The Iliad and The Odyssey are two of the key works of Western civilization. But almost nothing is known about their author and the date and manner of their creation. In Why Homer Matters, historian and award-winning author Adam Nicolson suggests that Homer be thought of not as a person but as a tradition and that the works attributed to him go back a thousand years earlier than generally believed.
Speaking from his home in England, Nicolson describes how being caught in a storm at sea inspired his passion for Homer, how the oral bards of the Scottish Hebrides may hold the key to understanding Homer's works, and why smartphones are connecting us to ancient oral traditions in new and surprising ways.
Your book begins with a storm at sea.
About ten years ago, I set off sailing with a friend of mine. We wanted a big adventure, so we decided to sail up the west coast of the British Isles, the exposed Atlantic coast, visiting various remote islands along the way. I had thrown into my luggage a copy of The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, having never really looked at Homer for about 25 years.
We had a rough time. Our instruments broke, and it had been a big hike from Cornwall. Lying in my bunk tied up next to a quay in southwest Ireland, I opened this book and found myself confronted with what felt like the truth—like somebody was telling me what it was like to be alive on Earth, in the figure of Odysseus.
Odysseus is the great metaphor for all of our lives: struggling with storms, coming across incredibly seductive nymphs, finding himself trapped between impossible choices. I suddenly thought, This is talking to me in a way I would never have guessed before.
Seven locations have been given as Homer's birthplace. It's said he was blind. Samuel Butler, the 19th-century satirist, wrote an entire book trying to prove he was actually a she. Do we know anything factual about Homer?
I think it's a mistake to think of Homer as a person. Homer is an "it." A tradition. An entire culture coming up with ever more refined and ever more understanding ways of telling stories that are important to it. Homer is essentially shared.
Today we have an author obsession—we want to know biography all the time. But Homer has no biography. The Iliad and The Odyssey are like Viking longships. Nobody knows who made them, no name is attached to them, there's no written design or drawings. They're simply the evolved beauty of long and careful tradition.
There are even doubts about when they were composed. The usual date is about 800 B.C. You believe the tradition began much earlier than that. Make your case.
My claim is that the poems, especially The Iliad, have their beginnings around 2000 B.C.—about 1,000 or 1,200 years earlier than most people say Homer existed. The reason I say that has two strands to it. One is that there are large elements of the Homeric stories, particularly The Iliad, that are shared among the Indo-European world as a whole, all the way from north India through Greece to Germanic and Icelandic stories. There are deep elements in Homer that have nothing to do with Greece or the Aegean.
The second thing is that the situation in The Iliad is very clearly not one in which two deeply civilized nations are opposed to each other. The civilized nation in The Iliad is Troy. It's a well-set-up, organized city, where women lead very dignified lives.
Outside Troy is this camp of wild barbarians—the Greeks. The Greeks are Homer's barbarians. The atmosphere in the Greek camp is like gang life in the more difficult parts of modern industrialized cities. All ideas of rule and law and love count for nothing. The only thing that makes sense is revenge and self-assertion.
And that picture of the Greeks doesn't make sense any later than about 1800 to 1700 B.C. After that, the Greeks had arrived in the Mediterranean and started to create a civil society. Before that, they were essentially tribes from the steppes between the Black Sea and the Caspian—nomadic, male-dominated, violent.
That's the essential drama of Homer: this beautiful city trying to defend itself against these increasingly lawless, violent warriors outside. That's what The Iliad is about.
Bernard Knox, the renowned Homer scholar, says that 3,000 years haven't changed the human condition. We're still lovers and victims of violence, and as long as we are, Homer will be read as the truest interpretation of humankind. Can we love Homer without loving violence?
I think Homer does not love violence in the end. Homer dramatizes violence as one of the aspects of the human condition, but he doesn't celebrate it. It's a grave misunderstanding to think that Homer is about how beautiful the violent warrior is.
The key to that comes at the end of The Iliad. You've had these terrible scenes where Achilles, the great Greek warrior, has killed Hector, the prince of Troy, and tied him to the back of his chariot and dragged him round the walls of Troy with his whole family looking down from the ramparts. It's not some elegant funeral procession. It's a hectic, brutal moment, and we can only read that with horror in our minds. Michael Longley, the great Irish poet, calls The Iliad "an ocean of sadness." I think that's exactly what it is.
You say these are essentially authorless works. Are there any manuscripts? Tell us about Venetus A.
Homer's works were orally transmitted and orally performed poems, ever changing in the mouths of the different people who learned them and told them again. The Iliad survived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as a spoken poem and was eventually written down, around 700 to 750 B.C. But no manuscripts survive from that time.
