What was the name of Odysseus’ city?

No, the name of the capital, city, village or port is not mentioned in Homer's Illiad or Odyssey. We must turn to Ploútarchos (Πλούταρχος) whom we know better as Plutarch (AD 46–after AD 119). In his book 'Quaestiones Graecae', this Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, addresses the question of Ithaka's (main) city.
[Odysseus embracing his father Laertes after returning home to Ithaka]

In Question 43 of the aforementioned book Plutarch asks: 'Why is the city of the Ithacans called Alalcomenae (Ἀλαλκομ́εναι)?' 

πόθεν ἡ τῶν ᾽Ιθακησίων πόλις ᾽Αλαλκομεναὶ προσηγορεύθη; διὰ τὸ τὴν ᾽Αντίκλειαν ὑπὸ Σισύφου βιασθεῖσαν ἐν τῆι παρθενίαι τὸν ᾽Οδυσσέα συλλαβεῖν· ὑπὸ πλειόνων δ᾽ ἐστὶν εἰρημένον. ῎Ιστρος δὲ ὁ ᾽Αλεξανδρεὺς ἐν ῾Υπομνήμασι προσιστόρηκεν, ὅτι τῶι Λαέρτηι δοθεῖσα πρὸς γάμον καὶ ἀναγομένη περὶ τὸ ᾽Αλαλκομένειον ἐν τῆι Βοιωτίαι τὸν ᾽Οδυσσέα τέκοι· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐκεῖνος ὥσπερ μητροπόλεως ἀναφέρων τοὐνομα τὴν ἐν ᾽Ιθάκηι πόλιν οὕτω φησὶ προσαγορεύεσθαι.

. It is affirmed by most, that it was because Anticlea in the time of her virginity was forcibly seized upon by Sisyphus, and brought forth Ulysses. But Ister the Alexandrian hath acquainted us in his memoirs, that Anticlea was married to Laertes, and being brought to a place about the Alalcomeneum in Boeotia, was delivered of Ulysses; and therefore Ulysses called the city of Ithaca by the same name, to renew the memory of the place in which he had been born

Therefore, the city on Ithaka was called Alalcomenae in honour of a city with the same name in Boeotia.

The problem, of course, is that Plutarch lived more than a 1,000 years after the events that were described in the works of Homer. During that long period of time, memories will become legends. Legends fade to myth. Myths get embellished with spurious material to muddle history.

Can we walk back in history and find a more ancient source that mentions the name of Odysseus city? The sad answer is: Unfortunately no.

Possibly both the name of the island (or peninsula) were both called Ithaka. This solution corroborates with our conclusion in a previous post, where we found that the name Ithaka may well have had the meaning of 'old' or 'ancient'. One would think that both the city and its surroundings may well have deserved that epithet.

The origin of the name Ithaka?

Of course, the true origin of the name of Ithaka, the fabled home of Odysseus may never be found. But we may try to retrieve the origin from the dark and uninviting past.

Our first logical step is to search in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. There we find that Ithaka derives from Ancient Greek Ἰθάκα (Itháka), which is the Doric form of Ἰθάκη (Ithákē). Searching further we find that the Doric form is of 'uncertain origin', but that the first element is possibly derived from a Phoenician word with the meaning of 'island'. That is not very helpful, because we can easily imagine that Ithaka could also have a Punic origin, where Y also means 'island'.

We may find an alternative etymology in Martin Bernal's 'Black Athena: Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence'. Bernal claims that Itháka (Ιθαkα), Attika (Αττιkα), and Ituke (Ἰτύκη) share the same syllabic structure: -th-k-. Itháka is obviously the island and town of Odysseus, but also a town on the Euphrates*. Attika is the territory around Athens, while Utica was once a city near Carthage in what is now Tunisia.

The name of Utica, Wikipedia tells us helpfully, is derived from Phoenician ˁAtiq (ʿtq), cognate with Arabic ˁatiqah (عَتِيقَة) and Hebrew ˁatiq ('to pass', 'supercede'). These all mean 'old' and contrast the settlement with the later colony Carthage (qrt-ḥdšt), whose own name literally meant 'new town'. This is cognate with the name of the walled area within the modern city of Jerusalem: Ha'Ir Ha'Atiqah (הָעִיר הָעַתִּיקָה) meaning 'the old city'.

The existence of another Ithaka on the banks of the Euphrates strongly suggest that this toponym is Semitic in origin, but it is difficult to say whether it meant 'preeminent' or 'ancient'. The first interpretation is reinforced by Ithaka's early dominance over Cephallenia and Zakynthos. The latter interpretation could point in the direction of 'ancient' if there's any possibility that the name is derived from that of its inhabitants.

The same ambiguity holds for tracing the name of Attika, although the meaning of 'ancient' is more likely given the Athenian boasts of their antiquity and the region's standing out from the Dorian invasion.

So, the name of Ithaka may mean 'old', simply to state the ancient roots of their inhabitants.

* Can someone corroborate this claim? Where lies that continental Ithaka and what is its current name?

A Forgotten Perspective on Odysseus

Odysseus was once king of Ithaka, son of Anticlea and Leartes. He became, like the other princes of Greece, one of the suitors of Helen, but he wasn't successful in his endeavours because of the great number of competitors. Instead he solicited the hand of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius.

Tyndarus, the father of Helen, favoured this solution, because this meant that it removed Odysseus from his list of problems. He was directed to choose one of the suitors without offending all the others, and to bind them all by a solemn oath that they would unite together in protecting Helen if any harm was ever done to her.

