THE NAVIGATIONS OF ODYSSEUS

The peregrination of Odysseus begins at Malea (the present Cape Malea) at the extreme southeast of the Peloponnese. This point was used as a basic reference point for the geography of Greece in classical times.

The Odyssey contains an interpolated passage, the episode of the Kokones, which has the purpose of linking the navigation from Malea with Troy, because according to the general problem of geography it is proper to start from Malea, but according to the total economy of the poem Odysseus navigation has to start from Troy.

Bérard proved by numerical data that the episode of the Kokones is a later addition, but was not able to explain why it was added. This episode gives the difference of longitude between Troy and Malea. It makes the peregrination of Odysseus begin with the longitude of Troy. Troy was on the physical trade route that corresponds to meridian 29°50E, being its most western point.

Meridian 29°50E goes from Egypt to the mouth of the Danube, but the physical route that goes from Egypt to the mouth of the Danube has to pass through Troy, with a displacement to the west. Eratosthenes and Hipparchos understood that Troy was on the meridian of Alexandria.

We are told that Odysseus navigated two days and two nights from Troy and at the dawn of the third day (IX 74-76) was turning Malea (36°27N, 23°12E) to approach the channel between the coast of the Peloponnese and the island of Kythera. The lighthouse that at present leads ships through the channel is at the north end of the island, at 36°22N, 22°57E.

There are exactly 3° of longitude from Troy (39°57N, 26°12E) to Malea.1 This means that the poet uses a calculation of a day of navigation equal to 1½° of latitude. After putting up their sails and turning past Malea for what proves to be half a day, a tempest breaks out that carries Odysseus for nine days and nine nights and on the tenth day leaves him in the land of the Lotophagoi (IX 82-84). There is substantial agreement on the identification of the Lotophagoi, those who instead of eating bread eat “a flower” called lotos (IX 84): it is that part of Tunisia called by the Arabs Djerid, “Land of Dates.” But, being more specific, we must search for a point which is about 14°45 west of Malea2: Odysseus had reached meridian 8°24E at Lake Tritonis or Chott el Djerid. The poet relates that three of the companions of Odysseus on eating the dates, “those honeylike fruits,” lost their memory. Bérard points out that here there is an association between the fruit lotos and the name of the infernal river, Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. But what Bérard did not know is that the river Lethe is referred to because meridian 8°24E is at the western edge of the world.

From the land of the Lotophagoi the navigation takes Odysseus to the land of the Cyclopes, “the land of the Round Eyes.” No details are given about the navigations, as is always the case with changes in latitude. The land of the Cyclopes is the territory of Atlantis at the Equator; it is the pivot of the world with the three concentric circles. Odysseus can leave the cave of Polyphemos only by planting a pole into his eye and spinning it around. The poet provides specific details about the island of Polyphemos. It is a small island “neither too close nor too distant” from the harbor of the Land of the Cyclopes. It is the Ilheu das Rolas, which is exactly at the Equator and close to the fjord-like cove at the south end of Ilha São Tomé. The Little Island is described as full of goats; today a similar small island at the north end of São Tomé is called Ilheu das Cabras (Goat Isle).

The poet further specifies that the Cyclopes do not have laws and “have so much confidence in the Immortal gods that they do not cultivate plants with their hands, nor do they plow.” This refers to the myth which appears as the myth of the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament and the myth of the Garden of the Hesperides of the Greeks. It is a basic theme of the mythologies of the world that there was a happy time before the axis of the Earth tipped, at the beginning of the zodiacal period of Taurus (roughly 4250 B.C.), when the Ecliptic coincided with the Equator and there were no seasons and human livelihood was easy and plentiful. This situation was conceived as still existing at the island where the Ecliptic was thought to cut the Equator. The Cyclopes are described as in the situation which the Old Testament conceives as before “good and evil”; but the poet, as a good Greek, concerned with law and reason, describes that situation as primitive savagery and wickedness. The Greeks had a conception of history opposite to that popularized in our time by Rousseau on the basis of Christian tradition. But in spite of the introduction of the Greek legalistic view, the poet follows the mythical tradition by reporting that in the land of the Cyclopes nobody hunts the animals and they do not “suffer pains” in getting their food. They get their livelihood “all days of the year without sowing or plowing.” This is a clear reference to the age without seasons, before the Ecliptic separated from the Equator. At this point the poet breaks into an emotional expression of hankering for that happy age, a nostalgia that is expressed in the mythologies of many cultures.

