1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote







Lesson 8                            



1. Read Plutarch's Life of Alexander

2. Skim the page below, and then spend an hour with your World Literature Journal.

3. If you are enrolled in this course for college credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.



What has Homer been doing since he died?

As Persian King Xerxes was about to cross over into Greece for the final battles of the Persian War, he camped at Troy and had his mages pour libations to the heroes of the Trojan War. "After they had done this, panic fell upon the encamped army during the night," says Herodotus (writing in the 420's BC). The Persian mages had summoned up terrifying spirits from the Iliad. "As late as the 2nd century AD, the old warrior ghosts still could be seen by night on the Trojan plain in their battle dress, horsehair plumes and all" (Philostatus, Heroicus).  

In this lesson we discuss a few of the many ways in which Homer has been conjured up from the dead and forced to serve the living.

Agamemnon revisited

In 396 BC, centuries after Homer's death, Sparta had defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War to become the most powerful city-state in the Hellenic world. Agesilaus, the Spartan king, had a plan that year. He assembled an army of Sparta's allies for an invasion into Asia Minor against the Hellenes' old Asiatic adversaries, the Persians.

He began his campaign by holding a ceremonial sacrifice at Aulis, the port from which (according to Homer's story) Agamemnon had launched 1,000 ships against Troy. Agesilaus' army was only a token force of 8,000 men-- evidently few of Sparta's allies actually responded to the call to arms. But the king told the assembled few at Aulis that each one of them would become famous forever for carrying on the heroic ways of the ancestors. For himself, Agesilaus immodestly claimed to be Agamemnon's heir, overlord of Greece.

The speech was meant to fire up the rank and file with fantasies of glory. The troops were to charge off to war as if they were marching into the Iliad. In spite of the pep talk and all of the ghost warrior support that the king could summon up, however, the ensuing campaign flopped. The past repeats itself less often than we imagine it will.

The Hellenes and their literary heirs in Europe tried to keep Homer alive on stage, as in politics. In Aeschylus' Oresteia and Euripides' Oestes, for example, Agamemnon's deranged son Orestes claims to act for his murdered father's spirit when he kills his mother Klytemnestra and her new boyfriend. Orestes obviously echoes Homer's Telemakhos (who murders his mother's suitors at the end of the Odyssey), and two thousand years later at Shakespeare's Globe this sets the stage for Hamlet and his murdered father's ghost.

A bloody act like that of Orestes or Telemakhos or Hamlet is the sign of daemonic possession by a hero. In the Iliad, Patroklos sympathizes with the Achaean dead and wounded, and this drives him into battle where he gets killed by Hektor. Achilles in his anger toward Agamemnon doesn't hear any victim calling him to revenge until the ghost of Patroklos possesses him to take revenge and to extend the cycle of violence. Patroklos and eventually Achilles are driven to battle by victims, not personal choice. At least that's how the Iliad describes their motivation.

In these and many other examples, the common heroic theme is avoidance of personal responsibility for killing other human beings. Hektor appears to be a good man with a nice family, even though he fights for the other side. I don't want to kill him if I am Achilles thinking only of going home, but I can't wait to kill him if I am Achilles thinking only of dead Patroklos. In that case, it doesn't feel like me who's cutting Hektor's throat or dragging his body through the dust behind my chariot wheels, while his widow, child, father and mother watch in horror. It feels as if Patroklos is doing the dirty work, and from his point of view the killing and mutilation are just. It feels like self-defense--or perhaps insanity. The responsibility belongs to Patroklos whose unhappy spirit persuades me that Hektor had it coming.

Heroes are used to cope in situations that otherwise are intolerable or unacceptable to self-image. They are means to deny personal responsibility for death, cruelty and destruction. The finger pointing goes all the way back to Eve and the serpent who unfortunately crossed her path somewhere near the tree of forbidden knowledge. A lot of fiction comes from our psychological need to be good by attributing our bad acts to others. 

Authors too can become heroes, said to inspire violent or deranged behaviors. Literary influence often bears little or no relationship to authorial intentions, and this is certainly the case with Homer. There's no reason to charge him with provoking Agesilaus' military campaign into Asia Minor, or to praise him for inspiring the defense of Greece against the Asian invaders of the Persian War. Homer cannot have foreseen the uses to which his songs would be put long after he was dead. . .
















Left: ceramic imagery of Greek killing Persian  recreates the Persian War.





The bow stringing contest from the Odyssey, as illustrated on a classical bowl.

Killing the poets
making bards into heroes

So far in this course little has been said about literary criticism, the main branch of heroic parody practiced in our time. In these solemn rites the practitioner pretends to speak for Homer and/or other dead poets who are imagined to be unable to speak directly for themselves. The Homeric model here is not the descent into the underworld but the augur's reading.  

