A Search for Homer

My husband Neil had been badly injured in a biking accident in early September. He went head first over handlebars zooming down a hill when his brakes failed. He lost consciousness, sustained a fractured rib and wrist, dislocated fingers, and covered himself in road rash so extensive it looked like a Hollywood makeup job.

A few days after the ambulance came and the doctors ministered as best they could, I thought a cruise abroad might be the antidote we needed. Neil’s recovery over several weeks was good. But honestly, the desire to travel to Istanbul, Troy, Crete and Ephesus started earlier, with a book Neil left on his nightstand, Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson, a British scholar.

The book asks intriguing questions about the creation of the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both epic poems had attracted my attention as a kid; my parents immersed us in Greek drama and Bulfinch’s Mythology. The Iliad, however, was daunting. It’s a huge poem, graphically detailing the rage and bloodletting of Achilles, King Agamemnon and their ten-year Trojan War against Hector and King Priam. The Odyssey was more approachable and fun; it depicts the crazy journey of Achaean hero Odysseus (claimed to be mastermind behind the Trojan horse) who got tossed around the magical islands of the Mediterranean for another ten years. Odysseus battled one-eyed Cyclops, sirens, sea monsters, lusty goddesses and whirlpools before finding his way back to Ithaca, his home, and beloved wife and son, Penelope and Telemachus.

Nicolson suggests that the “meaning” of Homer in today’s fraught, war-torn world is more important than ever. He asks: “Where does Homer come from? And why does Homer matter?” In Nicolson’s view, Homer’s poetry comes not from the orthodox dating of the original manuscripts in early Iron Age Greece — the 8th century B.C., a time of rapid cultural development. Rather, he writes, “..my Homer is a thousand years older.”

His search for Homer ranges over a newly discovered Mycenean mural of the Bard (or someone like him) to the scanning of the original Homeric texts, about 20% of which was written in a form of Greek pre-dating the Linear B tablets (that is, before 1400 BC). In all, Nicolson believes that Homer’s work was misdated and, in some respects, misread. The Bard (or a series of “Homers”) was writing about a conflict started by wandering, war-obsessed Achaeans newly arrived on the Greek mainland, but originally migrating from the European steppes north and west of the Black Sea. “Homeric poems are legends shaped around the arrival of a people,” he writes. “Homer is a foundation myth, not of man nor of the natural world, but of the way of thinking by which the Greeks defined themselves.”

Nicolson further describes a fusion of this errant “pre-palatial” hero-warrior culture (supposedly people like Achilles didn’t build palaces) with a “sophisticated, authoritarian and literate” culture of cities and palaces in the eastern Mediterranean (read Troy).

It’s an odd claim from a British scholar-writer given the many references in the Odyssey to opulent palaces belonging to both Odysseus and Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon and husband to the stolen Helen of Troy. However, Nicolson believes the fusion of both cultures produced the conditions ripe for the Trojan War, essentially a Greek invasion of a sophisticated foreign city with the sole purpose of destroying it (Helen’s abduction was incidental).

Nicolson dates the events documented in The Iliad as far back as the seventeenth century, B.C. He spends the rest of the book searching for Homer in parallel literary stories and Bronze-age finds (Troy, for example, a real place, now consists of ten identified layers of cities built and destroyed between 2200 B.C. and 1180 B.C.). He also looks at Mycenaean shaft graves, aligned myths and legends of the period, and a close reading of both texts.

I’m certainly not qualified to corroborate or dispute any of Nicolson’s positions on the evidence he cites. But I do find meaning and relevance today in the force and beauty of Homeric poetry written so long ago. To me, The Iliad (I just re-read it) remains a template for modern warfare — its psychology, savagery, and the vanity of its principals, from King Agamemnon and Achilles to Hitler, Putin, Hamas and now, Netanyahu. The Odyssey, by contrast, seems to me a fantasy paradigm of heroic struggle against the temptations and obstacles of life. Odysseus’s fraught mission is to a return home to the security and “right feeling” of loved ones. He suffers (but arguably enjoys) the trials that the Gods, particularly Poseidon, mount before him.

Nicolson said it better:

…”if you ask how why and how the Homeric poems emerged when they did, and why and how Homer can mean so much now, the answer to both questions is the same: because Homer tells us how we became who we are.”

Of course, Nicolson’s perspective is skewed toward the male version of history. The “we” he speaks of is about domination, cleverness, and power struggles of men who desired Empire, and then destroyed it time and time again. In my view, Nicolson is a true romantic: he loved Homeric epic, particularly the character of Odysseus and his search for meaning throughout his ship-bound trials. As a woman, I don’t see at all how female power or perspective is addressed in Nicolson’s book. Really it isn’t. In the recent (and excellent) Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, poor Helen calls herself a “whore.” Andromache, Hector’s wife, speaks of him as “father and mother” to her, entreating him not to fight Achilles, who will certainly kill him. Penelope in the Odyssey can do nothing more than weep for lost Odysseus and her son Telemachus, unraveling a burial shroud every night to hold off an evil band of suitors. (What about using her brain to enlist Pallas Athena to slaughter her suitors rather than putting up with their greed and self-indulgence? Maybe Penelope liked the attention?)

Despite these unanswered questions, Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters was enough to inspire our recent trip to modern-day Anatolia, Attica, and the Aegean Sea. For me, it was an occasion to see Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), for the first time, as well as Troy, Ephesus, Rhodes, Minoan Crete, and Athens (I’d been there in 1976 with my Mother Nathalie, but you can never get enough of Athens).

Bottom line: I wanted to absorb up close my connection to Homeric antiquities and the stories surrounding them. In one sense, I wanted to know more about our origins. I think Neil wanted to do something similar, plus enjoying an adventure with his partner. For better or worse, both of us went to Greece and Turkey to rediscover “how we became who we are.”

Our route is documented below. We took a cruise on Viking to get to these places. More about our trip in the next blogs.


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