BMCR 2005.09.15

Odysseus’ Ithaca

, Odisejeva Itaka : određenje Itake koje se temelji na Homerovim podacima u Odiseji. Zagreb: Multigraf, 2004. 145 : illustrations, maps ; 34 cm. ISBN 9536060183

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This book takes on a challenge that has been preoccupying Homeric scholars from antiquity to the present day, addressing what in 19th century German scholarship became known as “Ithaca Frage,” that is, the question of the location of Odysseus’ home, Ithaca, as described in Homeric texts. While the validity of an enterprise that combines and correlates a thoroughly literal reading of Homeric geography with on-site geographical surveys may be (and certainly has been) questioned, for those willing to accept the basic conditions of such an investigation this book will provide an interesting new view on the familiar Homeric locations.

Berislav Brckovic (B.) collects all the references to Ithaca in the Iliad and the Odyssey, discusses in detail the more ambiguous and controversial passages referring to its features and location, and, on the basis of this information, finds that Ithaca as described in Homeric verses is not an island, but a “commune” or a demos located on the tip of Eresos, the northern peninsula of the modern-day island of Cephallonia.

The book was originally published in 2002 in Croatian. The new second edition presents the Croatian original text with facing English translation (by Jasenka Tezak Stefanic and Renee Davies). It consists of an Introduction, thirteen chapters, a Conclusion, and an Index. Each chapter features one or more insets describing the present-day locations that B. identifies in Homer, accompanied by a wealth of photographs taken by the author on his numerous visits to the sites.

Chapters One, Two, and Three, entitled “Ancient Ithaca”, “The Meaning of the Most Frequent Epithets, Attributes and Designations of Ithaca in the Odyssey,” and “Natural Characteristics of Ancient Ithaca” present the core of B.’s argument. The equation of ancient Ithaca with the northernmost tip of the modern-day peninsula of Eresos in Cephallonia is presented from the start (second paragraph in Ch. 1, p. 13) and then thoroughly elaborated in this and the next two chapters. The division of these chapters seems somewhat arbitrary, as each of them deals with an identical bulk of Homeric references to Ithaca, just reorganized in different ways. The references are first divided in Chapter One (p. 17-19) into “characteristics of Ithacan territory” (mostly natural features such as ruggedness, presence of coves, tall leafy trees, water from streams, etc.), “regions and places on Ithaca” (manmade and natural landscape markers, such as Mt. Neriton, the Hill of Nion, harbors, fountains, etc.), and finally “location and position of Ithacan territory” (on an island, sharing straits with the island of Same, its borders demarcated by specific locations: a port on the first (in B.’s interpretation “eastern,” see below on Ch. 4) shore, Raven’s Rock near the Spring of Arethusa, and the Harbor of Phorcys on the rear or western shore). Here a map is provided that correlates the most important locations from the Odyssey with those on the north of Eresos in Cephallonia (Harbor of Phorcys = Bay of Aya Jerusalem, port on the first shore = Sto Chalasmeno Karavi, Raven’s Rock and the Spring of Arethusa = valley below the village of Katsarata, Hamlet of Laertes = village of Psilithrias, city of Ithaca = Fiscardo, port of Ithaca = Ormos Fiscardo, Harbor of Rheitrus = Bay of Foki, Hill of Nion = Spilovouno, Mt. Neriton = mountain range in Eresos). Some of the same references are revisited in Chapter Two, with more emphasis on their descriptive qualities, and once again elaborated, accompanied by images of modern locations, in Chapter Three. The repetitiveness caused by such arrangement could have been avoided by combining the three chapters into one well-organized subdivided chapter.

