Many locations in Greek mythology are based on real sites that were known to the people of the Greek world. Zeus’s birthplace on Mount Ida, the lands ravaged by the Chimera, and springs of the Muses were all based on real-world locations.
Some places, however, are harder to place on a map. While they may have been inspired by real sites, their descriptions make them difficult to pinpoint.
This is the case for many sites in Homer’s Odyssey. Of the many islands and landmarks seen on the ten-year journey of Odysseus, only a few can be located with any sense of certainty.
Later writers attempted to remedy the confusing geography of the Odyssey. The writer of the Argonautica, in particular, adjusted Homer’s descriptions to place the events in more logical locations.
This is the case with Aeaea, the island of Circe. Visited by both Odysseus and Jason, its location in the Odyssey is not only uncertain, but is illogical within the broader context of the story.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew spent a year on the island of the goddess and enchantress Circe. The island, called Aeaea, was a lush and peaceful paradise that offered them comfort and respite.
Homer left the location of Aeaea vague, saying only that it was in the East. Even this, however, was later disputed.
Circe’s brother Aeetes was the king of Colchis, a country on the coast of the Black Sea in what is now Georgia. Many ancient sources assumed that Circe’s land would be near that of her brother, particularly since she had been placed there by Eos, the goddess of the dawn.
Over three centuries after Homer, however, Apollonius of Rhodes made the opposite assertion in the Argonautica. When Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Aeaea, it was a land in the West.
Apollonius of Rhodes even specified that Circe’s land was far removed from that of her brother. He placed Aeaea just south of Elba, within view of the western coast of Tuscany.
Elba is part of an archipelago between the coasts of Italy and France. While there are seven primary islands in the chain, a multitude of small islets provide many possibilities for the location of Aeaea.
Later Roman writers proposed a third possible location for Circe’s island, one that was much easier to pinpoint that Homer’s vague description or the inexact identity of Apollonius’s islet.
They claimed that Circe lived on Mount Circeo, which they named for her, about 100 km south of Rome itself.
Mount Circeo is not an island, although it can appear to be from a distance. In the time of Homer, the sandy stretch of land that connects it to the mainland of Italy may not have yet formed a peninsula, however, so the mountain could well have been just off the coast.
The Romans favored this explanation not only because it brought the events of the Odyssey and the Argonautica closer to their own city. Mount Circeo also has many of the specific elements described in both books, such as caves large enough to house several men and dense forests.
The geography of the Odyssey was noted even in the classical era for being imprecise and often contradictory. The purported location of Aeaea is one detail that seems particularly illogical.
When Odysseus and his crew first left Aeaea they were guided by the North Wind, meaning that they traveled south, to reach Oceanus and the entrance to the Underworld. They then returned to Circe’s island and she told them the next dangers they would face as they traveled toward Ithaca.
The location of the Sirens is as vague as that of Aeaea, but Charybdis has been much more precisely mapped. The whirlpool is believed to be based on an actual marine feature in the narrow strait between northern Sicily and the southern coast of Italy.
Homer’s description of the island in the east, therefore, is illogical. If Odysseus were traveling from the east, he would never pass through the Sicilian strait on his way to Ithaca.
Of all the proposed locations for Aeaea, that of Apollonius of Rhodes is the most logical given the geography of the Mediterranean.
If Aeaea were located in the Tuscan Archipelago, a journey directly south would take the ship to a region of North Africa that was largely unknown to the Greeks of Homer’s time. This was the type of remote area that would contain a passage to the Underworld.
Going toward Ithaca, the home of the Sirens could have been on any of the tiny islets or outcroppings in the archipelago. After passing these islets, the next hazard would be the strait of Messina, home to Scylla and Charybdis.
Apollonius wrote his geography intentionally, ensuring that the journey of Jason and the Argonauts was plausible even if the events were fantastic.
Homer’s writing, however, made no such claim to literal accuracy. The geography of Homer was left vague, perhaps an intentional choice to make the Odyssey more epic and amazing.
There are many possible explanations for Homer’s illogical placing of Aeaea in the Odyssey. The author could have been ignorant of the precise locations of the real-world places he described.
The illogical sequence of events could have also been an intentional feature of the story. Just as Odysseus was hopelessly lost on what should have been a simple journey from Troy to Ithaca, the reader of the Odyssey cannot make sense of the illogical and confusing geography of his story.
In the Odyssey, the enchanting goddess Circe lived on the island of Aeaea. Homer gave a vague description of the island as being in the far eastern part of what the Greeks knew of the world.
Circe’s brother ruled a country in modern-day Georgia, so a logical assumption was that Aeaea was nearby. This vague location, however, is at odds with the established geography of the rest of the story.
Apollonius of Rhodes, the author of the Argonautica, made many adjustments to Homer’s geography. He placed Aeaea and other mythological locations within known and logical geography.
He claimed that Aeaea was south of Etna, part of an archipelago off the coast of Tuscany. This geography made the subsequent places encountered by both Odysseus and Jason make sense in the context of their stories.