What Was the Name of Odysseus’ City?

Plutarch Greek Questions, 301d

“Why was the Ithakans’ city named Alalkomenai? The reason is that Antikleia was raped by Sisyphus when she was a virgin and conceived Odysseus. This story is told by many. But Istros the Alexandrian reports in his Commentaries  that she had been betrothed to Laertes and gave birth to Odysseus as she was being taken to him near the Alalkomeneion. For this reason, Istros reports that they called the city in Ithaka this, introducing the name as they would from a mother-city.”

πόθεν ἡ τῶν ᾽Ιθακησίων πόλις ᾽Αλαλκομεναὶ προσηγορεύθη; διὰ τὸ τὴν ᾽Αντίκλειαν ὑπὸ Σισύφου βιασθεῖσαν ἐν τῆι παρθενίαι τὸν ᾽Οδυσσέα συλλαβεῖν· ὑπὸ πλειόνων δ᾽ ἐστὶν εἰρημένον. ῎Ιστρος δὲ ὁ ᾽Αλεξανδρεὺς ἐν ῾Υπομνήμασι προσιστόρηκεν, ὅτι τῶι Λαέρτηι δοθεῖσα πρὸς γάμον καὶ ἀναγομένη περὶ τὸ ᾽Αλαλκομένειον ἐν τῆι Βοιωτίαι τὸν ᾽Οδυσσέα τέκοι· καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐκεῖνος ὥσπερ μητροπόλεως ἀναφέρων τοὐνομα τὴν ἐν ᾽Ιθάκηι πόλιν οὕτω φησὶ προσαγορεύεσθαι.

For sources  Odysseus as the son of Sisyphos, see Aeschylus, fr. 175; Sophocles Ajax 190; Philoktetes 416–17; Euripides Iphigena Aul 524

Sisyphus depicted on a black-figure amphora vase
Sisyphus. You thought that was a stone? By Swing Painter – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-13, Public Domain,

Where the Homeric Odyssey suppresses names of children used by ancient myth to relate Odysseus to a wider physical world, the epic nevertheless has some hints here and there about geography and politics. Of course, this will can us a bit more about his family and home. In the Odyssey we find what seems to be a formulaic combination of three islands near Ithaca. When Odysseus describes where he’s from, he names his home and then adds (9.23-4):

“Many islands are inhabited right near each other
Doulikhion, Samê, and forest-covered Zakunthos.”

πολλαὶ ναιετάουσι μάλα σχεδὸν ἀλλήλῃσι,
Δουλίχιόν τε Σάμη τε καὶ ὑλήεσσα Ζάκυνθος.

And earlier during his discussion with Telemachus, Odysseus hears the suitors similarly described as (16.122-125; cf. 19.130-1):

“However so many of the best men who rule among the islands,
Doulikhion, Samê, and forest-covered Zakunthos.
Alongside all the men who lord over steep Ithaka—
This many men are wooing my mother and ruining my home”

ὅσσοι γὰρ νήσοισιν ἐπικρατέουσιν ἄριστοι,
Δουλιχίῳ τε Σάμῃ τε καὶ ὑλήεντι Ζακύνθῳ,
ἠδ’ ὅσσοι κραναὴν ᾿Ιθάκην κάτα κοιρανέουσι,
τόσσοι μητέρ’ ἐμὴν μνῶνται, τρύχουσι δὲ οἶκον.

Just from these lines, the wooing of Penelope appears to be a power-struggle among the local aristocracy, which happens to extend from Ithaca to the surrounding islands. And, interestingly enough, the Catalogue of ships in the Iliad paints a similar although significantly different scene (2.625-637):

“And these men from Doulikhion and the holy Ekhinain Island
Who inhabit in the corner of the sea facing Elis
Megas, equal to Ares, led these men,
Phuleidês, whom the horseman Phuleus, dear to Zeus bore,
who ruled Doulikion after he was angry at his father.
Forty dark ships followed him to war.
Then Odysseus led the great-hearted Kephallanians
Who occupied Ithaka and flourishing Nêritos
While also caring for Krokuleia and harsh Aigilipa
And the men who inhabit Zakunthos and live around Samos,
Both those who occupy the seashore and inland.
Odysseus, equal in metis to Zeus, led them,
And twelve dark-cheeked ships followed him.

