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Did Ancient Greek Hero Odysseus Travel to Ireland?

Did Odysseus Travel to Ireland? Credit: Public Domain

Homer’s Odyssey tells the tale of Odysseus returning to his home after the Trojan War. For a variety of reasons, the trip is not an easy one. It takes him a full ten years to return home.

But the journey from Troy to Ithaca, Odysseus’ home island, should not have been too difficult and certainly not a ten-year trip. For this reason, some researchers have claimed that Odysseus actually traveled outside of the Mediterranean. There is even the suggestion that he traveled to Ireland.

Odysseus travel to Ogygia and its connection to Ireland

In the Odyssey, one of the places Odysseus visits is an island called Ogygia. This was the home of the nymph Calypso, who offers Odysseus immortality if he agrees to marry her. She refuses to let him leave otherwise. The gods intervene and force Calypso to release him. Hence, after seven years on the island, Odysseus builds a raft and sails away.

The location of Ogygia has been the subject of considerable speculation. According to Homer’s account, the island is a place of beautiful meadows, fountains, woods, and various types of birds. However, none of this is particularly helpful. All sorts of islands could fit this description.

In ancient times, various suggestions were made as to where Ogygia might actually be located. More recently, some scholars have argued that Ogygia is identical to Ireland. If this identification is correct, this would mean that Odysseus spent seven years in Ireland.

The most notable scholar to have come to this conclusion was Roderick O’Flaherty. In 1685, he used the name ‘Ogygia’ as a synonym for Ireland in the title of one of his books. It was called: Ogygia: Or a Chronological Account of Irish Events.

Plutarch’s account of Ogygia

One of the key pieces of evidence used to support the identification of Ireland as Ogygia is a passage written by Plutarch, a historian of the first century CE. He wrote about Homer’s account of Ogygia in conjunction to other additional information he provided. According to Plutarch, Ogygia was situated to the west of Britain, which is where Ireland is in fact located.

Additionally, Plutarch tells us that Ogygia was five thousand stadia away from the ‘great continent’ which surrounded the ‘great sea.’ Several scholars have suggested that this ‘great continent’ actually refers to America. Examples include Wilhelm von Christ, an eighteenth-century German scholar, and Johannes Kepler, a sixteenth-century German scholar.

If the ‘great continent’ mentioned by Plutarch really was America, then that would mean that Ogygia was actually an island somewhere between Britain and America. Since Plutarch says that Ogygia was five thousand stadia from the great continent but only several days distant from Britain, this indicates that it was much closer to Britain than to America. Therefore, Ireland would seem to be a good match.

Problems with identifying Ogygia as Ireland

While Ireland does match Plutarch’s basic description, there are certain issues with this identification. For one thing, Ireland is not five thousand stadia from America. This distance would be the equivalent of a little over nine hundred kilometers. Nevertheless, the distance between Ireland and America is about three thousand kilometers.

Hence, the distance specified by Plutarch means that Ireland is in fact not Ogygia, if America was indeed the ‘great continent’ to which he referred. Clearly, however, there is no other option for the great continent that would fit the passage.

Another problem is that Plutarch states that it takes five days of sailing to travel between Britain and Ogygia. This would indicate an island much further west than Ireland because it would barely take two days of sailing to reach Ireland from the furthest part of the western side of Britain.

In reality, there is no island which is exactly five days’ sailing away from Britain and also five thousand stadia away from America. The measurements simply do not correspond to any real location.

Perhaps, then, some researchers could use this as evidence that the measurements must be incorrect, meaning that Ireland could still be the intended location. Alternatively, it could of course also mean that Plutarch was not really describing an actual location at all.

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