temesis of Cyprus to load a cargo of copper while calling at the port of Rheithron in Ithaca, an approach with the shortest deviation (Od. α 180-187).

f.          The voyage of the suitors’ souls through Leucas Petri to Lake Acherussia, where the entrance to Hades was located (Od. λ 11-19 and ξ 156).

The voyages that most clearly define the position of Ithaca are (a), (b), (d), (e) with the remaining two simply verifying the position.

(3) The four comparative elements (a, b, c, d) and the compatibility of today’s Ithaca with the Homeric.

The comparative elements (of Ithaca and the other islands of the kingdom) are expressed through 4 units-references in the Odyssey.

(a)   Geophysical structure of Ithaca, the climate, the agricultural production and live-stock capacity.

(b)   Maritime (fleet) potential.

(c)   Number of Ithacan suitors, candidates to the throne.

(d)   Ithacas’ key position as seat of the kingdom in the cluster of Ionian Islands.

a. Geophysical structure of Ithaca, the climate, its agricultural production and live-stock capacity.

Geophysical structure: The island of Ithaca (Od. α 171-173, δ 608, ξ 190, et al.) (emphasis is on the description of Ithaca as an ‘‘island’’ as seven out of nine Cephalonian theories consider Ithaca as part of an island – Cephalonia) is described by Homer as: ἀμφιάλῳ = sea-girt, surrounded by the sea (Od. α 386, β 293), οὐδ᾿ εὐρεῖα = long in shape, narrow (Od. ν 243), ἐυδείελον = distinguishable, clear-seen (Od. β 167), χθαμαλή = low lying (Od. ι 25), κραναὴν = rocky (Od. α 247), τρηχεῖ᾿= rugged, rough (Od. ι 27), παιπαλόεσσαν = steep, craggy, rugged (Od. λ 480), and phrased as:

(a)  “ἐν δ᾿ Ἰθάκῃ οὔτ᾿ ἂρ δρόμοι εὐρέες οὔτε τι λειμών” = “in Ithaca there are no widespread courses nor aught of meadow-land” (Od. δ 605).

(b)  “μᾶλλον ἐπήρατος ἱπποβότοιο” = unsuitable for chariot races (Od. δ 606).

(c)  “οὐ γάρ τις νήσων ἱππήλατος οὐδ᾿ ἐυλείμων, αἵ θ᾿ ἁλὶ κεκλίαται: Ἰθάκη δέ τε καὶ περὶ πασέων” = “For not one of the islands that lean upon the sea is fit for driving horses, or rich in meadows, and Ithaca least of all” (Od. δ 607-608).

(d)  “οὐδὲ λίην λυπρή” = “yet it is not utterly poor” (Od. ν 243).

Decisive as an element for comparison (with most decisive the lines 245-247 – Book I), remains the line 608 – Book IV (‘‘and Ithaca least of all’’) which clearly distinguishes Ithaca from the other larger and richer islands. It is the line that remains unclaimed by almost all Cephalonian theories or is given different interpretations (Bittlestone). (It is well known and in character with the nature of the island when Telemachus refuses to accept the presents offered by King Menelaus (“three horses and a wellpolished car”, Od. δ 590) saying: ‘‘but horses will I not take to Ithaca’’ (Od. δ 600-601).

The geophysical structure of Ithaca in direct comparison with the other islands of the kingdom.

‘‘For all the princes who hold sway over the islands—Dulichium and Same and wooded Zacynthus—and those who lord it over rocky Ithaca” (Od. α 245-247)

Telemachus’ aversion in a conversation with Athena is self evident, in a way that allows of no other interpretation regarding the exact description of the islands of his kingdom: κραναὴ = rocky Ithaca, ὑλήεντι = wooded, the other islands Same, Dulichium and Zacynthus. The phrase is essentially stronger than that of Od. δ 608 (‘‘and Ithaca least of all’’) and confirms it exultantly. It shows clearly the relationship of Dulichium with Same and is one of the reasons that Dulichium is placed in Paliki, bordering with Same, with key areas at hand, the present bay of Lixouri and the approach to Mt. Aenos for wood.

– Climate. Heavy rainfall and abundant dew are particularly characteristic of the island. Drinking water and watering places for animals are assured by wells and inexhaustible springs (Od. ν 245-247).

– Agricultural productivity. Ithaca produced wheat and wine grape (“σῖτος ἀθέσφατος” and “οἶνος”, Od. ν 244), had trees of every sort, and of course olive trees (Od. ω 244-247) which produced fragrant oil (Od. β 339). In the garden of king Laertes there were 13 pear trees, 40 fig trees, 10 apple trees, a vineyard and olive trees. (Od. ω 339-344)

– Live-stock capacity.

As to live-stock, Ithaca was restricted to goats and kine (“αἰγίβοτος” = pasture-land of goats (Od. δ 606, ν 246), and “βούβοτος” = good land for pasturing kine (Od. ν 246), with the larger herds off the island. Ithaca, because of its size, restricted pasture land and rugged surface, was unsuitable for breeding horses, or for chariot races.

The king’s herds (an important source of income at that time) were partly and only in limited numbers, left to graze in Ithaca, while the greater numbers were off the island, either across on the mainland in Acarnania or Elis (Od. ξ 100), or, as we have seen, in the land of the Cephallenians (Οδ υ 208-210).

The flocks away from the island were ferried across whenever needed (The Od. υ 187). There were 48 in number: 12 herds of cattle, 12 herds of pigs and 12 herds of goats. On the island itself were only 11 goat herds, a small number of cattle, and pigs in Eumaeus’ pigstuys, which were able to hold up to 600 animals (Od. ξ 10-20 and ξ 100-108).

b.  Maritime (fleet) capability.

The kingdom of Ithaca, according to the ‘‘Catalogue of ships’’ in the Iliad (Ιl. Β 633-4) took part in the Trojan expedition with 12 ships. These represented Crocylea, Aegilips, Ithaca-Neriton, Zacynthus and Samos, while the fleet of Dulichium consisted of 40 ships. The numbers are indicative of the size and mainly the power of these two neighboring kingdoms of Odysseus and Meges.

c. The number of Ithacan suitors, candidates to the throne.

The number of suitors representing Ithaca for succession to the throne was the lowest of all and characteristic of the size and power of the kingdom in relation to the other islands contesting for the Ithacan throne. Out of a total of 108 suitors Ithaca was represented by 12, Zacynthus 20, Same-Cephalonia 24 and Dulichium by 52.

d.  Ithacas’ key position as center of the kingdom within the Ionian Islands.

Ithaca, situated in the center of the kingdom and its dominions, was ideally positioned for the control of the seas and prevention of piracy. Piracy was an important issue of the time together with the development of sea routes for trade and colonization. The choice of the Mycenaean’s to select the island of Ithaca as seat of the kingdom was neither accidental nor unwise. Ithaca “held the keys’’ to the sea routes on either side, after the victorious for the Mycenaeans battles against the Taphians and Teleboeans for the control of the area, and the new status in the central Ionian Sea they imposed. So-called strategic passages of equivalent importance, have remained to this day, with present Europeans ruling in place of the Mycenaeans, surrendering or holding some of these “key passages” (Suez, Gibraltar etc.) which are as important today as were once those of Ithaca.