WHO, AND WHAT, "HOMER" IS
by Christopher Fulkerson
Nowadays it is well known that the version of the life of the English king, Richard III, that most people know is not sufficiently close to the actual historical facts. That is because most people today know Richard III's life not from history, but from literature, from the version of Richard's life that was written as a play by William Shakespeare. This version of Richard's life is the version that was consistent with the political policies of the court of Queen Elizabeth Tudor, where Richard III was considered a bad guy, and in which Shakespeare was a regular performer. If Shakespeare had tried to tell any other version of the story, it would not merely have happened that its publication would have been blocked; it would never even have been performed; any copies of the handwritten text would have been confiscated and destroyed; and Shakespeare himself might easily have been executed for sedition.
Something like this situation exists for the works of Homer as they have come down to us.
We know next to nothing about the person called Homer, not even his actual name - for "homer" is not a name - it is a word meaning "hostage." We have no clue as to why he would be called this. Even the tradition that he was blind is only "corroborated" on the mere assumption that the blind bard who appears in the Odyssey was meant to be Homer describing himself. Very possibly, if Homer was blind at all, it was only, like so many scribes, after a lifetime of writing at night by candlelight.
Though we know so little about Homer, we do know that the two great literary works ascribed to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were not written by one person. These two epic stories were compiled in Ptolemaic Egypt, by scholars at the Library of Alexandria, sometime around the third century B.C. They were put together as a single, "best of Homer" version of a group of writings by a number of writers apparently all calling themselves, or being called, Homer. During the "Dark Ages" of Greek history, once the original Homer achieved renown, "Homer" was the name by which travelling bards liked to be known; it became a kind of generic word for "travelling bard." These different Homers created a body of literature ascribed to "Homer," and this body of literature was compiled in Alexandria by many scholars over a period of some years.
It seems likely there was one particular Homer who deserves the main credit for the work which the Ptolemaic scholars completed in its present form. That person lived around 850 B.C. The story that he tells, of the events of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus, has been dated fairly reliably by archaeologists to have happened around the year 1210 B.C.
It is worth bearing in mind that it took about a thousand years to complete Homer, and, in a sense, is the work of at least one entire civilization.
There is internal linguistic evidence in the original Greek documents that indicates that one or more large sections of the story as it has come down to us were physically written down by that one particular Homer. There are many lacunae in the story, and some of these may indicate different versions of the story. This is due to the fact that more than one "Homer" wrote Homer. Each travelling bard had his own version of the story, and these versions were edited, in my opinion, according to political and religious policies of Ptolemaic Egypt. The version we have seems to be the one in which Odysseus gets his full Nostos, or "Homecoming," from the Trojan War, and is fully restored to his kingship and his wife. But tradition, and a very few stray bits of the story that still exist, that might have been what the Alexandrians were working with, give different versions of the tale. In one version, Odysseus arrives too late, only after his wife Penelope has remarried and had children by another man. In another version, he arrives after she has remarried, but not yet had anyone else's children. In yet another version, Odysseus arrives on the very day of the wedding between his wife and one of her suitors; this version sounds very much like a modern blockbuster movie, with the hero arriving just in the nick of time.
These versions of the story have all been straightened out in favor of the present version, but there are lacunae that tell us there is more going on than is usually suspected. A meaningful reading of Homer requires paying close attention to, and keeping track of, these lacunae, some of which are giving fairly open clues to a deaper understanding of the events being described. A good example of this is the scene in which Odysseus and Penelope, after twenty years apart, first speak together at length, on the night before he, with the help of only three other men, kills all of the suitors together at once. There is much detail to suggest many possible surprising inferences from this interview, such as the way Penelope's eyes go wide when Odysseus tells her his name is Aethon. If, as is usually supposed, this is a false name, why is Penelope astonished to hear it? Clearly the characters know more about the story than Homer is letting on.
The characters have an understanding among themselves that we do not, in fact, share, if we insist on believing only what we are told.
