Friday, March 10, 2006

Is there a classical archaeologist in the house?

Think I mentioned a while back that we were watching Michael Wood's old PBS documentary, In Search of the Trojan War.

Don't think I mentioned that it inspired me to go back and re-read the Iliad.

Not cover to cover. I've been jumping around in it, reading a passage here, a passage there, actually kind of working my way backwards, since I started with Hector's death. I've also been going back and forth between translations, comparing Robert Fagles' Penguin edition to Robert Fitzgerald's, which is published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Both are enjoyable, but I prefer Fitzgerald's just a little bit more.

This is the opening of Book One as rendered by Fagles:

Rage---Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

And here's Fitzgerald:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinious,
that cost the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men---carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another---
the Lord Marshall
Agamemnon, Atreus' son, and Prince Akhilleus.

I don't know which one is truer to the Greek original, but Fitzgerald's strikes my ear as truer to the structures and cadences of spoken English.

I just re-read the second book, called by Fagles The Great Gathering of the Armies and by Fitzgerald Assembly and Muster of Armies. (Fagles takes that round.) And a couple of passages caught my attention, not for their beauty or failures as translated poetry, but for their journalistic exactitude.

Homer's recounting all the kings that followed Agamemnon to Troy and how many ships sailed with each king and most of it is standard epic magniloquence. Diomedes "lord of the battlecry" and his 80 black ships. The great spearman Idomeneus. Nestor the noble old horseman from sandy Pylos.

But then there's this guy. Nireus "the handsomest man who ever came to Troy," after Achilles, of course. But he brings only three ships and he was "a lightweight, trailed by a tiny band."

What's he doing in the list?

Or this guy, "the veteran Protesilaus?"

Just as he vaulted off his ship a Dardan killed him,
first by far of the Argives slaughtered on the beaches. (Fagles.)

And that's it for Protesilaus.

Homer also reports that Odysseus came to Troy with only 12 ships. Seems like a small number for so great a king and so important a character, especially when a lot of nobodies have 40 or more ships in their fleets, unless the implication is that 12 ships of Odysseus' troops are worth a hundred of Agamenon's. Given what we know Odysseus and his men are going to go through in the Odyssey, that might be true, but it doesn't seem to be Homer's reason. He reports that Odysseus had 12 ships because that's how many ships Homer knows he had.

Homer also reports that the bows of Odysseus' ships were painted red.

I keep using "reports" deliberately.

As epic embellishments go, these details aren't at all epic. They're just "facts." Journalistic "facts."

Homer scatters little bits of what I would call journalism throughout the Iliad, not just to tell us how the soldiers on both sides lived and fought and died, and not just to set the scene. He uses them to make metaphors and offer comparisons so that his audience can relate their lives to the tales of the Heroes and demi-gods, in the process not only helping his contemporary audience but giving us in the future little pictures of life in Greece in his time. He even throws in some natural history as well.

And as migrating birds, nation by nation,
wild geese and arrow-throated cranes and swans,
over Asia's meadowland and marshes
around the streams of Kaystrios, with giant
flight and glorying wings keep beating down
in tumult on that verdant land
that echoes to their pinions, even so,
nation by nation, from the ships and huts,
this host debouched upon Skamander plain. (Fitzgerald)

Homer the epic poet has a touch of the realistic novelist. Those facts about the good-looking but negligable Nireus and the unlucky Protesilaus and Odysseus' dozen ships are in there to add versimilitude. They are counterweights to all the fairy tale passages about how the gods and goddesses kept butting in. Homer wanted his story to seem real.

But where did he get those details? Michael Wood says that he had sources for the tales, older poems and songs that told the stories of War and the heroes and those nuisances from Mount Olympus. But how far back did those songs and tales go? Judging by the inclusion of Nireus and Protesilaus and some of the other minor characters, I'd guess they went back to the Trojan War itself.

The reason Homer knew about those minor characters and details about Troy itself and the geography of the battlefield is that he was using---probably without knowing it---primary sources. The reason Homer reported the existence of poor Protesilaus and the fact that he was the first Greek to die and that he did it in a perfunctory and unheroic fashion, like the soldiers who died on D-Day stepping out of their landing craft before they'd put one boot on the beachhead, is that someone was on the scene to see it happened and reported it.

Of course I'm not positing the existence of Heroic Age war correspondents. But it's very likely that each one of those kings brought along with their troops and horses and chariots a bard, whose job it would have been to remember and recount the deeds of the king and his warriors.

Embedded poets.

In addition, the Greeks of the Heroic Age appear to have been literate. They could read and write and it's possible that many of the soldiers were sending letters home and maybe some kept a kind of journal or diary. These wouldn't have lasted long as they'd have been written on clay and Homer wouldn't have had access to them anyway. I think Wood says that by Homer's day Greeks had apparently forgotten how to read and write. They rediscovered how to do it within the following five hundred years. That strikes me as weird. I wonder how often this has happened in human history. But the memories from those obscure bards' tales and soldiers' letters could have been preserved in other songs and stories.

In Search of the Trojan War was made 20 years ago and there has been some great finds on the archeological front since that have provided more evidence that there really was a Trojan War---the walls and outlines of a greater city from the right time period and more closely resembling the beautiful and magnificent Ilium that Homer describes, signs of cremations along the shoreline where the Greeks would have held the funerals for their fallen warriors, for instance.

But have there been more discoveries about Homer and the sources of his epic too? Anybody know? Is there an archeologist in the house?

How about a Classicist?


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