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Odysseus Unfound

GUIDE TO THE IONIAN ISLANDS

“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, closest to the sea, facing dusk, while 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.

The German archaeologist, H. Schliemann, achieved relative fame for his tireless excavations on Ithaca. He unearthed numerous archaeological treasures bearing Mycenaean Greek 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.

And yet…

William Dörpfeld, who had started his career as an assistant to Schliemann, had a different theory. For him, 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 Alkinous, 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.

But then again…

Captain Corelli might be most associated with Cephalonia in the modern imagination, but according to some, the most enduring literary character in the island’s multi-millennial history is in fact Odysseus. “But what about Ithaca and Lefkada?”, you might ask. Well, many experts believe that Odysseus’ description of his home island (see the opening quote) doesn’t tally with the actual geographical position or topography of Ithaca. In his 2005 book, Odysseus Unbound, Robert Bittlestone argues that Cephalonia’s northern Paliki peninsula is a much closer match to Homer’s Ithaca than the Ithaca we know today. The narrow strip of land connecting the peninsula to the main body of Cephalonia, says Bittlestone, was once submerged, meaning that in Homer’s times Paliki had been an island in its own right. Geological surveys support this theory, demonstrating that a series of earthquakes later caused tectonic uplift of the seabed, effectively raising it above sea level until the two islands were linked.

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