Παρασκευή 22 Ιουνίου 2018

Lifting the veil that covered "lost" Αsteris; the "ghost island" of Homeric topography.

Dedicated to our children Ody, Phillip and Anna
Text & Copyright: Hettie Putman Cramer & Makis Metaxas


There is a rocky island in the middle of the sea, 
[midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos,]* 
called Asteris. It is of no great size, but it has safe harbours, one on each side; 
and there the Achaians set their ambush [for Telemachos] and lay in wait.   (Od. 4.844-847)

ἔστι δέ τις νῆσος μέσσῃ ἁλὶ πετρήεσσα,
[μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης,]*
Ἀστερίς, οὐ μεγάλη· λιμένες δ᾽ ἔνι ναύλοχοι αὐτῇ
ἀμφίδυμοι· τῇ τόν γε μένον λοχόωντες Ἀχαιοί.        (Od. 4.844-847)

The quest for Homeric Ithaca usually starts with what is theoretically the thorniest problem of Homeric geography, which has to do with the existence and precise position of the islet of Asteris. It is the island where the suitors vying for the throne of Ithaca spent twenty-eight days lying in wait for Telemachos with the intention of killing him on his way back from Pylos.

As anyone interested in Homeric geography will know, the crux of the problem of identifying Homeric Ithaca and confirming the accuracy of Homer’s geographical data is the location of Asteris, known as ‘the island of the suitors’. It is the rock on which, up to the present time, all theories have come to grief – the theories put forward by the latter-day ‘suitors’ of Homeric Ithaca in their attempts to discover its whereabouts. If it could be established that Asteris exists, and in a position that matches Homer’s description, Homeric geography would undoubtedly be proved accurate and reliable and there could be no further argument about the positions of Homeric Samos and Ithaca in relation to Asteris.

Even now, after 3,200 years, Homeric Asteris remains a phantom floating in the Ionian Sea, looking for its true home on every island and islet, every rock and reef in the waters between Kephallenia, Ithaki and Lefkada. After more than 150 years of fierce argument and vain searching, scholars the world over have assigned this ‘ghost island’ to the world of Homeric myth together with the islands of Ogygia,  Aiaia,  Aiolia,  Thrinakia  and others.

It is true that ancient geographers and historians, with their apparently disjointed opinions (which turn out not to be so disjointed after all, as we shall see), failed to clear up or throw sufficient light on the precise position of Asteris and question whether the island as described by Homer did or did not exist. Strabo (C 457.16, C 59-60), who never actually visited the islands of western Greece to see the lie of the land for himself, gives us his own opinions about Asteris and records the views of Demetrios of Skepsis and Apollodoros:

Between Ithaca and Kephallenia is the small island of Asteria (the poet calls it Asteris). The Skepsian says it is no longer as the poet describes it:

It has harbours providing safe anchorage, one on either side.’

Apollodoros, however, says that it remains so to this day and mentions a small town called Alalkomenai on the island, situated on the isthmus.   (Strabo C 457.16)

μεταξὺ δὲ τῆς Ἰθάκης καὶ τῆς Κεφαλληνίας ἡ Ἀστερία νησίον (Ἀστερὶς δ' ὑπὸ τοῦ ποιητοῦ λέγεται) ἣν ὁ μὲν Σκήψιος μὴ μένειν τοιαύτην οἵαν φησὶν ὁ ποιητής 

λιμένες δ' ἔνι ναύλοχοι αὐτῇ ἀμφίδυμοι.  

ὁ δὲ Ἀπολλόδωρος μένειν καὶ νῦν, καὶ πολίχνιον λέγει ἐν αὐτῇ Ἀλαλκομενὰς τὸ ἐπ' αὐτῷ τῷ ἰσθμῷ κείμενον. (Strabo C 457.16)

Strabo (C 453), who took the view that Homeric Samos was the historical Kephallenia and had been told of the existence of a small rocky islet (now called Daskalio ) between Kephallenia and Ithaca, eventually concludes that that islet must have been Homer’s Asteris. He attributes the absence of λιμένες ἀμφίδυμοι  [καὶ] ναύλοχοι  (‘safe harbours on both sides’ of the islet, which is not much more than a reef) to subsequent changes resulting from natural causes, rather than to the poet’s ignorance or misrepresentation of the facts. However, as he says himself, τοῦτο μὲν δὴ ἀσαφὲς ὃν [ ἐῶ] ἐν κοινῷ σκοπεῖν (‘The matter is unclear and I leave it for every man to judge for himself’)   Strabo (C 59-60).

And one of the Echinades Islands, too, which used to be called Artemita, is now part of the mainland; and they say that the same has happened to some of the other islets near the mouth of the Acheloös owing to the silting up of the sea by that river; and the rest of them too, as Herodotus says, are in process of fusion with the mainland. Again, there are certain Aitolian promontories which were formerly islands; and Asteria, which the poet calls Asteris, is no longer what it was:

There is a rocky island in the middle of the sea, 

called Asteris. It is of no great size, 
but it has safe harbours, one on each side;

There is not even a good anchorage there now. Furthermore, in Ithaca there is neither the cave nor the shrine of the Nymphs described by Homer; but it seems more correct to attribute this to physical change rather than to Homer's ignorance or to his romancing to suit the fabulous element in his poetry. However, the matter is unclear and I leave it for every man to judge for himself. (Strabo C 59-60)

Καὶ ἡ πρότερον δὲ Ἀρτεμίτα λεγομένη μία τῶν Ἐχινάδων νήσων ἤπειρος γέγονε· καὶ ἄλλας δὲ τῶν περὶ τὸν Ἀχελῶον νησίδων τὸ αὐτὸ πάθος φασὶ παθεῖν ἐκ τῆς ὑπὸ τοῦ ποταμοῦ προχώσεως τοῦ πελάγους, συγχοῦνται δὲ καὶ αἱ λοιπαί, ὡς Ἡρόδοτός φησι. Καὶ Αἰτωλικαὶ δέ τινες ἄκραι εἰσὶ νησίζουσαι πρότερον· καὶ ἡ Ἀστερία ἤλλακται, ἣν Ἀστερίδα φησὶν ὁ ποιητής·

Ἔστι δέ τις νῆσος μέσσῃ ἁλὶ πετρήεσσα, 

Ἀστερίς, οὐ μεγάλη, λιμένες δ' ἐνὶ ναύλοχοι 
αὐτῇ ἀμφίδυμοι·

Νυνὶ δὲ οὐδ' ἀγκυροβόλιον εὐφυὲς ἔχει. Ἔν τε τῇ Ἰθάκῃ οὐδέν ἐστιν ἄντρον τοιοῦτον οὐδὲ νυμφαῖον, οἷόν φησιν Ὅμηρος· βέλτιον δὲ αἰτιᾶσθαι μεταβολὴν ἢ ἄγνοιαν ἢ κατάψευσιν τῶν τόπων κατὰ τὸ μυθῶδες. τοῦτο μὲν δὴ ἀσαφὲς ὃν [ ἐῶ] ἐν κοινῷ σκοπεῖν. (Strabo C 59-60)

(It is interesting to note that Strabo texts the dubious line of the Odyssey (4.845) [μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης,] when quoting Homer’s description of Asteris is mising and does so consistently whenever he quotes that passage in his work;)

The rocky islet of Daskalio between Kephallenia (right) and Ithaca (left).

Aerial view of the rocky islet of Daskalio.
 Its very small size, the absence of any trace of two safe harbours on opposite sides or of high, windswept peaks has led most historians and researchers to consign Asteris to the world of Homeric myth or to look for it in other, larger islands or reefs presumed to be submerged islands in the Ionian Sea.
Photo: Panagis Kavallieratos.

Stephanos of Byzantium,  who retails Homer’s statements about Asteris with the difference that he says ‘between Kephallenia and Ithaca’ (μεταξύ Κεφαλληνίας και Ιθάκηςinstead of ‘midway between Ithaca and Samos’. (Stephanos of Byzantium,Ethnicorum, Berlin,1849, p. 138.)

Eustathios  states that there is a small town on Asteris, which some people call Asteria. (Eustathii Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam, Lipsiae 1828, p. 195).

Hesychios in his Lexicon  has the entry ‘Πειριεῖς νῆσος. και Αστερία’Peirieis island, also called Asteria’ (i.e. an island to naval ambushes is Asteria). [Hesychios of Alexandria, Lexicon, anastatic edition, Georgiadis 1975, p. 1210].

The islet of Asteris and another one called Prote are mentioned by Pliny the Elder  in his Natural History (IV.54-55): he describes it as lying in the open sea about fifteen miles off Cape Araxos in the Peloponnese: Ab ea Araxum Peloponnesi promunturium XV. ante hanc in alto Asteris, Prote. (Pliny, Natural History II, Harvard University Press 1947, pp. 156-158).

The existence of Asteris is also mentioned in the History of the Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates  (12th c.), who incorporated many quotations from ancient writings in his accounts of events and states that a νῆσος ἀμφίρρυτος (‘sea-girt island’) lies in the Sound of Kephallenia. According to Choniates, the Venetians ambushed the Byzantine fleet near that island in the reign of Manuel II Komnenos, when the two powers were at loggerheads because they were vying with each other to capture Corfu from the Normans: Καὶ κατά τινα νῆσον ἀναχθέντες ἀμφίρρυτον ἡ Ἀστερὶς αὕτη οἶμαί ἐστιν, ἥν φασιν οἱ πάλαι κεῖσθαι μέσον Ἰθάκης καὶ τῆς τῶν Κεφαλήνων τετραπόλεως.  
(Niketas Choniates, Histoire de Manuel Comnène, Livre II, Paris )

(It is interesting to note that the island known as Asteris both in the Homeric age and in the Byzantine period is mentioned as a place well suited to naval ambushes. Is this mere coincidence, or was there really an island called Asteris in the Sound of Kephallenia which pirates through the ages used for their own purposes? It is a point worth thinking about.)

During the Renaissance the science of cartography developed apace and European mapmakers, influenced by Homeric geography and Strabo’s Geographica, marked an island with the name of Asteria or Asteris in the channel between Kephallenia and Ithaca, in roughly the same position as Daskalio Rock or a bit further south. This they drew on their maps with all the distinguishing features of Homer’s Asteris. Presumably Daskalio was christened Asteris in an attempt to validate the accuracy of Homer’s geography, even though it has not the slightest indentation in its ‘coastline’,  nor has it undergone any such morphological changes as to explain why its present appearance is so completely different from the description given by Homer.

