"Issues of Historicity in 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey'"


by Judd Burton

Issues of Historicity in The Iliad and The Odyssey



            Homer and his poetry, specifically The Iliad and The Odyssey, remain subjects of considerable discussion and debate.  The literary nature and occasional historical details of the poems lend the works to the scrutiny of a number of academic disciplines.  Given the inherent characteristics of the two works, it is reasonable and indeed, necessary, to subject the poetry and its (often) subtle historical detail, to an analysis designed to reveal historical validity.  In doing so, historical elements of the poems may be expounded upon and examined for genuine historicity.

            Several aspects of the two works should be included in the historical analysis.  First, the oral tradition that Homer drew on should be treated.  Secondly, archaeological data from Mycenaean and western Anatolian sites must be examined in light of details in the poems.  Lastly, conclusions should be drawn on the grounds of the historical analysis.

            Historian M. I. Finley noted that The Iliad was not a contemporary work.  Homer’s tone is one of reflection and nostalgia.  The poet looked back in time.  The Iliad, then, was literary composition that presented a picture of Greece’s ancient past (Finley, 1954:36).  Hence, the work lends itself to at least some degree of historical examination. 

            A careful assessment of the bardic tradition of Dark Age Greece provides a beginning for the historical analysis.  The bards related stories and epic songs about myths to the general populace.  They recited and sang these stories, which were subject to slight changes and improvisations during the course of their delivery.  This device often resulted in elements being repeated in various places.  Certainly the Homeric poems are fanciful in many ways, as they are works of literature (Bryce, 1998:394).  However,  they also contain historical aspects. The myths in the epics comprised all knowledge about heroes and gods from a previous age:  an age both mythical and remote (Lang, 1906:84).  Homer in particular, is looking back to a preceding age (Nilsson, 1968:1).

            Persons living at the time of the bards (and Homer as well) believed the myths to be true.  They apportioned them the value of history.  These stories were events that took place in the past.  Hence, the oral tradition of pre-historic Greece prompts one to consider that due to the fact that mythology, in connection with the oral tradition, was history to the Greeks, poems such as The Iliad and The Odyssey ought to be seriously examined for historical content and validity.

            One of the problems plaguing the historian is the frequent vagueness of historical detail in The Iliad and The Odyssey.  These obscurities are due in large part to the fact that as the author, Homer assumed his readers would have been familiar with the smallest details of his works (Jebb, 1905:56).  Therefore, he would logically have had no reason to expand on these elements, such as Agamemnon receiving a breastplate from the king of Cyprus, or Priam offering Achilles a Thracian cup (Jebb, 1905:56).

            The science of archaeology has given insight into the historicity of the Homeric poems.  Where details in the poems are obscure, or external written records are absent, archaeological data have been of great import to the historian.  The task of dealing with the historical value of the Homeric poems is made less daunting with the aid of archaeological interpretations.  Both Mycenaean and Anatolian sites have yielded artifacts and features that strengthen some historical arguments for the poems, and weaken others.

            Heinrich Schliemann was the archaeologist who excavated the site of Troy, on the mound of Hissarlik, in Turkey (Bryce, 1998:393).  His work, in addition to that of archaeologist Frank Calvert, was the foundation for historical verification of the possibility of a Trojan War.  Carl Blegen continued Schliemann’s work and revealed further evidence for a historical Troy.  Blegen also discovered and excavated King Nestor’s Palace in 1939 (Frost, 1997:3). In many ways, Schliemann and Blegen demonstrated the historicity of the Homeric poems archaeologically (Finley, 1954:37).

            The Trojan War, as recounted in The Iliad and The Odyssey, was paramount subject matter.  Homer’s literary indulgences aside, there are elements from archaeological and textual analyses that further support the historical validity of a conflict between Greeks from the mainland and a Trojan coalition.  Although Homer’s description of the hostilities between the two Mediterranean powers is not exactly congruent with archaeological findings, it is a starting point (Finley, 1954:186).

            There are several things that are important in archaeologically and historically associating Troy with Mycenae.  Level VI of the excavations at Troy reveals pottery remains that indicate contact between Mycenae and Troy (Bryce, 1998:396).  Hittite sources recovered elsewhere in Anatolia make mention of names and places that are linguistically similar to Greek renderings of names and places Homer recounts.  Scholar Emil Forrer claimed to have found references to two vassal kingdoms in western Anatolia in the letters of Tudhaliya I:  Wilusiya and Taruisa (Bryce, 1998:394).  He interpreted these as the Hittite renderings of Ilios and Troy, respectively.  Forrer also found reference to the king of the Ahhiyawa, which Forrer took to be the Hittite spelling for Achaea (Akhuoi)—ancient Mycenae (Bryce, 1998:394).  Among the other names that resonated with personages of the  Homeric poems were Alaksandu (Alexander Paris) and Pariya-muwa or Piyamiradu (Priam) (Bryce, 1998:395).  Forrer’s conclusions gave further credibility to the notion of a historical Troy, and relations between Troy and Mycenae.

