History & Culture of the Island of Ithaca

Since the ancient times the island of Ithaca has been inextricably linked to the mythical hero Odysseus and the Odyssey. Friendship and Hospitality are mentioned in the oldest known inscription written in the meter of Homeric epics poetry and found in fragments of a wine amphora (clay jar) back in the 7th century BC. Moreover, on a vertical rock located along the route connecting Aetos to Ai-Giannis, it is engraved the inscription "OD" which is believed to represent the initials of the word "Odysseus". According to popular tradition, Penelope palace and memorial are located in Paliokastro and a rock with a hole in it, served to Odysseus to set up the pole of his flag...


The statue of Odysseus at the port of Vathy

Odyssey has influenced literature world wide; important literary works have been conducted and international conferences and seminars about Homeric and Odyssey Philology have been organized in Ithaca, at the Center for Odyssey Studies. Ithaca mentioned in the Odyssey has been an archetypal figure that inspired the artistic creation judging by Nikos Kazantzakis' and Derek Walcott's "Odyssey", as well as James Joyce's "Ulysses". The myth of return has been elaborated by important modern Greek poets such as K. Kavafis, G. Seferis and O. Elytis in their poems "Ithaca", "Upon a line of foreign verse" and "Odyssey" respectively.


Ithaca in Antiquity

According to the findings from the excavations, Ithaca has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age (4000-3000 BC) and used to be a center of the Mycenaean civilization. In the Archaeological site of Homer's School, SE of the settlement Exogi, it was discovered a part of a cyclopean fortification wall, a circular monument, shells of handmade prehistoric and Hellenistic pottery, buildings connected with stone staircases and an underground prehistoric fountain similar to the fountains found at Mycenae and Tiryns, two of the most important centers of the Mycenaean world. The findings indicate the existence of a tower built in the Hellenistic - Classical period with influences of the Mycenaean architecture. 3 monoliths fallen to the ground were part of the fortress gate that has collapsed. Remains of a Mycenaean settlement were also found at the site of Trilagada, while in the settlement of Stavros there were discovered a part of a fortified cyclopean wall and relics of classical and Hellenistic tombs.

Pilikata area, where it is housed Stavros Archaeological Collection, seems to have been inhabited until the end of the 12th century BC, ie until the end of the Mycenaean period. It has been discovered a part of the Early Helladic wall, clay vessels and stone tools from the early Bronze Age, relics of a settlement with arched houses and drainage pipes, as well as large burial jars placed under the paved floor.

In addition, on the slopes of Aetos (Eagle) mountain there were found architectural remains of an ancient city, inhabited during the Mycenaean and up to the Roman era. From bronze coins found with Odysseus figure and the inscription IΘΑΚΩΝ (Ithakon), it has been concluded that the ancient city was called Ithaca and Odysseus was worshiped as a local hero. Ancient city location was of strategic importance, with a view towards the natural ports located in both the lateral sides, while in the saddle there were found remains of the oldest fortification project in the area, a square tower with a side length of 8 meters. At the top of the hill are preserved extensive remnants of fortification walls (Acropolis Alalkomenes) of the classical and Hellenistic eras that in some spots are impressively high. Among the findings of the excavations exhibited at Vathy Archaeological Museum, a significant number of the vessels have been made in local laboratories according to the local style, the "Ithacan Protogeometric style".


Caves as places of worship 

Caves used for ritual purposes from the early Helladic period and up to the Roman years, were also places that mythical hero Odysseus had been worshipped. Caves are special karst geomorphs without distinct boundaries, located between the world above and the invisible underground, between land and sea. They may be considered as ruptures of the surface crust rendering accessible earth interior and for this reason they were widely used as places for ritual practices.

In the bay of Dexa, which is considered Forkina ancient harbour, it is located the coastal entrance of the Cave of the Nymphs (Marble Cave), destroyed by Roman quarries, as well as earthquakes such as the one in 373 BC. The cave is considered to be the place Odysseus hid Phaeacians' gifts after his return to the island. Inside the cave there were found remains of a ruined altar and votive offerings dedicated to the Nymphs (divinities of fresh water) who were worshiped there probably due to fresh water springs of the area. The cave was considered a meeting point of humans with the divine, since the coastal inaccessible entrance was believed to be used only by gods and the mythical hero Odysseus, while the second entrance located at an altitude of 190 meters above the bay, was used by mortals to enter inside the cave.