The story of the Cyclopes seems to be a mixture of mythical with realistic elements. Today Ilha São Tomé is one of the most fertile places in the world, because of the combination of volcanic soil, extreme humidity, and extreme heat; but the heat and humidity make it unhealthy for humans. The reference to the possibilities that the island would have as an economic center parallels Platos notion that once the island was the center of the highest civilization. The reference to these possible navigations may be a memory of a time, also hinted at by Plato, when there was navigation from this island to America.

The details that are further provided by the poet do not belong to the Ilha São Tomé, but to other ideally related points along the meridian. Mention is made of a source surrounded by black poplars; black poplars are mentioned as surrounding the sources of the Eridanos and the other big rivers of Europe.

The following lines read:

There we are sailing, and some god guides us through the murky night; there is not enough light to see because the air is thick around the ships...

The moon could not show itself, being surrounded by clouds. Nevertheless, the harbor is described as particularly fitted for landing, a harbor in which there is no need to anchor the boats or tie them to the shore, until the winds do rise. This is a reference to the fjords of Thule at the opposite end of the basic meridian.

After the conclusion of the episode of the Cyclopes, the scene shifts suddenly to the Island of Aeolus. It would seem that this is an island in the Mediterranean, but the island is described as circular and surrounded by an unbreakable bronze wall, like the Atlantis of Plato. According to Homer Aeolus lives in the island with six sons and six daughters who have married in pairs. According to Plato when Poseidon established Atlantis he begot five pairs of twins (Critias 114E). According to Plato the five pairs of twins and their descendants ruled as far as the Mediterranean Sea, as far as Egypt and Tyrrhenia. The six couples of the offsprings of Aeolus have their counterpart in the six winged steeds which are at the center of Atlantis (Critias 116D).

The Island of Aeolus is described as floating. Probably this expresses the idea that a rose of winds is not placed in a specific location, but keeps moving as the navigator moves. Today we would say that it is centered on the observer.

After the arrival at the Island of Aeolus, there follows an episode in which Odysseus navigates to Malea and then is pushed back to the Island of Aeolus. This episode perhaps had the purpose of emphasizing the main geographical point in the peregrinations of Odysseus, namely that the difference in longitude between the basic meridian 8°24E and Malea is two units of 7°12. This emphasis was necessary because Ilha São Tomé was conceived as being off the mentioned meridian, being at a distance of 23°51 and not 23° from the Main Axis of Egypt.

The navigation from the Island of Aeolus and back is defined by the formula used before for the navigation from Malea to the land of the Lotophagoi: nine days and nine nights with arrival on the tenth day.

This time Malea is not mentioned by name, but is referred to as patris: “on the tenth day at last there appeared the fields of the fatherland” (X 29). There could be some doubt whether this is a reference to Ithaca, the native place of Odysseus. But when Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades he tells him that he had “never yet been able to get near the Achaean land nor to set foot in my country.”

Upon leaving the Island of the Winds for a second time, Odysseus navigates for 6 days and 6 nights and arrives on the 7th day at Telepylos of the Laestrigonians, under the rock of Lamos. The harbor is described as klyton: “famous, well known,” since the navigation is no longer along the mythical points of meridian 8°24E. It was a place familiar to the Greeks, possibly not far from Otranto. If we calculate a distance of about 9°45’ from the meridian 8°24’E, we arrive at a longitude of 18°09’E. The arrival at the Land of the Laestrygones in the Adriatic Sea suggests that originally the poem continued by describing a navigation up the Adriatic Sea and the river Eridanos to meridian 8°24E.

