Odyssey's End?: The Search for Ancient Ithaca- page 3 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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

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Most scholars agree that the Odyssey was first put into writing in the eighth or seventh century b.c. But some believe, and Bittlestone concurs, that its core narrative dates as far back as the 12th century b.c., just after the Trojan War. “I am convinced,” Bittlestone says, “that in Ithaca, Homer describes a real place, and I think that he talked about locales that people knew and could recognize. His audience could say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that cave, that mountain, that bay.’”

Cambridge University’s James Diggle is cautiously supportive. “We cannot dismiss the possibility of Bittlestone’s approach being valid,” he says. “Every place that he locates in the book can easily be located in northern Paliki—they all work. If you accept that the channel exists, and that Ithaca is Paliki—the external geography, so to speak—then you cannot dismiss the possibility that the other passages may reflect the internal geography of Ithaca.”

On a crisp day in october, Bittlestone leads me along the route that he thinks Odysseus may have followed upon his return to Ithaca. We begin at Atheras Bay, a crescent of beach enfolded by terraced groves of olive trees. Bittlestone believes this could have inspired the description of Phorcys Bay, where Odysseus—or his prototype—was put ashore by friendly Phaeacian mariners. Pointing to the mouth of the harbor, Bittlestone says it fits Homer’s description perfectly, “with two jutting headlands sheared off at the seaward side.”

It was here that Athene appeared to Odysseus in the guise of a handsome young shepherd and commanded him to find the hut of the loyal swineherd Eumaeus:

You’ll find him posted beside his swine, grubbing round
by Raven’s Rock and the spring called Arethusa,
rooting for feed that makes pigs sleek and fat,
the nuts they love, the dark pools they drink.

“So,” bittlestone says to me now, “let’s go see the pig farm.” We turn our backs on the bay and, bouncing in a jeep, follow “a rough track leading through the woods and up to the hills,” as Homer puts it. A herd of goats stares at us with yellow, inexpressive eyes, then explodes in panic, bounding away down the hillside. Soon we pass through the village of Atheras, its stucco houses painted white and yellow, its gardens lush with bougainvillea, morning glories and lemon trees. The similarity between the ancient place name Arethusa and the modern Atheras tells Bittlestone he’s on the right track. “If Arethusa spring was in the vicinity of the village of Atheras,” he says, “then Eumaeus’ pig farm and Raven’s Rock should not be far away.”

According to Homer, the swineherd’s hut was on ground “exposed to view all round,” with room for some 600 sows and 360 boars behind walls made of “quarried stones” and topped with tangles of wild pear, a technique that some Greek herdsmen still use today. In the epic, Odysseus—disguised in “squalid rags, ripped and filthy”—spends a day or two at the pig farm, then tells Eumaeus that he’s going to the palace to beg for food. Since Odysseus then asked Eumaeus to guide him there, the palace must not have been in sight of the pig farm—though it had to be near enough that Eumaeus could go there and back twice in a single day.

We turn onto a stony track and stop at an old well on a small, circular terrace. “Everywhere along here, you find springs and wells,” says Bittlestone. “Whether or not this one is the actual Bronze Age spring of Arethusa is less important than the fact that a water-bearing fault line runs just below the surface in exactly the right place for a spring with Homer’s ‘dark water’ to emerge here.”

Next we follow an old sunken path through an eerie forest of stunted wild oak trees, emerging into daylight to find an animal enclosure fenced with piled-up stones. “Clearly this area has been used for keeping animals for a long, long time,” Bittlestone says. “If you have hundreds of pigs, as Eumaeus did, you need a lot of water, and this is where you would find it.” Just past the pig farm, a crag that Bittlestone designates as Raven’s Rock looms over the trail. We catch sight, far below us, of the deep Gulf of Argostoli, and the now silted-up harbor from which Odysseus and his 12 warships could have departed for the Trojan War. From here, too, we can see where his palace might have stood, on the slopes of the conical hill of Kastelli, our destination.

Half an hour after leaving the pig farm, we park in an olive grove and begin climbing Kastelli’s steep 830-foot-high slopes, through a dense carpet of prickly underbrush. The bells of unseen goats ring in our ears. We scramble over lichen-crusted terraces that might once have supported houses, and then, near the hillcrest, clamber over traces of a defensive wall and heaps of jagged stones.

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