είσοδος σπήλαιο Νυμφών
The entrance of the Cave of the Nymphs at an altitude of 190 meters above the bay of Dexa


Another cave located at Polis gulf, which is the port of Stavros, is Loizos' coastal Cave that used to be a center of worship until the 1st century AD. The excavations brought to light an ancient temple, Mycenaean vessels, tributes to the Nymphs and Odysseus, as well as statues of the goddesses Artemis, Athena and Hera. Among the most important finds there is a part of a clay female mask of the 2nd century BC with the inscription "WISH ODYSSEUS" and fragments of thirteen bronze tripods with intricate decoration that refer to Homer's Phaeacians' gifts to Odysseus.

σπήλαιο Λοίζου
The entrance of Loizos coastal cave at Polis gulf


Integrated into local cosmology, the caves are sites associated with myths and stories that are transmitted through folklore and oral tradition. The impressive Cave Rizes on Marathias plateau, that was used to house animals in the past, is considered to be the Homeric Cave of Eumaeus, Odysseus' swineherd.

σπήλαιο Ρίζες
Cave Rizes on Marathias plateau; it is considered to be the Homeric Cave of Eumaeus


In this area, there is a cave - church, Panagia Spilaiotissa above Andri, the southernmost bay of Ithaca. According tradition, inside the cave it was discovered the miraculous icon of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which is kept at Perachori during the year. On Spilaiotissa feast day the 2nd of July, the holy icon is carried in procession from Perachori to the chapel, following a path on Marathias plateau.


The cavescape of Kefalonia -Ithaca Geopark



Christianism & Conquerors

Christian worship in Ithaca began in 394 AD when the island made part of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of the Romans. Since then and till the coveted union of the Ionian Islands with Greece on May 21st 1864, Byzantine settlements, monasteries and churches were built in Ithaca to preserve the Byzantine tradition. In the meantime, the island was conquered by Normans (1185), the Orsini family (1204), the Tokos dynasty (1357), Turks (1479), Venetians (1503), French (1797 - 1799, treaty of Campo Formio), the Russian and Turks (1800-1807, Treaty of Constantinople with Ionian State foundation), French (1807-1809, Treaty of Tilsit) and the British up to 1864, with the foundation of the "United States of the Ionian Islands" under the British supervision.

During the period of the Franks conquerors, it was applied the feudal system, the Orthodox diocese was initially abolished, but it returned during the Tokos dominance, who maintained the Byzantine tradition; in the meantime, pirates made their presence felt on the island. They often raided from the Strait of Ithaca and gulfs such as Sarakiniko and Sarakinari - named after the presence of Saracen pirates – and systematically plundered the island and the surrounding areas. During that period, the inhabitants used to live in settlements at higher altitudes respect to the seaside, to surveillance the presence of pirates. In this way, the medioeval settlement of Paleochora was established in southern Ithaca, and Exogi and Anogi in the northern part. Paleochora was built at a strategic point with an excellent view towards the port, so that residents could perceive the presence of threatening ships when approaching. Houses were like fortresses, built on one or two floors, with small and narrow windows-embrasures and no balconies. Remarkable examples of ecclesiastical architecture such as two temples (church of Eisodion Theotokou or Maroulatiki and Koimiseos Theotokou or Palios) are historical monuments, decorated with post-Byzantine frescoes. The settlement of Exogi was built at an altitude of 340 meters. In a short distance there were discovered ancient and byzantine relics, wells, tools and coins deriving from different periods. During the Middle Age it was considered an important settlement of the island, providing security from pirates due to its strategic location, with a view to the Strait of Ithaca, the bays around the northern part of the island, and Kefalonia and Lefkada. Further south, Anogi was built on the highest mountain of the island, Mount Niritos at a height of 550 meters. Just above the current settlement there are ruins of an older settlement, which was abandoned by the inhabitants probably after a war or pirate raid.

