Greece – Far Seen Rocky Ithaca

“FAR-SEEN and rocky.” These are adjectives which the poet of the Odyssey applied to this island three thousand years ago, and they belong to it still They alone are not enough to distinguish it as the abode of Odysseus; but without these attributes any island would claim the honor in vain. There are other natural features lending support to the tradition which identifies the island with the Ithaca of Homer. Homer is not reckless or audacious in statement. When he undertakes to describe the course of an arrow or a spear in the body of some Trojan whose eyes had been veiled in death, he does not make the cruel bronze take an impossible course. When, like-wise, he deals with geography, he does not create a map wholly out of his imagination. He uses existing facts, places and scenery as the trellis upon which to spread the flower and fruit of his tropical yet simple fancy. He mentions islands and places, to be sure, which cannot be identified with any existing sites; but, on the other hand, the catalogue of ships and places in the second book of the Iliad, even though it be a later addition, furnishes us with the oldest information we have about the geography and topography of Greece in that early time. Though Homer, individual or composite, had no intention of writing a book on geography, he had no intention of ignoring the subject. If he had done so, seven cities — Ithaca was one of them — would not have claimed to be his birthplace.

The steamers from Brindisi to Greece stop at Corfu and Patras; but they make no account of Ithaca. It does not lie in the pathway of trade. We were told that it was not easy to get there; that it would take us a week out of our course; especially that it was not practicable to go there with a party of seven, four of whom were ladies, and one a seven-year-old boy. But these ladies and that boy had camped in the forests of Canada, and had spent their first three nights on Greek soil under a tent of their own construction. They were prepared to do it again if necessary. Had they not also read the Odyssey crossing the Atlantic? And did they not long, like Odysseus, to see the smoke rise from his native land?

But why go to Ithaca? It has no temples, no great churches, no paintings, no monuments of architecture, no sculptures, no ruins, and no history of more than local interest. Nor has it any natural curiosities such as make Niagara or the Natural Bridge famous the world over. And yet, in spite of this, it had an attraction for us equalled only among these isles by Corfu, and for precisely the same reason. The fame of Ithaca was not made by sword, trowel, chisel, or brush; it was made wholly by the pen. Literature, as well as art and religion, has its shrines, and every country with a literature has them. They may be shrines rural or urban, scenic or civic, historic, traditional or mythical, but literature has given them their fame, and may sometimes be wholly responsible for their creation. The whole scenery of Scotland has been tinged by the genius of Walter Scott, as the peaks and crags and vales and meres of the Lake District have felt the touch of Words-worth, Southey and Coleridge. Paris means Victor Hugo and Dumas as well as Napoleon, Richelieu and the French kings; and with all its wonderful shrines of religion and art, Florence, for the modern traveller, means Dante and Browning as well as Raphael and Savonarola. Has Phidias or Pericles done more for Athens than Socrates, Sophocles, .AEschylus and Plato? So Ithaca is a shrine, a monument of literature; and it has this peculiar interest, that its fame lies wholly and absolutely in this direction. The Odyssey was built with Ithaca as one of its foundation stones; but now it is Ithaca that rests on the Odyssey, which Lowell has said is the one long story that will bear continuous reading. It matters not whether it deals with history or romance, the story of the Odyssey will continue to exert its charm and Ithaca will loom up in the narrative just as it looms up in the landscape. The picture is so well fixed in the mind that now we can seek with enthusiasm for the easel and the canvas on which it was painted. So long as the Odyssey continues to be read, some Ithaca will possess an interest as the home of its hero and his faithful Penelope, as the abode of the devoted swineherd, and as the scene of the wanton riot of the suitors and their tragic doom. With it we shall connect the dutiful Telemachus, the aged Laertes, and Argos the faithful dog.

One of the constant iterations in the Odyssey, so often repeated that it becomes a kind of standing joke, is the question addressed to every new-comer in Ithaca. ” But now, good stranger, tell me this:

Who are you, and whence do you come; from what land and city? On what ship did you come, and how did sailors bring you here? Whom do they call themselves? ” And then was added, we can suppose, with a knowing wink, or a figurative poke in the rib :

For I don’t imagine that you came on foot ! ” Certainly one would have to roll back the sea or walk on the water to get to Ithaca on foot. We did not make the attempt. The other questions are as likely to be put to a stranger in Ithaca to-day as they were then. Inquisitiveness is an hereditary Greek trait.

