By Mary Beard
In the Ninth Book of Homer’s Odyssey, washed up in Phaeacia in the course of his long journey home from the Trojan War, Odysseus describes his native land to his host, King Alcinoos. He hails, he explains, from “clear-seen Ithaca . . . lying low in the sea”, the westernmost (“the furthest towards the dark”) of a group of islands, which also includes “Doulichion, Same [or ‘Samos’] and wooded Zacynthos”. We can infer more about the layout and location of Ithaca from other Homeric references. To judge, for example, from the detailed account of how Odysseus’ son, Telemachos, set out from the island to visit old King Nestor in Pylos, Ithaca’s harbour was so placed that ships could leave it “driven by a strong following wind from the west”. Then again, when Telemachos returns, his mother’s suitors lay an ambush for him on an island with two harbours, “in the straits between Ithaca and rugged Samos”.