The settlement of Exogi perched on top left, onto the lateral limb of Afales bay Geosite 



During the Venetian period, specifically in the 16th-17th century, Anogi was the capital of Ithaca and its church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, used to be the Cathedral of Ithaca, first mentioned in 1565. Initially it had only a small rear door and 2 very small windows for protection from pirates. Built-in clay hoppers were added to its stone walls for acoustic enhancement, and a wooden twelve-arched door from the 1821s. In the courtyard dominates an imposing Venetian bell tower, which represents the symbol of the settlement along with the monoliths of Anogi, scattered around the surrounding area.

This 9 meters tall menhir is the most impressive among the monoliths around Anogi. It was named Araklis (an alliteration of Hercules) probably due to its incorrect consideration in the past as a manmade megalithic monument, while the mythical hero Hercules was believed to protect quariers. 

Inhabitants' settlement in easily accessible coastal lands began in the 16th century, after the defeat and disappearance of the pirate threat. As a part of the Venetian state of the sea (Stato da Mar), Ithaca maintained the character of a colony where it took place the systematic cultivation and trade of olive oil, wine and raisins on the fertile plains of lowlands.


The viticulture in Ithaca is still very popular. 


Olive grove and traditional dry-stone walls

From Paleochora, the inhabitants moved to Perachori, amphitheatrically built on the slopes of Mount Petaliatiko, and to Vathi. Respectively, a part of Exogi population moved closer to the coast, in the settlements of Stavros and Platrithias to gain easy access to the bay of Afales and Frikes, while many inhabitants of Anogi were transferred to Kioni that together with Vathy are declared preserved settlements. Moreover, the path connecting Anogi to Kioni is well-preserved and very popular to this day. At Stavros, it is located a rare example of building from the Venetian period, named Palace (mansion) of Tzani, designated as a historical monument, with interesting architectural elements of a defensive character.


The Tzani mansion at Stavros, northern Ithaca  

Ecclesiastical Art during the Venetian Occupation

  The Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Anogi is among the oldest and most important churches of Balkans to be considered a protected religious and historical monument; this fact underlines the culture of Ithacans, one century after the victorious repulse of the Ottomans, during the transition of the Ottoman fleet to Lepanto (Nafpaktos) naval battle, in 1571. The church is a large basilica with frescoes painted around the middle of the 17th century by Antonios from Agrafa who was educated in Vragiana School, an important center for the preservation of the byzantine tradition. The iconographic content depicted on the frescoes of byzantine magnificence, is of theological character with a political connotation by inserting between Constantine the Great and St. Helen, the cross of Lorraine - symbol of free France used also in the 2nd World War by General de Gaulle. An ecclesiastical theme is depicted on the facade of the wooden matroneum regarding the Divine Judgment and the heretic clergy threatened by a frightening monster. The frescoes with elegant representations of narration, praise and ritual were made according to the epirotic style, with influences from the Cretan school of ecclestastic art and possibly from frescoes of Meteora monasteries and Byzantine temples of Ravenna (especially the series of full-length portraits of saints).

The church is one of the countless examples of ecclesiastical art on the island, flourishing during the period of the 17th and 18th century. At that time, after the fall of Venetian at Chandakas (today's Heraklion, Crete) in 1669, many Cretan together with Epirotic artists such as woodcarvers, silversmiths and painters visited or settled in the Ionian Islands. Cretan artists used to organize and work in laboratories where it got developed the Eptanisian artistic style, through the meeting of Cretan art with local tradition. Although several temples have been destroyed by the strong and frequent seismicity of the area, there are still traces of this art scattered around the island. For example, the wood-carved iconostasis of Holy Temple of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary at Perachori, was saved after the earthquake in 1953 and transferred to the church of Agios (Saint) Raphael.

A magnificent wood-carved iconostasis also decorates the Holy Temple of Vlacherna in Vathi, which was built in 1792. The depicted icons from the crown to the shields were painted by the famous artistic laboratory of Perligades based at Lixouri, Kefalonia. The bell tower in the courtyard of the Temple consisting of carved stone vertebrae, is approximately of the same age, with a staircase of special architectural interest.

