The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter ix

The Ionian and the ÆGadean Islands — The Voyages of Ulysses Shown to Be Practically a Sail Round Sicily from Trapani.

In a later chapter I propose to show that the writer of the “Odyssey” had the “Iliad” before her in the state in which we have it now, unimportant copyists’ errors alone excepted. I shall show that those Books on which most doubt has been cast by eminent Homeric scholars both on the Continent and in England, are just as fully and freely quoted from as those that are admitted to have been by Homer. I have seen no sufficient reason alleged for doubting that the Catalogues of “Il.” II. 484-877 formed part of the poem as Homer left it, though it is quite likely that he may have got some one with greater knowledge of Greece to help him. I intend returning to this question, but for the present will ask the reader to accept my assumption that the writer of the “Odyssey” knew the Catalogues above referred to. The group of the Echinades and the Ionian islands are described as follows in the Catalogue of the Achæan forces:

And they of Dulichium, with the sacred Echinean islands, who dwelt beyond the sea off Elis — these were led by Meges, peer of Mars, the son of Phyleus, who had erewhile migrated to Dulichium in consequence of a quarrel with his father. And with him there came forty ships.

Ulysses led the brave Cephallenians, who held Ithaca, wooded Neritum, Crocylea, rugged Ægilips, Zacynthus, and Samos, * with the mainland also that is over against the islands. These were led by Ulysses, peer of gods in counsel, and with him came twelve ships (“Il.” ii. 625-637).

Map of the Ionian Islands
Map of the Ionian Islands

The reader will note that Dulichium, which means “Long Island,” does not belong to the Ionian islands, but to the neighbouring group of the Echinades. Let us now see how the islands in the neighbourhood of Ithaca are described in the “Odyssey.” Ulysses says (ix. 21-26):

“I dwell in Ithaca, an island which contains a high mountain called Neritum. In its neighbourhood there are other islands near to one another, Dulichium, Same and Zacynthus. It lies on the horizon all highest up in the sea towards the west, while the other islands lie away from it to the east.”

In the “Odyssey” there are never more than three islands besides Ithaca. When mentioned all together they are always named in the order given above — probably for reasons of scansion — but Dulichium is the most important in the eyes of the writer, being more frequently mentioned separately, and sending fifty-two suitors as against twenty-four from Same, twenty from Zacynthus, and twelve from Ithaca itself (xvi. 247-251).

A glance at the map given above will show that there is no island in the neighbourhood of Ithaca which can with poetical propriety be held to have sent nearly as many suitors as the other three put together. Least of all could Dulichium be so held. It seems, then, that it was the name, and not the island, that the writer wanted; and further that she wanted this so badly as to lay violent hands upon it and raid it from another group.

Why should she strain so considerable a point in order to get hold of it? The Iliadic catalogue omits three or four but leaves us six Ionian islands. After suppressing the small islands of Crocylea and Ægilips, there remained four, which it seems was the exact number that the writer of the “Odyssey” meant to introduce; why, then, should not Neritum have been good enough for her? It evidently did not answer her purpose, or she would not, in the face of the catalogue, have stowed it away inside Ithaca and gone further afield for her dominant island. These things are never done without a reason, and in this case a reason is particularly necessary, for it would have been more easy and also suitable, considering the insignificance of the real Dulichium, to make the fifty-two suitors come from the very considerable island of Neritum.

All difficulty is removed by supposing that the writer lived at Trapani and was drawing the Ionian islands from the, to her, familiar Ægadean group. A glance at the foregoing map will shew that she cannot have been drawing from the real Ionian islands. Ithaca cannot be tortured into lying “all highest up in the sea towards the West.” It is completely covered by Samos. Nor do the other islands lie away from it to the East. It is clear, then, that the Ionian islands were not those present to the mind of the writer, but we may infer in passing, firstly, that her audience lived at a sufficient distance from Greece to make the infraction of topographical accuracy a matter of no importance, and secondly, that the islands from which she was in reality drawing lay, like the true Ionian group, off a West coast.

I will now give a map of the islands off Trapani. I see that Professor Freeman, in his map of the West coast of Sicily, as he supposes it to have been in ancient times, has joined the Isola Grande to the neighbouring main land, but he gives no authority for doing so. I can find none in ancient writers, and having examined the ground see nothing to indicate any change in the distribution of land and water, as having taken place within measurable distance of our own times.

