Odyssey’s End?: The Search for Ancient Ithaca

A British researcher believes he has at last pinpointed the island to which Homer’s wanderer returned

(Jeffrey Aaronson/Network Aspen)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Then Bittlestone hit pay dirt. Perusing the section on Cephalonia in the ancient author Strabo’s Geography, the most important source of its kind for ancient geographical knowledge, Bittlestone came across the following passage: “Where the island is narrowest it forms a low isthmus, so that it is often submerged from sea to sea.” According to Strabo’s second-century B.C. sources, Cephalonia had been, at times, two islands. Strabo’s description suggested that the channel that separated Cephalonia from its present-day peninsula had gradually filled in.

Bittlestone has been convinced from the start that he was on the right track. In 2003, he traveled to Cephalonia, rented a jeep and began crisscrossing the isthmus, a narrow, rugged neck of land connecting the larger landmass to the Paliki peninsula. He was looking, he says, “for traces of a former channel” when he noted zigzagging ravines running the length of the five-mile-long isthmus. The chasms, up to 300 feet deep in some places, suggested the possible route of an ancient watercourse.

Bittlestone had already learned that Cephalonia lay on one of the most unstable geologic fault lines in the world. For eons, the African and Eurasian tectonic plates have been colliding a few miles off the Paliki coast, creating a steady upthrust that periodically explodes in violent earthquakes. The worst in modern times, in 1953, leveled almost every building on the island, causing 90 percent of its residents to flee. Perhaps, Bittlestone speculated, a giant earthquake had thrust “Strabo’s channel” (as he came to call it) up above sea level, leaving it literally high and dry.

In 2003, Bittlestone contacted John Underhill, a professor of geography at the University of Edinburgh. Underhill, who has studied the geology of Cephalonia for more than 20 years, told him that geological uplift on such a large scale was impossible. But he was sufficiently intrigued to meet Bittlestone on Cephalonia for a firsthand look.

Underhill immediately noted that the half-mile-wide isthmus was a geologic “mess” of rocks of different ages—evidence of avalanches from the steep mountains on either side. As landslide followed landslide over the centuries, the debris could have extended farther across the isthmus, layer upon layer, to create the rugged hills. “I thought it would be easy to disprove Bittlestone’s thesis,” he says, “but it wasn’t. Suddenly I thought, crikey, there might really be a channel down there.”

The more he looked the more certain he became that Cephalonia had once been two islands. “The only credible explanation for this geological formation is that some of it slid down from the mountain above,” Underhill says.

Bittlestone had no doubts. “A landslip with massive kinetic energy inundated everything,” he says. “Huge chunks of mountain broke loose and thundered down. The scale of it is mind-blowing.” Bittlestone adds he is confident that eventually his investigations will show that Homer’s description of Ithaca’s location was accurate. “I’d like to be able to vindicate him,” he asserts, “by saying he wasn’t a geographical idiot. When he has his hero Odysseus saying ‘My island lies further to the west,’ it bloody well was.”

Recent follow-up research, announced last year by Bittlestone, Diggle and Underhill, dramatically bolsters the case they are making. Among other findings, teams of international scientists have shown that a 400-foot borehole drilled on the isthmus met no solid limestone—only loose rockfall. A Greek Geological Institute survey pinpointed a submerged marine valley, consistent with a onetime sea channel between modern Paliki and Cephalonia. The new findings, says Underhill, represent “very encouraging confirmation of our geological diagnosis.”

There is a deep seductiveness to the second, yet untested, part of Bittlestone’s theory, that the Odyssey’s landscape can still be found on Cephalonia, like a palimpsest beneath a medieval manuscript. But attempting to identify actual places that fit a nearly 3,000-year-old narrative does present problems. For one, it is by no means certain that individuals in the poem—Odysseus; his wife, Penelope; son, Telemachus; the suitors—ever existed. Gregory Nagy is cautious. “I’m completely convinced that Paliki was Ithaca in the second millennium b.c.,” he says. “But the poem is not reportage. We should not force it to be a road map for a set of real events.”

Bittlestone has an answer for that. “Because the landscape is real, does it mean that Odysseus was a real person? Not necessarily. But it is plausible that there was a Bronze Age chieftain around whom these stories grew. I also don’t think Homer invented an imaginary landscape. There was a real Troy, a real Mycenae, a real Sparta, all of which have been rediscovered by archaeologists.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus