Letters from Crete (vi) : THE HOMERIC ANSWER (The Odyssey)

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Yesterday morning I had Emily drive me to the hospital at Ireapetra. Picking up Adonis at the very foot of the mountain. His car wasn’t working & it was easier for him to come with us via Ireapetra by car, than hike up to Agios Ioannis. Leaving me at the hospital while they went back to pack, etc. my lungs were gently coaxed back to normality by a gas-splurging thing, & I was picked up by Emily at the hospital. From here we drove to Elounda, a bit of an ex-pats colony, for our final stint in Crete. The rooms are OK, but they have A/C & mosquito nets – a godsend. I slept most of yesterday & well into this morning on account of my asthmatic lack of sleep at Ioannis – it was rather like A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was afraid to nod off as I might have never woken up. One thing that did go up was the palmthorn. I had just immersed myself in a bath, when the water must have diusturbed my puncture wound’s scab & suddenly, like the cork in a bottle, the black thorn emerged out of my foot. I had no idea it was bloody huge! A great testament to the human body’s ability to expel alien bodies.

Today we’ve pottered about Elounda, having lunch on a floating restaurant – including a freshly caught, 60 euro fish – while gazing on  the old leper colony at Spinalonga. Then off to a nearby waterpark where the mixture of chlorine & seawater is making all my bodycuts scream in pain. It is under these conditions, the, that I shall begin my further investigations into the Homeric Question. In an earlier Letter, I showed how the Iliad was the construction, or rather reconstruction, of a Greek poet under the patronage of a Greek King. The Odyssey came to light ubder an extremely set of circumstances that occurred the Athens of the 6th century BC. The demagogic catylyst was a tyrant called Pisistratus, whose influence on the Homeric poems has been observed by many classical writers;

 

Pisistratus brought together & published the Iliad & the Odyssey

Aelian

 

We praise Pisistratus for his gathering together the poems of Homer

Libanius

 

Pisistratus brought them together, as this epigram, inscribed by the Athenians on Pisistratus’ tomb, makes clear: Pisistratus, great in councils, I who gathered together / Homer, who had formerly been sung here & there

Anonymous Life of Homer

 

Who was more learned in that same period, or whose eloquence is said to have had a higher literary culture than that of Pisistratus? He is said to have been the first to have arranged the books of Homer, which were previously confused, in the way we now have them’

Cicero

 

Of the two epics, the Iliad seems too much of a composite to have been ‘previously confused’ as Cicero says. On the other hand the Odyssey still seems confused to this day, a jumbled mass of plots & stories which leap about through the narrative like literary atoms. Pisistratus may have had some influence on the Iliad, however, his work on which is referred to by Eusthatius, who writing about the Iliad’s tenth book – otherwise known as the Doloneia – states, ‘the ancients say that this book was put seperately by Homer & was not counted among the part of the Iliad, but was put into the poem by Pisistratus.’ Pisistratus is also said to have fudged the ‘Catalogue of Ships,’ the Iliad’s account of the Greek forces who sailed to Troy, interpolating Ajax’s bringing of 12 ships from Salamis to prove that it was once an ancient possession of Athens.

The need to show off one’s power with monumental exhibitions is an ever-present trait of the human condition. In recent centuries, the Great Exhibition of the British Empire in 1851 & the neoclassical buildings of Adolf Hitler at Nuremburg are perfect examples of the grand ego in demonstrance. Pisistratus understood how, & more importantly, why, Lycurgas had instrumented his own version of Homer, Wishing to demonstate his own cultural splendour, the Athenian lawgiver emulated the modus operandi of his Spartan predecessor. He is even mentioned by name in Book 3, where ‘Pisistratus’ appears as Nestor’s noble son, while the tyrant’s own return from exile to Athens, & the resumation of his leadership there, is a perfect metaphorical match for the return of Odysseus to Ithica. Furthermore, when we see Odysseus being praised with, ‘in the world of men you have no rival as a statesman & an orator,’ do we not in fact see a veiled tribute to Pisistratus.

