Homer’s Crowdsourced Genius

The author of The Iliad and The Odyssey was no single blind bard but an unknown host of tale tellers who each added a little or a lot to the sagas that even today define what stories are.

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In the early years of the 20th century, a German archaeologist discovered hell. To be precise, he found the location of Hades, the underworld of the ancient Greeks—or so he suggested. The site was in a hilly region of southwestern Spain with abandoned mines dating back to the Bronze Age. The earth was red and orange; the landscape metallic and lifeless.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Circe directs Odysseus to “the dank house of Hades,” located at “the meeting place of two roaring rivers.” Hades is described as a distant realm at the fringes of the ancient Mediterranean world, and Bronze Age Greek archaeological deposits suggest southwestern Spain might have occupied precisely this periphery.

The confluence that Circe mentions is intriguingly similar to an estuary near the coastal city of Huelva, Spain, where two rivers flow together. The Homeric geography of Hades is barren and menacing; the trees are fruitless and the rivers bear Greek names that can be translated as “hateful,” “blazing,” and “howling.” The rivers that mingle at Huelva are naturally poisoned with chemical residues, and only one type of weed can live in the water, which often runs an iron red. The landscape is austere and infertile, precisely the sort of lifeless place where even the young and beautiful Persephone, a seasonal captive of Hades, would lose her fecund powers.

At an ancient Bronze Age mine in the hills above Huelva, workers once loosened ore by setting fires in subterranean crevices. The labor was hot, dangerous, and seemingly endless. Homer’s Hades is not the flame-licked inferno of the Christian imagination, however, but a pale realm of insubstantial shadows. Odysseus lures the fluttering souls of the dead with the stuff of life: milk, wine, honey, and even the blood of sacrificed lambs. Only then are the ghosts sufficiently enlivened and appeased to answer Odysseus’s questions.

If ancient miners resembled their more recent counterparts, they thought of mines as sites of spirits. From Renaissance Germany to 19th century England, miners across Europe imagined that the hills and mountains where they worked were populated by capricious spirits who could cause a collapse if not placated. Like Odysseus feeding the shades of Hades, many miners left small offerings of food to appease the spirits who dwell in the caverns.

So was Homer’s Hades inspired, however indirectly, by memories of a Bronze Age mine in southwestern Spain? It’s impossible to know with certainty, but this is just one of many tantalizing traces of the Homeric epics that Adam Nicolson examines in his captivating and beautifully written new book, Why Homer Matters. He travels to the island of Chios, seven miles off the coast of Turkey, to visit an abandoned village from 800 BC and explore the rocky landscape where Homer may have lived. He walks around Ischia, near the Bay of Naples, searching for the lush and seductive island of Calypso and studying pottery and grave goods. He even feels echoes of Odysseus’s nautical voyages while sailing on the Atlantic in a small vessel, the spray misting his face.

Nicolson’s title—Why Homer Matter—assumes some skepticism about Homer’s relevance to our world. He tells a funny story about a 19th-century French dinner party at which various intellectuals argued so heatedly about Homer’s merits that someone threatened to hurl himself out a window. It’s certainly true that shouted arguments about Homer are not exactly common anymore. The historian Victor Davis Hanson’s 1998 Who Killed Homer? went so far as to perform a book-length autopsy investigating the causes of Homer’s death. For Hanson (and his co-author John Robert Heath), Homer perished at the hands of pedants, his deep human relevance buried beneath mounds of trivial and obscure scholarship. For Nicolson, however, Homer is essentially unkillable. Hanson criticized the sins of stuffy academics; Nicolson sings a rapturous love song to the beauty and force of Homeric epic.

His search for tangible vestiges of the Homeric world is only part of a broader agenda to discover the ancient origins and contemporary relevance of Homer’s sprawling epics. Nicolson is not an adventurer or relic hunter; this is not The Year of Living Homerically (first I besieged and sacked London, then I carried off Princess Kate as a concubine, slaying a few lords who intervened). Nor is Nicolson a modern-day Heinrich Schliemann, the infamous 19th-century German businessman who sloppily excavated the city of Troy, dressed his wife in the jewelry he found, and declared, falsely, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.”

Nicolson is closer to what the philosopher George Santayana once called a secondary prophet: a gifted figure who popularizes and illuminates without compromising the complexity of a primary creator. Such language might make Homer sound a bit like God, but this is more or less the view many writers hold. Aeschylus proclaimed that all Greek tragedies were merely scraps from the banquet of Homer. Goethe wished that Europe had revered Homer rather than the Bible as its scripture, claiming that history would have been different and better with Homer as a sacred text. In a famous sonnet, Keats likened his first encounter with Homer to the experience of discovering a new planet or continent. Homer is a maker of worlds.

He’s also a broken reflection of vanished worlds. There are many familiar moments in the Iliad and the Odyssey—the pleasures of feasting with friends, the pains of nostalgia and hunger, the horror of warfare, the delights of the erotic—but the poems also reveal some attitudes that are utterly foreign. Odysseus boasts happily about sacking a city, killing all the men, and enslaving the women and children. The old Greek warrior Nestor motivates his comrades by dangling before them the prospect of raping the wives of their slaughtered enemies. Warriors regularly taunt the corpses of those they’ve just killed, boasting that now dogs and birds will eat their genitals. The Greek warrior Achilles threatens to eat the corpse of the Trojan Hector, and even Hera, Queen of the gods, longs to eat the raw liver of a Trojan.

