Where’s the Gravy?
- Travelling Heroes: Greeks and Their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox
Penguin, 528 pp, £10.99, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 14 024499 1
Homeric poetry is vivid and precise. We can smell the dust, hear the din of battle and follow the tip of a spear as it inflicts a wound ‘between the neck and the collarbone’. Even the gods – those obsolete pagan idols – seem familiar. Apollo kicks down the Achaean wall
like a child who piles sand by the seashore
and makes a tower to amuse himself in his innocence
and then, still playing, wrecks it with his hands and feet.
Athena deflects an arrow away from Menelaus ‘like a mother brushing a fly away from her sleeping baby’. And Hera, after quarrelling with Zeus, runs back home to Olympus
like an idea that flashes in the mind of a man
who has travelled far and wide, and thinks in his mind’s awareness,
‘I wish I were in that place, or this,’ and imagines many things;
so swiftly travelled Hera in her haste, a goddess.
The similes build a bridge between the epic world and our own experiences. Homer was famous for his vividness – enargeia – in antiquity too: readers have always perceived his poetry as transparent, an open window onto a distant, heroic world. Ancient audiences thought he could describe what had happened in the age of the heroes because he was divinely inspired, and knew everything; modern readers call his poetry cinematic, but essentially refer to similar qualities: Homer offers panoramic vistas of the battlefield, as if he were sitting on a mountain top with Zeus, or the Muses ‘who dwell on Olympus’. And then he leaps down (or zooms in) and observes at close quarters a horse tripping on a tamarisk branch, sending his charioteer flying into the dust.
We have no sure knowledge about who composed this poetry, when, where, how or for what purpose. The ‘Homeric question’ easily becomes a long list of questions about different possible contexts, sources of influence, modes of composition, locations, performances, audiences, scribes and readers. Two types of evidence can be used to investigate the historical background: written sources (the Homeric poems themselves, as well as those by his near contemporary Hesiod) and the archaeology of early Greece. In Travelling Heroes Robin Lane Fox tries to bring together texts and objects to shed light on the real-life travellers who, he believes, shaped the worldview represented in early Greek epic. He starts with Hera’s flight and asks where the traveller in Homer’s simile might have gone, and what he might have seen. His book offers a bold analysis of early Greek travel and poetry.
Homeric archaeology has a flamboyant founding father: Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who, in the 1870s, excavated Hisarlik in modern Turkey and identified the remains of ancient Troy. A literary fiction became – all of a sudden – a material reality. This spectacular discovery electrified the public, but also posed difficult problems of interpretation, which remain unresolved. The recent new excavations at Hisarlik, directed by Manfred Korfmann, led to an acrimonious debate over the nature and significance of his findings: an academic conference, where Korfmann and his critics almost came to blows, was broadcast live on German national radio; an exhibition based on his excavations attracted nearly a million visitors, and is being used to pave the way for Turkey’s entry into the European Union. Meanwhile, in Britain, Robert Bittlestone has recently argued that Odysseus’ homeland is not modern Ithaki, but the peninsula of Paliki, now attached to Kefalonia, but once, he claims, a separate island. Geologists may manage to prove that Paliki was once detached from Kefalonia, but the description of Ithaca in the Odyssey will still fail to match the geography of the area (Homer’s Ithaca, for example, boasted a ‘well visible mountain’, whereas Paliki is flat). We have to countenance the possibility that epic poetry developed in the course of centuries of recitation, elaboration and recomposition, and thus created a mythical landscape inspired by reality, but not entirely determined by it. This is one of the problems that confronts Lane Fox when he tries to line up the Homeric poems with the geography and archaeology of the Mediterranean.
