Uncertain Landfalls: In Search of Odysseus
Along with a myriad translations into a myriad languages, a small library of books have been written about the Odyssey, one of the two ancient Greek epics credited to a Greek poet named Homer.
But we don’t know whether Homer actually existed, or even when, although the epics themselves seem to have assumed their final form in the eighth century BCE. We don’t know how much of the works he (or she) might actually have composed, but it seems likely that they combine individual traditions that had been handed down orally for generations. In the case of the Odyssey, we have no reason to think that Odysseus (or, to use the Latinized form of his name, Ulysses) actually existed or, if he did, that he underwent any of the experiences that he’s credited with. We can be sure that he and his men didn’t encounter a one-eyed Cyclops, but, on the other hand, his voyage from Troy just might reflect ancient Greek sailing techniques and knowledge of actual places.
As Ernle Bradford puts it in Ulysses Found (Hodder and Stoughton, 1963), ‘Anyone who has ever fallen under the spell of the Odyssey is likely to ask himself…whether the whole poem must be regarded as fiction or may have some basis in fact.’
People have been asking themselves that question for millennia, and their answers have ranged widely. Ancient Greek geographer Strabo thought that some of the locations in the Odyssey lay in the Atlantic Ocean, beyond what we know as the Strait of Gibraltar. Closer to our own day, nineteenth-century Belgian lawyer Théophile Cailleux argued for similar settings, and placed Troy on the coast of Great Britain. Serbian commentators have identified the locations of Odysseus’ adventures within the Adriatic Sea, which, after all, lies within a few days sailing time of Odysseus’ home on the Ionian island of Ithaca. A Brazilian professor thinks that Odysseus reached South America.
I’ve mentioned Bradford because, of the legion of writers on the subject, he was one of the few with sea legs. A veteran of the Royal Navy, he could boast of experience aboard vessels ranging from a twenty-ton cutter to fishing boats. ‘For at least three years,’ he writes, ‘I sailed the Mediterranean with the Odyssey in one hand and the charts and Admiralty Pilots … in the other.’
There’s little point in trying to work out the details of the exact route Odysseus and his men might have taken as they sailed down the Aegean Sea from Troy. Their goal lay off the western coast of Greece, so it would have been necessary to round the entire Peloponnesian Peninsula. However, a north wind carried them southward past the peninsula, and nine desperate days later they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters. And it’s here, as Bradford admits, that both he and Odysseus are ‘entering upon a world of speculation.’ Having said that, Bradford makes the traditional identification of the land of the Lotus-Eaters with the Tunisian island of Djerba, which lies far to the southwest on the African coast. As for the forgetfulness-inducing fruit itself, he suggests that the sweet, plum-like Cordia myxa or the jujube, Rhamnus ziziphus, might fit the bill, although here his guess is no more convincing than anyone else’s.
The route of the Greeks’ eventual escape lay to the northeast, toward Ithaca. Instead, they reached the land of the Cyclopes—and it’s at this point that they may have re-entered a geographically identifiable world.
‘I find that the navigations of Ulysses from now on bear the distinct hallmark of truth,’ Bradford explains. ‘So many of the places, weather conditions, and even geographical descriptions seem to be accurate.’ He goes on to identify the land of the Cyclopes as the western shore of Sicily, and the much smaller island where the hungry Greeks slaughtered goats as Favignana. Lying about four miles off Sicily itself, Favignana was, it turns out, actually known as Goat Island in classical times!
Still striving to reach Ithaca, the Greeks next made landfall on the island of Aeolus, King of the Winds. Bradford argues in this case for the little island of Ustica north of Sicily. He thinks that the hapless Greeks were then blown northwestward to the port of Bonifacio in southernmost Corsica, where they encountered the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. When they made their way eastward once again, across the Tyrrhenian Sea, they reached Circe’s island, which Bradford identifies as Cape Circeo on the coast of Italy. While Cape Circeo is not an island, Bradford points out that, from a distance, it appears to be one.
The next leg of Odysseus’ travels took him (in Robert Fagles’ 1996 Viking translation) to ‘the outer limits, the Ocean River’s bounds’—in other words, to the edge of the known world. Bradford explains that the ancient Greeks had no direct knowledge of the western Mediterranean or the Strait of Gibraltar. They had, however, heard frightening stories from the Phoenicians, who controlled those seas and aimed to keep others out. Bradford also suspects that this episode, in which Odysseus visits the underworld, represents a separate tradition that Homer incorporated into the larger framework of his epic.