So, Icarius gave his daughter Penelope in marriage to Odysseus, but he was so tenderly attached to her that he wished her husband to settle at Lacedæmon. Odysseus refused, but when he saw the earnest petitions of Icarius, he told Penelope, as they were going to embark, that she might choose freely either to follow him to Ithaca or to remain with her father. Penelope blushed in silence, and covered her head with her veil. Icarius, upon this, permitted his daughter to go to Ithaca.

Odysseus and Penelope returned to Ithaca, where his father resigned him the crown, and retired to peace and rural solitude.

The abduction of Helen by Paris, did not permit him to remain in his kingdom for long, and he was bound, in common with the rest to defend her against every intruder. Thus he was summoned to the war with the other princes of Greece.


Pretending to be insane, because he did not want to leave his beloved Penelope, he yoked a horse and a bull together, and ploughed the seashore, where he sowed salt instead of grain.

His cunning plan, however, soon unravelled. Palamedes, son of Nauplius, king of Eubea, was convinced that the father was not insane. So, he placed Odysseus' infant son Telemachus before the plough. Palamedes was proven to be right, because Odysseus turned away the plough from the furrow, not wanting to hurt his son.

Telemachus was still in the cradle when his father went with the rest of the Greeks to the Trojan war, which means he was in his early twenties when Odysseus finally returned to Ithaka. 

This perspective also shows the close relationship between Helen and Penelope. Close enough to be a doublet?

[Text adapted from the Classical Dictionary (1847), compiled by Charles Anthon]

Riddles about Amber in the Odyssey

Amber is fossilized pine tree resin found mostly in and on the beaches of the Baltic Sea. But so much was found that some sort of catastroph must have occurred to drown so many pine trees.

The Ancient Greek word for amber was ēlektron (ἤλεκτρον). The word is associated with ēlektor (ἤλεκτορ), used in the Iliad to mean the 'beaming', 'dazzling' or 'radiant' sun.

Amber always fascinated the ancients and they imagined that it had some internal fire (imagine igneam) or described the material’s gentle glow (mollis fulgor). The amber’s colour was certainly poetic —of wine, honey, wax, embers, or fire— but was of secondary importance to its glow. 

We find the first (extant) mention of amber in Homer’s Odyssey. When Telemachus visits Menelaus’ palace in Book 4, he is awestruck: “Mark the flashing of bronze throughout the echoing halls, and the flashing of gold, of ēlektron, of silver, and of ivory. Of such sort, methinks, is the court of Olympian Zeus within, such untold wealth is here; amazement holds me as I look.”

It is the flashing of the jewels, more so than the jewels themselves, that puts Telemachus in mind of Zeus; the word he uses is steroph (στεροπή): the flash of a lightning bolt.

The word elektron occurs twice more in the Odyssey: once in Book 15 (lines 455–462), when the swineherd Eumaeus, tells Odysseus the story of his kidnapping. He remembers the cunning Phoenician mariner who turned up at his ancestral home with an eye-catching golden necklace strung with amber pieces. Also, in Book 18 (lines 294–296), when the suitors vie with one another in the extravagance of their gifts to Penelope, Eurymachus’s contribution is “a richly crafted necklace of gold adorned with sun-bright amber”.

[Necklace with a pendant scarab, Italic or Etruscan and Greek, 550–400 B.C. Amber, gold, and carnelian]

The word elektron was also used in antiquity to describe the alloy of silver and gold (modern electrum). The earliest surviving source to discuss both materials is Herodotus. Pliny (Natural History 33.23.80) says, “All gold contains silver in various proportions.… Whenever the proportion is one-fifth, the ore is called electrum.” Some scientists think that elektron was originally used for the resin and then transferred to the metal because the two materials shared certain optical properties. Both were beaming, dazzling, and radiant.

Clearly amber was once abundant. Even in 1701 more than 6 tonnes of amber was used to panel an entire room in the Charlottenburg Palace (Berlin, Prussia), later transferred to the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace (near Saint Petersburg, Russia).

How did amber got to Ancient Greece? As Odysseus lived in the early 12th century BC, we can imagine caravans slowly making their way from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and back. A more plausible route is via the Volga, as the Vikings did some millennia later. That also suggests that a voyage like that of the Argonauts might well have had a secondary purpose: meet up with traders from the Baltic and transfer amber to their boat. We can even imagine that the fabled Golden Fleece was an amber vase with a depiction of the golden-woolled, winged ram.

The trade network of amber, which reached as far as Egypt, vanished suddenly in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Amber disappeared totally from the market after 1200 BC and was not known again for centuries. Between 1200 BC and 500 BC no amber reached the Mediterranean. The demise of the trade and trade routes of amber coincided with the Dark Age of Greece, suggesting that the Minoan (on the island of Crete) and Mycenaean civilizations (on mainland Greece) had simultaneously crumbled because of prolonged climate change in the region.

[Update 25 August 2021] Amber necklace found in Poland.
An ornate amber necklace was found during the excavation of a cemetery in the Polish village of Przykopka (formerly known as Birkenwalde). The amber necklace was made up of 35 individual hand polished beads, along with a heart-shaped amber pendant. The researchers also found coins from the 18th and 19th century, along with clothing, jewellery, pins, buttons, hairpins, pottery, and animal remains.

Where is (the real) Mount Neriton?

As the frequent visitor of this obscure weblog might know, the precise names of the Ionian Islands were lost during the Dark Age of Greece. When the islands were repopulated the new islanders simply named these islands as they thought they were originally named.

How wrong there were.

We can simply demonstrate that by pointing to the description Odysseus gives of his beloved Ithaca.