After departing from the Land of the Laestrygones, Odysseus moves to the Island of Circe. The term Circe refers to some bird like a falcon. The Island of Circe was originally the same entity as the Arkynian or Hercynian Rock near the sources of the Danube. But the material concerning the movements in the area of the Alps has been edited after the Greek colonization of the area of Naples. It may be that the Etruscan occupation of the Po Valley cut completely the route of the Alps for the Greeks, so that a narrative about those areas became obscure and of no interest.

As the poem now reads it states that, after leaving Telepylos, Odysseus arrived at the Island of Aiaiae, where Circe lives. The longitude of this island is indicated by the remark that Circes mother is a nymph, daughter of Oceanus, who was made pregnant by the Sun. The Sun is described as illuminating the mortals, that is, the sun of our world who at his setting just arrives at the land of Circe.

But immediately after this the poet tells that Odysseus and his companions fell asleep, when a god was piloting them, and slept for two days and two nights. This is said in four lines of which one is the repetition of line IX 143. In no other passage are the data of mathematical geography conveyed in this form. It remains, however, that the two days and two nights of sleep indicate a navigation of 3°. A movement of 3° takes Odysseus from the Dalmatian coast to the west coast of Italy near Naples. Now 3° would take us to Gulf of Salerno (Cape Palinuro); but possibly the interpolator by two days and two nights intended to express the same quantity as expressed by another similar passage of the Odyssey where it is a matter of something more than an even number of days and nights. Hence, the interpolator may have meant 3°45. This would take Odysseus to about longitude 14°20E, that is, to the Bay of Naples (Naples is at 40°50N, 14°16E). Ancient tradition agreed in placing in the area of Naples the episodes related with Circe.

After leaving the island of Circe, Odysseus passes by the Sirens, traditionally placed at Capri (14°17E), and enters the passage between Scylla and Charybdis. After avoiding Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus arrives at the Island of Thrinakia (three-pointed), where there are the cows of the Sun. To me the introduction of the name Trinakia clearly indicates that the interpolator meant the island of Sicily. From this it can be inferred that the interpolator meant us to understand that Scylla and Charybdis are the Straits of Messina. The picture of the navigations of Odysseus in Italy appears clear if one tries to get a general impression from the lines without getting into details. If one follows the lines closely one discovers that the text originally spoke of a very different part of the world. But before entering the discussion of this difficult point, it is best to follow Odysseus’ peregrinations in sequence.

Odysseus is pushed back through Charybdis, alone, having lost all his companions, and after sailing for nine days on the tenth night he arrives at the Island of Ogygia where he becomes the guest of Kalypso. It is a matter of a movement of something more than 3°30 of longitude from the basic meridian 8°24E. Hence, Ogygia is west of 5°06W. Berard has argued that Ogygia is the island of Peregil (5°20’ E). I am willing to accept his identification, but, in any case, there is no doubt that the island of Ogygia is at the Pillars of Herakles. When Odysseus leaves the island of Ogygia to return home, he navigates for 17 days and on the 18th he arrives in sight of the Island of the Phaecians. Since Thukydides the ancients have agreed in identifying this island with Kerkyra, or Corfu, and there is no reason to question this identification. A navigation of 25°30 of longitude from the island of Peregil would take Odysseus to the most southern and most western cape of Kerkyra (20°08E), which would most likely be considered the reference point by the Greeks who would normally approach the island from the southeast.

The final move back to Ithaca from the Island of the Phaecians takes only one night, from sunset to sunrise, that is, 45 of longitude. Cape Ducato at the southern limit of the island called today Leucas (Santa Maria di Leuca), which in my opinion was the location of the worship of Odysseus, is at 20°34E. The Phaecians left Odysseus at the harbor of Phorkys, which Dörpfeld, in my opinion correctly, identified with a point on the southern shore of the island of Levkas, which is at 20°39E.

