Hidden Histories by Jonathan Gottschall

Hidden Histories

‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are giving up new secrets about the ancient world

By Jonathan Gottschall

Bust of Homer from the Vatican Museum. Original artist unknown; photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2006.

Bust of Homer from the Vatican Museum. Original artist unknown; photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2006.

September 28, 2008

[This article has been abridged for use on the Excellence in Literature website.]

NEARLY 3,000 YEARS after the death of the Greek poet Homer, his epic tales of the war for Troy and its aftermath remain deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. These stories of pride and rage, massacre and homecoming have been translated and republished over millennia. Even people who have never read a word of “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” know the phrases they have bequeathed to us – the Trojan horse, the Achilles heel, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Today we still turn to Homer’s epics not only as sources of ancient wisdom and wrenchingly powerful poetry, but also as genuinely popular entertainments. Recent translations of “The Iliad” and “Odyssey” have shared the best-seller lists with Grisham and King. “The Odyssey” has inspired works from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” to a George Clooney movie, and an adaptation of “The Iliad” recently earned more than $100 million in the form of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” – a summer blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as an improbable Achilles.

The ancient Greeks, however, believed that Homer’s epics were something more than fiction: They thought the poems chronicled a real war, and reflected the authentic struggles of their ancestors. But modern scholars have generally been more skeptical. The poems describe a culture that thrived hundreds of years before Homer was born, and which would have seemed legendary even to him. Scholars have allowed that a kernel of historical truth might be tucked beneath the layers of heroic hyperbole and poetic embroidery, but only a small kernel. In the last 50 years, most scholars have sided with the great classicist Moses Finley, who argued that the epics were “a collection of fictions from beginning to end” and that – for all their majesty and drama – they were “no guide at all” to the civilization that may have fought the Trojan War.

But thanks to evidence from a range of disciplines, we are in the middle of a massive reappraisal of these foundational works of Western literature. Recent advances in archeology and linguistics offer the strongest support yet that the Trojan War did take place, with evidence coming from the large excavation at the likely site of Troy, as well as new analysis of cuneiform tablets from the dominant empire of the region. Insights from comparative anthropology have transformed studies of the society that created the poems and allowed us to analyze the epics in a new way, suggesting that their particular patterns of violence contain a hidden key to ancient Greek history – though not necessarily the key that Homer’s readers once thought they were being given.

“The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are our most precious artifacts of early Greek culture. Aside from the dry and voiceless remains of archeological sites, the poems are the last surviving impressions of the society that created them – what the people hoped for, what they despaired of, and how they managed their social and political lives. The poems are time machines – imperfect, surely – that show us people who were so like us, and so different, too. And they are still revealing new truths about the prehistoric civilization that has exerted such a strong formative influence over the art, the history, and even the psychology of the West.

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The desire to find truth in Homer has a long and checkered history, and no figure looms larger than the German businessman and self-taught archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. In 1870 he landed on the western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) with a copy of “The Iliad” in his hand. On the plain before him, an unimpressive mound of grass and stone and bushes swelled 100 feet into the air. Tradition had long identified this mound, called Hisarlik, as a possible site of the historical Troy.

Schliemann soon reported to the world, breathlessly, that he and his diggers had found the charred remains of a grand citadel destroyed in prehistory by hostile men – that he had found Troy just where Homer said it would be. The news was a worldwide sensation, and Schliemann’s view that the Homeric epics were fairly accurate chronicles of Late Bronze Age history – that is, the Greek world of around 1200 BC – dominated scholarship for more than 50 years.

But, in fact, Schliemann hadn’t found Homer’s Troy. Hisarlik was occupied from 3000 BC until 500 AD, and subsequent archeological excavations showed that the civilization Schliemann chipped from the mound actually ended more than 1,000 years before the Trojan War could realistically have been fought. When the German archeologist Carl Blegen examined the proper layer of the Hisarlik mound, the settlement he found seemed like a wretched and insignificant place. Schliemann’s amateurism, wishful thinking, and instinct for self-glorification had led him into serious error, and ended up discrediting his claim that Homer’s poems were historically based.