How does it work? Once Homer or any other literary animal has been killed, a priestly intermediary pretends to pass along the victim's communications from the afterlife to the living. This medium is the voice of authority, learned in the arts of reading such mysterious remains and interpreting their meaning so that ordinary people will understand what the dead poet really is saying to them.

As in ancient hero ritual, the impersonator must pretend not to be pretending. Rule #1 of criticism forbids the appearance of impersonation, insofar as possible. A reputable critic is not permitted to say, for example: "I am Homer, and I sing of Achilles. . ." No, this ordinary literary claim must be transformed into third person voice, preferably joined with past tense: "Homer sang of Achilles. . ." This reformulation hides the subjective and imaginative nature of the critic's performance so that the audience can be tricked into thinking that the words are as true as any in a science journal. 

And what does "Homer" say through the critics? Unlike Teiresias or Kalkhas, he almost never offers any practical advice or guidance for the future. Usually he talks only about various technical aspects of his work--how he put together his story, where he got some of his ideas, what kind of language he used, and so forth. In life he once may have been a brilliant story-teller, but now in death--speaking through the professors--he's quite a blithering, self-absorbed bore!

If you think I'm joking, check out the mysteries of literary criticism for yourself. There are plenty of examples at any academic library, for more criticism has been written about the Homeric songs than any other book, except the Bible and the works of Plato and Shakespeare. Most of these utterances claim to be objective and authoritative--the "true" Homer--but in looking over the variety of this learned material you eventually will realize that there are almost as many Homers as there are critics. In fact, anybody who can't invent a somewhat new Homer, a more or less original one, may not attract a publisher.

Literary criticism is scholarship, researched and written by academics for academics, in order to gain job security and better pay. Little of this "work" shows any interest in questions of practical significance (such as "Why read Homer?"). It focuses instead on narrow technical and historical points. For a representative sample, all in one book, skim A New Companion to Homer, edited by Ian Morris and Barry Powell (Brill 1997). None of the thirty scholarly articles in this large volume deals directly with the subject of Homer's meaning or relevance except the final chapter, A.W.H. Adkins' essay on "Homeric Ethics."  According to Adkins, Homer recommends to us the competitive qualities of military prowess, accumulation of wealth, and achievement of high social status. The "Greek gods" of the poems, in Adkins' view, simply glorify the immorality of aristocrats of Homer's time. 

Image produced from a classical bust of Homer.Adkins offers no proof about the behavior of aristocrats in Homer's time, and does not establish when Homer's time was. If, however, Adkins is to be believed, then obviously there's no reason for us to read Homer, except as a historical curiosity. And why should we be curious? Much the same conclusion can be drawn from the criticism of censors who, for many centuries, have blamed Homer for heathen "immorality," a hostile tradition that goes all the way back to Homer's rival, Xenophanes of Colophon

Among modern critics who deal with Homer's values or meaning, you can find Homer vilified as the champion of western imperialism or paganism or aristocracy or slavery or irrationality or drunkenness or woman-beating or almost any other evil. But we can recognize this characterization for the pure fiction that it is by simply keeping in mind that we know nothing at all about Homer's life. It's not even certain that he was Hellenic or pagan or aristocratic or free--or even that "he" was a single individual or male. To speak of Homer's views on any subject is a pretense. The critics' "readings" of Homer are simply making Homer's ghost do their bidding. 

Literary criticism and scholarship can reveal how others have responded to the Homeric songs, and it can provide tidbits of clarifying information or stimulating suggestion, but serious students should use all secondary sources, academic and otherwise, very  cautiously. After thousands of years, there is no definitive scholarly account of Homer or the Homeric Songs.



Image left: the unworthy suitors, those unable to string the bow of Odysseus, as shown on a classical drinking bowl.





If he cares at all, Homer must be amused by literary criticism. It turns story-tellers into heroes.



































Image left: For being 500 or 1,000 years old at the time of this Hellenistic bust, Homer looks pretty spry..




















Image left: painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Apotheosis of Homer (1827)


How Homer conquered the world
Plutarch's "Life of Alexander"

The most famous of all Homers is certainly not the original one, who has been forgotten entirely. Nor is it any of our modern reincarnations whose domain has shrunk to Hollywood and certain small back areas of university library stacks. It's clearly the Hellenistic Homer promoted in memory of Alexander IV of Macedon (a/k/a Alexander the Great, died 323 BCE), and in particular by Alexander's successor as Pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy I

This Hellenistic Homer became the ruling spirit of a great empire because Alexander accomplished what King Agesilaus only dreamed of. He led a quasi-Homeric army of allied Greek city-states across the Hellespont where with surprising ease he conquered much of Asia, starting with Troy. He even took Egypt, as brilliant Odysseus had been unable to do.