The earliest that survive were found rolled up under the heads of mummified Greek Egyptians in the Egyptian deserts from about 150 to 200 B.C. But they're just fragments, not the whole Iliad. The oldest complete Iliad is a manuscript found in the doge's library in Venice. A French scholar discovered it at the end of the 18th century, which is why it's called the Venetus A. It had come to Venice from Constantinople-Byzantium, where it had probably been made in about A.D. 900, thousands and thousands of years after the poems had first been composed.
More importantly, it contained all kinds of marginal notes, the so-called scholia, which had been made by the great editors of The Iliad in the Greek city of Alexandria sometime between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. So what you have in Venetus A is not only the text of The Iliad but also what these ancient commentators thought about it.
One of the exciting things that emerge from that is that in the early days it seems there was no such thing as a single Iliad, no one fixed text, but this wild and variable tradition of the stories, with many different versions in different parts of the Mediterranean, endlessly interacting with itself, like a braided stream in the mountains. That's a very exciting idea for me—that texts are not fixed, unitary objects but like the mental bloodstream of a whole people.
You say Homer tells us who we are. There's not much in it for women, though, is there? Does your wife like Homer?
[Laughs] She can't stand him! And for me, it wasn't easy to spend a few years writing a book about Homer, because it basically shuts you out from the female world. There are wonderful women in Homer, like Odysseus's queen, Penelope. The word Homer uses for her means her prime quality is her wise governance—that she knows how to organize things and maintain the state for 20 years while Odysseus is away. He deeply admires women like that.
On the other hand, in the Greek camp, after chariot races, prizes are given. You either get a slave girl or a couple of oxen. So there's no doubt that the Homeric world is not one in which, on the whole, women are hugely empowered.
You write that "a man is his ancestry." As well as being the author Adam Nicolson, you're also the 5th Baron Carnock. To what extent has your noble ancestry shaped your love for Homer?
I don't love Homer because it's about warriors striding the world in a manly, baronial way. I love Homer because Homer dramatizes the shared human condition of struggle and competitiveness and pain. The incredible honesty and courage with which Homer looks at those aspects of life is what makes it exciting. And the only reason I have that title, which I never use by the way, is because my great grandfather was a civil servant and ended up head of a British government department. In those days they gave people peerages for that kind of thing. I'm not from some ancient, knightly world. I'm from a professional world. It's just a weird chance of history.
[Laughs] I'm glad we've put that one to rest. Tell us about the poets of the Scottish Hebrides and how they may hold the key to the composition of Homer's work.
We have a modern assumption that something only has meaning if it's written down. But the literate world is minimal compared to the depths of human history. We're essentially oral. And in a funny way the modern, electronic communicative world is making orality take on a new significance.
In traditional societies, the person who can learn and perform the stories has been treasured. That's true not only in the European world but across Africa and the Americas too. We've only got a few fragments of that left. And one of those fragmentary remains is in Gaelic Scotland, where certain families still preserve storytelling traditions that draw on ancient roots. Some of these bards have dazzling capacities of memory. They can remember stories that last hours and hours, nearly word-perfect. Some of them have been recorded over a period of 20 years, and they've told the same story in almost the same words.
Most of us can't remember a single phone number nowadays, because they're all in the phone memory. Yet buried deep in us is this ability to remember important things. And one of the things about poetry and the rhythmic, heightened language of poetry is that it makes it easy to remember. You can sing a story more easily than you can tell it.
You traveled to many of the sites associated with Homer for your research. Tell us about some of the high five moments.
In my mind this book is called Homer By Easy Jet [laughs]. It's fantastic the way you can fly off to different spots, very cheaply, like the Trojan plain, in the northwest corner of Turkey, where the Dardanelles comes out of the Sea of Marmara.
It's still astonishingly like Homer describes it. There's this incredible Bronze Age tumulus where Achilles is buried, with a white, limestone cap, which makes it visible from the sea. It was visited by all sorts of people: Xerxes, Alexander the Great, and the Romans, like Mark Antony. They all went there to pay homage to Achilles. But today almost nobody visits it—so it's as if you're discovering it for yourself.
How did writing this book change your life?
In a way it made me grow up. Homer's look at the truly bad aspects of life, in The Iliad especially, is a deeply sobering thing. And he doesn't hold out any kind of consolation. There's no heaven waiting for the warriors when they're killed, most of them in the most horrible way. They all go down to Hades.
But the point Homer wants to make is that in this world of difficulty and suffering, the really beautiful thing is love—that despite the realities of violence, love is a possibility.