Homeric Notepad

Observations from 2008+

Sometimes it is good to take a new thought and outline it briefly and put it in a place where I can find it later, without trying to make a formal argument. There is such a vast clutter of Homerica online, that perhaps it is enough to collect a few thoughts here to share online, and later add new ones at the end.


Stanford's Prof. A. T. Murray wrote in his preface to the Loeb Iliad in l925:

He who would know Homer must approach him with an open mind and lend himself to the guidance of the poet himself. He must not come to the study of the poems with a pre-conceived notion of the processes by which they have come into being, or the philological or archaeological criteria for determining relative age of this episode or that. . . . .

He was thinking of the Divisionist theories which were then at the tail end of a century of proliferation, but his advice can be extended as a caution to the Oralist studies which have occupied the second half of the last century. From the exploratory work i Milman Parry in 1930 to the time of his recordings of guslars in Yugoslavia in the thirties, as expanded by Harvard Prof. A. B. Lord at that time and later in a series of books on guslaric parallels to the language of the Homeric poems, there has developed a worldwide interest in Oral Poetry, which can be found quite naturally in any pre-literary society. But the genericness of world-wide oral poetic formulae may be a very different case from the South Slavic Serbian oral poetry, for which a different tradition may be construed.

Modern studies on the guslars starts with Parry's recordings in the '30s. There were some transcriptions done by Serbian scholars in the l9th century, and records point back to the previous centuries as active, but there is little awareness of an ancient history of the South Slavs who were the first group to break away from the proto-Slavic Eastern group. In fact the South Slavs appear in the immediate area around Byzantium in the 7th century when they were Christianized and they must have entered into the social as well as political life of the Greek tradition. Already forming separate Slavic kingdoms often internally at war, they were for centuries a significant part of the Byzantine circle of peoples. Only later under political and war conditions did they move northward to Yugoslav Serbia where Parry found them, at a far remove from their old local near cultural Byzantium.

I suggest that early South Slavic communities must have had some slight awareness of the ancient and prestigious Hellenic civilization, which had permeated the whole Eastern world in earlier centuries. If one book were still read and taught ubiquitously in Byzantium, it would have been the Iliad, and curious Slavic poets would have found it natural to follow the threads of language which Homer used. The notion of great ancient wars, of a high poetic language different from the usage of the day, and noble phraseology for the mighty heroes, their arms and their feats could be easily assimilated into a Slavic language dress. Of course we have none of this now, since the Slavs lived in a pre-literate world and any poetry would have to be oral. But oral traditions are often long- lived.

If traces of parallels between the 20th c guslars we know and the Homer we still have turn out to be close, we might consider the degree of exactitude to be an evidence for an ancient act of borrowing somewhere before the 10th c AD. Just as Nonnus and the later Greek imitators of Homer used the Homeric framework freely, so Slavic imitation on an oral level could turn up phraseologic parallels in the later Serbian tradition. A parallel might be a genuine English Arthurian tradition, passed along from medieval text to Mallory and finally to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, with preservation of useful detailing as main evidence of the source.

What would this mean for the theory of Homeric Orality? It would slightly weaken the Oral Argument as a core phenomenon for Homeric scholarship. To be sure Oral Poetry does exist everywhere, it has to exist where there is no written tradition by necessity, and it has features which no written text can have. But the written text is invaluable in an entirely different way, just as written Law differs from law embedded in an oral tradition. So I go back to Murray's suggestion that a written Iliad is as he put it, "a matter of fact", and as such much more important to us now than a hypothetical Oral Homer which cannot be reconstructed.

It is hard for me to believe that a christianized Slavic or Serb group within the Byzantine empire for so long could go unaffected by Byzantine traditions and literature. If Egypt, among other countries, could feel Greece's Mediterranean winds as they swiftly blew across the area, then surely the Slavs and Serbs should have been impacted by Byzantine-Greek knowledge. But my point is this. If it is now historically known that they were settled further south on the Black sea before moving North, how could any people group dwell so close to Constantinople and not be touched by its ancient literature? Constantinople was the fountainhead for dispersing Greek from province to province, country to country, and from language to language. Why not some oral-poetic influence on the historically important and persistently clever South Slavic Serbians?


