Geography of The Odyssey

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

Homer's epic story about Odysseus and his many travels is well-known as 'The Odyssey,' and it has inspired many other written works and pieces of art. The world that it is set in plays an integral part of the story itself. This lesson will give you the background of one of the most famous travel stories in history.

Geography in Perspective

Going strong for almost 3,000 years, few works in world literature, and even fewer in the Western tradition, have made such a remarkable impact as The Odyssey. As one of the oldest travel stories in existence, it has inspired works from The Canterbury Tales to the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

However, to fully appreciate the story that Homer tells, we have to have more than a superficial understanding of the geography of the Greek world. In this lesson, we're going to look at the geography of The Odyssey, first by looking at the major landforms of Ancient Greece, then by delving into the difference between fact and fiction. We'll also look at the idea that maybe Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, isn't where we may think.

Major Landforms

Unlike most other ancient cultures before it, the Greeks were a maritime people. Spread across the many islands and peninsulas of Greece, any story that involved the Greeks would involve plenty of time on the Aegean Sea, the main body of water that is surrounded by Greece and the western coast of Turkey. At the time, the western coast of Turkey was heavily colonized by the Greeks; in fact, Troy itself was situated less than one hundred miles from the current Turkish city of Istanbul.

However, for Odysseus, it wasn't the sea that was the challenge. He was trying to get from Troy back to his home of Ithaca. We identify modern Ithaca as being on the western coast of Greece. Therefore, in the Greek mind, he was sailing across much of the known world. Granted, from our perspective Greece and the Aegean Sea is a relatively small region. However, for the ancient Greeks, Odysseus was sailing to the edge of civilization.

Confirmed Locations

Despite the fact that we can conclude that Odysseus wasn't challenged by Cyclopes in history, that doesn't mean that the places mentioned by Homer are any less factual. In fact, just as other great authors featured London or the Mississippi River to add realism to their tales, so too did Homer.

Archaeological work over the past 200 years has confirmed that the city of Troy did exist, and that it was destroyed at some point by a catastrophic battle. A possibility for the site of Odysseus's home of Ithaca has also been confirmed by the archaeological record. In fact, if the findings of numerous expeditions are to be trusted, Ithaca and, therefore, Odysseus, was a much more important site than it was made out to be in Homeric literature. During this period, known as the Mycenaean Period, Ithaca was one of the most powerful states in ancient Greece.

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