Odysseus in Ithaca

In his identification of Ithaca with Leucas,1 Emile Mireaux has in my opinion finally settled the endless disputes on the subject by using an argument not based on geographical features. In my opinion the case for the identification of Ithaca with Leucas can be made in terms of geography, since Homer states that Ithaca is an island and at the same time that it can be reached “on foot” (I 170; XIV 190; XVI 59, 224), a characteristic which is quite unique and applies only to the island of Leucas in the entire area. Critics of the identification of Ithaca with Leucas have been obliged to follow the contradictory argument of belittling the importance of the lines mentioning the possibility of arriving at Ithaca on foot and at the same time trying to prove that Leucas was not considered an island by the ancients. A careful study of the geological strata and the bradysismic movements of the area by the geologist W. von Seidlitz arrives at the conclusion that in ancient times Leucas was separated from the mainland by “a slim fordable canal.”2 A survey by the geographer J. Partsch had arrived at the same conclusion. The amount of insularity in Homer’s times was not different from that existing in medieval and modern times when only small boats with flat bottom could pass between the island and the continent. In 1805 the traveler William Martin Leake observed: “The insecurity which the city of Leucas felt from being placed on a peninsula, or what was nearly the same in a military sense, an island to which there was a fordable access from the continent...” The popular awareness of this peculiarity of Leucas is reflected in the fact that since the Venetians built a causeway and a bridge across the lagoon, the modern town called officially Lefkas has been known as Amaxichi, “that which can be reached by wagon.” The case for the identification of Ithaca with Leucas has been made by Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Walther von Marees, and Peter Goessler with a diligence of documentation that is unique and that does not deserve the ridicule heaped upon it by Wilamowitz-Moellendorf and his followers. The essence of Wilamowitz-Moellendorf’s argument is that only naive people can take Homer literally, but by so doing he only begs the question: he comes to say that the possibility of an interpretation of the poems on the basis of concrete references undermines the presuppositions of the analytic school.

It is a fact that geographical references are always open to dispute, since geographical facts used to be perceived and described differently than in our modern times. For instance the defenders of the identification of Ithaca with Leucas have to assume that Homer conceived of the island of Leucas as being oriented from east to west (instead of from north to south), as did a number of mapmakers and writers of geography up to modern times. For this reason it is important to make use also of non-geographical arguments.

Mireaux has pointed out that the Odyssey (XIV 393-405) contains a clear reference to a religious rite mentioned by Strabo (X. 2, 10, 452) as being practiced at Cape Leukadas on the occasion of the yearly festival of Apollo, the day in which the action of the poem is concluded with the slaying of the Suitors (XXI, 258). This rite consisted of the dropping of a person from the “Leap” of the Cape Leukadas Promontory (the alleged jumping place of Sappho and other famous figures). If the person survived the fall, he was removed by boat from the island.

Cape Leukadas or Leukopetra (Capo Ducato for the Venetians) is the most prominent feature of Leucas and gave the island its name; it consists of a white wall of stone rising to a great height vertically from the sea; it was “one of the most mentioned rocks of antiquity.” The ritual of katapontismos practiced there at the temple of Apollo Leukadas is mentioned as achieving the result of averting the evil eye and of bringing back dead persons. This belief was linked with the notion that the Cape was the end of the world before the crossing of the Acheron (cf. XXIV, 11). It is clear that the original figure of Odysseus was that of the navigator who can cross to and from the land of the dead; his link with the practices for the removal of the evil eye is indicated by the gouging out of Polyphemos’ eye. Mireaux has pointed out that the removal of Odysseus from the island of Scheria by night in a boat without pilot (VIII. 577) indicates that the story originated from the ritual of expulsion of a pharmakos. A further indication of the link between Odysseus and the rite of Cape Leukadas is that according to Photius (Bibl. 382N.) the Cape got its name from Leukos, one of Odysseus’ companions. But much more significant is the fact that in two almost identical passages of the Odyssey (VI 226-231; XXIII 153-163) Odysseus before appearing to Nausicaa or Penelope smears himself with oil and becomes endowed with miraculous beauty. Servius (Aen. III 279) in speaking of the temple of Cape Leukadas reports that it had been founded by Phaon who had received from Venus an unguent that caused women to fall in love with him who was smeared with it.

