After All: Was Kefalonia the real site of Odysseus's Ithaca home?

How modern science and technology helped re-write an ancient Greek myth.

Never a keen beachgoer, I very much prefer exploring my holiday destinations’ history, culture and technologies to being slowly barbecued on a beach bed. It was no different during my recent short break on the marvellous Greek island of Kefalonia, stuffed with history like your typical Greek dolmades are with rice.

Indeed, at different moments in the past, the island was ruled by the Romans, the Venetians, the Turks, the Turks together with the Russians, the French, the British, the Italians and the Germans. Yes, and occasionally by the Greeks, too (as it is now).

To me, the most amazing feature of the island was its Venetian baroque architecture (Kefalonia was ruled by The Serenissima for nearly 300 years) – all those graceful palazzi, with distinctive Venetian shutters, some of which even survived the massive 1953 earthquake, when 90 per cent of the island’s buildings were destroyed.

As for the local technologies, on an island with just two working traffic lights, a handful of roundabouts and no new building allowed to have more than three floors, they initially looked disappointing. With time, however, I found that modern-day Kefalonians are technologically savvy, particularly the motorists on the precarious mountain roads (they have to be!) and the goat and sheep farmers, who routinely use drones and special GPS apps on their smartphones to keep track of their peripatetic herds, while still not discarding the back-up of good old jingle bells on the goats’ and the sheep’s submissive necks. The muffled sound of the bells, mixing with the chirping of cicadas, the trills of tireless nightingales and the gentle breathing of the Ionian Sea, merged in my ears into one harmonious Kefalonian symphony.  

Looking for technologies, I soon discovered the Katavothres Sea Mills near Argostoli, the island’s capital. An imitation water wheel now stands on the spot where a unique natural phenomenon was harnessed – sea water entering sink holes and creating a flow sufficient to power the mill. The people, who used the mills for centuries, were always wondering where the sea water ended up after going through the sink holes. In 1963, hydrogeologists proved (by adding 140kg of fluorescent dye to the flow) that the water, having travelled many miles under the surface, re-emerged at the other side of the island, in the Melissani Cave – one of Kefalonia’s main tourist attractions.  

Inside the cave, visitors tour the underground lake in gondola-shaped boats, steered by Charon-like guides fond of cracking horrible jokes of the type “this stalagmite was made in China”. I was put on the alert, however, when in between the quips, our guide claimed matter-of-factly that the cave we were in was also known at the Cave of the Nymphs – one of the unmistakable landmarks of Ithaca as described in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.

“Wait a moment!” I said. “We are in Kefalonia, not on Ithaca, which was the home of Odysseus, according to Homer.”

“Ha!” our omniscient Charon chuckled. “Don’t you know that scientists have proved that the real home of Odysseus was here, in Kefalonia, and not on Ithaca?”

I was ready to dismiss the guide’s words as another ‘stalagmite-made-in-China’-type joke, for how could I forget our university’s eccentric Foreign Literature lecturer, Professor Limonov (he had a terrible habit of wiping his nose with an Uzbek skullcap he used as a hanky and occasionally wore on his head, too) introducing Homer’s notion of Ithaca (not Kefalonia!) as a powerful long-lasting metaphor for ‘home’ and ‘homecoming’? Yet, having done some research later on, I came to the conclusion that our grimly facetious Charon might have had a point.

Indeed, when describing Odysseus’s 10-year-long journey home from the Trojan War, Homer portrayed Ithaca as a low-lying westernmost island of four, which doesn’t fit the actual mountainous Ithaca to the east of Kefalonia. There’s a huge mismatch in other geographical details too. A British amateur scholar, Robert Bittlestone, having studied numerous ancient accounts, recently came to the conclusion that ‘Odyssey’ could have been set not on Ithaca, but on the Paliki Peninsula (in western Kefalonia). He argues that the isthmus now connecting it to the rest of Kefalonia was submerged in Homer’s day, making Paliki an island at that time.

This brazen point of view was shared by a number of experts, including Professor Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University, Harvard’s Gregory Nagy and – significantly – Greek historian Nikolas Livadas, who in his book ‘Odysseus’ Ithaca: The Riddle Solved’ claimed to prove that the real-life site of Odysseus’s Palace, to which the hero had been craving to return and where his faithful wife Penelope waited patiently, was indeed not on Ithaca, but near Livadi on the Paliki Peninsula.

Livadas’s approach was highly scientific: to establish the exact location of the palace, he used (among other techniques) the pioneering radiocarbon method, based on measuring the radioactivity of archaeological samples. Thus science came to undermine the historical veracity of Homer’s beautiful reality-based legend,

Does it really matter? On Ithaca itself, just a short ferry ride from Kefalonia, they think that it does, and I don’t blame them: who would wish to let go of the world-famous historical concept that attracts visitors in their thousands? A local tourism brochure ‘Welcome to the Island of Ulysses’ (another name for Odysseus) tries to explain the now obvious discrepancies between the real Ithaca and Homer’s version by “Homer’s lack of knowledge” or by his “poetic licence”. But during my brief visit to Ithaca, I had a feeling that the locals were themselves no longer sure – which explains the proliferation on Ithaca of ‘Odyssey Studios’ and ‘Odyssey Apartments’.

Yet, if you ask me, they do not need to worry: Ithaca is still stunningly beautiful. As such, it will always be associated with Homer’s immortal poem and with the idea of homecoming, too.

After all, it does not much matter where travellers have to return to – Ithaca, Kefalonia, Manchester or Timbuktu – as long as they call it ‘home’. The ultimate distinction between a traveller and a tramp remains unchanged since the times of Odysseus: unlike the latter, travellers do come back.

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