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.

7 Responses

  1. It might count towards a “maximalist” revolution in Classics, but one Professor (Andrea Carandini) recently argued that Romulus had been, a historical figure. Which is interesting. I know that Carrier cites Romulus as being an undisputed mythological figure…

  2. Classical Timeline,

    I’m highly skeptical of a historical figure of Romulus. Such a figure, like most legendary founders (Lycurgus, etc…) are highly mythical and serve as an edifying function, as a source of pride; historical? Doubt it.

    Though I am not familiar with Carandini’s research; is she published on this subject?

  3. Yeah, it doesn’t seem too much better than the maximalism that is ancient aliens. Can it be construed into something resembling the real world? Then it must be that way!

  4. Right. It’s the old ‘possible, therefore probable’ mentality. As my friend Tom Bolin aptly asks, ‘Verisimilitude does not equal historicity. How long before that lesson gets learned?’

  5. Well I am skeptical too. He makes the case in his book “Rome: Day One” Harvard, 2011. But certainly an interesting case of “maximalism” anyway.

  6. Absolutely. Thanks for the source, I’ll track it down and maybe write about it in the future.

  7. […] written on the question of the historicity of Troy recently, and what I said then remains just as relevant: That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line […]

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