The linking of Odysseus with the cult of Cape Leukadas allows us to amend the theory of Dörpfeld at its weak point. Dörpfeld has been justly criticized for locating the town of Ithaca in the plain of Nidri, since this makes it impossible to find a location for Odysseus’ palace that has the kind of view over the harbor that the poem describes. Dörpfeld was right in taking Homer literally, but he was doing so for romantic reasons that limited his judgment. I suspect that his real reason for locating Ithaca at Nidri was that the place particularly appealed to him. The formal reason is that since he assumed that the Odyssey reflected Mycenaean times, only in the area of Nidri was he able to find pre-Hellenic remains. But if one assumes that the Odyssey belongs to the seventh century B.C., the first thing to be explained is why Odysseus’ palace is outside the city. This can be explained if one assumes that the imaginary location of the palace is really a sanctuary; in such a case Odysseus’ palace would be in the same relation to Ithaca as were the Heraeum to Argos, the Artemisium to Ephesus, and the Clarion to Colophon. If one looks at the Odyssey realistically, one is bound to realize that the natural place for a settlement in the island, before the cutting of the channel by Cypselus in the lagoon linking the island to the mainland, was the present Bay of Vasiliki formed by the promontory of Cape Leukadas. Even today Vasiliki is the only center of importance besides Lefkas. The Bay of Vasiliki would be the natural stopping place for the ships coming from Corinth before facing the high sea beyond Cape Leukadas on which, as Vergil says (Aen. III 279), formidatus nautis aperitur Apollo. It is in the Bay of Vasiliki that one must locate the town of Ithaca. If one places Odysseus’ palace at Cape Leukadas (either near the presumed ruins of Apollo’s temple or near the convent of Saint Nikolas, the protector of seafarers), the geography of the Odyssey becomes precise in the utmost details. The town of Ithaca has to be placed at the root of Cape Leukadas against the foot of the ridge forming the promontory on the west side of the shore of Vasiliki, at a walking distance of about two hours from Cape Leukadas, somewhat in the area of the locality of Pyrgi—most likely in the area of what is now Hajos Petros. This area is dominated to the West by Mount Mega Vuno, which explains why the streets of Ithaca become darkened at sunset. The ships that left the harbor of Ithaca coasted along Cape Leukadas and moored under Odysseus’ palace before going into the open sea; the place of this mooring is the present landing place from which one ascends to the lighthouse of the Cape. From Cape Leukadas one can see the ships coming to a landing at the shore of Vasiliki. The bay of Vasiliki was the natural place for a harbor for the ships that were turning Cape Leukadas before the Corinthians cut a canal through the lagoon that links the island to the mainland and founded there the city of Leucas. Concerning the harbor of Vasiliki Bay, the Sailing Directions for the Mediterranean (III, 464, 2nd ed., 1931) state: “The promontory terminating in Cape Dukato (that is Leukadas) forms the western side of Vasilico Bay and is all along bare and steep-to. The bay recedes about 4 miles and affords excellent shelter, the best anchorage being off the center of the sandy beach at its head.” To the east of the rocky ridge of Cape Leukadas there extends the cultivable area called to agron in the Odyssey. This term does not mean “the fields” in general as is commonly assumed, but is a proper geographical name for the fertile area extending east of the town of Ithaca. The area of Ithaca is the southern part of the Island of Leukadas which even today is the most fertile part of the island. A traveller’s guide states “The shore is more soft in aspect and more sloping and cultivated than the rocks of the northern coast; the bay of Vasiliki in particular washes a rich and fertile valley.”3 This description well corresponds to the Ithaca of Homer. By contrast the rocky slope extending to the west of the city is called... I agree with Dörpfeld that the Harbor of Phorkos is clearly recognizable in Syvota Bay and that Skudi Bay is the probable landing place of Telemachos (even though the neighboring ‘Amusa Bay, i.e., Buda Bay, that is, Porto Porro, could be the one). These two bays are at the eastern end of the area of Ithaca of Odysseus, which essentially is limited to the Bay and Valley of Vasiliki. I agree that the location of Eumaeus’ hut is in the general area indicated by Dörpfeld, but the way from Ithaca from there is to the west. In one day Eumaeus goes from his hut at one end of the territory to the opposite end at Odysseus’ palace and returns in one day. Only if Ithaca lies on Vasiliki Bay is a miracle necessary to let a ship from Pylos enter Ithaca’s harbor without being intercepted by a ship lying in wait at the island of Asteris, correctly identified by Dörpfeld with the present Arkudi. Any other point of the island could have been reached by steering clear of Asteris-Arkudi. The harbor of Phorkus is to be identified with the Bay of Vlicho, where Dörpfeld located Ithaca’s harbor. On the way from Eumaeus’ hut to the city, just before entering it, there was the fountain and the rock ( ) that can be located at the present Source Mesavryssi. This well is given great importance by the Byzantine Portulan published by Delatte:

