The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter X

Further Details Regarding the Voyages of Ulysses, to Confirm the View that They Were Mainly a Sail Round Sicily, Beginning and Ending with Mt. Eryx and Trapani.

What I have said in the preceding chapter should be enough to establish that the course taken by Ulysses was the one indicated in my map, but I have remarks to make on the Cyclopes, the wall round the island of Æolus, the Sirens, the Wandering Cliffs, and other matters connected with the voyages which I have reserved in order to keep the general view more broad and simple.

The habitat of the Cyclopes on Mt. Eryx is the point which it is most incumbent on me to establish, for if this be conceded, and both Scylla and Charybdis, and Scheria be taken as found, all the other places fall so spontaneously on to the sites I have marked for them, that I fear no dispute concerning them. Let us turn, then, to Favognana and accept it for the moment as the island on which Ulysses hunted the goats.

Why, I wonder, was the author so careful to invoke a thick darkness, so pompous and circumstantial, and to pilot Ulysses into the harbour of this island by divine assistance, rather than permit him to look about him and see the land, which was “not very far” off.

The answer is “not very far” to seek. If Ulysses had seen the main land of Sicily as he approached it from that of the Lotus-eaters, he would have been sure to have followed it up, and in this case he would have been taken straight into Trapani harbour. Now, though the writer, as all the audience would know, had already dealt with Trapani, as the last point in all Ulysses’ voyages, Ulysses himself ought not to know anything about it till he comes to it in due course.

The cave of Polyphemus — still called among the peasants la grotta di Polifemo— was some six or seven miles North of Trapani; Ulysses had got to be taken there, and if possible, without unsettling either his own mind or that of the audience by showing him a city which eight years later he was to know as Scheria. He could, with the help of a little mist, be just supposed to go from the island of Favognana to the promontory of Pizzolungo and the cave of Polyphemus, without seeing the city of the Phæacians if he did not look particularly hard in that direction, but even Ulysses would have been compelled to take note of Scheria if he had been allowed to go on till he reached its harbour. It was better, therefore, that some god should take him to the island without letting him see any other land at all, and hence the intense darkness which the writer has been so careful to describe. We shall see that later on (as regards the supposed time, though earlier in the structure of her poem) she invokes a darkness which makes it impossible for Ulysses to form any idea of his whereabouts, in exactly the same place, and for the same reasons (v. 291-294)— for here too it is necessary to get Ulysses from a point South of Trapani, to another on the North side of it without seeing the town.

My map of the Ægadean islands (p. 177) combined with that of Trapani and Mt. Eryx (p. 164) will show the course Ulysses would make from Favognana to the Grotta di Polifemo— which is far the largest cave near Trapani, and is still used as a place in which to keep a large flock of sheep by night. The two rocks which Polyphemus threw should be seen, the first as the Asinelli, * and the second as the two small islands called Formiche, which, being close together, are taken as one.

I find, therefore, in the care taken to prevent Ulysses from seeing Trapani, a considerable argument for the belief that Favognana was the island where Ulysses hunted the goats, and that the cave of Polyphemus was on Mt. Eryx.

Another indication, though one of no great strength, seems to suggest that the Cyclopes were still near neighbours of the Phæacians.

At the beginning of Book vi. we learn that the Phæacians used to live at a place called Hypereia, “near the lawless Cyclopes,” but had of late years been moved to Scheria, which, as I have said, means Jutland. In a passage which I have not given in my abridgement Alcinous says casually (vii. 205, 206) that the Phæacians are as closely related to the gods as the Cyclopes and the giants are. Passing over the fact that Alcinous, being grandson to Neptune, was half nephew to Polyphemus, the spontaneousness with which the Cyclopes rise to his mind suggests that though less near than they had been, they were still about the nearest neighbours that he had.

The giants are only the Cyclopes over again, and are doubtless the descendants of the people who built the noble megalithic walls of Eryx. Hypereia, or Upper-town, was probably at the Eastern end of the top of Mt. Eryx on a site where a very ancient wall, of totally different character to those of the Sican city at the West end of the mountain, may yet be traced. The remains of this wall are just above the Ruccazzù dei Corvi, in Count Pepoli’s grounds, and were first shown me by the Count. A stranger is little likely to find them unless conducted by one who has seen them.

