Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The ‘talking pictures’ of Homeric topography

        (Text: Hettie Putman Cramer & Makis Metaxas)

       It is a fact that the reliability of Homeric topography has  been called in question since the early years of the historical era, and the argument still rages unabated today. The unending dispute over the authorship, date of origin, composition and subsequent revision of the Homeric epics has not allowed any firm conclusions to be drawn with regard to their dating.

        As far as the western Greek islands are concerned, the thorniest problem of Homeric topography has been not simply the question surrounding Ithaca itself, nor the curious confusion of the islands, nor the names of Homeric islands that have ‘disappeared’ (Doulichion, Same/Samos, Asteris), nor the new names (Kephallenia, Leukas/Lefkada) that have come into use in historical times. It is the complete inability of tne ancient commentators and travellers – and of their followers in later centuries – to locate on modern Ithaki even the two unmistakable landmarks that Athena pointed out to Odysseus so insistently, to convince him that he really was back in his homeland. One was the towering, forested Mount Neriton, so greatly famed in his time and visible from all around – even from the headland of Pheai (modern Katakolo) in the Peloponnese; and the other was the beautiful, spacious, vaulted Cave of the Nymphs dedicated to the Naiads (the nymphs of running water), described as ‘a wonder to behold’.
        It is common knowledge that in the Alexandrian period, in particular, attempts were made to make the Homeric texts more conformable by ‘correcting’, adding or deleting lines. One such instance was the alteration of «εὐρεῖας Ἰθάκης» (‘broad Ithaca’) to «οὐδ’ εὐρεῖα» (‘not broad’)[1]; another is to be found in the description of Asteris, where a whole line "μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης", (‘between Ithaca and rocky Samos’), Od. 4.845)[2] was added in an attempt to identify the lost island of Asteris with the islet now called Daskalio and in some way to adapt the topography of Homer’s text to the topography of historical Ithaki.
       In the case of the Cave of the Nymphs, however, owing to the many details that Homer describes so precisely, it was not possible for such a vividly descriptive and highly detailed passage to be altered to fit one of the caves on historical Ithaki, as there was, after all, no such cave. The ancient commentators were therefore reduced to accepting the situation: the traveller Kronios,[3] for example, admitted that there had never been any such cave on Ithaki, while Strabo[4] informs us that there is no such cave on Ithaki but maintains that this must be due to some subsequent geological change, not Homer’s ignorance. Similarly, the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry,[5] in his great work Περὶ τοῦ ἐν Ὀδυσσείᾳ τῶν Νυμφῶν ἄντρου [On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey], while also admitting that no such cave existed on the Ithaki of his time, argued that Homer’s descriptions were purely symbolic and claims poetic licence.
        What is certain is that Strabo tells us that even in his time (1st century a.d.) there was serious dissension over the Homeric past of Kephallenia and Ithaca: he therefore felt constrained, in the matter of the Cave of the Nymphs, to write:

οὐ γὰρ εὐκρινῶς ἀποδίδωσιν ὁ ποιητὴς οὔτε περὶ τῆς Κεφαλληνίας, οὔτε περὶ τῆς Ἰθάκης καὶ τῶν ἄλλων πλησίον τόπων, ὥστε καὶ οἱ ἐξηγούμενοι διαφέρονται καὶ οἱ ἱστοροῦντες. (C454)

for the poet does not express himself distinctly concerning either Kephallenia or Ithaca and the other places nearby; and consequently both the commentators and the historians are at variance with one another.

