Top critical review
6 people found this helpful
Fascinating, and irritating
on 6 January 2011
There are two books here, one evidential, one personal.
One book gives evidence for believing that Paliki, the western section of the island of Cephalonia, is Ithaca of the Odyssey. The argument rests on a thesis that Paliki was once separated from Cephalonia by a sea channel. The channel has been infilled, it is argued, by earthquake-triggered rockfall. Bittlestone calls this sea channel 'Strabo's Channel', from a note in the 1st century writer's remarks on Cephalonia.
In support of Strabo's Channel, Bittlestone presents the work of John Underhill, a geophysicist from Edinburgh University. Underhill himself provides an appendix summarising his work. It's quite a thesis to establish, since the infill, if such it is, extends over 4km, and raises the ground more than 100m above present sea level. The argument is impressive, however, and perhaps the most persuasive part of the whole book.
Additional evidence for Paliki as Ithaca comes from a close reading of the Odyssey, together with detailed examination of the topography. Bittlestone is supported by James Diggle, professor of Classics at Cambridge. Diggle provides translations of passages in the Odyssey together with philological discussion, and has been on field trips around Paliki. Diggle is clearly convinced by Bittlestone's thesis. He, like Underhill, supplies an appendix reviewing the evidence from his own specialism.
This evidential book is accompanied by Bittlestone's own personal voyage of discovery. Here imagination is given free rein. We get travel plans and frustrations. There are poetic passages about the beauty of the landscape. Hopes rise and fall as experts question his ideas or give them credence. We're invited to come on board.
The two books are intertwined. Maps based on satellite imaging are presented with place names derived from Bittlestone's theories, as if the labels were a given. Strabo's Channel is marked as a present-day sea channel. Within the text the refrain is 'could it not be'. The book constantly attempts to vault the gap between the possible and the actual. It's like being nagged to drop your critical faculties - it raises scepticism rather than diminishing it.
Bittlestone does make a case for Paliki as Ithaca. He offers, however, not just that identification but a detailed map of Odyssean Ithaca - pig farm, palace, harbour, the location of the suitors' attempted ambush of Telemachos. He over-determines the topography and seems to recognise this when he addresses the question of how such a precise and detailed first-hand knowledge of Ithaca c. 1200BC could have reached a Homer (editor or whatever) c. 700BC - given that Cephalonia is on the extreme west of the Hellenic world, and the final redaction of the Odyssey probably happened somewhere in Anatolia. It's a huge leap.
At the close of the book Bittlestone outlines future research. He's clearly aware that the fatal flaw in the academic argument is the lack of archaeology - there are brief mentions of bronze age potsherds, and he discusses a supposed bronze age wall. So he notes the many different disciplines which will 'need' to be focused on Paliki. In the process he seems ambitious virtually to own Odyssean Paliki. Comparisons with Schliemann and Troy are inescapable.
It's a pity, because identifying the Ithaca of Odysseus would be wonderful. There's a core of solid argument here - the evidential book. But radically editing Bittlestone's own story would have made Odysseus Unbound much shorter and more persuasive.