At Vathi, in the Cathedral of Ithaca dedicated to the Entrance of Virgin Mary, there is a wooden iconostasis made by the Metsovite woodcarver I. Paschoulitis in 1793, a pulpit of exceptional aesthetics (work of Ithacan Spyros Komnenos) and post-Byzantine icons transferred from church “Panagoula at Conte” that was destroyed by earthquakes in 1953. The old bell tower with stone details stands out when looking at Vathi from the sea and is an example of the Venetian influence in the architecture of the Ionian Islands.

Moreover, in the Holy Temple of St. Nicholas of the expatriates in Vathi, an icon depicting Jesus Christ refers to the painting of the Cretan Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) or one of his students, from the early period (1570 - 1580) of his works, when he was in Venice, in Titian's laboratory. The icon is taken from Pontius Pilate's phrase "Behold the man" when he presented Jesus to Judaeans, with a crown of thorns and a Roman scarlet tunic, holding a cane instead of a royal scepter.

In addition, paintings on marble icon screen and the Holy Altar niche are found in the church dedicated to Agios Efstathios built earlier than 1751. This is probably the oldest church of Vathi built by residents of Paleochora, when they moved to the current capital of the island.


The period before the coveted union of Ithaca and the rest of the Ionian Islands with Greece

The conquest by the French Democrats abolished feudalism and improved the administrative and judicial system; nevertheless, it imposed heavy taxes that provoked disappointment among the inhabitants. During the second period of their rule in Ithaca (1807-1809), French created defensive structures to face the powerful British fleet, as it is evidenced by fortification ruins and the remaining 2 cannons at Vathi.

κανόνια Βαθύ
The remaining two cannons at Vathy

During this short historical period that the rest of Greece was prepared for nation's liberation and independence from the Turkish yoke, French new ideas about social structure greatly influenced the inhabitants of the island. During the British occupation, despite the ban imposed by the conquerors, many distinguished Ithacans joined "Filiki Etaireia" (Society of Friends), offering help and shelter to Greeks under the Turkish rule and fighting in battles during the revolution. Through their commercial activity, Ithacans had acquired an active merchant fleet with which they participated in battles for the liberation of the nation.

In the secret organization of the "Filiki Etaireia" (Society of Friends) that played an important role in the organization of the Greek Revolution in 1821, many distinguished Ithacans participated such as the Metropolitan Bishop of Anchialos and national martyr Eugene Karavias, Anastasios Karavias (trusted collaborator of Alexander Ypsilantis) and Spyridon Drakoulis, appointed Holy Corps leader and officer respectively, Vassilios Karavias, winner in a battle for the liberation of Galatsi from the Turks, Georgios Petrikis who was distinguished for his bravery in a later battle for the same city, when the Turks tried to retake it, Dimitrios Leloudas that participated in a battle against Kioutachis' forces at Faliriki salt flat, Dionysios Evmorfopoulos, a trusted collaborator of Alexander Ypsilantis, who participated in many victorious battles such as the siege of Tripolitsa (July 26-28, 1822) and the battle of Dervenakia (26-28 July 1822) and Spyridon Kyparissis, that represented Ithaca at the assembly of the Eptanisian fighters at Nafplio in 1926, with the aim to form the Ionian Military Corps.

Ithaca was visited by Lord Byron; during his short permanency he offered money to help Greek families from Chios, Patra and other places that had found refuge on the island. In Ithaca in 1788 was born Odysseas Androutsos, a member of the Society of Friends and an ardent supporter of the Greek revolution. He undertook the incitement of Greeks insurrection in Eastern Roumeli and became famous for his victory on May 8, 1821 at Hani (Rest House) of Gravia, after which he became the military leader of Roumeli. He was the son of Andreas Androutsos, a former armatolos of Roumeli (a Greek Christian irregular soldier, commissioned by the Ottomans to enforce Sultan's authority), and Akrivi Charlamba, daughter of a Preveza dignitary, who was persecuted by Turks and escaped to Ithaca, as her husband left Ottomans, to fight on the side of the great hero Lambros Katsonis. The seafarer Katsonis, during the Russian-Turkish war (1787-1792), attempted raids to the Greek seas causing the terror of the enemy. During his permanency to the island that used for the safe anchorage of his fleet, he became friend with Captain Androutsos and baptized his son, Odysseus.