But the newest digging at Troy is tipping the consensus again, perhaps this time for good. Schliemann and Blegen, it now appears, had only discovered the tip of the iceberg. The mound at Hisarlik thrusts up from the plain, but most of its ruins are concealed beneath the surface. In a project that has now been underway for 20 years, the German archeologist Manfred Korfmann and hundreds of collaborators have discovered a large lower city that surrounded the citadel. Using new tools, such as computer modeling and imaging technology that allows them to “see” into the earth before digging, Korfmann and his colleagues determined that this city’s borders were 10 to 15 times larger than previously thought, and that it supported a population of 5,000 to 10,000 – a big city for its time and place, with impressive defenses and an underground water system for surviving sieges. And, critically, the city bore signs of being pillaged and burned around 1200 BC, precisely the time when the Trojan War would have been fought.

In his influential book, “Troy and Homer,” German classicist Joachim Latacz argues that the identification of Hisarlik as the site of Homer’s Troy is all but proven. Latacz’s case is based not only on archeology, but also on fascinating reassessments of cuneiform tablets from the Hittite imperial archives. The tablets, which are dated to the period when the Late Bronze Age city at Hisarlik was destroyed, tell a story of a western people harassing a Hittite client state on the coast of Asia Minor. The Hittite name for the invading foreigners is very close to Homer’s name for his Greeks – Achaians – and the Hittite names for their harassed ally are very close to “Troy” and “Ilios,” Homer’s names for the city.

“At the very core of the tale,” Latacz argues, “Homer’s ‘Iliad’ has shed the mantle of fiction commonly attributed to it.”

But if the Trojan War is looking more and more like a historical reality, there is still the question of whether the poems tell us anything about the motives and thinking of the people who actually fought it. Do the epic time machines actually take us back to the Greek culture of the Late Bronze Age?

It is almost certain that they do not. Homer’s epics are a culmination of a centuries-long tradition of oral storytelling, and extensive cross-cultural studies of oral literature have established that such tales are unreliable as history. Homeric scholars believe that the epics were finally written down sometime in the 8th century BC, which means that the stories of Achilles and Odysseus would have been passed by word of mouth for half a millennium before they were finally recorded in what was, by then, a vastly changed Greek culture. Facts about the war and the people who fought it would have been lost or grossly distorted, as in a centuries-long game of “telephone.” Scholars agree that the relatively simple and poor culture Homer describes in his epics is quite sharply at odds with the complex and comparatively rich Greek kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age, when the war would have taken place.

But even if the epics make a bad history of Greece in 1200 BC – in the sense of transmitting names, dates, and accurate political details – scholars increasingly agree that they provide a precious window on Greek culture at about the time the poems were finally written down. Moses Finley, who believed that the epics were “no guide at all” to the history of the Trojan War, did believe they were guides to Homer’s own culture. And by turning an anthropological eye to the conflicts Homer writes about, we are now learning far more about what that culture was really like.

. . .

[. . . .] Historical studies of literature are sometimes criticized for ignoring, or even diminishing, the artistic qualities that draw people to literature in the first place. But understanding how real history underlies the epics makes us appreciate Homer’s art more, not less. We can see Homer pioneering the artistic technique of taking a backbone of historical fact and fleshing it over with contemporary values and concerns – the same technique used later by Virgil in “The Aeneid,” by Shakespeare in his history plays, and by Renaissance painters depicting the Bible and classical antiquity.

And understanding Homer’s own society gives us a new perspective on the oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism that pervades “The Iliad” and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, “The Odyssey.” While even the fiercest fighters understand that peace is desirable, they feel doomed to endless conflict. As Odysseus says, “Zeus has given us [the Greeks] the fate of winding down our lives in hateful war, from youth until we perish, each of us.” . . . .

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Dr. Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His research at the intersection of science and art has frequently been covered in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The AtlanticThe Chronicle of Higher Education,  Nature, Science, and NPR. His blog, The Storytelling Animal, is featured at Psychology Today.  The Storytelling Animal was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in Washington, Pennsylvania.

This article is reprinted here for educational purposes only, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Dr. Gottschall for letting us reproduce and edit this resource, which was originally posted on his website.

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