In the Odyssey, lines 9.20-21 it is stated that:
ναιετάω δ' Ἰθάκην ἐυδείελον: ἐν δ' ὄρος αὐτῇ
Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον, ἀριπρεπές: ἀµφὶ δὲ νῆσοι

Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain,
Leaf-quivering Neriton, far visible

In the Odyssey, lines 13.344-351 it is stated that:
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε τοι δείξω Ἰθάκης ἕδος, ὄφρα πεποίθῃς.
τοῦτο δὲ Νήριτόν ἐστιν ὄρος καταειμένον ὕλῃ.

But come now, to convince you I will show you the landmarks of Ithaca.
and over there is Mount Neriton, clothed with its forests.

Odysseus was extremely proud of 'his' Ithaca and he explicitly mentions Neriton, a mountain that is 'far visible'. To be visible from afar means it must be rather high. The mountain is also covered by trees.
If we turn our attention to the island that nowadays erroneously bears the illustrious name Ithaca, we can immediately see that, yes, it is a rugged place and, yes, it does have some low mountains. But these are not something to be proud of because they dwarf beside Mount Ainos on Cephalonia. That mountain has a lofty elevation of 1,628 meters. The top of Mount Ainos is covered with fir trees and is a natural reserve.

But that explanation immediately poses another problem.

Because, we identify ancient Ithaca with modern Paliki, the peninsula attached to Cephalonia. If Mount Neriton is Mount Ainos then our theory must be wrong.
But suppose that Ithaca of Odysseus wasn't just the peninsula of Paliki but rather some settlements around the coasts of the Gulf of Argostoli, situated between Paliki and mainland Cephalonia. That also means that the Gulf of Argostoli must be identical with Odysseus' harbour of Phorkys.

Which eye disease might Odysseus have had?

When Odysseus finally returned to his beloved Ithaca, he was worried that he would be recognized too soon. To avoid that problem, the goddess Athena promised to change his appearance to make him 'unknown to all mortals'. She 'shrivelled the fair skin on his supple limbs and destroyed the flaxen hair on his head'.
[The goddess Athena]

 I wonder if Odysseus really needed Athena to change his appearance. Remember, Odysseus was away for twenty years, had experienced the siege of Troy and survived several harrowing adventures. He would have aged considerably during that time. Furthermore, the Mediterranean climate with its incessant sunshine, would shrivel anybody's fair skin and we can imagine that the ageing Odysseus would have lost some (or most) of his hair during his long absence. He might even have been bald.

But Athena also promised to 'dim thy two eyes that were before so beautiful, that thou mayest appear mean in the sight of all the wooers, and of thy wife, and of thy son'.

The original text uses the term 'knyzosis' for the condition, which is related to the Ancient Greek verb knúō (κνύω) which means 'to scratch'. Knyzosis thus gave Odysseus' eyes an unpleasant appearance, although without decreasing their vision, and the condition was accompanied by an itchy feeling.

Is it possible to discover the actual eye disease that Odysseus might have had?

It cannot be conjunctivitis which simply results in a temporary reddish or pink eye. Yes, pain, burning, scratchiness, or itchiness may occur, but it doesn't really change your appearance.

A better candidate is blepharitis, characterized by inflammation of the eyelids. This condition may also cause burning, itching, or a grainy sensation when introducing foreign objects or substances to the eye. Blepharitis is not sight-threatening.

When your eyelids are inflamed, they get swollen and, because it also results in scaling, reddening, and crusting of the eyelid, it would have given Odysseus 'an unpleasant appearance'.

All of these changes (shrivelled skin, destroyed hair and eyelid inflammation) would surely make Odysseus unrecognizable.

Why were there so many suitors waiting?

Odysseus was away from Ithaka for some 20 years. How did anybody know when he would return to his 'kingdom? It was much more probable that most would have thought he was dead. Any normal man would have returned almost immediately after a siege that lasted ten long years. Not Odysseus.

During Odysseus' long absence, 108 'unmarried young men' started courting Penelope, Odysseus wife or widow (whichever version they wanted to believe). Which is strange, because Penelope must have been at least 40 years old, so why would only young suitors be interested in her?

The suitors took up residence in Odysseus' home and vied for Penelope's hand in marriage. Rather than simply rejecting the suitors, Penelope devised a cunning plan to delay their courtship and told the suitors that she would make her choice known only after she had finished weaving a funeral shroud to present to Odysseus' father, Laertes. For three years, Penelope weaved the shroud during the day and unraveled it at night.

The story claims that it was simply a tactic to delay her decision, but it might well be a symbolic way of telling us that she was 'biding her time'. She was waiting. But for what?

If you think about it, it is a strange situation. Whichever island or peninsula you claim is Ithaka, it is just a smallish piece of land. Small means that it couldn't have had a large and continuous food and wine supply to feed all those suitors.

Don't expect the palace to have been that large either. So, where did these 108 'suitors' live and sleep? These were not suitors, they were young able men that formed a defensive force. They were awaiting an invasion.

Homer lets us believe that Odysseus came to his Ithaka alone and that he, assisted only by his son Telemachus, the elderly swineherd Eumaeus, and the cowherd Philoetius, managed to kill all suitors and some disloyal maidservants.

That's quite a massacre and seemingly without any real repercussions. Not from the relatives of the suitors on the nearby islands of Dulichium (which I equate with modern day Ithaka), Same (which I equate with Cephalonia), or Zakynthos.

So, what really happened? The most logical solution to this vexing question is that Odysseus must have been the leader of an invasive force that wanted to claim or reclaim (the territory of) Ithaka.

[Excerpt from Apollodorus, The Library Epitome Footnotes by J.G, Frazer]

This explanation curiously also supports a report by the Greek historian Duris of Samos (~350BC-after 281BC) who asserted that Penelope had sex with all 108 suitors in Odysseus' absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. Sex with 180 suitors is not simply a case of being rather promiscuous but is better explained as a collective rape by enemy soldiers.

