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)
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Somewhere beneath our feet, perhaps, lie ruins of the “high-walled courtyard” where Penelope’s suitors gathered and the great hall with its pillars of cypress, couches, chairs and raucous banquets. Somewhere here, perhaps, Odys­seus’ despairing wife worked at her loom, spinning funeral cloth for Laertes, his aged father. (Penelope then secretly unraveled the cloth every night, having promised the suitors that she would wed one of them as soon as the cloth was completed.) Here, perhaps, with “a shield of fourfold hide” and a plumed helmet on his “heroic head,” Odysseus set to his bloody work. As Homer puts it, “Ghastly screams rose up as men’s heads were smashed in, and the whole floor ran with blood.” In the end, corpses lay heaped in the dust “like fishes the fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in the meshes of their net onto a curving beach, to lie in masses on the sand longing for the salt water till the bright sun ends their lives.”

Bittlestone prowls the windswept summit, pointing out shards of ancient pottery—fragments of pots, wine jugs and oil jars, compacted amid generations of goat droppings and dust, the last traces of an ancient town and perhaps a palace.

Of course, the odds of finding an artifact proclaiming “Odysseus was here” are slim. But clearly, based on preliminary archaeological examinations, both the surviving walls and some of the pottery date back to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-1100 B.C.). Bittlestone gazes across the craggy landscape of Cephalonia, his blue eyes gleaming with excitement. “We don’t know what lies under these tumbled stones,” he says, as much to himself as to me, “but something was surely going on here.”

Editor's Note, Sept. 3, 2008: For more than 2,000 years, scholars have been mystified—and intrigued—by a question central to our understanding of the ancient world: where is the Ithaca described in Homer’s Odyssey? The descriptions in the epic poem do not coincide with the geography of the modern island of Ithaca, one of the Ionian islands off the western coast of Greece.


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