The most innovative argument presented in Chapter One is that Homeric Ithaca was not an island, but a region on a never-named island in the Ionian sea (i.e. Cephallonia, according to B.), a conclusion based on the curious fact that Homer never directly names Ithaca as an island. In this light B. interprets (p.15) Telemachus’ address to Athena disguised as Mentor ( ὁπποίης τ’ ἐπὶ νηὸς ἀφίκεο; οὐ μὲν γὰρ τί σε πεζὸν ὀίομαι ἐνθάδ’ ἱκέσθαι, Od. 1.171-3) as an indication of two alternative paths to Ithaca – from the sea and from the rest of the island. B. acknowledges a semantic range in the way “Ithaca” is used in the epics (as the city of Ithaca, a community that includes neighboring fields and hamlets, a part of the island with clearly delineated border markers) but insists that not a single usage of the word points to an equation of Ithaca with the whole island. Chapter Two (and to some extent Chapter Three) develops this claim by taking a closer look at some of the adjectives used to describe Ithaca and its landscape that have long puzzled Homeric scholars because of their apparent contradictions. The first among these is χθαμαλή in Od. 9.25, which seems to be incongruous with all the references to Mt. Neriton and the Hill of Nion in Ithaca as well as the generally craggy and impassable terrain of the region. By taking Ithaca as a part of the island, B. is able to explain the adjective as “low (compared to the rest of the island),” which naturally does not exclude the rough shape of the terrain (p. 23-4, 28-9). Similarly, B. points to a line referring to Ithaca as “not broad” ( οὐδ’ εὐρεῖα, Od. 13.243), which seems to be more suitable for a peninsula than a whole island (p. 25, 27-29). Finally, given the deep projection of Eresos into the sea, B. is able to account for Ithaca’s qualification as “sea-girt,” which he modifies to “with sea on both sides” (p. 25, 29). The central mountain range on Eresos descends from its peak in the south, so that in the location where B. places ancient Ithaca “it is flat, narrow and almost at sea level” (p. 28). While the above explanations may be philologically acceptable, B. runs into trouble by trying to explain Od. 4.606-7 ( οὐ γάρ τις νήσων ἱππήλατος οὐδ’ ἐυλείμων, αἵ θ’ ἁλὶ κεκλίαται, ἰθάκη δὲ τε καὶ περὶ πασέων), which of all the references in the epics that mention Ithaca in connection to an island, comes closest to stating that Ithaca itself is an island. B. insists that the comparison in question is between a region of an island and other islands (p. 28) despite what the Greek and the common logic of the comparison imply.

Chapter Four entitled “Did Homer Have Knowledge of Orientation” is a useful overview of various means of spatial orientation available to ancient Greeks in navigation. B. discusses orientation at night with the help of the constellation of the Great Bear or the Wagon, which is entirely visible throughout the year in the Greek sky and close enough to the North Pole for all practical purposes of nighttime orientation. The discussion of Homeric orientation during the day is important for B.’s consequent interpretation of the expression πρώτην ἀκτὴν ἰθάκης (Od. 15.36). Daytime orientation by the location of the Sun may seem simple enough, but based on Od. 13.240, which refers to the east as “towards the dawn and the Sun” ( πρὸς ἠῶ τ’ ἠέλιόν τε) and to the west as ” behind towards the murky darkness” ( μετόπισθε ποτὶ ζόφον ἠερόεντα), B. extrapolates 1) that if the west is behind, then the east must be in front (“This is necessarily Homer’s basic standpoint about orientation, where the other cardinal directions are automatically determined by the fact that the east is in front and the west is behind, therefore the north is to the left and the south to the right,” p. 48), and therefore 2) that the “first shore of Ithaca” (where Telemachus lands on his return from Peloponnese), is the eastern shore or promontory of Ithaca (taking “first” as a variation of “in front”).1 The premise is revisited later in chapters Six and Seven in the discussion of Telemachus’ landing place on Ithaca. Attributing such specific meaning to πρώτη ἀκτή, in addition to lacking any textual parallels, seems unnecessary for B.’s argument; the phrase could simply refer to the first shore on the Ithacan territory as it is approached from a foreign territory (which is exactly what Telemachus does when he lands there). B. subsequently refers to other eastern landing places and promontories in Ithaca. Why should this one alone be designated as such?