From Capo de Ducato to Porto Figher there are ten miles, north-east to south-west. Porto Figher is a flat anchorage and a pure fount and on the waterfront of the port at the right hand as you go, there is the place where the water runs. On the side of Levant there is an island and they call it T’Arkuda. And between T’Arkuda going to Megalo Nisi to the left in the island of Leukadas there is a port and they call it Syvota.

Similarly the traveller Leake in 1805 reported:

Leucate, upon the extremity of which stood the temple of Apollo Leucatas, is a long promontory, consisting entirely of perpendicular cliffs to the westward, and falling steeply to the eastward, where it shelters from the west a bay named Vasiliko. This bay extends ten miles inland from the Cape, and terminates in a curved beach, where there is a river and some Hellenic remains.

Leake proceeds to remark that this is most likely the location of the town of Pherai mentioned by Skylax. He is probably right and Figher, “The Fig-Tree,” is probably a typically Venetian pseudo-etymology of Pherai.

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The prevailing wind at the island of Leucas in the months of August, September, and October is from northwest. In 1905 it blew with great regularity in the period from September 15 to October 15.

This wind accounts for the very easy navigation from Scheria to Ithaca (XIII 80-85): “and most steadily she ran without stop, so that not even the pergerine falcon, the most rapid of birds, could have kept up with her.” (86-87). The Phaecian ship leaves Scheria after sunrise and arrives at Phorkus’ Harbor when it is still night. The searoute from Kerkyra to Port Syvota is ca. 170 km. and it can be covered in fourteen hours at a speed of 6.5 knots. In fact the travel of the Kerkyrian ship carrying the pharmakos to Ithaca must have been so calculated as to cover the dangerous navigation from Kerkyra to Cape Leukadas during the day hours and to pass in front of Ithaca at night. The two days spent by Odysseus at Eumaeus’ are probably to be explained by the fact that the pharmakos was scheduled to be landed two days before the start of the procession so as to provide for an eventual delay in the navigation from Kerkyra to Ithaca.

Homer imagines that Telemachos, who actually spent seven nights and six days at the island of Asteris-Arkudi, in that period goes to visit Pylos and Sparta. A navigation from Ithaca to Pylos (from northwest to southeast) is very easy in the season, but that from Pylos to Ithaca would be very difficult. For this reason Homer imagines a miraculous intervention of Athena to help the return trip. Telemachos leaves Ithaca at the beginning of the night and arrives when the morning sun is beginning to shine brightly over the Bay of Pylos. Athena provides a Zephyros that directly hits the prow of the ship (II 420-430). The distance from Ithaca to Pylos in Messenia is ca. 150 km. This means a navigation of twelve hours at a speed of 6.5 knots; that is, Telemachos may have left at 9 PM and have arrived at 9 AM. This navigation is quite possible with the northwest wind prevailing in the season, but the return from Pylos really needs miraculous help. Homer states that during the first night of Odysseus at Eumaeus’ it rained all night because of the strong Zephyros (457-458). This remark has no parallel in the poem and would be totally irrelevant from a dramatic point of view, unless it served to explain how Telemachos escaped the ship waiting for him at Asteris. Telemachos leaves Pylos exactly at sunset and arrives exactly at sunrise, that is, after exactly twelve hours at the autumn equinox. It was the miraculous help of Athena that gave to Telemachos’ ship a wind blowing in the direction opposite to Zephyros. The fact that the wind was a strong Zephyros for all others allowed Telemachos to avoid the ship at Asteris, not only by causing a clouded sky, but also because Telemachos was expected to pass east of Asteris. The men at Asteris, to explain that only a miracle could have defeated them, state that not only did they not lie in wait by beaching the ships, which could be done at the Double Harbor at the east, but that they cruised all night. Obviously they cruised all night between Arkudi and Meganisi, where ships pass when there is an eastern wind. It would have been impossible for them to keep asea of Arkudi with a strong wind. Telemachos instead arrived with a southeast wind and passed west of Arkudi.

