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Summer Reading: The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters

August 5, 2014

Achilles Tending the Wounded Patroclus

Back in the mists of time, when I was eleven years old and a geeky boarder at what is known in England as a prep school, I spent three consecutive nights sitting in the lavatory reading the Odyssey and the Iliad from start to finish. No torch under the blanket would last long enough, so I would creep out after the dormitory lights went off and install myself in the only place that offered a night-long source of light. I had just started learning Ancient Greek, and my nocturnal sessions with Homer marked the beginning of a lifetime’s love affair with all things classical.

Since then, when boring necessities such as earning a living haven’t got in the way, I have looked for connections with the ancient world in every place I have visited, in architecture, books, languages, cultures and people I encounter along the way.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Copenhagen – not a city you would immediately associate with Ancient Greece. Because we were only in the city for a few hours, my wife and I decided to go separate ways. I headed for the National Museum, and she happened upon the Carlsberg Glyptotek, of which more later.

The National Museum is small and understated, very much in keeping with the Danish character. I had wanted to see some Viking exhibits, and I was not disappointed. Nothing lavish, but plenty of interesting artefacts and good explanations in Danish and English. The galleries were laid out in chronological order, so to reach the Vikings you passed through the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age exhibits included axes, swords, spears and armour that looked very like weapons you can see in their Italian, Greek or Turkish counterparts, and of course in the British museum, whose collectors have drawn from every part of the world in which we British have had a commercial or imperial interest.

Unsurprisingly, since Denmark is not so far from the limits of the old Roman Empire, there is a section on the influence of Ancient Rome in Scandinavia. It includes large hordes of coins accumulated by the Vikings. Not just Roman coins but some from the Byzantine Empire, a reminder that the Vikings made it all the way to Constantinople, and thousands of them served as personal bodyguards to the emperors – the Varangian Guard. Which dispels the idea that the ancient Scandinavians lived in some kind of frozen Nordic isolation.

As I was wandering round the modern section of the museum, which consists of a number of tableaux of life between 1600 and 2000 – notable for an oil painting of a Danish man in full SS uniform, (hard to imagine any country formerly under the Nazi yoke candid enough to show one of its own in the uniform of the oppressor)  – I received a text from my wife summoning me to the Glyptotek. You must come, she said, lots of Greek and Roman stuff here.

And indeed there was. Probably the largest collection of Greek and Roman sculptures in Northern Europe, courtesy of Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg. In the nineteenth century Jacobsen used some of the profits from his beer empire to fund excavations throughout Southern Europe – often in return for a piece of the action. Which is why so many magnificent sculptures, sarcophagi and other artefacts found their way to the handsome building built next door to the Tivoli Gardens to house his collection. The Glyptotek is a light, airy and elegant monument to the ancient world. The sculptures are of a quality that rival those in the British museum.


Carlsberg Glyptotek Winter Garden, Copenhagen

A museum that floats on a sea of beer, as one of the attendants commented. An interesting reflection on a country whose people first made their mark on Britain through our encounters with the rapacious Vikings. Now we buy their bacon, butter and beer.

My boyhood knowledge of the Vikings was limited to the historical narrative of the time. A restless, sea-faring people who came to my country to rape, pillage and plunder and ultimately colonise. The Viking heroes were fearsome figures such as Harald Bluetooth and Erik the Red. Our heroes were Anglo-Saxons, who sought to defend their prosperous and settled way of life from the marauding raiders. Most notable of these was Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, who defeated the Vikings and laid the foundations for the first political unification of England since the Roman occupation. The abiding impression left by our history books was that was savagery was confronting civilisation.

We know differently today, and the Viking culture was recently laid out for all to see in a magnificent exhibition at the British Museum. But the narrative of heroes, of attackers and defenders has an echo much in much earlier history.

Which brings us back, in my usual roundabout fashion, to Homer. Who was he? Did he actually exist? If he did, when were his words written down? Who were the heroes he wrote about? Where did they come from? And when did the events described in his epics take place?

Nobody has yet come up with definitive answers to these questions, but Adam Nicolson, in his new book, The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters, adds his thoughts opinions to those of countless scholars, philosophers, poets and archaeologists who searched for him, starting with the ancient Greeks of the classical era, for whom he was no less an inspirational link to their recent past than Shakespeare is to ours.