Cephalonia is separated from Ithaca, as Homer informs us, by a strait which is from eight to ten miles wide. There is no steamer plying between the islands. We had therefore, as already said, crossed to the east side of Cephalonia, and hired a small sloop to take us over. The breeze was light, for which some of our party were grateful. But the men bent to their oars just as they did in the old days. There is nothing older in the way of navigation than an ash breeze, unless it be one of pine or poplar. A warm sun beamed upon us. There was no danger of collision. Ours was the only boat visible in this long strait. We had an unobstructed view of the west side of Ithaca. No just idea of the shape of the island can be had from that side ; but we got an excellent view of the three hills or mountains which raise their backs and, with a long, flowing outline, cut a small m in the air. There is Aetos. It is only 65o feet high, but it counts for more than that when seen from the level of the sea. There is Neritos, only 2,600 feet high, but looming up still higher as we view it through the lens of the imagination. This island was not made for a farm. It looks too hard and forbidding for a poem. It appears to have been made for a quarry, so stern and rocky is its visage.

I had two guide-books in my pockets. One was a Baedeker, the other was an Odyssey. I took out the Odyssey, and in the two hours we were crossing, read all the allusions to Ithaca which it contains. Homer meant to tell the truth about his Ithaca, and in some respects this island bears out well the words of the Odyssey. “In Ithaca,” he says, ” there are no open runs, no meadows; a land for goats. Not one of the islands is a place to drive a horse, and none has good meadows of all that rest upon the sea, Ithaca least of all.” Homer, it is clear, was not in the real-estate business. He may or may not have been born on this island; but he is not advertising property for sale. He knows well what Ithaca lacks. There is no meadow land here. The goats still climb these rocky cliffs ; and that it is possible to drive a horse from one end of the island to the other on a single highway is due to the good roads established under English rule. But Homer could tell, also, the good features of the island. When Odysseus has been brought from Scheria by night in a profound sleep by the magic boat of the Phaeacians, he is landed in the harbor of Phorcys. When he wakes he is so dazed that he fails to recognize his native land. But Athene, who is perpetually turning up when wanted, appears in the guise of a shepherd, and the home-brought wanderer asks her what sort of a land it is. She says, ” You are simple, stranger, or come from far away to ask about this land. It is not quite so nameless. Many men know it well, men dwelling toward the east and rising sun, and those behind us, also, toward the darksome west. It is a rugged land, not fit for driving horses, yet not so very poor, though lacking plains. Grain grows abundantly, and wine as well; the showers are frequent, and the dews refreshing; here is good pasturage for goats and cattle; trees of all kinds are here, and never-failing springs.” l And then she proceeds to show him things and places which he cannot fail to recognize.

If Odysseus were to wake up here today he would find a wire strung on poles. He would puzzle his brain a little to know what it meant. Perhaps Athene, who, according to Roscher and others, is a personification of the lightning, would be kind enough to tell him that it is a modern pathway for her swift feet, and that on it she could flash across the land or dart under the sea. It is one form in which the goddess still lives in the nineteenth century, and she served us a good turn on our way to Ithaca. I did not forget, before leaving Cephalonia, that Ithaca had a poor reputation for horses, and asked what would be the possibility of getting two carriages. ” There are just two on the island,” was the response, ” but we can send a despatch from Samos by cable to Ithaca to have these carriages meet you at Pissaeto.”

The telegram was sent, and by the time we were ready to land in the pretty little cove at Pissaeto the carriages from the town, four miles away, were waiting for us, and we thanked Athene for her electrical benignity and service.

The carriages seemed as archaic as the island itself, and might have passed for chariots captured by Odysseus in the Trojan War. It was not necessary to look at the horses’ teeth to be impressed with their age. These steeds would not have cut much of a figure on a Parthenon frieze. ” If our horses were not speedy,” says Mavilla, ” there was exhilaration in the thought that they were the only ones on the island, and that our frail carriages were all that kings could command in Ithaca.”

Putting the ladies in the carriages, I started on foot from the little cove, which is entirely devoid of settlement, the real harbor of Ithaca being on the east side. Up the steep hill one can walk faster than he can ride. In about half an hour we came to the little chapel of St. George, from which a rugged pathway leads to the top of Aetos. There was just time to reach the summit and get a good view before sunset, and I wanted to make sure of the view and to pay a visit to ” Odysseus’ Castle.” There are some Greeks who live on the principle of not doing today what they can put off till to-morrow. Our charioteer was one of them. I took out my watch, and then pointed to the top of Aetos.

But it was not worth while to keep the carriages and the rest of the party waiting. It was agreed, therefore, that the others should drive on to Vathy, the port of Ithaca, and that I should make the ascent to the so-called castle and the summit of Aetos, and rejoin them at Vathy, the town three miles away.