        The question of what actually happened in the islands of Western Greece to cause such an extraordinary muddle over the modern names of the Ionian Islands is a very interesting one to which cogent answers are gradually beginning to be found.
        Two works moving in this direction are the unpublished paper by the archaeologist Odysseas Metaxas entitled «Η Βιογραφία της Οδύσσειας» [‘The Biography of the Odyssey’] and the book by Dr. Vangelis Pantazis entitled Η Ομηρική Ζάκυνθος - Οι «ιερές» Εχίνες και το μυστήριο του χαμένου Δουλιχίου [Homeric Zakynthos: The ‘sacred’ Echinai and the mystery of lost Doulichion], Athens: Periplous Editions, 2002. Both put forward new ideas in connection with the preparations and proposed agenda of the forthcoming conference on the ‘biography’ of the Homeric and the Mycenaean topography of Western Greece.
        In these pages we hope to prove that the topography of the epics presents the most authoritative and lucid picture of the Late Bronze Age we could possibly have had. The resulting ‘snapshot’ is so accurate and so up-to-date that there is no doubt in our minds about when and for what reason it was taken.
       We can now say that the person who took the ‘snapshot’ – and hence the composer(s) or compiler(s) of the epic was or were evidently acquainted in great detail with the Bronze Age environment he or they lived in. Consequently we can now understand and explain why he or they had no knowledge of the names given to the islands in historical times.
        The reliability of the topography described in the text, which is something one would naturally expect, so as to ensure the credibility of the narrative scenes, is triumphantly confirmed by dozens of other ‘high-definition snapshots’ of that period; and these in turn confirm the overall picture beyond all argument, even to the sequence and orientation of the islands, the sailing times from one to another and abstruse details of their general appearance and morphology. (See the walking tours and the descriptions of the Cave of the Nymphs, the harbour of Rheithron, the Asty, etc.)

       Following the course taken by Athena (Od. 13.344)  (‘But come now, to convince you I will show you the land of Ithaca’), it is worth trying again, even after a lapse of three thousand years, to see whether it is possible for Bronze Age Ithaca to be revealed to our view not only by the processes of archaeology but in exactly the same way! The chosen ‘talking pictures’ of the places on Odysseus’ Ithaca must then be of such superlative quality, and so striking, as to be capable on their own of ‘scattering the mist to reveal the land’, so confirming Homer’s descriptions, for only by seeing those places with our own eyes will we be able to tell where we are.

How true, realistic and accurate could this extreme case possibly be which, so to speak, puts our rational thinking to the test? Can there really be any ‘talking pictures’ that carry the same weight as the archaeological evidence?

         The answer, fantastic though it may seem, is this: yes, there did then exist and do still exist the same unaltered images, giving rise to the same conclusions and the same feelings. The only problem that existed then and still exists today is the thick fog of the dark ages that still shrouds the landscapes of prehistoric Greece.
        The ‘talking pictures’ arising from Homer’s descriptions are there to reveal the landscapes once again and put us firmly on the trail of Odysseus.

ὣς εἰποῦσα θεὰ σκέδασ᾽ ἠέρα, εἴσατο δὲ χθών· (Od. 13.352)
“As the goddess said these words, she dispersed the mist.  Once the land was visible”

‘scattering the mist to reveal the land’..........

        When Odysseus arrives back in his homeland and Athena appears to him, he does not recognize her. So what does she do to persuade him that he really is back in Ithaca? She "scattering the mist to reveal the land’" and Athena shows him two of the most unmistakable landmarks of his homeland, which anyone who was familiar with them could not fail to recognize.

ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε τοι δείξω Ἰθάκης ἕδος, ὄφρα πεποίθῃς.
Φόρκυνος μὲν ὅδ᾽ ἐστὶ λιμήν, ἁλίοιο γέροντος,
ἥδε δ᾽ ἐπὶ κρατὸς λιμένος τανύφυλλος ἐλαίη·
ἀγχόθι δ᾽ αὐτῆς ἄντρον ἐπήρατον ἠεροειδές,
ἱρὸν νυμφάων, αἳ νηϊάδες καλέονται·
τοῦτο δέ τοι σπέος ἐστὶ κατηρεφές, ἔνθα σὺ πολλὰς
ἔρδεσκες νύμφῃσι τεληέσσας ἑκατόμβας·
τοῦτο δὲ Νήριτόν ἐστιν ὄρος καταειμένον ὕλῃ."
                                                                        (Od. 13.344-351)

‘But come now, to convince you I will show you the land of Ithaca.
This is the harbour of Phorkys, the old man of the sea;
here at the head of the harbour is the long-leaved olive tree;
and near it is the lovely, shady cave
sacred to the nymphs that are called Naiads.
This is the spacious, vaulted grotto in which
you have offered many solemn hecatombs to the nymphs;
and over there is Mount Neriton, clothed with its forests.’

