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THE IONIAN ISLANDS AND THE “ODYSSEY”

CHAPTER I




The first place in Greece on which a traveller from the West usually
sets foot is Corfu, one of the Ionian Islands, which were given up by
Great Britain in 1864 to gratify the patriotic aspirations of the
Greeks. The sacrifice was not without its compensations, as it relieved
Britain from an annual outlay of £100,000, which had been the cost of
administration.

The principal Ionian Islands are five in number, namely, Corfu
(Corcyra), Santa Mauro (Leucas), Ithaca, Cephalonia (Cephallenia), and
Zanté (Zacynthus). They represent a territory of more than 1000 square
miles, with a population of about a quarter of a million, who are mainly
dependent on shipping and on the trade in oil, wine, and currants.

A romantic interest attaches to the promontory of Leucas, which
terminates in what is still known as Sappho’s Leap, in allusion to an
old tradition which tells how the famous poetess, who shares with Alcæus
the chief honours in Æolian lyric poetry, here put an end to her life to
escape from the pangs of unrequited affection. In Zacynthus we have an
illustration of the historical accuracy of Herodotus in the existence of
some curious springs on the south-west, from which the water comes out
mingled with pitch.

From an antiquarian point of view, however, still greater interest
attaches to Corcyra, Ithaca, and Cephallenia, as they have Homeric
associations which carry us back to a still earlier period.

Corfu or Corcyra, although not the largest, is the most populous of the
whole group. It is a beautiful island, with a beautiful situation,
looking out on the blue waters of the Southern Adriatic, with the snowy
mountains of Epirus in the distance. It has two commodious harbours, in
which the shipping of many nations may be seen. The streets of the city
are narrow and old-fashioned, but it has an interesting old fortress
with a handsome esplanade. Near the harbour is the former residence of
the British High Commissioner (an office once held by Mr. Gladstone),
with beautiful public gardens in front of it. The environs of the city
are charming, with orange-groves here and there glowing in the brilliant
sunshine, amid a profusion of roses, geraniums, and other blooms almost
growing wild, with miles on miles of olive-trees in the background.

From the earliest times the island was a place of importance to the
shipping world, as the ancients, in sailing, liked to keep near to land,
and generally put in to shore at night, unless they wished to take
advantage of some favourable breeze which did not
rise till after sunset. In this way the island afforded convenient
shelter for those who were sailing from the Peloponnesus to Italy, and
facilitated Greek traffic with Epirus. It became the seat of a
Corinthian colony in 734 B.C., when Syracuse was also founded, but it
never showed much sympathy or affection for the mother-city. Indeed, the
first sea-battle we read of in authentic history took place between the
ships of Corinth and Corcyra (_c._ 665 B.C.), when the latter came off
victorious. Before the Peloponnesian war broke out there were great
complaints on the part of Corinth on account of due respect not being
shown to her representatives at the public festivals in the
daughter-city; and the subsequent action of the latter in putting
herself under the protection of Athens, when she became involved in
difficulties with Corinth and Epidamnus, was largely the cause of the
great war which proved so injurious to the prosperity and power of
Athens. In the course of its early history Corcyra was the scene of some
terrible conflicts and cruel slaughters, almost without a parallel in
any other part of Greece. Since that time it has passed through many
vicissitudes under Roman, Byzantine, Crusading, Venetian, French, and
British rule.

But the greatest interest of the place arises from the tradition which
identifies it with the Phæacian island _Scheria_, on which Odysseus was
cast after his stormy voyage from the island of Calypso. No remains have
been found of the palace of Alcinous, where Odysseus met with such
generous hospitality, but about two miles from the esplanade at
_Canone_ (One-Gun Battery), near the end of a promontory, we get a view
of the secluded bay or gulf (Lake of Kalikiopoulo) on which the weary
voyager is said to have been cast ashore, at the mouth of a brook
(Cressida), which falls into the lake, and where Nausicaa and her
maidens were amusing themselves after their great washing was over. At a
little distance from the shore lies the rocky islet of Ponticonisi
(“Mouse-Island”), which tradition identifies with the Phæacian ship that
was turned into stone by the wrath of Poseidon, as it was beginning its
homeward voyage to Ithaca with Odysseus on board.

