Depiction of Mycenean Warriors and Chariot, British Museum
The Homeric stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey were the creation from a Greek oral tradition of poetry stemming back to Bronze Age Mycenean times (approximately 1300-1200 BC). The epic poems themselves would have been told and retold, elaborated and embellished over many hundreds of years, until a “definitive” version was finally written down at some point in the late 6th century under Peisistratos (died 527/8 BC), the tyrant of Athens.
The character Odysseus always fascinated the Ancients, to the extent that the Roman writer Virgil several hundred years later recreated his own version of the Odyssey, The Aeneid, to provide a mythological story regarding Rome’s foundation. In the English language, the name Odysseus itself subsequently transformed into popular usage as Odyssey, meaning a journey with many trials. In the poems, however, not only does Odysseus emerge as the true leader of the Achaian Greeks in the Trojan Wars, rather than the overlord Agamemnon, but he is portrayed as the ultimate survivor, using a combination of intelligence and resourcefulness to overcome the challenges and hardships that life throws at him. He is given the epithet resourceful, but in modern language the word resilient would probably describe him better.
The existence of Troy (Ilion in the poems), and by default Odysseus and the other mythical Greek heroes, was always hotly contended until 1870. This was when the 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, following geographical clues from Homer, discovered the archaeological site at Harsilik modern Turkey, a spot close to the Dardanelle straits and strategic for sea trade into the Black Sea and the lucrative metal trade. He later went onto to excavate Mycenae (Mykenai) and gave rise to the name Mycenean civilisation, a warrior culture which exalted in hunting, combative sports and physical prowess on the battle field. In 1939, an archaeological site was found at Pylos by the American Archaeologist Carl Blegen and identified as Nestor’s Palace.
Grave goods from tomb close to Mycenae -British Museum
Interestingly both the sites at Mycenae and Pylos are situated inland, several kilometres from the coast and up on higher land. This is very typical for the period and reflects perhaps the importance both of security and having a place of refuge in times of danger, but also the practicalities of agricultural life and being within walking distance to farmlands. Piracy was always a concern in the Mediterranean, even in the Bronze Age, so settlements would often be positioned away from the coast and not visible from the sea.
Odysseus’ palace has always captured the imagination of classical archaeologists. Long before Schliemann’s discovery of Troy, there was mounting interest focused upon modern Ithaka, beginning with the British travellers William M. Leake and William Gell in the early nineteenth century. They were followed by the amateur archaeologists Colonel Charles De Bosset (1810-1813) and the antiquarian Lee. More systematic archaeological excavations on the island began with Schliemann himself (1868) with other archaeologists following in his path into the 20th century. These included the German archaeologists Wilhelm Dorpfield (1890’s), A.E.H. Goekoop and his wife Dr J.Goekoop-de Jongh, W.A. Heurtley with Sylvia Benton from the British School at Athens during the 1930’s and the Greek archaeologists S. Marinatos and M. Oiknomos until the second World War finally intervened. Dorpfield himself became so frustrated by the poor results that he subsequently moved his excavations to Lefkada, an island to the north of modern Ithaka. Excavations have since continued on the island right up to the present day.
A concern regarding Homer’s Ithaka has been that the geography, so key to helping Schliemann identify Troy, is dissimilar and does not match with the modern island. Modern Ithaka is mountainous not low lying, roughed and furthest out to the west. More significantly, fertile land so important in supporting a Mycenean palace complex predominantly based on viticulture, is in limited supply on the island. By comparison, the Paliki peninsula on Kefalonia is a naturally fertile area and in historical times was known for its food production and the export of dried fruits. What is also striking is that parts of the Paliki peninsula are unusually low lying and are quite distinct geographically due to the clay soil, so that the land appears uneven and crenellated.
Bronze Age Chamber Tomb Complex at Mazarakata- Kefalonia
One possible explanation is that the present island was probably mistaken as Homer’s Ithaka in ancient times and called as such, a tradition which has then perpetuated through into modern times. Rather the identification of Ithaka may have rested on the Roman geographer Strabo’s interpretation of 2-3 key Greek words used to describe Odysseus’ island. A modern researcher has noted that the main town on Ithaka was known in Venetian times as Dulicha, a name not too dissimilar from Homer’s Doulichion mentioned as an island within Ithaka’s kingdom.
Finally, there is one more circumstantial piece of evidence. Odysseus makes a point of saying he lives close to Mount Neriton, which is wooded on top. Oenos, on Kefalonia, is a significantly high mountain and would have acted as a landmark for ancient sailors to gain their bearings for hundreds of years. As Greece is an exceptionally mountainous country and there are scores of high peaks, the mention of Neriton starts to make more sense if it is referring to Oenos, which might actually have been well-known as a navigation point to ancient mariners.
The consequences of this possible misidentification, in ancient and modern times, may have meant that the focus of archaeological investigation and research has unfortunately centred on the wrong island. So when archaeological finds have been uncovered on Kefalonia, hinting at an alternative potential location for the palace, the potential significance was ignored until only recently. This may have been compounded by the severe earthquake in 1953, which devastated Kefalonia and destroyed most of the standing buildings. During the quake and the subsequent reconstruction phrase, a traumatic period for the islanders, some of these finds may have been lost to posterity. Finally as an interesting aside, amongst the Greeks, the modern Kefalonian islanders have a reputation for being cultured, quick witted and of an intelligent disposition (ευφυης). So perhaps hinting further at a historical connection between the island and the mythological hero of legend Odysseus.
Robert Bittlestone et al (2005) Odysseus Unbound:The Search For Homer’s Ithaca
Earle Bradford (1964) Ulysses Found
Victoria Donellan (2019) Troy: Rising From The Flames. Argo, 10, 2019
Gilles Le Noan (2005) The Ithaca of the Sunset