When we first decided to travel in this part of the world – with most of our travels by ship or boat – I decided to read the Odyssey. It has been a struggle. I downloaded a free version from Amazon onto my kindle, but in all honesty, none of it made that much sense to me. I kept reading a paragraph and then putting it down – getting pretty discouraged. The book I was trying to read made no mention of Odysseus – but kept talking about Ulysses. Turns out the translation I picked used Roman names instead of Greek names. Who’d have guessed! With help from my daughter (who was visiting) I found a better translation and was on my way – finding the Odyssey very readable with the right translation. Who would have guessed!
The Odyssey is a work of fiction – but people have been trying to link the places mentioned in the poem to real places for many many centuries. It is generally believed that Homer lived during the 7th or 8th centuries BC – although some believe he lived perhaps six centuries earlier – or several centuries later. The Greek empire was spread far and wide, and Homer may have heard tales from sailors that he wove into Odysseus’s tale. Or perhaps there was an Odysseus, and he did see some of the places mentioned in his poem as he traveled home after the Trojan War. The Trojan War (if it indeed occurred) is dated at 1194-1184 BC, which roughly corresponds with a fire that destroyed the city in Turkey, now thought to be Troy. So even if the tales occurred in some form or another, they probably weren’t captured in written form (but may have been passed down as oral poems) for centuries. None of this has stopped people from trying to make geographic sense of Odyssey’s wanderings.
Much of the wanderings were thought to have taken place in Sicily, the Aeolian Islands, and on up to the Bay of Naples. Of all the places mentioned in the poem, the Aeolian Islands stand out as perhaps one of the easier places to identify. In Book X of the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew encounter King Aeolus and his family on an island.
“a great floating island it was, and round it all
huge ramparts rise of indestructible bronze
and sheer rock cliffs shoot up from sea to sky.”
In the poem, King Aeolus (Aeolus was the Greek demi-god for winds) stowed the winds in a sack and gave them to Odysseus, all except the west wind. This, he left out so that it could blow Odysseus and his crew home. Almost reaching home in Ithaca, the crew grew suspicious and jealous of Odysseus, thinking that the sack contained treasures that Odysseus wasn’t planning to share. They opened it – releasing the winds and blowing them back to Aeolus.
Polybius (c.200-c.118 BC) is one of the earliest geographers to try to place Odyssey’s journey to specific geographic locations. He placed King Aeolus on one of the Aeolian islands (which is perhaps how they earned their name).
“Between Lipari and Sicily is the island they call Hiera Hephaistrous (sacred to Hephaistos), stony, deserted and burnt. It has three eruptive mouths that look like craters. From the largest the flames even throw masses which have already blocked part of the straight.
Of the three craters one has partly fallen in, the other two remain perfect. When a south wind is about to blow, a thick mist envelopes the little island, so that even Sicily is invisible from it: but if there is going to be a north wind, bright flames rise from the crater and shoot up high, and louder rumblings are emitted; but a west wind causes a medium display of both. The other two craters are of the same shape, but their eruptions are less violent. From the difference in the sound of the rumbling, and by observing from what point the eruptions and flames and smoke begin, the wind which is to blow on the third day from that time can be foretold. At least, some men in the Lipari Islands when weather-bound have foretold what wind was coming and have not been deceived. Therefore, it appears that Homer did not speak without meaning, but was stating a truth allegorically when he called Aeolus “steward of the winds.” . . .”
The island Polybius described is now named Vulcano after the Roman god of fire. The Romans, it seems, renamed this island (Hephaistos was the Greek god of fire) but did not rename the island archipelago after their own god of wind.
Of course not all historic geographers are in agreement that Vulcano is the actual island where King Aeolus dwelt (or technically Lipari – as no one lived on Vulcano during ancient times); Pliny III and Stabo (Roman times) have written that Stromboli (the round one) was generally believed to be the home of King Aeolus.
Hiking on Lipari, staring over the sea at Vulcano, it’s easy to see the bronze cliffs Homer described. It may be fiction and mythology, but there does appear to be a source for some of the stories.