Odysseus essentially is the mythological figure that represents the meridian from Thule to the Island of the Cyclopes. The Greeks understood that the name Odysseus means “the accursed one” ; this suggests that he was identified with the accursed ones who are doomed to roam eternally at the margin between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living. Perhaps, Odysseus may be located more specifically at the point Scylla, that is, Schöllenen, in modern terms where the accursed are placed.

All important moves of Odysseus are along the basic meridian. In the total poem as it has reached us, Odysseus is the hero of Cape Ducato, which was the extreme west for the Greeks, the point where inland navigation ended for those coming from the gulf of Corinth. Odysseus arrives at Ithaca from Scheria, the island of the Phaecians, which in the poem is described as identical with Corfu. Apparently the Island of the Phaecians represents the navigation up the Dalmatian coast to the Eridanos. In the poem as we have it, Circe, the land of the dead, Scylla and Charybdis and Trinakia, are shifted to the western coast of Italy. But even in this position they remain located on the road that leads to the Eridanos. The Argonautica of Apollodorus refers to these two alternate ways of reaching Eridanos: from the Ionian Sea and from what is called the Gulf of Sicily, that is, in other words, passing east or west of the Italian peninsula.

Since Odysseus is the hero of meridian 8°24E, the poem is concerned with identifying this meridian; hence, all the numerical data concern longitudes. For this reason Odysseus is linked with Malea which was the basic reference point for the geography of the Greek mainland. Malea was the point of the Greek mainland closest to the ideal point 36°00N (or 36°12N), 22°38E, which is the NW corner of the first geodetic square west of Egypt. The poet mentions Malea in one breath with the island of Kythera because this island comes closer to the ideal position. In order to bring Odysseus in relation with Malea, this is referred to as his patris “fatherland.” At the very beginning of the peregrinations of Odysseus the poet gives the difference of longitude between Malea and meridian 8°24, mentioning the distance between Malea and the Land of the Lotophagoi, that is, Lake Tritonis = Chott el-Djerid. After Odysseus has gone south along the meridian and is about to move north, the poet gives again a datum of longitude by letting Odysseus move from the Island of the Winds (on the meridian at 36°00N or 36°12N) to Malea and back. In substance the poet indicates that there is a geodetic T of which the stem has its foot at Malea and the crosspiece is meridian 8°24E.

Odysseus not only moves along meridian 8°24E, but goes to the west of it. According to the tradition reported by Strabo, this was an addition of Homer. In the Odyssey Circe tells Odysseus that there are two ways to his homeland, one that was never tried by humans, which is actually the route of the Rhine. Herodotus and Aristotle reflect the notion that the Rhine is uncharted territory and hence inaccessible. This is a result of the emphasis on meridian 8°24E as the edge of the world. But Homer included the west beyond 8°24E in his poems. After Odysseus has passed Scylla, following the route recommended by Circe, he reaches the island of the Sun (in my opinion the Valley of Urseren), but then he is pushed back through Scylla to reach the island of Ogygia at the Straits of Gibraltar. This means that Odysseus went down the Rhine and all the way around to the island of Ogygia. But this part of the navigation does not occur in the poem as we have it, though Strabo mentions the existence of a tradition about the navigation along the coast of France and Portugal. The poem as we have it deliberately restricts its horizon to the Mediterranean Sea, by moving Switzerland to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In the same spirit it accepts what seems to have been a second layer in the myth, namely, the navigation down the Rhine to the Straits of Gibraltar, but mentions no points along the way to the island of Ogygia at the western limit of the Mediterranean.

References

  1. This is also the difference in longitude between the island of Tenedos (39°50N, 25°58E) and the island of Kythera. The difference of latitude comes to the round figure of 3°30, but the Odyssey does not mention differences of latitude.
  2. 9 days = 13½°, to which must be added a part of the tenth day, plus the distance Odysseus had sailed past Malea when the storm caught him.