        What, then, were those two well-known, distinctive and unmistakable landmarks in the landscape of Homeric Ithaca which would be enough to convince Odysseus finally that he was in his homeland?
        According to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, one was the famed Cave of the Nymphs. the Naiads (ἱρὸν νυμφάων, αἳ νηϊάδες καλέονται)·, close by the harbour of Phorkys; the other was the equally famous Mount Neriton, which Odysseus mentioned to Alkinoos, king of the Phaiakes, as the most recognizable feature of his homeland: ναιετάω δ᾽ Ἰθάκην εὐδείελον· ἐν δ᾽ ὄρος αὐτῇ Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον, ἀριπρεπές (‘I live in clearly-seen[*] Ithaka, where there is a majestic mountain, Neriton [huge], covered with waving forests’).

ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε τοι δείξω Ἰθάκης ἕδος, ὄφρα πεποίθῃς (Od. 13.344) 
But come now, to convince you I will show you the land of Ithaca

        Let us then visit those two landmarks. Here the saying ‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ is very much to the point. be continued.........

[*] Visible to mariners from afar because of its ‘conspicuous’ (εὐδείελον), ‘majestic’ (ἀριπρεπές) mountain.

[1] Vangelis Pantazis,«Το μέγεθος της Ομηρικής Ιθάκης» [‘The Size of Homeric Ithaca’]. Kefalliniaka Chronika 8 (1999) 267-274.
[ Until recently, the dubious line describing Ithaca as ‘not broad’ (οὐδ᾽ εὐρεῖα) gave rise to serious differences of opinion. It was relied on as the main argument in support of the case for accepting the island now called Ithaki as Homer’s Ithaca, as Ithaki is certainly ‘not broad’, while Kephallenia is much too big to have been the island that Homer was referring to. On this subject the historian Vangelis Pantazis, in a paper (in Greek) entitled «Το μέγεθος της Ομηρικής Ιθάκης» [‘The Size of Homeric Ithaca’], Kefalliniaka Chronika 8 (1999) 267-274, cited conclusive evidence proving that the authentic Homeric line refers to Ithaca as ευρεῖα (broad, large), not as οὐδ᾽ εὐρεῖα or οὐκ εὐρεῖα: the alteration was made later in various versions to make it match the reality of historical Ithaki. According to Dr. Pantazis, the original line «οὐδὲ λίην λυπρή, αὐτὰρ δ᾽ εὐρεῖα τέτυκται» was discovered in a work by Tryphon Grammatikos (1st c. b.c. – 1st c. a.d.) published in the third volume of Anecdota Graeca by J.F. Boissonade.  J. La Roche’s firstly published this text in his annotated edition of the Odyssey (Homeri Odyssea) in 1868. This discovery restores not only the actual structure of the line in question (Od. 13.243) but also the extremely problematic line 118 in Book 24 of the Odyssey, where again, as shown by Dr. Pantazis in his exhaustive analysis, the word εὐρεῖα applies to Ithaca and not, of course, to the πόντος (sea), which appears to have been substituted for the original νῆσος (island). Support for the description of Ithaca as ‘broad’ or ‘large’ is to be found in an elegy on Homer’s love of Penelope by the Colophonian poet Hermesianax, who uses the adjective εὐρείης when referring to Penelope’s home island. The relevant passage is preserved by the sophist Athenaeus (Deipnosophistai, XIII.597).
Αὐτὸς δ᾽ οὗτος ἀοιδός, ὃν ἐκ Διὸς αἶσα φυλάσσει
ἥδιστον πάντων δαίμονα μουσοπόλων
λεπτὴν ᾗς Ἰθάκην ἐνετείνατο θεῖος Ὅμηρος
ᾠδῇσιν πινυτῆς εἵνεκα Πηνελόπης,
ἣν διὰ πολλὰ παθὼν ὀλίγην ἐσενάσσατο νῆσον,
πολλὸν ἀπ᾽ εὐρείης λειπόμενος πατρίδος·
ἔκλεε δ᾽ Ἰκαρίου τε γένος καὶ δῆμον Ἀμύκλου
καὶ Σπάρτην, ἰδίων ἁπτόμενος παθέων. ]
[2]  Odysseas Metaxas, «Η Βιογραφία της Οδύσσειας» [‘The Biography of the Odyssey’] (in preparation).
[3]  Porphyry, Περὶ τοῦ ἐν Ὀδυσσείᾳ τῶν Νυμφῶν ἄντρου.
[4]  Strabo, 1.3.59.
[5]  Porphyry, Περὶ τοῦ ἐν Ὀδυσσείᾳ τῶν Νυμφῶν ἄντρου.