[Reaction from Odysseus Unbound] Although there might be some debate about the roles of the suitors and the explanation for their numbers, we would agree with the proposition suggesting that different names were assigned to the islands in the time of the epics: Doulichion in place of modern Ithaki, Sami instead of Eastern Kefalonia, and Ithaca in place of modern Paliki. Of course this would imply that Eastern Kefalonia and the Paliki peninsula were once separate islands - a hypothesis that we have been testing scientifically for some time and which is becoming less and less of a remote possibility as our work progresses.

Homer's Wine-dark Sea. A novel explanation?

One of the most vexing problems in the works of Homer is the mention of a 'wine-dark sea'. The colour of wine can can vary wildly from white, rose, red to black, although the last colour is just a very darkish red. But you would never think that these colours would describe the colour of the sea.

Many were the explanations that have been forwarded, from the conjecture that Ancient Greeks couldn't (yet) see or describe the colour blue (they could: kúanos (κῠ́ᾰνος) which is conventionally translated as 'blue') or Homer wanted to indicate the sea during sunset (not likely: sunset will make the sea seem orange to purple).
[Source: Kiwi Hellenist. See here]

If all translations are - more or less – in agreement (which they are), then maybe we should look at the source. Could Homer himself have been erroneous?

At first glance you could argue that Homer's texts were faultless, though some did find problems. But suppose that Homer needed to adapt words to fit into the metric of his poems.

First. Most translate epi oînops póntos (επί οἶνοψ πόντος) as 'on (the) wine-dark sea', though the phrase actually should be translated as 'on (the) sea, looking like wine', from οἶνος 'wine' and ωπ 'face'. Originally, the phrase was written as epi w(o)īnopa (επί ϝ(ο)ἶνοψ πόντος). The extra consonant, the digamma ϝ was pronounced as 'wau', had dropped out of the epic dialect by the time the Iliad got written down. The digamma also explains the transition form Greek oinos via Latin vinos to our modern word 'wine'.

Second. Suppose Homer never wanted to write 'on (the) sea, looking like wine' but something like 'on (the) brilliant sea' or 'on (the) sparkling sea'. What sort of expression would we find in Ancient Greek?

Then we find aîthops (αἶθοψ) which means 'bright', 'sprakling' or 'gleaming'. The word is used to signify the gleaming of copper and iron. Its other meaning is the sparkling of wine. Both are attested in Homer's poems.

Maybe, in (some dialects in) Ancient Greece, there wasn't much difference in pronounciation of oînops (οἶνοψ) 'wine' and aîthops (αἶθοψ) 'bright'.

Odysseus' journey into the Underworld

Of all his many adventures, Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld is his most extreme. He manages to reach the place most distant from home, and from life itself, yet return even from there. His nekyia (νέκυια) in book 11, his ‘dialogue with the dead’, is arguably one his greatest feats.
[Mosaic depicting Odysseus, from the villa of La Olmeda, Pedrosa de la Vega, Spain, late 4th-5th centuries AD]

Odysseus’ expedition seems, as ever, ambiguous: he learns something specific about his own future, from Tiresias, but as for what we learn, the message seems less clear. The emphasis is squarely on storytelling—its pleasures and advantages, as well as any insights it might offer. But one small clue is that (the spirit of) the Theban Teiresias clearly knows Odysseus and addresses him as 'Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus', which enhances our idea that this too is part of a later addition, as shown in 'Helen and Penelope: A doublet? But why?.

Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the dead while enjoying the hospitality of the Phaeacians, just before securing his passage home. Circe, he recounts, insisted that he needed to consult Tiresias before sailing home, so he and his men embarked on their mission, ‘weighed down by anxiety and shedding many tears’. They arrived at the murky land of the Cimmerians by the banks of the river Oceanus. There they pulled up their ship and walked upstream, until they reached a specific place indicated by Circe, dug a trench, and sacrificed to the dead. Immediately, the shades began to swarm up from the Underworld, eager to taste the blood of the slaughtered animals, and ‘pale fear’ gripped Odysseus.

Still, he managed to keep the shades at bay, and did not let them drink the blood. At that point, the shade of one of his companions stood before him: Elpenor could still recognize Odysseus and talk to him, because he had not yet been properly buried—indeed, he had fallen off Circe’s roof the night before, stone drunk, and broken his neck. Odysseus addressed him with open curiosity, asking him how he had made it there so fast, faster even than his own swift journey by ship.

As ever, our ‘man of many turns’ does not seem to take death too seriously, and considers it almost an affront that Elpenor could travel to the Underworld faster than him. Elpenor himself, however, plaintively begs to be buried. Odysseus then spots his own mother among the shades, and yet she does not seem to recognize him. Finally, Tiresias appears, and delivers his prophecy. At this point, Odysseus has accomplished his mission and could therefore leave— but he is curious, wants to interrogate the dead. He lets his mother drink the blood of the sacrificial victims, and she suddenly recognizes him, asking how on earth he made it there while still alive. She then reassures him that Penelope is still faithful, and urges him to tell his wife some good stories when he gets home: ‘Go now, make for the light as quickly as you can, but remember all this, so that some day you will be able to tell it to your wife.’

Ancient DNA: Minoans and Mycenaens were (almost) the same

The discovery of the Minoan (on the island of Crete) and Mycenaean civilizations (on mainland Greece) in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only through Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium BC and was very advanced both artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium BC. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans.

The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations.

Researchers recently reported the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete and southwestern Anatolia[1]. They analysed dental DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

Next, they compared the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world.

