March/April 2009 – #74
An Italian Odyssey: the Case Pro & Con
Conventional Wisdom Notwithstanding, Troy Was Probably Not in Turkey
Was ancient Troy not in Turkey—as is commonly believed—but in Italy? A thriving tourist industry in many Italian locations say it is so. Could they have a point, or did Homer’s great epic unfold, not in the Mediterranean region at all, but in Atlantic territories far to the east and north?
Heinrich Schliemann’s claims notwithstanding, historians for over a century have had a hard time buying the idea that a Trojan War was fought in Turkey, as the maverick archaeologist insisted. For one thing, the spot usually identified as Troy is inland, not close to the shoreline where the black ships of the Greek confederation could have been anchored. There were no great tides and no crashing waves from the nearby Bosporus Sea. Second, the size of the modern site identified as Troy is barely large enough to contain a shopping mall, forget an epic battle. Moreover, there is no room for palaces for each of fifty sons of Priam, nor for broad avenues where chariots could race. The Turkish site was “discovered” in the 1870s by Schliemann who was later discovered to be salting certain spots to support his theories. And perhaps the most telling argument—the Hittite empire, diligent in recording its history, does not mention Troy, or Ilium, where it allegedly fought a great war against a Greek alliance.
Historians do agree, however, that circa 1200 BC there was a tumultuous series of wars in the Mediterranean. The period was followed by dwindling trade, a greatly reduced coastal population and certain new cultures—Etruscans, Shardans, and Sicanians—settling throughout the Middle Sea. Ancient and modern historians alike date this period to the same time as Homer’s tales. Eratosthenes narrowed the date to 1184 BC, and added that the events could not have taken place where Homer declared they had. Strabo also rejected Homer’s setting and understood there was no alliance of Greeks in 1200 BC as they themselves begin their history with a traditional date of 776 BC.
So to find the site of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus is a daunting task, especially if we cannot find the starting point. Ulysses (the Latin name for Odysseus), according to Homer, was the hero of the war against Troy. The confederation of Greek city states was exhausted and ready to quit the battle, he tells us. It was Ulysses, as the story goes, that came up with the idea to build a giant wooden horse in which he and his confederates could hide. The Trojans brought the horse within the city walls. In the middle of the night Ulysses and his men left their horse/ hiding place and opened the city gates. The Trojans were slaughtered as they woke.
Subsequently the first place that the hero Ulysses was said to have gone, according to Homer, was the coastal port of the Cicones. Here it was said the men of the city were absent, making the city easy to raid. But the Greeks dallied too long and a counterattack caused great casualties. To date only a handful of suggestions have surfaced for the true identity of this Ciconian homeland, and most place it along the Thracian coast of Greece. However, if we assume that the war was fought elsewhere within the Mediterranean Sea, then we might choose the coast of the Italian island of Sicily, where Sicanians and Sikels shared the territory. The Sicanians ruled the southern coast, and as early as 2000 BC there might have been a Cretan presence among the handful of seaports. Eraclea (Hercules) Minoa is only about one-third excavated. Could the Sicanian successors to Crete have been Homer’s Ciconians?
From the south of Sicily it is a straight sail to the island of Jerba, an island off the African coast of Tunisia. Jerba conjures up images of some mysterious drug (although none has ever been identified) that resembles the lotus and its effects. This is the home of the Lotus eaters according to historians ancient and modern. Ulysses’ men dally here under the influence of the drug.
Third on the voyage is the land of the Cyclops. The Roman historian Strabo suggests the island of Sicily. Modern adventurer Ernle Bradford agrees, and says specifically the Cyclops lived near Marsala on the island of Favignana, once known as Aegusa (Goat Island). The Cyclops of course were goat and sheep herders. Writer and historian, Tim Severin said it was an island off the coast of Crete. Author Samuel Butler declares that these small islands included the true home of Ulysses.
After escaping the Cyclops, Ulysses and his crew came to the land of King Aeolus who ruled the winds. The island of Aeolus is accepted by many of the ancient historians. It is again off the coast of Sicily, but in the north, and right across the water from Calabria. The island Virgil described is Stromboli where today one can make a day trip to and from the Calabrian resort of Tropea. The volcano emits smoke on a regular basis, but poses no threat. Day trippers can dine and shop before returning to their boat and back to Tropea.
The travails of Ulysses continue as we next find him under attack by Laestrygonian cannibals. Author Tim Severin points again to Crete, while others point to Leontini on the eastern coast of Sicily or Formiae on the west coast. The west coast is a more attractive bet as Ulysses’ next stop is the island of Circe.
On Circe’s island the priestess turns his men into pigs and holds our hero hostage. There is a place in Italy where a Circeo exists; however it is on the mainland and not an island. That does not stop many from claiming an Italian origin for the spot. The marshes around Circeo have been drained—as many believe it once could have been an is-land—but no temple has ever been found. A second choice is Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Here we are close to Cumae, which is identified as the Hades of Homer.
Another choice for Hades is again in Sicily near Enna. Here is the Lago di Pergusa the spot where Hades was said to have abducted Persephone. She was then forced to live six months in the underworld and six months above ground in Sicily. This is why the island of Sicily is sometimes referred to as Persephone’s Island.
The story of Ulysses in Hades is both eerie and comical. He meets one of his men who he didn’t realize was dead. The man tells him he was drinking on the roof of a home, fell off, and was killed by the fall. He asks Ulysses to find his body, behind a certain bush, and give him a proper burial.