17th-century map marking Asteris just off the east coast of southern Kephallenia!       
Collection of Fotis Kremmydas

Leaving aside the commendable attempts by Renaissance cartographers to ‘resurrect’ an island between Kephallenia and Ithaca where there had never been one, opinion among Homeric scholars as well as the general public is largely divided between two schools of thought:

(a) That Homer, who lived and composed his epics in Ionia, far away from Western Greece, was first and foremost a poet, not an infallible geographer; that his descriptions are coloured by poetic licence, since his object was to describe places and things in the way that best suited his narrative; and that therefore the location of the isle of Asteris belongs in the context of a work of literature and a narrative structure that is not obliged to follow the rules of a geography lesson; or

(b) That Homer was describing an island that has since disappeared without trace or has changed shape, probably as a result of violent geological upheavals; for that would appear (in the present state of our knowledge) to be the only possible explanation for the fact that Homer saw and described in his own lifetime places that we cannot now locate.

Since the second theory is dismissed by most geographers, the first has come to prevail in the field of Homeric studies. Among the factors contributing to its acceptance have been the unsuccessful attempts of many scholars to identify Asteris with Daskalio (Leake 1835; Partsch 1890; Bérard 1902; Vollgraff 1907; Rennell 1927; C.H. Goekoop 1990; Livadas 1998). or other islets in the Ionian Sea, such as Vardiani (Volteras 1903; Tsimaratos 1998), Arkoudi (Dörpfeld 1927; Doukas 1995). and Atokos (Schliemann Ithaque, le Péloponnèse, Troie)or parts of the mainland opposite Kephallenia and Ithaki (Gell 1807; Luce 1974). or even semi-submerged reefs (Schliemann 1869; A.E.H. Goekoop 1908),  all of which actually helped to consign Asteris firmly to the world of Homeric myth.

                           François Ollive, 1662, Πορτολάνος Ανατολικής Μεσογείου Θαλάσσης.

Although these two hypotheses have come to dominate the debate at every level up to now, we have to take a third parameter into consideration (Odysseas Metaxas, «Η Βιογραφία της Οδύσσειας» [‘The Biography of the Odyssey’], [2008] (in preparation)., namely the question whether the controversial lines of Homer referring to Asteris are entirely authentic: whether they have been corrupted or altered or other lines interpolated, as has happened so often in Homer.

According to the study of Archaeologist Odysseas Metaxas, there are reasons to believe that the passage μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης, that refers to Asteris is one of those that became part of the text later. It seems that the passage was invented to rephrase the original Homeric verse μεσσηγὺς δὲ Σάμου τε καὶ Ἴμβρου παιπαλοέσσης  paraphrasing the relevant line of Homer that we find in the epic of the Iliad. (IL 24.78)

The possibility that the original text may have been tampered with, either to make Homer’s references to Asteris fit in with the geography of the islands in historical times (in which respect Daskalio must have seemed like a godsend ‘confirming’ the bard’s words) or to ‘corroborate’ (so to speak) Homer’s topography as understood by the copyists in accordance with the state of knowledge of their time, was a matter that needed to be examined in detail.

The differences between the renderings of many lines in surviving manuscripts – and there are a great many of them, due either to the copyists or to commentators on Homer – leave us no option but to give serious attention to all the new data that have come to light and will presumably continue to come to light, considering that research on the subject (cf. Odysseas Metaxas, The Biography of the Odyssey) is constantly in progress.

Here we shall be ‘accepting’ the text as it stands because, whether or not the line suspected of being an interpolation is included, the conclusion to be drawn regarding the identification of Asteris remains the same. This controversial line in the Odyssey (4.845) is enclosed in square brackets at the beginning of this study. Why it is there and what its presence signifies are extremely interesting questions,  because the answers may well lift the veil that has kept ‘lost’ Asteris hidden up to now, and they deserve close scholarly analysis.

We therefore feel that the time has come, following the story told by Homer (and the Homeridai) to go on a voyage with the Mycenaean suitors and Telemachos to the isle of Asteris, hoping that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, will send us  a "favourable breeze" (οὖρον ὄπισθεν) to speed us safely on the way to the ‘first stretch of coast’ (πρώτη ακτή) on Ithaca.


A replica of the legendary Argo, in which the Argonauts sailed on their expedition in 1400 B.C.
Similar ships were used by the Greeks in the campaign against Troy. The suitors’ vessel would almost certainly have been of similar design.

Athena warns Telemachos, who is on a visit to Sparta, that the suitors are planning to set an ambush for him in to the sea strait that ships travel to Ithaca and Samos intent on murdering him. She allays his fears, however, by telling him that for his return journey from Pylos she will send him a favourable (southerly) wind so that he can steer well clear of certain unnamed islands and land safely at the ‘first’ (i.e. southernmost) stretch of coast in Ithaca (Od. 15.27-42).

Meanwhile the suitors have rigged and launched their ship and anchored well out in the harbour, and in the evening they set sail for a rocky, no great size island named Asteris with two safe harbours, one on each side, lying in the midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos (Od. 4.669-672, 778-786, 842-847). There they wait for Telemachos for four weeks, spending the days keeping watch from the island’s windswept peaks (ἄκριας ἠνεμοέσσας) and the nights out on patrol to catch him on his return from Sparta and Pylos (Od. 16.363-370). From Asteris they can also watch the route from Pylos to Ephyra  in Thesprotia, in case Telemachos decides to go there to get poisoned arrows to use against them (Od. 2.325-330).

It is soon after midday when Telemachos sets sail from Pylos on his return journey to Ithaca. During the afternoon his ship, staying close to the coast, passes Krounoi  and Chalkis.  By nightfall, with the favourable wind Athena has sent him, he is near the cape called Pheai (now Katakolo); and in the early hours of darkness, as he skirts the coast of Elis steering for the Thoai (‘Pointed Islands’), he starts worrying about his prospects of escaping alive from the ambush set by the suitors (Od. 15.295-300).

With the help of Athena and the favourable south wind, (οὖρον ὄπισθεν) he keeps well clear of the islands – and presumably far enough away from Asteris – and at dawn he lands safely at the first (southernmost) stretch of coast in Ithaca (Od. 15.495-500).

That same day the suitors, who may have been informed of Telemachos’ return by a god or may have seen his ship sailing past, return frustrated to the port of Homeric Ithaca (Od. 16.342-370).

Satellite photo of the coast of Western Greece. It was in these waters that Telemachos sailed from Ithaca to Pylos and back.

If we wish to find out whether Homer’s geography of western Greece is based on reliable sources and so to confirm that the places are named in the right order in relation to Homer’s accounts of the voyages and the times taken, we have to answer the following basic questions about the outward and return journeys: in to the sea strait that ships travel to Ithaca and Samos
  • Do the accounts of Telemachos’ voyages to and from Pylos conform to the standard guidelines for navigation in that period?
  • What results do we get if we compare the place-names with the courses, sailing times and wind directions given by Homer?
  • What were the normal speeds of ships at that time?
The accounts of both Telemachos’ voyages, which many scholars believe to have been the nucleus of a separate epic that was gradually incorporated into the Odyssey, (a shorter epic called Telemacheia), would appear to have been intended mainly, though not exclusively, for the purpose of recording the geographical and navigational data of the waters of western Greece in those times.

It can therefore be taken for granted that the geographical information and coastal place-names given by Homer must have been recognizable to local seafarers of the Late Bronze Age as referring to places they actually passed on their voyages. And the same is true of the seaways between the islands and the Peloponnese and the Late Bronze Age navigational methods.

Anyone who knows about the weather and wind conditions considered suitable for sailing in the Ionian Sea and the method of sailing a square-rigged boat of the kind then in use is bound to agree that a sailor wishing to go from Ithaki or Kephallenia to the Peloponnese would normally wait until the late afternoon or early evening, when the north-west wind (zephyros) and the northerly land breeze coming off the mountains of Kephallenia start to blow. That is exactly how Telemachos timed his departure from Ithaca for Pylos in Homer’s account (Od. 2.388-425, 3.1-6).

Windrose chart and wind graph for the central Ionian Sea. 
These show the overwhelming prevalence of north-westerly winds as compared with southerlies, which are much less common in the area.
See the wind tables of the Greek National Meteorological Service and the Ministry of Merchant Marine.

The same goes for a vessel sailing from the southern Peloponnese to Kephallenia and Ithaki. Since the prevailing winds in that part of the Ionian Sea are northerly to north-westerly, this presents much more of a problem. One has to start by sailing along the coast of the Peloponnese as far as Cape Araxos, taking advantage of the land breezes blowing down from the mountains as a result of inversion. From Araxos one can catch the wind setting from the Gulf of Patras, which gives one a fairly easy run to Kephallenia and Ithaki with the wind on the quarter, passing outside the islands now called Oxiés. Only if there is a south wind is it possible to shorten the voyage by not coasting all the way round to Araxos: in that case one can steer a straight course from the Peloponnese to the islands with the wind astern (οὖρον ὄπισθεν). That was the way Telemachos returned from Pylos, Athena having promised him a favourable south wind to enable him to escape the suitors’ murderous ambush off Asteris (Od. 15.33-35).

Left:The course that a northbound vessel of the Homeric age would have had to steer against the prevailing north-west wind of the Ionian Sea.
Right:The course usually followed by northbound vessels when the wind is southerly.

The Kyrenia ship  (a replica of an ancient merchantman) sailing in the Aegean. The vessel Telemachos borrowed to go to Pylos would have been similar to this.

Given that Homer’s accounts of Telemachos’ outward and return voyages describe the standard journey plan and sailing conditions as they actually were and are in the Ionian Sea, we have to take the following considerations into account:

(a) It is now generally accepted that the maximum speed of a sailing ship of that period, with a favourable wind of reasonable strength, was not much more than 5-6 knots;

(b)  The time taken to complete the voyage, as Homer tells it, was not much more than fifteen hours; (they departed from Pylos after midday and reached the very first coast of Ithaca very early in the morning before dawn.)

(c) On the evidence of the sailing times given by Homer for the voyages to and from Pylos and the normal cruising speed of a ship of the Mycenaean period (5~6 knots), the distance between Homeric Ithaca and Pylos could not have been not much more than 85-90 nautical miles; and

(d) No matter which island was Homer's Ithaca, no Mycenaean ship could have gone as far as Pylos in Messenia in the time stated, assuming that the sailing time and the maximum speed are as estimated above.

