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.
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.
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.
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.
Still, there is a great deal that is unconfirmed by modern archaeology. However, the ancients superimposed their own ideas as to where Homer was alluding to. In reality, many of these sites were much further west, toward the island of Sicily. In fact, the Italian island has been named as the site of everything from the home of the Cyclopes to the island of Aeolus. If that was the case, that would further expand the realm of Odysseus's sailings beyond the Greek world and into truly unknown territory.
Of course, there's some significant room for debate. While the work of Heinrich Schliemann, a German who sought to establish the locations of many places from antiquity, does point strongly to a site at Troy, the location of Ithaca is much more hotly debated. In fact, much of it is happening in our lifetimes. For example, Robert Bittlestone believes that he has found the location of Ithaca on the Greek island of Cephalonia. Specifically, he points to the region of Paliki. That said, some other theories exist that put Ithaca as far away as Scotland. While we don't yet have a way to be certain, a change to the location of Ithaca could change the whole story.
In this lesson, we took at a look at the geography of Homer's The Odyssey. One of the original travel stories, this epic follows Odysseus in his effort to return from Troy to his home of Ithaca. As this is ancient Greece, that means a fair amount of sailing around the Aegean Sea. However, while the sea, Troy, and Ithaca may be identifiable on a map, we still have only suspected locations for other sites. Even Ithaca is in doubt to many. Many of these were suspected by the ancients to be located in Sicily, which for the Greeks during the Mycenaean Period would have been a faraway place.
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