Where did the Greek myths take place? Where was Odysseus bewitched and seduced by Circe, the sorceress who turned men into pigs and made Odysseus her sex slave?
It is not just a game for classical historians. Hard-pressed Italian hotel keepers and restaurateurs trying to lure tourists to spend money with them think establishing a link to the ancient world is a deadly serious and lucrative business.
The ancient texts are little help. Greek geographer Eratosthenes said whoever wanted to “discover the course of Odysseus’s wanderings would have to find the cobbler who stitched up Aeolus’s bag of winds” that was given to the Greek hero to ease his long, troublesome journey home after burning Troy.
It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. That is, if the needle exists. It’s mission impossible.
Yet two neighboring locations in central Italy both claim to be the mythological place cited by Homer in The Odyssey where Odysseus fell prey to Circe. One is the volcanic, paradise island of Ponza. The other Mount Circeo, a promontory stretching-out into the Tyrrhenian Sea that has the shape of a naked sleeping woman. The two resorts angrily face one another along the coast between Rome and Naples.
The entire coast is dubbed Odysseus’s Riviera or Circe’s Riviera.
In hard times – and in its long history, Italy has rarely suffered from such hard times as today – even Odysseus can be a money-spinner. Exploiting the myth of his love affair with Circe means more visitors and a revamp for the local economy of both places, which relies overwhelmingly on tourism.
There are just 3,500 Ponza residents, but in the summer some 100,000 vacationers join them to sunbathe on the town’s famous granite cliffs. It’s the same for Circeo, where 9,000 locals rub shoulders with about 90,000 tourists each year.
Streets, shops, hotels and restaurants have been named after the two mythological lovers. The most popular hangout bar is called Maga Circe (The Enchantress Circe), the cinema Ulisse (Odysseus), while summer festivals feature plays on the two lovers and their son Telegonus. Boats from Ponza ferry sunburnt Japanese by the hundred to visit Odysseus’s Cave where it is said the stranded hero disembarked.
Meanwhile, just 20 miles across the choppy water, on the Circeo peninsula you’ll find the Circe Sea Grotto, the hilltop Circe’s Peak boasting the ruins of an ancient temple (according to locals, the witch’s former palace), the Circe Promenade and a seafront luxury hotel named Maga Circe.
Prices are high in both locations. A family of four will end up spending something north of $700 a day. That is a bounty worth scrapping over.
“Odysseus was sailing north from Sicily, so the first land he reached must have been Ponza Island, not mainland Circeo,” said Silverio Capone, a nautical expert who worked for nine years in Ponza’s City Hall and now works at the Hotel Bellavista. “The Greeks were the first to colonize Ponza, naming it Aeaea and Homer says Odysseus landed on the Aeaea Island, in a safe port just like the one we still have today.”
But what about the fact that Ponza is mostly barren, whereas Homer refers to lush vegetation? “Simple. The Romans used the island as a military headquarters, cutting down all the trees to build ships,” he said.
In 2001, Capone founded the Ponziane Islands Archipelago Community aimed at fostering cultural and economic ties between Ponza and her four sister isles in an attempt to pave the way for a form of regional autonomy. “See, it’s an ethnic issue,” he said. “We descend directly from the Greeks, from Odysseus’s bloodline, not from the Romans.”
Mount Circeo can offer equally strong arguments to back its case that it is the true Odysseus landing point. “True, Homer talks of an island, but in ancient times Circeo was surrounded by the sea on one side and by marshes and lakes on the other so it looked like one,” said Franco Domenichelli, head of archeology at San Felice Circeo.
“Moreover, Homer says that when Odysseus landed he made his way uphill to Circe’s palace across a forest, and this is one of Italy’s protected parks,” he said. “At the very top you’ll find the ruins of a temple dedicated to Venus, daughter of the Sun, frequently identified with the sorceress. A Circe statue head was found in the 1800s at the foot of the hill. It probably rolled down from the temple.”
Domenichelli even offers evidence to confirm the men-turned-into-pigs legend. “This place is packed with wild boars.” And the island’s name, Aeaea. “It derives from the ancient Phoenician word Aiaia, meaning the Hawk’s Peak. Coming from the sea, the hill has indeed the shape of a hawk ready to take flight.”
And he claims Circe still performs her magic there. “Many people, when they first come, are spellbound by the beauty of this place and decide to spend the rest of their lives here, just like my parents did,” he said.
Domenichelli, too, would like to create a cultural alliance between all the cities linked by The Odyssey and he imagines a seaborne trip from Troy to Sicily and Greece following Odysseus’s fantastic journey. “It would be a rocking experience,” he said. “Odysseus stands as the Mediterranean’s cultural link and Circeo, thanks to its geographic position right at the center of the area, is most entitled to become the hub of Homer’s universe.”
If Mount Circeo really corresponds to Homer’s Aeaea Island, then according to The Telegony, a Greek epic poem that closes the Trojan Wars Cycle, Odysseus’s grave would be located there.
So who is right? Ponza or Circeo? Or neither?
Throughout the centuries, scholars have questioned Homer’s very existence and whether he alone wrote the epic poem or whether it is a collaboration. They have moved his birthplace at least 10 times and two years ago even changed the real position of Odysseus’s home island of Ithaca. According to other classical academics, Circe’s island was somewhere in the Black Sea, in what is now Georgia.
There are however a few (relatively) certain things.
One: All goddesses, like Circe and Calypso, lived on islands, notes Simonetta Nannini, professor of Greek literature at Bologna University. This would reinforce Ponza’s claim. But then again in ancient times Circeo was also surrounded by water.
Two: there are other sources which identify Mount Circeo with Circe’s lair, including the Greek geographer Strabo and the Latin poet Virgil. The only scholar backing Ponza’s claim is Duke Michele Vargas Macciucca of Naples, back in 1764.
But the truth remains elusive. “Odysseus’s journey was purely symbolic and Homer had never seen any of the places he mentions,” said Nannini.
“It’s not a real world but a mixture of myth and narration. At a certain point in the poem Odysseus admits that he fails to recognize the stars. He has entered another universe. There’s nothing in Homer’s description of places that can lead to their identification, and it’s humanly impossible for anyone to do so.”
Ever since The Odyssey first appeared, cities and locations have been battling to claim themselves as the real places of Odysseus’s wanderings purely for political and ethnic reasons, to establish a mythological ancestry, explained Nannini. The grudge match between Ponza and Circeo is nothing new.
“Geography’s not the point of the poem, but Odysseus’s journey to the boundaries of the known world,” said Roberto Nicolai, Faculty of Letters dean at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “Homer was describing a fantastic universe inhabited by monsters, magicians, beasts, and gods to show how the cunning hero defeats the unknown.”
Don’t expect anyone in Ponza or Circeo to agree.