Phoebe came to the desired embrace of Coeus. Then the goddess through the love of the god conceived and brought forth dark-gowned Leto, always mild, kind to men and to the deathless gods, mild from the beginning, gentlest in all Olympus. Both Homeros and Hesios call Leto the mother of Apollo (Il B1, 36) and Artemis, frequently called Letoius and Letoia. (New classical dictionary), Sir William Smith). Phoebe also bare Asteria of happy name, whom Perses once led to his great house to be called his dear wife. And she conceived and bare Hecate whom Zeus the son of Cronos honoured above all. (Theogony, ll. 404-452)
It was Zeus himself who was then enamored of happy Asteria
, but she, being metamorphosed into a bird, flew across the sea. She then changed into a rock, which lay for a long time under the surface of the sea but, at her time, arose from the waters.Even as an island, Asteria was not safe - Zeus’s brother Poseidon pursued her, and the island moved around in the sea to escape him. When her sister Leto, pregnant with Letoius and Letoia, was pursued by a jealous Hera, Asteria called to her and offered her a safe place to give birth. When Leto landed on the island, the seabed rose up and anchored the island in place.
Pergamonmuseum_-_Antikensammlung_-_Pergamonaltar_27.jpg [ 61.14 KiB | Viewed 1013 times ]
Description Pergamonmuseum Berlin,
Pergamonaltar, Gigantomachie, Phoibe, Asteria
Date: 2. Jh. v.Chr
In a less mythological phrasing, Asteria and Leto, rock segments under the surface of the sea, arise from the water by tectonical raise of the seabed. Homeros (Od 4, 846)
described the small island Asteria as being situated in between Ithaca and Cephalonia. A rock situated midway in the channel (Od 4, 671)
, between Ithaca and Same's rugged cliffs: Asteria, not large, but it has a cove, a harbour with two mouths where ships can hide. Should we assume that the name Asteria
points at the tectonic nature of the Homeric Asteria? Demetrius
of Scepsis (220–140 BC?) mentions that Asteria does not remain in the state described by the poet: with harbours in it, open on both sides, for the reception of vessels. Next Apollodorus
(180-115 BC) says that Asteria exists even at present, and mentions a small village on it, Alalcomenæ
, situated quite upon the isthmus. In the same period Polybius
(c. 200–118 BC) reports that Paliki is surrounded by the sea, and by precipitous heights on every side, except the one looking towards Zacynthus. Strabo
(64/63 BC – ca. AD 24) then writes down that the narrowest part of the island (Cephalonia) forms a low isthmus, that is frequently overflowed from sea to sea. According to the O.U. theory this low isthmus progressively fills in with rock and becomes part of the nowadays Thinia isthmus. This posting adds to it that Asteria is a concealed island, in the middle of the O.U. Strabo's channel, which is then referred to (by Plinio
) as Letoia, a non-existing island, southwest of Cephalonia. Leto belongs to the same class of words as the Greek λμθμ, which signifies "the obscure
" or "concealed
Remarkably this location is the exact place on top of which Bittlestone (O.U. p151 f15.7) was standing, searching the horizon with binoculars for a glimpse of Asteria.
geo.jpg [ 135.47 KiB | Viewed 1939 times ]
The figure above (Source O.U. page 531) shows the geological map of the Thinia area, which forms the isthmus between Cephalonia and Paliki. The dark blue colour represents the contour of the hypothetical O.U. Strabo's Channel. The geological feature that I circled represents a not too substantial island, that was sometimes submerged, sometimes an island, sometimes connected to the shore. Today the area is covered with rock and called Katochori, which means "place below
" (source: O.U page 373). This name coincides with the meaning of the word Letoia, as described at the beginning of this post.
For a marine ambush the preferred tactic (O.U. page 86) would be to row out suddenly and rapidly from behind a cove or a promontory that the target vessel was passing by, by just a few tens of metres away. This all fits very well the hypothesis that Asteria was a rock in the middle of Strabo's Channel. But why would Telemachos on his way from Pylos to the northern part of Argostoli Bay, be waited for in the middle of a strait that separates Paliki from Cephalonia?
The solution is a nautical one: Homeros (Od 15, 33
) makes clear that the usual route from Pylos back to Ithaca port, which implies staying close to the shore and close to the islands and at all times avoiding open sea, is not to be followed. This usual route tracks along the coast of the Peloponnesos; first in northerly direction to Pheia and Ellis, next a passage through the sheltered marine channel between Cephalonia and modern Ithaca. The last part of the passage is comfortably sheltered by the cliffs of the presumed Strabo's Channel. This anti-clockwise route is longer in miles, but shorter when measured in hours and far less exhaustive for the seamen. The suitors therefore prepare themselves for ambush on Asteria, in the middle of the Strabo's Channel.
But what did Telemachos and his fellows do (Od 15, 295
)? They indeed pass Krounoi and Chalkis - with its beautiful streams - and when the sun sets they pass Pheia and bright Elis, radiantly illuminated by the evening sun. But then Telemachos, warned by Athene and blessed with the craftiness of his father, follows Athena's advice and steers his sturdy ship far off the islands, heading directly for the headlands of Argostoli, still wondering if he can escape or will be caught. "Far off the islands"
means "not in between Cephalonia and present Ithaca
", thus crossing the open sea south off Cephalonia. This deviation, unexpected by the suitors, was made possible by an unusual following wind that guarded him.