Map of the Ægadean Islands
Map of the Ægadean Islands

The lofty and rugged island of Marettimo did duty in the writer’s mind for Ithaca, though, as I have said, when details are wanted they are taken from Trapani and Mt. Eryx. The long island, now the Isola Grande — low lying and wheat growing — was her Dulichium; this must have been far the most important of the four as regards Trapani, being accessible in all weathers, and probably already pregnant with the subsequently famous city of Motya, of which hardly anything remains, but which stood on the Southernmost of the two islands that lie between Isola Grande and the mainland. The other two islands stood for Same and Zacynthus, but which was which I have not been able to determine. Marettimo can hardly be seen from Trapani, being almost entirely hidden by Levanzo. From the heights, however, of Mt. Eryx, with which, for other reasons, I suppose the writer to have been familiar, it is seen “on the horizon, all highest up in the sea towards the West.” I do not doubt the poetess was describing it as she knew it from the top of Mt. Eryx, and as the reader may still see it. The rough sketch on the following page will explain πανυπεπτάτη εἰν ἁλὶ better than words can do; the two small islands shown just over Trapani are the Formiche, which I take to be the second rock thrown by Polyphemus.

Sketch of Trapani from Mt. Eryx
Sketch of Trapani from Mt. Eryx

If what I have said above is not enough to satisfy the reader that the writer of the “Odyssey” was drawing the Ionian islands from the Ægadean, nothing that I can add is likely to convince him. I will therefore now go on to my fourth point, namely, that the voyages of Ulysses are, as nearly as the writer could make them, a voyage round Sicily, from Trapani by the North coast, through the straits of Messina, to the island of Pantellaria, and so back to Trapani, beyond which we need not go, for Ithaca and Scheria are, both of them, Trapani, as I have already shown.

The main episodes of the voyage occur in the following order. 1. The Cicons. 2. The Lotus-eaters, arrived at after passing the island of Cythera. 3. The island where Ulysses and his men hunted the goats, and the adventure with Polyphemus. 4. The island of Æolus, and a ten days’ sail towards the East with a fair wind all the time, till Ithaca is well in sight, followed by an immediate return to the island from which Ulysses had started. This sail to Ithaca over the toe of Italy and the island of Samos has no topographical significance except as showing that the writer conceived of the island of Æolus as lying a long way West of Ithaca. The episode is introduced merely for the purpose of bringing the cup close to Ulysses’ lips and then dashing it from them. 5. The Læstrygonians. 6. The island of Circe and the journey to Hades, which last is again without topographical significance, being nothing but a peg on which to hang colloquies with the dead, and bringing us back to the island of Circe. 7. The Sirens. 8. Scylla and Charybdis. 9. The cattle of the Sun. 10. The island of Calypso. xi. Scheria and Ithaca.

There is no difference of opinion among scholars as to the sites of the Cicons, the island of Cythera, and the Lotus-eaters; the reader will, therefore, see that we are taken without waste of time to a point at no great distance from Sicily — the contrary winds off Cape Malea (ix. 81) being apparently raised on purpose to take us away from Greece. It is not quite easy to see why the Cicons were introduced unless it was that Ulysses might become possessed of the wondrous wine of Ismarus with which he intoxicated Polyphemus. The wine of this neighbourhood was famous many centuries after the “Odyssey” was written, and presumably was so in the time of the “Odyssey” itself. A gasconading story of this wine may well have existed among the people of Trapani which might prompt the writer to introduce it, poke fun at it and make Polyphemus drunk with it.

Or again, knowing as we do from Thucydides (vi. 2) that the original Sican inhabitants of this part of Sicily received an influx of fugitives from the neighbourhood of Troy after the fall of that city, it is possible that traditions may have existed among the writer’s audience to the effect that some of them were of Cicon origin, and she may have wished to flatter them by telling them that they had repulsed Ulysses. Nothing can be said with any confidence upon this head; all we may note is that the country is quite featureless, and hence does not suggest drawing from personal knowledge, any more than does the land of the Lotus-eaters.

On leaving the land of the Lotus-eaters the full consent which has accompanied us so far fails us; nevertheless a considerable weight of authority, ancient, medieval, and modern, carries us to the island of Favognana, anciently called Ægusa or Goat Island, as the one on which Ulysses and his men hunted the goats. Indeed this incident seems introduced as though purposely to suggest the Ægadean or “goat” islands to the audience, as also does the line iv. 606 in which Ithaca — that is to say, in reality, the island of Marettimo — is said to be an island fit for goats. *

A very considerable consent accompanies us also to Mt. Eryx as the site of the adventure with Polyphemus. Here, and with the island on which the goats were hunted, the local colour is stronger than anywhere else in Ulysses’ voyages, as indeed might be reasonably expected from a writer whom I have shown to have been so intimately acquainted with the neighbourhood of Trapani.

