- Myth, Geography, and Ethnography at the Strait of Messina
At the end of Book 12 of the Odyssey, after the last of his men have been dispatched by Zeus to a watery grave for killing and eating the Cattle of the Sun, Odysseus clings perilously to a branch of a fig tree overhanging the abyss of the monstrous whirlpool Charybdis. As he had prepared to depart from Circe, she warned him he would need to pass between the cave-dwelling dog-woman Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, and that the only way to survive was to avoid the whirlpool and thus let Scylla snatch up six of his men, and so it transpired. Now, his return from the island of the Sun brings him again into their narrow strait. Pieces of his ship emerge from the whirlpool, he drops down onto them from the fig tree, is kept hidden by Zeus from Scylla, and floats away on his nine-day voyage to Calypso’s island.
Since antiquity, inquiring minds have mapped Homeric narrative onto the real world. Mount Ida overlooks the Trojan plain. Ithaca, Pylos, Crete and Ethiopia are real places. Strabo understands Homer as a repository of geographical knowledge, observing that when Homer mentions several places, these are correctly organized in a spatial sense (1.2.20). The digital project Mapping the Catalogue of Ships (Clay, Evans, Jasnow, n.d.) graphically demonstrates the “spatial mnemonic” that organizes the display of geographical knowledge in the catalogue of Greeks ships assembling for the expedition against Troy. Sometimes the relation between poem and place is less straightforward: Pharos at the mouth of the Nile could arguably be recognized in Homer’s account of the [End Page 81] travels of Menelaus, once account was taken of shoreline changes since the composition of the epic (Strabo 1.2.30).
It is harder to map the realms of the fantastic beings who populate Odysseus’ own tale about his wanderings: the Cyclops, Circe with her transformative powers, Aeolus and his bag of winds, the souls Odysseus speaks to at the entrance to the underworld, the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis. The earliest versions of these stories may have born the traces of explorations of Italy’s western shores during the Mycenaean period.1 When Greek colonists from Euboea began to settle in Italy’s west during the eighth century bce, they were perhaps already expecting to see what they had heard of in Homeric storytelling. Odysseus’ wanderings began to be more firmly attached to places, especially in areas of Greek colonization in Italy that came to be known as Magna Graecia.2 The name Scyllaion was mentioned by the early Greek geographer and historian Hecataeus as a “height” (FrgH 1 F82); Strabo (6.1.5) describes it as a high rocky isthmus near the narrow strait between Reggio Calabria and Messina in Sicily; it is now the town of Scilla. In describing the first Athenian expedition against Sicily, Thucydides identifies the strait between Rhegium (Reggio Calabria) and Messina as Charybdis. His remark that the narrow strait caused strong currents conveys the Syracusans’ view that the currents would thwart an Athenian attack and, in combination with Thucydides’ other references to Homeric geography, also “implies that it was the fascination exerted by stories that were localized in Sicily that made the Athenians desire to travel there themselves” (Thuc. 4.24 with Rood 2012, 154–5). Eratosthenes, trying to map the known world and its encircling Ocean with observation-based knowledge rather than mere stories, discounted altogether the idea that Odysseus’ wanderings contained authentic geographical information, writing that “someone would discover where Odysseus wandered only when he found the leather worker who stitched together Aeolus’ bag of winds” (Strabo 1.2.15). Polybius, by contrast, accepts Italian identifications of Homeric places, providing rationalizing accounts of Aeolus as a local man who helped sailors navigate the seas between Italy and Sicily, and Scylla as a story based on predatory swordfish that could be observed being caught...