Paliki, Homer's "Ithaca"

M. Paliki

Map of Paliki (now) & surroundings: Homer said his Ithaca was "to the west, the furthest out to sea", and "low-lying"... (click the image to enlarge)

Paliki, Homer's "Ithaca", is (now) a peninsula of the island of Cephalonia (Kefalonia), in the Ionian islands of western Greece, at 38|18|39.72|N,20|25|06.70|E, (Wikimapia), (Google Earth). Paliki, among various other locations, sometimes has been identified in the past as having been the ancient location of Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus, as described in the Homeric epic, the Odyssey.

Theories about the location of Odysseus' home have been many, over the centuries: from as early as that of Eratosthenes (276BC-194BC), to more modern views -- these ideas have ranged from the romantic and literary, to the scientific and the pseudo-scientific, to sheer fantasy -- see Homer's Ithaca. But a very recent study by Robert Bittlestone, James Diggle, and John Underhill, published in 2005 as a highly-illustrated and very readable book, Odysseus Unbound1 (the study) uses evidence from modern philology and geology to make the case now for identifying Paliki, definitively, as having been Homeric Ithaca.

The Transmission of Texts
Resource List
Homer's Ithaca


* Discovery

The initial insight leading to the recent study of Paliki came from a tourist roadmap of the area, which Bittlestone purchased following a family visit to the region, in preparation for another visit, one this time to the modern island known as "Ithaki" (see also Ithaki's Name). Scholars for centuries have noticed that the island of Ithaki does not correspond to the detailed descriptions of the home of Odysseus offered by Homer in the Odyssey. Many explanations, from "poetic license" to ingenious geographic routes, have been used to account for the discrepancies.

Bittlestone had noticed, however, that the western peninsula of Cephalonia appeared to correspond with the principal clues offered by Homer, yet it is not an island. On his previous trip, though, his daughter's question, about an inland hilltop fortress on neighboring Lefkas island, at 38|42|59.00|N,20|38|00.00|E, (Wikimapia), (Google Earth) -- "But why did they build it here?" -- had led to the thought that sea levels in the area might once have been much higher, that in turn leading to the idea that higher sea levels once may have cut off the Paliki peninsula from its mainland, Cephalonia, making Paliki an island. The tourist map seemed to confirm this: on it, Bittlestone saw, the neck of land connecting Paliki to Cephalonia did appear to be very narrow and, more importantly in this mountainous region, relatively low along most of its length.

Confirmation was needed from at least two sources: philology-- to ensure that the Homeric account of "Ithaca", which has come down through so many different translations over so many centuries, was properly understood -- and geology, to establish among other points that the narrow neck of land on Cephalonia could in fact have been the site of a sea channel, in the times of Homer and of Odysseus.


* Philology


Homer, 8th c. BC

James Diggle, a co-author of Odysseus Unbound (and see particularly his Appendix 1), is Professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University. His detailed analysis of the description of "Ithaca" and the surrounding islands, found both in Homer and in Strabo and other texts, was crucial to authenticating the Paliki study.

Methodology: Various lists of philological clues were assembled, derived from the ancient texts, to identify specific geographic details which might correspond to modern locations. For example 26 such locations were identified as being located "in or near Homer's 'Ithaca'" (the study, figure 3.3, p. 31) : each of these, then, needed to be identified geographically, for example,

-- and similar lists were made for "Odysseus' Palace" (the study, figure 17.2, p. 194), "Doulichion" (the study, figure 21.12, p. 270), and other locations.

A list of 32 such "clues" and criteria was then drawn up and a chart prepared showing how the author's solutions for each of these compare with those proposed by 22 prior theorists, from Strabo through to Gladstone and the present day (the study, Appendix 4). For example:

-- each entry in the above and other lists being a site and/or an event familiar to readers of the Odyssey the philological task was to be certain, of the precise meaning of Homer's detailed descriptions and of possible alternative renderings, before searching for modern geographic locations.