The Voyages of Ulysses
The Voyages of Ulysses

Even partial consent, however, now fails us. The island of ‘Bolus and the country of the Læstrygonians have been placed in almost as many sites as there have been writers upon the “Odyssey.” I shall return to these on a later page, as also to the island of Favognana and the Cyclopes. My present object is to show how much of the voyage we may consider as known, how much as supported by considerable authority, and how much we have yet to find.

The partial consent which we lost at the cave of Polyphemus returns to us with the island of Circe, the Sirens and the Wandering Cliffs, which are generally considered to have been the Lipari islands, and universal consent rejoins us for Scylla and Charybdis. I can hardly say that consent is universal for placing the cattle of the Sun on the East coast of Sicily, somewhere about Tauromenium now Taormina; but it is very general, and is so obviously well founded that I shall claim this point as certain; for the name of the island sufficiently indicates Sicily, the winds that detain Ulysses show him to have been on an East coast, and the South wind that blew him back to Charybdis in a night shows that he was supposed to be at no great distance South of the Straits of Messina.

The island of Calypso has been generally held to be Malta, but on no foundation either internal or external to the “Odyssey,” I shall, therefore, consider Calypso’s island as yet to find.

I have no consent for Scheria being Trapani, but after what I have written above shall claim this point too as certain. The map, therefore, which I here give will show the reader how we stand as regards assent and otherwise ascertained points. I have used strong lines for the parts of the voyage that may be claimed as certain, interrupted lines for the parts that are backed by considerable authority, and dotted lines for those which I would supply. I have made Ulysses approach Trapani from the South, on the strength of Calypso’s directions to him that he was to sail towards the Great Bear, keeping it on his left hand (v. 276, 277). * This indicates certainly a Northerly, and one would say a N.N. Easterly, course; at any rate such a course would in no way conflict with Calypso’s instructions. Perhaps I had better give the words of the poem which run:

He sat keeping his eyes upon the Pleiades, * late setting Boötes, and on the Bear, also called the Wain, which turns round and round facing Orion, and alone never sinks beneath the sea — for Calypso had bidden him steer by this, keeping it on his left hand (v. 272-277).

All the places in Ulysses’ voyage have been generally referred to some actual locality, which was present to the writer’s mind either under its own or a fictitious name; and when we have once got into Sicilian waters, all those about which there is any considerable amount of consent, or which we may now, with or without consent, claim as ascertained — I mean Circe’s island, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the Thrinacian island, Scheria and Ithaca are on, or hard by, the coast of Sicily. Is not the temptation irresistible to think that the three unknown sites — the island of Æolus, the Land of the Læstrygonians and the island of Calypso — are also real places however fictitious the names may be, and to hold that they should be looked for on, or near, the coast of Sicily in the same order as that in which we find them described?

If, on the hypothesis that Favognana and Mt. Eryx are the true sites of the island on which Ulysses and his men hunted the goats, and of the cave of Polyphemus, we are immediately led to others, in due order of sequence, which commend themselves as being those of the island of Æolus, the Land of the Læstrygonians, Circe’s island, the other established sites, and lastly Calypso’s island, should we not conclude, at any rate provisionally, that the hypothesis is a true one?

I will so conclude, and proceed to look for the island of Æolus in some island, apparently solitary, a good way to the West of the Lipari islands, and at no great distance from Mt. Eryx.

I should first correct a very general misapprehension. The word πλωτῇ (x. 3) has been unduly pressed into meaning that the island floated about, and thus changed its place. But if so singular a phenomenon were intended more would have been made of it. It would not have been dealt with in a single word, admitting easy explanation as mere metaphor. No one presses the “swiftly moving” islands of xv. 299 into meaning that the islands actually moved. All that is meant is that they “seemed to move” as the ship flew past them, and so with the island of Æolus —“it seemed to float on the horizon.” It shows no signs of having moved during the month that Ulysses stayed on it, and when he returns to it after an absence of three weeks, we have no hint given of its having changed its place. * I conclude, therefore, that it was as fixed as any other island, and proceed to look for it.