Nicolson sees Homer as a window into the earliest origins of European culture. A culture that sprung up not in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, the forests of Northern Europe or the lands flooded annually by the Nile, but in the steppes of Asia – the huge belt of grassland that stretches from Hungary to Mongolia.

The Homeric heroes besieging Troy – fractious, stubbornly independent, clear-eyed, glory-seeking killers – were representatives of a people in transition. Descendants of nomadic Asian tribes who had migrated south to Greece and Asia Minor, but, as Nicolson sees it, had not yet settled into the Mycenaean palace culture whose major population centres were excavated by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and his colleagues in the 19th Century. The people of Troy, a settlement that dominated the trade routes at the entrance to the Black Sea, were from similar origins, but had created a city far more enduring than the homelands of the restless Greek arrivistes.

Nicolson opens the book by discussing the long tradition of Homeric appreciation: from Socrates and the Alexandrian librarians to Alexander Pope and John Keats. The Iliad and the Odyssey have been translated many times. Theories as to the identity and location of the bard have ranged from the scientific to the bizarre. Was Homer a person, or the culmination of an oral tradition – the work of many? Were the stories enhanced. embellished and varied with each telling, in the manner of the Bosnian storytellers whom the Homeric scholar Milman Parry encountered in the 1930s? Or were they word-perfect recitations handed down over generations, like those of Duncan Macdonald, the great storyteller from the Scottish Hebrides, whose rendition of a famous Gaelic tale was recorded five times over fourteen years and found to be almost identical each time?

Or were the stories improvisations, dreamed up on the spur of the moment? One of Parry’s assistants, James Notopoulos, met storytellers from Crete, including one who could produce epics on demand. He proceeded to invent the Kriepiad: a wildly inaccurate account of the kidnapping of Heinrich Kriepe, the German general kidnapped in World War 2 by British special forces led by Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of my favourite travel writers.

Then there’s the language. According to Nicolson, there are over 200 untranslatable words that appear nowhere else in Greek literature. Where do they come from? Minoan Crete perhaps. He talks about echoes of the early Greeks in Hittite and Egyptian manuscripts. Homer’s language betrays the origins of his protagonists. The sea as threatening and alien. The grasslands as familiar and comforting.

The discovery of hinges for writing tablets in a bronze age ship has echoes in the Iliad. The heroes he described are illiterate, but the written word does exist, even if for them it has an unknowable, magical property. Nicolson’s, book shows that archaeology is not merely a matter of digging holes in the ground and finding jewellery, skeletons and foundations of palaces. Even when what is being explored pre-dates the written word, literal and oral tradition is an essential companion, reference point and signpost that can clarify and explain the physical evidence.

There’s an interesting chapter on Bronze Age metals. As I discovered in Copenhagen, subject to regional variations and subcultures, “a single world of Bronze Age chieftainship stretched across the whole of northern Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Asian steppe”. Just as most of the languages in Europe evolved from a single proto-language – Indo-European – that emerged somewhere in the steppes.

The excavations of Schliemann and others show us an era when grooming and physical beauty were at a premium among high status Bronze Age warriors – again as reflected in Homer’s epics. This is a tradition that continues to this day. Think of the Taliban with their eye shadow, and preening fighters of just about every nation with their immaculate uniforms and glistening medals.

Nicolson takes us to Hades, the scene of Odysseus’s pathos-laden encounters with the shade of his mother, and that of the great warrior Achilles, doomed forever to regret his passing from the light. Homer’s underworld is a grey, gloomy place, there the ghosts are unable to talk unless fed the fruits of the earth above. Its denizens are sad and diminished, whose shadowy existence contrasts strongly with the bliss and the agony of monotheistic heaven and hell.

Homer’s gods are petulant, capricious superhumans, reflecting the whims of nature as well as the unpredictability of their human counterparts. Small wonder that a wise, all-seeing deity became an irresistible lure to adherents of the monotheistic faiths. To conquer the world in the name of an almighty is very different from a revenge mission in the name of honour. Yet Homeric concepts of honour remain in our world, both in the uncompromising savagery of honour killings and in the pious justifications of war.

Nicolson is known for his elegant descriptions of landscapes. One dimension of  The Mighty Dead is of travelogue, in which the author gives beautiful and sometimes moving accounts of his journeys while researching the book: Chios, where Homer is supposed to have lived; Huelva, in Spain, whose poisoned river the author believes could be the site of Odysseus’s Hades; Ischia, where the first written reference to a Homeric character was discovered on a drinking vase.

