Historicism, in various new and not-so-new guises, dominates most contemporary academic literature departments. It has become something close to heresy to suggest that any literary work could be studied without close reference to the specific place, time, and culture in which it was produced. Literature does not express timeless truths about human nature— or, at least, you would sound like a simpleton if you said so at an academic conference. Rather, literature articulates the ideas and values of its own time, according to older, Hegelian forms of historicism. Or literature “negotiates” the “power dynamics” of its own time, according to the newer, post-Foucaultian versions. These positions each have something to be said for them: Both respond, in different ways, to the obvious fact that literature is not produced independently of its author and his or her society— as radical forms of literary formalism might suggest. But the triumph of historicism is a pity, not least because the dominance of any orthodoxy tends to deaden the critical faculties.
But let’s look on the bright side. The return of historicism has meant that, in some cases, the enterprises of academics have moved an inch or two closer toward the interests of the general public. We want to know how fictions reflect reality.
The Iliad and TheOdyssey excite more historical curiosity than most works of literature. To be sure, the poems contain elements that are obviously mythical. In TheOdyssey, there are the fabulous, ever-fertile gardens of Alcinoüs, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, or the bow that nobody but Odysseus can string. Although The Iliad has fewer monsters and marvels, its mode is hardly that of realism. Historians’ accounts of the fortunes of war do not usually include the councils of the gods, who may whisk a favored hero from battle or blind the soldiers with divine mist.
But both poems include details that apparently reflect ordinary life in archaic Greece. There are princes who co-sleep on windy verandas, royal houses with only one chair, babies frightened by war gear, princesses who do the laundry and like playing catch. Ordinary domestic life gets mixed up with mythical exploits. What, then, of the Trojan War itself? Did it ever take place at all? Modern scholarship suggests that the poems do, indeed, reflect historical events—but in a complex and unhistorical way. Rediscovering Homer—a new book by an independent scholar, Andrew Dalby—offers a concise account of the evidence, including ancient Hittite and Egyptian documents, archaic Greek art, and archaeology. His book is helpful as a more-or-less reliable guide and summation of modern Homeric historical study, which should be accessible to readers with no specialist knowledge.
As Dalby notes, certain aspects of the Troy story probably are based on real events or real people. There really was a city called Ilios, known to the ancient Hittites as Wilusa. The ancient settlement of Troy/Ilios/Ilium/Wilusa was built on the coast of what is now western Turkey. Archaeologists have found more than seven different layers of building on the site, each representing a catastrophic destruction, followed by reconstruction. The heyday of Troy was the second millenium B.C., the period known as Troy VI. This version of the city seems to have withstood all attacks for more than 600 years, between about 1900 B.C. and 1250 B.C., when it suffered a vast earthquake—possibly reflected in the later traditions about the anger of Poseidon, the earth shaker, against Troy and her people. The city was built up again (as Troy VIIa), but probably only about a hundred years later, it was destroyed by fire.
It is, therefore, possible that the fall of Troy VIIa happened more or less as the poems tell it: The Achaeans and their allies sailed in their black ships to Troy, to besiege, conquer, and torch the city, killing and enslaving its inhabitants. Maybe they included a leader called Agamemnon and a hot-headed young fighter called Achilles. Maybe they had some trouble getting back home again. But there is no way of knowing. We can be certain, though, that the poems lump together events that must have been years apart—for example, it places the earthquake and the later invasion in a single narrative framework.
The poems include many different periods of history, because they were based on an oral tradition that stretched back hundreds of years. Legend describes Homer as a blind singer from the island of Chios. Oral composition explains many features of the Homeric poems, such as the standard epithets (“Hector, tamer of horses”). Around the seventh century B.C., the Homeric poems were written down in more or less their final form.
One of the most vexed questions in Homeric scholarship is how, exactly, the written texts we have emerged from the songs of illiterate bards. It is easy to imagine a series of singers wandering through the towns of archaic Greece, telling and retelling the story of Troy. But how could a poem as long as The Iliad or TheOdyssey—each of which would have taken at least three days to perform—have been composed without the use of writing? In the early 20th century, Milman Parry and Alfred Lord showed (by interviewing contemporary oral poets in the former Yugoslavia) that it was impossible for a purely oral poet to repeat even a much shorter poem precisely word for word. Retellings are always re-creations, until a written text is present to correct and check human memory. Lord solved this “Homeric Problem” by suggesting that, at some point late in the tradition, a particularly talented singer collaborated with a scribe to create The Iliad and TheOdyssey. This remains the most plausible general hypothesis for how the poems we have came into being. It is also possible that an oral poet, at some late point in the tradition, learned to write.
Andrew Dalby challenges the theory of Lord, claiming that “Homer was a famous singer who worked long before the use of writing. We are therefore reading not his work but that of a later singer in the same tradition, the one who composed The Iliad and TheOdyssey and saw them written down.” This is depressingly reminiscent of the old joke: “The Iliad was not written by Homer, but by somebody else of the same name.”Muddle-headedness of this kind mars what is otherwise a useful introductory book.
The book’s most headline-grabbing claim is about authorship. Dalby argues that the composer of The Iliad and TheOdyssey was a woman. Initially, this idea seems pretty silly, and not even original. Samuel Butler (author of Erewhon) argued in the 19th century that TheOdyssey is by a woman, on the grounds that the poem is set in a nonmilitary world, and shows deep sympathy with female characters. The argument is a weak one: The whole point of imaginative literature, some would say, is that it allows poets, writers, and audience to participate in alien forms of experience.
But Dalby deploys a much stronger set of arguments for female authorship, based on comparative anthropological analysis of how women preserve songs, stories, and folk tales. Women are often the ones who retain linguistic and literary traditions for the longest time. Certainly, there is no evidence whatsoever of female epic poets in archaic Greece. When poets are described or alluded to in the Homeric poems themselves, they are always men. This fact alone makes Dalby’s hypothesis implausible. On the other hand, there certainly were female lyric poets—Sappho, for example. We cannot know for sure how distinct the genres of lyric and heroic poetry would have been.Dalby acknowledges that there is no way to prove his hypothesis. It is only a theory, and I don’t really buy it, though I’d like to. But the notion is not necessarily a silly one, if it can act as a reminder of how little we really know about the person or people who made these poems.