Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.
From This Story
Robert Bittlestone is standing above the village of Petrikata, looking over red-tile roofs down upon a narrow isthmus that connects the two parts of the Greek island of Cephalonia, off Greece’s western coast. In the valley below, farmers in overalls are harvesting olives. A light breeze carries the scent of oregano and thyme. “This looks like solid ground that we’re standing on,” Bittlestone says. “But everything under us is rockfall. Across that valley was the ancient island of Ithaca.”
Bittlestone, a British management consultant by profession, believes he has solved a mystery that has bedeviled scholars for more than 2,000 years. In Odysseus Unbound, published in 2005 by Cambridge University Press, he argues that a peninsula on the island of Cephalonia was once a separate island—Ithaca, the kingdom of Homer’s Odysseus some 3,000 years ago. He believes that the sea channel dividing the two islands was filled in by successive earthquakes and landslides, creating the peninsula of Paliki, as it is known today.
Like Heinrich Schliemann, the businessman who discovered the site of ancient Troy in the 1870s, and Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered the written language of Minoan Crete in the 1950s, the 57-year-old Bittlestone is part of an honorable tradition of inspired amateurs who have made extraordinary discoveries outside the confines of conventional scholarship. “Bittlestone’s insight is brilliant,” says Gregory Nagy, director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, in Washington, D.C. “He has done something very important. This is a real breakthrough convergence of oral poetry and geology, and the most plausible explanation I’ve seen of what Ithaca was in the second millennium B.C. We’ll never read the Odyssey in the same way again.”
Even more provocatively, Bittlestone, who was able to draw upon sophisticated technological tools unavailable to scholars before him, believes that events like those described in the Odyssey may well have taken place, and that telltale landmarks from the hero’s adventures on Ithaca can be found on Cephalonia’s Paliki peninsula. “I find most events that are described on the island perfectly credible,” he says, adding that the chapters recounting Odysseus’ fantastical adventures among magical figures—the sea monster Scylla and man-eating whirlpool Charybdis, or the enchantress Circe—obviously owe a great deal to the poetic imagination.
“By far the most important part of this is the argument that modern Paliki was ancient Ithaca,” says James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University. “Of this, I haven’t the slightest doubt. It’s irresistible, and supported by geology. The other part is more speculative. But once you go over the terrain, there is an extraordinary match.”
Since ancient times, the location of Homer’s Ithaca has been one of literature’s great conundrums. The third-century B.C. geographer Eratosthenes sighed, “You will find the scene of the wanderings of Odysseus when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of the winds.” Some dismissed Homer’s geography as a poet’s guesswork. As the renowned classicist Bernard Knox once put it, “When Homer’s characters move to mainland Greece and its western offshore islands, confusion reigns.”
Modern scholars have proposed numerous locations, some as far afield as Scotland or the Baltic. The most obvious candidate was the present-day island of Ithaca, which lies east of Cephalonia. But it doesn’t fit Homer’s description:
Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side,
Doulichion, Same, wooded Zachynthos too, but mine
lies low and away, the farthest out to sea,
rearing into the western dusk
while the others face the east and breaking day.
Scholars have long agreed that ancient and modern Zachynthos are one and the same. Similarly, ancient Same was certainly the main body of modern Cephalonia, where a large town named Sami still exists. But modern Ithaca—a few miles east of Cephalonia—was hardly “the farthest out to sea,” and its mountainous topography doesn’t fit Homer’s “lying low” description. (Bittlestone believes ancient Doulichion became modern Ithaca after refugees came there following an earthquake or other disaster and changed its name.) “The old explanations just felt unsatisfactory,” he says. “I kept wondering, was there possibly a radical new solution to this?” Back home near London, he pored over maps and satellite images. If Paliki had once been a separate island, he mused, it would indeed have been the one “farthest out to sea.”