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Author Topic: Odysseus/Ulysses  (Read 4689 times)
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« Reply #15 on: March 17, 2009, 05:22:47 pm »

Bittlestone had already learned that Cephalonia lay on one of the most unstable geologic fault lines in the world. For eons, the African and Eurasian tectonic plates have been colliding a few miles off the coast of Paliki, creating a steady upthrust that periodically explodes in violent earthquakes. The worst in modern times, in 1953, leveled almost every building on the island, causing 90 percent of its residents to flee. Perhaps, Bittlestone speculated, a giant earthquake had thrust “Strabo’s channel” (as he came to call it) up above sea level, leaving it literally high and dry.

In 2003, Bittlestone contacted John Underhill, a professor of stratigraphy at the University of Edinburgh. Underhill, who has studied the geology of Cephalonia for more than 20 years, told him that geological uplift on such a large scale was impossible. But he was sufficiently intrigued to meet Bittlestone on Cephalonia for a firsthand look.

Underhill immediately noted that the half-mile-wide isthmus was a geologic “mess” of rocks of different ages—evidence of avalanches from the steep mountains on either side. As landslide followed landslide over the centuries, the debris could have extended farther across the isthmus, layer upon layer, to create the rugged hills. “I thought it would be easy to disprove Bittlestone’s thesis,” he says, “but it wasn’t. Suddenly I thought, crikey, there might really be a channel down there.”

Pending final tests, Underhill concluded that there was indeed geological evidence for a channel across the isthmus. “The only credible explanation for this geological formation is that some of it slid down from the mountain above.”

Bittlestone has no doubts. “A landslip with massive kinetic energy inundated everything,” he says. “Huge chunks of mountain broke loose and thundered down. The scale of it is mind-blowing.”

There is a deep seductiveness to the second, yet untested, part of Bittlestone’s theory, that the Odyssey’s landscape can still be found on Cephalonia, like a palimpsest beneath a medieval manuscript. But attempting to identify actual places that fit a nearly 3,000-year-old narrative does present problems. For one, it is by no means certain that individuals in the poem—Odysseus; his wife, Penelope; son, Telemachus; the suitors—even existed. Gregory Nagy is cautious. “I’m completely convinced that Paliki was Ithaca in the second millennium B.C.,” he says. “But the poem is not reportage. We should not force it to be a road map for a set of real events.”

Bittlestone has an answer for that. “Because the landscape is real, does it mean that Odysseus was a real person? Not necessarily. But it is plausible that there was a Bronze Age chieftain around whom these stories grew. I also don’t think Homer invented an imaginary landscape. There was a real Troy, a real Mycenae, a real Sparta, all of which have been rediscovered by archaeologists.”

Most scholars agree that the Odyssey was first put into writing in the 8th or 7th century B.C. But some believe, and Bittlestone concurs, that its core narrative dates as far back as the 12th century B.C., just after the Trojan War. “I am convinced,” Bittlestone says, “that in Ithaca, Homer describes a real place, and I think that he talked about locales that people knew and could recognize. His audience could say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that cave, that mountain, that bay.’”
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