Ithaca - Home of Odysseus

Home of Odysseus

Since antiquity, Ithaca has been identified as the home of the mythological hero Odysseus. In the Odyssey of Homer, Ithaca is described thus (13.21-27)

" dwell in shining Ithaca. There is a mountain there,
high Neriton, covered in forests. Many islands
lie around it, very close to each other,
Doulichion, Same, and wooded Zacynthos--
but low-lying Ithaca is farthest out to sea,
towards the sunset, and the others are apart, towards the dawn and sun.
It is rough, but it raises good men."

It has sometimes been argued that this description does not match the topography of modern Ithaca. Three features of the description have been seen as especially problematic. First, Ithaca is described as "low-lying" (χθαμαλή), but Ithaca is mountainous. Second, the words "farthest out to sea, towards the sunset" (πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ ... πρὸς ζόφον) are usually interpreted to mean that Ithaca must be the island furthest to the west, but Kefalonia lies to the west of Ithaca. Lastly, it is unclear which modern islands correspond to Homer's Doulichion and Same.

The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the 1st century AD, identified Homer's Ithaca with modern Ithaca. Following earlier commentators, he interpreted the word translated above as "low-lying" to mean "close to the mainland", and the phrase translated as "farthest out to sea, towards the sunset" as meaning "farthest of all towards the north." Strabo identified Same as modern Kefalonia, and believed that Homer's Doulichion was one of the islands now known as the Echinades. Ithaca lies farther north than Kefalonia, Zacynthos, and the island that Strabo identified as Doulichion, consistent with the interpretation of Ithaca as being "farthest of all towards the north."

Strabo's explanation has not won universal acceptance. In the last few centuries, some scholars have argued that Homer's Ithaca was not modern Ithaca, but a different island. Perhaps the best known proposal is that of Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who believed that the nearby island of Leukas was Homer's Ithaca.

It has also been suggested that Paliki, the western peninsula of Kefalonia, is Homer's Ithaca. It has been argued that in Homeric times this western peninsula was separated from Kefalonia by a sea channel since closed up by earthquake-induced rockfalls. However, no scientific review publications are available in support of this theory.

Despite any difficulties with Homer's description of the island, in classical and Roman times the island now called "Ithaca" was universally held to be the home of Odysseus; the Hellenistic identifications of Homeric sites, such as the identifications of Lipari as the island of Aeolus, are usually taken with a grain of salt, and attributed to the ancient tourist trade.

The island has been known as Ithaca from an early date, as coins and inscriptions show. Coins from Ithaca frequently portray Odysseus, and an inscription from the 3rd century BC refers to a local hero-shrine of Odysseus and games called the Odysseia. The Archaeological site of "School of Homer" on modern Ithaca is the only place between Lefkas-Kefalonia-Ithaca Triangle where Linear B has been found, near royal remains. Modern scholars generally accept the identification of modern Ithaca with Homeric Ithaca, and explain discrepancies between the Odyssey's description and the actual topography as the product of lack of first-hand knowledge of the island, or as poetic license.

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