Homer is not giving us the view of the "omnisicient storyteller." This type of storytelling did not exist in Homer's day. Much of the depth of the story, by which I mean much of the real story itself, is available only to persons who read for inference, and are willing to piece together the full mosaic for themselves. And in so doing, they join the Greeks at Troy, and take the same type of journey Odysseus took.
But there is an even bigger problem with that scene between Odysseus and Penelope. Since there are supposedly no events between the night interview between them, and the morning of the murder of the suitors, why doesn't Odysseus reveal himself to Penelope, and they immediately enjoy their reconciliation right then and there? Do we really believe that Athena has magically transformed Odysseus into an old man? Must we believe the magic? I think not. Besides, there is as well a lacunum in the magic: if Odysseus looks so different, why does he still have the old flesh wound by which the family nurse recognizes him? Even the characters have to make their way through close attention to details in their story.
I think that the reason Odyseus and Penelope cannot sleep together that night is that she is not, in fact, being utterly faithful to him, as Homer tells us in words that she has been; again I say, you cannot trust the words to reveal the real story. As they both know, Odysseus has arrived too late to prevent her from coupling with another man - or men - and the interview can't even go on for very long, because if she doesn't make it upstairs before too long, the truth about him, the stranger, will be out. There are hints in the text that Penelope is having an active menage a trois with what are actually called her "two favorite suitors." Penelope and Odysseus both understand what they need to do, and Odysseus makes it easy for her by giving her a story to tell if she is asked any questions.
While persons comfortable only with literal meanings are unsettled by the idea that Penelope may have been unfaithful with Odysseus (and, perhaps, by the fact they couldn't figure out there might have been more going on than literal meanings), a far greater situation is revealed by the way I think they handle Odysseus's restoration to the throne. To begin with, Odysseus, whom we know to have been unfaithful with Penelope, is not holding her to a double standard. Not in the slightest - as long as she can keep her silence, there is never any doubt as to whether he will forgive her. He seems, just seems, never to have been told she was unfaithful, yet he conducts himself without assuming all is well. In fact, he acts as though he assumes the worst, and plays for everything. He does not ask her why she must conclude their interview. He allows appearances to speak when investigation of the facts may reveal more than it is politick to be known.
Homer calls Odysseus the "man of many wiles," the "great tactician." It is no secret that Odysseus is capable of lying in the interest of national, or his own or his family's, or his personal security. This much, everyone knows. But I think that the whole family is of this sort. Is it such a stretch of the imagination to believe that Penelope is Odysseus's partner for the reason that she undestands him, knows his ways, and can use them in her turn? I think that a close reading of the Odyssey suggests that their son, Telemachus, is just as wiley and clever as his parents; they are a perfectly consistent family; tricksterism is the "family business." The first four books of the Odyssey are called the "Telemachiad," the story of the coming of age of Telemachus. We observe as he learns the family way of saying less, and meaning more; of misleading people when necessary, and deceiving people about how much he knows.
Homer's work is not just an interesting story, not just a relic of an ancient culture and religion. It is a military teaching, and the most complete system of political tactics and Government that the Greeks ever had. Or that the Egyptians ever had.
For it is important to remember who really completed Homer. I think Homer as we have him is not only a Greek work, perhaps not even primarily a Greek work, but a Greek-Egyptian work. Those Alexandrian scholars may, just may, have had a Greek bias, but they were writing in a different world than that of the original Homer. Like Shakespeare writing a century after the historical Richard III, the Egyptians who compiled Homer had the issues of their own day to consider.
Military historian John Warry has written, "If we attempt to extract history from Homer... the meaning of the word 'composition' must change, and when we talk of the date of a composition our meaning will change accordingly." I say, that's why Homer's Ptolemaic purposes should be realized.