The "Homer" that we have is a book of poetic Text, and the first question that arises is: How do we read it?

Clearly it must be read in the Greek to be authentic, although translations will serve for a rough approximation of content, storyline, with few elements of the original style.

But there has recently been a revival of interest in the Greek language and the study of Homer is a natural way into the Greek language. New methods books, online study groups and small college classes doing traditional grammar are changing the scene, but Homeric Greek is still largely a matter of grammatical preparation and classroom study, since few will reach a level of reading skill which will reward them with an ancient book read for pleasure.

Are the Iliad and the Odsyssey works to be read for pleasure, or are they to be laboriously studied in terms of an antique grammatical parsing system, which is continually checked by translation into English? And when one gets to actual reading, should the vast philological background of the last two decades be investigated in order to eb sure one is getting the right approach?

A colleague of mind after retirement told me about reading Homer through from start to finish, slowly and carefuly over a period of years. The young replacement teach, when I informed him of this project, said: "But why would a person do that, being retired with no students to work with?" For him Homer was part of the work load I guess."

When an undergrad long ago in my second year of Greek, I went to my Harvard tutor for the weekly meeting, and said I found I could actually read a page of Lysias straight on sight. My professor smiled and pointed to one verb form and asked for the grammatical details. I knew the root and the meaning but not the odd irregularity, so he said leave the fast reading alone and work on the grammar. But I continued learning to read, finding that errors in language have a way of repairing themselves so long as content is clear; and just now, long in retirement myself, I have been reading for pleasure the less often perused parts of the Iliad. I find it is now sheer pleasure to read ahead, since I am freed from students asking about an odd verb, about the meaning of a particular 'particle', and wanting me to check their automatic translations. Most of them will never read Homer for pleasure, for them it is a College Course in daily doses.

Years ago I fostered one this site online, the idea of reading Greek with the pitch accents read as musical pitches, and this is clearly the way to read Greek. But now after hearing the gauche and counter-intuitive recordings of a host of classical scholars, I suggest ignoring the accents for the moment. They do not show on the papyri and are an effort to give correctness to eight century old poetry, as devised by Alexandrian librarians and text critics. Not sure how to pronounce the diacritics, and annoyed by the current unmusical level of recordings, I would go back to the old academic way of ignoring the accents, while being sure to get the Longs and Shorts in hand. And if these have to be read as Stresses rather than Durations, remember that Greek changed to stressed syllables after the 1 c BC and stresses if kept with durations, can be perfectly fine. The main thing is to get the reading moving without fussing.

If this seems step backwards or a cop-out on the philological materials regarding Stress and Pitch, I suggest first getting used to reading a Greek text fluently as it is printed on the page in Porson font, just as we read another book. It can be read silently as we read a novel, or aloud with a considerable increase in 'presence', and finally with the musical pitches just as the Alexandrians wrote them in. But remembering that Troy was a part of the ancient Near East, shouldn't we chant (aeide) or intone the Iliad with a touch of a Near Eastern voice, as we hear in Greek Orthodox service or at a mosque? These are all separate and enriching levels to explore. But we probably should be able to read the test as it stands and understand its meaning before adding other dimensions. Homer is very clear above all, and we do not want to lose clarity in our reading.

Any language must be read or spoken from the inside. The whole of the vocabulary along with a fast-retrieved grammatical corpus, are in a memory patch in the brain which is reserved for use with that language. This explains the difficulty of translating intelligently from one language to another, where we hem and haw looking for the right word or function. Not only words and grammar are involved, there is the matter of stylistics and cultural norms which are different country to country, and age to age. These things are not easy to work with, but if a person wants to read Homeric Greek, they must be registered in as part of the project.


There has been much discussion of the Greek word 'nostos' or returning home, in terms of a possible meaningful etymology. It has gone back and forth, there is even a suggestion that it is derived from 'nous' or 'mind' as connected with 'noeo' or 'think, consider', although the meanings are entirely different. This brings up the problem of the use of etymology in literary and historical texts as a useful if at times questionable technique. Ancient Greek etymologies were usually ridiculous, based on sound and imagination rather than a rigorous and serious method like modern historical linguistics.