Alexander's propaganda machine spun this world conquest as if it had been the Iliad coming true. We see this political magic in one of the main surviving source documents about Alexander's career, Plutarch's biographical "Life of Alexander," written about 75 CE, either in Rome or in Plutarch's hometown, Chaeronea, the place where Alexander and his father famously had destroyed Hellenic forces opposing their invasion of central Greece.

Plutarch was writing 400 years after Alexander, but his narrative is thought to have been based on no longer extant Alexandrian histories by Cleitarchus of Alexandria, Ptolemy, and others. It reads like fiction because it devotes so much of its attention to Alexander's character as a quasi-Homeric king. Plutarch's Alexander 

  • claims heroic descent from both Heracles and Achilles, 

  • leads the charge in battle and fights man-to-man,

  • engages a tragic enemy and identifies with him in defeat (that is, the Persian Emperor Darius), 

  • marries (among others) the daughter of this slain enemy, 

  • looks after the appropriate burials of friends and foes alike, 

  • gives away looted treasure generously to retainers,

  • consults with diviners and soothsayers on most questions that occur to him, 

  • acts on (generally bad) impulses, 

  • hunts, 

  • manages horses, 

  • vainly boasts, 

  • supports the Hellenic arts including bardic singing,

  • loves long-winded after-dinner conversations, 

  • mourns the death of a friend by offering up human sacrifices to the friend's spirit, 

  • calls himself a son of Zeus (here named Egyptian Ammon), 

  • feels at first befriended and later deserted by the gods, 

  • seeks the good opinion of his fellow soldiers, 

  • but in the end becomes a paranoid tyrant given to delusions of fear and fits of cruel violence. 

All of this is recognizably Homeric. At various points in Plutarch's story, it appears that Alexander's mind was under Homer's control, as if Homer were the programming software that ran Alexander's brain: 

  • Alexander's first tutor Lysimachus used to call himself "Phoenix," Alexander "Achilles," and Alexander's father King Philip "Peleus";

  • Alexander's later teacher, Aristotle, presented him with a corrected copy of the Iliad (referred to as the "casket copy" for reasons that shortly will become clear) that Alexander always treasured afterward;

  • Alexander slept with this copy of the Iliad (along with a dagger) under his pillow;

  • Alexander constantly consulted the Iliad as the best source of military knowledge and virtue; he carried it on his campaigns and, having acquired a wonderful casket among the treasures of the Persian Emperor Darius, he decided to keep the "casket copy" Iliad in it;

  • In a dream Alexander was advised by Homer where he should locate his proposed new city of Alexandria; the site was Homer's Pharos (mentioned in the Odyssey as an island just off mainland Egypt), near the Canobic mouth of the Nile.

Someone had to take responsibility for Alexander's amazing pillage of the world, so why not Homer? 

The Homeric details in Plutarch's story are remnants, preserved by Plutarch from his source documents, of the foundation myth of Alexandria, the official story that explained Alexandrian culture to the people of the city. The myth asked Alexandrians to believe that their city had been founded by Alexander, that Alexander had been fathered by the Egyptian god Amun, and that Alexander's ancestry on his mother's side went back through Achilles to the goddess Thetis. Egyptian Pharaohs necessarily were  descended from deities, so the more closely that Alexander's life seemed to resemble the life of Achilles, the better were Alexander's credentials to be Pharaoh.  

How had Alexandria actually been founded? Alexander had suddenly died in Persia in 323 BC, and his military commanders promptly carved up the empire among themselves. Ptolemy must have been one of Alexander's stronger generals because he was allotted the rich prize of Egypt. But his claim to the Egyptian throne was weak; all he could say was that Alexander had conquered Egypt and he had been one of Alexander's friends. He needed a better story.

Ptolemy I, Hellenistic bust in a pose characteristic of Alexander. To show what a true friend he had been to Alexander, Ptolemy seems to have reenacted in real life the Homeric fight for the body of slain hero (such as the battle for Patroklos' body, Iliad scroll 17). As Alexander's body was being returned from Persia to Macedonia for burial, Ptolemy's forces attacked the bodyguards, hijacked the body and brought it to Homer's Pharos, the place that would become Ptolemy's Alexandria.

The capture of Alexander's body was a propaganda coup. From a Hellenic point of view, Alexander would become the venerated hero of the Ptolemaic empire. From an Egyptian perspective, Alexander's capture meant that pharaoh's body could be laid to rest in a mortuary temple to be constructed in the tradition of great dynastic rulers of the past. 