Let us imagine stories of the sort we today call "historical fiction," whether of the sort that Shakespeare created in his play about Richard III, or some other. When we read such stories, we don't read them without thinking there might be a message there for us moderns; in fact, when there isn't such a message, the story seems very alien, often boring to most people. Yet people reading Homer today seem willing to believe that the Alexandrians were willing to write such stuff, that had no connection to themselves. Yes, we know that the Greeks generally, and those scholars certainly, treated Homer like sacred scripture, attending to every word. But we know from the different versions that are quoted by reliable writers, such as Plato, that there were often detailed differences between versions of Homer. And, as outlined above, there were sometimes very great differences, in the story itself.
There is something else to consider. How is it possible that absolutely no copies of those alternative versions of the story still exists? Most scholars want to accept that this is just part of the collatoral damage of time. But if that were so, why is the Alexandrian version the only complete version that we have? We cannot simply say that those other versions perished in the fire in Alexandria. For one thing, hello, why then did not Homer as we have him also perish? And does it not seem suspicious that all the variant copies of Homer all over the known world, from Sicily to Susa, were collected in one place, Alexandria... never to be seen again? Here we can see the circle tightening around the variant versions, a circle created by scholars, but in the service of a political policy, a Ptolemaic policy, just as surely as Shakespeare was written in the service of an Elizabethan policy.
Part of this question comes forward when we ask, how could it be that Homer was an object of intense veneration, and his writings memorized - in full! - by singers and known to all Greeks, yet after the Alexandrian project, there was no recollection, and no record, of the variant versions?
The answer to this question is given in the peculiar policy of the first several Ptolemies of Egypt, precisely those who established the Library at Alexandria. Supposedly in an effort to build up the collection of the library, the early Ptolemies, Greek Pharaohs of Egypt, engaged in a "collection" policy we today would consider scandalous. We know that every ship that passed through their ports, the Ptolemaic Egyptians confiscated each and every book, copied it, and replaced with not the original, but the copy. Therefore for many years, Egypt had a method of "correcting" the memory of the Mediterranean.
It does not seem to overreach the plausible to suggest that once the Ptolemaians completed their preferred master version of Homer and perhaps other texts, they had all the others destroyed. It may even be that the famous "Fire of the Library of Alexandria" was a deliberate purge. Such a thing would be possible if the document had important enough political and religious significance. I do not think we should rule out the possibility that the complication of Homer was, itself, the chief mission of the Library at Alexandria, and that once this was done, the literary "chaff" was simply burned.
With regard to the compliation of a book intended to have seminal significance, there is no great difference between this situation and the compilation of the Bible from a number of possible texts, some of which we know existed in variant versions, a process followed by the convenient disappearance of most of the competing versions. Once the decision had been made about what would constitute the new or proposed orthodoxy, potentially heretical versions of the story were "disappeared." I believe that since the Egyptian religion was still very much in force in third century Egypt, the works of Homer were treated as the material with which to create an Egyptian story. And not merely an everyday Egyptian story, but the very teachings that are necessary for the Pharaoh, in the guise here of Odysseus, to complete his Underworld journey for the benefit of his people. Both Greek and Egyptian religion are being preserved in the works of Homer.
You could say that Homer is "coded" so that "fundamentalists," that is, persons who insist on literal meaning, will not understand it. Like most great secrets, and like all secrets that are meant to be used to govern vast civilizations across great amounts of time, it is hidden in plain view. And, since it is a work of genius, it performs its function whether or not it is understood.
"Homer" knows more than he tells. It is a type of storytelling that is very profound, and remains extremely unusual to this day. It is, in fact, a body of secret teachings, presented in a sophisticated mosaic of meaning far more subtle, complex, and revealing than commonly believed.
Whatever kind of work Homer's tale was before, the version we have today is the one that suits the Greco-Egyptian world at the time of the Ptolemies. And I think the Egyptians took steps to make sure competing versions did not endure.
The quote from John Warry comes from page 23 of his book WARFARE IN THE CLASSICAL WORLD.
Copyright 2010 by Christopher Fulkerson
Posted 4/4/2010. Last updated 4/23/2011.