PENELOPE - MYTH OR HISTORY?
By Denis Sikiotis
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Many of my fellow Ithacans have two religions: Christian Orthodoxy and an unshakable belief in the historicity of the Homeric Odyssey.
This second religion is fairly easy to explain. For many generations Ithacans have been brainwashed from a very early age to believe in the Homeric tale. I remember that when I was a child, our reader in primary school was a simplified, expurgated version of the Homeric Odyssey. Outside the school, 'everyday' life was saturated with elements of this epic. For example, many people had Homeric names, a number of toponymics were Homeric etc.
Most importantly many believed that our little Island gained in status by its association with Homeric Ithaca, which meant of course that its inhabitants could bask in all this glory without having to lift a finger. There is no easier way to become famous than by declaring that you are a descendant of somebody who became famous because of his deeds.
In recent years it has been realized, by our neighbours on the island of Cephalonia, that all this glory can increase the inflow of tourist dollars. As a result no less than seven different theories, placing Homeric Ithaca at seven different parts of the relatively large island of Cephalonia, have been proposed.
All these schools of thought have one thing in common, namely the belief that Homer the poet was also an historian and geographer.
In an article published in the Ithacan quarterly, "Ta Nea tis Ithakis", I question the validity of this premise by quoting two giants among Homericists, Kakridis and Chadwick. They agree that Homer was a great poet but also that he was neither an historian nor a geographer. Kakridis goes on to say that there is no reason to doubt that Homeric Ithaca is the same as classical Ithaca (the same as present day Ithaca), until archaeological evidence proves otherwise. This article was not received at all well in certain quarters.
The Israeli historian Irad Malkin has written a very significant book "The Returns of Odysseus". One of the points he stresses in this book is that it was very common among ancient peoples to claim descent from Odysseus. Even the non-Greek (did not speak a Greek dialect) Etruscans claimed this! So the present day Ithacans do not have a monopoly in claiming descent from Odysseus. This plundering, womanizing chieftain became famous indeed, thanks to Homer.
So is the Odyssey history or myth? Did Odysseus actually exist? In my non-expert opinion, even archaeological research cannot produce conclusive evidence one way or the other. Excavating a Mycenaean megaron will prove the existence of a Mycenaean kingdom, but not of Odysseus, or Penelope for that matter. Unfortunately writing in linear B in those days was very limited. No such writing has been found on present day Ithaca yet.
Another fact casting doubt on the historicity of Homer's Odyssey is mentioned in Irad Malkin's book. This is that there is at least one more ancient version of the Odyssey, the one by Duris of Samos.
There are great differences in the two versions. A very basic one is the question of Penelope's chastity during her husband's 20 year absence. Homer wants us to believe that the queen slept alone during this period.
One can venture an explanation for this version. Epics were chanted by bards in the halls of Mycenaean megara. Their audiences consisted of drinking pirate warriors. What did these patriarchal warriors want to hear? Great deeds of plunder and womanizing, while their little wives stayed home looking after the children, slaves, land and herds.
Duris' version is a complete reversal of all that. Could it be that this version was sung during secret carousing meetings of the feminist women of those days? There could have been many of them around since the memories of the pre-Greek, matrilineal societies were still alive. According to this version Penelope had 129(!) lovers during the 20 years and she named the little bastard Pan (which means 'all'), since she wasn't sure who the father was. When Odysseus came back he was upset by the comparison of his puny record of about 10 lovers with his wife's impressive record, so he left Ithaca forever.
(C) 2003 Denis Sikiotis
Have Ithacans been using Homeric names since antiquity?
I am not an historian. I am a mere environmental chemist. History, however, has always been a hobby of mine and in practising this hobby I have regarded history as one of the social sciences.
For this reason I have rejected relativistic, postmodern views on history and adopted Eric Hobsbawm's definition 1 :
Without entering the theoretical debate on these matters, it is essential for historians to defend the foundation of their discipline: the supremacy of evidence . If their texts are fictions, as in some senses they are, being literary compositions, the raw material of these fictions in verifiable fact.
Hobsbawm illustrates his definition with the following example:
Whether the Nazi gas ovens existed or not can be established by evidence. Because it has been so established, those who deny their existence are not writing history, whatever their narrative techniques.
My Spanish friend, Pedro Olalla, an excellent hellenist, made a documentary on Ithaca which was shown on Greek TV. In this several Ithacans spoke about their island.
My friend and relative T.K., in defending the thesis that Homeric Ithaca is the same as historical Ithaca (ie. present day Ithaca), said that Homeric names have been used by Ithacans continuously since antiquity.
The evidence I shall present in what follows proves that T.K.'s claim is wrong. It also points to the need for people to do their home work before they make historical pronouncements.
My evidence comes from an excellent publication produced in 2002, under the guidance of Dr Stamatoula Zapanti, Chief of the State Archives of Cephalonia and Ithaca. This publication contains all the documents from the archives of the notary George Vlassopoulos (1636-1648). These documents could be among the earliest existing in the State Archives of Ithaca. I sent a copy of the publication to the Ithacan Historical Society in Melbourne and its president, Mr George Koutsouvelis, informed me recently that it arrived safely. This means that any Ithacan residing in Melbourne can confirm my findings from those documents.
From page 293 to page 310 there is an index of names and toponymics. If one concentrates on the first names only, one discovers in a matter of minutes that there isn't a single Homeric name among them. If we agree that the names in these documents belong to a representative sample of Ithacans, we can conclude that Homeric names were probably not used at all in Ithaca during the 17 th century AD.
Even more evidence exists for the 18 th century. Mr Giannis S. Vlassopoulos, the extremely diligent researcher, assured me that the 2,500 documents he has read do not contain any Homeric names.
Now these are the indisputable facts. My interpretation of these facts is that Homeric names became “fashionable” in the second half of the 19 th century after foreign scholars started visiting Ithaca and familiarising the local elite with the contents of the Homeric Odyssey. As a matter of fact in no time Homer's beautiful poetry became a cult. The famous Homerologist I. Kakridis, reported at a conference that the Ithacans in 1870 referred to the mythical queen as “Saint Penelope”! I discovered to my consternation that this cult is still alive among some Ithacans.
Going back to the 17 th century documents, we find that some first names are not used much at all now. Greek names, such as KALO ? WANHS and KALOGIANNHS and western sounding names such as ALISANTROS, GIAKOUMOS, FRAGKOS, LIMPERIOS, KARLOS, LINARDOS etc.
Another very interesting fact is how many of the surnames (clan names) listed are still in Ithaca after more than three and a half centuries.
Fellow Ithacans, when we want to speak about history let us stick to the facts. Mythology can be beautiful and inspiring, but it is not history!
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1. Eric Hobsbawm, “On History”, pp. 271-272