In the heart of Ptolemy's new city of the dead, he built a museum, in which he enshrined the casket, a casket allegedly won from Persian Emperor Darius, that included not only Alexander's body but Aristotle's corrected "casket copy" of the Iliad. (Aristotle himself had added certain touches, perhaps including a necessary son for Achilles?) So, as Plutarch reports, Alexander in fact may have slept with Homer's song under his pillow. He may have slept with it there for centuries in Ptolemy's museum! 

Ptolemy also built, adjoining this museum, the great library of Alexandria which soon became famous throughout the ancient world for its collection of Homeric manuscripts and Homeric scholars. Our modern texts of the Homeric songs were established and first published at this Ptolemaic library in about 200 BC--only perhaps 1,000 years after the fall of Troy! 

We can see why it was here in this library that the texts of Homer were "corrected" and standardized. The Alexandrian scholars weren't just following some pedantic example supposed to have been established by Aristotle. They were the faithful priesthood in a mortuary temple of a recognizably Egyptian sort. As such devotees, their job would have been to maintain dead pharaoh's happiness by preserving the records of his glorious reign and divine ancestry. The Iliad (at least as amended by Aristotle) would have been one of Alexander's pedigree proofs, and the priests would have needed to establish a definitive text to be passed down through the ages by scribal copying. 

Alexander the Great, after a bust by Lysippus, Alexander's official court sculptor.The Ptolemaic pharaohs were masterful in cultivating a larger than life, story-book image of "the great" king. They surrounded themselves with propagandists, including court poets, court artists, court historians and court philosophers, ancient spin doctors of every kind to promote Alexandrian legends, images and thoughts. The inflation of Alexander was a ruling technique. For example Plutarch comments that when Alexander retreated from his campaign into India,

he could not refrain from leaving behind him various deceptive memorials of his expedition, to impose upon aftertimes, and to exaggerate his glory with posterity, such as arms larger than were really worn, and mangers for horses, with bits and bridles above the usual size, which he set up, and distributed in several places.

Hence Alexander "the Great"!  Some passages of the Iliad attribute gigantic size to the Achaeans and Trojans, exaggerations reminiscent of Egyptian portraits of huge Pharaohs battling shrimpy adversaries (see Ramesses III). Could these giant images in the Iliad have been inserted by the Alexandrian priests to make Alexander's ancestors "the greater"! (See for example the battle of the giants Achilles and Aeneas in Iliad scroll 20; are these figures truly Homeric, or are they perhaps Hellenistic representatives of the adversaries Egypt and Rome?)

The pedigree claimed for Alexander clearly was fraudulent. Plutarch begins Alexander's biography with this assertion:

All writings agree that on the father's side, Alexander descended from Heracles by Caranus, and from Aeacus by Neoptolemus on the mother's side. 




The term "Hellenistic" is used by historians to refer to the neo-Hellenism that arose after the conquest of the Greek speaking peoples by Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. When in Greece, these rulers wanted to  fit in as Hellenes, and so they cultivated arts, philosophy, science, and all things Hellenic.










































Foundation myths were common in ancient cults as we have seen in Plato's dialogues (which lay the basis for academic culture) and Enuma Elish (the foundation of Babylon) and the Qur'an.






Image left: Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy I. The Ptolemaic Empire was not only a quasi-Hellenic kingdom, based on hero worship of the kind described in Homer, but also a new dynasty of pharaohs, a line that finally ended only when Cleopatra, the last of all of the pharaohs of Egypt, was defeated by Roman forces of Caesar Augustus at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, about 100 years before Plutarch's time. Ptolemy's merger of the cultures, Greek and Egyptian, held together for 300 years. The cultural work required to consummate this marriage established Alexandria as a diverse multi cultural center in the ancient world.





















Image left: Alexander,
after a bust by his court sculptor Lysippus.







But the paternity changes within a few paragraphs when Plutarch takes up several stories about Alexander's descent from the god Amun, a chief Egyptian deity that the Ptolemies attempted to identify with Zeus. The mythological idea in creating hybrid spirits like Zeus-Amun was to merge Hellenic and Egyptian cults into a unified culture; Greeks and Egyptians alike could worship the same deities.

Phillip II of Macedon as shown on an ancient coin.Alexander's descent from Zeus-Amun was useful propaganda for Hellenistic culture, but the army veterans who had campaigned with Alexander obviously did not believe it. Zeus hadn't been fathering new Zeus-men for a long time. The veterans (like poor Clitus, murdered by Alexander in Plutarch's story) knew Alexander to be the son of Philip of Macedon, and many of them also knew that Philip was not a descendant of Heracles. In the opinion of many Greek-speakers he conquered, Philip was not even Hellenic.