  • Messenian Pylos is at least 85-90 nautical miles from the southern tip of Kephallenia, giving in fact a sailing time of at least 15 hours, as the text mentions. 
  • The respective distance to arrive in Ithaca would be 105-110 nautical miles (at least 18 hours sailing voyage), which means that it barely corresponds to Homer's description. 
  • The voyage to Lefkada, 120-125 nautical miles, does not realistically correspond to the text, considering that the voyage would last approximatelly 21 hours. The text describes that the ship embarked at noon and arrived before dawn. 
Hence, the voyage from Pylos to south-eastern Kephallenia ideally fits the text's description, the voyage to Ithaca barely fits it, while the voyage to Lefkada does not realistically corresponds to Homer's description.

Bearing all this in mind, and following the itinerary in the precise order given by Homer, and with the same timings, we find that Telemachos sailed past the island called Asteris (keeping well clear of it) in the period between midnight or just after, when he was off the coast of Elis (Od. 15.287-300), and dawn, when he was mooring his ship at the ‘first stretch of coast’ in Ithaca (Od. 15.495-506).

Commonsense suggests that Asteris must have been close to, or one of, a group of islands which Athena had warned him to steer well clear of (Od. 15.33-35):

But keep your good ship well away from the islands 
and sail on through the night; the immortal deity 
who guards and protects you will send you a following wind. (Od. 15.33-35)

ἀλλὰ ἑκὰς νήσων ἀπέχειν εὐεργέα νῆα,

νυκτὶ δ᾽ ὁμῶς πλείειν· πέμψει δέ τοι οὖρον ὄπισθεν
ἀθανάτων ὅς τίς σε φυλάσσει τε ῥύεταί τε.  (Od. 15.33-35)

  • So which were those islands that Athena advised Telemachos to stay away from? 
  • Could Asteris have been one of them? 
  • And, if so, what connection could there have been between them and the Thoai (‘Pointed Islands’) that Homer mentions (Od. 15.299) as being the last place he would pass – by now quaking with the fear of death – before landing at the nearest point on the coast of Ithaca?
Telemachos when he was off the coast of Elis from there he steered for the Thoai (Pointed) Islands, 
wondering whether he would come through alive or be caught.

From there he steered for the Thoai (Pointed) Islands, 
wondering whether he would come through alive or be caught.  (Od. 15.299) 

ἔνθεν δ᾽ αὖ νήσοισιν ἐπιπροέηκε θοῇσιν,

ὁρμαίνων ἤ κεν θάνατον φύγοι ἦ κεν ἁλώῃ   (Od. 15.299) 

When Athena warns Telemachos that the suitors are lying in ambush for him in the channel that ships travel to Ithaca and Samos (Od. 15.29), curiously enough she says nothing about any island called Asteris: all she does tell him (Od. 15.27-33) is that he must steer well clear of certain islands which she does not specify. That Asteris must be one of them seems quite clear, for we know that it, too, was in the channel between Ithaca and Samos (Od. 4.669-672, 4.844-847). Therefore it must be one of a group of islands; and, since it was chosen by the suitors for their ambush, it must obviously be one of the islands that Athena warned Telemachos to avoid on his way back from Pylos.

It is worth inquiring to see whether the islands (in the plural) that Telemachos was warned to steer clear of on his return voyage (ἑκὰς νήσων ἀπέχειν εὐεργέα νῆα) [Od. 15.33]) and the islands (again in the plural) called the Thoai or ‘Pointed Islands’ (ἔνθεν δ᾽ αὖ νήσοισιν ἐπιπροέηκε θοῇσιν) [Od. 15.299]), the sight of which caused Telemachos to wonder whether he would come through alive or be caught (ὁρμαίνων ἤ κεν θάνατον φύγοι ἦ κεν ἁλώῃ) [Od. 15.300]), are the same group of islands in both cases, or whether there was some connection between them, and whether one of them was in fact Asteris.

We have it on the authority of Strabo (C 458.19), Herakleitos (Homeric Problems, 45), Eustathios (305.41,46 and 1782.3) and Heliodoros (V.17) that the Thoai were the islands now called Oxiés (‘Sharp Islands’) off the mouth of the River Acheloös; they are the southernmost of the Echinades Islands. In antiquity there were more of them, according to Strabo (C 59-60), but several have since been joined to the mainland by silt from the river. According to myth, the Thoai took their name from the River Acheloös, which in very early antiquity was called the Thoas, but the most probable derivation is from the verb θοόω, ‘to make sharp or pointed’. In more recent times they have been called Oxiés, because in fact they do have sharp-pointed peaks (see photos).

The biggest and most sharp-pointed island of the group is Oxia. Locally, it is commonly called Oxiés in the plural, indicating that there used to be more islands in the immediate vicinity: as we know from ancient literary evidence,  the rest have gradually been joined to the mainland by silt from the Acheloös. Without a doubt, they are to be identified with the Thoai islands (also in the plural) north of Elis, mentioned by Homer (νήσοισιν θοῇσιν, Od. 15.299).

Aerial photo of Oxia Island. 
The mouth of the River Acheloös can be seen at the far left. Behind Oxia is what used to be the island of Artemita, which has been joined to the mainland by silt from the Acheloös and is now called Kotsilaris.

Map of Odysseus’ kingdom. 18th(?) cent.
East of Kephallenia and Ithaca is the island marked as Oxiae. Note the position of Oxiae (the ancient Thoai) at the meeting-point of the channels leading out to the Ionian Sea and close to the mouth of the River Acheloös, known in early antiquity as the Thoas. Collection of Fotis Kremmydas.

View of Oxia Island, lying just off the mouth of the Acheloös, from the north-east.

Satellite photo of Oxia, one of the southern Echinades Islands.

The Thoai are the southernmost group of the Echinades Islands, which in the Venetian period were called the Curzolari or Kourtzolaires.  This name was presumably given to them by Venetian geographers because of their proximity to Cape Kostilaris, the seaward headland of the Acheloös alluvial plain in the south-east of Akarnania.

  Detail of a 16th-century map on which the Oxiés Islands are clearly marked as Insulae Curzolari.

The time has now come for us to ask ourselves how likely it is that the island called Oxia or Oxiés (the plural form of its name indicating that there used to be more than one island here) is to be identified with Homer’s Asteris, and whether Oxia/Oxiés was one of the islands (also referred to in the plural: ἑκὰς νήσων) that Athena warned Telemachos to avoid.

Homer’s references to Asteris are so numerous and so specific that one simply has to take note of its various distinguishing features as he describes them:

1. It is a ‘rocky’ (πετρήεσσα) island (Od. 4.844);

2. It is an island ‘of no great size’ (οὐ μεγάλη) (Od. 4.846);

3. It has sheltered harbours offering safe anchorage on opposite sides of the island (λιμένες ναύλοχοι [καὶ] ἀμφίδυμοι) (Od. 4.846-847);

4. It has ‘windswept heights [or headlands]’ (ἄκριας ἠνεμοέσσας) (Od. 16.365).

5. It is a poinded island 

6. It must be in such a position that Telemachos would be expected to sail past it on his way to Ithaca or to Homeric Ephyra, in Thesprotia, where the suitors thought he might be going to obtain poisoned arrows (ἠὲ καὶ εἰς Ἐφύρην ἐθέλει, πίειραν ἄρουραν, ἐλθεῖν, ὄφρ᾽ ἔνθεν θυμοφθόρα φάρμακ᾽ ἐνείκῃ [Od. 2.328-329]).

7. It is ‘in the channel between Ithaca and rugged Samos’ (ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης) (Od. 4.671);

And whith the controversial line in the Odyssey (4.845)

It is ‘midway between’ or perhaps ‘equidistant from’ (μεσσηγὺς) Ithaca and Samos, ‘in the middle of the sea’ (μέσσῃ ἁλὶ) μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης,(Od. 4.845);

(Given that Asteris is ‘midway between’ or ‘equidistant from’ Ithaca and Homeric Samos, it is not necessary to be sure of the precise location of Homeric Ithaca before one can fix the location of Asteris. That is because, no matter which island was actually the site of Homeric Ithaca – whether modern Ithaki or Kephallenia or even Lefkada, the choice favoured by some scholars – the position of Asteris in relation to Homeric Ithaca and Samos is not affected).

If we assume that Oxia/Oxiés was Asteris, then it has to fit Homer’s description, that is to say:
  • Is Oxia rockyπετρήεσσα) ?
  • Is it an island ‘of no great size’ (οὐ μεγάλη) ?
  • Has it got safe harbours on opposite sides of the island (λιμένες ναύλοχοι [καὶ] ἀμφίδυμοι
  • Has it got sharp-pointed, windswept peaks (ἄκριας ἠνεμοέσσας)?
  • Is it in such a position that Telemachos would be expected to sail past it on his way to Ithaca or to Homeric Ephyra, in Thesprotia, where the suitors thought he might be going to obtain poisoned arrows? (ἠὲ καὶ εἰς Ἐφύρην ἐθέλει, πίειραν ἄρουραν, ἐλθεῖν, ὄφρ᾽ ἔνθεν θυμοφθόρα φάρμακ᾽ ἐνείκῃ [Od. 2.328-329]).
  • Is it in the middle of the sea’ (μέσσῃ ἁλὶ) in the channel used by ships sailing to Kephallenia and Ithaki (ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης) ? 
  • Is it one of a group of islands end especially of the group of Thoai (Echinades) (νθεν δ᾽ αὖ νήσοισιν ἐπιπροέηκε θοῇσιν) [Od. 15.299]) ?
  • Is it an island capable of hosting day and night for over 28 days the suitors? Would the suitors have been able to stay there for four weeks? (Od. 16.363-370)

Indirect answers to all these questions were given about 130 years ago by the historian Antonios Miliarakis  in his Modern and Ancient Political Geography of the Prefecture of Kephallenia, although at the time he did not know which island he was describing.

This is how Miliarakis describes Oxia as one of the Echinades Islands, repeating almost word for word – but without realizing it – the same information that Homer had given three thousand years ago when describing the physical features of Asteris with its two safe harbours on opposite sides of the island (the italics are ours).

