Finding Ithaca


In 1911 the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy circulated a long-meditated poem extolling the many benefits of travel as against those of arrival. The theme was no novelty (it had found its way into at least one proverb): indeed, the most striking thing about it was the particular journey that Cavafy had chosen as a model for his readers. He assumed, rightly, that they would instantly recognize and identify with the postwar return to his island kingdom of a warrior who, if he ever in fact existed (which many scholars doubt), set out nearly three millennia ago, and for much of his trip, even on his own account (possibly a tall story to entertain his hosts), was off the map in fairyland. As Andrew Dalby reminds us in his combative new survey, Rediscovering Homer, the immortalizing of Odysseus and his action-and-sex-filled progress from Troy to Ithaca was the work of an elusive genius, poised between the oral tradition and the advent of writing, who may or may not have been called Homer, whose dates and homeland are quite uncertain, who just possibly was not a person but a guild—but whose epic poem chronicling the return of Odysseus remains as fresh today as when it was first composed, and continues to spawn innumerable translations, many of them best sellers.

Joachim Latacz recently summed up this phenomenon admirably:

The Greeks have looked upon Homer as not only their first, but their greatest poet. The history of the reception of both works [the Iliad and the Odyssey] justifies this. The extent, duration, and intensity of this reception have no parallel. Greeks, Romans, and the European modern age have all fed on Homer, learnt from him, used him to develop their own poetry and poetic studies, imitated him, sought to outdo him and to shake him off—and admired him. Poetry which lacks substantial quality can have no such reception.1

In that sense no one would argue with Cavafy’s claim that “Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey”: from Joachim du Bellay to George Seferis, from Dante to Tennyson and Joyce, the image of Odysseus as the archetypal wanderer has persisted down the centuries, with Ithaca and Penelope as his ultimate, if long-delayed, goal (Cavafy’s delights en route include jewelry, perfume, and Egyptian learning, but not—perhaps predictably—the ministrations of Circe or Calypso). As Latacz saw, Homer’s most potent magic lay in his poetry. But there has also always been an equally persistent determination—mistrusted, and often with good reason, by academics—to locate Homer’s events, sites, and characters in an actual historical setting, that of the late Bronze Age, in the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BCE.

It has not helped that the best-known proponent of such theories, Heinrich Schliemann, was, when he took up archaeology in the late 1860s, a rich amateur outsider, whose notions of excavation left much to be desired, who was suspected, perhaps with justice, of “planting” some of his most sensational finds, and who (most irritating of all to skeptical professionals)…

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