Alexander had acceded to the throne of Macedon when Philip was murdered. The murder remains unsolved, but Alexander sometimes is considered by historians to be a  chief suspect. His father had threatened to disinherit him.  In this light, the idea that Philip was not really Alexander's father may have had an appeal of sorts to Alexander and his court. If your father is an immortal, you cannot have killed him!

But more absurd is the claim that Alexander descended on his mother's side from Aecus and Neoptolemus. Homer's Achilles is descended from Aecus through Peleus, but at the end of the Iliad, as originally conceived, Achilles is to die childless, and old Peleus has no other children. Homer contrasts the barrenness of Priam, Achilles and the other tragic losers at Troy, "hated" by Zeus, with the genetic success of the pious man, Aeneas, who will escape the conflagration of Troy and leave offspring to visit his bones and sacrifice to his spirit forever in the heroic manner. A brief reference to Neoptolemus (the Egyptian) son to Achilles occurs in the Iliad but is very much out of place with the general theme. Almost certainly it is a later addition to the poem. 

Neoptolemus also is mentioned in the Odyssey, but this poem reflects the point of view of Odysseus' crazed son Telemakhos, who must avenge his lost father and protect his mother from suitors in order to inherit the farm. The boy needs heroes to get this violent work done. In Telemakhos' imagination, all of the worthies on the Achaean side at Troy left wonderful sons behind them, hero-loving sons who murdered people on behalf of their wronged fathers. As Neoptolemus avenged Achilles, as Orestes avenged Agamemnon, so Telemakhos can avenge Odysseus. Ironically enough, aristocratic Greeks of the classical period turned to Telemakhos' fantasies as the basis for their blue-blood claims to ancestors who fought at Troy. Alexandrians followed course, and apparently Homer's poem was not only interpreted improperly but also touched up to support the imposture.

These lies in the Iliad and Odyssey are perhaps the chief or only reason that Homer is preserved for us to read today! The Egyptian priests would have needed these poems (as amended) to trace Alexander's descent from gods on both sides of the family. 

Plutarch must be understood as a collector of myths. From his Alexandrian sources he gleans memorable stories, like Alexander's visit to the tomb of Achilles, where Alexander is supposed to have poured libations, offered sacrifices, and run around the tomb naked "as the ancient custom is." (It was the ancient custom of the pharaohs to run around their funerary temples naked on their jubilee anniversaries. It was the ancient custom of the Hellenes to hold competitive funeral games, including naked races, in honor of the dead. Which "ancient custom" does Plutarch mean?) The whole episode makes a good Alexandrian multicultural story, easy to remember and to repeat, but did it really happen? 

"How many poets is Alexander the Great said to have had with him to transmit his name to posterity? And yet, as he stood on the promontory of Sigeum by the tomb of Achilles, he exclaimed: "Oh happy youth, who found a Homer to herald thy praise!" And with reason did he say so; for if the Iliad had never existed, the same tomb which covered his body also would have buried his name." -- 

Cicero Pro Archia Poeta X 24-32

Well, we've all heard the name of Alexander the Great. The poets did that much for him.

And Alexander also did something for Homer. His tomb got Homer's songs published and handed down through the generations, for which any bard should be grateful. Yet the Alexandrians' use of the Iliad as political propaganda put Homer in a false public light from which he has never fully recovered. Even today people say that Homer meant Achilles to be a "hero" in our modern sense of the word--one whose acts are ideal, admirable models for action. They say the same of Odysseus--that lying thieving murdering pirate--and so Homer popularly has become known for idealizing wickedness. 

Homer's ghost has appeared to me several times, after many readings and re-readings of the Homeric songs, and he always says that none of this is true. He asks us not to blame him for crazy readers.


All of mainland Greece surrendered to Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon (image left), following the Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC. As an outsider Philip attempted to rule the Hellenes by seeming to be one of them (a cultural strategy that Alexander later picked up by seeming to become Persian, and that Ptolemy later picked up by seeming to become Egyptian). Before Philip conquered them, the Hellenes had rejected Philip's claim to be descended from Hellenic heroes; they denied his application to participate in the Olympic Games, for the games were open only to Hellenes. Later, however, with Philip's growing political power, he could assert whatever heroic genealogy he pleased, and the Hellenes all  welcomed him at the games


On the warpath
as modern pseudo-science parodies the heroes

How!Imagine a Hollywood western transformed as science fiction. Cowboys dressed like scientists investigate Native American burial grounds with picks and shovels, but what they find are real living Injuns mad as hell that their dead are being disturbed. As in hero religion among the Hellenes so long ago, in many Native American traditions the resting places of the ancestors are not only for their benefit but for the earth's germination, the essential bases for life itself. In this perspective the destruction of burials is the destruction of communities and the destruction of the world.