In the case of 'nostos', I suggest that is connects clearly with the verb 'neomai' meaning go, progress, come, and as such used specifically of persons, often homewards with 'palin' or back, as Iliad 6.189, Od. 6.110, Il. VII 335. (There is one exception of water and wind, still 'going back' Il. 23.32). There is no problem with the ablaut change of vocalization 'e/o', which is typical like 'phero/phoros'.

A proper frame for an etymological comparison must not stretch the meaning, it must follow the established laws of historical linguistics, and it must add something to our understanding of the word in question. In this case the etymological connection which I propose, tha 'nostos' is a word referring to men who are 'going (back)', does seem to satisfy all these criteria and I consider this philological case, which has stretched the imagination beyond its elastic limit, for my part as adequately closed.

Of course one will think of Nestor, the Hellenic Polonius in style and verbiage, who has the same stem configuration: 'nes-' as 'nostos' with but without the o/grade vowel shift. Rather than trying to connect him with 'noos' and its verb, as the 'wise' old man (since the -o- vowel always is used there), I suggest Nestor had the 'come, travel' meaning of the stem -nes-. just as in 'nostos'. Here is the generic praiser of time past, champion of the days of yore, in which Nestor 'travels back' in time to an other world of the past. This fits the agent-type ending -tor, which presumes connection with a verbal stem, used here with -neo- 'go, travel (back)' as in above-cited examples of Homeric usage.


I am looking at the scene at Iliad VII 175 at which the Greek heroes are engaged in drawing a lot to see who will go out and fight the dangerous Trojan Hector. They were apparently all afraid to go the battle with him and nobody offered to go out and fight, until Nestor in a long speech about bravery and courage in the old times stirred them to make a selection of one warrior "by lot".

The procedure was like this. Some 'kleroi' or 'lots pieces', which were probably strips of wood, were marked by each on the half dozen men as his own, and thrown into a bronze helmet as a bowl. This was shaken until one came out, the usual process for lot selection everywhere, but there is something different here.

If the slips were marked with the name of each man, the emerging kleros could be read by all and they would all know who was selected. But here this critical lot is shown to one man, who looks at it and says it is not his, passing it along. And so on until finally Ajax looks at the lot which was handed down the line, and says that it is his. So it is clear that the lot was not marked with a lettered name or a few ocalization letters spelling out a name, in which case they would all have been able to see the name of Ajax right away. Therefore these men must be technically illiterate, but they do have as private identification a cipher or sign and it is this which each one marks on the wood slip which is thrown into the helmet.

It is surprising how timorous these fighting men are:

And this one would say with glance up at the broad heaven: Father Zeus, grant that the lot fall on Aias or the son of Tydeus or else on the king himself of Mycene rich in gold.

No real 'heroes' here, they do not try to hide their fear, but there is a second factor at work: They are very honest, and each one is expected to acknowledge his own cipher to the group. And so Ajax admits it is his, and he is willing to battle against Hector.

What is this cipher? Is it a drawn or probably incised set of lines, perhaps something abstract and non-figurative which the owner alone would know? Or something scratched there on the moment's impulse which would be a fortuitous marking; or perhaps somethinglike a PIN or a private password? The kleroi must then be burned or everyone loses his private access number.

What is interesting is that this episode is recounted in a full and highly organized text, where words and meanings are the web of a text belonging to a literate society. I am speaking of our Homeric text as it stands now long after Peisistratus or the unknown Homer text writers. Now in this text we have at this point a description of a much earlier time in which there was no reading or writing beyond a simple sign, aand this might point to an oral society in a pre-literate stage. Here we find embedded in our actual received text a comment on written as against oral material from a pre-literate society, coming not from a philologist's pen but from the ancient text itself. Yes, Homer says, people were once like that.

But is this a historical fact which shows that 7th c. writers had real information on writing about a time some five centuries earlier? We know from the existance of Linear B which is 12th c and clearly Greek, that in the Trojan War period there was writing. So why would a man not scribe on his kleros his name or a part of his name, even an initial character, as a normal part of the way lots are done? Is the text-writer who is Homer using this lot-situation as a way of showing how rude and ancient men were in the time of this Trojan expedition?

