The World of Odysseus

I’ve set myself some reading goals this year. One of them is to read James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. (I’ve already read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) But I’ve set my bar even higher: to understand those works, I’ve decided to read the Iliad and the Odyssey. And before I even read those, I’m reading M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, which attempts to reconstruct both the world of Homer and the society reflected in those two epic poems – which he claims is the “Dark Ages” a few hundred years before Homer, roughly 1000 to 800 B.C.

There are a few surprising things that Finley claims:
– despite the discovery of the “Linear B” tablets that refer to what archeologists think is Troy, what they reveal shows no connection to the Homeric poems, bears no witness to any major war, and makes the city sound more like a small impoverished village rather than a mighty, opulent place
– though there are variants in the versions of the poems we have today, dating back to quotations in Plato and fragments from 300 B.C., the differences are largely insignificant, mostly of interest to linguists (this reminds me of arguments Christians make about how “accurate” various versions of biblical texts are)
– we know next to nothing for sure about who Homer was; it is likely that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not written by the same person; it is also likely that other poems attributed to the author/authors of those poems is not the same as the one(s) who wrote the so-called Homeric hymns
– there was no concept of “Greece” as a whole (or any synonym thereof such as Hellas) or unity between kingdoms in that region during ancient times
– it is unlikely that there is much historical truth in the narratives of either poem; both garble geographical references, conflict with other records of the time, or are unsupported by other records (and whose claims are unlikely due to what records exist); again, I am reminded of Christians who get all huffy when people attack the accuracy of the Bible, saying that other ancient texts are not afforded the same scrutiny and skepticism
– the Greeks believed in the authenticity of the poems in a literal sense, and saw them as integral to their lives, even to the point of saying they were good instructional guides for behavior; however, some important figures like Plato and Xenophanes deplored them for depicting the gods with all the worst qualities of mortals
– the authenticity of bards like Homer was based on the notion that they were “divinely inspired” – that they received visions of the events they described in dreams, or ecstatic states inspired directly by the gods (“Muse” wasn’t just a metaphorical concept then); one quotation even says their writing is “god-breathed” (again…suspiciously reminded of the Christian notion that scripture is God-breathed)

So what does this tell me? One, that ancient pagan/historical writings are not necessarily any more reliable than religious texts. Two, that there are many similarities between Christian claims of authenticity (and their errors of rational judgment) and pagan/secular ones. Three, that history seems almost empty, our heritage a vague blur. It sounds all good and clear-cut in the high school text books, but if we could really go back in a time machine and visit, say, 750 B.C. “Greece,” it would probably be like visiting the Eyrilians on the 5th planet from Alpha Centauri, even if we knew ancient Greek. It’s just too far from our knowledge and experience. Yet, somehow, literature allows us to transcend that…at least to a degree.

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One Response to The World of Odysseus

  1. Angele says:

    As an opening to our conversation about M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, and the works themselves:

    I agree with your summary of the main points in Finley’s book. I too thought of contemporary fundamentalist Christians when reading about the passionate belief of many 19th to mid-20th century scholars and interested amateurs that The Iliad and The Odyssey were pure, true history (with the exception of their mythic gods), and provided a point-by-point blueprint for the archeologist Schliemann’s excavations of “Troy,” or Troy VIIa (which gradually revealed itself to be a crude village rather than a grand city).

    Yet these epic poems–written by two or possibly three gifted bards over the course of several hundred years, garbled and inaccurate as to time frame, geography, and historical detail–were and are enormously popular, among a handful of manuscripts of their era that survived and were widely distributed, recited, and known. (Again, comparisons to the Bible are inevitable.) Finley acknowledges their superiority to other epics of their type without plumbing the sources of their creative or regenerative power. He is a historian, a meticulous debunker, not a literary critic or a poet.

    In reading and discussing The Iliad and The Odyssey, I think we need to focus on why and how “literature allows us to transcend…at least to a degree” a world as “far from our knowledge and experience” as “the Eyrilians on the 5th planet from Alpha Centauri.” Or are there points of commonality between this world and its people and our own, just waiting to be discovered?

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