The results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar – but not identical – and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey[2].

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia and Iran," explained Lazaridis.

[1] Lazarides et al: Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Nature – 2017
[2] Lazarides et al: Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East in Nature – 2015

A papyrus with lines from the Odyssey

Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer's Odyssey, ca. 285–250 BC.
For the ancient Greeks, papyrus, a paper made from the stalks of the papyrus plant, was the preferred material on which to record permanent writings, such as a marriage contract or, as here, a book. Writing on papyrus was done with a stylus, such as a sharpened reed with a split point or a bronze pen with nib, and ink, usually made of lampblack in water.

This is the first early Ptolemaic fragment of the Odyssey ever discovered. It contains three lines from Book 20 that do not occur in the standard text preserved today and is a physical testimony to the fact that local variations of this famous work existed in the third century BC.

The most important repository of Homeric texts in the Hellenistic world was at the library of Alexandria, Egypt, the first comprehensive public library ever built, which was founded by the Ptolemaic kings in the early third century BC. As Homer was the poet par excellence, his work was central to the library's collections, which contained copies of the Homeric poems from many different city-states, including Chios, Argos, and Sinope. One of the first endeavors of the Alexandrian scholars was to establish a standard text for these most cherished works of Greek literature.


Helen and Penelope: A doublet? But why?

Reading Homer closely reveals a problem: what exactly has happened to Helen and Penelope. The two share strong parallels: Helen’s marriage to Menelaos was preceded by being courted by an army of suitors; Penelope too was courted by an enormous group of suitors.

Helen is stolen away by Paris and needed to be won back by her proper husband. Only a slight change has been made in the case of Penelope, namely that Odysseus’ return prevented the stealing away.
Other passages too suggest a doublet: The most telling is, where Helen recalls the incident of Odysseus sneaking into Troy, how she recognised him immediately but chose not to betray him. The question may arise how she knew how Odysseus looked like. When or where could she have met him before?

In this passage we find explicitly stated that Odysseus entered the city disguised as a beggar; that Helen alone saw through his disguise; that he cleverly evaded her questions; that she made arrangements for a bath for her disguised guest; that she swore not to reveal him to his enemies; and that afterwards there was lamentation among the other women at what had happened.

These events are clearly identical to those in the Odyssey: the late-night conversation between Penelope and Odysseus. Penelope likewise was the first to recognise Odysseus.

The question should be: is the character of Helen a doublet of Penelope, or vice versa. There can be no doubt that Helen is the original. Without Helen, the entire basis for the historical Trojan War, and the reason for Odysseus being absent in the first place, would be gone.

But what prompted Homer to use a character twice? Was Penelope perhaps a figure already established in myth in a different context?

She may have been borrowed from an Arcadian cult: Penelope was worshipped in Mantineia as the mother of Pan. Later, after the Homeric epics were famous throughout the Mediterranean region, worshippers changed the role of Penelope and she became Odysseus' wife. After Odysseus found that she had committed adultery and expelled her from his house, she came to Arcadia and there gave birth to Pan.
Odysseus’ household contained no one for him to return to. The original story, therefore, was not about Odysseus’ return but rather about an invasion, about a foreigner arriving and attacking the local defensive force, the 'suitors', killing them, and claiming the throne.

This explains problems in the conflict between Odysseus and the 'suitors'. In the Odyssey, the suitors are guests under the protection of Zeus, and killing them would have been viewed as a crime against Zeus. In the original form of the tale, however, they enjoyed no such protection, and so Odysseus could attack and kill them without any divine repercussions.

Given the strong ties that Odysseus has with northwestern Greece, the original form of the 'return' story likely was about an invasion from the northwest.


What caused the Greek Dark Age?

The Greek Dark Age is a 'silent' period in Greek history where little or no archaeological traces are available. This period started at the very end of the Mycenean civilization at around 1100 BC and ended at the beginning of what is known as the Archaic age around 750 BC. So, history is missing for some 350 years (or there are 350 years without a documented history).
What disaster could have caused the end of the Mycenaean civilisation, the age we also know as the age of Odysseus, Penelope, Paris and Helen.

We know that, even before 1100 BC, the entire region was crumbling. The palaces and cities of the Mycenaeans were destroyed or gradually abandoned. At the same time, the Hittite civilization suffered serious disruption, and in Egypt the New Kingdom fell into disarray. No wonder that it took Odysseus ten years to return home after the Trojan War ended in 1218 BC.

Some of the Aegean regions were simply abandoned, while others were (re)populated and then destroyed or abandoned again. People went collectively in search for better and safer places to live.

Of course, there were several large-scale prolonged wars between kingdoms but one has to wonder if these were the cause or the result of the problem. Maybe there was another reason for the unrest. Maybe that reason was climatic in origin.

To prove that theory, archaeologists collected ancient sediment cores from Larnaca Salt Lake, near Hala Sultan Tekke in Cyprus[1]. A sharp decline in marine plankton and pollen from marine sea grass revealed that the lake had access to the sea until around 1450 BC, when the harbour transformed over 100 years into a landlocked lagoon. Pollen also revealed that by 1200 BC, agriculture in the area dwindled and didn't rebound until about 850 BC.

"This climate shift caused crop failures, scarcity, and famine, which precipitated or hastened socioeconomic crises and forced regional human migrations," the authors write in the paper.

Famine may have caused the huge migration of people — which may be the reason that the mysterious Sea People who invaded Egypt brought their families along.

I personally think that the constantly increasing population and the constant wars needed more and more wood to built houses and ships[2]. As more and more trees were felled, massive forests disappeared and erosion would have created dust that suffocated the land. That in turn would have resulted in crop failures and, in the end, the trigger for the prolonged regional droughts.

