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standard-title Lefkada – Homer’s Ithaca

Lefkada – Homer’s Ithaca

Wilhelm Doerpfeld

Excavation in Nydri – Wilhelm Dörpfeld

Wilhelm Dörpfeld was a German architect who became famous because of his work in classical archaeology. He participated in the excavations at ancient Olympia in 1877. In 1882 he followed Heinrich Schliemann to his expeditions in Troy and other places. In 1886 he founded the German School of Athens. Consequently he started the excavations in Ithaca and, immediately after, in Lefkada. He died in 1940 and was buried at the small peninsula of Agia Kyriaki, across from Nydri.

In an effort to discover the Homeric Ithaca, Dörpfeld started his excavations on the nowadays homonymous island in 1900. The study of his findings, however, did not convince him that the island was actually the Homeric Ithaca. A little later he visited Lefkada and, even before he started working there, he recognised, while sailing, some locations that fit Homer’s descriptions about Ulysses’ island.

His excavations in Lefkada began in 1901 end were completed by 1914. The sites where the works took place were mainly around the broader region of Vlyho (Amali, Steno), at the plain of Nydri and on the south-eastern slopes of Mount Skaros. There were findings at other places of the island as well, for example, tower ruins at Poros and on the plateau of Eglouvi, a Doric temple at Agios Ioannis in Rodaki of Vournika, potsherds at the so called “Hirospilia” (Pig Cave) in Evgiros, the ancient Corinthian town “Lefkas” north of present-day Lefkada, remains of an ancient temple at the cape of Lefkatas etc.

Dörpfeld’s hypothesis was mainly based on the lyrics 21 – 26 of rhapsody I of Odyssey, where four islands are mentioned:

“I dwell in Ithaca, the island with the beautiful sunset. Over it there is the mount
Niritton full of trees and powerful, and around Ithaca there are many islands
Very close one to the other
That is, Doulihion and Sami and the dense Zakynthos
This (Ithaca) is close to the coast, being the last one of all islands to the west
The other islands are far from the coast to the east and the sun…”

For the German antiquarian Ithaca of these verses was modern-day Lefkada, Doulihio was Cephalonia, Sami was modern-day Ithaca and Zakynthos was identified as the contemporary island of Zakynthos.

The locations of the island that, according to Dörpfeld, match the ones that Homer describes are the following:

  • The site of the Steno between the villages of Vlyho and Nydri: The town of Ithaca.
  • The bay of Vlyho: The port of the town.
  • The mountain Elati and particularly the mountain peak Lainaki: Mount Niriton.
  • Mavroneri, a spring under the village Palaiokatouna, southwest of Nydri: The “black water” fountain.
  • The top of the hill Amali, at the foothills of which the village of Vlyho is located: The hill of Hermes.
  • Mount Skaros: Mount Niion.
  • The mouth of Dimosaris, a torrent that flows through the plain of Nydri: The port of Reithron.
  • The so called “estate of Pasha” at Perigiali, over the homonymous beach: The estate of Laertes, father of Ulysses.
  • The Pig Cave (“Hirospilia”) south of the village Evgiros: The pigsty of Eumaeus.
  • The islet of Arkoudi, south of Lefkada: The islet Asteris.
  • The bay of Skydi (or Afteli) south of the village Evgiros: The bay where Telemachus landed.
  • The islands of Kalamos and Kastos, east of Lefkada: The Homeric islands of the Taphians.
  • The bay of the village Syvota: The port of Phorkynos.
  • The broader region around the castle of Agios Georgios at the village of Plagia in Acarnania, across the modern-day village of Karyotes: Nirikos of the classical age.

To the disputants of his theory, who claimed, based upon the ancient geographer Strabo, that Lefkada in the antiquity was not an island, Dörpfeld responded that the opening of the canal between the island and Acarnania by the Corinthians in the 7th century BC concerned the removal of deposited materials in order to deepen the lagoon.

The island’s name changed in 1100 BC when the Dorians conquered the island that is now called Lefkada, which was then called Ithaca. Its residents fled to what was then the island of Sami and called it Ithaca in remembrance of their old homeland.

 

The grave of Wilhelm Dörpfeld at that cape of Agia Kyriaki.

The grave of Wilhelm Dörpfeld at that cape of Agia Kyriaki.

Dörpfeld published all the results of his lifelong research in his monumental work “Alt Ithaka” (München, 1927). “Alt Ithaka” was translated into Greek by Vassilis Fragkoulis under the title “Lefkas, the Homeric Ithaca”, in the Yearbook of the Lefkadian Studies’ Society, B 1972 (Athens, 1973). Fragkoulis added quite a few of his own remarks to Dörpfeld’s text.

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