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A few years ago, I don't recall exactly when or where, I encountered a powerful idea that's stayed with me.  It concerns Homer's Odyssey, and its hero, Odysseus.

Odysseus is arguably the most unreliable narrator in Western literature.  His reputation is built on cunning and deceit.  All we know about the period between the time he left Troy and the time he washed ashore on Phaeacia is what he tells us.  He could be lying about everything, and we, the audience, would never know because there are no other survivors to contradict him.

Zachary Mason's odd little tome, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, captures some of that spirit.  Working on the conceit that archaeologists have discovered forty-five "lost" fragments of the Odyssey, Mason presents forty-four short works that reimagine, reinterpret, and play with Homer's original text.  There are alternate episodes in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find the island mysteriously abandoned, or his wife Penelope remarried, or dead.  Odysseus meets his own doppelganger.  He finds himself in a sanitorium unable to remember anything, in a cabin on an icy mountain.  We learn why no two people describe Helen the same way, and why King Death wants her.  We meet Polyphemus, an innocent shepherd blinded by a stranger.  We enter a world where Agamemnon rules a vast subterranean kingdom mirroring Troy above.  We cross paths with Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.  We meet a golem Achilles.

If you have never heard of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, you can check it out on Amazon.  It's a short book, but best read piecemeal, one or two chapters at a time, to better process the multiple variations on the Odyssey theme.


Homer and Astronomy

The big news this week is that a group of Greek archaeologists and astrometrologists compared meticulous astronomical observations with a careful reading of Homer to calculate Patroclus's death as occurring at noon on June 6, 1218 B.C.  You can read the full paper here.

Homer describes a solar eclipse taking place during the battle for Patroclus's corpse; this correlates nicely with another calculation: a second solar eclipse in the Ionian Islands eleven years later, on October 30, 1207 B.C.  As the events of the Iliad occur in the ninth year of the war, eleven years later in the autumn would correlate with Odysseus's homecoming to Ithaca and the slaughter of the suitors.

This isn't the first time archaeologists and astronomers have tried to match Homer's descriptions to actual solar events.  I find this sort of thing interesting food for thought, which raises some crucial questions:

These calculations only work if Homer got the other details right.

Was there a warrior called Patroclus who was killed during an eclipse, and for whose corpse there was a fierce battle afterward?

Did the Trojan War happen exactly as Homer described, or is the Iliad a collection of independent traditions/stories woven into a new narrative framework, as Caroline Lawrence's insightful work The War That Killed Achilles suggests?

Was there really a hero called Odysseus who took ten years to get home?

I have no doubt that a solar eclipse during a battle is the sort of thing that bards would remember and pass down through the generations, but the oral tradition is something like a game of Telephone: the end result differs significantly from the original message.  All of the above factors would have to fall into place for the astronomical data to have any overall significance; it's the nature of oral literature that has me pausing to shake my head.

What we're left with is the possibility that Homer is remembering real details from real events, but in order to for this theory to withstand scrutiny there has to be corroborating evidence.  So far, there's no Mycenaean Greek documentation of any of the heros who went to Troy; the Pylos archive never mentions a king Nestor.  There are no records of a king Agamemnon or king Odysseus.  Some Hittite records from this time survive, but the evidence for the troubles that struck Wilusa at the end of the thirteenth century B.C. raises more questions than it answers.

It's a fun theory, nevertheless.

Happy New Year

Let's celebrate the new year as the Mycenaeans would have, with drink and storytelling.

 photo bard.jpg
But where are the women? Were they excluded from hearing the bard sing, or relegated to the vestibule outside the main megaron, or perhaps to a gallery above? There's no archaeological evidence that says storytelling wasn't a communal activity, and Homer makes no distinction between the sexes in The Odyssey when Queen Arete and her women are present for Odysseus's account of his adventures; this is just the artist's interpretation. But it does raise interesting questions about Mycenaean social interactions.

A nice touch that the bard's outfit echoes the image of the storyteller on the Pylos frescoes.

Greek Heroes and Hollywood Fail

The current Hercules film featuring Dwayne Johnson is that rarity in Hollywood: a genuinely good movie about Greek mythology, even though it debunks the myth it's set around. January's Legend of Hercules was a dud, as was 2011's Immortals and the Clash of the Titans reboot.

Part of the problem is the difference between the ancient Greek hero and the modern idea of a hero.  Modern-day heroes are ideally selfless and self-effacing in the Judeo-Christian tradition; they're usually ordinary people who perform with class and distinction in extraordinary circumstances.  Athletes, too, are often considered heroes, though they should more properly be defined as role models.  By contrast, the ancient Greek hero was most often the fruit of the union between a mortal and god, or a man favored by a god/goddess who could perform feats beyond the capabilities of ordinary men.  Greek heroes were not modest.  Far from it, they boasted of their deeds as a form of ancient PR.  They killed monsters and took on enemies not out of altruism but to enrich themselves and amass kleos, or personal glory.

Greek heroes also killed and preyed upon those around them.  Herakles was temperamental and violent, and the world's first House Guest From Hell.  Odysseus got all his men killed first because he decided to pillage elsewhere after the Trojan War, and underestimated his would-be victims, and then because in a foolish, boastful mood he antagonized Poseidon.  Theseus deserted the lovely Ariadne after she saved him from a gruesome death in the Labyrinth (and presumably after he had his way with her).  Perseus turned to stone pretty much anyone who pissed him off, including Andromeda's fiance, his great-uncle Proitus, and practically everyone on Seriphos not named Danae or Dictys.  Jason dumped Medea for a younger woman.  Achilles withdrew from the Trojan War to sulk in his tent over a personal insult while thousands of Greeks and his own boyfriend paid the price.  Bellerophon's head grew so large with hubris that he tried to fly to Olympus.

