LONDON — Homer’s legendary hero Odysseus wandered for 10 years in search of his island kingdom, Ithaca. Now, a British amateur archaeologist claims to have ended the ancient quest to locate the land described in “The Odyssey.”
Although the western Greek island of Ithaki is generally accepted as the Homeric site, scholars have long been troubled by a mismatch between its location and geography and those of the Ithaca described by Ancient Greece’s greatest poet.
Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant, said Thursday that the peninsula of Paliki on the Ionian island of Cephallonia, near Ithaki, was the most likely location for Odysseus’ homeland. He said geological and historic evidence suggested that Paliki used to form a separate island before earthquakes and landslides filled in a narrow sea channel dividing it from Cephallonia.
“Other theories have assumed that the landscape today is the same as in the Bronze Age, and that Homer perhaps didn’t know the landscape very well,” Bittlestone told a central London news conference. “But what if the mismatch was because the geography has in fact changed?”
Academics back theory
Two eminent British academics said they backed Bittlestone’s theory. They have co-written his book, “Odysseus Unbound — The Search for Homer’s Ithaca.”
James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, said the hypothesis worked because it explained why in one passage Homer describes Ithaca as “low-lying” and “towards dusk” — that is, lying to the west of a group of islands including Cephallonia and Zakynthos.
The Paliki peninsula is largely flat and connects to Cephallonia’s west coast, whereas Ithaki is mountainous and lies to the east. Bittlestone’s theory suggests that Ithaki corresponds to the island Homer calls Doulichion.
“I have never for once doubted that the theory is right, because it explains all the details,” Diggle told The Associated Press.
Truth or fiction?
Diggle also said suggestions that Homer had invented the places he wrote about were largely discredited after 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered what is widely believed to be the site of the ancient city of Troy — the location for Homer’s “Iliad.”
Underhill said it was certain earthquake activity had caused Paliki to rise some 19 feet (6 meters) out of the sea. There also was clear evidence that a canopy of rock debris resulting from landslides lay across the narrow strip of land connecting Paliki to Cephallonia.
However, further research was needed to determine whether the layer of rock debris was deep enough to have filled in any sea channel, and whether the landslides would have occurred recently enough to support Bittlestone’s theory, Underhill said. He wanted to test sediments in a dried-up lake on the landfill area. If they were older than 3,000 years, that would suggest the area was not underwater at the Homeric period — thus disproving Bittlestone’s hypothesis.
“Further work is needed, but from the geological fieldwork to date, nothing refutes this theory so far,” Underhill told the news conference.
Other theories have been floated
Although Ithaki has generally been accepted as the site of Homer’s Ithaca, other theories have proposed Cephallonia and another nearby island, Lefcada, as possible sites.
Traces of small Mycenaean settlements have been located on Ithaki, but nothing big that could be associated with the palatial structure one would expect as the seat of a Mycenaean king such as Odysseus — known in Latin as Ulysses. However, a cave on Ithaki yielded a votive offering with the inscription “My vow to Odysseus.” This indicates the Homeric king was the object of a local hero-cult.
Cephallonia also has traces of Mycenaean settlement, and the local museum displays a remarkable collection of finds from Mycenaean cemeteries.
“Odysseus Unbound” is to be published in Britain on Oct. 6 by Cambridge University Press.
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