Odysseus’ remaining adventures return us to a recognizable world. Bradford argues for the Li Galli Islands (otherwise known, suggestively, as the Sirenusas) off the southwestern coast of Italy as the lair of the deadly Sirens. He then identifies the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the toe of the Italian boot, as the setting in which the Greeks encountered the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and the island of the Sun God as Sicily itself. Calypso’s island is Malta or nearby Gozo, both of which lie directly south of Sicily—another traditional identification. From there, a course of east by northeast would have taken Odysseus home.
Bradford’s reconstruction is something of a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, but he argues from personal experience. It is, after all, the ‘accuracy of the framework’ of the poem that concerns him. The same could be said of another British writer/sailor, Tim Severin, whose book The Ulysses Voyage: Sea Search for the Odyssey (Hutchinson, 1987) also attempts to retrace Odysseus’ route.
Severin specialized in actual recreations of epic voyages, and was a winner of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He also had a particular advantage: he was sailing a 54-foot replica of a Bronze Age galley. His expedition turns out to be a circumscribed one confined to the waters of Greece and the African coat south of Greece. But he concludes to his own satisfaction, that ‘the Odyssey is demonstrably true to the realities of sailing and rowing a galley in the Mediterranean.’
Severin agrees with Bradford and others that a strong north wind blew Odysseus’ fleet past the Peloponnesian Peninsula. He believes that they continued southward under a ‘controlled drift’ for nine days until they reached the land of the Lotus-Eaters on the coast of what is now Libya. This location is much farther east than Bradford and others have argued for, but Severin believes that most commentators have misjudged the abilities of the Bronze age Greeks.
When it comes to the actual fruit that the Lotus-Eaters consumed, Severin, like Bradford, suggests the jujube, but adds that ‘why it was supposed to make men lose their memories is not clear.’ The problem identifying the lotus highlights the dilemma that any writer on the subject of Odysseus faces: what to accept as possibly genuine and what to ignore as folkloristic embellishment.
Since Severin locates the land of the Lotus Eaters farther east than other commentators, he places the land of the Cyclopes farther east as well, on the southwestern coast of Crete. He then makes the case for the island of King Aeolus as tiny Gramvousa, off the northwestern corner of Crete. According to the Odyssey, it was here that Aeolus gave Odysseus a leather bag holding the winds—a bag that the foolish sailors later opened while Odysseus slept. Gramvousa was once known as Korykos, which might seem to be of little consequence except that a korykos signified a leather bag to the ancient Greeks!
Where was the land of the Laestrygonian giants? Severin finds a possibility in the harbour of Mezapo on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. And Circe’s island? The little Ionian island of Paxos fits the bill. But Paxos lies farther north than Ithaca, as do the remaining sites that Severin links to Odysseus’ voyage. The renowned wanderer seems to have ‘sailed straight by his homeland.’ How can that be?
Severin believes that here we’re reading another interpolation, a ‘separate cycle of tales’ involving the Ionian Islands. He finds confirmation among the geographical features of particular islands and the folktales associated with them, but he doesn’t explain the skewed geographical order of these final adventures.
Severin supplies a more satisfying answer to a larger question: How did the ‘sites of Ulysses’ adventures, which are first on the logical coasting route homeward-bound from Troy and then in his native archipelago, come to be transferred hundreds of miles [as in Bradford’s reconstruction] to the western Mediterranean?’ He theorizes that as the Greeks spread westward into Sicily and southern Italy, ‘they took their folktales with them,’ pushing the mysterious edge of the world farther and farther west.
Severin’s reconstruction of Odysseus’ travels is a departure from previous ones, and, after Bradford’s Grand Tour, it’s something of a letdown. That’s no argument against its validity, of course, and it’s not the last word on a subject that, after all, can have no last word. It would be gratifying to listen to Bradford and Severin debate the subject some evening in a seaside taverna, but, alas, Bradford died in 1986 and Severin in 2020.
And that, in turn, leads to yet another consideration. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that at the moment of his death, Shakespeare learned from God that he, like God Himself, was ‘everything and nothing.’ Studied and debated for millennia not just by geographers and explorers but by novelists, poets, anthropologists and philosophers as well, Odysseus, it seems, is everywhere and nowhere. AQ