SchliemannCall it archaeology or tomb desecration, excavation of happy hunting grounds of the dead has become a major academic industry throughout the world, following the ground-breaking work of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890). Interpreting the Homeric songs as records of historical events, Herr Schliemann had little trouble gulling the cowboy press with spectacular loot that, he said, he had unearthed from Priam's Troy. Schliemann's treasures apparently were smuggled out of Asia--possibly from a hole that he dug at Hissarlik, Turkey, though his story of his find at Hissarlik is full of unlikely details. His claims that the artifacts once belonged to Homer's heroes are now known to be fabrications; whatever Schliemann's motives may have been, his lies increased the monetary value of the finds and excused his larceny, from a heroic point of view.

Today, despite continuing claims of grant writers and TV documentary narratives, it remains doubtful that Hissarlik is the city of Priam.  In important respects, the ruins there do not match Homer's descriptions. For instance, Homer's Aeneas states that Troy was built only during the last three generations before Priam (Iliad 20: 200-240), but substantial settlements at Hissarlik existed for many hundreds of years before the Trojan War, in whatever century we choose to date that war. A tomb of Achilles outside Troy was known to Xerxes, Alexander and Augustus, but Scamander the talking river has fulfilled his promise to bury it beyond finding (Iliad 21:320).

SophieSchliemann found nothing Homeric at Hissarlik (despite the "jewels of Helen,"), at Mycenae (despite the "death mask of Agamemnon") or at Ithaca. The truth is that, after hundreds of thousands of man-years in the field, and hundreds of grave-lootings, and dozens of extravagant claims, no clearly genuine artifact of the Trojan War (or of Homer) ever has been found anywhere by anyone. 

Happily then, none of the Homeric heroes has been disinterred for the birds and dogs to eat. Happily, because respect for rites of burial and relics of the dead is the foremost concern in Homer's heroic world, as it was in Hellenic hero religion. In Homer the dead are to be given gifts, to appease their anger, but Schliemann and his followers have made themselves famous by trying to cart off the grave goods of any ancestors they can find.

Hmm, I wonder whether to call this one Diomedes or Ajax?Against the heroic background of fear and reverence for the dead, the modern archaeological dig is a secular parody, a hero ritual stripped of all of its spirituality and significance. In this modern descent into the underworld, nobody becomes the medium for the dead, or impersonates them, or calls the spirits to sing. No gifts or fair words are offered, except perhaps to the governmental powers who permit the work while hoping that nobody will notice or complain. The excavation isn't aimed at appeasing the angry spirits down under because there aren't any spirits, scientifically speaking. And nothing miraculous seems to happen down there, either: only the physical "finds" in the grave are revealed. Bones and trinkets. Nothing more. 

Archaeology is hero religion without the heroes and minus religion. With its empty formalism, it can only go through the motions of spiritual practice in desecration of ancestor worship. These days the sole purpose of the ritual, like the suitors' feast at Ithaca, is to feed the descendants. What the scientific discoverers are hunting down in the pit is another sustaining research grant or material for a book or scholarly article.



Image left:  a rendering in red of the "death mask of Agamemnon."  Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered and named the death mask,  falsely claimed that it covered the face of Agamemnon.






Where Achilles failed, Schliemann (image left) boasted that he sacked Troy.













Image left: photo of Heinrich Schliemann's beautiful wife Sophie wearing "the jewels of Helen" that Schliemann had smuggled out of Turkey from "Troy." Evidently Helen forgot to take them with her when she returned to Argos, and the Achaeans overlooked them too when they pillaged Ilium.






Image left: bones of ancient Athenian heroes under invasive examination in a contemporary academic lab. The bones were found during the recent  construction of the Athens subway. They were mailed to the USA for analysis.


The so-called Alexander sarcophagus at Istanbul.

King of poets

"Virgil whispered to me: 'Take note of him, with a sword in hand, who comes in front of the other three, as if he were their lord. That is Homer, the king of poets! Next comes Horace the satirist, then Ovid is third, and last is Lucan. Each of these is worthy, with me, to be called a prince of poets, so that the honor they show to me also honors them." Voice of Virgil speaking in Dante, Inferno IV.

How is it that Homer can look across the centuries and guide our understanding of archaeological digs, modern literary scholarship, Alexandrian mythology, genetics and so much else that is so distant from his time, so foreign indeed to everything that came before? 