Or did Ajax scribe on his lot marks for his name, but in the Linear B alphabet? For the later text-writer this would be taken as just a cipher not a character of real writing, and the story would go around that in the Linear B period people could neither read nor write. Funny scratchings on old tablets found around Pylos (he might think) were not real writing like those which Cadmos brought us from Phoenicia. Remember that it took a long time until 1949 before we began to see Linear B as writing with many shades of meaning.

The passage at Iliad VII 175 ff. remains as curious and inconvenient, a portrayal of timorous warriors with a high degree of personal honesty, who use a lot-system which we do not completely understand, to determine who will go out to fight and possiblye die at the hands of man-slaughtering Hector. There are many things in the Homeric world which we do not completely understand, there are puzzles and this may be one of them.


When Robert Graves and Samuel Butler in the last century proposed the notion that the Iliad and Odyssey were not written by the same person, and that the Odyssey was written y a woman, there was a hint of ancient scholarship in this. Some Alexandrian scholars, called the Separatists or chorizontes had already thought of separate authorship, while others disagreed. But there exists in scholarship the same running to extremes that we find in political life, and we moderns with our extensive experience in "scholarship" are perhaps even more partial to extremism.

I hardly need mention the so-called Homeric Problem about accretion of Homer from folk balladry, which raged throughout the l9th century before burning itself out in the 20th. But when it was all laid to rest, the ballads returned in the name of oral poetry, so we can hardly say that the Homeric Question is really dead after all. But what is remarkable is the fervor and extent of the new Poral Poetry offshoot in the scholarly world, which has the same rush to a new opinion which the Divisionists had in the late l8th c with Wolf's famous essay on Homer. In a world where 'new' is a coefficient of Progress, we tend to move fast toward extremes.

But who would have thought that a search of the Internet under "Homer woman" would turn up pages of references urls on the Poetess of the Odyssey? Nobody would have been more shocked the Wolf himself, for whom in l800 Germany women were a mothering accessory to the family, with no thought of other identity or of voting? Here again we have that rush to the new opinion, a natural twist to the otherwise often cautious human character.

But are the Iliad and Odyssey really so different in the Greek. Modern opinion which reads Homer in translation, has a problem with this, since we now read Greek for the story and the overall meaning, rather than for words and phrases which establish a micro-texture, on which a work's identity depends. Here is a good text for real separateness of the two Homeric poems, one which I have observed in many years of teaching:

After my Greek students got along with the slow business of learning to read the Iliad, I turned them onto the Odyssey for a change of pace, and found that they said it was much more readable and much easier to read in terms of phraseology and syntax. Or if I did it the other way around starting them on the Odyssey, they complained how tough the Iliad was. I ran through this sequence time and again, and can now state that if students found such a language difference between the two very parallel poems, that should serve as a modern example of the ancient Divisionists' theories. The two poems do read differently and that implies a real difference in their composition.

In classical text-studies of the MS tradition, there is a theory called the "lectio difficilior" which says that there is a tendency in the MS tradition to simplify or corrupt a hard word which is not undrstood, but changing it to a less ficcilt word or phrase. Reversed, this would be a statement that easier readings are later, and might lead by correction to a true harder word. The easier reading muist come later in date.

I suggest that the apparent easiness of the Odyssey means that it is of a slightly later date than the Iliad. I think it could hardly be the other way around, first stories about travel and remarked folk-tales Od. 10-12, and the stress of family relationship with Penelope versus Circe, and voyaging in remarkable places - - - - the author of such would not incline to the tight and local events of the Trojan War. And t hen add in the language itself, and it would seem reasonable to put the Odyssey at a later date in its final composition.


Both Iliad and Odyssey have come down to us in a very specific state, they are actual "books of poetry". It would be good to know who composed the poems, but we should also be interested in who wrote them down and in what period of Greek history this writing project was actually performed. For this there are few traces, but there is an ancient pseudo-Herodotean report, which house inaccuracies and may be based on forged documents. Still this should be consulted, since it is perhaps better than having nothing at all at hand. There is a good account of this odd document in Mary Lefkowitz's "Lives of the Poets" l981. This is apparently a "back-reformed" document which abstracts names of persons, places and actions from Homer and works them into an account of who the poet was, where living and how he at long last went to Chios and dictated the Homeric poems for transcription to an agile scribe.