The Dark Age was so 'dark' that even the names of some of the islands were lost. Where exactly was Ithaca, Homer's kingdom or city state, situated? Was it even an island? No one knew and somehow a small rocky island near Cephalonia was chosen to carry that illustrious name.

[1] Kaniewski et al: Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis in PlosOne – 2013. See here.
[2] Hughes, Thirgood: Deforestation, Erosion, and Forest Management in Ancient Greece and Rome in Journal of Forest History - 1982

Was Ithaca (ever) an island?

There's a problem if you want to pinpoint the famous Ithaca on a modern map. The island that is now called Ithaca doesn't fit the description given by Odysseus at all. So, where exactly is Ithaca?
['Modern' Ithaca: Not 'rugged' but with gentle hills]

The first question we want to answer is: was Ithaca (ever) an island?

Odysseus himself gives a fair description of 'his' homeland and the islands that are situated near or around it in Book 9, lines 21-28 of the Odyssey, but I want to direct your attention to line 27.

a rugged isle, but a fine nursery of young men.
τρηχεῖ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ ἀγαθὴ κουροτρόφος· οὔ τοι ἐγώ γε

Ah, you think there one reads 'a rugged island'. So, Ithaca must be an island. But not all is so straightforward as it seems, because the word τρηχεῖ simply means 'rugged' and carries no sense of 'island'. What Odysseus actually says is: '(it is) rugged'.

I dwell in clearly-visible Ithaca, where there is a mountain,
Neriton, covered with waving forests, majestic; and on either side of it
lie many islands very close to each other:
Doulichion, Same, and forested Zakynthos.

αιετάω δ᾽ Ἰθάκην ἐυδείελον· ἐν δ᾽ ὄρος αὐτῇ
Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον, ἀριπρεπές· ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι
πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι μάλα σχεδὸν ἀλλήλῃσι,
Δουλίχιόν τε Σάμη τε καὶ ὑλήεσσα Ζάκυνθος.

You see, Doulichion, Same (Cephalonia), and forested Zakynthos, are called 'islands' by Odysseus. Ithaca is never described as being an island. However, in the entire text of the Odyssey, Ithaca is described five times as amphialos (ἀμφίαλος), with the meaning of ἀμφί ('around') and αλος ('sea'). That description is sometimes translated as 'sea-girt', but a more fitting description would be 'peninsula'.

[Paliki - Image ChristosV]

If Ithaca was an island (νῆσος - nesos), Odysseus would have surely mentioned that fact frequently, because he was extremely proud of where he came from.

He never does.

The oldest written record of the Odyssey?

Archaeologists in Greece have discovered what they believe to be the oldest known extract of Homer’s epic poem 'The Odyssey'.

A team of Greek and German researchers found it on an engraved clay plaque in Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games in the Peloponnese peninsula, the Greek culture ministry said on June 2018.

It holds 13 verses from the Odyssey’s 14th Rhapsody, where its hero, Odysseus, addresses his lifelong friend Eumaeus. Preliminary estimates date the finding to the Roman era, probably before the 3rd century AD.

The date still needed to be confirmed, but the plaque was still “a great archaeological, epigraphic, literary and historical exhibit,” the ministry said.

The Odyssey consists of 12,109 lines of poetry attributed to the ancient Greek poet Homer. It tells the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who wanders around the Mediterranean for 10 years trying to get home after the fall of Troy, which ended the siege at the end of June 1218 BC.

But there is a problem. Although the find is an important one, another, earlier find was dated some 700 years earlier. There are about a hundred that are older than the 3rd century CE, the date of the recently discovered tablet from Olympia.

The oldest written record known is a potsherd found at the Greek colony of Olbia in modern Ukraine dating to the 400s BC, which has Odyssey 9.39 written on it: ‘a wind bearing me from Ilios put me ashore among the Kikones’.

As the epitaph 'oldest record' is clearly wrong, some might think that the tablet is the oldest copy discovered in Greece. That's not correct too. One of the two oldest papyri found in Greece, the Derveni papyrus, found in Thessaly (Macedonia) and dating to ca. 340-320 BCE, quotes a line with a variant of Odyssey 8.335. It is possible that is wasn't meant to be a line from the Odyssey and it could be from an Orphic poem that happens to resemble the Odyssey line closely. Aside from that, there are a number of Hellenistic vases that do quote lines from Homer.

An Enigma in Homer's Odyssey

Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus finally arrived at his homeland of Ithaca. The swineherd Eumaeus takes Odysseus in as a guest, not recognizing his long lost master. Odysseus gives Eumaios a false biography, before launching into a story about a raid he participated in during the Trojan War. Odysseus does this to test the bounds of Eumaeus’ hospitality, to see if the swineherd will offer him a cloak, whether one of his own or a companion’s. The request for a cloak is the secret message of this ainos, and Eumaeus’ ability to understand it will decide Odysseus’ willingness to trust him.

Odysseus takes on the role of an unnamed Greek soldier at Troy. He refers to this self in the first person, while speaking of 'Odysseus' in the third person, projecting his true identity into a separate character. In the story, the 'beggar' is out on a scouting mission led by 'Odysseus' and Menelaus, who have named him their third in command. When night falls, the 'beggar' realises he has forgotten a cloak and will freeze, so he asks 'Odysseus' for help. Pretending to wake up from a divinely sent (θεῖός) bad dream, 'Odysseus' tells a warrior named Thoas to fetch backup from King Agamemnon, lest his foreboding dream come true and the group be ambushed by Trojans. The dream itself is not explained, leaving us to imagine that it featured a warning about a Trojan ambush. Thoas runs off to get unneeded backup, leaving his cloak behind for the 'beggar'.