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ship when it left Skidi Bay and turned Cape Lipsipirgos. The distance from Arkudi and Cape Lipsipirgos accounts for the interval between Telemachos’ ship and that of his pursuers. Since the suitors’ men were at about four nautical miles from Cape Lipsipyrgos, one can calculate that they arrived at Ithaca’s harbor between thirty and forty-five minutes after Telemachos. This is the time that it has taken for the messenger to reach Odysseus’ palace and for the Suitors to go down to the beach. The distance from the shore to Odysseus’ palace must be rather great since Eumaeus is on the way when the ship enters the harbor.

The Suitors climb back to Odysseus’ house. Eumaeus, who had taken the road back immediately after delivering the message arrives at the hut at the time of the evening meal.

I agree with Mireaux that the Odyssey stressed the value of Leucas as a competitor of Kerkyra; but from this it does not follow that it was written in the age of Cypselus. Oberhummer states that Leucas was first settled in the age of Cypselus on the basis of a passage of Nikolaus of Damascus (fr. 57) to the effect that the tyrant sent the Corinthians not friendly to him as colonists to Leukadas and Anaktorion (the latter is on the Gulf of Arta at a distance of ten miles from the city of Leucas as the crow flies, thirteen miles by the present road) and appointed two bastard sons of his as oikistai. But the passage, in part not quoted by Oberhummer, proceeds to say that Cypselus chased out the Bacchiads, seizing their properties, and that these withdrew to Kerkyra. This statement could apply to the Bacchiads of Corinth, but the order of the text suggests that it is more likely that it applies to the Bacchiads who were the first settlers of the island of Leucas and of Anaktorion. One is not bound to conclude from Nikolaos’ words that the colonists of Cypselus were the first settlers of Leucas, as is indicated by the fact that later Periander sent colonists to Leucas and Anaktorion.4 Before the colony of Cypselus, there had been an earlier colonization at Anaktorion, since Thukydides (I.55) states that this place was a joint colony of Corinth and Kerkyra. There had been also an earlier colonization in the island of Leucas since when Themistokles settled the controversy between Corinth and Kerkyra he ordered that damages be paid to Corinth and that henceforth Leucas be jointly exploited by colonists from both places. This indiates that the first colonization of the island of Leucas took place before the break between Corinth and Kerkyra. Cypselus cut the canal across the lagoon linking Leucas to the mainland and founded the city of Leucas. By so doing he destroyed the importance of Ithaca as a harbor. The Bacchiads lords of Ithaca lost their land in the agron and took refuge with their fellow Bacchiads of Kerkyra, the Phaecians. One could consider the hypothesis that on this occasion some of the expelled inhabitants of Ithaca took refuge in the present island of Ithaca, the Same of the Odyssey, which is just across from Vasiliki Bay, and by so doing caused the name to shift to the new location.