* Geology



John Underhill, also a co-author of the Odysseus Unbound study (particularly Appendix 2), is Professor of Stratigraphy at the University of Edinburgh and a recognized authority on the structure and stratigraphy of sedimentary basins, and on the geology of the Ionian islands. His contributions in several areas, including investigation of the prior existence of "Strabo's Channel", and analyses of factors such as tectonic uplift and erosion, also were crucial in authenticating Paliki.

The initial geological problem posed by Bittlestone -- whether sea levels in the region once may have been higher, such that the narrow isthmus now connecting Paliki to the rest of Cephalonia might have been submerged -- turned out to be exactly the opposite, the sea didn't fall but the land rose, and the periodic earthquakes that triggered this upthrust simultaneously brought down catastrophic rockfalls. Paliki sits on the edge of the European continental shelf which is being pushed continuously from the southwest by the African plate, in a plate tectonics shift causing constant earthquakes, the Ionian islands were devastated by one such earthquake as recently as 1953, and there have been many before that. Observation of many geologic clues in the region shows that uplift -- the result of earthquakes -- has in fact occurred.

The insufficiency of the uplift, to account for the altitude of some of the terrain now at the channel site, is explained by high volume "landslips" similar to those that impacted northern Pakistan in 2005: earth and rocks and whole sections of the mountainside itself falling from the high Cephalonia mountains which line the eastern edge of the isthmus, down onto what once had been "Strabo's channel". Findings of ancient Greek structures now buried beneath this erosion provided part of the confirmation for the proposal.

Much of the challenge, in the identification of Paliki as having been Homer's "Ithaca", depended upon such a combination of geological investigation with philological analysis. For example, Strabo's 2000-year-old account of the channel which supposedly separated Paliki and Cephalonia -- an idea discounted for centuries as having been simply an inaccuracy, in one of Western civilization's earliest "geographies" -- provided a working hypothesis, pending further geological tests, which also solved several other long-standing puzzles in the Odyssey, such as:

So the first step in the investigation procedure was a matter primarily of philology: translating Homer, and Strabo, in the contexts of what is known now of word-usage during their times, to be as certain as possible of intended meanings. The second step was for geology, required to analyze the soils and structures and history of the Paliki-Cephalonia isthmus, to determine whether and how it might ever have been below water, enough, to have been a "channel".

Until Alfred Wegener's theory of plate tectonics was announced2, and accepted3, the idea that the earthquakes to which the Greek region historically has been subjected might be capable of geologically "lifting" whole islands, and even entire archipelagos such as Paliki and its neighbors represent, was unthinkable and even considered by some to be sacrilegious. So Strabo was considered simply inaccurate, for there was no geologically-respectable explanation for the difference between his ancient observation and what anyone contemporary easily could observe.

The third step, then, in establishing the existence of "Strabo's channel" on Paliki -- and thus the homeward route of Telemachus' ship as described in the Odyssey -- also lay in the province of geology, specifically the fields of stratigraphy and sedimentation and erosion. The isthmus turned out to be low-lying, but not enough that its height might be accounted for entirely by geologic uplift. The remainder of the current height, however, as analyzed by Underhill, is accounted for by rockfalls and landslides from the neighboring high and steep-sided hills of Cephalonia, over many centuries of regular and massive earthquakes. The discovery of Mycenaean stonework on the isthmus beach, now deeply buried by such geologic movement, supported Underhill's findings. In this instance a three-step methodology was used, then: the first a matter primarily of philology, the second and third more matters of geology.


