Homer’s two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyessy are among the greatest of all the works of literature produced since man began to write. They reputation for almost beyond belief excellence is entirely deserved. What will be discussed here is not the literary excellence of the poems but the location in time of the world described in the poems. It is here that the excellence of the poems betrays the investigator. For the very excellence of the poems casts a spell and misleads.
Both the Iliad and the Odyessy are written in Greek hexameter i.e. in six feet or meters each foot being a group of syllables. Usually dactyls, (one long followed by two short syllables) and ending with a spondee (two long syllables) at the end and sometimes as the third meter. In homer there is invariably, (with few exceptions). In Homer’s poetry a caesura, (pause) usually occurred after the third meter.1
Needless to say it is very difficult to write poetry in this way and for reasons having to do with the grammar and nature of English a virtually lost cause to write in English using the hexameter.2 But in Greek it is a truly extraordinary experience even if you don’t understand Homeric Greek to hear it in Greek. It is quite beautiful.3 Some other time I may go into the question of who Homer was, if he was more than one person etc.
The truly beguiling poetry and excellence of the poems has lead to the totally erroneous idea that if the poetry of the poem is excellence than so is the history told in the poem. This is needless to say totally erroneous. However there has been for centuries attempt after attempt to get history from Homer’s poems. Even today enormous energy is spent seeing if Homer was “right”.
Common sense would dictate that one should be very careful about expecting that Homer would be “right” about everything or even about most things that were not continuous into his own time. This is because of the following attitude:
Few anthropologists view the invariably oral traditions of the people they study with the faith shown by many ancient historians The verbal transmittal over many generations of detailed information about past events or institutions that are no longer essential or even meaningful in contemporary life invariably entails considerable and irrecoverable losses of data, or conflation of data, manipulation and invention, sometimes without visible reason, often for reasons that are perfectly intelligible. With the passage of time it becomes absolutely impossible to control anything that as been transmitted when there is nothing in writing against which to match statements about the past. Again we suspect the presence of the unexpressed view that the traditions of Greeks and Romans are somehow privileged, though no one has yet demonstrated a plausible mechanism for the oral transmission of accurate information over a period of centuries (e. g. from archaic Greece to Pausanias in the second century A.D., or from the Rome of the kings to Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the late first century B.C.).4
And of course such history we end up with is frequently the idea that it contains a kernel of real historical data. The problem is just how do you find that kernel of data if you do not have an external check / source of some kind, i.e., contemporary source etc.? Fore example The Roman traditions about the pre-republic kings. It gives in the 250 years before the Republic a total of seven kings. Does it have to be pointed out out that this tradition is dubious in the extreme that some at least of these kings are frankly likely complete myth. (For example Numa and Romulus). As as been said:
To begin with, a 250 year period occupied continuously by only seven kings is a demographic improbability, perhaps an impossibility: The first seven emperors under the principate reigned for a total of one hundred years. Then to conclude about the second king Numa Pompilius that the ‘only historical fact’ about him is his name and that his biography is ‘legendary’, is effectively to remove one of the seven from the record.5
But then in regards to the use of dubious source material and evaluation of same:
I Suspect that Ogilvie’s slip reflects, no doubt unconsciously, the widespread sentiment that anything written in Greek or Latin is somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation.6
One would think that the first step in evaluating the potential reliability of the Iliad and the Odyessey would be, since contemporary sources are virtually non-existent, with one exception we will come too some other time, would be a comparison with other epics / oral traditions for which conventional historical sources are available for comparison.
For example the Epic The Song of Roland,7 which is purportedly about a Muslim ambush of the rear guard of Chralemange’s army at the pass of Roncesvaux in the Pyrenees in the year 778 C.E. Well in this case we have contemporary historical sources to compare the epic too and guess what the epic makes a hash of actual events.
For example the details of combat between the French Knights and the Muslim Knights are completely wrong for the time period. The description of the war is way off. The author alleges that Charlemagne conquered all of Spain and was tricked into retreating and that a traitor named Ganelon betrayed Roland and Charlemagne to the Moors. All of the above is simply wrong.