These might seem like moments of literary flourish that don’t actually show ancient attitudes towards warfare. But the casual brutality is too frequent and pervasive to be explained away. Consider the moment in book nine of the Odyssey when the Cyclops smashes the brains of two Greek soldiers against the floor of his cave and then eats them. To make the moment relatable, Homer adds a simile. The Cyclops bashes the men against the earth like they are puppies: because who hasn’t dashed open the head of a young puppy on the ground?

Nicolson thinks that certain clues in the Homeric epics can help us peer into the darkness that shrouds the ancient Mediterranean between 2000 and 3000 BC. With some archaeological and linguistic sleuthing, he makes an interesting if speculative case that the Iliad preserves a cultural memory of a dramatic clash between the nomadic warriors of the northern Eurasian steppes and the sedentary city-dwellers of Mesopotamia.

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In his reading, the Greeks were once marauding raiders who swept into the Mediterranean world from the North. There are words for cattle and sheep in the Proto-Indo-European language ancestral to ancient Greek, whereas words for quintessential features of the Greek landscape like the olive tree appear later. Much of the language for ships and sailing also seems to have been co-opted from the terminology of horses and chariots. The sea in Homer is sometimes figured as a vast steppe across which ships race like horses.

Treating Homer as a window onto the pre-history of ancient migrations, beliefs, and practices is an intriguing but perilous approach. Often the spirit if not the substance of his stories seems true: even if men never hid inside a hollow wooden horse to sack a city, strategic deception has always been an essential element of warfare in general and siege-craft in particular. We shouldn’t believe Homer when he says that his heroes easily hoisted massive boulders that later mortals could barely budge. But warfare in the ancient Mediterranean was a grueling physical affair that rewarded immense strength, stamina, and speed.

One of Nicolson’s many intriguing suggestions is that the magical ships that convey Odysseus home to Ithaca from the island of the Phaeacians preserve the memory of landlocked Northerners’ first encounters with ships. The vessels intuit and obey the desires of their sailors without prompting. Someone from the inlands who saw a sailing ship speed across the sea could easily think the sailors and their ships had a telepathic connection.

A single individual named Homer, of course, probably never lived. Ethnographic research in the 20th century showed that singers of epic poems in many cultures all employ certain formulaic structures in the phrasing and plotting of their stories. Any reader of Homer remembers his frequent epithets: long-suffering Odysseus, ox-eyed Hera, swift-footed Achilles, the wine-dark sea. But these lexical units are only one scale at which repetition occurs; entire scenes of arming, feasting, fighting, and greeting also recur. This regularity eases the mnemonic demands on the singer by allowing him to choose from a finite set of predictable and metrically appropriate options.

The oral nature of Homeric epic does not mean that particularly talented bards never left their marks on the poems. A singer who arranged beautiful and effective combinations of phrases and sequences and knew whether to linger on a scene or fast-forward with narrative summary would have influenced other bards. Miles Davis shaped jazz more than an average professional trumpeter, but Davis is not synonymous with jazz. Homer, too, is larger than any one individual, even if especially gifted singers helped mold the tradition.

Different oral versions of the Homeric epics existed throughout the ancient Mediterranean world; there was a Homer of Crete and a Homer of Cyprus, a Homer of Athens and a Homer of Delos. It was only the scholars of ancient Alexandria who standardized the version of Homer that was rediscovered in the Renaissance and has become canonical today.

Part of why Homer matters, then, is because his poetry represents a powerful alternative to later models of literature as a dazzling feat of singular genius. Calling Homer’s poetry crowdsourced smacks of the slang favored by trendy tech gurus, but there is something fundamentally social and collaborative about the creative products of an oral culture. The bards in Homer—notably Demodocus in book eight of the Odyssey—aim to please their listeners, and they are richly rewarded with honor, wine, and meat when they succeed. The bards who comprise the shaggy, many-tongued being we call Homer were probably no different. Tailoring a given performance to accommodate the mood of an audience or the local history of a region may have been a common practice. If you are singing an Iliad in Argos, then perhaps the Argive warriors will be especially ferocious in battle, leaving a trail of Trojan corpses in their wake.

But Homer matters not only as a source of ancient anthropology; he’s also a guide to the geography of human psychology that hasn’t changed over the past four millennia. The different islands that Odysseus confronts on his voyage home to Ithaca are metaphors for the lures of nostalgia (the Sirens), forgetfulness (Lotus Eaters), the erotic (Calypso), the comfortable (the Phaeacians), and the delicious (Circe). Each island tempts a different aspect of his nature; each threatens to indefinitely postpone the homecoming that is his true desire. Homer’s enchanted Mediterranean is ultimately a metaphor for the human mind: a realm of dangers and delights that we all must navigate toward the final Ithaca of mortality.