The Echinades lie close to the south-western shores of Akarnania.… All these islands belong to two main groups.… The southernmost of them all is Oxia, commonly called Oxiés, which lies off Cape Skrofa, the south-easternmost point of the Akarnanian mainland. This island, as its name implies, is rugged and steep along its entire length, with a high, sharp-pointed peak in the north rising to an altitude of 426 metres. Its coastline is 6 nautical miles long, its length is 4,650 metres from N to S, its greatest width 1,250 metres in the northern part of the island and 620 metres in the south, and its area is 5.4 square kilometres. It consists of two land masses connected by a very narrow isthmus about 300 metres in length, with bays (harbours) on either side [he uses the very words αμφίδυμοι κόλποι].… Flocks of sheep and goats graze on the island and some grain crops are grown.… The few farmers and shepherds on the island obtain their water supplies from cisterns.…
(’Antonios MiliarakisΓεωγραφία Πολιτική Νέα και Αρχαία του Νομού Κεφαλληνίας [Modern and Ancient Political Geography of the Prefecture of Kephallenia], Athens 1890, 166)

«Αι Εχινάδες πρόσκεινται τη μεσημβρινοδυτική παραλία της Ακαρνανίας [….] Πάσαι αι νησίδες αύται αποτελούσι δύο κυρίως αθροίσματα [….] Μεσημβρινωτάτη πασών είναι η Οξεία ή κοινώς προφερομένη Οξειά . Κείται απέναντι του μεσημβρινοανατολικού ακρωτηρίου της Ακαρνανίας της Σκρόφας. Η νήσος αύτη , ως και το όνομα αυτής δηλοί ,είναι τραχεία και απότομος καθ` όλον αυτής το μήκος , έχουσα προς Β οξείαν υψηλήν κορυφήν ύψους 426 μέτρων. Έχει περιφέρειαν 6 μιλίων και μήκος από Β προς  Μ 4,650 μέτρων ,πλάτος δε μέγιστον είς το βόρειον τμήμα 1,250 ,είς το μεσημβρινόν δε 620 ,εμβαδόν δε 5,4 τετραγωνικών χιλιομέτρων . Σύγκειται δ` εκ δύο τμημάτων συνδεομένων δια στενωτάτου ισθμού μήκους 300 μέτρων περίπου εκατέρωθεν του οποίου σχηματίζονται αμφίδυμοι κόλποι […..] Εν αυτή τρέφονται ποίμνια αιγοπροβάτων ,σπείρονται δε και δημητριακοί καρποί […….] Οι εν αυτοί ολίγοι γεωργοί και ποιμένες υδρεύονται εκ δεξαμενών…..»  
Antonios MiliarakisΓεωγραφία Πολιτική Νέα και Αρχαία του Νομού Κεφαλληνίας [Modern and Ancient Political Geography of the Prefecture of Kephallenia], Athens 1890, 166.

Let us remind ourselves of Homer’s description:

There is a rocky island in the middle of the sea
[midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos,]* 
called Asteris. It is of no great size, but it has safe harboursone on each side; 
and there the Achaians set their ambush [for Telemachos] and lay in wait.

‘One picture is worth a thousand words’!!!

It seems to us that no comment is necessary. Here we have Antonios Miliarakis, writing 130 years ago, unwittingly describing Oxia in the very words used by Homer to describe Asteris 3,000 years ago: one of a group of islands, with a sharp-pointed peak and rocky terrain and, most significant of all, the distinctive feature of harbours on opposite sides of the island.! There could hardly be more convincing evidence that Homer and Miliarakis, each knowing every detail of the actual appearance of this island, were both using the same words (allowing for the chronological difference) in the same standard terminology to describe the very same landscape, the very same island.

The law of probabilities leaves little likelihood of error and it seems hardly likely that all the natural features mentioned by Antonios Miliarakis, describing Oxiés 130 years ago, and by Homer, describing Asteris 3,000 years ago, should have conspired to mislead the present-day reader.

Map of 1798 marking the route taken by ships plying between the Gulf of Corinth and Italy. The main ports of call were: Isthmus of Corinth – Nafpaktos – Oxiés – Nikopolis – Butrinto – Saseno (Sazan) Island and finally Otranto in Calabria. Collection of Fotis Kremmydas.

It seems clear from these descriptions that Asteris must have been somewhere near the half-way point (μέσσῃ ἁλὶ......ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης) of a voyage from the Peloponnese Homeric to Ithaca and Samos; and if modern Oxia is to be equated with Asteris, which lay in such a strategic position, it will be interesting to see if that can be verified empirically.

To test the validity of this proposition, let us take a pair of compasses and draw a circle with Oxia at its centre, the radius being equal to the distance from Oxia to the nearest point on the coast of any of those three places, i.e. modern Kephallenia, modern Ithaki and the Peloponnese.

As soon as we draw the circle, a number of significant points spring to the eye, for we find that Oxia is:

exactly equidistant (about 18.5 nautical miles) from Kephallenia, Ithaki and the Peloponnese;

‘midway between’ or perhaps ‘equidistant from’ Ithaki, Kephallenia and the Peloponnese, taking each one separately and all three together!

right on the route taken by a ship sailing to Ephyra in Thesprotia and in the middle (μέσσῃ ἁλὶ) of the channel (ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης) used by ships sailing from Kephallenia and Ithaki – especially the latter – to Epeiros (the mouth of the Acheloös) and Elis (Araxos, Kyllini) in the north-western Peloponnese. The Peloponnese was, of course, the centre of the Mycenaean world and the main destination of boats sailing through the Sound of Kephallenia and indeed the whole of the Ionian Sea.

It is beyond question that, by a strange coincidence, Oxia is equidistant from all three of the places mentioned by Homer, situated in a strategic position of great importance at the meeting-point of all the seaways through the Ionian Sea.

The strategic position of Oxia in the Ionian Sea.
The island completely controls all the routes taken by ships entering or leaving the Gulf of Patras on their way from or to Zakynthos, Kephallenia, Ithaki, Lefkada, Thesprotia and Corfu.

The island’s excellent strategic position, its two safe anchorages on either side of a narrow isthmus, its rugged terrain and its windswept peaks provide emphatic corroboration of Homer’s description of Asteris and evidence of its rich Homeric past.

The ancient Greeks used the adjective amphidymos (αμφίδυμος-η-ον) to give a precise description of harbours and bays lying on opposite sides of an island or headland and separated by a narrow isthmus.
Ἀμφίδυμοι λιμένες:Harbours having two entrances …’ [translated from the Mega Etymologikon Lexikon (Etymologicum Magnum)]
Apollonios Rhodios (Argonautica I.937-941), copying Homer’s description of Asteris and paraphrasing the relevant lines of Homer, uses Homer’s terminology to describe the two bays on either side of the Arktonnesos peninsula in the Propontis (see map).

ἔστι δέ τις αἰπεῖα Προποντίδος ἔνδοθι νῆσος
τυτθὸν ἀπὸ Φρυγίης πολυληίου ἠπείροιο
εἰς ἅλα κεκλιμένη, ὅσσον τ᾽ ἐπιμύρεται ἰσθμός
χέρσῳ ἔπι πρηνὴς καταειμένος· ἐν δέ οἱ ἀκταί
ἀμφίδυμοι, κεῖται δ᾽ ὑπὲρ ὕδατος Αἰσήποιο.·

Strabo (C 257) likewise describes the peninsula of Scyllaeum, near the River Metaurus in Italy, as αμφίδυμος.

To convey the same meaning as amphidymos, the adjective amphialos (ἀμφίαλος) was often used in ancient Greek literature, though usually with reference to larger land masses having deep indentations of the coastline on either side. The shape of the Amphiali peninsula west of Piraeus conforms to the rule linguistically, semantically and topographically.

According to an ancient scholiast, the adjective naulochos (ναύλοχος), rendered here as ‘safe’ or ‘providing safe anchorage’, can also be applied to harbours ‘in which ships can hide, lying in ambush’.
Ναύλοχος: A harbour in which ships lie at rest …’ [translated from the Mega Etymologikon Lexikon (Etymologicum Magnum)]

The ‘safety’ of the harbours in the Echinades Islands, which included the Oxiés, is mentioned by Kallimachos in his Hymn To Delos (line 155):
οὐ λιπαρὸν νήεσσιν Ἐχινάδες ὅρμον ἔχουσαι,
and also by Strabo (C 459.21), both of whom thus corroborate Homer’s account of the safety of the two harbours of Asteris.

Oxia Island from the west.

So, on the assumption that all these similarities are due not to an ingeniously constructed deception but to the absolute identity of the two islands, one fundamental question needs to be answered:

  • Why did Athena warn Telemachos to steer well clear of those islands, and in particular why did she promise to send him the favourable south wind that he needed in order to avoid them?
  • Would Telemachos have been able to steer clear of those islands, sailing from south to north, if he had not had the south wind in his favour?
  • Would that really have been the natural course to steer in a vessel of that period sailing northwards for Kephallenia, Ithaki or Lefkada?

As already mentioned, with the northerly to north-westerly winds generally prevailing in the Sound of Kephallenia,  the helmsman of a Mycenaean square-rigged boat sailing northwards would have had no option but to hug the coast of the Peloponnese as far as Araxos, taking advantage of the beam winds blowing down from the mountains as a result of inversion. From there he would have caught the wind and current setting from the Gulf of Patras and, with the wind on the quarter, he would definitely have had no option but to pass close to Oxia if steering for Kephallenia, Ithaki or Lefkada.

The course that a northbound vessel of the Homeric age would have had to steer against the prevailing north-west wind of the Ionian Sea.

With a south wind, however, the helmsman would not have needed to go right up to Oxia: he could cut straight across, leaving the Kyllini headland well off on his beam when halfway to Oxia, and, with the wind behind him (οὖρον ὄπισθεν), could have an easy, more or less problem-free passage to Kephallenia, Ithaki and Lefkada.

The course usually followed by northbound vessels when the wind is southerly.

That is exactly how Homer describes it. Knowing that Telemachos could escape from the murderous ambush only with a tail wind (οὖρον ὄπισθεν), and only by sailing at night (νυκτὶ δ᾽ ὁμῶς πλείειν), he gets Athena to send Telemachos the necessary south wind so that he can avoid Oxia, then called Asteris, and make a safe landing at the ‘first’ (i.e. southernmost) point on the coast of Homeric Ithaca. (These very sailing directions for vessels returning from the southern Peloponnese in the twentieth century, with either a north wind or a south wind, we were lucky enough to hear confirmed down to the last detail by the last living shipmasters of all-sail vessels of that period (none of which, alas, are still in existence), Spyridon Odyssea Galiatsatos and Themistoklis Konstantinou Batistatos.)
  • Why does Homer choose that island for the suitors’ murderous ambush? What was so special about it?

