Island of Odysseus
Among the loveliest things about this small island, one of the
seven that make up the Ionian Islands, is that it doesn’t attract
the hordes of tourists that the more well-known Greek Islands do. One reason for this is that the beautiful island is a bit difficult to reach—there is no airport. The other is that Ithaca lacks the frenzied nightlife and crowded sandy beaches that most traditional tourists to the Greek islands are seeking. And that suits Ithacans just fine.
This is an island of calm, the perfect place for relaxation and reflection, for enchanting walks amid verdant scenery, for swimming in some of the clearest emerald waters in Greece. For all of these reasons, Ithaca attracts celebrities who vacation here on their yachts or in their second homes.
Located west of Greece’s mainland in the Ionian Sea, most visitors to Ithaca reach it by taking a flight to the neighboring islands of Cephalonia or Lefcas and then via a ferry, excursion boat, or personal craft.
It’s famous for being the homeland of Homer’s hero Odysseus (Ulysses) in The Odyssey (and some believe Homer may himself have lived here). On Ithaca, Odysseus’s faithful wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return from his long, adventurous, and sometimes treacherous voyage of exploration.
He did manage to return to his beloved island, and because of this mythical tale, Ithaca has come to symbolize the joys and difficulties of the voyage of life.
Although Odysseus is the most famous personality associated with the island, its name was derived from Ithacis who, as mythology has it, was the son of a Cephalonian king who—with is brother—built a fountain that supplied water for the entire island
Ithaca’s nonfictional history is every bit as colorful as its mythological lore. It’s believed the island has been inhabited at least since the 2nd Millennium B.C. Evidence uncovered indicates it was the capital of Cephalonia around 1500 B.C. This is about the same time as the Trojan War—if Odysseus really existed he would have been king.
The mighty Roman Empire occupied Ithaca in the 2nd Century B.C. Later, the island was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Constantly attacked by pirates, resulting in many lost lives, Ithaca made an alliance with Cephalonia in 800 A.D. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, the island came under rule of the Normans and the Franks and then, after 30 years in the late 1400s of governance by the Turks, it went into Venetian hands. During this latter period, the island’s agricultural and shipping industries were developed, leading to the improvement of Ithacan society.
Near the end of the 1700s, France occupied Ithaca; it was conquered by the British in 1809. In 1821, mainland Greece’s War of Independence against the Muslim Turks broke out. For 400 years the Turks had occupied Greece, attempting to close the churches and to eradicate Greek culture and language, which were secretly kept alive by the Greeks. The Ithacans aided the Greeks in their struggle, producing Odysseus Androutsos, one of the top freedom fighters against the Turks. His birth home is still visible on the waterfront in Ithaca’s lovely capital, Vathy. During this period, productivity, trade, and education all improved to once again raise the standard of living on the island. In 1864, the island was finally liberated and became part of the new Greek State. Sadly, most of Ithaca was destroyed in a terrible 1953 earthquake.
The Greek poet Constantin Kavafis expressed this sentiment masterfully in a famous and popular Greek poem, excerpted here:
As you set out to Ithaca
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body….
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time….
Keep Ithaca always on your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marveolous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now….