This is no hard matter, for the island of Ustica offers itself at once. In clear weather it can be faintly seen from Mt. Eryx, and would naturally have impressed itself on the mind of a writer to whom Eryx and its neighbourhood was all in all. It is in the quarter from which the winds blow most fiercely on Trapani during the winter months, and may fitly have been selected by a Trapanese writer as the home of the winds. The distance, a long way West of the Lipari islands, and a greatly longer distance West of Ithaca, is all as it should be. I accept it, therefore, and go on to look for the land of the Læstrygonians, and their city Telepylus, at some point on the North coast of Sicily between Ustica and the Lipari islands.

The name of the Læstrygonians or Workers in Stone, * like all names of places or people inside Sicily, is fictitious. If there had ever been any people really so called in Sicily Thucydides would have been able to find out some little, at any rate, about them; whereas he declares (vi. 2) that he cannot do so, and subrisively refers his readers to the poets, or whatever other source of information they can command. Clearly he does not believe in them except as poetical fictions concerning the most ancient inhabitants of Sicily — of whom none are known to him as more ancient than the Sicans.

But why should not the writer of the “Odyssey” be referring under names of her own coinage to these same Sicans, for both the Cyclopes and the Læstrygonians? The name of the Læstrygonian city, Telepylus, is certainly fictitious. It means “with gates far asunder,” which can only be an ex post facto name: a city receives its name long before it is known what it will prove to be in the matter of growth. All that we can gather from the name is that the writer of the “Odyssey” intended her audience to understand that the city was large.

Its inhabitants, like the Cyclopes, are giants and ogres. They being giants, we should look for remains of megalithic buildings, and being ogres we should suspect identity of race between them and the Cyclopes whom they so closely resemble. The writer hates them both, and looks down upon the Cyclopes much as the Normans looked down upon the Saxons for some generations after the Conquest.

The Cyclopes appear to have been subdued and outlawed; not so the Læstrygonians. These last are a flourishing and very industrious people, who work by night as well as by day (x. 84-86). There is a poor little prehistoric joke about them, to the effect that in their country a man could earn double wages if he could only do without sleep. Moreover they were so wealthy and luxurious that they used to have relays of fresh milk (x. 82, 83), instead of being contented with a morning supply, as Sicilian towns generally are even at the present day. More than this I cannot collect about them from the “Odyssey.”

Wall at Cefalù, rising from the sea
Wall at Cefalù, rising from the sea

Megalithic remains on the mountain behind Cefalù
Megalithic remains on the mountain behind Cefalù

Can we, then, find a place answering to the description of Telepylus, on the North coast of Sicily between Ustica and the island of Lipari? I have no hesitation in saying that Cefalù will give us.all we want. It has two fine examples of megalithic work. They must both of them be centuries earlier than the “Odyssey.” They are about three quarters of a mile apart, one, a wall rising from the sea, the other a building on the hill, behind the town, in part polygonal, and very rude, and in part of much later and singularly exquisite work — the later work being generally held to be of the Mycenæan age.

The city, therefore, must have been for those days extensive. The whole modern town is called among the common people Portazza, i.e., portaccia, or “wide gate,” which is too like a corrupt mistranslation of Telepylus to allow of my passing it over.

There can, I think, be no doubt that Eryx and Cefalù were built in a very remote age by people of the same race. I have seen no other megalithic remains in Sicily than at the two places just named; I have seen remains of ancient buildings at Collesano about fifteen miles S.W. of Cefalù, which are commonly called Cyclopean, but they are very doubtful, and Dr. Orsi suspects them, I have little doubt correctly, to be Byzantine. I have also seen a few, neither striking nor yet certain ones, at Capo Schisò near Taormina. What little is left of the walls of Segesta is of a greatly later age, and I find it very difficult to think that Segesta was in existence when the “Odyssey” was being written. * I have heard of the remains of a Cyclopean acropolis behind Termini, a monograph about which by Sigr. Luigi Mauceri will be found in the British Museum. At Isnello two hours inland from Collesano a very early necropolis has been discovered not long since, and the efforts of local archæologists will, I doubt not, lead to the finding of others at or near many of the little known mountain sites in the North of Sicily; Dr. Orsi, indeed, has recently discovered the remains of a megalithic house at Pantalica some forty miles inland from Syracuse. No megalithic work, however, that has yet been found will compare in importance with the remains at Eryx and Cefalù, nor does it seem likely that any other such remains will be discovered.

