You Say the Odyssey is Based in History? Not So Fast!

In a discussion today about the ‘social network of the ancient past‘ article that circulated a few months back (and was, in my opinion, thoroughly decimated by Carrier though I offered my own thoughts here), someone commented that ‘the era of joking around about the Odyssey being just a mythological tale is ending.’  Really?  Is that where we are headed now?  The last thing we need is a maximalist revolution in Classics!

Coincidentally, this discussion on the historicity of Odysseus plays into what we’re talking about in my Greek/Roman Mythology class–but it is also something I have argued for many years.  That is, when we are examining ancient texts, we’re not simply looking at a ‘canonical account of what happened’; we’re looking at a text which has changed perhaps hundreds of times before ever being written down and collected–and even then the tale was altered in its performance and in its telling for hundreds of years following its composition and editing.

When people suggest that the Odyssey intimates real historical people and events, I cannot feel as though they are missing several pieces of the puzzle.  Are they forgetting that the Homeric tales contain bits of Bronze and Iron Age socio-constructs, cultural contracts, and information throughout the narratives?  Are they aware that the epic story cannot be removed from its mythological framing (that is to say, the narrative is not (1) of history and (2) of fiction just waiting for someone to come along and pull them apart like one might divide a piece of paper)?  You cannot have an odyssey without an Odysseus who is fawned over by Calypso, who journeyed to the underworld, who is aided by Athena, who returns to Ithaca and slays the suitors.  There is no story without the myth–and there is no history within the myth.  And then there is that pesky other story within the Odyssey–the Telemachia–which seems to have been included into the narrative of the odyssey, at a different time, for purposes unknown; as unknown as its author(s).

But what of that additional detail: That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

Some scholars perhaps fail to recognize any of this and, upon stumbling onto a site traditionally associated with Troy they assume they have found the historical Troy (The ancients certainly didn’t know where the hell the place was at because they give conflicting accounts–and they should know if we’re to assume they were aware of it!  Some even doubt the events completely!).  Likewise, Ithaca as described in the Odyssey is completely different geographically; so how would one even ‘discover’ sites associated with the narrative when no prominent land features are accurate enough to ‘locate’ anything?  It’s just like attempts to locate the real Atlantis or the so-called ‘Palace of Odysseus‘ (which is just bunk).  It is just more wishful thinking; another example of someone taking the narrative at face value.  Or it is an attempt to get more government funding for a dig or to sell non-credible books or to attract tourists.  Or it is some political or national move to claim ‘ownership’ of the past.  It is not, however, solid methodology or respectable archaeology.

So is the day coming when the Odyssey is shown to be founded in history?  Definitely not in the archaeological record we currently have.  What’s there to joke about?  I’ll tell you: it’s the methods of those who will stretch any conclusion or any discovery in a manner to arbitrarily place it into the narrative and context of the Odyssey.

Blogging Through A Classics Undergrad: Week 2

Well my second week of classes has begun and I think I am finally ready to start blogging about it.  So far I’ve learned a lot, like:

1) Apparently paying $18-20k a year to go to Rutgers is not motivation enough for some students to bother to show up to class.  Prior to my Greek/Roman Mythology class, a student approached me and another student and asked about book prices (we’re in the second week now and some of these students don’t even have their textbooks) and then proceeded to ask if our professor takes attendence, if he can get the notes online, and whether or not they should skip class because apparently (a) the two classes he had earlier in the day and (b) the two meetings he had after the class we were about to go to was just too much for him.  This is after I worked eight hours and drove an additional hour and a half and still had to drive home after class another hour and a half.  I had no sympathy for this poor soul.

2) There is always one student who has to interrupt the lecture to ask the professor stupid questions that make everyone else in the class cringe.  While theoretically it is fascinating how portrayals of myths change in art, whether or not Chronos swallowed his children whole vs. dismembering them and eating them bit by bit really isn’t a point of contention, and your argument that ‘they were spit back out’ doesn’t work because we’re talking about myths here–not real life.  I’m not sure how much Hesiod cared about obeying the natural laws when writing his Theogony, so please, for the love of Aphrodite, shut the hell up and let the professor speak.

3) First declension in Latin is easy but apparently when trying to master fifth declension you die.  That’s right, you just…die.

I’ll get into more of the meatier content of class later in the week when I have more time.

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