Textual approaches to the Homeric question are just as fraught. One important breakthrough came in the 1930s, when Milman Parry, a young Harvard scholar, packed some bulky recording equipment and went to study the oral epic traditions of Bosnia. His comparative approach demonstrated that the Homeric poems stemmed from a long and sophisticated tradition of oral recomposition in performance. That much is now accepted, but other aspects of his research are still controversial: the current disagreement about the date of the Homeric poems, for example, stems in part from different interpretations of Parry’s work. But there are also diverging views about what it is we are trying to date: the first poet who conceived a story about the wrath of Achilles? The establishment of an authoritative written text, marking the end of a long process of recomposition in performance? The most recent historical event ‘integral’ to the main plot of the Iliad? Or the Odyssey? Depending on the answers to those questions, Homerists champion a range of different dates, from the eighth to the seventh or even the sixth century BCE. A more recent comparative study has also caused controversy: in The East Face of Helicon, M.L. West collects a huge number of what he perceives to be parallels between Greek and Near Eastern epic. His claim is that the Homeric poems are modelled on Babylonian epic, especially Gilgamesh. Some of the similarities he identifies are indeed remarkable but, because he does little more than list them, he raises more questions than he answers. Again the problems are simultaneously historical and literary: how did the Greeks get in touch with Babylonian culture? How does knowledge of Gilgamesh affect our interpretation of the Iliad?
Lane Fox makes his position vigorously clear on all the major debates concerning the Homeric texts: an appendix briskly establishes the date of Homer (‘eighth century’), and the book insists that Greek epic is ‘wholly unlike the poetic forms in the east’. These are rather blunt claims about issues that are – to my mind at least – more complex than he suggests. The strength of his study lies in his sympathetic and versatile discussion of ancient Greek travellers.
Lane Fox is primarily interested in the Euboeans, the inhabitants of the large island flanking the east coast of mainland Greece. They have left hardly any trace in the written record, but an impressive burial site at Lefkandi, on the west coast of the island, shows that they were Homeric in their habits: they cremated their dead, commemorated them with great burial mounds and immolated horses and dogs (just like Achilles, at the funeral of his friend Patroclus). The jewellery found at Lefkandi shows that the Euboeans imported Near Eastern luxury goods. They were also exporters of their own wares: Euboean pottery has been found all over the Mediterranean, from Asia to North Africa to the Amalfi coast; Lane Fox follows their pottery trail south-east to Al Mina on the Syrian coast and north-west to the Bay of Naples. He argues that the Euboeans not only traded in those far-flung places, but established permanent settlements there. They set up home with local women, learned the indigenous languages (at least up to a point) and adjusted their perceptions of the world in light of their new experiences. The local landscapes had a profound effect on their worldviews. South of Al Mina, the Jebel Aqra is an imposing mountain: rising 2000 metres above the coastline, ‘it is the focal point for . . . storms and circling claps of thunder.’ In antiquity, the mountain also gathered swirling currents of stories and beliefs. The Hittites on the north side told of their thunder god, Tarhunta: his father had tried to eat him, but ended up biting a stone and breaking his teeth instead; Tarhunta then replaced his father, and the stone that marked his ascent became an object of cult. The Canaanites, on the south slope, celebrated their supreme god, Baal, also lord of the thunderbolt. The Euboeans, as Lane Fox argues, would have found it easy to identify Zeus with Tarhunta and Baal. Near Eastern, Semitic and Greek views of the supreme thunder god thus converged on the summit of the Jebel Aqra.
The experiences of the Euboeans, according to Lane Fox, fundamentally shaped the poems of Homer and Hesiod, though there is little in the poems that could prove Euboean influence. Lane Fox makes a case for a handful of passages, but his arguments are speculative: it is not at all easy to map Homeric geography onto the Mediterranean we know, let alone link it to the perceptions of shadowy Euboean travellers. And yet he confidently uses his arguments about Euboean influence to make an even more controversial claim: that Homer and Hesiod owed no direct debt to Near Eastern culture but relied on their fellow Greeks for information. Some readers will see in this the desire to assert – yet again – the ingenuity, resourcefulness and ultimately the superiority of the Greeks compared to their Oriental neighbours.
Certainly, Lane Fox operates with a rather monolithic view of cultural identity. Discussing the Euboean drinking cups and the local cooking pots found at Al Mina, for example, he argues that ‘Greeks may have brought their cups here for their own favoured style of drinking, but used non-Greek ware for the common task of cooking,’ and concludes that ‘Euboeans lived at Al Mina.’ The evidence fits with his view that they lived there with local women, and learned about local cults and beliefs from them; but then we need to ask about the identity of their children, for example. They may still have used Euboean drinking cups, but were they therefore Euboean? Or perhaps diaspora Euboeans? Or half-Euboeans? Bilingual Euboeans? When Tony Soprano and his fellow New Jersey mobster Paulie visit Italy, they sit down at table with their Neapolitan counterparts and ask: ‘Where’s the gravy?’ The point is not whether Tony Soprano is Italian (he eats lasagne with a glass of milk), but whether his ancestry explains his journey to Naples: he travels there in order to link up with friends of his grandfather, or rather their descendants. Ancient travel functioned in a similar way: Near Eastern and Semitic influences reached the Greek mainland with travellers who had – despite what Lane Fox says – mixed identities, beliefs and affiliations. They were not simply ‘Euboeans’.
