Travel Notes blog
In the footsteps of Odysseus
by Max Lane
3 min read

In the footsteps of Odysseus

In the footsteps of Odysseus
Perhaps the most famous Mediterranean voyage of all was Odysseus’ 10-year-long, adventure-packed return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. But was Ithaca really his home? Or was it Lefkada? Or Kefalonia? Head below to find out.

In the footsteps of Odysseus

I am Odysseus, son of Laertes.

I am famed for my cunning and my guile.

Luminous Ithaca is my home.

Its mountain, leaf-fluttering Neriton, is visible from afar.

Lying near Ithaca are its sister islands:

Doulichion, Same and forested Zakynthos.

Ithaca herself lies low, furthest out to sea, facing dusk,

The others look out to dawn and the rising sun.

It is a harsh environment but produces fine men.

Thus Odysseus described his island home. Or so we think. Academics have never agreed on how exactly to translate the passage above and there is no consensus as to whether modern-day Ithaca was, in fact, Odysseus’ home. Even Homer sometimes nods.

The argument for Ithaca

The German archaeologist, H. Schliemann, achieved relative fame for his tireless excavations on Ithaca in the late 19th century. He unearthed numerous archaeological treasures bearing Mycenaean depictions of and inscriptions alluding to the great hero, all of which convinced him of two things: first, Odysseus hailed from modern-day Ithaca; second, Odysseus was a real person, not merely a Homeric invention.

The argument for Lefkada

William Dörpfeld, who had started his career as an assistant to Schliemann, believed that Homer’s hero was a native of Lefkada. Dörpfeld’s hypothesis was based on his study of the Odyssey, with particular reference to the verses in which the shipwrecked Odysseus describes his beloved homeland to Alcinous, the King of the Phaeacians. Dörpfeld began excavating on Lefkada in 1900 and continued until 1910, during which time his discoveries, ideas and opinions caused something of a schism in the world of archaeology. In 1927, he published a summary of his theories, though there was still no absolute proof that King Odysseus was a native of Lefkada.

The argument for Kefalonia / Paliki

Many experts today believe that Odysseus’ description of his home doesn’t tally with the actual geographical location or the topography of either Ithaca or Lefkada: Ithaca is not “the furthest out to sea”; and neither it nor Lefkada “lies low” (Ithaca’s peaks rise to over 600m, while those of Lefkada tower at nearly 1,200m).

In his 2005 book, Odysseus Unbound, Robert Bittlestone argued that Kefalonia’s western peninsula, Paliki, is a much closer geographical match to Homer’s description. His theory is based on several compelling observations, including the fact that the narrow strip of land that today connects Paliki to the main body of Kefalonia was once submerged; in Homer’s times, therefore, Paliki had been an island in its own right (and “the furthest out to sea”). Paliki also “lies low” - it is relatively flat with just one peak (“its mountain” in the singular) rising to a mere 400m above sea level.

Bittlestone’s theory is supported both by Strabo in his Geography (2nd century BCE) - “Where the island [Kefalonia] is narrowest it forms a low isthmus, so that it is often submerged from sea to sea” - and by geological surveys which demonstrate that a series of earthquakes (some time after Strabo was writing) caused a tectonic uplift of the seabed, effectively raising the land above sea level and joining Paliki to Kefalonia.

For Bittlestone and others, the island of Same mentioned in the opening text was Kefalonia before it was united with Paliki (one of Kefalonia’s main towns is called Sami). And Doulichion? That must be modern-day Ithaca.

Whatever the truth, there is one Homeric epithet that rings true for all three islands: every day begins with a rosy-fingered dawn.