BMCR 2011.07.29

Where on Earth is Ithaca?: A Quest for the Homeland of Odysseus

, Where on Earth is Ithaca?: A Quest for the Homeland of Odysseus. Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2010. 187. ISBN 9789059723443. $29.50.


Since 1900 contemporary scholars have been struggling to answer the questions of whether Odysseus’ Ithaca can be found and whether it even actually existed. The first steps were taken by William Dörpfeld, whose excavations on Ithaca were largely financed by a wealthy Dutch gentleman, Adrian Goekoop. After the latter’s death, his younger widow, Suzanne Goekoop, continued the project and financed a promising Greek archaeologist, Spyridon Marinatos, in order to pursue what had already became a “family interest” in the land of Odysseus. Although Marinatos did not find Ithaca, his theory that Kephallenia, rather than Ithaca, was Odysseus’ island, combined with numerous archaeological discoveries (for instance, royal tombs and jewelry), provided what would appear to be the starting point for Cees Goekoop’s work. The author is thus acting as the heir to a family tradition of funding academic research that aims, as the author himself says in the Preface (p.9), to rival Schliemann’s discovery of Troy. Goekoop, however, decided to cast light on the subject by carefully reading Homer’s poems, particularly the Odyssey. In short, he decided to solve the mystery of where Ithaca is by examining Homer’s description of the Greek landscape, which the author considers to be very accurate.

The first chapter, “Homer and Ithaca” (pp.15-32), confirms the expectation that the author is trying to appeal to a wide range of readers, since it contains an introduction to Homer’s poems, the Trojan War and “the question of Ithaca”. Besides this very short “introduction to Homer”, Goekoop’s main premise is that “what Homer says about geography and landscape has remained relatively unexplored” (p.16). This leads the author to two assumptions: first of all, that there was a single Homer; secondly, that Homer described Ithaca and its surroundings precisely, which the author believes he had to do in order to hold his audience. In Goekoop’s own words, “he could not afford to create a fictional landscape” (p.31).

The second chapter, “The dispute among Homeric experts” (pp.33-80), presents the debate among researchers about where Ithaca is, from ancient times to theories put forward after the Second World War. Goekoop first points out that Herodotus and Thucydides are “as silent as the grave when it comes to Ithaca”. Things are not that different with Strabo or Pausanias: Strabo thought the Ithaca of his time was Homeric Ithaca; Pausanias, “the great traveler and observer of the places and monuments of the ancient Greek world”, ignored the Ionian islands, probably because he never visited them. Moving forward to modern times, Goekoop summarized the debate from the nineteenth century to the decades after the Second World War: the ideas of William Gell, William Martin Leake, Rudolf Hercher, William Ewart Gladstone, Joseph Partsch, Heinrich Schliemann, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Victor Bérard, Carl Wilhelm Vollgraf, Adriaan Eliza Herman Goekoop (who stated that Homeric Ithaca must have been located on Kephallenia), Lord Rennell of Rodd and Dr. J. Goekoop are put into perspective. The author, however, concludes that “no convincing results have been achieved, nor have any sound arguments been presented” (p.79). The question of Ithaca’s location thus remains, and Goekoop thinks the answer is to be found in a more accurate reading of Homer’s clues to Ithaca’a correct location. That is why passages from the forty-eight books that comprise the Iliad and the Odyssey are carefully analyzed in chapter four, “Homeric passages analysed” (pp.81-128). The basis for his argument is optimistic: Homer, being a single poet, “described the Greek geography as accurately as he could” (p.81) – which seems plausible, considering that he had to capture an audience that was well-informed about the topography of Greece and its surroundings. Finally, but still very importantly, although man – not geography – is the central element in the epic, Ithaca remains crucial, particularly in the sense of the homeland.

The fourth chapter, “Where on Earth is Homer’s Ithaca” (pp.129-168), draws on the idea that the passages Homer devotes to geography and topography are all quite consistent. One of the strongest supports for this argument is that the “distances between known locations are realistic” (p.129). This would help to locate Ithaca if the names of the four islands Homer describes (Doulichion, Zakynthos, Samos and Ithaca) corresponded to present-day reality. Also, the fact that Homer uses many adjectives for Ithaca, but never “the word “nèsos” (island) all the while including Ithaca ‘among the isles’”, might lead us to view Ithaca not as an island but as a part of an island. (p.164). From this argument Goekoop conclude that Erissos, the northern peninsula of Kephallenia, “resembles Homeric Ithaca in any detail when the position, size and features of the landscape are taken into account” (p.164).

Among other interesting conclusions (e.g. the location of many ‘Homeric islands’), Goekoop states that there was one poet, one Homer, who had a respectable knowledge of the geography and topography of the places he wrote about, and that there is a consistent image of Ithaca in the Odyssey. The book casts light on controversial issues involved in locating Ithaca and from a close reading of Homer’s poems offers an answer that is innovative for the study of ancient geography and topography.