Bearing in mind, then, the situation of Cefalù both as regards Ustica and Lipari, the affinity between its founders and those of Eryx as evidenced by existing remains, its great extent, and the name it still bears among the common people, I do not hesitate to accept it as the city of the Læstrygonians, nor does it affect me that the details of the harbour as given in the “Odyssey” have no correspondence with the place itself. I may mention that when my friend, Mr. H. F. Jones, and myself were at Cefalù in the spring of 1896, we met a flock of goats coming into the town to be milked about five in the afternoon, and on our return from a walk we met another flock coming out after having been just milked. These two flocks must have met, and the shepherds must have saluted one another as in x. 82, 83, but unfortunately we did not happen to be at their point of meeting.

On enquiry we found that relays of fresh milk come into the town from six till eight in the morning, and from five till seven in the afternoon, and were told that there was no other town known to our informant which had more than a morning supply. At Trapani, a town with 30,000 inhabitants, there is no evening supply, and though I have no doubt that fresh milk can be had in the evening at Palermo, Catania, and Syracuse, it is not easily procurable even in these large towns, while in smaller ones, so far as I know them, it is not to be had at all. At Rome I asked the landlord of my hotel whether the goats came to be milked in the evening as in the morning, and he said it would be only in exceptional cases that they would do so.

I have now only to find the island of Calypso, which in the “Odyssey” is called the “navel” of the sea (i. 50), a metaphor absolutely impossible of application to any but a solitary island, and prohibitive of either Gozo or Malta, or of the other two small islands of the same group. Calypso lives by herself and is cut off from every one else — Ulysses cannot be supposed to have other islands in sight as he sits on the sea shore weeping and looking out upon the waves. Moreover, Scheria being fixed at Trapani, Ulysses could never get there from either Gozo or Malta if he followed the directions of Calypso and steered towards the Great Bear, keeping it on his left hand. We are, therefore, compelled to look for some other island, which shall be more solitary and more S.S.W. of Trapani.

The island of Pantellaria fulfils both these conditions; true, in clear weather the coast of Africa can sometimes be just made out — I have seen it from Pantellaria, but it is not sufficiently near or sufficiently often seen to have obtruded itself on Ulysses’ notice; still less so is Mt. Eryx, which can also be seen sometimes, but very rarely. No doubt the island is represented as being a good deal further off Scheria than it really was, but the liberty taken in this respect is not greater than is generally conceded in poetry.

As, therefore, the writer begins the voyage, when Ulysses is once clear of Trapani, with an island interesting to herself and her audience as being well within their ken, so she ends it with another island which has like claims on her and their attention.

174:* In the “Odyssey” more generally called Same.

180:* The name Favognana is derived from Favonius, this wind blowing on to Trapani from off the island. It is, however, also and perhaps most frequently called Favignana.

181:* Gr.

Τὴν γὰρ δή μιν ἄνωγε Καλυψὼ δῖα θεάων

ποντοπορευέμεναι ἐπ᾽ ἀριστερὰ χειρὸς ἔχοντα

182:* We may neglect the Pleiades, as introduced simply because they are in the Iliadic passage (xviii. 486-489) which the writer of the “Odyssey” is adopting with no other change than taking out the Hyades and Orion, and substituting Boötes. This she was bound to do, for she could not make Ulysses steer towards both the Bear and Orion, when she is just going to tell us, as the “Iliad” does, that Orion is on the other side of the sky. The Pleiades she has allowed to stand — which of us knows in what quarter of the heavens (let alone the Precession of the Equinoxes) they are to be looked for? — and it is made quite clear that the Bear is the constellation by which Ulysses is steering.

183:* At Messina a few months since I saw a printed handbill about the hours when the boat would start for Reggio, in which Italy was called “Terra firma,” as though a sense of instability attached itself to any island.

184:* The name seems derived from λᾶας, τρυγάω, and αἶα, as Œnotria is from οἶνος, τρυγάω, and αἶα. I have read, but forget where, that Œnotria is only a Greek rendering of Italia, which is derived from vites, alo, and some Latin equivalent for αἶα. The modern Italian word lastricare, “to pave roads with stone,” is probably derived from the same roots as Læstrygonian.

185:* Segesta would have been seen from the top of Mt. Eryx gleaming in the summer sunset, and I think there would have been some kind of allusion to it.

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