Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca

By Robert Bittlestone

I totally dug this book, even though those bastards at the library didn’t let me renew it–I couldn’t read the last few chapters–and even though handling the book made me break out in hives (although that could be related to something else, considering I still itch and the book’s been out of the house for two days). I first heard about this book on an episode of “The Naked Scientists” podcast (one of my regulars; I’ll link to it officially soon); they interviewed the author. I was surprised to find out how long the book had been in print already, so it’s hardly news, I guess. I think the author is an economist by trade, so if you move in economic, or British, or Homeric circles, maybe this is even old news to you.

This is one of those books where the author ties literature to actual archaeological evidence, or tries to. You know how there are always those searches for the real Noah’s ark or the real gardens of Babylon? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories to read–even if it’s completely fictitious. For book club we read an OK book–The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova–that was about combing through ancient records to discover Dracula (or maybe just vampires). It’s why I read both Foucault’s Pendulum AND The Da Vinci Code. I am all excited to resume my interrupted journey through Babylon 5 because I’ve hit this part where G’Kar refers to ancient documents that seem eerily similar to stuff that is going on at that scary planet. Battlestar Galactica follows what are basically biblical clues to find the planet Earth. Even the A.S. Byatt novel, Possession, is in this vein (I liked the movie, too). So that’s why I was drawn to this book, not caring that much about Greek Classics (although I like The Odyssey much more than The Iliad, which I am not entirely certain I’ve even read once). I have also been fascinated since I was a child with plate tectonics, so earthquakes and changing shorelines and the theory of Atlantis as Minoan culture blown sky-high by a volcano and swamped by a tsunami.

Turns out–and you probably know this–that people in their inexpert investigative ways of the 18th and 19th Centuries searched the world for the remains of Troy, and finally found it (they say that they found it, anyway) in Turkey. Maybe. Turns out that for centuries now, and milennia even, there has been an island in Greece called Ithaca, that so little resembles the Ithaca described by Homer in The Odyssey that everyone just assumed that Homer was wrong, that he (or the collection of voices now ascribed to a single storyteller) screwed up all the geographical details, even though so much of what he describes about life and sailing and agriculture and other details are correct. So people have been looking a long time for where Ithaca could be, and Bittlestone is the latest one to do so. This book presents his case. Boy, is it compelling.

First of all, the book is just beautiful. It’s heavy and it’s wide, but every single page is that glossy paper you see sometimes in the center of books with photographs printed on them. The photographs in this book are on almost every page, and they are all in color. There are satellite photographs, photographs that the author took on the ground (or that his professional photographer friend took), photographs of artifacts, topographical maps, everything. He cites passages from the poem to support his theories, and he often provides multiple translations for them, so you can see how different theorists have come up with their ideas about where Ithaca actually was. He cites geographies and travelogues from various centuries, and he is just so enthusiastic about this adventure he’s on that the book is a joy to read. (Some of the chapters are admittedly less interesting than others.) What makes this seem like more than some hack spinning threads of conspiracy (and there are lots of hacks with ideas spinning threads in the world) is his reliance on textual evidence, his descriptions of his thought processes, his correspondence with various experts in different fields, and his ultimate cooperation with local agents, a Greek language scholar (Diggle), and an actual practicing geologist (Underhill). Each contributor has a big appendix in the back to give readers the technical explanations that Bittlestone left out of the main narrative. I am so sad that the book had to go back–I didn’t get to flip through that part. I could re-request it, and I probably will. I didn’t get to the part where he was describing the town and the palace locales.

I don’t really know what to count as a flaw of the book besides its lack of portability. I suppose he spends too much time promoting the strengths of his version and not enough time to address the facts of the other side (although he does mention them and describe them by the paragraph). But he isn’t really making a case that this peninsula of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) is the location–he is making the case that Cephalonia is a reasonable candidate and that an extended exploration would not be a waste of resources. The problem is that there are no artifacts that can be specifically dated to the time that the Odyssey supposedly takes place. I think that’s the problem; like I said, I didn’t quite finish the book. It all looks great from the sky and on paper, but nothing’s really there to make the case more than circumstantial. That said, he explains at one point that any given strong resemblance could be coincidental, but then provides a formula for how to calculate the likelihood of coincidence that two or three strong resemblances would all be circumstantial.