            Forrer also examined another document that contained further evidence for a Trojan War.  He studied the Manapa-Tarhimda letter and found that it gave the location of Walusiya.  Manapa-Tarhimda was the ruler of a vassal state of the Hittite Empire in western Anatolia called the Seha River Land.  The ruler mentioned that Wilusiya suffered a number of attacks during the thirteenth century.  Manapa-Tarhimda stated that Wilusiya was indeed in the northwest corner or Anatolia (Bryce, 1998:395). 

            Political relations between Mycenae and western Anatolia began to deteriorate sometime in the thirteenth century B.C.  There is some evidence that lends credence to the notion that the Mycenaeans took part in a series of successive raids between 1250 and 1200 B.C. that partly destroyed Troy (Pomeroy et al, 1999:37).  According to M. I. Finley, it is possible that war broke out between the two powers due to economic reasons.  Plausible reasons include fishing rights and merchant ship passage in the Hellespont, and access to copper resources (Finley, 1954:397-98).

            The archaeological record attests to the fact that some force destroyed Troy in the thirteenth century.  Blegen contested that Troy VIIa was Homer’s Troy, and that its earliest destruction was 1200 B.C. (Bryce, 1998:398)  However, Troy VIIa appears to have been a relatively poor community; not at all like the description of Troy in the Homeric poems (Finley, 1954:168).  Troy VIh reveals occupation that is consistent with the Troy that Priam ruled (Bryce, 1998:398)  Given the evidence, it is likely that Troy VIh was Homer’s Troy, instead of Troy VIIa.

            Mycenaean archaeological finds have both confirmed certain details of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and refuted others.  For instance, with regard to supportive data, the boar-tusked helmets that Homer mentions in The Iliad were verifiable military equipment in use in Mycenae (Finley, 1954:176-77).  Also, the fact that Agamemnon was the head of the Mycenaean coalition is also supported (Finley, 1954:185).  Archaeologists have also found broaches similar to the one Odysseus used to fasten his cloak (Nilsson, 1968:123-24).

            Conversely, there are some aspects of Mycenaeans in the Homeric poems that are not confirmed by archaeology.  In the Homeric poems, the slain heroes are burned on pyres.  This practice is inconsistent with shaft burial customs of the Mycenaeans (Lang, 1906:86).  Furthermore, Homer stated that warriors utilized leather shields coated with bronze.  Again, there seems to be no evidence for this shield design in Mycenaean excavations (Lang, 1906:109-10).

            Despite the debate, The Iliad and The Odyssey retain an amount of historical accuracy.  Granted, Homer did take license in the process of composing his works.  He was a poet and wrote as a poet recalling an earlier time.  Obviously, there are details about that earlier time that Homer described correctly, such as the historical kingdoms of Troy and Ilios.  However, he did obscure, and in some cases, misrepresent traits of various themes and persons, such as the practice of burning a body on a funeral pyre.

            The most convincing evidence for a conflict between Troy and Mycenae in the thirteenth century is the work of Emil Forrer.  His correlation of Hittite records and place names in the Homeric poems was innovative.  The linguistic similarities that he illustrated, such as Wilusiya being the Hittite rendering of Ilios, are quite compelling.  Forrer’s work on the Manapa-Tarhimda letter, naming the location of Wilusiya, is equally compelling.  The presence of a contemporary written record, in this case, the Hittite letters, and the names contained therein, present a strong argument for the aforementioned conflict.

            With regard to the Trojan War itself, it seems more plausible that the Trojan War was actually a series of engagements, given the gradual decline in Aegean economy that was occurring.  The occupants of Troy VIIa were left very poor, perceptibly from the battles.  Evidence for several raids in the archaeological record of Troy supports the notion of a number of Trojan Wars, as opposed to one single war (Pomeroy, et al, 1999:37).

            The Iliad and The Odyssey are first and foremost, poetry.  However, as illustrated herein, they do have a good deal of historical merit.  The nature of the oral tradition of Dark Age Greece and archaeology illuminate the subject of the historicity of the Homeric poems.  They help scholars to fill in the gaps of the historical record.  Homer looked back into history to a previous time whose nature, in some respects, still eludes the historical record.  Homer was a poet who preserved much of Greek myth and legend for his audiences, and managed to create a piece of art that preserved something of their history as well (albeit inaccurate in some areas).  Percy Bysse Shelley observed that every good historian is a poet.  As in the case of Homer, it can be said that the reverse is not always true—that every good poet is a historian—but he did give substantial material of an undeniably historical nature.



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