Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, The Sunday Telegraph, October 2 05

Homer's Odyssey - the 10-year return home of the Greek hero Odysseus after the Trojan war - is, like all ancient epic since Gilgamesh (c. 1700 BC), a combination of myth, folk-tale and heroics embellished with local detail for local consumption. It was composed in a tradition of oral (not written) poetry going back to c. 1200 BC, and reached the form we have it c. 700 BC (when writing became available) in Greek-inhabited western Turkey.

But there is a big problem: where is Odysseus' homeland, Ithaca? Modern Ithaki, most have assumed. But Odysseus says that Ithaca is "furthest towards the dark" - i.e. the west - of its group of islands. That indicates Cephalonia.

Robert Bittlestone, management consultant and enthusiastic Homerist, believes Cephalonia is indeed the answer, or rather, its westernmost peninsula Paliki - because Paliki was once an island . It is a fascinating suggestion, fully supported by two experts, geologist John Underhill and classical scholar James Diggle, and though nothing is finally proven, the signs look promising. B. plausibly argues that it is no longer an island because earthquakes closed up the channel separating it from Cephalonia - it is a very earthquake-prone region - which caused the inhabitants of Paliki to flee to (modern) Ithaki, taking their name with them. By (say) 900 BC, all memory of Paliki as Ithaca had vanished.

So for early oral poets, Paliki was Ithaca; after (say) 900 BC, Ithaki was Ithaca. Excellent. It's all myth anyway. End of story.

Alas, no.

B. thinks he can prove Paliki was Odysseus' Ithaca by showing that, in describing Ithaca, Homer was actually describing Paliki - down to the very last path, grove, spring, beach and hill. Most of this magnificently illustrated book is taken up with this "proof", which leads B. to suggest that Homer I composed the Odyssey on Paliki c.1150 BC almost as it happened, i.e. soon after a historical sack of Troy, from which a real Odysseus returned home to his wife Penelope, the pig-man Eumaeus, etc. Homer I, in other words, was a sort of poetic Kate Adie, whose story local oral poets, migrating to western Turkey, handed on, almost word for word, for 450 years, for Homer II to claim the credit in 700 BC.

And pig-men can fly.

Oral poets (oral because writing did not exist in the Greek world between c. 1100-700 BC) were not historians or guardians of tradition. They were creative performers, treating the tales handed down to them entirely as they, and especially their listeners, wanted. For example, we can show that the plot of our Odyssey has undergone countless re- workings, designed (like all oral poetry) to appeal to the interests of contemporary audiences, and that the cultural world of our text predominantly reflects the 8thC BC. So B.'s idea that later poets simply "refined" Homer I's original indicates that he has no idea how oral poets worked. The concept of an "original" had no meaning for them. It is therefore impossible that our Odyssey c. 700 BC should seriously resemble one produced 450 years earlier, let alone in topographical minutiae. For there was nothing at stake there: topography was not crucial to the Odyssey 's plot anyway, and by 700 BC Paliki-as-island had long disappeared (literally) off the map.

B. will demand "Why is the landscape fit so close?". Because B. has diligently worked out where Homer's sites can be located to match Paliki's landscape - a landscape Homer describes in terms of paths, groves, springs, beaches, hills and views, not exactly rare on Greek islands, and without distances or compass directions, so that B. pretty much has carte-blanche . B. juggles them until they "fit", pausing occasionally to gasp in wonder at his own - sorry, Homer's - intimate acquaintance with the mythical topography. Homer does not even supply detail necessitating the conclusion that he is describing Paliki at all.

Paliki-as-island is a sensational hypothesis. The rest is gossamer fantasy, unworthy of a scholarly publisher.


Michael Bywater, The Daily Telegraph, October 8 05

At the end of this extraordinary book, Robert Bittlestone provides a table of previous attempts to locate Odysseus's fiefdom of Ithaca. Dozens of them, only one -- Strabo -- from the ancient world, Spon & Wheeler from the 17th century, and then an explosion of Ithacerasts in the 19th and 20th centuries: Leake, Gladstone, Schliemann, Partsch, Bérard, Volterras, Volgraff, Goekoop (A E H), Dörpfeld, Rennelli, Korkos, Luce, Symeonoglou, Goekoop (C H), Tsimaratos, Livadas, Cramer & Metaxas, Le Noan, Tzakos and, now, Bittlestone, Diggle & Underhill.