All this local tradition, however, is rejected by a recent explorer, M.
Victor Bérard, who has taken enormous pains to investigate the matter.
He is convinced that the palace of Alcinous and the whole scene
described by Homer in connection with the visit of Odysseus lay on the
western side of the island, near the Convent of Palæocastrizza, and he
concludes from indications in the poem that the Phæacians had come from
the ancient city of Cumæ (Hypereia), driven out by the Œnotrians
(Cyclopes). But whatever view we may take on these points there can be
little doubt that Corfu, which lay as it were on the outskirts of the
ancient Greek world, and not far from Ithaca (to which Odysseus sailed
from it in a night), is the island which Homer had in view when he
described the home of the Phæacians.

Still more interesting, from a Homeric point of
view, is the small island of Ithaca (about 37 square miles in extent),
where the poet locates the home of his wandering hero and his wife
Penelope, the one the early Greek ideal of practical sagacity, as
Achilles is of martial impetuosity, and the other the model of conjugal
devotion, as Nausicaa is of maidenly grace. The identity of the island
has recently been called in question by an eminent archæologist
(Dörpfeld), who regards Leucas as the island referred to in the
_Odyssey_. But it would require strong evidence to overcome the
presumption in favour of the island which now bears the name of Ithaca,
and which corresponds to the poet’s description as well as we have any
right to expect, considering the want of maps and guide-books at the
time that he wrote. Perhaps its claim may yet receive fuller
confirmation as the result of excavations; but in the meantime it is
interesting to know that a terrace wall built of rough-hewn blocks has
been discovered on the west coast, in the neighbourhood of a port to
which the name Polis (City) is still applied, though there is no modern
town to justify the name.

In this connection some interest also attaches to Cephallenia, the
largest island of the group. There is a little village on its east
coast, called Samos, from which the boat sails to Ithaca, and as an
island called Samé is often mentioned in the _Odyssey_ in connection
with Ithaca, and the subjects of Odysseus are sometimes called
Cephallenians, we are evidently not far from the scenes depicted by the
great poet.

It would scarcely be possible to exaggerate the influence which the
Homeric poetry has exercised on the intellect and imagination of the
Greeks, and it is impossible for any one to enter into the spirit of
Greek history and literature without some acquaintance with it. Homer
has often been called the “Bible of the Greeks,” and there is truth in
the saying both from a religious and a literary point of view. Herodotus
was mistaken when he said that Homer and Hesiod had created the religion
of the Greeks, but they certainly did much to systematise it, and, by
giving Jupiter a place of supremacy among the gods, they paved the way
for the triumph of monotheism.

In course of time Homer came to be regarded by his countrymen as their
chief authority, not only on religious subjects but in almost all
matters of interest to a thoughtful and inquiring mind. The reading and
hearing of his poetry was the chief means of education. It was no
uncommon thing for a boy to be able to recite both the _Iliad_ and the
_Odyssey_ from memory. Classical writers speak of Homer in terms not
only of admiration but of reverence. Æschylus said that he had gathered
up the crumbs from Homer’s table; and Sophocles was so much in sympathy
with the _Odyssey_ that he was spoken of as “the tragic Homer.” There
was, therefore, nothing strange in the sentiment which led Alexander the
Great to carry about with him in his eastern campaigns a copy of Homer,
said to have been edited for him by his old tutor Aristotle, and kept in
a precious Persian casket. About a third of the recently discovered
Egyptian papyri are inscribed with passages from the _Iliad_ and the
_Odyssey_.

While the oldest poetry of Greece, as of other countries, was probably
of a lyric character, called forth by the joys and sorrows of common
life or by the festive celebration of the seasons, the more stately
epic, dealing with grander themes, and chanted rather than sung, with
occasional accompaniment on the harp, found more favour with princes and
their nobles, and attracted the most gifted authors to its service, till
it reached the high stage of development which we find in the writings
of Homer. These poems may be described as the oldest literature in
existence, but they were doubtless the result of many previous efforts
of a more archaic character, traces of which may be found in the older
bards and legendary themes that are mentioned by Homer himself.