What I really liked was when he would list all the “clues” from the poem and check each purported locale against the list. It’s very methodical. It’s very exciting. I mean, why not? If they prove this, I can’t wait to learn what they think Scylla and Charybdis were. The geological surveys and explanations of how earthquakes have rocked this island, and what kinds of dramatic changes are possible were fascinating. The photographs of land that has been raised above sea level are amazing. You really don’t want to be standing on it when these earthquakes hit. At one point, Bittlestone postulates that the violence of the earthquakes in the region made it absolutely certain that Poseidon would be in the story. I’ve felt a few earthquakes, but nothing like the ones he describes. The 1953 earthquake is terrifying to read about, as are the 19th century descriptions of other seismic events.

Just beyond the pages of the book lurk the author’s family members, too. This dude seems like he is always on a weekend getaway to Greece (nice work if you can get it, I suppose), and more than once jokes about how his family thinks he has completely lost it. It’s interesting to think about why people form obsessions. Not that I want to call this an obsession, exactly–it’s an unsavory word that implies an inability to keep food in the house or your hair clean. But at one point his curiosity blossomed from a what-if to a quest. It’s not the worst quest in the world; it’s on a beautiful island in your time zone or a couple over, in a place with cars and bathrooms… it’s turned into at least one book deal… it’s based on classical literature upon which many tenets of Western society are based. He’s not looking for reptilian aliens in a cave in New Mexico or anything. It’s a pretty high-brow pastime, so far as pastimes go, and it’s definitely conferring high status at cocktail parties. But does one do when your fancy is captured so entirely by something so far outside of your profession? He’s a commerce specialist. All the press on him refers to him as an amateur archaeologist. You get the impression while reading that he never expected to be that guy, and yet here he is, Mediterranean traveler on the media circuit.

The other question that I can’t fully answer for myself is so what? So what if the Odyssey was inspired by true events? So what if Ithaca isn’t Ithaca? In my limited way I’ve been trying to come up with a way that this could enhance or undermine Western culture. I suppose if it were true, there would be renewed interest in tracking down sources for other popular stories and legends, which would be way cool. I’m not saying that way cool isn’t a good enough reason to do things. I just wonder if it will change anything. Would it just be this amazing psychological experience, to think that stories really can live so long? One of the big things about Odysseus was that he could never keep his mouth shut. Sure, he was in a hurry to go home, but he can’t just get there without telling everyone who he is and what he’s been up to. It’s a poem as much about fame as the Iliad is about glory (I think–remember, I’m not sure I’ve read it). People think sadly of Troy and admire from afar the tragic and heroic figures in it, but do you know what they really remember? That stupid horse. You know who thought of that horse? Odysseus. You know what else? He got a whole poem all to himself after that… and they made a frikkin noun out of his name, and then a frikkin minivan. A minivan that we might actually buy!

Suck that, Hector!

So what would it mean for Odysseus to be real? It’s not like there aren’t documents of real people surviving from that far back in history. The personal connection to our ancestors is a powerful one to make, but it’s there. We know individuals. Events lately online have gotten me thinking about how long our legacy can last, even when we don’t want it to. Would Odysseus be happy to learn that his name has been carried on the wind through time (OK, that’s a pompous phrase… sorry)? It’s like reality TV will never go away. Odysseus came out pretty good in the retelling, if you think about it. Or does he? If we learn where Troy was and then where Ithaca was, and if they are anywhere near where it looks like they were, he’s going to have some splaining to do. It’s not even a twenty-year walk.

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  • Robert Bittlestone  On December 17, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    The hives are as unfortunate as they are unexpected, but they may not be contagious because Solon passed a law around 594BC stating that “He who sets up hives of bees must put them 300 feet away from those installed by another”. Solace may also be sought via the anagrammatical connection between “Odysseus Unbound – Urticaria” and “Your cautious, sudden brains”. Either way, thank you for the kind words and please let me know if you would like to finish the book by receiving a signed copy.

  • Karen  On December 17, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    I would love a signed copy. I was just getting to the good part (I didn’t get to read the palace chapter, or the appendices)! And I’m pretty sure the hives were unrelated to the pages, since I wasn’t reading with my ankles. There goes my perfectly good theory about the ink. Curse you, facts!

    So seriously. About that signed copy… if this isn’t tricksy Odysseus come back to life to trick me, what should I do?

    And I just reread the post to see what you found kind in it, and found instead some appalling errors in word choice and spelling. Plus if I’d know someone from the book website was going to be viewing the post, I wouldn’t have so freely speculated on the author’s personal motivations. Or cussed. Or trash-talked Hector. Many apologies.


  • By Possession « Iconoclast or Malcontent? on June 13, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    […] really mean, all that kind of stuff. I’ve mentioned it before when I was reviewing the book Odysseus Unbound, which is a nonfiction book about a real-life attempt to locate the actual location of […]

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