As regards Hypereia I would repeat that all the names of places in Sicily with one partial exception are fictitious, even Trinacria, which Thucydides tells us was the most ancient name of Sicily, becoming “the Thrinacian,” or “three-pointed,” island; whereas as soon as we are outside Sicily the names are real. This affords ground for thinking that the writer was drawing real people as well as real places, and travestying them under flimsy disguises that she knew her audience would see through. Once only is the mask dropped for a moment, when Ulysses says that he had just come from Sicania (xxiv. 307), but this does not count, for Ulysses is supposed to be lying.

The name Cyclopes, for example, or “round faces “— for there is nothing in the word to show that it means anything else than this, and I see from Liddell & Scott that Parmenides calls the moon Cyclops — is merely an author’s nick name. If μήλωψ means “apple-faced,” κύκλωψ should mean “circle-faced.” As there is nothing in the word, so neither is there in the “Odyssey,” to suggest that the Cyclopes were a people with only one round eye in the middle of their foreheads. Such a marked feature does not go without saying, * and that it did not go with the earliest Greek artists appears from the fact that they always gave Polyphemus two eyes. It is not till later times that he becomes monophthalmic, and the “Odyssey” gives him eyebrows in the plural (ix. 389), which involve eyes in the plural also. True, the writer only blinds one eye, but she could trust to the sympathetic inflammation which so serious an injury would excite in the other eye, and would consider that she had sufficiently blinded both by roasting one of them. One eye alone was blinded, not because Polyphemus had not got two, but because his pole had not got two prongs, and the writer saw neither how to get a bifurcated instrument into the cave, nor how to wield it now that so many of the men had been eaten.

“Cyclopes,” therefore, we may be sure, mean nothing more than “moon-faced.” The name Polyphemus is found as that of a hero in the “Iliad,” and is perhaps a pseudonym for the local giant (if there was one) taken from that poem. Whatever his name may have been, and whether he was a pre-Odyssean giant, or whether the writer of the “Odyssey” called him into being, he exists now under the name of Conturràno. I have sometimes wondered whether this name may have any connection with the Greek words κόντος and οὐρανός, and may indicate that the giant was so tall as to be able to knock a hole in the sky with his staff. Should this be so, his name as likely as not was Conturràno, or something near it, in the days of the “Odyssey,” and it was with the κόντος commemorated in his own name that Ulysses blinded him. The giant has grown greatly since the “Odyssey” was written, and large as the grotta di Polifemo is, he could never get inside it; for he rests his feet on the plain while he props his stomach on the top of Mt. Eryx, and bending forward plunges his huge hands into the sea between Bonagia and Cofàno, to catch tunnies. When disturbed he tears great rocks from the top of Mt. Eryx, and dashes them at all who interrupt him.

To repeat and to sum up, for I will argue this point no further; I take the Cyclopes to be the conquered remnant of the old Sican inhabitants of Mt. Eryx. They owe their gigantic stature to the huge size of the stones with which the walls of their city on Mt. Eryx were built. These stones show few or no signs of having been worked with a tool of hardened bronze or iron, save in so far as the Phœnicians may have trimmed them here and there when they rebuilt the walls, in part, de novo, with stones some of which bear quarry-men’s marks in Phœnician characters. * The old Sican work, a good deal of which has been allowed to stand, belongs to the true megalithic age, when it was cheaper to carry than to cut; later generations, failing to consider the revolution which the introduction of improved methods of cutting had effected, argued that the men who built with such large stones must have been large men, whereas in reality they were only economical men.

As soon as it became cheaper to cut than to carry, the huge unwieldy blocks that we see at Eryx, at Cefalù, and at Segni, Arpino, Allatri, and many another city in Southern Italy, became obsolete, but it was still long before all irregularity in the courses was abandoned for that perfect regularity which we find at Syracuse, Selinunte, the temple of Segesta, and nearly all the Greek and Roman architecture of historic times. Indeed I know many buildings as late as the tenth century after Christ, in which the courses are far from regular; nevertheless the tendency, almost immediately after cutting had become cheaper, was towards greater regularity of courses and the use of smaller stones, until there arose another megalithicism, of a kind diametrically opposed to that of the earlier builders — I mean the megalithicism of display.