All hunting down Ithaca; all on quests of greater or lesser obsessionality; all determined to be right, and to nail it once and for all (omitting, as Bittlestone drily announces, "those imaginative proposals which locate ancient Ithaca in other parts of the world".)

The word "imaginative" is a little disingenuous. Can there be any faculty other than imagination which would drive people to such lengths in trying to locate what may have been the home of the probably imaginary hero of an almost three thousand year old epic of uncertain authorship? And why does it matter so much? What is Homer's hold? Homer is the nearest thing we have in modern England to a foundation myth. Powerful appetites were awakened in the English renaissance for classical culture, which was seen as the escape route from Vatican hegemony; thence, Greece and Rome became in turn the fountain of enlightenment, the legitimisation of the Democratical Gentlemen of the English Revolution, a sort of intellectual ritalin for wild young men on the Grand Tour and, in due course, the sine qua non which marked the English gentleman; a trope so potent that it even made its way into Tony Marchant's 1999 adaptation of Great Expectations for the BBC, in which an interpolated scene had Pip at the prison deathbed of Magwitch, reciting from the Odyssey, and, what's more, in the original Greek. While this must surely have been lost on the great majority of the television audience, it nevertheless made the point powerfully and economically. Magwitch's intention, in the years of his exile, was to make a gentleman of Pip. Pip's command of the Homeric voice was the title deed to Magwitch's success. Whatever your antecedents or circumstances, reciting the Odyssey from memory made you a gentleman, and that was that.

The train of correspondences between the Homeric land- or story-scape continues to affect us, and not just in "high" culture. Films (not just overtly, like Star Wars, but covertly, like The Lion King) draw on Joseph Campbell's disputed, dodgy but immensely influential work on story structures, as simplified for Hollywood in Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: a twelve-step writing-by-numbers plan for that perfect, money-spinning epic; enthralled by a cartoon, the modern audience is. all-unknowing, as like as not being enthralled by Homer.

Robert Bittlestone's own writer's journey is more intricate, but no less epic. Odysseus Unbound follows, with alarming and, one suspects inadvertent precision, the Campbell/Vogler trajectory as obsession dawns, grows, draws him from his everyday life, as a successful businessman, founder of the appropriately-named Metapraxis, into a metapraxis of his own. There are obstacles, reverses, disappointments, enlightenments, mentors and enemies. More to the point, there is also close textual and geophysical analysis, amply (and splendidly) displayed in a book of almost unprecedented lavishness from that dryest of academic publishers, Cambridge University Press.

Ithaca - the real Ithaca, if Ithaca ever was "real" - emerges, recedes, relocates, proves impossible, proves magically possible, proves, finally, almost uncannily plausible, thanks to the Earth's own almost magical fluidity, its ability to rise, fall, shift and change shape. The Homeric text is there throughout, examined through the scholarly eye of James Diggle, while John Underhill keeps watch on the geology; with these two erudite offsiders (every epic hero needs mentors), the mystery is slowly unveiled, and, lo!, it fits. Here are where our hero foiled the Suitors; here are the pigsties; here is the westward prospect, and here the low hills. All is as Homer said. (Bittlestone won't be doing with the likes of poor half-blind, bottle-bottom-goggled Gladstone, who said Ithaca then was Ithaca now, and Homer just minced his geography.)

This is a glorious adventure in the great tradition of the amateur blessed (or cursed) with determination and the terrible virus of scholarship, bringing to mind the 19th-century banker Schliemann, who confounded the lot of them and actually found (and looted) Troy. Bittlestone's argument romps home, despite the meticulous securing of his sources; his nostos - the overarching theme of return which pervades the Odyssey - is triumphant, though many will take issue with his conclusions, which is as it should be.

His actual location of Odysseus's Ithaca may have been revealed by the time you read this, but I for one won't spoil the ending of this geographico-classical whodunnit. In any case, while the solution is fascinating, our continued engagement with this most venerable of texts provides us with an enduring mystery in itself, and one which is perhaps unlikely ever to be solved.

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