It is worth mentioned that through the centuries, conquerors' religious influence had not acquired a strong impact, while the construction and decoration of temples continued to strengthen the Orthodox faith. Saint Joachim of Ithaca, also named "Papoulakis" (1786-1868) was an important ecclesiastical statesman, that contributed to the nation revolution by teaching and supporting the oppressed Greeks. He actually helped women and their children to escape from Turkish massacre, and settle to the Ionian Islands, with the support of a priest, Giannis Makris from Pylaros, Kefalonia, while his life was constantly in danger for his intellectual and revolutionary actions. When he returned back to Ithaca, he lived in the south, close to the oak forest "Afedikos Loggos"; he taught the mission of Orthodoxy and helped spiritually and materially those in need. He contributed to the construction of churches by collecting donations such as the Holy Temples of Evangelistria in Kioni and St. Barbara at Stavros.


μονη καθαρών
The Holy Monastery of Kathara seen from above

Moreover, the Holy Monastery of Kathara, built on the SE top of the Homeric Mount Niritos, with a magnificent view towards the gulf of Molos, played an important role in the Greek fight for liberation. In 1830, the historic monastery was in great prosperity due to rich donations and tributes, and offerred treatment to the wounded and defeated fighters. The Monastery is dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, and it is first mentioned in 1696. The nomination probably derives from the word ''kathara'' that in the local dialect means dry branches and small bushes, as according tradition the icon depicting the Nativity of the Virgin Mary was miraculously found in burning "kathara" exactly at the place where it was built afterwards the monastery. Others claim that the nomination comes either from the heretical Christian sect of Cathari, or from goddess Athena (Kathari means Pure, Virgin), as it was hypothesized that in the place of the Monastery it was earlier built an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess. Since the foundation of the Monastery up to our days, life on the island is intertwined with Panagia Kathariotissa. After the earthquakes in 1928 and 1953, the icon was transported to Vathy, the capital of Ithaca, in a procession followed by all the inhabitants on foot. Panagia Kathariotissa could therefore be considered the patron saint of the island inhabitants, as well as of the Ithacan expatriates and seamen. The Monastery celebrates on the 8th of September the Nativity of the Virgin, as well as on September the 14th the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, when traditionally boiled broad beans are offered to the pilgrims after-mass, to wish farmers a good harvest from the plantation of legumes in autumn.


Ithaca in the 19ο – 20ο century

In the 19th century in Ithaca there had been already developed an intense shipping activity, which turned the island into an important seaport, with a large number of boats, experienced seamen, shipbuilders and carpenters, a profession that still exists in the island today. That period was characterized by a strong migratory flow to the shores of the Black Sea and the Danube Region, and the establishment of an Ithacan community, mainly engaged in the grain trade. In the meantime, back in Ithaca, the inhabitants including expatriates' families used windmills for the local production of flour, that were built either on the top of Exogi hills, or lowland in Vathi, Frikies and Kioni. Depending on their location, they were subjected to the action of different winds and did not work simultaneously, such as the Mistral (Maistro) windmill. A total of 31 mills were productive until the end of 2nd World War; afterwards, they were gradually abandoned and today very few are kept in a relatively good condition, such as the one in Panagia in Skala.

An old windmill close to the picturesque fishermen village of Frikies


Economic prosperity led to the expansion of the construction activity, and the building of new houses, as well as the reconstruction, expansion of the facades or the addition of auxiliary spaces. The buildings of this period are typical examples of traditional architecture, such as the two-storey building, owned by P. Molfesi in Vathi. In the beginning of the 20th century, much of the island has been modernized with the construction of public buildings, the opening of roads and the operation of a lighting electric factory in Vathi in 1923, after a donation made by the shipowner Drakoulis, in a building that now houses the Maritime - Folklore Museum of Ithaca.

λαογραφικό μουσείο
The entrance of the Maritime - Folklore Museum of Ithaca

In 1907, began officially in Ithaca the naval training with the establishment of the "Merchant Marine School Othonos Stathatou", which operated until 1912. The school was housed in a majestic neoclassical building reminiscent of Ziller's architectural style. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 1953, and at its place it was built the Primary School.