H. Festing Jones Esq. (height 6ft. 2in.) in flute of column at Selinunte
H. Festing Jones Esq. (height 6ft. 2in.) in flute of column at Selinunte

Remains of Megalithic walls on Mt. Eryx
Remains of Megalithic walls on Mt. Eryx

There are stones at Selinunte, used in buildings of the fifth century before Christ, that are larger than the largest at Eryx or Cefalù; there are columns thirteen feet in diameter at the base, and in a flute of which my friend Mr. H. F. Jones could stand; but they are written all over in clear though invisible characters with the word “Glory,” whereas the stones at Eryx bear not less clearly the word “Economy.” I do not think that any true megalithic polygonal walls not worked with metal can be dated much earlier than 2000 B.C. By the time we reach such buildings as the Treasury of Atreus at Mycene, or the Iliadic wall of Hissarlik (which, however, is built in far less regular courses), cutting, whether with chisels of hardened bronze, or more probably by that time with iron, has ceased to be troublesome; nevertheless as late as Hesiod, who is not generally dated earlier than 1000 B.C., the memory of an age when “as yet swart iron was not,” had not been lost. (Works and Days, 148-15r.)

Furthermore, I would ask the reader to remark how closely the description of the Cyclopes in the “Odyssey” tallies with that of the modern Sicilian brigands published in the Times of September 24th, 1892.

The writer — Mr. Stigand — says:

S. Mauro, the headquarters of the brigands, is a town on the top of a mountain 3000 feet high, and in sight of Geraci Siculo, another town of about the same height, and of Pollina, also on the summit of another mountain. The roads among the mountains, connecting these towns, are mere mule paths. The mountains abound in caves known only to the brigands and shepherds.

The “Odyssey” says of the Cyclopes:

They have neither places of assembly nor laws, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each one of them rules over his own wife and children, and they take no account of any one else (ix. 112-115).

I saw several families of cave-dwellers at a place called le grotte degli Scurati on Cofàno about fifteen miles North of Trapani. There was, however, nothing of the Cyclops about them. Their caves were most beautifully clean and as comfortable as the best class of English cottages. The people, who were most kind and hospitable, were more fair than dark, and might very well have passed for English. They provided us with snow white table cloths and napkins for the lunch which we had brought from Trapani, and they gave us any quantity of almonds fried in a little salt and butter; most unexpected of all, the salt they brought us was mixed with chervil seed. There was an atrocious case of brigandage on Cofàno about a fortnight later than our pic-nic. A Palermo merchant was kept a whole month on the mountain till he was ransomed, but I am sure that our cave-dwellers had nothing to do with it. The caves bore traces of prehistoric man by way of ancient meals now petrified.

It is noticeable that forms of the word σπέος or ἄντρον (cave) appear forty-five times in the “Odyssey” as against only six in the “Iliad,” which, allowing for the greater length of the last named poem, is about in the proportion of 10 : 1. We may surmise, therefore, that the “Odyssey” hails from a district in which caves abounded.

As regards “the wall of bronze” which the writer of the “Odyssey” tells us ran round the island of Æolus, it is hard to say whether it was purely fiction or no. We may be sure that it was no more made of bronze than Æolus was king of the winds, but all round the island of Marettimo, wherever the cliffs do not protect it naturally, there existed a wall of long pre-Odyssean construction, traces of which were shown me by Sigr. Tedesco and Professor Spadaro, without whose assistance I should not have observed them. I have sometimes wondered whether the writer may not have transferred this wall to Ustica, as we shall see later that she transferred the hump on Thersites’ back to that of Eurybates; but no traces of any such wall exist so far as I know on Ustica, nor yet on the islands of Favognana or Levanzo. The ancient name of Marettimo was Hiera, and about 1900 feet above the sea I was shown ruins (not striking) of exceedingly ancient walls on a small plateau which the inhabitants dare not cross by night, and which is believed to have been the site of the cult that gave its name to the island.