By accident rather than design,the book provides unexpected connections not only with recent travels but with other stuff I have been reading. The description of Goliath as the archetypal, though hapless, Homeric warrior, chimes with Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, in which Gladwell discusses the asymmetric clash between the protagonists as a metaphor for solving problems despite adversity. And the capture of the German general in Crete forms a prominent part of An Adventure, Leigh Fermor’s biography by Artemis Cooper.

Homer doesn’t moralise or preach. He doesn’t judge his characters. His heroes are not role models. They are what they are. In a sense, he tells his story from the inside out, through the mindsets of the protagonists, and yet manages to survey the human landscape with compassion and wisdom. Or, as Nicolson puts it:

“Homer – allied to his neighbour and contemporary, Isaiah, another great speaker of wisdom, whose dates and identity also stretch across many generations from at least 1600 to 600 BC, is the archetype from which every great seer is descended: he is Lear on the heath, Rousseau in a reverie on his island in the Lac de Bienne, the Ancient Mariner who waylays the wedding guest at the bridegroom’s door, but who will not ever enter that feast. Homer exists in his other world, almost unknowably separate from us in time and space, a realm whose distance allows us ideas of transcendence to develop around him. His distance from us is itself an imaginative space which his own greatness expands to fill.

This is no modern effect: it was the effect Homer had on the ancient Greeks, as a voice from the distant past, even a voice from the silence, the voice of greatness untrammelled by any connection with our present mundanities. Homer doesn’t describe the world of heroes: he is the world of heroes. As his epitaph said, he made their kosmos, a word which in Greek can mean order, world, beauty and honour. It is used in the Iliad when the commanders set their men in order for battle. It is used to describe the order in which a poet sets the elements of his tale. Those qualities are all different dimensions of one thing. Everything one might associate with the heroic – nobleness, directness, vitality, scale, unflinching regard for truth, courage, adventurousness, coherence, truth – is an aspect of the cosmic and all of it is what ‘Homer’ means.”

Adam Nicolson has brought Homer back to me. In a sense, the bard never left, but remained buried in the bedrock of my life experience – an unconscious influence and perennial reference point. But thanks to The Mighty Dead, he has returned with a vengeance to the forefront of my conscious.

His echoes are everywhere. I read the tweets from Syria by a young British jihadi glorying in the decapitation of their opponents, as reported by the UK Times:

In one post on July 8, he wrote: “Probably saw the longest decapitation ever. And we made sure the knife was sharp. Brother who was next decided to use the glock lol.”

He also posted pictures apparently showing executed prisoners from the rival Jabhat al-Nusra group.

“JN guys we caught & executed. This is how they looked less than an hr l8er,” he wrote alongside a picture of at least two bodies.

He later added that he was there when the men were killed, but suggested that he may not himself have carried out the execution.

Another post in early July said: “executed many prisoners today”, with another fighter said to be originally from Portsmouth replying: “Epic executions bro, we need to step it up like the brothers in Iraq.”

Then I think of Patroclus on his death or glory rampage through the Trojan ranks outside the city walls, mocking the corpse of one of his victims as it leaps out from under the wheels of his chariot:

Hah! Look at you! Agile! How athletic is that, as if you were diving into the sea. You could satisfy an army if you were diving for oysters, plunging even into the rough seas as nimbly as that.

And what relative of the dead in Gaza would not recognise the scene after Achilles’s revenge for the death of his fallen companion:

Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands rising
Out of the quiet water and deep stream of the ocean
To climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found
It hard to recognise each individual dead man;
But with water they washed away the blood that was on them
And as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons.

If Homer was looking on from Hades, he would recognise with a wry smile the blood feud in The Godfather, as Michael Corleone, as a cold-eyed Achilles, puts bullets between the eyes of his brother’s killers. He would see Penelope, Odysseus’s queen, in the faces of long-suffering wives waiting for their men to come home from war. And he would shake his head in sad recognition at the unending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

And above all, on this hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War he would understand the sentiments of those who stood up at ceremonies to honour the fallen – mighty or otherwise –  just as he would see nothing unfamiliar about their squalid and untimely deaths.

The Mighty Dead is not a dry, scholarly tome. It’s a vivid, personal and beautifully-written meditation on the deep insight Homer offers us into the origins of European culture and the imperfect nature of humanity.

From → Books, History, Middle East, UK

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