Eumaeus, the swineherd, responds to the story with approval. He calls it a good 'ainos', revealing that he understands that this story has a hidden meaning. He then provides Odysseus with one of his own spare cloaks for the night, thus understanding its hidden meaning and proving his hospitality.

The question of exactly what an αἶνος (ainos) was has puzzled historians for ages. The word itself is related to the verb αἰνέω (aineō) ‘to praise’, the word means, 'praising speech', or more basically, 'speech act'. But not all ainoi appear as praise. They can also appear instructions, warnings, or fables.

The word αἶνος (ainos) appears as a sort of precursor in Latin as aenigma ('enigma'). It is borrowed from Greek αἴνιγμα (aínigma), with the meaning of 'dark saying' or 'speaking in riddles'. That word is derived from the verb αἰνίσσομαι (ainíssomai)

Professor James Diggle, editor of the Cambridge Greek Lexicon (2021), deemed my etymology 'acceptable' (personal communication).

[Excerpt from Cambridge Greek Lexicon]

So, αἶνος (ainos) is akin to enigma. Perhaps, the telling of an ainos was simply an important part of the ritual of hospitality of the Ancient Greeks. Even today you could tell a 'good yarn' if you repose after a perfect dinner.

Additional reporting by Miriam Kamil.

Was Paliki (ever) an island?

When the Dark Age of Greece, which lasted from 1100 BC to around 750 BC, had finally ended, the entire region was largely depopulated and even the names of some of the lesser islands in the Ionian Sea had been forgotten. When the population started to grow again, they tried to rename the islands based on their 'best guesses'. For most islands that wasn't a problem, but the smaller islands got the 'left-over-names'.

Ithaca (Ithaki) is now the island to the right of Cephalonia and is separated from it by a small channel.
The problem is that it doesn't fit with Homer's description of Ithaca. He claims that 'Ithaca itself lies close in to the mainland the furthest toward the gloom, but the others lie apart toward the Dawn and the sun—a rugged isle,...'

Most scholars agree that the phrase 'towards the gloom' must mean 'towards the direction of the setting sun' or 'west'. Thus, it would be the most western of the Ionian islands. Which 'modern' Ithaca is obviously not.

Nowadays, the most western island is Cephalonia, but that island can surely not be Ithaca, because it is identified as Same which actually makes sense because there is still a town on the island called Sami (Σάμη).

As Homer says: ..dwell in clear-seen Ithaca, wherein is a mountain, Neriton, covered with waving forests, conspicuous from afar; and round it lie many isles hard by one another, Dulichium, and Same, and wooded Zacynthus.

If Ithaca was an island, we can ask, could that island have been what is now Paliki, a peninsula attached to Cephalonia in the northwest. A 'stratigraphic analysis' seemed to reveal that Cephalonia was once two islands separated by a narrow marine channel. Rockfalls over the intervening years (must have) filled the channel and linked the two islands[1]. The problem is that this research was published in a rather obscure journal, which makes that statement rather dubious.

Much, much later, in the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo (64 or 63 BC–circa AD 24), who wrote of the channel separating Paliki from Cefalonia[2]: Cephallenia lies opposite Acarnania (modern mainland Greece), at a distance of about fifty stadia from Leucatas (modern Lefkada) .., and about one hundred and eighty from Chelonatas (modern mainland Greece). It has a perimeter of about three hundred stadia, is long, extending towards Eurus (towards the direction of winter sunrise, thus southeast) and is mountainous. The largest mountain upon it is Aenus, ..; and where the island is narrowest it forms an isthmus so low-lying that it is often submerged from sea to sea. Both Paleis and Crannii are on the gulf near the narrows[3].

The problem is, of course, that Strabo lived almost a millennium after the events described in the Odyssey.

I'm not convinced that Paliki was ever an island, as is evidenced by proper research: “Paliki peninsula was almost an island during the Pliocene period. From the beginning of the Pleistocene a gradual uplift of the area started raising the older limestone formations...'[4]

Another obvious question is: if an entire channel was filled in by rubble from landslides, as Underhill and his team from Odysseus Unbound try to prove, where did all that rubble come from? The time period of 3200 years is too short to have such major changes occurring in the natural environment[5].

[1] Underhill: Relocating Odysseus' homeland in Nature Geoscience – 2009
[2] Newton: Strabo's Greece in Nature Geoscience – 2011
[3] Strabo: Geography, book 10, chapter 2, section 15
[4] Gaki-Papanastassiou et al: Geomorphic Evolution of Western (Paliki) Kephalonia Island (Greece) During the Quaternary in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece – 2010. See here.
[5] Gaki-Papanastassiou et al: Geomorphological study and paleogeographic evolution of NW Kefalonia Island, Greece, concerning the hypothesis of a possible location of the Homeric Ithaca in Bulletin of the Geological Society of Greece – 2011

The Trojan War and the Exodus

After the end of the Trojan War it took Odysseus ten long years wandering around the coasts of the Mediterranean before he could finally take his wife Penelope in his arms again in 1207 BC.
Strange, a hero who has fought in a war far from home for ten long years would probably yearn to go home as quickly as possible, but Odysseus did otherwise. Maybe Odysseus did not simply 'lose track of time' when he wandered along the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean, but was forced to do so because of a general state of unrest and turmoil.

After having conclusively reached an almost specific date of the end of the Trojan War as the end of June 1218 BC, a valid question would be: what happened after the city was destroyed by the conquering Greeks?

