What We Owe Homer

Dante, Homer and Virgil. Detail from Raphael’s Parnassus mural.

Homer is the quintessential Greek intellectual with many talents, including poetry. No other poet  in ancient or modern times comes close to him. The ancient Greeks treated him with the awe and respect they usually honored the gods. They read history in his poetry.

The Homeric epics

Herodotus figured Homer lived in mid-ninth century BCE. Eratosthenes, great scientist and librarian of the Alexandrian Library in the third century BCE, dated the fall of Troy in 1184 BCE and Herodotus in 1250 BCE.

Astronomical phenomena date the Trojan War a few decades earlier than the date of Herodotus. The key for unlocking the chronological uncertainty of the Trojan War comes from Homer recounting an eclipse of the Sun god Helios over the Ionian Islands, which include Ithaca.

A team of Greek scientists at the University of Patras headed by Stavros Papamarinopoulos studied the astronomy of the thirteenth century BCE. In 2012, they reached the following conclusion: a Solar eclipse over the Ionian Islands took place at noon on October 30, 1207 BCE. This was a partial eclipse that coincided with Odysseus killing of the suitors.

This astronomical fact pushes the astronomical knowledge of the Greeks back to the Bronze Age (late thirteenth century BCE), giving credibility to the existence of advanced astronomical knowledge in the Odyssey.

However, scholars doubt Greeks had interests in astronomy before the classical age, that is, the fifth century BCE. They basically wrap Homer with fiction.

Some scholars see nothing historical about the Trojan War and Homer. Even those scholars who see history in the Homeric epics are also confused. They date Homer to the eighth century BCE but the Trojan War four centuries before Homer. Inevitably, such scholars thought it implausible that Homer had that kind of astronomical knowledge.

Yet the Greeks of Homer’ time learned practical astronomy from their ancestors and from their relatives in Minoan Crete of the second millennium BCE who did know how to read the heavens.

I read Homer in the original Greek in high school. I keep reading Homer. His descriptions of heroes bring those heroes to life. They are mind-boggling and beautiful. His descriptions of places are astounding. For example, Ithaca of Homer is the Ithaca of 2019, the small island I know well.

We don’t know how Homer did what he did. Did he observe the fighting of the Trojan War? Did he know Helen, Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus? Or, about three and a half centuries after the Trojan War, he performed his near miracle of codifying a chaotic oral tradition into the likely truth and beauty of his Hellenic epic poetry?

We do know Homer and his epics were a landmark in the very beginnings of Greek history and civilization.

Greeks turned to Homer for piety for the gods. His epics spoke to them directly with the voices of those gods. They were full of the ethical, political and intellectual achievements of their ancestors. The Iliad and the Odyssey touched their soul for millennia. The stories of Homer, sang in banquets and read in school, made them proud. Achilles and Odysseus were some of their greatest heroes. Their children started their education with Homer..

Homer’s immortal epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, epea pteroenta, winged words, flying epics, were full of insights about the skies, giving the position and names of constellations like Pleiades that guided Odysseus from the island and arms of goddess Calypso to the Ionian island of Phaiakia (Kerkyra). The epics gave clues of technology, even advanced technology.

Homer introduces Hephaistos, god of metallurgy, making arms for Achilles. The Shield was especially significant. Hephaistos crafted it with a variety of metals that made it invulnerable to attack. That Shield was also a work of art, depicting the cosmos and the agrarian world of the Greeks: communities at war and peace, showcasing the evils of war and the blessings of peace in a prosperous countryside. Working the land and enjoying its fruits was the beginning of human happiness and the building of the polis.

Homer speaks of Hephaistos crafting golden women robots that served the gods of Olympus. Hephaistos was also responsible for the pilotless ship of the Phaiakians that carried Odysseus to Ithaca. Alcinous, king of Phaiakia, says his ships read the travelers’ mind and know how to arrive safely to all cities and countries of the world.

In addition, Homer says, Hephaistos made a giant robot, Talos, for Zeus who gifted it to his lover Europa in Crete during the reign of King Minos in the second millennium BCE. Talos was programmed to protect Crete. The mechanical robot would fly over Crete three times a day.

The Homeric epics offered pictures of the land and agriculture and rural festivals flowing with wine and food. They shed light on political institutions like the monarchy; highlighting the terrible price of war and the essential love of the Greeks for their country, those living abroad ceaselessly struggling to return home.

The Homeric epics were models for poetry and literature. They boosted the Greeks’ exploration and travel outside of their country; indeed, they inspired their colonizing of the Mediterranean.

Homer was a model for the greatest Athenian tragic and comic poets: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Their plays performed in theaters in Athens, and eventually, all over the Greek world, were like delicious pieces from a Homeric pie. They were elaborations of Homeric stories.

Aristotle also absorbed Homer. He became the great philosopher who invented science. Yet he was attached to Homer, seeking his inspiration and wisdom. He cites Homer repeatedly, dozens of times, throughout his work, from the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics to his scientific works on zoology, his pioneering books about animals. Aristotle was a Homeric scholar.

Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, teaching the young king philosophy, international history and politics, science, Greek history, including Homer. He edited the Iliad for Alexander who made Achilles his hero and carried the Iliad with him everywhere he went.

Homer became a subject for scholarship in the Alexandrian Library for more than three centuries. Its scholars followed Aristotle’s example and edited the text of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those Alexandrian editions of Homer survived the dark ages. The Homer we read today comes from them.

Abraham and Achilles

Homer influenced the greatest Roman poets and, after the dark ages, European and American poets and scholars of literature. However, the Judeo-Christian elements of Western culture are still up in arms protecting us from Homer.

In 1986, Harold Bloom of Yale University edited a book entitled HomerIn the introduction, he said:

“We have no ways of thinking that are not Greek, and yet our morality and religion – outer and inner – find their ultimate source in the Hebrew Bible…. The true difference… is between Yahweh, and the tangled company of Zeus and the Olympians, fate and the daemonic world. Christian, Moslem, Jew or their mixed descendants, we are children of Abraham, not of Achilles.”

It’s this schizophrenia that delays the emancipation of the West from superstition. You cannot be obsessed with the religions of the desert and pretend you understand Aristotle or Homer. Besides, attachment to those religions secretly perpetuates the once open hatred of the monotheists for the “pagan” Greeks, diluting the civilizing influence of Greek learning, even removing ethics from the invention and application of science and technology – and, significantly, from our treatment of Mother Earth, which the Greeks worshipped as the oldest of the gods.

In such spiritual, intellectual, and scholarly chaos, Homer becomes another idol that must be dethroned, manipulated, and remade to meaninglessness.

Slandering Homer and the Greeks

I came across this example of sophisticated downsizing of Homer in Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, a book published in 2014 in New York by Henry Holt and Company.

This is a well-written but dense and badly thought-out book. It’s full of extraneous detail. It’s full of the fads and fashions of those who have an agenda against the Greeks.

Nicolson argues the Greeks are not European. They are steppe people, originating somewhere in the wilds of south Russia or Ukraine.

Nicolson’s book has an attractive yet deceptive title. Homer matters, Nicolson says, because “Homer, in a god-like way, understands what mortals do not. He even understands more than the gods.”

This is fiction. Homer was a mortal Greek poet who worshipped the gods. Suggesting a mortal understands more than the gods is the ultimate of hubris. Homer matters because he was the teacher of the Greeks and, through the Greeks and his epics, he spread enlightenment among the people of the West.

Nicolson mixes fiction and non-fiction. He praises his fictional Homer and even gives us fascinating stories about the real Homer: the exquisite early editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey in European libraries.

The purpose of this book, however, is not to bring you closer to Homer but to demolish anything of virtue you might associate with the fountainhead of Greek and Western culture, Homer.

Nicolson believes there’s nothing of practical value in the Homeric epics. Don’t expect any guidance or inspiration from Homer.

This is a preposterous reading of Homer, the educator of Hellas. His gods and heroes were models of courage, patriotism, justice, honest living, hospitality and science.

Odysseus was one of those heroes, the protagonist of the Odyssey. Homer calls Odysseus polymechanos (inventor, ever-ready, superb craftsman),  dios Odysseus (brilliant Zeus-like Odysseus), polymetis Odysseus (extremely intelligent, resourceful Odysseus), polytlas dios Odysseus (long-suffering brilliant Odysseus).

And what does Nicolson say about Odysseus? Nicolson can’t stand Odysseus. He attacks Odysseus, branding him the “pirate-king… a cannibal-minded cur.” As for the gods who played such an active role in the Trojan War and saved Odysseus, Nicolson says the gods of the Homeric epics are “sometimes terrifying but unreliable, intemperate and eventually ridiculous beings…. We don’t want to worship at a shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.”

Equating the Greek gods with thugs brings us back to the anti-Hellenic fervor of early Christianity.

In addition, Athenians would not be pleased to hear their patron goddess of wisdom, Athena, was a thug. They honored her with the Parthenon that still symbolizes one of the greatest achievements of Greek civilization.

Nicolson also associates the Greek soldiers besieging Troy with thugs: ghetto thugs: criminals and gangsters attacking a wealthy urban neighborhood. He describes the Trojan War in this fashion:

“The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich. Outsiders and insiders, nomadic and settled, the needy and the leisured, the enraged and the offended – the hero complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.”

Nicolson goes further in his fictional account of the Trojan War. He lines the Greek heroes next to the thugs of American cities fighting endless battles for loot and revenge. Then he wraps things up by saying: “Homer is not Greek; he is the light shining in the world.”

Really? A fictional, non-Greek Homer being the light shining in the world? A non-Greek Homer has no light to shine or he does not exist. In either case, this conclusion, Nicolson’s bleak and largely fake view of the Greeks, is incoherent and false. It is insulting Homer and the Greeks. It hides the cognitive dissonance Bloom spoke about those caught in the morality of Yahweh monotheism.

In addition, such a hostile interpretation of Homer and Greek history is a convenient blow against Greece being  looted by Europe and America.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.