When we look at our own world and realize that, odd though it is, Homer already described it quite well several millennia ago, the effect is simply overwhelming, as if Homer really were a god who exists somehow beyond time and place. If you don't have this sense of astonishment already from your brief encounter with the Iliad and Odyssey, you surely will have it if you read and re-read and think about Homer long enough. At the same moment you will understand why Homer always has been the poet's poet, the foremost guide Keats' headstone in Rome. "Here lies one whose name was writ in water..." Keats died of TB at the age of 26.for creative writers who hope to win some measure of his immortality.

John Keats' first poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is one of the most famous descriptions of this initial experience of Homer-shock. After hearing a friend read part of George Chapman's Renaissance translation of the Iliad, young Keats on the same day decided to become a poet, and he dashed off the following sonnet:

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
    That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

It was Balboa (not stout Cortez) who "discovered" the Pacific from a Eurocentric point of view, of course, so perhaps Keats dashed a little too quickly into his new career here. In any case, Homer showed the way to explore an entirely new world through poetry, and Keats simply couldn't wait to go. I'd guess that his friend read to him the shield of Achilles [recall Lesson 6].

Homer influenced Plato, Shakespeare and Milton directly (and others like Chretien de Troyes and Dante indirectly) -- and they in turn influenced our modern views of Homer. 

  • Plato's Socrates compares himself to Achilles (long before Alexander did), and it's not just talk. Socrates makes "the choice of Achilles," preferring death with honor over a pleasure boat-ride to Phthia. Plato wants us to think of his teacher Socrates in Homeric terms--as the dead hero who possesses the mind. Socrates is mentor to Plato as Patroklos to Achilles or as Odysseus to Telemakhos. Today's academic life is founded on Plato, who constructed the first Academy, but Plato is founded on Homer.

  • In Paradise Lost, Milton's astonishing remake of Genesis, Satan travels across the universe to find and destroy Adam and Eve in Eden. Satan is the "hero" in this version in that his evil quest is described in terms of Odysseus' voyage. Milton looked to Homer for a description of hell. (Critics today lacking Milton's insightful reading skills seem to think that Odysseus was Homer's idea of some kind of admirable guy!!!) Milton's allusions to Homer also help us to see how he distances his Christian poetry from Homer.

  • Shakespeare would not have been Shakespeare without Homer's guidance. In the middle of his career Shakespeare particularly drew upon Homeric inspiration when he wrote, all at about the same time, Troilus and Cressida (a dark farcical treatment of the Troy story), Hamlet (an Odyssean revenge tragedy) and Twelfth Night (a comic remake of the Odyssey, featuring a grieving widow, with a house full of undesired suitors, and the arrival of a shipwrecked sailor who in disguise woos her).

Plato, Milton and Shakespeare weren't trying to be snotty or difficult. They simply took for granted that their audiences would know Homer. They never imagined a future (such as us) where even the poets in many cases would not understand Homer or even heroes.

Until modern times, Western literature built upon itself as poets through the ages mainly drew their models, ideas and subjects from the traditions of poetry. Literary-mindedness grew in the neural networks of students who read the traditional works. It was Homer's luck to occupy the place of highest esteem in this system. He not only had the good fortune to stand at the historical head of the whole tradition, or what anybody could see of it, but he showed clearly how stories could be leveraged by other stories. If you read the Odyssey with prior knowledge of the Iliad, you see both songs more clearly. (Can you know the Odyssey without knowing the Iliad?) Think of them as child and parent. Many of the Western classics in this way are Homer's descendants.




Homer's truest followers have been
story-tellers and poets.




In the European Middle Ages, Alexander the Great became a folk hero who could do anything. Here he invents the submarine.

Lesson Summary: Homer could have foreseen few or none of the influences that he exerted on later archaeology, literary criticism, politics, and poetry. From the examples reviewed in this lesson, it seems clear that the culture produced of literature is not necessarily what's intended by the author. It's instead the invention of audiences who find their own uses for it. Sometimes the uses are very substantial indeed, as when Ptolemy I based his empire on the Iliad.


Image left (medieval manuscript illustration): Alexander in the submarine




Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. The correct answer. So, what is the right response to Homer? To lead a war party into Asia, to ennoble and thereby enable a revenge that you have in mind, to dig for Homer in holes in the ground, to pretend to speak for Homer as a critic, to borrow from him in your own creative writing?  What's your own response?

2. The Return of Homer. What would Homer say to us, if he came back to see us? Do you suppose that he would make any interesting points at all, or would he be simply disoriented, out of touch, unable to comprehend our activities, values and interests? What would you want him to tell you about?