The rest of the party looked askance at the abrupt height, and, without going up, Mavilla was sure that Odysseus had never lived there. ” Homer,” she said, ” would have described the rocky ascent in detail if the palace had stood on any such eminence.” But the local tradition found a defender in Eum eus himself. He had served as guide to Schliemann, and he offered to guide me. He could speak no word of English or French, and his Greek was more modern than that of Homer. He returned, however, my Homeric greeting xaipere, and there is, indeed, no part of Greece where this Homeric salutation is not in vogue. His dress was modern in form, but ancient enough in substance. His coat and trousers were of European cut, but when I looked at his feet I was sure it was the old swineherd. Except for the wear and tear of three thousand years, the sandals he wore, cut out of leather and tied with thongs, might have been those which the swineherd was making about the time Odysseus came home. He had changed his occupation from swineherd to goatherd, and there was a sensible diminution in his affection for his master, since he confided to me that he thought Odysseus was a rascal and never wanted to come back.

It is a stiff climb to the summit, and I had but a short time to make it. The old king must have been stout of leg if he came up here. The signs of an ancient stronghold are beyond doubt in the old Cyclopean walls, in which the natural rock has been used to the best advantage. A cavity ten feet in diameter and eighteen feet deep has been walled about by heavy stones, perhaps for a cistern.

There are other traces of a foundation and pieces of wall here and there, indicating some larger fortification commanding this pass. Its style and character suggest great antiquity. Gell and Schliemann have both assumed that this was the site of the castle of Odysseus. Schliemann, in one of his earliest ventures in excavation, tried to prove his claim with the spade, but with small result. It is fortunate that his failure at Ithaca did not deter him from the later excavations, so rich and fruitful, at Mycenae and Troy. It is well-nigh impossible to reconcile the topography of the town of Ithaca in the Odyssey with the situation of this so-called castle. I got Eumaeus to stand in the ruins while I took a photograph of him, but even his ancient face — surmounted by a European cap instead of one of the traditional sugar-loaf Odyssean cut — could not invest the site with much of probability.

The view from the summit was well worth the steep climb. No other outlook can give an adequate idea of the shape of Ithaca. On the east side the Gulf of Molo is so deep that it nearly cuts the island in two. As you stand on the narrow, lofty ridge, you have a fine view of Cephalonia and the bay of Samos to the west; to the north you see the Leucadian promontory, the southern end of Santa Maura, whence Sappho made her traditional leap; while to the east are the island of Atakos and the mountains of Acarnania. It was a beautiful, peaceful scene. I succeeded in taking a photograph which gives a good idea of the topography of the northern part of the island and the narrow spine of the isthmus which holds it together. Looking down from this height the eye of the camera caught the water of the Gulf of Molo on one side, and the water of the strait on the other, while the rugged mountain ridge arched its back between them. I lingered on the summit till the sun went down, and then, with the goatherd, made my way, to the town of Vathy, which was not reached till after dark. A hardy fisherman and his boy joined us on our way, and were much impressed with what I told them of the physical greatness of America as compared with Ithaca.

The ladies, with their youthful escort, had already found accommodation in a little Greek inn bearing the lofty name of Parnassus. It is pretty hard for any hotel to live up to the majestic pretension of this name, and if Spiridion, my worthy host, came short of it, I am bound to say that the prices were not so high as the mountain. A rickety outside stairway led to the four rooms of the inn. Below was the kitchen, where the modern Spiridion and his wife lived, and cooked potatoes and fish, — fish and potatoes, potatoes and fish, hot for breakfast, tepid for dinner, and cold for supper.

In one of the tiny bedrooms hung a bit of a mirror. This was the hotel register, where the six or eight visitors of the last ten years had stuck their visiting cards. We studied them with interest. There were some German professors, and an English lord or two, who had anchored their yachts in the sheltered harbor, where fifty vessels could find protection ; but not an American name among them. Many a year it will be before seven Americans take Vathy by storm again. Our blessings are with them when they go ! Let them not expect to have the three bedrooms to themselves. Let them not delude themselves with a vision of a picturesque inn where a dainty Greek maiden in becoming costume serves nectar and ambrosia. Yet Spiridion’s wife, though neither young nor attractive, was solicitous about our meals. With great care she pretended to inquire as to the hours when we would have them served, — as if it made any difference, when we knew that the food was all cooked in one batch, and doled out to us at regular intervals.