Let us briefly turn to the Bible, where the Pharaoh of the oppression of the Hebrews can be identified as Rameses II (1290-1223 BC) and it would appear that the time of the Exodus, a time of great upheaval, coincided with Rameses' successor Merneptah (1223-1211 BC). This Pharaoh fought several battles against the Sea People. It would not take a great leap of imagination to identify the Greeks as these Sea People and it suggests that a long war was fought in the Mediterranean after the end of the Trojan War.

The Great Karnak Inscription, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription belonging to the Pharaoh Merneptah, mentions some names of these Sea People as I-q-w-š (Ahhiyawa, Achaeans), Tw-r-š (Trojans), R-kw (Lycians), Š-r-d-n (Sherdana) and Š-k-r- š (Shagalasha), being 'northerners coming from all land's[1].

So, Odysseus' adventures might be garbled accounts of a war that the Greeks fought against the Egyptians. After death of the Pharaoh, a sort of power vacuum ensued which resulted in a general state of unrest in the entire region, which might have lasted for about ten years. In Egyptian accounts the Greeks must have been known as the Sea People. It all makes sense.

Part 1 of this series 'When was the Trojan War?' can be read here.
Part 2 of this series 'When was the end of the Trojan War' can be read here.

[1] Edward Lipiński: On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age - 2006. See here.

When was the end of the Trojan War?

In our first column (see here), we have proven that Odysseus returned in his beloved Ithaca on the 30th October 1207 BC. Because it has taken Odysseus ten years to return home, the ten year Trojan War must have raged from roughly 1227 BC until 1217 BC. But can we date the end of the Trojan War even more specific?

Can we find corroboration elsewhere in the works of Homer? Stavros Papamarinopoulos and his team think they can[1]. Homer’s Iliad recounts 52 days during the final year of the ten-year conflict.
[Mourners by the corpse of Patroclus]
The night before Patroclus’ death, the Trojans were compelled to make many fires in order to watch better the Achaeans’ possible manoeuvrers because the night was black. That could signify a moonless night, because a possible new moon, which is a prerequisite for a solar eclipse. Moreover, Diomedes and Odysseus heard the cry of a a heron. Herons arrive to the northern Aegean Sea in the spring and stay there until the summer’s end.

Homer describes the battle, indicated that the time has reached at noon, as connecting it with the time in which the woodman has his meal. During this period, Patroclus was engaged in fighting with Sarpedon whom he eventually killed. Zeus then covered the battlefield by a destructive night en Patroclus himself is slain by Hector.
[NASA's computers forgot there's no year 0]
The only possible partial solar eclipse was the one that happened on the 6th of June 1218 BC and that started at 14.10 local time. This means that indeed a slight kind of darkness is occurred characterized, by Homer, as 'night' (νύκτα) at noon.

But Achilles needs time to create a new shield and to be killed by an arrow to his only weak spot, his ankle, shot by Paris and guided by Apollo. Then the fabled Trojan horse must be made and implemented. These episodes must have taken a few weeks.

The end of the Trojan War can now be definitely set at the end of June 1218 BC. This date corresponds perfectly with the return of Odysseus to Ithaca on 4 November 1207 BC.

Part 1 of this series 'When was the Trojan War' can be read here.
Part 3 of this series 'The Trojan War and the Exodus' can be read here.

[1] Papamarinopoulos et al: A New Astronommical Dating of the Trojan War's End in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry - 2014. See here.

When was the Trojan War?

We know about the Trojan War from Homer, the poet who composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, whose journey home takes ten years (after the ten-year Trojan War).
Scholars continue to debate questions such as whether the Trojan War actually took place and they always ask the same questions: where did it take place and when did it take place.

The first question was answered by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who began digging (not excavating) in 1870 at Hisarlik, an artificial hill in western Turkey, now situated approximately 6.5 kilometres from the Aegean Sea and about the same distance from the Dardanelles. He found several layers of occupation and declared he had found Troj (Τροία). Historians now agree that Hisarlik is indeed the fabled city of Troy (in ancient Greek, Ἴλιος or Ilios).

The actual date of the Trojan War remained elusive, but Greek astronomer Stavros Papamarinopoulos and his colleagues have found a very credible solution[1]. They looked closely at the astronomical and biological information that Homer included in the Odyssey.

Five days before Odysseus' finally was able to return to Ithaca, Homer wrote: '... and the sun has perished out of heaven and an evil mist covers all.' Papamarinopoulos thinks that this must signify a solar eclipse, but there are several possible eclipses that fit within the historical time frame.
[NASA's computers forgot there's no year 0]
Even Plutarch and Heraclitus believed that the passage in the Odyssey (“Theoclymenus' prophecy”) to be a poetic description of a near total solar eclipse. Baikouzis and Magnasco write that 'close to noon ….the total eclipse of the sun occurred at 12.02 p.m local time'[2].

Homer also gives significant details in connection with the climate, the environment, the plants, the animals and the peoples' habits, which strongly prove the autumn as the season of the Odysseus’s return to Ithaca.

In conclusion, the only possible date for Odysseus’s return to Ithaca is 30 October 1207 BC plus five days. Which means that he finally returned home on 4 November 1207 BC. Given that it has taken Odysseus ten years to return home, the ten year Trojan War must have raged from 1227 BC until 1217 BC.

Part 2 of this series 'When was the end of the Trojan War' can be read here.
Part 3 of this series 'The Trojan War and the Exodus' can be read here.

[1] Papamarinopoulos et al: A New Astronomical Dating of Odysseus' Return to Ithica in Mediterranean Arhaeology and Archaeometry - 2012. see here.
[2] Baikouzis and Magnasco: Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey? in PNAS - 2008. See here.