Mireaux is correct in stressing that the statement of the Odyssey (VI 172-183) that henceforth Poseidon shall prevent the Phaecians from practicing the profession of crossers of the sea, contains a prophecy that Kerkyra is no longer going to be used as the starting point on the crossing to Italy. But this statement does not imply that Corinth and Kerkyra were already at war. Except for this remark made in terms that are not bitter, there is not in the poem any expression of hostility against the Phaecians, that is, the Bacchiads of Kerkyra; after all Odysseus coming from Ithaca is given hospitality by them. In my opinion the remark about the end of the activity of the Phaecians as pilots across the Strait of Otranto is to be explained by the fact that the Odyssey was written to please the lords of Leucas, a joint Corinthian and Kerkyrian colony, at a time in which Leucas was beginning to compete with Kerkyra as starting point on the way to Italy. It is likely that once the Corinthians became more familiar with the Ionian sea, they attempted to cross directly from Leucas to Capo Santa Maria di Leuca in Italy, rather than move north to Kerkyra. Leuca in Italy was known as Leucopetra Tarantinorum, which corresponds to the name Leukopetra given to Cape Leukadas, and was also conceived to be finis terrae. In 412 B.C. the Laconian and Corinthian ships coming to the rescue of Syrakusai crossed directly from Leucas to Tarentum (Thouk. VI. 104). The very conception of Cape Leukadas as the end of the world indicates that it was used as the last stop before facing the high sea. Possibly it was the very development of Leucas-Ithaca as a starting point that caused the break between Corinth and Kerkyra.

First night Telemachos leaves the city at night

A-5 Day the pharmakos is on its way to Ithaca from Kerkyra

Second night—the pharmakos is landed at Sivota

Third night

A-3 Day the pharmakos at Eumaeus’

Fourth night

A-2 Day the pharmakos is led from the pigfarms to the city.

Fifth night—the pharmakos is enthroned

A-1 Day Battle between pharmakos and the Suitors

Sixth night—the pharmakos sleeps with the Queen.

A-Day the pharmakos jumps from Cape Leukadas

Seventh night—Telemachos returns to Ithaca at night.

The Fourth Day before the Festival of Apollo

The Phaecian ship on the way back from the procession (pompês) is transformed into a stone (this may be an aetiological myth about the rock of Sessola that looks like a stone ship from Cape Leukadas). Sessola is on the route from Cape Leukadas to Kerkyra. The rock of Sessola as seen from Cape Leukadas is higher than Kerkyra low on the horizon, and for this reason the ship transformed into a stone suggests the idea of lofty mountains concealing Kerkyra (177, 183). Odysseus wakes up and finds the place unfamiliar. [Because in fact the pharmakos is a stranger and sees Ithaca for the first time]. Odysseus acquires the appearance of a beggar.

Book XIV. Odysseus walks “the rugged path across the woody hilltops” from Phorkys’ harbor to the fertile and wide field of Eumaeus. [He walks from Port Sivota to the plain of Maranthochori.] The pigs kept in twelve pens [the sacrificial pigs belong to the twelve lords of Ithaca] from which they are sent regularly to the lords. Odysseus tells Eumaeus to throw him off the cliff.

Treated royally at night.

A beggar during the day.

The Third Day Before the Festival

sunrise XV 495

A ship manned by the Suitors is lying in wait for Telemachos at Asteris [Arkudi]. Telemachos miraculously is not seen by them. They reach the coast and anchor the boat away from the shore; it is not a beach, but a place where the sea breaks against the rocks [Skudi Bay is one such place where the ship could have been beached]. They have breakfast. The ship proceeds then to the city and Telemachos promises to arrive there in the evening after having inspected Eumaeus’ farm. Telemachos’ men are told not to go to his house. Telemachos reaches the farm quickly (XVI 555) before Odysseus finishes his breakfast.

; Eumaeus has to carry the message of Odysseus’ arrival to Laertes, but not to go all the way to Laertes’ farm [Cape Leukadas], but only to stop at Ithaca and have the message forwarded from there. [Eumaeus could not reach Cape Leukadas and return before sunset]. Telemachos’ ship is beached in Ithaca’s harbor and a messenger is sent to Penelope; this messenger meets Eumaeus on the way. [This indicates that Eumaeus’ course corresponds more or less to the present road from Maranthochori to Sivros]. At this moment the ship that was at Asteris comes back because it had noticed that Telemachos had escaped them. [The men of Arkudi had seen Telemachos with Melanthios.] Melanthios then hastens to Odysseus’ palace, whereas Odysseus [that is, the procession] proceed more slowly. Odysseus with the swineherd reaches the palace.