* The Transmission of Texts

Transmission of texts

Transmission of texts,

One of the great mysteries of Homeric scholarship, too, has been how Homer -- whoever he was, or whoever "they" were (see Nagy, 1996, in Resource List) -- living in the Aegean in what now is western Turkey, where he/they are said to have lived, might have acquired such detailed knowledge of "Ithaca" / Paliki as appears in his Odyssey. The suggestion made in the Odysseus Unbound study (Chapter 26, p. 342ff, particularly Figure 26.1 at p. 343) is that folk-tales of the "Ithacans" containing detailed references to the landscape were carried by them, during their Greek Dark Ages migrations (see Snodgrass, c2000, in Resource List) during the time-of-troubles which followed the Mycenaean / Trojan War period, to the Greek mainland and from there to western Anatolia, at 37|57|38.74|N,27|10|47.30|E, (Wikimapia), (Google Earth). At that final resting place for the migration of the Ionians, then, roving bards of the type described by Milman Parry picked up the "Ithacan" tales, perhaps, and wove them together into the Odyssey: for the entertainment and edification of audiences who knew "Paliki" well, and were homesick, and longed for it.

The differences made by the "transmission of texts", to the texts themselves and to the culture generally, have been debated for centuries -- particularly during every "transition in media" which has followed the invention of some new textual technique. Three fundamental historical transitions are identified in the literature: a transition "from oral tradition to manuscript"4, that "from manuscript to print"5, and that "from print to digital"6.

Transmission of texts

Transmission of texts,
oral => manuscript

Suggestions often have been made that the latest technique might entirely replace the earlier: for example Victor Hugo's medieval character Dom Claude Frollo famously predicted, gesturing first to the book in his hand and then to the at-that-time fully-illustrated and brightly-painted cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, that "Ceci tuera cela -- this will kill that!"7. Careful commentators have observed, however, that usually there is a blending: the new "medium" does not in fact kill off the old but supplements it, extends it, and very often even expands it8. Revisions to more traditional views of what constitutes a "text" also have been made, by recent developments in linguistics, semiology, textual criticism, structuralism, and in movements such as critical legal studies.

Homer's great work the Odyssey, as one of Western civilization's oldest cultural texts, has spanned all of these transitions, and so is a particularly interesting subject of study for "transmission of texts".

One difference made specifically to our modern understanding of the Odyssey stems from the discovery that Paliki may indeed prove to have been a "real" Ithaca, as depicted in great detail in the Homeric text. Different literary treatment of "fiction" as opposed to "fact" becomes important in interpretation of the Odyssey, then. Had "Ithaca" been entirely fictional, as many have thought, perhaps a view of both Homer and his work as having been more in line with modern conceptions of imaginative poetry, and its poets, would be encouraged. With a "real" Ithaca identified a different view of Homer, and of the Odyssey, emerges: one more in line with recent views that Homer transmitted oral tradition texts, conveying the stories and values of an older civilization to its youth.

Real-life geographic details of "Ithaca", as well, provide much evidence for the process by which the Ithacan oral texts may have been transmitted. If details of geographic "Ithaca", on Paliki, may be correlated closely, now, with the detailed description of them in the Homeric text, then new interpretations of other more questionable descriptions in the text itself may emerge -- and some geographic details might even be added to what we know historically of the poet's description of Odysseus and his times and people, knowledge we previously have had primarily just from a much-interpreted oral tradition "text" now over 3000 years old.

Transmission of texts

Transmission of texts,
manuscript => print

As one example, consider the following recent exchange, on the "Odysseus Unbound" forum (topic, "Comments about the book"):


Just as a fundamental inspiration for the search for Homer's Ithaca derives from the Homeric text, so the ultimate discovery to be made -- in discovering that Odysseus indeed was from "Paliki, Homer's Ithaca", and in refining our knowledge of Paliki -- is a better knowledge of the Homeric text itself, in its oral and written and printed forms, and now in its digital text and various multimedia formats, and also of the Western civilization to which it has contributed for so long. As T.S. Eliot put it, in Little Gidding (Four Quartets, 1943):

-- because the Odyssey is one of the fundamental "texts" of Western civilization, and it has been for centuries, if we ever are fully to understand that civilization we need to understand the Odyssey -- and for that we do best to begin at its own beginning, which now appears to have been at Paliki.


Jack Kessler,



1^ Bittlestone, Robert, with James Diggle and John Underhill. Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca (Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press, 2005) ISBN 0521853575 ; Odysseus Unbound website.