The next day a pouring rain was discouraging to archaeological investigation. But Paul and myself did not mean to have our enthusiasm dampened. We planned to go to the north of the island to see if the topography could any more easily be reconciled to the story. One of the tires of the chariot was nearly off to start with. To all appearances it would not last fifteen minutes, and we had a round trip of from five to six hours ahead of us. But there was no telling how many journeys it had made in that condition, and the driver’s confidence seemed to be based upon its age and general debility. If the carriage was bad, the road was fine, and now and then the clouds lifted to give us a view on the way to Stavros. The road winds around the Gulf of Molo, and then rises in a zigzag on the mountain side, and runs across the high ” divide” or saddle which separates the Gulf of Molo from the channel of Ithaca. The beautiful view of the day before was shut out by the pouring rain. We passed through the little village of Levke, and finally, after a slow, wet ride of three hours, a large part of which was up hill, we wound round the Bay of Polis, and reached Stavros. Here we left our carriage, and, taking as a guide a young man whom we had found in the village, we wandered through the olive groves and fertile vineyards to see if perchance we might find the aged Laertes among them. A woman whom we met near the little church of Hagios Anastasios showed us the spring of Melanydro, which may or may not be the Arethusa of the Odyssey. We took a taste of its dark waters. If only we could tell a classical spring by the taste or by chemical analysis ! But the Odyssey was not written in a laboratory or under the inspiration of an hydraulic survey. Then we went down the staircase in the rock to the picturesque spot called ” Homer’s School,” which Baedeker says has borne the name for the last hundred years. The rain had ceased, and though the clouds were heavy, we got some idea of the beautiful view from this, one of the most charming spots on the island.

The difficulties of identifying modern Ithaca with the Ithaca of Homer appear, in the first place, in the situation of the island as a whole and in its relation to the others of the group. In the Odyssey it is described as the most westerly of the islands, whereas it lies to the east of Cephalonia. It is not easy to get round this general difficulty. The story also requires a small island near Ithaca, ” a rocky isle in the sea, midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos.” The only island in the channel of Ithaca is Daskalio or Mathitario, about six miles from Polis. From Stavros we had a good view of this little island, which does not look much larger than a sand-bar now, though the Odyssey requires one with a ” double harbor.” But there is time for many changes in three thousand years. Taking this little island as a fixed and necessary point in the identification, we are obliged, then, to assume some other place for the town of Ithaca than the present site of Vathy. The fact that Polls means ” city ” in Greek, and that this name has been applied to the harbor on the northwest coast for centuries, creates a presumption that the ancient city may have been there.

There are other questions which meet the Homeric student: Where was the cave of the Nymphs, and where did Odysseus land when he returned to Ithaca? About a mile and a half to the south of Vathy is a cave with stalactites, called Palaeokropi, which might have served as the grotto of the Nymphs,—though if the Nymphs do not belong to the world of reality, their grotto might be easily and pardonably mythical. The description of the harbor of Phorcys is quite definite. Some find its correspondent in the Bay of Dexia, and others in the Bay of Vathy.

The result of examination—the ascent of Aetos, the wet trip to Stavros, and a study of Vathy and the Gulf of Molo — convinced me that many of the topographical allusions in the Odyssey cannot be easily identified in detail. A theory which fits one locality and one allusion is sure to involve contradiction and misfit with another allusion. On the other hand, if we may dismiss as the mistake of some rhapsodist who had never been to Ithaca, the statement as to the westerly position of the island, we cannot fail to find a striking general resemblance to the rugged, far-seen, rocky isle described in the Odyssey. It seems to me that the original rhapsodists may have used it so far as it served their purpose, and that the author or editor who unified the story attempted no geographical identification. The remarkable discoveries at Troy, which were made through loyally accepting the verity of a hoary tradition as to the site of the ancient city, remind us of the great claim that tradition has to respect. Though Gell carried too far his attempt to identify places in the Odyssey, he has done well to present evidence from coins and elsewhere to show how many centuries the name Ithaca has been applied to the island. The spade has not come to the corroboration of the poet in Ithaca, as it has at Troy and Mycenae. Excavations have proved of little avail. But it is not necessary to go below ground to substantiate Homer here. The island may have lost many of its trees, though the olive and the almond and the lemon are found in the northern part, and there are beautiful vineyards such as Laertes may have tended; but the substantial features of mountain and bay, ” the footpaths stretching far away, the sheltered coves and steep rocks ” of which the poet spoke, still remain enveloped in the glow of his imagination. If the doubter lands at Ithaca, Athene, in the shape of the shepherd, may say, as she did to the sceptical Odysseus, ” Come, then, and let me point you out the parts of Ithaca, that so you may believe.” And important features in the argument will be, as they were then, the Harbor of Phorcys and the Cave of the Nymphs.