Homer and the Unharvestable Sea

Reading the multifaceted book by Adam Nicolson on the Homeric poems has sparked a healthy review of a number of my earlier assumptions on the Iliad and Odyssey.  First, I should admit that I was amazed to find another reader who thought the poems unpalatably violent.

As most Greeks I was educated to uncritically admire and be in awe of the achievements of my ancestors.  The poems were required reading in different stages of the curriculum and their exegesis emulated a religious classes in its lack of rationalisation:  Abraham had no choice but attempt to murder his child and Achilles can kill the family of a girl to enslave her and still be noble.  On that basis the poems become metaphorical and often metaphysical.  Beautiful in their depiction of the human condition and admired as an achievement of human intellect but not capable of sustaining rational reflection.

Nicolson attempts to go a step further.  First, by providing an erudite analysis of the context within which the poems have been conceived and employed through the ages.  Secondly, by a confessional reflection of their importance to him.  And finally, through conjecture and academic hypothesis by offering a somewhat iconoclastic analysis of their impact to our civilization.  I recommend this book to anyone with a love of literature and the ancient world.

And some random comments:

  • The “unharvestable sea” sounds poetically melancholic but pontos atrygetos could also mean the “unharvested sea”, a sea full of promise.
  • Archetypes of the main heroes/heroines interestingly shift between the two poems.  Achilles certainty to Odysseas wile.  Helene as a pawn of destiny, while Penelope as an unweaver of her own.  This could be the basis of an exposition of archetypes with applications to present day challenges of agency. Homeric euegesia, (good leadership) may be subject to constant dynamics from primordial times.
  • From our ethical vantage, the Greeks are the barbarians who lay waste to a land and exact a terrible revenge for a perceived honour crime.  Multiple examples of the Greeks stealing and enslaving other peoples wives in the poems.  This lends credence to the claim by Nicolson that the Iliad reflects the memories of Greeks as an invading people around the 2nd millennium BC and the Odyssey marks an appreciation of the benefits of “civilization”.
  • Homer can be seen to sympathise with victims on all sides, but there is no denying that the recurring moral is one of the supremacy of power.  The magnificence of the poems is in describing heroes as human, conflicting and fallible who are ultimately destined to fall.
  • Nicolson makes the case that in the hexameter of the poems “words are not individual, separated lexical objects, but poetic lines, …. this is building a wall not brick by brick but panel by panel”.  I find this to be evocative of my understanding of the semantic analysis of any text and highly useful as a mental picture of language.

PS. Tom, thanks again for the referral!  A brilliant read.

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