Homer, Ithaki, and History

Homer, Ithaki, and History
Flickr © Stelios Christakis

To what extent does Odyssey, the masterpiece of Homer, constitute a historic source for the contemporary people? For thirty years, a group of scientists is working with one and only purpose: answer this question. The conclusions may surprise and fascinate.



I first visited Ithaki in September 1983 while on a quest to find an interesting site to research and excavate in Greece. As the ferry approached the main harbor Vathy, my mind was full of conflicting concepts and wondered why I considered digging in an island that was supposed to be mythological. I visited the site on the isthmus that Homer prescribed as the home of Odysseus and wondered for hours examining everything. I picked up and brought to the Vathy museum a large Mycenaean potsherd dating to ca. 1175 BCE. That small find and the very beautiful, romantic place helped me decide to answer the major question of historicity in Homer’s epic poetry. Excavations began in 1984.


Thirty years later, after a great deal of work in the field, in the laboratories, the library, the classroom, and at home, I am finishing up a monograph called Odysseus at Home. This title implies a certain degree of irony in our ambivalent relationship to Homer. On one hand, we rely on him as a source of factual information for the early history, geography, and religion of Greece, while on the other we dismiss his entire oeuvre as fiction. We cannot even agree as to whether Homer wrote his Iliad and Odyssey, or dictated them, or perhaps composed them orally. We still cannot firmly place him in time and there are new theories that he never existed but was invented as a person in later times.

The Odyssey Project took into account all previous excavations and finds, especially those major discoveries made by British in the 1930’s and also the Greek archaeologists who have worked on the island


I am in a position to afford the irony because of the archaeological work on the island. My international team, called the Odyssey Project, consisted of many distinguished colleagues, students, volunteers, local workers and friends, all working under the auspices of the Archaeological Society of Athens and the Greek Archaeological Service. We may now show many pieces of the gigantic puzzle that constitutes the history of Homeric Ithaki from the time that the first colonists arrived here as refugees from Crete -fleeing the conquest of their home by the invading Mycenaeans- in ca. 1400 BCE to the time that the city moved to Vathy under imperial Rome. The National Geographic Society, Washington University in St. Louis, the Packard Humanities Institute and many individuals supported us over the years. Our work took into account all previous excavations and finds, especially those major discoveries made by our British colleagues in the 1930’s and also the Greek archaeologists who have worked on the island.


Many philologists have also made a few major discoveries that complimented our work and clarified Homer. Ever since the work of Milman Parry in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it has become quite obvious that Homer composed orally. We know that 82% of the Iliad and Odyssey consist of repetitive formulas, a method used by oral composers to this day. The unmatched sophistication of Homer’s compositions was so high that masked this fact and made them appear the result of writing. Many archaeologists and philologists have also reconstructed Greek history during the so-called Dark Ages (ca. 1100-700 BCE) and we now know that the eighth century was a period of Renaissance. Homer must have lived during this period a well.


The Odyssey Project may now add to these discoveries a few important surprises. We have confirmed the existence of the three most important places of action in the Odyssey. The Cave of the Nymphs is real and we have inscriptions, terracotta figurines and other finds to prove it. Its history is much more complicated than we could have imagined and proves that Homer actually knew the cave well. We may also show the famous Well-Built Fountain that Homer described in three different passages that have sometimes been interpreted as three different places. As it turns out, this fountain is unique in Greece and a huge building that was built ca 1400 BCE. It survived until the terrific earthquake of 373 BCE. Finally, we may also reassure everyone that the Palace of Odysseus –the object of quests from 1800 to the 1930’s- has been recognized and a general plan of it is suggested in the upcoming book. Father time has not been kind to the palace. And just as Odysseus struggled against Poseidon at sea, our team faced him in his equally terrifying manifestation as the god of earthquakes.


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