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The Greek connection and a major discovery

cr_ithaca_cephalonia.jpg

Cephalonia, famous among British travellers for having one of the most beautiful beaches in the world

For centuries Brits in school were shaped by reading Greek classics in the original. They were inspired by the Greeks' heart-stopping victories for freedom. They respected the rational examination of questions developed by Socrates and his respect for law though it cost him his life. And they loved the adventures of Odysseus and his return at last to his island home, where he meets both loyalty and treachery. (I have always loved that scene where Odysseus sees his faithful old dog Argos trying to crawl toward him, to greet him, and Odysseus, in disguise, wipes away a secret tear.)

Cephalonia lies off the west coast of Greece. Mediterranean naval strategy rather than ideas about freedom probably impelled Brits to liberate Cephalonia and the other Ionian islands from the French. They established a parliament and rule by law for the United States of the Ionian Islands in 1815.

But a feeling for Greek freedom certainly inspired Admiral Edward Codrington, one of Nelson's captains and a hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. He risked his career and his life to lead the Royal Navy against the Ottoman Navy to free Greece from Ottoman rule. On October 20, 1827, with the commanders of French and Russian squadrons who joined him, Codrington led the Royal Navy to victory against the Ottoman Navy at the Battle of Navarino. With this essential assist the Greeks were able to win their freedom from the Turks. On March 22, 1829 they created the free nation of Greece, and in 1864 the Ionian Islands became part of Greece.

One of those islands bore the name Ithaca, the island kingdom of Odysseus, who left it for the Trojan War and a twenty-year odyssey. But the real island did not agree with the description in Homer's Odyssey.

My island, said Odysseus, is surrounded by a ring of islands. It lies low and away, the farthest out to sea, rearing into the western dusk while the others face the east and breaking day. The island called Ithaca faces east, is not farthest out to sea, and does not lie low.

Homer might well have been making the island up, but after Schliemann discovered Mycenae and a city that appeared to be Troy based on Homer's descriptions, there was a feeling that Ithaca must have existed. However, just as Odysseus was the master of disguise, his island was masterfully disguised, and for two thousand years could not be found.

Enter amateur British explorer Robert Bittlestone.

Bittleston was educated in the Classics and science at Cambridge. He went on to found a financial analysis company called Metapraxis, and to marry and raise children, but he had never been able to get Ithaca out of his mind. Where was this island of palaces and beaches, loyal wife and dissolute suitors, true swineherd and affectionate son?

Even Odysseus was tricked by his island. Arriving after twenty years away, Ithaca showed him an unaccustomed face, the pathways stretching far into the distance, the quiet bays, the crags and precipices, the leafy trees. He didn't recognize it when he awoke, after being deposited while asleep in an inlet sacred to Phorkys, the ancient of the sea, where two detached headlands of sheer cliff stand forth and screen a harbour between their steeps against the great breakers. . .

He asked the first person he met - the goddess Athena disguised as a boy - where he was - what land, what government, what people we have here.

Playing with him, Athena told Odysseus he must be very ignorant not to know - The corn-yield here has no limit and wine is made. The rains never fall short nor the refreshment of dews. Goats find plenteous grazing and cattle, pasture. The isle has every sort of timber-tree and perennial springs. Because of all these things, stranger, the name is ITHACA. . ..

He was home.

Thousands of years later, and after intense exploration, Bittlestone thought he knew where that home was. Recently he has received support for his thesis. It seems likely that he has discovered the island of Odysseus.

Bittlestone believes that the island of Ithaca lay just west of Cephalonia, separated by a water channel.

In 2005, with Cambridge classics scholar John Underhill and Cambridge geologist James Diggle, he published his theory in Odysseus Unbound (Cambridge University Press). The book is filled with hundreds of maps, photographs and satellite images, and was persuasive, but not conclusive, that earthquakes and landslides had filled the sea channel lying between Ithaca and Cephalonia, creating one island out of two.

Geological evidence that has just been released seems to confirm Bittlestone's theory. Bittlestone has also found many physical details that match Homer's description, though not his palace or the bedroom of Odysseus and Penelope with their bed built from a living olive tree.

Gazing into the sunset, after so many years away, Odysseus did not stay at home. An extraordinary number of Brits followed him west.

Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die. 

Tennyson, 'Ulysses'

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