The _Iliad_ and _Odyssey_ show to what a high degree of civilisation and
culture the Hellenic race had attained not much later than 1000 B.C. In
the freeness of their spirit, combined with reverence for law, and in
their vivid portraiture of the different members of the Pantheon, seen
through the medium of a rich and sympathetic humanity, the poems present
a pleasing contrast to all other heathen pictures of things human and
divine. Their language is as admirable as the thought,--so rich and
flexible, entirely free from the crudities that might have been expected
in such primitive literature. Matthew Arnold sums up Homer’s
characteristics from a literary point of view, as rapidity, plainness
of thought, plainness of style, and nobleness. These qualities give the
poet as strong a hold on the sympathies of his readers as he assigns to
the minstrel in the _Odyssey_, when he makes Eumæus say of his old
master, now returned, but still in disguise: “Even as when a man gazes
on a minstrel whom the gods have taught to sing words of yearning joy to
mortals, and they have a ceaseless desire to hear him as long as he will
sing, even so he charmed me, sitting by me in the halls.”

The controversy which has been going on for more than a hundred years
regarding the authorship of the poems does not much affect their
interest for the general reader. Similar questions were raised more than
two thousand years ago. Even before Plato’s time there had been a
sifting process by which a number of hymns and minor poems formerly
attributed to Homer (as the whole book of Psalms used to be to David)
were found to be the work of unknown authors of a later date. A century
or two later there were Alexandrian critics who denied that the _Iliad_
and the _Odyssey_ could have come from the same author. But modern
critics have assailed the integrity of the two great poems themselves.
They have based their theories partly on the improbability of such long
poems being composed and transmitted before writing had come into
general use (an argument which has lost its force owing to recent
discoveries of early writing), and partly on the apparent repetitions,
interpolations, and discrepancies, which are supposed to have been
due either to the accidents of compilation or to the need for adaptation
to suit the varying tastes of readers in different parts of the Greek
world. Perhaps the strongest proof of composite authorship is to be
found in the different stages of civilisation and religion which are
discernible in different parts of the poetry, and the marked
inconsistencies in certain of the leading characters. It is also very
significant that Mount Olympus, the dwelling of the gods, is at one time
the snow-clad mountain in the north which still bears that name, and in
other and later passages is a bright and gladsome region, free from rain
or snow or stormy wind. It is now generally agreed that the nucleus of
the _Iliad_ was a series of ancient lays concerning Achilles, derived
from Northern Greece, and moulded by Æolic art, while the remainder of
the poem and the bulk of the _Odyssey_ were of a considerably later
date, and came from an Ionic source. The poems as a whole were probably
touched up and put into their present form by some one living on the
coast of Asia Minor (perhaps at Smyrna, the meeting-place of Æolic and
Ionic traditions), who sang of the glories of a by-gone age with the
patriotic pride of a colonial. Whether his name was Homer is a different
question, for it is quite possible the word may have been, as some
maintain, a common term, meaning “compiler.” It is well to remember that
the “blind bard who dwelt in rocky Chios,” so often identified with
Homer since Thucydides set the example, is merely the description
applied to himself by the writer of the Hymn to the Delian Apollo, whom
no one now believes to have been the author of the _Iliad_ or the
_Odyssey_. We know that the Great Unknown, whoever he may have been, was
succeeded by the Homeridæ of Chios, and these again, by the Rhapsodes or
professional reciters, whom we come across in the pages of Plato and
Xenophon.

Another subject of controversy has been as to whether the Homeric
narratives have a historic basis to rest upon. Some have gone so far as
to doubt whether the Trojan War ever took place; and it has been
suggested that many of the stories in the _Iliad_ are due to solar
myths. But the excavations of Schliemann at Ilium and Mycenæ have rather
discredited such scepticism; and the recent explorer already mentioned
(Bérard), who has sailed over the course which appears to have been
taken by Odysseus,--extending from Troy to Gibraltar,--has found the
topographical and maritime allusions so accurate as to come to the
conclusion that the poet must have had the benefit of some ancient book
of reference, corresponding to the _Pilot’s Guide_, and drawn up in all
probability by the Phœnicians, who were masters of the Mediterranean
before the Greeks. But while the main thread of the narrative in the
_Odyssey_ may be historical, the poet has worked into it many fanciful
legends, like those to be found in the literature of many nations.
Indeed the story of Odysseus’ adventures as a whole is perhaps no more
historical than the tale of Robinson Crusoe, created by Defoe out of the
experience of Alexander Selkirk on the island of Juan Fernandez.

No criticism, however, can alter the fact that we have in the _Odyssey_
some of the most charming pictures of social and domestic life that are
to be found in any literature, touched up with a colouring of the
strangest old-world romance, and deriving lustre from a religion which,
however defective from an ethical point of view, was wedded to an
imagination so rich and powerful as almost to efface in the mind of the
reader the distinction between the natural and the supernatural.




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