2^ Wegener, Alfred. Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (Braunschweig : Vieweg, 1915) ; Wegener, Alfred. The Origin of Continents and Oceans (New York : Dover, 1966) ISBN 0486617084 ; translated from the 4th rev. German ed. by John Biram ; see also Alfred Wegener.

3^ Wegener's plate tectonics theory still was not accepted in some school geology programs until the late 1960s.

4^ Martin, Henri-Jean. The history and power of writing (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1994, c1988) ISBN 0226508358 ; see Henri-Jean Martin.

5^ Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book : the impact of printing, 1450-1800 (London : N.L.B., 1976, c1957) ISBN 0902308173 ; tr. David Gerard ; see Lucien Febvre , Henri-Jean Martin ; see also, Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The printing press as an agent of change : communications and cultural transformations in early modern Europe (Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press, 1979) ISBN 0521220440 ; see Elizabeth Eisenstein.

6^ Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab (New York ; Viking, 1987) ISBN 0670814423 ; see Stewart Brand -- among many other references which might be cited, for a "paradigm shift" now still very much in-progress.

7^ Hugo, Victor. Notre Dame de Paris (Paris : J. Hetzel, 1865) ; see Victor Hugo.

8^ Darnton, Robert. "The New Age of the Book", in The New York Review of Books volume 46, issue 5, (March 18, 1999), see ; see Robert Darnton.


* Resource List (selected, and partially annotated)



From a very extensive, and very old, literature... just a few of the latest journal articles & announcements, most interesting & exciting books, a very good video series, many other useful things, for "getting into" the subjects of "Odysseus studies" and "Ithaca"... Because the world has "gone multimedia", now, various media which appear here are mixed together, and arranged simply by date, with the latest shown first: books, but also journal articles & videos & blogs & econferences & podcasts & TV broadcasts & ejournals & Webcasts & video conferences & CDROMS, plus realtime events both "face-to-faceless" and "face-to-face"... nowadays it's all "information"...

To reach the Resource List, please click the link :
Resource List


* Homer's "Ithaca"


Where was Homer's "Ithaca"?

"Where was Homer's 'Ithaca'?" -- The central character of Homer's epic, the Odyssey long was thought to have been fictional: Odysseus, and Achilles and Agamemnon and Hector and the many other "heroes" of that epic, and of Homer's other epic his Iliad, all were thought by many to be simply the products of a poet's imagination -- not real people, or even based upon real people -- and the stories and locations described in the epics were thought to be imaginary as well. Yet there were many "local" claims, that some Homeric hero long ago had inhabited this or that contemporary region or village, and there were the extremely detailed geographic descriptions in the epic itself: both invited investigation of the enticing possibility that Homer's heroes might have been real, and at least that the location of the sites described in the epics might be found.

To reach the Homer's "Ithaca" page, please click the link :
Homer's "Ithaca"


* Links

Michel Melot puts it best, in his remarkable new book, Livre,: [tr. JK]

There is a dynamic balance, nowadays, between the immense capacities of the new digital information, and the firm discipline of traditional printed text -- "The form itself, of the book, creates a system", Melot observes -- it is nowhere clear that the world can do without either novelty or discipline, entirely, as Melot's ambivalent description suggests. The world does need novelty, always; but, "if something is everything then maybe it's nothing" -- something "new", or otherwise.

'In the beginning...'

The first Webserver:
Tim Berners-Lee's desk at CERN

So online links here are suggested. Some of them are highly-recommended. But so are books, and other media which have brought, and continue to bring, the classical stories of Odysseus and their lessons to us. So I hope whoever clicks easily, here, on the interesting links which follow below, also will glance through the Resource List which shows many other things of interest too, books & articles & lectures & videos & films among them: and the story of Odysseus started out in life as an oral tale -- so to understand fully why this man's departure from his Ithacan home, and his return to it many years later, have so fascinated European people for so many years, perhaps one must hear the tale recited by someone, as well... "Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polutropon..."

Several sites online which offer good information, then, on Paliki and "Ithaca" and Odysseus:

To reach the Links page, please click the following :




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