Nobody takes this document seriously. But one thing is clear, that someone wrote down a Homeric text from someone in or at the end of an oral tradition, and if it is a written text he transcribed, it must have been on papyrus as the only known writing material of that time capable of housing forty eight rolls of poetry and locating them in some sort of formal library. Shifting attention now to the common report that under Peisistratus these poems were ordered to be written down, we have a date somewhere between 560 and 500 BC, which is much later than the usual 7th c. date we use. As we approach 500 BC we are coming nearer to the dates for Herodotus (480-524), so a century between his reading part of his Histories at 446 at Athens, will put a hundred eventful years between this event and the middle of the Peisistratean building up of Athens as a remarkable cultural center for Greece.

We know there were written poetic texts in the time of Aeschylus (525-456) who won his first prize in 482 in a culturally developed Athens, which was expanding from the roots of the Peisistratean advances of just one century earlier. Aeschylus clearly knew the Homeric poems in detail as part of a poetic tradition which went back into Greek literary history, but it had probably been transmitted earlier in selections and separate episodes by word of mouth. But now writing a consolidated text with octopus sepia on Egyptian imported papyrus opens up an entirely different attitude to poetry, which now becomes in a sense part of the Hellenic public property. So for a date, I suggest we consider the actual writing and probably the organization of the Homeric poems as the work of the sixth century. This would have been just before the brilliant 5th century started to unfold, as a time of cultural change and development leading to the high point of the Hellenic achievement.


Book II of the Iliad is certainly a curiosity. It starts with a typical Homeric set of story situations, but suddenly shifts into a bald catalog of the participants coming from all over Greece to wage war and destroy the trading center administered by Troy. The list ends abruptly at line 877 and is very long compared to the average Book VI with a typical 529 lines.

There are in Book II some 1186 ships counted, and by estimating a reasonable number of men on a ship, we come to a total army of near 120,000 men, or 100 men to the boat. This sounds like an excessive figure, but if there were only 50 men to a boat, then with 25 men on a side all rowing, and five feet between oarsmen, then a length of 120' per ship would be a fair estimate with an army of near 60,000. For comparison, Viking ships had a length of about 100 feet , a 20-foot beam, up to 60 oars, and a crew of about 70-80. So this arrangement for the Trojan War seems fairly reasonablem with perhaps 80,000 men.

Why so many armed men against one city? The location of Troy is the answer, it is at the center of a virtual trading empire, with access to the Euxine Sea and then to the wheat fields and horses of the north shore, forests all along the south shore, and below Turkey good parts with access to the Mediterranean. But within the fertile lands to the east lie fine agricultural fields reaching back into the old Hittite Empire, parts of which were surely absorbed by the Trojan enterprise. So consider Troy as the epicenter and command-post of a wide trading world, one which the Greeks could envy easily. Hemmed in by a mountainous terrain or sea-girt in the populous islands. The only way was to go toward the east and first toward Troy.

If we look at modern Greece in l900, just before it was affected by European trade and the industrial revolution, we get a good approximation of what the land might support at a much earlier period. The census of l907 shows 1,324,842 males and a similar number of females ( 1,307,010) in Greece, with a land area of 24,000 square miles. Of these figures, some 440,000 were engaged in agricultural of animal herding occupation, with a heavy concentration in the Ionian Islands (307 person per square miles) as against Euboea with only 66 /sq. mile. As of l907 28.5% lived in towns, which corresponds to the land worked at a third of that number (400,000). There is little reason to think of Greece in l900 as far different in population from the Homeric age. Land supports a certain populations and not more, and I feel I can use this information for estimating the number of men available for a Homeric army.

From an estimated 400,000 men in an ancient and primitive Greece, there could be about one fourth available for an army, drawn from the population between the age of twenty and forty. This corresponds well with the above estimate of men on shipboard in Book II of the Iliad as near to a hundred thousand. The only problem would seem to be why such a great host was levied against the single city of Troy. But if Troy was a ''capital'' of an extended empire, the nerve center of a trading system throughout the Near East, then the size of the army would make good economic sense.