Greek heroes, in short, were assholes who would find themselves on Death Row if they were alive today.

There were also local heroes with hero cults: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Pelops, Orestes, Oedipus (at Athens, not Thebes), Orpheus, Amphiaraus, Diomedes, Erechtheus, etc.

Aside from the fact that most of the Greek heroes were unrepentant assholes, most of them don't have happy endings.  Theseus forgot (or did he?) to switch the sails of his ship from black to white, thereby causing his father Aegeus to commit suicide by throwing himself off the Athenian Acropolis.  Odysseus might have rescued his wife and property from 108 unscrupulous suitors, but had to flee Ithaca shortly thereafter because the families of the suitors wanted revenge.  Agamemnon was a Class A asshole who killed his own daughter, pissed off his wife, and was murdered in his bathtub by said wife.  Orestes killed his mother and went crazy.  Bellerophon was thrown by Pegasus and ended up a blind, crippled hermit.  Herakles was shot by a poisoned arrow and immolated himself to escape the pain. Perseus was killed by a rival kinsman.  Diomedes was driven out by his unfaithful wife and her lover.  Jason's rejected wife Medea killed their kids, and he died when a bulkhead from the rotting Argo fell on him.

So you see what I mean in terms of translating the Greek myths into Hollywood blockbusters.  When it's done, as in the case of Hercules, the hero has to be whitewashed, the authentic part of his ancient Greek heritage retooled to suit modern audiences.  The various versions of the Clash of the Titans films center around the Perseus-Andromeda romance, leaving out the unpleasant business of Perseus impetuously killing anything or anyone other than Medusa and the Kraken, Cetus the sea monster.  Odysseus gets his happy ending with Penelope because the film versions of his legend end short of the last books of The Odyssey.  Theseus has never had a truly faithful version of his story told because neither Hollywood writers nor moviegoers can reconcile his actions after he kills the Minotaur.  Achilles comes across as a whiny, homicidal diva.  Bellerophon is irredeemable.  Jason deserves his fate because, frankly, you do NOT dump a woman like Medea.  Agamemnon is nowadays cast as a power-grabbing villain versus the OTP of Helen and Paris.  Even Menelaus gets the villain/abusive husband treatment, never mind that in Homer he's a perfectly nice guy, if a second-rate warrior.

So while the success of Hercules might encourage more Hollywood films featuring Greek heroes, don't expect them to hew very closely to the legends that spawned them.

Athena and Hera

Athena and Hera from Peter Connolly's amazing younger reader's book, The Legend of Odysseus.  Athena's breasts aren't visible because she's wearing Homer's "tasseled aegis."  Hera is wearing a polos headdress.

If you can get your hands on a used copy of Connolly's book, it's worth it, as it covers not only The Odyssey, but The Iliad, too.  Some things are left out, for the sake of younger readers, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and Odysseus's various amatory conquests.

Some adult readers who left reviews complained that they could not use the book with students because of the naked breasts.  Seriously?  Younger students I can understand, but older students should be able to comprehend that women dressed differently at the time of the Trojan War, and for religious purposes.  In fact, Connolly explains the distinction he makes between mortal women (breasts covered, as they probably were most of the time) and goddesses (breasts exposed).

Is our culture that put off by a pair of mammary glands that it can't handle a discussion about historical fashion?

My only complaint about the book is that there aren't enough of the late Mr. Connolly's paintings (what, no Helen of Troy?)


The Egyptians depicted feasts on their tomb walls, giving us a rather detailed look into what the typical Egyptian feast would have involved. Unfortunately, no such pictorial evidence has survived for the Mycenaean world. Recreating a Mycenaean feast means piecing together archaeological remains and textual clues from Homer; the latter is a bit iffy, given that Homer composed his epics five hundred years later, and may have added details from his own time.

From archaeological excavations at Pylos, we have the equipment that would have been used at feasts. A storeroom filled with enough ceramic cups, plates, and dishes to serve hundreds was discovered near the megaron, evidence that feasting was an important part of court life at sandy Pylos.  Certainly, there would have been a large number of religious festivals that the court would have observed.

(Bowls and two-handled drinking cups found at Pylos)

The megaron's capacity depends on how the feast tables were set up. Linear B palace records refer to small three-legged tables; presumably each guest had his or her own. Such an arrangement would have limited the seating capacity in the megaron, which was not a spacious area to begin with. I imagine no more than 25-30 people, perhaps the immediate royal family and high-ranking nobility/royal companions, could have been accommodated this way. For larger feasts, there's nothing to suggest that the Mycenaeans could not have set up trestle tables and benches.

There would have been a drink offering, or libation, before the meal; think of it as the Late Bronze Age equivalent of saying Grace, although the Mycenaeans themselves would have considered it analogous to inviting the deities to the feast. The cult idols might even have been brought out and given a place at the hearth. And given the multiplicity of deities, it's quite reasonable to assume that libations were offered at several points throughout the evening.

Feasting was sometimes conducted out of doors.  Lesser officials and denizens of the citadel would have been fed in the court outside the megaron, where the doors were presumably kept open so people could hear the music coming from and see their royal family dining within.  In Chapter 3 of The Odyssey, Telemachus and Athena encounter King Nestor, his sons, and nobles feasting in honor of Poseidon on the beach.

Diners did not recline, as they did in later times; neither Homer nor the archaeological evidence points to dining couches.

There's no evidence as to whether men and women were kept segregated during feasts, as they were during later, Classical times. Homer has women present during feast scenes in The Odyssey, so it's possible that Mycenaean men and women mingled more than their descendants.

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