Fight with the beggar

The Second Day Before the Festival

At sunrise Telemachos goes to town and reaches it rapidly (XVII). Noonmeal (176) [The mention of the meal has the purpose of indicating the time. Odysseus, that is, the pharmakos, has left at the same time with the procession, which is more slow in moving.] Odysseus moves to town with the swineherd [the pharmakos and the sacrificial animals move to town]. Odysseus is called “wild swine” (molobros 219; XVIII 26). [Because he is a sacrificial victim like the pigs that march with him]. Before entering the city Odysseus arrives at the place where the city has its source of water. This is formed by the brooks Ithakos, Neritos, and Poluktor. [That is at the point where three brooks join. The Ithakos should be the brook descending from Mount Neriton, called today Stavrotas, that is, the brook called today Karuchas]. The place is unusually rich in water for a Greek island since poplars grow there [Today there are in the place watermills. The brooks Ithakos and Poluktor may be the two brooks that merge into the Karuchas at this point, one on the right and the other on the left.] The Ithakos should be the river on the right descending from the mountain on which the orty [sic?] is placed. There is a waterfall [This should be identified in place]. Odysseus has here his first fight,

The Day Before the Festival

Odysseus wakes up in his house (XX.92). Telemachos goes to the agora where the people are gathering (146) Animals are brought to the house. [These are sacrificial animals.] Some of the animals are brought by “the ferrymen who carry also the other men” (186) [The ferrymen are the Kerkyreans who have carried the pharmakos and have carried also other men to Ithaca for the festival]. The heralds lead the sacrificial animals through the city, the people gather in the precinct of Apollo, and the sacrifice starts; Odysseus receives a share of the sacrifice (281) [This passage reveals that Odysseus’ palace is actually Apollo’s precinct in Ithaca].

Festival of Apollo at Cape Leukadas

After the night with Penelope, Odysseus rises at dawn (XXIII 345) and goes to Laertes’ in the wooded part of the territory (359). To go to Laertes’ he has to cross the city (372; XXIV 205), but he is made invisible during the crossing. At this point there is inserted in the text the episode of the Nekyia of Cape Leukadas (XXIV 1-205). Laertes’ farm is located in an area where trees and vegetables can be cultivated, but not wheat (246). To make this area productive it has taken hard labor (207) as it is necessary to convert to cultivation a hilly area in Greece [Laertes’ farm may be where there is today the monastery of Hagios Nicolaos; this location is at about two hours of walking from Ithaca]. Odysseus pretends to be a stranger from Sicily who has just arrived to the island [The pharmakos thrown down Cape Leukadas was a foreigner from across the sea]. Odysseus states that his ship “has halted off the farm away from the city” (308). [There is a landing place to the East of the very tip of Cape Leukadas from which one ascends to the lighthouse on the Cape. Possibly the pharmakos was actually carried to the Cape on a ship; this explains why Odysseus is said to cross the city without being seen. The pharmakos does not cross the city to avoid pollution.] Laertes and Odysseus have their noontime meal (412) [The mention of this meal is used by the poet to indicate the time at which the procession leaves Ithaca]. Meanwhile the people gather first before Odysseus’ house (416) in the agora (420), and then before the city [This indicates the itinerary of the procession. Homer has to make the absurd statement that only at this moment the people learn of the Slaying of the Suitors]. Odysseus “swoops on them like an eagle from high heaven” (538) [Birds were attached to the body of the pharmakos with the purpose of supporting him in his flight].


  1. Les poèmes homériques et l’histoire greque, vol. II (Paris, 1949).
  2. “Geologische Untersuchung der Inselnatur von Leukas,” in W. Dörpfeld, Alt-Ithaka; ein Beitrag zur Homer-Frage . . . unter Mitarbeit von Peter Goessler (1927), p. 372.
  3. Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece 7th ed., (London, 1910).
  4. Plout., Mor. 552F, Gods’ Late Veng. 7.