Monday, April 25, 2011

The Mysteries of Homer and Greek History

When we  take a look at the story behind the great epics Odyssey and Iliad, many mysteries present themselves. The identity of the creator (one Homer or two), the origin of the works, and the historical references are major areas where the truth is missing. It’s unfortunate that so little is known about this first great literary work of antiquity.

The oldest written copy of the Homeric legends we have dates from circa 300 B.C. Before that, the poems were carried down as folklore for perhaps 400 years. We know they were written to be recited by professional story tellers because of their style and format tell us so. They are written in poetic form and carefully constructed using smooth sentence transition and repeated phases, which lend themselves to memorization.

An example of the latter is “Down he fell with a thud and his armor clattered around him”. Phase devices like this accomplish two purposes: the give the speaker time to formulate his next phrase, which may vary, and they also repeat words that the listener has heard before, creating familiarity during a portion of the story new to him.

Homer took oral tradition and made it into great poetry. How much of the technique (and the story) he inherited from his predecessors is unknown.

Now let us move on and look at the history itself. The first thing that stands out is that Homer is not writing a contemporary account but history of a previous period. Since the facts in the epics resemble those from Mycenaean history, there is a gap of 400-500 years between the actual events and legends describing them. How was that possible given the fact that the Mycenaean Civilization was unknown to the Greeks living in the Dark Ages? Obviously, we have to assume that the history was passed down to a point when the poems were created. Could the epics themselves have been told in Mycenaean times and then handed down? There’s no way to know for sure, but there are clues. One of the characters in the Iliad carries a body shield that “looks like a tower”.  Such a shield did exist during the early Mycenaean period but went out of favor. A warrior’s helmet is also described as made from boar’s tusks. This also resembles a actual helmet from early Mycenae, which also fell into disuse early.

The Iliad is focused on the Siege of Troy, of course, which may have occurred near the end of the Mycenaean Age – at least the most likely dates make it seem that way. But there are inconsistencies too.  For example in Mycenae the dead were buried, while in the Iliad they were cremated.

Geography is another interesting point of comparison. in the Iliad, Homer describes  a catalog of ships from nine towns including Pylos. He also mentions nine areas of a “hither” province, but Pylos is not one of those. None of the names on these two lists match. When he describes Ithaca, the home of Odysseus, the geography is wrong, making it obvious he had never been there. He also places Mycenae on the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf rather than  inland from the Argolikos Gulf.

Perhaps Homer was an Ionian Greek who never traveled to Greece and, instead, relied on the descriptions of others. Maybe his use of the Ionian dialect explains his origin.

In spite of any inconsistencies, we have to remember that Homer was a poet and not a historian. The history he used was part of creating the story, and it’s the story that’s important. Still, it’s fun to use Homer to try and understand the Mycenaean culture. We certainly don’t find any personality in those Linear B tablets.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Barry Brummet said...

The Iliad is full of mysteries, but compared to the Odyssey it's quite straightforward. Some years ago I read a book which theorized that the wanderings of Odysseus were coded sailing directions- which the author had decrypted of course. Unprovable but interesting to think about. Old European place and tribal names have always fascinated me and many had similarities to Ilium or Troy. I would like to know more about that, if you are looking for suggestions.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.