Navigating the Long Reach of Antiquity

Adam Nicholson's book about Homer, The Mighty Dead, is like a telescope trained on the very distant past. Using clues from ancient languages, from burial mounds, from unearthed treasure and other evidence, he dates Homer's epics, The Iliad and The Oddyssey from 2000 BC, or thereabouts, give or take a few centuries. Most scholars have assumed the epic poems were created in about 1200 BC, but Nicholson has had a passionate time of discovering evidence for why Homer -- who might have been might have been the blind poet of legend, but was more probably the name for what has been handed down over the centuries--is older.

"First, abandon any idea of the classic poet. The poems are not objects conceived by a single, gifted person, but profoundly inherited, shaped and reshaped by a preceding culture, stretching far back in time, something as much formed by tradition as the making of pots or the decorations of their surfaces....Homer is the world of tradition-shaped poetry.... and the governing fact in that epic world is the music of the poetry."

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters is a very good book. I read a few chapters, in ebook form, immediately knew it was a book I wanted to hold and refer back to, so bought a second, paper, copy now personalized with many underlined sentences and exclamation marks alongside paragraphs that seemed particularly apt and well written. Nicholson is a relentless researcher. To imagine the days when the epics were recited or sung, he visits the rocky island of Chios, where he finds "a rare and extraordinary ghost of the Homeric world" in the limestone landscape and the building ruins of Emporio. He travels to a river in southern Spain that fits Homer's vision of Hades. He studies bards from other cultures- Gaelic, Serbian- to get an idea of how the poems could have survived for so long, that their essence and even most of the words hardly changed.

"Grief and triumph; a sense of irony and even tragedy; an overwhelming and dominant masculinity, thick with competitive violence; a small but hierarchical society, strung between a semi-nomadic way of life and one that was settled in small wooden houses... in love with horses; no understanding of the city or any relationship to the sea: all of that is very like the background to the world of the Greeks in their camp on the Trojan shore."

Research feeds his imagination as he tries to picture the world from which the epics sprang. Having just gone through a similar exercise with my first historical novel--which concerns a much more recent point in history, only 100 years ago-- I appreciate the exuberance of his efforts to identify with the characters.

"'For seventeen days..sleep never fell on his (Odysseus's) eyelids as he watched the stars above him'....You have only to steer once by the stars for that connection to remain with you for the rest of your life...This exposure of Odysseus to the stars is the closest I ever feel to him... for the sky arrayed above you and the sea and its dark threats half hidden is materially the same for me as it was for him."

If Nicholson's suppositions are correct and the poems have been around for more than four thousand years, it means they have endured through 800 generations (assuming five generations per hundred years.) Even serious genealogists would be hard pressed to successfully trace someone's roots back that far. What's wonderful is that knowledge abides, is gained, lost, added to, reconsidered, expanded on the basis of new discoveries. Certain artists and writers are able to advance it, as Nicholson does, while seining the past-- as when a steady swell rises in the wake of a ship and churns the layers of wine-dark sea beneath, sweeping into sunlight all the ocean holds, that might have been forgotten.