The line "ἔνθεν δ᾽ αὖ νήσοισιν ἐπιπροέηκε θοῇσιν" (Od 15, 299
), is translated by O.U. as "He then aimed for the swift isles". Strabo uses the wording "He then aimed for the sharp islands", pointing at The Echinades, who derived their name from the echinus
or the sea urchin, in consequence of their sharp outlines. However, not one of the various theories makes it useful for Telemachos to sail as far north as the Echinades, past the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. C. Goekoop (Homerus, 2003, p196) correctly notes that the word "thoèsin
", sharp, is often used in the combination "Nèusi thoèsin"
, "swift ships", but then he incorrectly concludes that "Thoos"
implies "swift". He does not note that the expression a "sharp vessel" is an expression for a ship with a sharp entry angle at the water line; mostly indeed this is a fast ship, but argumenting, secundum quid
, that consequently islands with sharp outlines are "swift mountains" is an invalid statement. I prefer to use the word "headlands", which still includes the "sharpness" of the original translation. In that case the translation is "He then aimed for the headlands", which within the context of the earlier explanations becomes "He then aimed for the headlands of the south coast of Cephalonia, say Argostoli".
After a night of sailing and rowing through the dark, Telemachos and his fellows arrive on ancient Ithaca in the early morning of the next day. To keep track of the passage of time we will arbitrarily refer to this moment as Thursday morning (following the time scale of O.U. p181), 07:00 am. They lower the mast and row the ship on to the anchorage - amidst breaking waves - and with stern moorings they secure the ship to the shore. As there are breakers we may assume the location to be on the west coast of the island. After having a breakfast on the beach (10:00 am) the crew rows the ship to the port of Ithaca. As they arrived under sail and depart in rowing mode, it is quite logical that this last part of the voyage is in opposite direction, thus passing along the south coast of the island. Immediately after their arrival inside the Ithaki harbour basin (16:00 hrs), in the northwest corner of the bay of Argostoli, they quickly pull their boat onshore; hide the Spartan treasures in the house of Klytios after which each man goes to his own home. A messenger is then sent to Penelope to inform her of Telemachos' safe return (18:00 hrs).
The suitors, disappointed at hearing this news and a bit worried too (19:00 hrs), want the ambush boat to return urgently back from Asteria to the Ithaca harbour basin. While they are sitting just outside the gate of the palace and making plans to that purpose, the suitor Amfinomos spots the ambush boat, crewed with twenty angry young men, which just arrived in the basin (19:00 hrs). Day and night they waited at Asteria, in the middle of the Strabo's Channel and cruised unsuccessfully through the straight between Cephalonia and modern Ithaca. The situation in port must have been quite tense that day! The story continues and on Saturday evening all suitors are dead...
The enterprise of Telemachos was successful but not without risk, moreover because the whole affair takes place in wintertime or early spring (O.U. p156). Even in summerlike conditions a rowing trip south of Zacynthos may end in an African nightmare; a beaching on the coast of Egypt or Libya. This may have been in the great "peoples of the sea" tradition of his father, Menelaos and Aeneas, later followed by the apostle Paulus (if he hadn't beached on Malta), but it was certainly not what Telemachos was looking for. First passing Ellis and then setting course to south of Zacynthos does not contain logic for any other than philological analysis anyway. So Telemachos took the more obvious route along the south coast of Cephalonia and because of the unusual following wind he was able to cover the 30 nautical miles distance between Elis and Paliki in about 12 hours (Wednesday 19:00 pm - Thursday 07:00 am) at an effective speed of just over 2.5 knots.
One thousand years later, during the siege of Paliki by Philip the Macedon, the island of Paliki is still surrounded by sea and - on one side - by cliffs (Pol 5.3,4
). Not much later the Strabo's channel changes into an isthmus, low lying and often, but not always, submerged from sea to sea and a town Alalcomenae is then situated on the isthmus itself. The two former islands gradually change into a single land mass and in a succession of earthquakes and landslips the isthmus disappears under the landfill now called Thinia. Now the legend of Asteria quite quickly changes into a myth. What remains is a temple to Zeus on the largest mountain on Cephalonia, Mount Ainos; Ainos being the son of Letoius (Apollo). When Pliny has to draw Asteria on the map, he places it far out into the sea and west of all the other isles and calls it "Letoia". Others stick to the name Asteria and map it in a variety of other locations.
The risk of collapse of the narrow channel with steep sides was already in the mind of the Alalcomenean Athene* when she advised Telemachos to take care: (Od 15, 31
- Choice suitors plan to ambush you in the strait
- That lies between Ithaca and rugged Samos,
- Intent on murdering you on your way home.
- It's not to be - the earth will first close over
- Those suitors who eat up your property.
* The name Alalcomenæ
is an epithet of Athene meaning Repeller of Danger
(Il IV, 8
), from the Greek verb ἀλαλκεῖν