What I have to say about Circe’s island is so speculative that I write it in fear and trembling. I see that Circe’s house is, like Eumæus’s pig farm, “in a place that can be seen from far” (x. 211), and I see also that Ulysses approaches it “over the top of the mountain” (x. 281), as he does Eumæus’s hut (xiv. 2). I remember the pigs, and I cannot refrain from thinking that though the writer tells us in the first instance that the island was a low one (x. 196), her inability to get away from her own surroundings is too much for her, and she is drifting on to the top of Mt. Eryx and Eumæus’s pig farm. She does not mean to have pigs at first — the men whom Circe bewitched on previous occasions were turned into wolves and lions — but the force of association is too strong for her, and Ulysses’ men are turned into pigs after all.

The fall of Elpenor from the top of Circe’s house is a very singular way of killing him. If he had been at Eumæus’s hut she could not have killed him more naturally than by letting him tumble off the precipice that overhangs it, and on the top of which the temple of Venus stood in later ages. I suspect not without shame, that the wall of Circe’s house is made to do duty for this precipice.

On the island of Panaria, anciently Euonymus, among the Lipari group, there is a small bay called La Caletta dei Zummari, which suggests a corruption of Cimmerii, but I have already explained that no attempt should be made to localise the journey to Hades.

The two Sirens can be placed with, I should say, confidence, on the island of Salina, anciently called Didyme from the two high mountains, each about 3000 feet high, of which it consists. Sudden cat’s paws of very violent wind descend at times from all high points near the sea in this part of the Mediterranean, as from Cofàno near Trapani, where there is a saying among the fishermen “ware Cofàno.” My friend, Signor E. Biaggini, whose loss I have to deplore within the last twelve months, and who has furnished me over and over again with local details, told me that he once was all but capsized by a gust from Cofàno, that came down on his boat in perfectly calm weather, and lasted hardly more than a few seconds. I take it that the two Sirens — who are always winged in the earlier Greek representations of them — were, as indeed their name suggests, the whistling gusts or avalanches of air that descended without the slightest warning from the two mountains of Didyme. The story turned from poetry into prose means, “Woe to him who draws near the two treacherous mountains of Didyme; the coast is strewn with wreckage, and if he hears the wind from off them shriek in his rigging his bones will whiten the shore.” The reader will remember that the Sirens’ island is very near Circe’s.

Speaking of the Æolian islands Admiral Smyth says:

Whether from the heat of the water by volcanic springs, the steam of Vulcanella, the incessant hot injections from Stromboli, or all of them added to the general temperature, it is certain that there are more frequent atmospherical changes among this group than in the neighbourhood (The Mediterranean, Parker, 1854, p. 250).

Speaking, again, of the Straits of Messina, he says:

Precautions should also be taken against the heavy gusts, which at times, from the mountainous nature of the coasts, rush down the Fuimare, and are dangerous to small vessels. I have twice, with grief, seen the neglect of them prove fatal (Sicily and its Islands, Murray, 1824, p. 111).

The reason why the poetess found herself in such difficulties about the Wandering Cliffs, is because the story, as Buttmann has said, does not refer to any two islands in particular, but is derived from traveller’s tales about the difficulties of navigating the Lipari islands as a whole. “They close in upon you,” it was said, “so quickly one after another that a bird can hardly get through them.” The “hurricanes of fire,” moreover (xii. 68), suggest an allusion to the volcanic nature of the Æolian islands generally. Still more so does the dark cloud that never leaves the top of Scylla’s rock (xii. 74) neither in summer nor winter.