… who had left the isles of the Echinades, where sailors cannot land’
(Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 287-288)
       «τὰς Ἐχίνας λιπὼν νήσους ναυβάταις ἀπροσφόρους.»
                                                             (Ευρυπίδης, Ιφιγένεια η εν Αυλίδι στιχ.287-288)

We have it on the authority of ancient Greek and Roman historians that the island of Oxia/Oxiés in the Sound of Kephallenia was in the middle of an area where maritime piracy was rife, as it remained until relatively recently[1]. Evidently the frequent passage of ships through the channel tempted the Kephallenians into piracy from the earliest times [2]. The activity of pirates among the Echinades Islands, of which Oxia is one, is attested by Thucydides  (I.5) [3], Euripides  (Iphigeneia at Aulis, 283-288) [4] and Livy  (XXXVII.13.11-12) [5]. The suitors vying for the throne of Ithaca were true descendants of the Taphians, whom Homer [6] describes as ‘bandits’ or ‘pirates’ (ληιστῆρες); and when they picked Oxia as the best place to lie in wait for Telemachos in order to kill him they were doing no more than carrying on the great tradition of maritime piracy in the Ionian Sea. Knowing this, Homer has them setting their ambush on an island that had a justified reputation as the ‘island of pirates’. Oxia’s strategic position, its size and, above all, its two safe (ναύλοχοι) all-weather harbours on opposite sides of the island made it one of the most notorious pirate lairs then and for long thereafter.

In the Odyssey Homer, through the mouth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, gives us yet another piece of information about the way in which mariners avoided (or ought to avoid) passing close to the Oxiés Islands because of the hazard of piracy. Apart from anything else, Telemachos’ voyage appears to have a position, value and significance of its own in the structure of the Odyssey, at least as far as navigation in the Ionian Sea is concerned.
Detail from a 16th-century map marking the Oxiés Islands as Curzolarι and showing pirate ships in the thick of an engagement between Kephallenia and the Oxiés in the Sound of Kephallenia, where they had their lairs to keep watch on shipping through the straits.
The place-name Sarakiniko is found both on Kephallenia (the port of Poros) and Ithaki. In these places the last generation of pirates, known as Sarakini (‘Saracens’), carried on the great tradition of maritime piracy that had existed since the earliest times.

Detail from the map by Johann Laurenberg (1690), marking the Thoae Islands (Oxiés)
A pirate ship can be seen sailing between the Oxiés (Thoai) and south-eastern Kephallenia, where the Saracen corsairs had their lair at the place known as Sarakiniko. It was there that the new town of Poros was built after the devastating earthquakes of 1953. In those days the harbour at Poros was used as a supply depot and a base for keeping watch on the channels separating Kephallenia from Zakynthos, Ithaki, Aitolia, Akarnania and the Peloponnese. This area was the centre of the piratical operations recorded since early antiquity and continuing until very recent times.         
Collection of Fotis Kremmydas

  • Why was it that in earliest antiquity Oxia was called Asteris, a name it shared with the islands of Delos, Crete and Rhodes?

According to Pliny [7]  and Hesychios [8],  Rhodos, Crete and Delos were all called Asteris in early antiquity, and Homer  (Il. 2.735) also mentions a town called Asterion in Magnesia. Stephanos of Byzantium [9] informs us that the town was so called because it stood on a hilltop and therefore looked like a star from down in the plain. Evidently the name Asteris or Asterion was given to conspicuous places that could be seen from afar and served as beacons for the guidance of travellers by sea (like modern lighthouses) or by land.

Obviously this would be a good reason for Crete and Rhodes to be called Asteris, since one or other of them was the first (or last) landfall for ships on their long voyages from or to the east and south. They were well-known landmarks enabling mariners to check their position and set the right course. While Kallimachos (Hymn To Delos)  tells us that Delos had been called Asteria in ancient times because it fell from the heavens like a star (ἀστήρ), its name also exemplifies the practice of applying the name Asteris to islands that are reference points for the whole of the surrounding area.

Fragrant Asteria, around you the islands
formed a circle and surrounded you like a group of dancers.  Kallimachos, Hymn To Delos, 300-301

Ἀστερίη θυόεσσα, σὲ μὲν περί τ᾽ ἀμφί τε νῆσοι
κύκλον ἐποιήσαντο καὶ ὡς χορὸν ἀμφεβάλοντο:   Kallimachos, Hymn To Delos, 300-301

O Delos, you who are the centre of the islands and have a fine position,
hail to yourself! and hail also to Apollo, and to her whom Leto bore!

ἱστίη ὦ νήσων εὐέστιε χαῖρε μὲν αὐτή,
χαίροι δ᾽ Ἀπόλλων τε καὶ ἣν ἐλοχεύσατο Λητώ.  Kallimachos, Hymn To Delos, 325-326

Strabo (C 486.4) makes his own opinion on the matter quite clear: Delos, he says, ‘is strategically placed for those sailing from Italy and Greece to Asia’     (ἐν καλῷ γὰρ κεῖται τοῖς ἐκ τῆς Ἰταλίας καὶ τῆς Ἑλλάδος εἰς τὴν Ἀσίαν πλέουσιν)

Oxia, too, like Delos, occupied an excellent strategic position, for it controlled the seaways leading into and out of the Gulf of Patras and lay on the route normally taken by ships bound for Kephallenia, Ithaki and Lefkada. With its height, its safe anchorages and its conspicuous visibility, it served as the equivalent of a lighthouse, an aid to navigation for Mycenaean seafarers. With good reason, then, was it called Asteris, just as there was good reason for applying that name to the Aegean islands with the same properties.

The lighthouse on Oxia Island, one of the most important in the Ionian Sea, attests to the strategic significance of Oxia’s geographical position through the ages; and, shining out at night like an earthly star, it reinforces the validity of the island’s original name of Asteris. It has been contributing to the safety of mariners in western Greek waters since 1899.

(The lighthouse was built in 1899. The height of the stone tower is 8 metres and its focal height is 71 metres. It stands on the islet of Oxia in the Gulf of Patras, south-west of the Prefecture of Aitolo-Akarnania. The lighthouse is served by launch from Astakos, which is 55 kilometres from Mesolonghi. The islet of Oxia belongs to the uniform ecosystem of the Acheloös delta, but administratively it belongs to the Prefecture of Kephallenia. It is a rocky island lying off the Acheloös delta and is covered with scrub and junipers. It is home to a colony of griffon vultures, and short-toed eagles, peregrine falcons and other raptors also nest there. Black vultures and imperial eagles are regular winter visitors. For further information and photographs visit the website www.faroi.com)

Besides its rich Homeric past, the island of Oxia was associated with another event of worldwide interest when it found itself at the centre of one of the greatest naval engagements seen anywhere in the world up to that time, the battle of Lepanto (Nafpaktos).  That famous action was fought on 7th October 1571 between the combined fleets of Spain, Venice, Genoa, Naples and Sicily and the Papal fleet on the one hand and the united fleet of the Ottoman Empire on the other, in the waters of the southern Echinades Islands (the Oxiés) off Cape Skrofa. The outcome was the total destruction of the Ottoman fleet.

The battle is known by this name not because it took place off the town of Nafpaktos but from the name of the gulf where it was fought, since in those days the whole of the Gulf of Patras was known by the Venetians as the Gulf of Lepanto (or Lepando).

The battle of Lepanto was one of the most momentous sea-battles in world history, on a par with the one fought by Mark Antony and Cleopatra against Octavian, which also took place in Greek waters off Actium (Aktion) in 31 B.C. Its historical importance has been rated second only to the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.

In the words of Nikos Patouchas [10],  the battle of Lepanto was, apart from anything else, ‘a historic turning-point in naval tactics and shipbuilding. This battle spelt the end of oared ships and the dawn of sailing-ships in sea-battles…. A history of oared seafaring going back 2,500 years or more, starting with the expedition of thε Argonauts, had come to an end, giving way to sail as the principal means of propulsion.’

15th-century war galley similar to those that took part in the battle of Lepanto.
One of those who fought at Lepanto as a non-commissioned officer on board the galley Marquesa was the famous writer Miguel de Cervantes, who received a serious wound to his left hand. He later described the battle as ‘the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see’.

νήες άμφιέλισσαι αμφοτέροθεν έλαυνόμεναι [11]
The Battle of Lepanto. Etching by Fernando Bertelli, Naval History Museum, Venice. 
On the left of the picture are the Oxiés Islands. Drawn up in line of battle in front of them is the combined European fleet; in the centre the united fleet of the Ottoman Empire can be seen in total disarray under the massed cannonade from the six galleasses. 

The victory of the European allies was greeted with jubilation in the West. Great contemporary painters, including Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, painted canvases depicting the battle and El Greco painted a portrait of the victorious commander, Don John of Austria. Admiral Jurien de la Gravière wrote, ‘Three times the fate of the world has hung upon the outcome of a great naval engagement: Salamis, Actium, Lepanto.’ In the words of Voltaire, ‘Never since the battle of Actium have Greek waters witnessed such a large fleet or so momentous a sea-battle.’ The Venetian historian Paolo Paruta described it as ‘one of the outstanding events of all time’. 

From all this evidence:

It now becomes clearer why Oxia – or rather Asteris, as it was then known – occupies such a dominant position in the Odyssey: because, thanks to its crucial strategic position, it was and has remained through the ages at the epicentre of maritime action, leaving its indelible mark on every period of history.

It now becomes clearer how and why, when the earlier, shorter epic called Telemacheia was incorporated piecemeal into the Odyssey, it brought with it its own topography, in which it appears that Oxia (then called Asteris) was at that time the outstanding natural landmark in the area and the central point of the narrative.   Later, probably in the Alexandrian period, it would seem that some scholars identified Asteris with what is now called Daskalio, whereupon the spurious lines were interpolated in an attempt to make that rocky islet fit in with the actual topography and the historical nomenclature of the Ionian Islands.

It now becomes clearer why Strabo (C 59-60) omits the dubious line of the Odyssey (4.845) when quoting Homer’s description of Asteris and does so consistently whenever he quotes that passage in his work; and also why he ignores the adverb μεσσηγύς (especially when used with reference to Asteris). This latter word he never mentions nor comments on, presumably because the disputed line (μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης) was interpolated at some time after he had written the Geographica (circa 20 B.C. – A.D. 20).

It now becomes clearer why the disputed line (4.845) and other interpolated or altered lines that have crept into Homer’s epics have frequently deflected scholarly research down blind alleys, as in the case of Asteris [12]. The example of the rocky islet of Daskalio, which was pronounced to be the ancient Asteris in an attempt to vindicate Homer’s accuracy while ‘identifying’ Homeric (Mycenaean?) Ithaca with the Ithaki of historic times, is a case in point.

It now becomes clearer why the Homeric epics refer to Asteris (the modern Oxia) as the island where the suitors vying for the throne of Ithaca set their murderous ambush, because the Oxiés Islands were at the centre of the area notorious for piracy from earliest antiquity until fairly recently: see Thucydides (I.5),  Euripides (Iphigeneia at Aulis, 283-288),  Livy (XXXVII.13.11-12)  and Niketas Choniates.

