Response to Kristof: Odysseus Lies Here?

  I’ll confess up front that the topic of the piece at hand, the ACTUAL location of Ithaca, homeland of the protagonists of The Odyssey, is one that doesn’t much grab my attention, especially when compared to some of the other questions raised by the text, e.g. why does Penelope weep when, in her dream, Odysseus swoops down in the form of an eagle and kills the swans?    Does Penelope recognize that the beggar at her doors is Odysseus?   If so, why does she still have to test Odysseus’ identity later in the book?  Why does Odysseus choose to listen to the Siren’s song?   Why is the Odyssey still significant for readers today, and what is to account for its formidable presence within “great books” programs among schools?  Compared to those questions, the question at hand in Kristof’s piece, a new theory by a certain Bittlestone about the real location of the Odyssey’s Ithaca, seems none too captivating, and his answer to the last question I posed above seems inadequate.

“For a nation like ours that is seeking its way home from 10 years of war, maybe there’s a dash of inspiration in the oldest tale of homecoming ever — “The Odyssey” — and in new findings that shed stunning light on it.  

Homer recounts Odysseus’s troubled journey back from a military entanglement abroad, the decade-long Trojan War. “The Odyssey” is a singular tale of longing for homeland, but it comes with a mystery: Where exactly is Odysseus’s beloved land of Ithaca?”

“Maybe” there’s a dash of inspiration in the Odyssey, because we might know the location of Ithaca?  How does the “actual location” of Ithaca sheds light on any of the interpretive mysteries presented by the Odyssey?  

In contrast to Kristof, I don’t think the immediate significance of the Odyssey “for a nation like ours” is to be found in its status  as a post-war story, something which Kristof brings home again near the end of his piece:

“The Odyssey” is particularly relevant to us today as we recover from our own decade of war. 

I think it is difficult to argue that war is a major theme in the Odyssey, in contrast to the other Homeric epic the Iliad.  Also, Odysseus’ qualities as a many-sided liar and trickster do little to remind me of the qualities valued in our nation’s military.   At one point in the Odyssey, Odysseus taunts an enemy and seems to feel little remorse when his boasts result in the death of some of his crew.  By the end of his journey, his crew has perished entirely.  On top of this, as a returning husband, he has been unfaithful to his wife, while she has quite possibly remained faithful to him.  

Back to the geography stuff, though Kristof salivates at the prospect that “Ithaca: has been found:

“How sweet it would be to discover, after three millenniums, that Odysseus was not imaginary but a product of these rocky hills, olive trees and beaches on an obscure Greek peninsula — an example of how the ordinary can inspire the extraordinary.”

This desire to find the ACTUAL Ithaca often stems from the investigation of the Odyssey as a work with a historical foundation.  This desire is often accompanied by a preoccupation with finding out how the descriptions of places found in Homeric epics map onto the geography of the world and the heavens (although the latter has really gone out of style).   This line of interpretation has a distinguished heritage.  An early proponent was the Roman Strabo, who writes on the subject in his Geography.  After calling Homer “The First Geographer”, Strabo writes (1.19):

And yet, a work of geography also involve…the theory of the arts, of mathematics, and of natural science, as well as the theory which lies in the fields of history and myths— though myths have nothing to do with practice; for instance, if a man should tell the story of the wanderings of Odysseus or Menelaus or Jason, it would not be thought that he was making any contribution to the practical wisdom of his hearers — and that is what the man of affairs demands — unless he inserts the useful lessons to be drawn from the hardships those heroes underwent; still, he would be providing no small entertainment for the hearer who takes an interest in the regions which furnished the scenes of the myths.”

Strabo regards texts like the Odyssey significant as a source of geographical knowledge, while still regarding the events described therein as potentially useful myths, myths which, to a certain extent, might have a historical core.  This is in contrast to the renowned intellectual Eratosthenes, who thought that those who read The Odyssey as a source of geographical specifics were wasting their time, since the purpose of poetry was to entertain, not to inform about history or historical reality.  Strabo gives his take on the opinions of this intellectual giant:

“Eratosthenes makes many mistakes when he speaks of these wanderings and declares that not only the commentators on Homer but also Homer himself are dealers in nonsense.”

 In his piece, Kristof gives passing mention to a softer version of this belief, that both Odysseus and Ithaca are made up places in a poet’s imagination, but Kristof continues to proof that the events depicted in the Odyssey, not just its geographical descriptions, align with reality.   In his piece, Kristof describes a meeting with Bittlestone on the beach of “Ithaca”:

“From the beach, he led me to an area that matches the description of the ancient pig farm (now a goat ranch) where Odysseus rested. A bit beyond is Kastelli, which Bittlestone describes as “a candidate hill for the palace of Odysseus.”

Professor Snodgrass examined the hill, finding ancient fortifications and shards of pottery, and he confirms that it is a prehistoric site.”

I’m not really an archaeologist, but the evidence cited does not seem idiosyncratic enough to allow an identification with any single place, let alone “Ithaca”.  The video on the article’s page contains Kristof speculating about the location of the palace and grave of Odysseus.  The evidence for Odysseus’ grave given by a local aficionado fails to inspire much confidence:  ”There are three signs…the triangle here…the triangle here…”.  At this point, the video mercifully fades and changes subjects.    Bittlestone speculates about the “silver bullet” that he is still waiting for, the bit of evidence that would prove his theory beyond any reasonable doubt.

“One shortcoming of this beach is that Homer describes a great cave nearby with two entrances, and there is none now. “Is there a silver bullet test as to whether this is where Odysseus landed?” Bittlestone mused. ‘Yes, a silver bullet would be to find the cave’.”

Really?  On the topic of the historicity of the epic, is it worth mentioning that at one point in the Odyssey, a witch’s magic turns Odysseus crew into pigs, or that Odysseus receives the aid of the goddess Athena?

Yes, I know this is a flight of fancy. But it was magical to stroll the beach and imagine Odysseus landing here….”

To add to the magic:

“You often find things in caves,” Bittlestone said, adding with a twinkle that his dream is to find the cave sheltering an early manuscript of Homer’s epics.”

This isn’t to say I wouldn’t rejoice at the discovery of that early manuscript, but this seems about as unlikely as finding Athena’s footprints in the “palace of Odysseus”.  

My point isn’t that reading the Odyssey for its potential insights into geography or history isn’t potentially possible, valuable, or at least entertaining, but that of all the mysteries of the Odyssey worth thinking about, this brach of questioning does not have many implications in terms of a reader’s response to the story contained in the Odyssey.  In other words, the most provocative questions raised by the Odyssey are moral, not geographical or historical.


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