But the story which Homer projects is much simpler and certain dates from a far older tradition which involves hand-to-hand combat between two heroes. Where this story came from is not known, but it may well trace back into the early Bronze Age, revived and reshaped to fit the world of the 12th c. BC with episodes drawn from a venerable folk tradition. The focus on a handful of men and their reactions in warfare is the stuff of a good storyline, with backup in Book II with a cast of thousands and a floating navy of oared black ships to amplify the effect. Griffith's early work in film knew the value of large crowds and their effect, while at the same time a central story is being unfolded.

Troy had Black Sea access to the wheat and horse bearing plains of south Russia, at a time when horses in the tens of thousands were the cutting edge of chariot warfare. I believe that the story of the Trojan Horse offered by Greeks to Troy was a reflection of Trojan fascination with the equine. The huge wooden horse was new sculptural concept larger and more impressive than any horse in its own right. To impress and seduce, you have to find the right spot to touch, you have to operate in an area which is already interesting. Since the Trojans loved horses, what is better than offering them an outsize horse as a present, a mark of respect for their prize possession. Clever idea, and from the story we know that it was effective, it worked.


If there seems to be a discrepancy between the army of a hundred thousand men as compared with the Homeric hand-to-hand battles between "heroes" who center the story of the Iliad, we must remember that in history and also in real life there is a human tendency to compress the anonymous masses and focus attention on a few salient characters. We have written our history books as chapters led by individuals with the Age of Augustus and the Age of Louis XIV, and only recently have we tried to evince a broad social history behind the facade of a few salient leaders.

Now in '08 the attention of this country is focused on the two party leaders, who in pre-election combat are performing a verbal duel not unlike the physical fight between Homeric leaders. The more each one simplifies his program, the clearer the focus becomes, although at the expense of understanding reasons for the combat. Is the conservative party head not speaking in the language of Hector of Troy, who must preserve the old trading rules of the Trojan Empire? Is the invader from Greece who wants "change" and a new division of capital for his constituent army, not unlike the other party's call for cleaning out the old rules of Washington, the head of the American Empire? And if a figurehead of the Amazons comes to the fore once again (Gr. palin)and everybody cheers intuitively for the lady warrior party, we have now one more agonist in the field of glory.

Whether it is a hundred thousand fighting Greeks, or a hundred million voting Americans, we have the same simplifications. We find ourselves applauding the proponent of "our group", whether it is National ( ancient Greece or modern America), broadly ethnic (black or white), also gender (male or female) and we forget reason as failed populists, who are in fact the people who count. Here are the masses of workers and thinkers who constitute the functioning economy, while we fritter away the days waiting to see if one faction under the protection of a god like Athena, or one under a GOD like the Tri-substianted Jesus, will actually win.

The mythology of the duel continues and is not likely to fade away soon. It seems to be a part of the human emotional constitution, something encoded from so long ago that we cannot imagine a world without this imagery. On a theological scale, we have the ancient Manichaeans who saw the duel between good and evil, often transferred into the political arena as the Empire of Evil contrasted with us as perennial goodies. Does this comes from the right or left side of the brain? Or is it just one of the fatuities which we will eventually have to forget and unlearn in order to go forward in time.


It is now hard to believe that Homer was in a certain sense "discovered" only after l800, largely in the wake of the English Ballad Poetry published a few years before by Bishop Percy. The Homeric furor grew on fertile ground along with the advance of the new philological scholarship and develooped the elaborate Divisionist and Dissectionist schools until finally canceling the authenticity of their work by l920. But just at this juncture a new thrust brought Homer again to the scholarly fore with the seeds of a new Orality based on the Parry/Lord Serbian '30's expedition. Even though now proportionally fewer people can read the Greek than in 19th c. classical schools, Homer in translation and Homer in disguise as a global paradigm are now part of our culture. But two centuries ago Vergil was the polished master-poet of Europe while Chaucer was considered crude, Beowulf curious and Homer in some ways baffling and even peculiar in his language. In a mimetic academic tradition, Vergil could be a good model for imitation, but who would write a new poem in the style of Homeric language?