The platform for the first performance of the Odyssey would have been a festival known as the Greater Dionysia in Athens, instigated by Pisistratus himself. A celebration to Dionysys, the god of wine, the festival would last six days; mirroring the very six equal parts into which the Odyssey is divided. The central stage of the festival was the theatre to Dionysis on the Acropolis – built at the instigation of Pisistratrus – which that would later play host to the works of the best playwrights of ancient Greece. Let us imagine the very first recital of the Odyssey being sung from the stage of this theatre, when for six consecutive nighst throughout the festival, Athenian bards would bring the adventures of Odysseus to life.

In contrast to the testosterone-fueled Iliad, the Odyssey has a lighter, feminine touch which has led certain scholars to believe that the poem may have been composed by a woman. In light of the period of its creation, it seems probable that this new feminine direction was intended to please the women of Athens, who held a high social standing in the democracy. Among the many strong female characters in the poem, the true star & heroine has to be the goddess Athene, who dominates the action from beginning to end. Being the ‘patron saint’ of Athens, her presence in the poem fully strengthens the idea that the Odyssey was created in the city.

Of the poem’s creation, Strabo discusses how Pisistratus ordered an official recension, while entrusting the task to four leading scholars. Indeed, inconsistancies in context run rife throughout the Odyssey, & scholars have identified an earlier ‘A’ poet, & one or more later hands who they designated as the ‘B’ poet. The latter is seen as modernising & lengthening the nucleus of the poem as given by A, & we may assume that the B poets are those employed by Pisistratus. They are never actually named, but we may suggest possible contemporaries who were active in Athens during the 6th century. One of these ancient erudites may have been the literary-minded, Onomacritus, of whom Heredotus himself states had collected the oracles of a poet called Museaus, but inserted forgeries of his own making.

Another of these scholar-poets may been the classically famous Stesichorus (632-555 BC). Only fragments of his poetry survive, but he was widely celebrated for his epic tayles in lyric metre, a talent perfect for the job of assembling the Odyssey. ‘The greatness of Stesichorus’ genius,’ praises Quintillian, ‘is shown among other things by his subject-matter: he sings of the most important wars and the most famous commanders and sustains on his lyre the weight of epic poetry. In both their actions and their speeches he gives due dignity to his characters, and if only he had shown restraint he could possibly have been regarded as a close rival of Homer.’ In a similar vein, Dionysius of Halicarnassus commends Stesichorus for ‘the magnificence of the settings of his subject matter; in them he has preserved the traits and reputations of his characters,’ while Longinus puts him in select company with Herodotus, Archilochus and Plato as the ‘most Homeric’ of authors.

The Suda, a massive 10th century Byzantine collection of biographies, attributes to Stesichorus a poem known as the Nostoi, which deals with the return of the Greeks from Troy. This makes Stesichorus the perfect poet to deal with the return of the Odysseus to Ithica & the textual source of some of the more obscure ‘nostoi’ details present in the Odyssey.

According to Plato, Stesichorus created a palinode which read, ‘that story is not true / You {Helen} never sailed in the benched ships. You never went to Troy,’ which is consistent with the ‘Egyptian’ Helen as hinted at in various places in the Odyssey. Plato adds that because of these slanderous verses, Stesichrous was rendered blind, a legend that may even have transchisper’d into Homer’s own legendary blindness.

In the wake of the Athenian recensions, by 500 BC the Homeric poems were closing in on their final forms. Two centuries later, it was up to the librarians of Alexandria to edit & critique Homer, dividing the epics into their standard 24 books apiece. That city’s founder, Alexander the Great, always slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, even paying homage to Achilles at Troy on his way to conquering Asia. Plutarch tells us that Alexander’s favorite line in the Iliad was ‘Great in the war, great in the arts of sway,’ an apt epitaph for that mighty conqueror of the ancient world. Since the Alexandrian edit, the Homeric poems have been copied & copied & copied again until they would become the poems that appear in our modern texts. Holding them in your hand today is akin to the moment when Schliemann first set his eyes on Hisalrik Hill. He knew the truth about the Trojan War was in there somewhere, & all he had to do was start digging.

 Elounda

15th July

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