corr.     Οἳ δ’ ἐκ Δουλιχίοιο ᾿Εχινάων θ’ ἱεράων
νήσων, αἳ ναίουσι πέρην ἁλὸς ῎Ηλιδος ἄντα,
τῶν αὖθ’ ἡγεμόνευε Μέγης ἀτάλαντος ῎Αρηϊ
Φυλεΐδης, ὃν τίκτε Διῒ φίλος ἱππότα Φυλεύς,
ὅς ποτε Δουλίχιον δ’ ἀπενάσσατο πατρὶ χολωθείς·
τῷ δ’ ἅμα τεσσαράκοντα μέλαιναι νῆες ἕποντο.
Αὐτὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἦγε Κεφαλλῆνας μεγαθύμους,
οἵ ῥ’ ᾿Ιθάκην εἶχον καὶ Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον
καὶ Κροκύλει’ ἐνέμοντο καὶ Αἰγίλιπα τρηχεῖαν,
οἵ τε Ζάκυνθον ἔχον ἠδ’ οἳ Σάμον ἀμφενέμοντο,
οἵ τ’ ἤπειρον ἔχον ἠδ’ ἀντιπέραι’ ἐνέμοντο·
τῶν μὲν ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ἦρχε Διὶ μῆτιν ἀτάλαντος
τῷ δ’ ἅμα νῆες ἕποντο δυώδεκα μιλτοπάρῃοι.

So it seems that Doulikhios gets its own entry in the catalogue and its own leaders whereas Odysseus leads over a bunch of Kephallenians which include three other islands unrepresented among the suitors as well as Zakynthos and Samos. Note, also, that though Odysseus’ resume seems a bit inflated by the accumulation of place names, his total number of ships (12) is still smaller than the contingent from Doulikhion and the nearby islands.

If we make the leap to say that Samos = Samê (if not actually than in some way formulaically), obviously, there is a cultural memory that politically ties some of these places together (but not all) while also grouping them geographically. (That both politics and geography are marked might seemed obvious, but the royal families move around a bit.) At the same time, the exact structure of the political relationship among these ancient sites is at play (in the poetry, at least).

More interesting than the grouping of Samos, Doulikhios and Ithaka, is the relative absence of the ethnonym Kephallenians in the Odyssey and the disappearance of the other islands named in the Iliad e.g. Nêritos). But there is a tantalizing hint in Laertes’ prayer from book 24 (376-378):

“Father Zeus, Athena and Apollo [if only I could be young]
The way I was when I took Nêrikos, the well-built city
On a harbor, when I was ruling among the Kephallenians.”

“αἲ γάρ, Ζεῦ τε πάτερ καὶ ᾿Αθηναίη καὶ ῎Απολλον,
οἷος Νήρικον εἷλον, ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον,
ἀκτὴν ἠπείροιο, Κεφαλλήνεσσιν ἀνάσσων,

So, apparently, Laertes did rule before Odysseus (and ruled the Kephallenians in part because he sacked Nêrikos). I can only imagine (and speculate) that we can see something in the background, some political strife in the absence of Odysseus that results in the fragmenting of a multi-island political hegemony.

The scholia give some interesting confirmations and backgrounds for these placement of the islands:

  1. <ὅς ποτε Δουλίχιον δ’ ἀπενάσσατο πατρὶ

χολωθείς:> διδάσκει ὡς ἀνηκέστου διαφορᾶς τῶν οἰκείων κρείσσων
ὁ χωρισμός. b(BCE3E4)
D Δουλίχιον νῆσος πρὸ τῆς Κεφαλληνίας. αἱ δὲ ᾿Εχινάδες
—καλοῦνται ᾿Επειοί. A
D πατρὶ χολωθείς: ὃς εἰς τὸ Δουλίχιον—ἡ ἱστο-
ρία καὶ παρὰ Καλλιμάχῳ (fr. 77). A

  1. <Κεφαλλῆνας:> ἡ Κεφαλληνία παράκειται ταῖς ᾿Εχινάσι·

Κέφαλος γὰρ ὁ Δηΐονος, φεύγων ἐκ Φωκίδος διὰ τὸν τῆς γυναικὸς
ἀκούσιον φόνον ᾤκει ἐν Θήβαις. συστρατεύσας δὲ ᾿Αμφιτρύωνι καὶ
ταύτην γέρας λαβὼν οὕτως ἀφ’ ἑαυτοῦ ὠνόμασεν. ἐκ τούτου Κιλλεύς,
οὗ ᾿Αρκείσιος, οὗ Λαέρτης. b(BCE3)

So, Kephallenian is named for a dude from Kephalos and is near the Ekhinades, who are also called Epeians. Kephalos left Phôkos because he killed his wife and won this island when he went to war with Amphitryon. Apparently, he’s the great-great grandfather of Odysseus.

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