In order to trace a broader and more balanced picture of criss-crossing currents of trade, and of overlapping tales and stories, it is important to consider the impact of travellers who did not have any connection with Euboea at all. Lane Fox occasionally does so, but only when it involves other Greeks. One of his most interesting arguments concerns an ancient Cretan route linking Ascra – Hesiod’s home town – to Delphi, Cyprus and the Syrian coast. In Delphi, there was a famous stone. Hesiod tells the story of that stone in the Theogony: Kronos, ruler of the universe, did not want his son Zeus to succeed him, and so decided to eat the baby. His wife Rhea, however, served him a swaddled stone instead: Kronos swallowed the stone, and lost his power. Eventually, he threw up the stone and it landed in Delphi. There, at the sanctuary of Apollo, it reminded pilgrims of a terrible past of divine strife, and invited them to appreciate, by contrast, the peaceful relationship between Zeus the father and Apollo his son and prophet. It is remarkable that Hesiod knew a story that was also circulating, in slightly different form, on the Syrian coast at the foot of the Jebel Aqra. Lane Fox suggests that Hesiod learned about the stone from the priests who officiated at the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi. An early Greek poem, ‘The Homeric Hymn to Apollo’, indicates that those priests were of Cretan origin. In Crete, the poetic trail peters out; but then there are pots linking Crete to Cyprus, and Cyprus to the Levant. By considering both poetry and the material record, Lane Fox concludes that Hesiod knew about the succession myth because a current of stories had reached his village all the way from Syria.
Similar routes must have linked the Iliad to Gilgamesh, and yet Lane Fox is reluctant to explore them. The similarities between the two poems are obvious: like Achilles, Gilgamesh is the son of a goddess, and has to learn the hard way what it means to be human. After his best friend dies, he is confronted with the fact that he too is mortal, and finally accepts his role and responsibilities in society. Faced with the close correspondence between the passage in the Iliad where Achilles mourns Patroclus and the part of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu, Lane Fox writes: ‘If there was a debt to the Gilgamesh story here, it could go back to a contact made five centuries or more before Homer. He himself could be quite unaware of it.’ This is a familiar gambit in Homeric studies: in order to dismiss something as irrelevant, Homerists sometimes appeal to their own specific definition of ‘Homer’, pointing out that the issue or evidence in question would have been unknown to ‘him’. Of course, echoes of Gilgamesh may have affected Greek hexameter epic before the eighth century – but they are nevertheless relevant to our Iliad.
Despite some obvious difficulties, Lane Fox is clearly right to combine pots and poetry. Disciplinary distinctions between history, archaeology and literature played no role in early Greece. There was no equivalent to the modern concept of fiction: mythos, in Homeric Greek, meant ‘true account’ or ‘authoritative speech’. When Euboeans, Cretans, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians and other travellers met one another, or talked to local traders and heard new stories about gods and men, they did not perceive them as exotic fictions, but as useful insights into the world. ‘Euboeans were not Orientalising when they amplified the Greek tales of struggles and successions in heaven,’ Lane Fox writes. ‘They were adding details, they believed, which were told in the east about their same gods and which were supported by the landscape from Syria to Italy. They were not exotic: they were true.’ His discussion of the mythical seer Mopsos is exemplary: for decades scholars have tried to determine whether his name and origins were Asian or Greek, and now Lane Fox shows that the Greek Mopsos and the Asian Muksas gradually came closer together, as travellers met and talked; their different stories eventually coalesced into one composite picture of the mythical ancient seer. And that, really, is the point: rather than asking whether the Greeks were superior, or whether Athena was black (as Martin Bernal argued in a famous book), we need to pay careful attention to the way in which ancient people travelled, met, talked and negotiated their differences. Through that complex process of encounter and dialogue they came to a more universal understanding of the world, and of their own place in it.