Every few months we get a story about how “scientists” have discovered some location associated with a famous myth. This time, the story revolves around a cave where Circe housed Odysseus in the Odyssey. As with most efforts to find the “true” location of Greek mythic tales, this supposed discovery involves a lot of special pleading and a naïve approach to understanding the formation of ancient Greece’s most important poems.
This spring, researchers from an Italian archaeological operation encountered a cave with ancient terra cotta pottery sherds in Mount Circeo, about 60 miles (100 km) south of Rome. They identified this cave as that of Circe, despite some rather obvious flaws in their reasoning, namely that the cave is not located on an island as the Odyssey (10.135) reports.
Britain’s iNews brought the story to English-language readers last week, and nearly all English discussions that followed derived from their report. In it, iNews explained the issue this way:
“It was incredibly exciting to find the terracotta and know that humans were there in ancient times,” says Mr [Marco] Placido. “The features of the Split Cave of Torre Paola perfectly match the description and geographical references of the Homeric narration. While we can’t say with scientific certainty, there are so many elements that match the description in The Odyssey.”
While iNews (and all English-language articles I found on the subject) gave name of the organization making the claim as Rome Sotterranea and the Association of Speleo-Archaeology, this appears to be a poor and partial Anglicizing of the Centro Ricerche Speleo Archaeologiche run by the Sotteranea di Roma, an archaeological organization operating in Italy. Italian news reports from the spring confirm that this is the case. In those reports, the Italians crow about having found the truth behind the Odyssey, but noted that some caution was necessary no matter how satisfying the finding might seem.
Despite the hype about the “discovery,” iNews explained that an Italian researcher had identified the same cave as Circe’s home in a 1972 book. Mt. Circeo is named for Circe and has been associated with Circe’s island home at least since the time that Apollonius of Rhodes placed her home on the Italian mainland at Mt. Circeo (Argonautica 3.309-311) and Virgil followed suit in the Aeneid (7.10). Given that Apollonius wrote in the third century BCE, it is an old opinion.
This is a challenging claim to disentangle because the Italian argument is one that has been used since ancient times, and so too are the skeptical responses. Strabo (Geography 5.3.6) and Procopius (Wars 5.11.2–4) give the story as it was known to the ancients. Here is Procopius’ version, with the same skeptical opinion leveled against the current Italian claim. Procopius writes of
…Mt. Circaeum, where they say Odysseus met Circe, though the story seems to me untrustworthy, for Homer declares that the habitation of Circe was on an island. This, however, I am able to say, that this Mt. Circaeum, extending as it does far into the sea, resembles an island, so that both to those who sail close to it and to those who walk to the shore in the neighbourhood it has every appearance of being an island. And only when a man gets on it does he realize that he was deceived in his former opinion. And for this reason Homer perhaps called the place an island. (trans. H. B. Dewing)
To solve the problem, Aristotle’s successor Theophrastus proposed that Mt. Circeo had originally been an island but that it got silted up and connected to the mainland (Historia Plantrum 5.8.3). Apollonius didn’t buy that argument, so he reconciled the opposites in telling the story of Jason and the Argonauts by imagining that Medea and the Argonauts couldn’t tell that the mountain was attached to the mainland because they saw it from Jason’s Argo, while Circe’s brother Aeëtes knew the truth because he could see from above while riding in Helios’s solar chariot. Virgil didn’t bother with any such theatrics; he simply wrote that he knew better than Homer because he had a greater knowledge of “our coasts” (Aeneid 7.1). (In reality, the mountain has always been attached to the mainland in historic times.)
The flaw in the reasoning, from the time of Theophrastus down to the current claim, is in assuming that Homer was (a) describing real geography and (b) that this geography maps onto the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy. Both claims are almost certainly false.
When poet or poets known conventionally as Homer compiled the traditional tales that became the Odyssey, the poet reworked old material and, in a clumsy way, tried to graft it onto what he knew of world geography. His knowledge, however, was limited and uncertain, and the process of applying mythic geography onto the physical world was imperfect at best. Even the ancients knew this. Eratosthenes, writing in the third century BCE, declared it as impossible to locate Odysseus’ wanderings in the real world as it is to sew the winds into a sack (Strabo, Geography 1.2.15). Odysseus, after all, travels to the realm of the dead, which can be reached on Earth by crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
In myth, however, Circe’s island is a seemingly late development, as I discussed in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, created as a response by Homer to the older Argonauts myth that he was apparently consciously trying to outdo. In the Argonauts myth, Jason and his crew travel to the land of Aea, ruled over by Aeëtes, the son of the Sun. In attempting to invert and outdo everything Jason did, Homer sent Odysseus to Aeaea, a double to Aea, ruled over by Aeëtes’ sister, Circe. But Homer didn’t put Aeaea in Italy. He implied that Aeaea was in the farthest east, near its double, Aea, the dawn land where the sun rose. In fact, he explicitly locates Aeaea in the place where the dawn breaks—the farthest East (Odyssey 12.1-2). As Classical scholar M. L. West reported, that the two were originally one can be seen in the fragments of the mythographer Pherecydes, who wrote that that Golden Fleece sought by Jason was located on the island of Aeaea in the middle of the River Phasis in Colchis—modern Georgia. Strabo may have been right when he speculated that Homer simply invented Aeaea from Aea and invented Circe from Jason’s witch-wife Medea (Geography 1.2.40). However, if two Linear B inscriptions do in fact refer to Aea and Aeaea, then it is possible that both terms were in use in Mycenaean times, though in what context we could only speculate.
Since Homer said Aeaea was in the far east, and Italy is decidedly not east of Greece, the obvious conclusion is that the search for Circe’s cave in Italy is more of an effort to hunt down efforts by the Greeks of Magna Graecia and the Romans to localize mythic geography in their own homelands, much the way Herakles’ wanderings during his labors were revised to move them from Greece to the whole of Europe as geographical knowledge and Greek colonization expanded across the Mediterranean.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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