Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Searching for Odysseus

Odysseus Statue in Vathy Harbour, Ithaca
 My brother got me a book for Christmas when I was about ten. It was called Theseus and the Minotaur and that book led to a lifelong fascination with Greek mythology for me. Since I retired a few years back I have been working on fulfilling dreams I’ve had since I was a kid. I wanted to walk on the ground where Hercules walked, see where the Spartans battled, climb the mountain where the oracle of Delphi held sway and see as many mythological places in Greece as I could while I was still able..

I have seen Knossos where King Minos built the underground labyrinth for the dreaded Minotaur, I’ve been to Thermopylae where the 300 Spartans made their last stand, walked within the Cyclopean walls of Tiryns, stood at the Lion’s Gate of Mycenae and combined my love of Greek history with motorcycling around this great country.
My most recent trip to Greece was to rent a motorcycle and ride solo for two weeks… as I’ve done several times. The Greek weather and the history of Greece keep bringing me back. But my last trip in May of this year was for an added reason…to find Odysseus. I mean to literally find the island of his home. The real Ithaca.

Ithaca 1976
The first time I went to the island of Ithaca was in 1976 while hitchhiking around Europe. I’d arrived on a ferry which came there only once a week. I was there for no more than a day when I fell asleep  sunning myself on a rocky beach near Vathy harbour. I ended up with sunstroke and was very sick for several days. I was taken to a little clinic in Mitikas back on the mainland by a kind fisherman where I recuperated. I remember the blisters on my back and having to carry my heavy backpack afterwards. I remember later in that trip, in Crete, walking from the hostel in Iraklion to Knossos with that backpack on so I was pretty tough way back then. That was about an 11 kms walk. I don’t hitchhike anymore since I can afford the luxury of a motorcycle to get where I want to go. But in 1976, Ithaca had eluded me.

Ithaca Storm
In September 2013 I went back to Ithaca after riding down from Athens to Sparta. The weather was good until the day after I arrived by ferry. The skies were ominous and grey and the weather forecast was not looking much better. Heavy winds and rain were called for and if you’re a biker that’s not good. But if you’re a biker in Greece that’s even worse when you’re in mountainous terrain on Greek pavement. That pavement is just different. It’s shiny and slippery even when it’s dry. Downshifting or braking going into corners can send you down pretty fast. So, when wet weather is added to the equation, discretion is the better part of valour. I took the next ferry to Astakos on the mainland because I had little time left to get back to Athens for my flight home. Again Ithaca had eluded me. The gods were against my seeing the home of the hero of the Trojan war.

My trip to Ithaca in May of this year was going to be different because I was seeking Odysseus’ home on a different island. I would be traveling to Kefalonia. It is another of the Ionian Islands which lies closest to Ithaca, less than an hour away by ferry.

Robert Bittlestone, an English writer had authored a book called Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca which shook my world. Using Homer as his guide, he proposed something which amounted to a revelation to me. Kefalonia was the real home of Odysseus! My search for Odysseus’ kingdom had been on the wrong island in my past journeys. 

Homer was a blind poet who lived 3,000 years ago or so and wrote the greatest tales of our time, The IIiad and The Odyssey. These stories were full of names of people and places from a mysterious lost age and the gods who lived and walked among them. He named kings and ancient legendary cities that had been lost to the mists of time. Mycenae, Tiryns, Troy…these were mythological places that no more existed than Tolkien’s fictional cities of Mordor, Gondor, Moria. However, archaeologists rediscovered these lost cities and they did so by using Homer’s descriptions. It shocked people that these legendary places actually existed. 

Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan War took ten years. In Homer’s The Odyssey, he describes his home in this way:

Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side,  
Doulichion, Same, wooded Zachynthos too, but mine
lies low and away, the farthest out to sea,  
rearing into the western dusk  
while the others face the east and breaking day.

As Bittlestone noted, present day Ithaca lies to the east of this little grouping of islands so it is not farthest out to sea. Kefalonia is furthest west. He studied the terrain of Kefalonia and saw that it was basically in two parts which were joined by an ithsmus. This western section of Kefalonia, called Paliki, was the original Ithaca according to Dr. Bittlestone. The convincing facts as he lays them out show that this is the only location for Ithaca that makes any sense when you consider Homer’s description of the island. Robert Bittlestone had become my hero and Odysseus Unbound my roadmap.

Paliki in background
Kefalonia Island lies on a major geological fault line and is subject to constant earthquake activity. In fact there was an earthquake earlier this year prior to my arrival there. It caused damage to roads and roofs (which are mainly comprised of clay tiles). In 1953, the whole island suffered a major 7.2 quake which caused a mass exodus to the mainland. That quake raised the island 60 cm. Two quakes in 2014 were 6.0 and 6.2 Richter scale. So seismic activity is nothing new to Kefalonia and to me it helps to explain the Paliki/Ithaca theory. 

Petani Beach, Paliki
I stayed on Kefalonia for a week, playing archaeologist and riding the mountainous coastal roads. I walked the hills of Paliki and viewed the vistas Odysseus must have viewed. Such a beautiful island with the greatest beaches in all of Greece. Myrtos Beach and PetaniBeach are in my opinion the most beautiful beaches in the world. Petani Beach is on the Paliki side of Kefalonia and surely must have been a favourite place of King Odysseus. 

The weather was excellent during my stay on Kefalonia and the ocean was crystal clear and calm. I savoured the feeling of floating in the salty water under that startlingly blue sky, knowing I’d finally done it. I had found Odysseus. It was almost like the gods welcomed me there, that this third trip to the real Ithaca was the charm.

As I write this it is with great sadness as I have learned that Robert Bittlestone  passed away earlier this year. I would have loved to have met him.

I know he now walks with Odysseus. 

The Odysseus Unbound Project continues and memorium can be found at:

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