It now becomes clearer why, when Telemachos was sailing by night, heading for the waters around the Thoai (Oxiés), he was overcome by the fear of death. Obviously one of the Thoai Islands was Asteris, where the suitors, ensconced on its windswept heights or hidden in its safe harbours by day and patrolling the sea by night, were lying in wait to kill him.

It now becomes clearer why Strabo (C 457.16, C 59-60) – presumably having heard some rather vague story about the area’s mythological background to do with the silting up of the sea and the changes made by the River Acheloös to the coastline at its delta, which was probably the location of Asteris – felt the need to mention Asteris in the paragraph where he says that Artemita (the island next to Oxia) had become attached to the mainland by silt from the Acheloös, but without making any comment because he knew very little about the physical conformation of the islands of western Greece. It is well known that Strabo, who loved Homer’s works but unfortunately had not been to western Greece when he wrote his Geographica, made a fair number of factual mistakes, not deliberately, of course, but through lack of information.

It now becomes clearer why Apollodoros,  who was extremely knowledgeable on the subject of Greek mythology and knew about the position and morphology of Asteris (presumably from the myths), describes it exactly as it had been described by Homer. The alleged connection between Asteris and the small town of Alalkomenai, for which Strabo cites Apollodoros as his authority, is currently being investigated to establish whether or not it is true, and further papers on this subject will be published in due course. Be that as it may, the fact is on the isthmus of Oxia one can still see ruined dwellings and cisterns built to collect rainwater for the needs of the farmers and graziers who occupied that small settlement through the ages.

It now becomes clearer how it was possible for the suitors to spend twenty-eight consecutive days and nights on the island, for it offered them two safe havens for their ship and ample supplies of water and food, as it has done through the ages for the farmers and graziers living there.

It now becomes clearer why the islet of Asteris and another one called Prote are described by Pliny the Elder  in his Natural History (IV.54-55) as lying in the open sea about fifteen miles off Cape Araxos in the Peloponnese: Ab ea Araxum Peloponnesi promontorium  XV. ante hanc in alto Asteris, Prote. Fifteen miles is the actual distance between the island now called Oxia and Cape Araxos.

It now becomes clearer why Oxia is mentioned by Antipater, in his elegiac epigram on a certain Aristagoras who was shipwrecked in the harbour of Skarpheia, as one of the three most notoriously dangerous places in the Mediterranean for seafarers !!!. (Antipater, in Greek Anthology (in Greek), vol. VI, Kaktos Editions, Athens 2004, p. 146.)

Every sea is a sea. Why do we blame in vain the Cyclades 
or the narrow straits of the Hellespont or the Oxies islands?
Their reputation is empty;  For what reason did I have a safe passage there 
and it was the port of Scarfia that buried me? Whay?
Let us pray for everybody’s safe journey to his homeland; 
That the sea is a sea, Aristoghoras, who is buried here, knows this better.

Πᾶσα θάλασσα θάλασσα. τί Κυκλάδας ἢ στενὸν Ἕλλης 
κῦμα καὶ Ὀξείας ἠλεὰ μεμφόμεθα; 
ἄλλως τοὔνομ΄ ἔχουσιν. ἐπεὶ τί με, τὸν προφυγόντα 
κεῖνα, Σκαρφαιεὺς ἀμφεκάλυψε λιμήν; 
νόστιμον εὐπλοΐην ἀρῷτό τις· ὡς τά γε πόντου 
πόντος, ὁ τυμβευθεὶς οἶδεν Ἀρισταγόρης.

It now becomes clearer why, after 3,200 years, Oxia (Homer’s Asteris) is still as useful, valuable and irreplaceable for mariners as it was then, so much so that one of the most important lighthouses in the Ionian Sea has been built on the west side of the island. And, with its two safe anchorages providing shelter in stormy weather, it will always be an excellent place of refuge – or an excellent pirate lair – for as long as seafarers sail the Ionian Sea (see descriptions in portolans).

Having arrived at the end of this article, briefly we can say the following:

Essentially, the function of Asteris in the structure of the Odyssey is to serve as a ‘sailing direction’ for Mycenaean seafarers, telling them that at the junction of the Sound of Homeric Ithaca (Kephallenia) and the Gulf of Patras there is an island called Asteris (signifying that it is a ‘beacon’ or conspicuous landmark), and that from this rocky island lying right on their route they can confidently calculate their positions in relation to the principal destinations in the vicinity, such as Kephallenia (Ithaca), Ithaki (Samos) and the Peloponnese. It also informs them that the island has two harbours, one on each side, providing good anchorage and excellent shelter in stormy weather (ναύλοχοι λιμένες), while simultaneously warning them (by describing the suitors’ ambush) that it is a perfect lair for pirates and should therefore be approached only with great caution. It suggests that sailing by night is safest, presumably because of the presence of pirates. If one is sailing north from the Peloponnese, the island can only be avoided if there is a tail wind (οὖρον ὄπισθεν).

sailing with a tail wind (οὖρον ὄπισθεν)


Our original paper on the position of Asteris was written in 1990, long before the discovery of the large Mycenaean settlement at Riza -Tzannata, where excavations were put in hand in 2011 by Dr. Antonis Vasilakis three hundred metres north of the Mycenaean royal tholos tomb, (the royal tholos tomb which we discovered in 1991 and has been excavated in 1992-1994 by Dr. Lazaros Kolonas).

We deliberately decided – very wisely, as it turned out (see the unpublished paper by Odysseas Metaxas, which includes a summary of the arguments relating to the controversial line 845 in the fourth book of the Odyssey) – not to try to determine the positions of Homeric Ithaca and Samos when writing this paper about Asteris in the past. We had two main reasons for not committing ourselves on this point: one was that at that time we wanted to concentrate exclusively on Asteris, leaving the question of the positions of Ithaca and Samos to be dealt with in a later study; the other was that the Mycenaean city at Riza -Tzannata had not yet been discovered, so we had no way of determining its exact position in relation to Odysseus’ Megaron and the nearby harbour from which the suitors set sail for Asteris (Od. 4.778-786, 16.342-362).

Consequently, in the original paper we don't mention anything concerning the position of the port of Homeric Ithaca, which, according to Homer’s descriptions, was very near the city and Odysseus’ Megaron and was the suitors’ point of departure and return, even though we had by then firmly identified the harbour of Rheithron as being the ancient port of Pronnoi in the mouth of the River Vohynas at the bottom of the impressive Poros Gorge. (see:http://homericithaca.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-unique-harbour-of-rheithron-in.html.) The fact was, however, that we had yet to find incontrovertible archaeological evidence of the position of the Mycenaean settlement, and our views on the matter were strongly opposed by our son Odysseas, an archaeologist, who was convinced that the city must have been very near the monumental Mycenaean tholos tomb, on and around the low hills inland from the gorge. At that time we were still looking for the settlement on the higher hills directly above Poros, largely because from there anyone in the Megaron would have had a clear view of the sea and have been able to follow the course of a ship sailing to or from Oxia (Asteris), as described by Homer (Od. 16.342-362).

Exactly twenty more years were to go by before Dr.Antonis Vasilakis arrived in Kephallenia to dig at the site, and the exciting results of his excavations proved that our son Odysseas had been absolutely right. These results also show that Homer’s descriptions fit the picture visible from the one and only place in the Iraklio valley that would have given the Mycenaean city that splendid view of the sea and Asteris (Oxia), as Homer says it did.

It is appropiate to use the saying ‘One picture is worth a thousand words’ with reference to the commanding view from the Asty of Homeric Ithaca over the harbour of Rheithron and right across the sea to the isle of Asteris (Oxia).

The view from the Mycenaean settlement, looking over the harbour of Rheithron and across the sea to the isle of Asteris (Oxia).

The harbour of Rheithron lies hidden at the mouth of the Poros Gorge.
In the background is Asteris (now Oxia) with its two harbours on opposite sides. Asteris was ideally placed as a maritime checkpoint, a point of reference and a messaging station for communications to and from the Mycenaean administrative centre for the western Greek islands, whose ruler at the time of the Trojan War, according to Homer, was Odysseus the son of Laertes.

It now becomes clearer why Homer, when reporting the suitors’ arrival at the ‘very deep’ (πολυβενθής) harbour of the city of Ithaca (Od. 16.342=362) (which he describes elsewhere (Od. 1.178-186) as the ‘harbour of Rheithron’), tells us that from the palace it was possible to look out across the sea and witness the arrival of the suitors’ ship from Asteris. What he says is that Amphinomos, gazing out over the water and seeing the suitors’ ship nearing the harbour on its return from Asteris and lowering the sails to reduce headway, called the other suitors so that they could see for themselves. Thereupon they all went down to the port to beach the ship and then hurried back to the agora.

Now the wooers were troubled and downcast in spirit, and forth they went from the hall past the great wall of the court, and there in front of the gates they held their session. And Eurymachus son of Polybus first spake among them saying:'Verily, friends, a proud deed hath Telemachus accomplished with a high hand, even this journey, and we said that he should never bring it to pass. But come, launch we a black ship, the best there is, and let us get together oarsmen of the sea, who shall straightway bear word to our friends to return home with speed.'The word was yet on his lips, when Amphinomus turned in his place and saw the ship within the deep harbour, and the men lowering the sails and with the oars in their hands. Then sweetly he laughed out and spake among his fellows:'Nay, let us now send no message any more, for lo, they are come home. Either some god has told them all or they themselves have seen the ship of Telemachus go by, and have not been able to catch her.' Thus he spake, and they arose and went to the sea-banks. Swiftly the men drew up the black ship on the shore, and squires, haughty of heart, bare away their weapons. And the wooers all together went to the assembly-place, and suffered none other to sit with them, either of the young men or of the elders.     (Od. 16.342-362).