Conversely, suppose that we could travel back to the Age of Homer (whenever that was). What problems could we have in making ourselves understood in Homer's world (supposing that we could speak Homer's language)?

Time travel is possible through art. This point seems evident when we are talking about travel to the future (science fiction or prophecy can take us there), but it does not seem so evident to many people when the destination is the past. Perhaps the stronger illusory power of the past is a legacy of heroic traditions or perhaps it derives from our own everyday experience since everyone already has a past and can remember some of it. In any case, to go backwards to the time of the dead somebody has to pretend or act as if the dead are present, as in hero rituals or the Homeric songs or historical paintings or films, or someone must become a story-teller who can see the action of the past unfold, as in the writing of history. All of this is art--which explains why there is never any definitive history of any former time. In the historical study of literature we are likewise pretending to travel back to "those days" which aren't there. 

3. Aspiring writers take note: Homer is a great proven model for aspiring writers to follow, but how to begin? There are several time-tested ideas:

First read and re-read. 

Then try translation, recasting one or more of Homer's episodes into the language and idiom that you want to use in your writing career. (Don't worry if you are only translating from other translations, such as English into English. You don't need to know Homeric Greek to benefit from this exercise.) If you are going to write poetry, you should translate Homer into the form of poetry that you intend to write. This was, for example, Alexander Pope's method in 1720 when he translated the entire Iliad into rhymed heroic couplets; nobody has ever surpassed Pope in the use of this form. Why? Practice, practice, practice!

Summarizing or digesting parts of Homer's text also can be a useful exercise, especially to sharpen editing skills. First try a 90% or greater condensation (e.g., reduce the word count from the original by at least 90%), then try a 60% reduction on the same body of material. 

Finally, for a higher level practice method, try imitation. Pretend to be Homer: tell a new story, but tell it in the way that Homer would tell it. This is likely to work best if you choose a story from your own experience or from current events; nearly all writers speak most clearly about things that they know best. You will have quite enough trouble trying to imagine how Homer would describe what you already know. 

For centuries Greek, Roman and English writers learned their craft by imitating Homer and other classics. Shakespeare, Milton, Pope (and all of their classmates, too!) wrote imitations in school. They didn't write "papers" or "essays" about aspects of particular works of literature, as we do in schools nowadays. Literature courses that require this kind of writing won't help you learn to write, unless your goal is to become a critic or scholar.

4. Alexander the Great web resources:
Alexander web site
Alexander's web page

Other Alexander print materials: R. Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (London 1973; Penguin ed. 1994); J. Roisman, Alexander the Great: Ancient and Modern Perspectives (Houghton Mifflin 1995); Lionel Pierson, The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great (American Philological Association Monographs 20, New York, 1960).

Entertaining home video: Michael Wood, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (PBS)

On the Hellenistic Age in general: Peter Green, From Alexander to Actium (U of California 1993).

Good overview of all Hellenic periods: Thomas R. Martin, Ancient Greece from Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (Yale U Press, 2000)

Hellenistic multicultural image of Io (daughter of Cadmus of Thebes, Greece) as Egyptian goddess Isis.5. Hijacking Alexander: Ptolemy hijacked Alexander's corpse and brought it to Alexandria for proper funerary rites, the kind of rites to which Pharaohs of Egypt long had been accustomed. Do you suppose that Egyptians would have insisted on this style of burial for their dead leader? Or was it simply Ptolemy's deception to help show that Alexander had been a pharaoh, not really the son of a wicked Macedonian tyrant but the favored son of Ammon, one of the chief gods of Egypt?

Early Hellenic stele or mortuary statue from Santorini, in the Egyptian style except for its Hellenic nudity.There are several interesting Egyptian elements in the the Odyssey, including Odysseus' unsuccessful attack upon Egypt, and the journey of Menelaos and Helen to Pharos (the site of Alexandria) after the Trojan War. In Egypt Helen learns the properties of various drugs, and she becomes something of a witch. Telemakhos' hallucinations may be related to his drugging by Helen. (Or maybe it's another criminal defense for him to try on us.)

Not all Egyptian influences in the Homeric texts necessarily should be taken as signs of Alexandrian editing. Hellenic art of the archaic age, when Homer is presumed to have lived, regularly shows strong Egyptian influences. Hellenic funerary statues of this period, for example, often are based on Egyptian models; this style is known as "orientalizing" (example above, left). It seems likely that Egyptian elements in Homer held particular interest for Alexandrian audiences who wanted to connect Egyptian and Greek cultures.  

6. Archaeology: For a recent history that retells the Iliad, corrected by archaeological findings, see Barry Strauss, The Trojan War: A New History, Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Copyright  2001
- 2008