There was another set of factors at work. Europe was suddenly feeling an urge to combine the various minor states and duchies into large and more impressive groupings. One by one nationalities arose, and the configuration of modern Europe was outlined in the rough. Competition between England and Germany now utilizing industrial techniques , with coal for iron mining and smelting, the railroad and canal , steam and electricity for power and telegraph for worldwide communication, and naval force to bind together the threads of Imperialism - - - - this was a new world which was intensely nationalistic in spirit. New achievements were seen as a positive aggressive progression which soon became a dominant thread everywhere.

War was one of the major tools for sifting out the levels of power, and the world which had been schooled in the history of ancient Greece, was fascinated by Homer's Iliad. Here was an ancient text with the same aggressive cast of mind as was found everywhere in Europe. One must be the very best or be considered a failure. So when there is question of bravery, Peleus says to his son Achilles (Iliad 11,784):

aien aristeuein kai hypeirochon emmenai allon
Always to be first, and be superior to the others

This is a core sentiment which pervades the Iliad, it is an automatic search for the achieving a peak of excellence far beyond the reputation of all other men. Not surprisingly this was this notion which pleased and encouraged the l9th century scholars and their students, who easily fed it into their nationalist societies. People began to read the Iliad as a text on a noble way of life as well as a treatise on human psychology. Would we rather be like the ignoble Thersites who bows and cows to authority, or like Achilles whose holy grail is public acknowledgment of his absolute superiority?

Imperialist 19th c. England and newly confederated Germany had this same spirit, each trying to outdo the other in matters of technology, of science and of course in preparation for warfare. Peaceful coexistence is not possible between a Carthage and a Rome, between an escalating England and a matching Germany. Each of course will want "to be the finest, and superior to all others", and the course of history earmarks this preoccupation in a series of devastating wars.

Late in the 20th century a new shift took place. Now the contest would be in the new world of Global Economy. But it would be pursued with the same ethic, as mega-corporations bought and swallowed lesser economic participants, always intent on making their enterprise the best and the absolutely superior entity. Like the Iliad's examples, this often resolved itself in the estimate of the aggressive CEO, who outside his corporation became greedy for excellence measured in millions and billions of personal profits. Yes, if a man can capture funds like this is he not a superior person? If he has power to fire and hire whole factories, is he not a superior man? Is nobility not now a token of economic success, without consideration of personal honesty or even of legality?

These months I have been reading a lot of Homer, and find myself becoming impatient and annoyed by the constant appearance of this notion of Excellence. I think we have somehow reached the limit of our nationalistic excellence, which gets the world into turmoil as soon as it is taken seriously. Undue pride in America as having the finest and strongest economic foundations in the world, is sooner or later the predictor of a fall, like the economic woes of 2008. Achilles' pride in the campaign against Troy and the taking of the city does end with an intimation of bad fate somewhere for Achilles. And the whole world of Greece and Troy was crumbled into dust by the end of their millennium, with nothing left but broken walls, shards and tablets, and the Iliad as distant witness of something which was once considered best and finest in the world.

I have put away the Iliad for the while and am now reading the Odyssey with my morning coffee, just to get the day started right. Here is the fresh air of the open sea crossed by black tarred boats steered among mysteries and monsters, under the guidance of Captain Odysseus as a man who understands how to think. This is not just another book from the invisible pen of a Homer, it is the antidote to the Iliad. Freed from a false notion of nobility, Odysseus has no reputation to guard, he can proceed point by point with the business of getting on with life and living.

In our world, where is this man now? He is perhaps to be found as the beneficent founder of a great Foundation, often put together on the spoils of a robber grandparent, but now turned to carefully considered projects for humankind. He asks himself where does a disease need to be healed? How can an impoverished population be brought into a self-sufficient new economic world? How can economic and natural disasters be controlled? This new Odysseus sails from continent to continent, and when he fulfills his final "nostos" of coming home to administer his funds, he can feel he has done what he could do, all done carefully with the help of reason.

Both Odysseus and the intelligent Foundation Head have a one purpose in mind. They are both devoted to the idea of putting their house in order.

In this uneasy world we live in, I find I am enjoying reading my Odyssey in the morning, partly for the story which is open and free, partly as an hour which makes the rest of my day come right before I turn to the newspaper with the usual roster of the uneasy daily news.


. . . . . .continuing. . . . .

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College