The Meaning of Ithaca

After analyzing specific issues of the Greek society and analyzing the transition that occurred in this world, we will try and offer a deeper meaning of this poem.  The Odyssey has a much deeper meaning than what it seems to someone that reads it for the first time.  It is not just a story about a fantastic voyage and a guy overcoming some imaginary difficulties and going back home.  In the Greek view it is an inner-self quest for rediscovering who you really are; at the same time it is a celebration of the human nature and the capability of achieving your goals, even if it means that you have to go through the most difficult and unexpected obstacles to reach those goals. 

When someone reads the Odyssey he/she should pay close attention to the symbolic meaning of this poem.  Firstly, Ithaca should not be considered as being just an island, the home of Odysseus.  Reaching the island of Ithaca is Odysseus’ optimal achievement.  That is what keeps him alive while he faces all these dangers.  Therefore, Ithaca acts symbolically as a representation of the achievement of the goals people set in their lives.  Consequently, the quest for reaching Ithaca stops being just a fantastic voyage full of extraordinary and unrealistic incidents.  Instead, it can now be thought as everybody’s quest in their lives to make their dreams come true.  If you think this goes too far, then you should take a look at the poem “Ithaca” by Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933), which is one of the greatest modern Greek poets, is found in our page.  Kavafis is considered to be one of the greatest Greek poets and “Ithaca” is perhaps his most famous poem.  By reading this poem, it becomes perfectly clear that this island should not be seen as a specific island.

Ithaca is just a small and insignificant island out of the so many Greek islands.  The question then becomes why didn’t Homer choose a better, larger, and fancier island for his poem?  The answer, the way we view it, is straight forward.  Ithaca does not really matter in the literal way.  Instead, it is the idea of Ithaca that is important to Homer and the Greeks in general.  Ithaca exists for each and everyone of us, but in a different way.

All of us set some goals that they want to achieve in their lifetime and they strive hard throughout their lives to reach these goals.  As a result, we can all relate to Odysseus’ quest to reach Ithaca as being our own journey in our lives to reach the goals we set before we start this long voyage.  Just like Odysseus, we will all face difficulties and problems while we try to achieve what we want.  The question now becomes whether we have the strength and patience to remain focused on achieving these goals when we come face to face with the extreme difficulties of life, just like Odysseus finally made it and reached Ithaca.

However, what happens if we do not achieve all our goals when we finally reach our “Ithaca”?  Should we be considered unsuccessful?  Should we feel that we have failed in our lives?  The answer is definitely not.  The reason for this is that the objective is not to actually achieve all the goals that you set before you started your journey in life.  The actual objective lies in making the voyage itself, and to face all those difficulties; to overcome the difficulties in life and gain experience while you are out making the voyage.  Therefore, by the time you reach your “Ithaca” you will already have gained so much from the trip that it does not matter so much whether you reached your goals or not.  For instance, Odysseus’ goal was definitely not to lose his men; but, he did.  That does not mean that he was unsuccessful, even though he failed in achieving all his goals.

As a result of this analysis, a new and final question arises: “Is Odysseus, whom we see in the Odyssey, the ideal Greek hero”?  This is a question that was raised in lecture as well, and resulted in many different opinions and arguments.  We will try to give our own view as clearly as possible in the next and final part of our analysis.

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,                                                                                      
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

Click here to view the source of this poem found on the internet
and more information about Ithaca's culture as described by
various scholars.  
Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρείς,
αν μέν' η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωϊά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους·
να σταματήσεις σ' εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν' αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ' έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά·
σε πόλεις Αιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ' τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν' ο προορισμός σου.
Αλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξίδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει·
και γέρος πια ν' αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ' έδωσε το ωραίο ταξίδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Αλλο δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Ετσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης (1911)

Click here to view the source of this poem found on
the internet and more information about Ithaca's
culture as described by various scholars.  

This is a picture of the island of Ithaca, which is the homeland of Odysseus.

To learn more about Ithaca today and how Greek history has affected it, click here .  

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