                                                                                                    Translated by S. Butcher and A. Lang
μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἀκάχοντο κατήφησάν τ᾽ ἐνὶ θυμῷ,
ἐκ δ᾽ ἦλθον μεγάροιο παρὲκ μέγα τειχίον αὐλῆς,
αὐτοῦ δὲ προπάροιθε θυράων ἑδριόωντο.
τοῖσιν δ᾽ Εὐρύμαχος, Πολύβου πάϊς, ἦρχ᾽ ἀγορεύειν· 345
"ὦ φίλοι, ἦ μέγα ἔργον ὑπερφιάλως τετέλεσται
Τηλεμάχῳ ὁδὸς ἥδε· φάμεν δέ οἱ οὐ τελέεσθαι.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε νῆα μέλαιναν ἐρύσσομεν ἥ τις ἀρίστη,
ἐς δ᾽ ἐρέτας ἁλιῆας ἀγείρομεν, οἵ κε τάχιστα
κείνοις ἀγγείλωσι θοῶς οἶκόνδε νέεσθαι." 350
οὔ πω πᾶν εἴρηθ᾽, ὅτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Ἀμφίνομος ἴδε νῆα,
στρεφθεὶς ἐκ χώρης, λιμένος πολυβενθέος ἐντός,
ἱστία τε στέλλοντας ἐρετμά τε χερσὶν ἔχοντας.
ἡδὺ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐκγελάσας μετεφώνεεν οἷς ἑτάροισι·
"μή τιν᾽ ἔτ᾽ ἀγγελίην ὀτρύνομεν· οἵδε γὰρ ἔνδον. 355
ἤ τίς σφιν τόδ᾽ ἔειπε θεῶν, ἢ εἴσιδον αὐτοὶ
νῆα παρερχομένην, τὴν δ᾽ οὐκ ἐδύναντο κιχῆναι."
ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, οἱ δ᾽ ἀνστάντες ἔβαν ἐπὶ θῖνα θαλάσσης,
αἶψα δὲ νῆα μέλαιναν ἐπ᾽ ἠπείροιο ἔρυσσαν,
τεύχεα δέ σφ᾽ ἀπένεικαν ὑπέρθυμοι θεράποντες. 360
αὐτοὶ δ᾽ εἰς ἀγορὴν κίον ἀθρόοι, οὐδέ τιν᾽ ἄλλον
εἴων οὔτε νέων μεταΐζειν οὔτε γερόντων.                        (Od. 16.342-362).

 _________ Path taken by the suitors  from the city to the harbour

Photorealistic representation of the littoral of ὑπονήιος Ἰθάκη, in the Late Helladic period. It shows the entrance to the harbour of Rheithron (‘the harbour in the river bed’) and, in the background, Mt. Neriton (Ainos). Photograph processed by the artist Avraam Panagatos

[It is important to mention here one specific detail of Homer’s topography (Od. 1.178-186) which provides us with a valuable confirmation of the position of the palace in relation to the port. When a vessel was approaching its moorings and was actually in the gorge, it was no longer visible from the palace. That was why, when ‘Mentes’ arrived at the palace and told Telemachos who he was and where he had come from, he felt it necessary to explain exactly how he had moored his ship in the harbour of Rheithron near the city.]

Aerial photograph of Poros from the east, showing the Poros Gorge and the mouth of the River Vohynas, where the ‘harbour of Rheithron’ (or ‘harbour of the river bed’) was located. At the end of the Gorge appears the Katsivelata Hill with the remains of the Mycenaean town.
(Photo: Kostas Koklanos).

Aerial photograph from the west, showing the Poros Gorge (the ‘harbour of Rheithron’) and Katsivelata Hill, where excavators uncovered the remains of the Asty, (Photo:  K. Koklanos).

Once this item of information has been confirmed, one inevitably finds a number of similar items scattered here and there in Homer’s text that need to be collated and checked, relating to the position, form and appearance of the city, harbour and palace, as well as topographical and architectural references to the position, fortification, typology and design of Odysseus’ palace. Many of these could be very useful to excavators.

In the present phase of this study we can briefly conclude the following: The confirmation of the position of Asteris, combined with Homer’s descriptions of the positions of the harbour, Odysseus’ palace, the Asty and the so-called agora, are of crucial importance towards understanding Homeric topography as a whole. We are now in a position to validate or disprove the overall topography of Homeric Ithaca with greater certainty.

We shall be publishing a paper on this topic when the archaeologists have made sufficient progress with identifying the excavated sites and the protection and enhancement of the controversial area is assured.

Odysseus slaying the suitors. Gustav Schwab, 1882.


The offprint entitled "ASTERIS: The island of the suitors"  is one of several self-contained, popularized excerpts from a much longer work on the Homeric geography and topography of Western Greece.

Bearing in mind the particular readership for which this paper is intended, we have deliberately eschewed analysis of specialized issues and excessive use of citations and footnotes, which are mainly of interest to specialists in Homeric studies.

In this series we shall be publishing books, D.V.D, articles and papers which address primarily  academics and scholars and all readers of the learned journals dealing with the subject.

The purpose of these offprints is to bring to the attention of anybody interested in the subject, summarily and in an easily readable form (with more illustrations and fewer citations), the new theories and hypotheses put forward concerning the prehistoric era in Western Greece, giving those who so wish to be involved in and supporters of the systematic study of the subject at every level of scholarly endeavour.

The Society for the Study of Prehistoric Kephallenia, actively supports the project outlined above, and welcomes any collaborative effort that might help to achieve its goals. (See  email address at foot of this page)

Bearing in mind the dictum of the famous poet Seamus Heaney that ‘the only weapon of resistance left to contemporary man is memory,’ we have dedicated the chapter entitled ‘Following Homer’s narrative’  to two members of our research team who have recently passed away.

To the memory of Yannis Valsamis we have embellished (perhaps over-embellished!) the text of Homer’s narrative with numerous pictures of ancient ships, which Yannis liked to paint, and reproductions of the frescoes from Thera, which were his favourite subject.

To Yannis Zouganelis we have dedicated the Postscript; or rather, to be more precise, he has dedicated the Postscript to us as an offering to the prefix amphi-,«αμφί» which has enriched the Greek language with so many inimitable compound words. The adjective amphidymos (αμφίδυμος), referring to the twin harbours (one on either side) of Asteris, is added to the long list of 67 compounds with the prefix amphi- which he retrieved from oblivion. We dedicate it to his memory.

Text &Copyright: Hettie Putman Cramer & Makis Metaxas

Society for the Study of Prehistoric Kephallenia: 
Information:  email: reithron@hotmail.com


[1]V. Katsaros, Βυζαντινά [Byzantina], vol. 13, pp. 1527-1528; Hélène Yannakopoulou, ‘Quelques repaires de pirates en Grèce de l’Ouest, lieux de commerce illégal (du XVIe au XVIIIe siècles)’, in Économies méditerranéennes, équilibres et intercommunications XIIIe-XIXe siècles, Actes du IIe Colloque international d’Histoire, II, Athens 1985, 526.

[2]Georgios Souris, «Η σημασία της Κεφαλλωνιάς για τα Ελληνιστικά κράτη και τη Ρώμη», Kefalliniaka Chronika, vol.1 p. 113; Joseph Partsch, Kephallenia and Ithaka, 112.

[3]Thucydides, i.5: ‘For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates, under the conduct of their most powerful men; the motives being to serve their own cupidity and to support the needy. They would fall upon a town unprotected by walls, and consisting of a mere collection of villages, and would plunder it; indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory. An illustration of this is furnished by the honour with which some of the inhabitants of the continent still regard a successful marauder, and by the question we find the old poets everywhere representing the people as asking of voyagers – “Are they pirates?” – as if those who are asked the question would have no idea of disclaiming the imputation, or their interrogators of reproaching them for it. The same rapine prevailed also by land. And even at the present day many parts of Hellas still follow the old fashion, the Ozolian Locrians, for instance, the Aetolians, the Acarnanians, and that region of the continent; and the custom of carrying arms is still kept up among these continentals, from the old piratical habits.’

[4]Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis, 283-288: ‘Likewise he led the Taphian warriors with the white oar-blades, the subjects of Meges, son of Phyleus, who had left the isles of the Echinades, where sailors cannot land.’

[5]Livy, xxxvii.13.11-12: ‘Then the praetor sent two triremes of the allies from Italy and two from Rhodes, with Epicrates the Rhodian in command, to defend the strait of Cephallania. The Spartan Hybristas with the young men of the Cephallanians was making this dangerous with his piracy, and the sea was already closed to supplies from Italy.’

[6]Homer, Il. 2.735.

[7]Pliny, Natural History II (v.36.1, iv.66), Harvard University Press 1947.
[8]Hesychios of Alexandria, Lexicon, anastatic edition, Georgiadis 1975, 246
[9]Stephanos of Byzantium, Ethnicorum, Berlin,1849, 138-139.
[10]Nikos Patouchas, Wikipedia.  
[11]Giannis Zouganelis "όσα φέρνει ο άνεμος" γράμμα στον Νίκο Καρούζο

Following Homer’s narrative

In memory of Yannis Valsamis & Yannis Zouganelis

«ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε μοι δότε νῆα θοὴν καὶ εἴκοσ᾽ ἑταίρους,     But give me a fast ship and twenty men, 
ὄφρα μιν αὐτὸν ἰόντα λοχήσομαι ἠδὲ φυλάξω          and I will set an ambush to catch him 
ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης,        as he sails home through the channel between Ithaca and rugged Samos. 
ὡς ἂν ἐπισμυγερῶς ναυτίλλεται εἵνεκα πατρός.»      Then all his voyaging in search of his father will come to a grim end.’
                                              ( Οδ. δ 669-672)                                                                                                (Od. 4.669-672)

Frescoes from Thera depicting Bronze Age ships

ὣς εἰπὼν ἐκρίνατ᾽ ἐείκοσι φῶτας ἀρίστους,                   Thereupon he picked the twenty bravest men 

βὰν δ᾽ ἰέναι ἐπὶ νῆα θοὴν καὶ θῖνα θαλάσσης.                and they went off to the swift ship on the seashore. 
νῆα μὲν οὖν πάμπρωτον ἁλὸς βένθοσδε ἔρυσσαν,          First of all they ran the ship down into deep water, 
ἐν δ᾽ ἱστόν τ᾽ ἐτίθεντο καὶ ἱστία νηὶ μελαίνῃ,                  stepped the mast and rigged the sails in the black ship, 
ἠρτύναντο δ᾽ ἐρετμὰ τροποῖς ἐν δερματίνοισιν,               f xed the oars in the leather thole-straps, 
πάντα κατὰ μοῖραν, ἀνά θ᾽ ἱστία λευκὰ πέτασσαν·          all shipshape, and spread the white sails. 
τεύχεα δέ σφ᾽ ἤνεικαν ὑπέρθυμοι θεράποντες.                Meanwhile their willing menservants brought them their weapons. 
ὑψοῦ δ᾽ ἐν νοτίῳ τήν γ᾽ ὥρμισαν, ἐκ δ᾽ ἔβαν αὐτοί·        They moored the ship well out in the harbour, went back ashore 
ἔνθα δὲ δόρπον ἕλοντο, μένον δ᾽ ἐπὶ ἕσπερον ἐλθεῖν.      and there had their supper, waiting for nightfall.
                                                           (Οδ. δ, 778-786)                                                                                         (Od. 4.778-786)

