The Odyssey

24 August 2009
Another anonymous avenger, another shoot-out

Another anonymous avenger

Finishing my series of articles on Troy, Wilusa, the Trojan War, and the Epic Cycle, I’ve also put online a summary of the Odyssey. There’s no need to tell much about Homer‘s famous story, which is essentially the ancient equivalent of our western movies. A mysterious foreigner arrives and appears to be up to something (revenge); there’s a flashback; there’s a pretty girl surrounded by evil man; and there’s a shoot-out.

Thirty-seven years ago, when I was a boy scout of seven years old, one of our leaders told the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, including the joke “My name is Nobody”. This was the moment that the classics entered my life: the beginning of a love affair that may perhaps last another thirty-seven years.

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The Epic Cycle (twice)

23 August 2009
Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

Achilles kills Memnon (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

As a spin-off from my pages on the Trojan War, about which I blogged earlier, I decided to make available all fragments of the Epic Cycle. These are poems like Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, and although they are younger and only very fragmentary preserved, they are fascinating. The Aethiopis, for example, may have been a convincing story about a soldier who makes a serious mistake, admits it, grows as a person, and dies at the moment of his supreme glory.

Next stop: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The texts are already online on many pages and there are good essays on it, but for completeness’ sake, I will add my own pages. I will certainly enjoy my stay with the Master, but somehow it does not feel right to make these pages right now. Homer is one of the Really Big topics of ancient history, and I have a feeling I am not yet ready for that. So I will stick to a summary – which is of course, in the land of poetry, a serious error.

Anyhow, the Epic Cycle is now more or less ready. If you want to have a verbatim rendering of Hugh G. Evelyn-White’s translation in the Loeb series, with annotation and page numbers, go to LacusCurtius: here. If you do not need the notes but prefer my own treatment, go here.


Troy and the Trojan War

21 August 2009
Steep Troy

Steep Troy

In 2003, my friend Marco and I visited Troy. To be honest, the site itself is a bit of a disappointment, but when you climb to the summit of one of the nearby funeral mounds and look over the wide plain, it is impossible not to be impressed, even frightened. You sense something dreadful in the air, which I also experienced when I climbed the Cithaeron south of Plataea and watched the Boeotian plain, “Ares’ dancefloor”. Yes, I am a hopelessly romantic soul.

Judgment of Paris; f.l.t.r. Hermes, Iris, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. Etruscan amphora, c.530 BCE (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Judgment of Paris (Antikensammlung, Munich)

Still, the plain with the funeral mounds is more impressive than the site, which is fascinating as an archaeological site only. It’s interesting to stand at the Schliemann trench and to see how later generations have been digging there, certainly; but where science and scholarship rule, the legend cedes. Disenchantment is inevitable. That’s a good thing in itself, but the magic is gone.

Anyhow: the photos are now online here, with comments on Troy I-V, Troy VI and VIIa (“Homeric” Troy), and Troy VIII-IX (Classical Troy); a three-page summary of the Epic Cycle (Cypria; Iliad; remaining poems); the Scamander; and of course a page about the funeral mounds.

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Pottery from Troy VI (Archaeological Museum, Istanbul)

Writing it all was fun. It meant rereading the Iliad, checking those interesting Hittite texts (that Wilusa stuff is easily the most fascinating puzzle of the twentieth century), and seeing lots of ancient vase paintings, sculpture, and other works of art. I realized that I used photos from fifteen museums to illustrate my pages. Others may have written better poems (I would not mind trading a Homeric hymn or two for some T.S. Eliot); other archaeological sites may be more spectacular (e.g., Palmyra); and other wars may have been more important, but when all is said and done, Homer, Troy, and the Trojan War remain something truly special, and I am glad to have visited the place.