Further details are also wrong. The description of the action at the ambush in the Roncesvaux is wrong and so is the pursuit of Muslim forces after the battle and their rout. It simply never happened. However a really huge error is the fact that the enemy forces that ambushed Charlemagne’s rearguard were Christian Basques not Muslim Moors!! That contrary to the epic Charlemagne was not a century old is just another ho-hum error compared to that. Further the ambush was no big battle but a rather a small scale engagement and if contemporary accounts are anything to go by not in any sense, like the epic, a heroic last stand instead it was a rout.
Not only is the traitor Ganelon a myth; his name means deception, but the Muslim’s named in the epic are without exception completely mythological. The Muslim religion as described in the Epic is wrong. For example the Muslim’s in the Epic worship a trinity one of whose members is Mohammed and they are idol worshipers. Their society is the same feudal society of their Christian enemies. This is all wrong. Further the Christian society as described in the Epic is early to mid 11th century C.E. Feudal France it is not Carolingian France of the late 8th century C.E.8
Of course the existence of made up character’s like Roland’s love interest and Roland’s friend Oliver is just icing on the cake in this mythological stew.8
And if you you think The Song of Roland is bad lets talk about the Nibelungenlied.9 Lets give a few particulars The Epic has Theodoric the Great who reigned from 493-526 C.E., Attilla the Hun who invaded Italy in 452 and died in 453 C.E., and a Pilgrim who was bishop of Passow from 971-979 C.E. Opps! Of course the two chief character’s of the Epic, Brunhilde and Siegfried are completely mythological and are not based on real people at all. This complete hash of the chronology is all too typical of oral and epic traditions. For example the Serbian Epic about the Battle of Kossovo, despite copious historical sources gets the main hero wrong.10
In fact evidence from primarily oral societies indicates that oral traditions of historical events are generally not reliable if referring to events more than two centuries old. One study using African oral traditions found out that such traditions not only were unreliable if referring to events 2+ centuries old but that events tended to be conflated chronology confused and usually lengthened when compared to primary historical sources.11
So where does that leave us. It leaves us with the fact that comparison with other Epics would lead us to expect massive distortion in Homer’s poems! But such comparative analysis is decidedly absent from analysis of the two epics by Homer. Instead the notion seems to be that since Homer’s poems are so excellent, and they are!, that the historical kernel must be large. Why? The onus is on those who maintain that the world described by Homer is the world of the Mycenean Palace culture of the period c. 1400-1200 C.E. to prove their case. We know a fair bit about what happened, at least archaeologically, between 1200 – 800 B.C.E., and it can be fairly described has a catastrophe. The break was serious and dramatic. The idea that detailed, accurate knowledge of Mycenaean society and history would survive, (ignoring things that survived from that time into the 8th century C.E.) is pushing the envelope. This is a point of view that has to be defended and proven it is not up to the doubters to prove it wrong but that those who propose it that it is right. The fact is comparison with other epics makes it unlikely that detailed accurate knowledge of the Mycenaean period survived except in continuities. Of course it makes sense that there would be some survivals from that period but the idea that Homer was accurately describing Mycenaean society of the 13th century B.C.E., is a fantasy.12
We do not write history from The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied why should we write if from the Iliad and Odyessey?
3. See Wired for Books, Here for audio of the Iliad in Greek.
4. Finley, M.I., Ancient History: Evidence and Models, Chatto & Windus, London, 1985, pp. 16-17.
5. Ibid. p. 9-10.
6. Ibid. p. 10.
7. For a copy see Medieval Source Book, Here
8. See Finley, M.I., Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Lost: The Trojan War, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 31-42, at 41-42, Finley, M.I., The World of Odysseus, Second Edition, Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 47, 145.
9. A copy can be found at The Online Medieval and Classical Library, Here
10. Finley, 1978, pp. 170-178, 1977, p. 42.
11. Henige, D. F., The Chronology of Oral History, Oxford University Press, 1974.
12. For the destruction see, Deger-Jalkotzy, Sigrid, Decline Destruction, Aftermath, in The Aegean Bronze Age, Ed Shelmerdine, Cynthia W., Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 387-415, See also Finley, 1977, 1978.