Frescoes from Thera depicting Bronze Age ships

μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἀναβάντες ἐπέπλεον ὑγρὰ κέλευθα        Meanwhile the suitors had embarked and were sailing the seas, 
Τηλεμάχῳ φόνον αἰπὺν ἐνὶ φρεσὶν ὁρμαίνοντες.          lotting foul murder against Telemachos. 
ἔστι δέ τις νῆσος μέσσῃ ἁλὶ πετρήεσσα,                       There is a rocky island in the middle of the sea, 
μεσσηγὺς Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης,             midway between Ithaca and rugged Samos, 
Ἀστερίς, οὐ μεγάλη· λιμένες δ᾽ ἔνι ναύλοχοι αὐτῇ       called Asteris. It is of no great size, but it has safe harbours, 
ἀμφίδυμοι· τῇ τόν γε μένον λοχόωντες Ἀχαιοί.        one on each side; and there the Achaians set their ambush for Telemachos.
        (Οδ. δ 842-847)                                                                                                                     (Od. 4.842-847)
Frescoes from Thera depicting Bronze Age ships

«ἄλλο δέ τοί τι ἔπος ἐρέω, σὺ δὲ σύνθεο θυμῷ.            And I will tell you something else: take heed of what I say. 
μνηστήρων σ᾽ ἐπιτηδὲς ἀριστῆες λοχόωσιν                  The bravest of the suitors are lying in wait for you 
ἐν πορθμῷ Ἰθάκης τε Σάμοιό τε παιπαλοέσσης.           in the channel between Ithaca and rugged Samos, 
ἱέμενοι κτεῖναι, πρὶν πατρίδα γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι.                intent on murdering you before you reach your native land. 
ἀλλὰ τά γ᾽ οὐκ ὀΐω· πρὶν καί τινα γαῖα καθέξει      But I do not think they will succeed: sooner than that, several of the suitors 
ἀνδρῶν μνηστήρων, οἵ τοι βίοτον κατέδουσιν.           who are devouring your substance will themselves be laid in the earth. 
ἀλλὰ ἑκὰς νήσων ἀπέχειν εὐεργέα νῆα,                         However, keep your good ship well clear of the islands 
νυκτὶ δ᾽ ὁμῶς πλείειν· πέμψει δέ τοι οὖρον ὄπισθεν      and sail on through the night, and the immortal deity 
ἀθανάτων ὅς τίς σε φυλάσσει τε ῥύεταί τε.                     who guards and protects you will send you a following breeze. 
αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν πρώτην ἀκτὴν Ἰθάκης ἀφίκηαι,                   When you reach the first point on the coast of Ithaca, 
νῆα μὲν ἐς πόλιν ὀτρῦναι καὶ πάντας ἑταίρους,              send the ship and all your companions on to the city; 
αὐτὸς δὲ πρώτιστα συβώτην εἰσαφικέσθαι,                    you yourself must go first of all to the swineherd 
ὅς τοι ὑῶν ἐπίουρος, ὁμῶς δέ τοι ἤπια οἶδεν.               who keeps your pigs and is fond of you. 
ἔνθα δὲ νύκτ᾽ ἀέσαι· τὸν δ᾽ ὀτρῦναι πόλιν εἴσω             Spend the night there and then send him to the city 
ἀγγελίην ἐρέοντα περίφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ,                       to tell wise Penelope 
οὕνεκά οἱ σῶς ἐσσὶ καὶ ἐκ Πύλου εἰλήλουθας.»               that you are safely back from Pylos.’
                                                  (Οδ. ο 27-42)                                                                                                  (Od. 15.27-42) 

Merchant vessel of the Homeric age similar to the one Telemachos borrowed to go to Pylos.

Τηλέμαχος δ᾽ ἑτάροισιν ἐποτρύνας ἐκέλευσεν           Telemachos called to his men and told them 
ὅπλων ἅπτεσθαι· τοὶ δ᾽ ἐσσυμένως ἐπίθοντο.            to lay hold of the tackle. They obeyed at once, 
ἱστὸν δ᾽ εἰλάτινον κοίλης ἔντοσθε μεσόδμης              hauled up the fir mast, stepped it in its hollow box, 
στῆσαν ἀείραντες, κατὰ δὲ προτόνοισιν ἔδησαν,        made it fast with forestays 
ἕλκον δ᾽ ἱστία λευκὰ ἐϋστρέπτοισι βοεῦσι.                  and hoisted the white sail with plaited thongs of oxhide. 
τοῖσιν δ᾽ ἴκμενον οὖρον ἵει γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη,           And flashing-eyed Athena sent them a boisterous wind 
λάβρον ἐπαιγίζοντα δι᾽ αἰθέρος, ὄφρα τάχιστα           blowing strongly from astern through the clear air, 
νηῦς ἀνύσειε θέουσα θαλάσσης ἁλμυρὸν ὕδωρ.         to send the ship racing across the briny sea. 
βὰν δὲ παρὰ Κρουνοὺς καὶ Χαλκίδα καλλιρέεθρον.    So they sailed past Krounoi and Chalkis with its beautiful streams. 
δύσετό τ᾽ ἠέλιος σκιόωντό τε πᾶσαι ἀγυιαί·                Now the sun set and all the ways grew dark. 
ἡ δὲ Φεὰς ἐπέβαλλεν ἐπειγομένη Διὸς οὔρῳ               And the ship drew near to Pheai, sped by the favourable wind of Zeus, 
ἠδὲ παρ᾽ Ἤλιδα δῖαν, ὅθι κρατέουσιν Ἐπειοί.            and on past goodly Elis, where the Epeians rule. 
ἔνθεν δ᾽ αὖ νήσοισιν ἐπιπροέηκε θοῇσιν,                    From there he steered for the Pointed Islands, 
ὁρμαίνων ἤ κεν θάνατον φύγοι ἦ κεν ἁλώῃ.                wondering whether he would come through alive or be caught.
                                                   (Οδ. ο, 287-300)                                                                              (Od. 15.287-300)
Merchant vessel of the Homeric age similar to the one Telemachos borrowed to go to Pylos

αἶψα γὰρ Ἠὼς ἦλθεν ἐΰθρονος. οἱ δ᾽ ἐπὶ χέρσου    Soon Dawn was on her golden throne and the ship was nearing the shore. 
Τηλεμάχου ἕταροι λύον ἱστία, κὰδ δ᾽ ἕλον ἱστὸν               elemachos’ comrades struck sail, lowered the mast quickly 
καρπαλίμως, τὴν δ᾽ εἰς ὅρμον προέρυσσαν ἐρετμοῖς·       and rowed the ship into the harbour with their oars. 
ἐκ δ᾽ εὐνὰς ἔβαλον, κατὰ δὲ πρυμνήσι᾽ ἔδησαν·               Then they dropped anchor, made the stern cables fast, 
ἐκ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ βαῖνον ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖνι θαλάσσης,                   jumped ashore and prepared their meal 
δεῖπνόν τ᾽ ἐντύνοντο κερῶντό τε αἴθοπα οἶνον.               and mixed the fiery wine. 
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο,                    When they had eaten and drunk their fill, 
τοῖσι δὲ Τηλέμαχος πεπνυμένος ἤρχετο μύθων·               wise Telemachos broke the silence: 
«ὑμεῖς μὲν νῦν ἄστυδ᾽ ἐλαύνετε νῆα μέλαιναν,                Row the black ship round to the city,’ he said, 
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἀγροὺς ἐπιείσομαι ἠδὲ βοτῆρας·                  ‘while I pay a visit to the fields and the herdsmen. 
ἑσπέριος δ᾽ εἰς ἄστυ ἰδὼν ἐμὰ ἔργα κάτειμι.»                 I will come to the city this evening, when I have looked over my lands.’
                                           ( Οδ. ο, 495-505)                                                                                           (Od. 15.495-505)

Warship of the Homeric age, similar to that of the suitors and those of Odysseus at the time of the Trojan War.

τοῖσιν δ᾽ Ἀντίνοος μετέφη, Εὐπείθεος υἱός·                 Then spoke Antinoös, Eupeithes’ son: 
«ὢ πόποι, ὡς τόνδ᾽ ἄνδρα θεοὶ κακότητος ἔλυσαν.      Damn it all, the gods have delivered this man from destruction! 
ἤματα μὲν σκοποὶ ἷζον ἐπ᾽ ἄκριας ἠνεμοέσσας             Day after day watchmen have sat upon the windy heights, 
αἰὲν ἐπασσύτεροι· ἅμα δ᾽ ἠελίῳ καταδύντι                   one shift following another, and after sunset 
οὔ ποτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἠπείρου νύκτ᾽ ἄσαμεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐνὶ πόντῳ      we have never spent a night ashore but have waited for the bright Dawn 
νηῒ θοῇ πλείοντες ἐμίμνομεν Ἠῶ δῖαν,                         sailing the sea in our swift ship, 
Τηλέμαχον λοχόωντες, ἵνα φθίσωμεν ἑλόντες               lying in wait for Telemachos to catch him and finish him off; 
αὐτόν· τὸν δ᾽ ἄρα τῆος ἀπήγαγεν οἴκαδε δαίμων.»       but meanwhile some god has brought him home.’
                                                       (Οδ. π.363-370)                                                                                  (Od. 16.363-370)

       Two Mycenaean rhyta in the shape of warships. Below, drawing of a ship on a sherd of Bronze Age pottery.

5 σχόλια:

  1. I am Very impressed by this blog. Kefalonia and Ithaca are my favourite places on planet Earth. Been there once and for the First time in my whole life I Felt I belonged to a place. Every Hill, every Stone, every body of water had a meaning. It was as If I once lived there. At Myrtos Beach I picked up a piece of Stone. A White marble. Larger than a large pebble. It was the size of my hand. Never had the chance to return there. But that piece of marble travelled with me to wherever I went to: Europe, Asia,África, South Pacífic, South América. And many, many years after my stay in Argostoli I realised that that piece of marble had a shape made by the Sea and its waves: the shape of an owl. That was pure magic.And It Gave me a new meaning about how I first felt about those two Islands. It is home to me. It feels like home. And I am not Greek. But in spirit my heart belongs there.

  2. Why you did not look for Ithaca on the Adriatic sea ?There you Will find Ithaca-island Unije and Asteris-island Vele i Male Srakane.

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