Chapter Five (“How Homer Determined the Position of Ithaca in the Odyssey”) situates Ithaca in a larger area some distance from Elis (i.e. in the Ionian Sea) and in relation to the neighboring islands of Dulichium, Same, and Zacynthus. The chapter is subdivided into three parts, the first of which focuses on several passages indicating the location of Ithaca relative to other islands in the archipelago. Based on Odysseus’ own description of Ithaca (9.21-8) B. presents a sound proposal (p. 54-58, 65) according to which Odysseus’ home is located on the westernmost island in the group ( αὐτὴ δὲ χθαμαλή πανυπερτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ κεῖται πρὸς ζόφον, αἱ δὲ ἄνευθε πρὸς ἠῶ τ’ ἠέλιόν τε), so that when facing eastwards other islands seem to be around it on the horizon ( ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι). Moreover, based on descriptions of the suitors’ ambush of Telemachus (Od. 4.669-671, 4.844-847 and 15.28-30) in the straits between Ithaca and Same, B. locates the island of Same in the place of the present-day Thiaki (Ithaca)2 and the islet Asteris on which the suitors are lying in wait as modern-day Daskalio, just off the northeastern coast of Eresos (p. 58-65). The second part of the chapter (65-7) confirms the location of the whole archipelago near the coast of Elis (Od. 21.346-7), while the third part (p. 67-70) considers some evidence from the Iliad about this group of islands. Il. 2.625-7 and 2.631-5 somewhat complicate the apparently simple picture of the archipelago based on the information from the Odyssey. Here we first learn of the holy islands of Echinades (which B. discusses further at a later point (p. 91), without committing himself to identifying them with any particular islands), and, more importantly, that Odysseus led to the Trojan War “Cephallonians, men of Ithaca and those who lived in Crocylia and Aegilips” (Il. 2.631-3). B. places the last two toponyms on the southern part of Eresos, outside the borders of Ithaca, and concludes that “there was another commune on the island where Ithaca was located” and that “the Cephallonians, apart from inhabiting and ruling Ithaca, also rule the remaining part of the island in the hinterland of Mt. Neriton, i.e. the undetermined part of the island where Crocylia and Aigilips are located. This territory is not inhabited by Ithacans and does not, therefore, belong to its territory.” (p. 68). The explanation, of course, begs the question: why is Odysseus leading the troops of men from other communes on the island? B. is satisfied to provide only a vague explanation of this point (“It is obvious that Odysseus had some power in the neighboring Cephallonian commune as well”, fn. 18, p. 68) and points to Od. 20.210 (according to which Odysseus put Philoetius in charge of cattle in the Cephallonian commune) as further support for this unexplained dominance of Odysseus over the whole island.

Chapters Six and Seven (“Homer’s Concept about the Places of Arrival in Ithaca of Telemachus and Odysseus” and “The Sea Voyage of Telemachus”) both focus on the voyage of Telemachus to the Peloponnese and back, and on the ambush initiated by the suitors in the straits between Ithaca and Same. Based on Athena’s instructions to Telemachus (15.27-42) and the suitors’ words (16.365-370), B. reconstructs the ambush as follows. The suitors expect Telemachus to sail between the islet Asteris and the eastern coast of Eresos on his way back to Ithaca. In order to ambush him at sea, before he reaches home, during the day they are stationed on the capes on the eastern shore of Eresos across from Asteris/Daskalio and in the coves of Asteris, while at night, due to low visibility, they sail back and forth between Asteris and Eresos. However, Telemachus obeys Athena’s instruction to “keep away from the islands” (Asteris and the island on which Ithaca is located, according to B.) and thanks to favorable winds sails during the night around (to the east of) Asteris, avoiding the suitors’ ambush and landing on “the first shore of Ithaca” the next morning. Such reconstruction of events naturally follows from the original premise about the location of Ithaca and the neighboring islands.

The following five chapters each deal with individual locations or landmarks on the Ithacan territory as described in the Odyssey (“The Harbor of Phorcys,” “Raven’s Rock near the Spring of Arethusa,” “The Hamlet of Laertes,” “The Artificially-raised Spring Made by Ithacus, Neritus and Polyctor,” and “City of Ithaca”). In each case B. discusses relevant textual references and presents what he considers to be their modern-day counterparts in word and in image. As in the case of the previous two chapters, most of the material is essentially an elaboration of the thesis presented at the beginning of the book. The final chapter, “How Odysseus’s Ithaca and the Islands of Dulichium and Same Lost Their Initial Names,” briefly notes that the confusion in toponymy of this group of islands from Homeric times onwards may be a result of migrations of the inhabitants, an idea already proposed by Dörpfeld in 1902, albeit as an explanation for how the ancient Ithaca became the present-day Levkas.

Even if the viability of one-on-one correspondences between Homeric geography and specific landscapes is accepted, attempts at drawing such correspondences without the involvement of archaeology are bound to come down to guesswork (however educated and thorough the guesswork may be), and B. is aware of the need for archaeology to test his claims (Conclusion, p. 139-41). Until that happens, this book may serve as an innovative way of thinking about the landscape of ancient Ithaca.

[[For a response to this review by Berislav Brckovic, please see BMCR 2005.12.22.]]


1. A further equation is made (based on Od. 9.25-6, which describes Ithaca as “lying uppermost towards the darkness”): west = up and, consequently, east = down. That, however, seems unnecessary, since it does not advance B.’s position on the location of Ithaca in any way, and, from other usages of the word, especially regarding trees, it seems that the meaning “highest” gets equated with “furthest from land” and so does not tell us anything about the orientation of Ithaca, just that it is far from land.

2. Assuming that modern-day Zacynthus is in the same location as its Homeric namesake, B. is left with the island of Levkas (ancient Ithaca, according to Dörpfeld) as Homeric Dulichium.