The Odyssey’s main sequence (except for Odysseus’ travels) takes place in the Peloponnese and what is now known as the Ionian Islands (Ithaca and its neighbors). What’s more, incidental allusions to Troy and its house, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Crete suggest that the Iliad’s geographical knowledge is comparable to, if not somewhat superior to, the Odyssey’s.
However, ancient and modern academics disagree on whether any of Odysseus’s stops along the way (after Ismaros and before his return to Ithaca) were real. The geographer Strabo, like many others, was skeptical. He reported what the renowned geographer Eratosthenes had said in the late 3rd century BC: “When you discover the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds, you will find the site of Odysseus’ wanderings.” But was he right?
The Geographical Location of Odysseus’ Story
The topography of the Apologoi and the location of the Phaeacians’ island of Scheria provide very different challenges than locating Troy, Mycenae, Pylos, and Ithaca. The names of the places and peoples that Odysseus travels to or claims to have visited are not documented in any ancient source other than the Odyssey, either as historical or contemporary information. According to Odysseus’ story, what happens to him in these places falls into the realm of the supernatural or fantastic, although to an extent that is not true of the remainder of the Odyssey.
It is debatable if Odysseus’ story is meant to be considered as factual within the Odyssey’s overall storyline. We don’t know whether the poet imagined the locations on Odysseus’ journey, as well as the routes between them, as actual. Even if the locations were imagined to be actual, the impacts of coastal erosion , silting, and other geological changes over thousands of years can drastically alter the terrain and seascape, making identification difficult.
Finally, in Books XIII–XXIV, the poem’s second half, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, where he encounters unexpected hurdles and danger. In this engraving by Theodore van Thulden, Odysseus gives his weapons to Eumaeus, his trusty swineherd. (Rijksmuseum / CC0 1.0 )
How much of the Odyssey can be identified with real locations?
The main character, Odysseus, is introduced in the second four books (V–VIII), as he is being liberated from captivity on the island of Ogygia by the nymph Calypso. He is shipwrecked and lands on the shores of Scheria, the Phaeacian homeland. In Books IX-XII, Odysseus tells the Phaeacians about the perilous journey he and his crew took in search of the home, including their encounters with the lotus-eaters, Laestrygonians, and the sorceress Circe; their narrow escape from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus; their ordeal navigating between Scylla and Charybdis; and the final shipwreck in which Odysseus is the only one who washes up on the shores of Ogygia.
Finally, in Books XIII–XXIV, the poem’s second half, Odysseus returns to Ithaca, where he encounters unexpected hurdles and danger. Before devising a convoluted plot to dispose of the suitors, he meets with his protector-goddess Athena and reveals himself to his trusty swineherd Eumaeus and subsequently to Telemachus. During Odysseus’ absence, Penelope defied the pestering of over a hundred suitors, who stayed in Odysseus’ house, eating, drinking, and carousing while waiting for her to choose amongst them. Odysseus, with the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius, kills them all to reconnect with his wife (a servant and a cowherd).
How much of the Odyssey is fantasy?
The bulk of classical scholars today undoubtedly believe that Odysseus’ landfalls should be viewed as fictitious sites. In his approach to the subject, the modern Greek Homerist Ioannis Kakridis can be compared to Eratosthenes. He claimed that the Odyssey is a poem rather than a travelogue. To get a fast overview of Kakridis’ viewpoints, it is pointless to try to find the locations described in Odysseus’ narrative on a map; we can’t mix the Odyssey narrative with history unless we believe in gods, giants, and monsters.
Although Kakridis concedes that one might wonder what genuine locales inspired these imagined settings, one must keep in mind that geography is not Odysseus’ (as narrator) or the poet’s primary interest. Similarly, Merry and Riddell state in their late-19th century school edition of the Odyssey that we are in a wonderland, and that we shall look in vain for anything to do with maps in these books.
Identifications from the past
Ancient sources offer a plethora of interpretations of Odysseus’ travels, as well as a complicated web of traditions that interact in diverse ways. In general, there are two dominating trends. One is the Euhemerist narratives, which rewrote mythical stories without the fantastic parts and were often viewed as restoring historical records in the process. The other mirrors the customs of foundation myths, in which tales of a city or institution being built during Odysseus’ travels frequently became political symbols. Some similarities exist between the two groups. The key differences between them are how the identifications were passed down through the generations and what they were used for.
The following are the most common identifications, which are rarely challenged in ancient sources:
Sicily is the land of the Cyclopes. Laestrygonians’ homeland to Sicily. The Aeolian island is one or more of the Aeolian Islands off the north coast of Sicily. Scheria, Phaeacian Land is equal to Corcyra (modern Corfu), off the coasts of Greece and Albania. Ogygia, the nymph Calypso’s island is Gaulos, a modern-day Gozo, part of the Maltese archipelago .
Based on more than a few ancient historical accounts, Sicily is the land of the Cyclopes in the Odyssey, but many of the other stops along the way remain fictional or unknown. In this image the Greek god Zeus does battle with the Cyclopes in a setting that could very well be Sicily of days gone by. ( Michael Rosskothen / Adobe Stock)
Accounts by Euhemerists
Writers on antiquarian subjects, geographers, scholars, and historians are all examples of euhemerist descriptions. The most important ancient sources are Strabo, a first-century geographer who provides information about Eratosthenes’ and Polybius’ studies into the topic; and Dictys of Crete, a novelization of the Trojan Battle that many later writers interpreted as an accurate historical chronicle of the war. The origins of this ritual can be traced back to the 5th century BC.
The country of the lotus-eaters is identified by Herodotus as a headland in the territory of the Gindanes tribe in Libya, and Thucydides relates the above-mentioned accepted identifications. Herodotus and Thucydides do not intentionally euhemerize; instead, they just accept local tales at face value because of their political significance at the time.
In Alexandrian Hellenistic scholarship, euhemerist accounts grow more dominant. Callimachus correctly identifies Scheria as Corcyra on Corfu, as well as Calypso’s island as Gaulos (modern Gozo, part of Malta). In his epic the Argonautica, his disciple Apollonius of Rhodes also names Scheria with Corcyra.
Top image: A mosaic scene from Homer’s Odyssey in the Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Source: Fotokon / Adobe Stock
By Bipin Dimri