The terrors of Scylla and Charybdis are exaggerated in the same poetic vein as the Sirens and the Wandering Cliffs. Instead of its being possible to shoot an arrow from the one to the other, they are about eight miles apart. We ought not look for the accuracy of one of Mr. Murray’s handbooks in a narrative that tells us of a monster with six heads and three rows of teeth in each. It is enough if there are a few grains of truth, and these there are: for Scylla is a high rock looking West, and Charybdis is (for those days) a formidable whirlpool, on the other side the Straits, off lower ground, and hard by the approach to a three pointed island. According to Admiral Smyth it is just outside Messina harbour, and is now called Galofaro. Admiral Smyth says of it:

To the undecked boats of the Rhegians, Locrians, Zancleans, and Greeks, it must have been formidable; for even in the present day small craft are sometimes endangered by it, and I have seen several men-of-war, and even a seventy-four-gun ship, whirled round on its surface; but by using due caution there is generally very little danger or inconvenience to be apprehended (Sicily and its Islands, Murray, 1824, p. 123).

I do not doubt that the Galofaro is the nucleus round which the story of Charybdis gathered, but I have seen considerable disturbance in the sea all through the Straits of Messina. Very much depends upon the state of the winds, which sometimes bank the water up in the angle between the toe of Italy and the North coast of Sicily, on which a current and strong eddies occur in the Straits of Messina. At other times there is hardly anything noticeable.

Passing over the nine days drifting in the sea, which take Ulysses from Charybdis to the island of Calypso, i.e. Pantellaria — and we may be sure he would have been made to take longer time if the writer had dared to keep him longer without food and water — it only remains for me to deal at somewhat fuller length than yet I have done with the voyage from Pantellaria to Trapani. On the eighteenth day after Ulysses had left Pantellaria, steering towards the Great Bear, but keeping it on the left, he saw the long low line of the Lilybæan coast rising on the horizon. He does not appear to have seen the island of Favognana, which must have been quite near, and it was perhaps as well that he did not, for he could hardly have failed to recognise it as the one on which he had hunted the goats some eight or nine years previously, and this might have puzzled him.

But though he is allowed to see the land he must not be permitted to follow it up, or, as I have explained already, he would have gone straight into the harbour of Scheria, whereas he is particularly wanted to meet Nausicaa on the North side of the town, and to know nothing about Scheria till she brings him to it. Neptune, therefore, is made to catch sight of him at this moment and to raise a frightful hurricane; sea and sky become obscured in clouds, with a darkness as dense as night (v. 291-294), and thus Ulysses is carried a long distance apparently to the North, for when he has been taken far enough, Minerva blows him two days and two nights before a North wind, and hence Southwards, till he reaches the harbour near which Nausicaa can meet him.

There are no other such noticeable darknesses in the “Odyssey,” as this and the one of Book ix. 144, alluded to on p. 188. They both occur in the same place, and for the same reason — to keep the town of Scheria in reserve.


I have now shown that all the Ithacan scenes of the “Odyssey” are drawn with singular fidelity from Trapani and its neighbourhood, as also all the Scherian; moreover, I have shown that the Ionian islands are in reality drawn from the Ægadean group off Trapani; lastly I have shown that the voyage of Ulysses in effect begins with Trapani and ends with Trapani again. I need not deal with Pylos and Lacedæmon beyond showing that they were far removed from the knowledge of either writer or audience.

There is not a single natural feature mentioned in either case. The impossible journey of Telemachus and Pisistratus from Pheræ to Lacedæmon in a chariot and pair over the lofty, and even now roadless, ranges of Mt. Taygetus, causes no uneasiness to the writer. She gives no hint of any mountain to be crossed — from which we may infer, either that she knew nothing of the country between Pylos and Lacedæmon, or that at any rate her audience would not do so. It may, however, be remarked that the West wind which Minerva provided in order to take Telemachus from Ithaca to Pylos, was more suitable for taking him from Sicily. A North wind would have been better for him if he had been coming from the real Ithaca, but Minerva manages things so strangely that I would not press this point.

189:* The Asinelli is a single islet much in the shape of a ship heading straight for Favognana. There is nothing plural about it, and one does not see why it should have a plural name. Who were the “asses” or “fools”?

191:* Virgil does not let it pass unnoticed. He writes:

“Cernimus adstantes nequidquam lumine torvo

 Ætnæos fratres,………”

                           "Æn.” III. 677, 678.

He calls the Cyclopes “Ætnæan” because he places them on Mt. Etna.

192:* There is no Phœnician work in the bastion shown in my illustration, the restorations here are medieval.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31