The case for Hades being near Naples is bolstered by the claims of the Sirens having lived along the coast at Sorrento. Here depictions of the sirens are everywhere, even on the buses that carry tourists to nearby sites of interest. Naples itself was actually said to be settled by Greeks from Parthenope, a nearby town. It was named for Parthenope, the siren who was washed ashore when her spell was broken by Odysseus.
After Odysseus survives the call of the sirens, he sails between Scylla and Charybdis. There is a consensus, old and new, that these twin dangers are on opposite ends of the Straits of Messina. There is a Scilla on one side of the straits. It marks the spot where a daughter of the dark goddess Hecate changed into a dog-like sea monster. There is supposed to be an underwater cave beneath the shores of Scilla, presumably where the monster lives. The Sicilian side has no town of Charybdis as it was said to be a whirlpool that swallowed ships. There is no such whirlpool today.
Just an hour north is the Vibonensis Sinus, the gulf near Tropea where the shoals were called Ithacesiae Insulae, named for the home of Ulysses, Ithaca. Heinrich Schliemann declared he had found Ithaca in Greece, but it was in Greece where he was accused of burying artifacts to dig up later.
Ulysses and his men had so far suffered great karma for their crimes, but, apparently, no lessons had been learned. Stranded on the Island of the Sun, or of the Sun-god Helios, they were made to promise not to kill the cattle belonging to that god. Ulysses fell asleep, and his hungry crew did exactly what they had sworn they wouldn’t. This theft had allegedly taken place on the “three cornered island.” For this reason, Sicily is said to be the Island of the Sun.
Only Ulysses survived the rage of the god. He is cast adrift for days until he reaches the island of Calypso, named Ogygia. This island was in the “middle” of the sea, leading some to believe it was in the Atlantic. Closer to Italy is Gaudos, or Gozo, opposite the island of Malta. It is only sixty miles from Sicily. The Roman historian Strabo said Ogygia was in the Atlantic. Plutarch agreed and was more specific saying Ogygia was five days sail west of Britain. Ulysses was imprisoned here for years pining away for his wife Penelope.
Finally Calypso knits Ulysses a sail and he heads home. First stop is said to be Scheria and last stop Ithaca, his home. Scheria has been said to be near Gibraltar, being on the island of Cyprus, or again, being in Greece. No site fits Homer’s Ithaca.
Last year my Triumph of the Sea Gods was published. The Homeric epics, I theorized happened completely in an Atlantic setting. The Phoenicians and other sea peoples populated the Atlantic shores. The Phoenicians, given credit for bringing the alphabet to Greece, also brought the epic stories from the proto-Celtic peoples of the true Ocean.
Troy actually does exist on what was a headland that faced the Atlantic just south of Lisbon. The ruins of this Portuguese Troia still poke out among the sands where a series of earthquakes and tsunamis perpetually changed the coastline. Near Troy is Lisbon which was named for Ulysses. The Cicones can be found in Iberia and where Ulysses, son of Laertes, pillaged their shores. Celtic “laer” meant thief. A thief with a ship is a pirate, the true business of Ulysses. The Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops most likely inhabited the nearby Cape Verde islands where the children of the Gorgons lived, or the equally close Canary Islands. The island or islands of King Aeolus were possibly the Azores where the king gave the gift of winds in a “bag” to Ulysses. The word “bag” is actually a boat in Breton and Welsh, and the wind in those same languages is “Avel.” More likely the king of an Atlantic isle gave Ulysses a boat (or ship) to head back towards Iberia.
The goddess Circe was an import from the north. She conducted her rituals in a circle like priestesses of nature religions. The circle was the sanctuary and the word Kirk with the hard “C” as a “K” grew into a more modern religious sanctuary, the Church. Being close to Hades where there were days that the sun stayed bright long enough for two shifts of work, according to Homer, points us to the far north. Iceland and even the north of Scotland have such long days in summer and, of course, very short days in winter. The Orkney Islands, named for “orcas” or pigs is a great setting.
On his return, Ulysses might have come across the many sea caves of the Orkneys where guillemots and other bird colonies are noisy places. The Sirens may have created fear in the surviving sailors of Ulysses’ ship. He may have brought his ship through the Pentland Firth where whirlpools exist and the mighty Atlantic is funneled into a tiny strait where islands appear to move in the sea.
After his rescue from Calypso’s island, he reached Scheria. The place has never been found, but that is because it is a Phoenician word meaning “marketplace.” Any port city where the sea peoples traded would have a marketplace.
Finally Ulysses reaches his home in Ithaca. It was described as the western-most island of three, although the Greek Ithaca was not the westernmost. Instead Cadiz has islands which fit the bill for the true Ithaca.
While it is tempting to name Italy as the place of the Odyssey because of the names on the map, it doesn’t really fit with the tale. There is also a Rome, a Troy and an Ithaca, as well as a Syracuse, on the map of New York State, none of which make a case for Homer’s locations.
The Atlantic from Iceland to North Africa does provide places that do fit Homer’s descriptions. Unlike the Mediterranean it has room for a sailing ship to sail nine days in a straight line. The Ocean has waves and tides, and, on occasion, loud seas. Only the far north could provide the longer days where the sun was visible even at night. It was clear to ancient historians and some modern ones that the blind poet Homer took a foreign tale and placed it a short distance from his home on Chios. His genius of turning the tale into one of the world’s greatest literary accomplishments is the reason many places—from Scandinavia, to England, to France and Italy, wanted to claim for themselves a special role in those epic stories.