Review: Odysseus Unbound; The Search for Homer’s Ithaca by Robert Brittlestone et al (2005) Assessment 9 out of 10

A remarkable Book

This remarkable book addresses the puzzle that the island of Ithaca described in Homer’s “Odyssey” does not appear to correspond to the island in the Ionian Archipelago currently known as Ithaca.

Like Schliemann, the 19th century discover of Troy and Mycenean civilisation, Bittlestone is an enthusiastic amateur. However unlike Schliemann, Bittlestone consulted a number of experts and the book was written in co-operation with James Diggle, a Cambridge University professor of Greek, and John Underhill, a Scots professor of Stratigraphy.

With indices and appendices, the book is nearly 600 pages long. Lavishly illustrated with colour photographs, diagrams and satellite images, it employs evidence from archaeology, history, language, literature, oceanography, seismology and biology. Remote imaging and plate tectonic are applied to questions posed by some of the world’s oldest surviving writing, indeed pre-writing, as the Odyssey was almost certainly originally recited and only later written down.

Homer’s Ithaca is identified not with the Island we now know as Ithaca, which is mountainous and in the east of the Ionian archipelago, but with the Paliki, the westernmost peninsular of the largest Ionian island, Cephalonia, which fits better Homer’s description that , ” Ithaca itself lies low furthest to the sea towards dusk”.

The Thesis

That Cephalonia lies astride a major fault line between the European continental plate pushing south west and the African continental plate moving north east, which explains how, in the 3000 years since the events described in the Odyssey, the island of Ithaca became the peninsular of Paliki. Cephalonia is sited on one of the world’s most active seismic zones with earthquakes over 7 on the Richter scale occurring on average every 55 years and note it is a logarithmic scale so a 7 is 10 times more powerful than a 6. The bedding planes of the rock on the mainland of Cephalonia dip steeply to the west. It is suggested that the effect of a series of earthquakes is for a mountain to slide into the former sea channel dividing Ithaca/ Paliki from Cephalonia. There is a moment of high excitement in the book when masonry, apparently of Mycenean age possibly forming a harbour wall at the southern end of the hypothesised sea channel between Ithaca and Cephalonia, is found to be overlain by later land slip material.

Raised beaches suggest that since approximately 1200BC there have been 4 catastrophic uplift events. Eye witness reports of the last of these in 1953 is included. The resulting death and destruction, following world and civil wars, lead to 90% of the population emigrating. Bittlestone suggests that Ithaca’s importance in the Mycenean period, as described in the Odyssey, could similarly have been brought to a catastrophic seismic end. The traumatised survivors moved from Western Greece to the area of Asia Minor, which became known as Ionia.

The Odyssey

The epic poem combines passages taking place off Ithaca, in which people, objects, locations and events are exaggerated or imaginary, with those taking place in Ithaca where characters, objects, places and events are actual.

It is thus possible that the on Ithaca passages took place in something like real time. The 10 years, which Odysseus is said to have taken to return to Ithaca from the siege of Troy, may be exaggerated, poetically mirroring the 10 year siege itself. Bittlestone comments favorably on Tim Severin’s insight in his “Ulysses Voyage” that the Odyssey describes real voyages and places. As set in the late Bronze Age, the emphasis should be on small scale, rather than on long, sea crossings. For me as a sea kayaker this has real resonance.

Even on Ithaca there are interventions from the Gods. However the Odyssey describes the late Bronze Age when the distinction between the divine and real may have had little meaning. A modern interpretation is that listening to the Gods may be like listening to the voice of your conscience or being conscious of developing thought processes in a pre-self-conscious age. Poseidon, Odysseus’s divine foe, with his powers to create earthquakes and storms, is given the epithets “earth mover” and “earth shaker”. Bittlestone comments what could be a more obvious opposing force for a king living in such a seismically active area. Today we know him as plate tectonics.

Postscript

Following publication of the book, research continued to test Bittlestone’s theory, which generally seems to have been confirmed. A geology doctorate found evidence for a rotation slump ending in a toe thrust, which could have blocked the marine channel between Paliki/ Ithaca and Cephalonia, pushing marine sediments up to 170m above sea level.

In 2015 Bittlestone sadly died. He left as a memorial his theory, which brought something genuinely new to the study of the classics, and this great book.

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