ναυτική σχολή
Article on "Telemachos" newspaper with laudatory comments about the first graduates and the strict rules and regulations of the Merchant Marine Academy Stathatos, the building of which is shown in the upper part of the image, Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca

Nevertheless, maritime training continued with the foundation of the Maritime High School in 1956, while today a Vocational High School operates with an Orientation in Maritime Professions and Chief Officers Sector. The founder of the Merchant Marine School came from the major Ithacan shipping family Stathatos, while another important shipping family was Theofilatos, who also operated in Romania and imported steamships in Greece. The long naval history of Ithaca is exhibited in the Maritime - Folklore Museum through paintings, photographs of Ithacan shipowners, naval instruments, uniforms and documents of the Merchant Marine Academy O. Stathatos.

εκθέματα ναυτικού μουσείου
Navigational Equipment, Maritime - Folklore Museum of Ithaca


Painting that depicts ship "Maria Stathatos"; donation to the Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca



Seamen usually returned back to Ithaca during Christmas festive season. At home everyone was getting ready for the important feast, with new clothes and shoes to wear them in church and laid brand new textiles and handiwork made during the previous year. A branch of cypress was decorated to be used as a Christmas tree and lamb or a cockerel was cooked in the clay utensil tserepa for lunch. The celebration started in the morning with Christmas carols and ended late at night with dances.

Loom and traditional textiles, Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca


Traditional Handiwork, Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca
The traditional clay utensil "tserepa", Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca


Wedding preparations had been another source of joy for Ithacans, regardless the eventual difficulties during periods of war or hardships. It was an opportunity to socialise, meet friends and relatives. Young girls washed and dried wool for the "filling of the mattresses", and a week before the wedding, people were invited to houses where sweet cookies 'kuluria' were prepared in a festive atmosphere with food and drinks. The mystery of marriage was taking place at home instead of the church, and a ladle was hung to young girls in order to get married soon. Wedding dishes were prepared by professional cooks, and included a first dish of pasta with meat in a tomato sauce, a second dish of grilled meat with potatoes, and in the end the traditional sweet 'rovani' made of rice and honey. Due to the large number of guests, the salads that accompanied the main dishes were prepared in big basins usually used for clothes washing. Wedding feast with singing and dancing lasted for 3 days, till the return named 'pistrofia' of the newly married couple to the bride's house. There, in a festive atmosphere bride's parents gave as a present to the couple a cockorel and a pullet named "Zefganithos" in the local dialect.

Traditional Furniture, Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca



Cultural development in the Ionian Islands was influenced by the Italian conquerors, as evidenced in the case of the Ionian chant, 'cantada', which differs from the pattern of traditional songs in the other parts of Greece. Weddings, festivals and feasts, as well as the collection of olive oil and grapes constituted occasions of pleasant gatherings, with rhymes recitation and singing of traditional songs by the inhabitants. In 1815, the first music school in Greece, the Ionian Music School, was founded in Corfu by Nikolaos Chalkiopoulos Mantzaros, and operated until the beginning of the 20th century. The contact with classical music and Italian melodrama, inspired Eptanisians to become composers and troupe organizers, using the Italian language and musical standards. Mantzaros' student Dionysios Rodotheatos, who was born in Ithaca in 1849, and grew up in Corfu was the first composer to write an harmony textbook in the Greek language. In 1904, the "Philharmonic Music School" was inaugurated in Ithaca and the famous Italian violinist Francesco Nicolini was the first Philharmonic Chief Musician. The School was founded by inspired Ithacans with the purpose to offer music education to young people and make them participate in cultural and social events. Later on, arose the musical trend of creating "Greek music" based on classical patterns in combination with Greek motifs. In our days, except the Philharmonic Society, in Ithaca is organized an amateur theatre festival by the Association of Friends of Theater and Cinema (Phorkys), and are active an Association of Friends for artistic education, traditional dance groups, the Municipal Mandolin band (mandolinata) "Vaptistis Kouvaras" and the Community choir of Ithaca. 

Instruments associated with the musical tradition of the island, Maritime - Folklore Museum, Ithaca