Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Odysseus Unbound

Most scholars and readers would agree that the wanderings of Odysseus represent a mythical canvas and that there is little point in trying to find the "real" cavern of the Cyclops, or the "real" clashing rocks. These were myths developed by the fertile imaginations of early Europeans (and even possibly by Indo-European forebears). Nevertheless, the success of Schliemann in the 19th century in discovering a historical Troy and then a previously unknown palace civilization in Greece--the Mycenaeans, named after their largest palace complex found near modern Mycenae--that just might have been the same as Homer's"Argives", has encouraged amateurs and experts alike to think that there may well be a core of historicity to the Homeric poems. This line of thinking emphasizes that while it may be foolish to look for a "real" Trojan horse or a "real" Circe, the myths are, nonetheless, probably based on true events that took place around 1200 B.C. in the Aegean world. According to this interpretation, there really was a war between Greece and Troy and the greatest of the Achaean and Trojan warriors may well have been based on historical personages of the time. Take Odysseus for example; in the Homeric epics, his island home is Ithaca--and on the west coast of modern Greece there is indeed an island called "Ithaki" that most searchers after a historical subtext in the poems, have always thought to be a good starting place for establishing the whereabouts of the island home of the Greek hero. However, there have always been serious objections. First and foremost among these was the fact that the geography of Homer's Ithaca and modern Ithaki simply doesn't match. For example, Homer describes Ithaca as the most Western lying of a group of islands in which Cephallonia was the largest. However, modern Ithaki is the most EASTERN lying of a group of islands in which Kefallinia (modern name of Cephallonia?) is the largest. Maybe, as Homer was apparently from Ionia, he simply knew nothing about the real geography of Ithaca? Perhaps he was a poet and simply couldn't care less about accurate geography?...At this point enter an amateur classicist and full time business man with a point to prove,

Robert Bittlestone was visiting the Kefallinian islands when it occurred to him that Paliki, a peninsula of modern Kefallinia, may once have been an independent island separated from the main land by a narrow sea channel. He acquired the help of a couple of experts, one a Cambridge University Professor of Classics and the other a Scottish Don who was very knowledgeable about the geology of the area. Early signs were positive. The isthmus connecting the two islands had once been under water and the locations on Paliki seemed to match the Homeric landscape with a certain amount of exactitude. Perhaps most satisfactory of all, Paliki was the most WESTERN lying of the group of islands. In 2005 Bittlestone's book appeared, "Odysseus Unbound", in which he stated his basic theory and gave initial reasons for preferring Paliki as the site of Odysseus' island rather than Ithaki. The book was very well received by scholars and classicists--and nothing discovered so far, has done anything to refute Bittlestone's theory. Tests are continuing apace and if the geologists can show that Paliki was an island 3200 years ago (at the assumed time of the Trojan War) then the weight of circumstantial evidence for identifying Paliki with Homer's island home, Ithaca, will be great indeed. The final proof would be the discovery of a large scale Mycenaean palace civilization on Paliki--something that has never been found so far on Ithaki.

Some will say that it really doesn't matter where Odysseus' island home lay--nor even whether it, or Odysseus himself, ever existed at all. The Homeric poems, for these readers, are essentially oral and, later, literary texts that are mythological and poetic in character--however much they may, over a period of time, have come to define essential elements in Western civilization itself. Most of us, with a more romantic turn of mind, will follow the efforts of Bittlestone's team with interest and, if Paliki should indeed prove to be Homer's Ithaca, eventually reward him with the same praise and enthusiasm that greeted Schliemann's great discoveries in the 19th century.


Anonymous penelope said...

What an interesting adventure!

7:39 AM  

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