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The Search for Ithaca

Where was Odysseus’ homeland? The geological, geomorphological and geophysical evidence for relocating Homer’s Ithaca.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are two of the world's oldest texts. The Iliad describes events at the end of the Trojan War, believed to have taken place in the 12th century BC during the Mycenaean era, while the Odyssey tells the story of the subsequent return of Odysseus from Troy to his palace on the island of Ithaca. The geographical description of Ithaca in the Odyssey has long provoked controversy and remains very puzzling. In the Odyssey the location of his homeland is described:

Around are many islands, close to each other,
Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos.
Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea
Towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun.

Odyssey 9.19-26 (trans. James Diggle)

The natural interpretation of the phrase ‘towards dusk’ is west-facing, while dawn is clearly east-facing. So Homer described Odysseus’ Ithaca as a low-lying island that is furthest out to sea on the west of Greece, with three other islands nearby: Doulichion, Same and Zacynthos. A glance at the map makes it clear that the island of Ithaki is not west-facing, nor is it farthest out to sea, while a digital elevation model confirms that it is mountainous rather than low-lying. Furthermore, although Zacynthos continues to exist today, and almost all experts regard Homer’s Same as today’s Kefalonia, the island of ‘Doulichion’ has never been traced: it has remained a mystery for three thousand years. 

One solution to this obvious contradiction is that perhaps Homer was simply a poor geographer who didn’t know his east from his west, his dusk from his dawn nor the difference between low-lying and mountainous islands. Nevertheless, an explanation based on the assumption of a geographically incompetent Homer left many classicists and some archaeologists feeling very uneasy. The main clue for an alternative location for ancient Ithaca came from the work of the geographer Strabo who also wrestled with the problem of these islands. In his Geography he makes an unusual and very specific observation of Kefalonia: ‘Where the island is narrowest it forms an isthmus so low-lying that it is often submerged from sea to sea’. 

The application of geoscience entered the picture in 2003 in an attempt to address the all-important question: could a marine channel, subsequently described by Strabo as a low-lying isthmus, have separated Paliki, the westernmost peninsula of Kefalonia, from the rest of the island during the late Bronze Age? Because if it did, then Paliki would then have been a free-standing island that precisely met Homer’s description ‘lies low, furthest to sea and towards dusk’. 

The talk will summarise the results of all the geological, geophysical and geomorphic methods that have been used over the past three years in an attempt to test the validity of Strabo’s Channel as a historical reality. The results may yet provide us with an elegant solution to a 3,000 year old mystery.

Speaker

John Underhill (University of Edinburgh)

Biography

John Underhill has been leading the geological, geophysical and geomorphological tests of the theory that the Paliki peninsula in western Kefalonia might have been a free-standing island as recently as 3,000 years ago. Confirmation of that hypothesis would have dramatic ramifications for our understanding of classical Greece.

Underhill has been a Geological Society Fellow since 1982, an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer and Matson Award recipient and an EAEG Best Distinguished Lecturer Award winner on two occasions. He holds a BSc in Geology from Bristol University and a PhD from the University of Wales. He worked for Shell International for five years before joining the University of Edinburgh in 1989, where he holds the Chair of Stratigraphy. He has done significant research into the geology and geomorphology of Greece, and in his spare time has refereed football matches to the highest domestic and international (FIFA) level.

Sponsor

Shell