By By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times , Taiwan News, Newspaper
2012-03-13 03:03 PM
For a nation like ours that is seeking its way home from 10 years of war, maybe there’s a dash of inspiration in the oldest tale of homecoming ever – “The Odyssey” – and in new findings that shed stunning light on it.
Homer recounts Odysseus’ troubled journey back from a military entanglement abroad, the decade-long Trojan War. “The Odyssey” is a singular tale of longing for homeland, but it comes with a mystery: Where exactly is Odysseus’ beloved land of Ithaca?
Homer describes Odysseus’ Ithaca as low-lying and the westernmost island of four. That doesn’t fit modern Ithaca, which is mountainous and the easternmost of the cluster of islands in the Ionian Sea.
A British businessman, Robert Bittlestone, working in his spare time, thinks he has solved this mystery – and his solution is so ingenious, and fits the geography so well, that it has been embraced by many of the world’s top experts. Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University both told me that they largely buy into Bittlestone’s theory. Peter Green, an eminent British scholar, wrote in The New York Review of Books that Bittlestone is “almost certainly correct.”
Bittlestone, who loves the classics but has no special qualifications, noted that the westernmost area in this cluster of islands is Paliki, a peninsula that sticks out from the major island of Cephalonia. He wondered: What if in ancient times the isthmus connecting Paliki to the rest of Cephalonia were submerged? In that case, Paliki would be an island fitting Homer’s description.
With that insight, Bittlestone found a 2,000-year-old account by a geographer, Strabo, who described the isthmus as so low that it periodically was under water. Moreover, the collision of two tectonic plates is forcing the land mass up. A single earthquake in 1953 raised Paliki another 2 feet above sea level.
“Everybody tends to look at a landscape and assume that it’s always been like that, but in this part of the world that’s not true,” Bittlestone told me as he gave me a tour of Paliki.
John R. Underhill, a British geoscientist who is president of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, has overseen a geological examination of Paliki. Underhill says that his core samples and other research, so far, support the idea of an ancient channel separating Paliki, though the study is continuing.
There are still plenty of skeptics. Some experts still are partial to modern Ithaca as the homeland of Odysseus. Others favor the main part of Cephalonia, where an excavation has turned up the ancient tomb of a major king. For that matter, it’s not even clear that there really was an Odysseus; maybe he and Ithaca were imaginary.
Then again, the descriptions of Homer’s Ithaca are detailed and offer terrific matches with Paliki. Bittlestone led me to a beach on the north end of Paliki where he believes Odysseus landed on his return from his long journey home from Troy. Odysseus’ last stop before home was probably Corfu, and anyone sailing from Corfu to Paliki would likely land on this beach. It also matches Homer’s description of “precipitous promontories” that jut into the sea.
Yes, I know this is a flight of fancy. But it was magical to stroll the beach and imagine Odysseus landing here.
One shortcoming of this beach is that Homer describes a great cave nearby with two entrances, and there is none now. “Is there a silver bullet test as to whether this is where Odysseus landed?” Bittlestone mused. “Yes, a silver bullet would be to find the cave.”
Geologists are investigating a nearby limestone hill, a kind that is home to caverns elsewhere. The surface of the hill has been covered with more than 200 feet of rubble from landslides, but they are hoping to find the cavern buried underneath.
“You often find things in caves,” Bittlestone said, adding with a twinkle that his dream is to find the cave sheltering an early manuscript of Homer’s epics.
From the beach, he led me to an area that matches the description of the ancient pig farm (now a goat ranch) where Odysseus rested. A bit beyond is Kastelli, which Bittlestone describes as “a candidate hill for the palace of Odysseus.”
Snodgrass examined the hill, finding ancient fortifications and shards of pottery, and he confirms that it is a prehistoric site.
There’s more that I don’t have space for. Bittlestone has written a 598-page book, “Odysseus Unbound,” published by Cambridge University Press, that explores the evidence for Paliki as Homer’s Ithaca.
“The Odyssey” is particularly relevant to us today as we recover from our own decade of war. How sweet it would be to discover, after three millenniums, that Odysseus was not imaginary but a product of these rocky hills, olive trees and beaches on an obscure Greek peninsula – an example of how the ordinary can inspire the extraordinary.