  1. Hey Homeric Ithaca,
    Again a nice post, and this time in fluent English! :)
    However, I'm still not convinced that Homeric Ithaca was in the Southeastern part of Kephalonia. Your posts do hold some truth, I found the part about the editing of the original text very interesting. However, I do not fully agree with your reasoning. Without doubt, mt. Neriton and the cave of the Nymphs were important aspects of the landscape of Ithaca, but we cannot forget that we are dealing with a poetic text here: it is very likely that Homer (or whatever poets edited the text) has made the scenery way prettier than it is in reality. In these cases it is very simple to follow your emotion, and many researchers have done this in regard to the matter (think about Bittlestone imagining a second channel while there was a perfect one to begin with), so of course I cannot blame you, but it would be better to look at the more objective facts in the texts, such as sea directions, positions of harbors, and other things that wouldn't be prettified by a poet. As I already stated, in my opinion too many researchers have argumented trough there emotion rather than looking rationally at the facts, and have thus reached wrong conclusions. One of the few who has looked at the texts more objectifically is C.H. Goekoop (if you are interested, his book "where on earth is ithaca" is pretty good). He first looked at the topography of the island, selected a piece of land that fit his findings, and afterwards looked at the details of the landscape. That way he got a pretty objective research, and in my opinion one of the best ones out there.

    Looking forward to your next post! They are really interesting, and it's nice to have a discussion about this kind of stuff. :)

    Rugan (Unknown in the last comment, I'm not really good with blogspot I guess)

    1. Dear Rugan,

      Thank you for your comment. It is a very interesting and difficult subject and many researchers have done their best to find the clue to Homeric Ithaca centre.
      Now regarding to what you write, it is important to know that this blogspot is the result of the book we have written on the subject with the title: 'Homeric Ithaca: An unidentified Mycenaean city in the islands of the Kephallenians'. Athens, Kaktos, 2000. There is a copy in the University library of the UvA.
      This book is written in Greek, so few people outside of Greece could read it. We are preparing an English version, with new interesting leads, at the moment.
      In the book we have examined all what you suggest and much more. We are not being led by our emotions I can assure you. And what is more, with our theory we were able to find the Mycenaean tholos tomb in Tzannata (see other post for photo's) which is the largest tomb of this kind in North western Greece.
      The findings from the tomb (1350-1100 B.C.) indicate the importance of the people that were buried in it. They were the anax (king of kings) of the area without doubt. Close to the tomb we have discovered 5 years ago the Mycenaean settlement as well with large buildings. Excavations have been conducted there for 2 years. An official announcement is a matter of time.
      You are right about Mr. Goekoop's book, which we enjoyed a lot. We knew Mr. Goekoop personally and he has been here twice to see the Tholos tomb site. The thrid time he visited us with his daughter, was shortly before he died. On this occasion he gave us his book in the English translation.
      Rugan, my name is Henriette and I am Dutch. If you are Dutch we don't have to use English. Thank you again for your comment and we try to publish more English blog posts. Kind regards, H.

    2. Wat een kleine wereld :)
      Geef een seintje wanneer het boek uitkomt, ik zou het graag willen lezen!


    3. O.k. Rugan. Dat duurt nog wel even, maar het aal zeker op het blog worden aangekondigd en ik zal je den berichte sturen.
      Ik vroeg je of je Nederlander was, want deze laatste dagen waren er veel blog lezers uit Nederland. Dus ik dacht, wie weet. Hartelijke groeten, H.

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  3. πολυ καλή εργασία η προσφερθείσα στην Κεφαλλονιά.

    1. Σας ευχαριστούμε πολύ !

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.