The OG MC: Homer and the Evolution of Art in the Ancient World

I was reading a really interesting article about Egyptian art and its depictions of unknown and extinct animals. The particular example the article is exploring are so-called “Meidum Geese,” a plaster painting in the tomb of the Fourth Dynasty (2600s – 2400s BC) prince, Nefermaat. 

Aside from its great beauty and realism, the painting depicts three types of geese: the greylag (the geese with their heads down), the white-fronted (the pair facing left), and a third mystery breed (the right-facing pair). The unknown geese are usually identified as red-breasted geese, but if you see the larger pictures below, the geese are not exactly the same.

The red-breasted goose

Additionally, the modern territory of the red-breasted goose tracks between the Arctic Circle in the north and Black Sea in the south, not especially close to Egypt.

Migratory pattern of the red-breasted goose

The question becomes, then, is this a case of artistic license, or is this evidence of a species we don’t have anymore? Because there are certainly examples of extinct plants and animals in art that we know existed in the ancient world that we no longer have. My favorite example of this is a plant that the Romans used for contraception that was so effective that they drove the plant into extinction. We know it existed, but we have no idea what it was.

[Octavius: Gross, people…]

Anyway, this all made me think of the academic theory that the ancient Greeks didn’t see the same colors that we do. Which I know sounds crazy, but we often forget that “color” is a very subjective thing. What colors you see may or may not be the ones that I see.

[My husband still refuses to believe there is more than one way to see this dress…]

But the Greek theory comes from an anthropological idea that if a culture doesn’t have a word for a certain color, it will either not see that color, or will perceive it in a vastly different manner. And for the Greeks, this comes from the language of Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer makes unusual color designations, which, as a poet, wouldn’t be wholly strange, except they often involve things we think of as blue. He routinely refers to the sky as yellow (which it certainly can be, but it’s not what a modern person would name as the default), and, more famously, speaks of the “wine-dark” sea.

[Unless the Greeks were the original inventors of the Blue Hawaiian, if your wine is blue, consult a sommelier.] 

This all led to a theory that the Greeks didn’t see the color blue as we do. Which frankly sounds super-nifty, and may in fact be true, but obviously this is a situation where one must proceed with extreme scholarly caution. If for only the reason that, traditionally, Homer is thought to have been blind.

[Homer: My colors are definitely different than yours.]

But then again, the idea that Homer was a real, singular person is also a historical gloss. The invention of “Homer” is one of the earliest examples of author attribution in the world, and one that predates our modern obsession with knowing who wrote a piece of literature.

[Ancient people would probably be baffled by our vehement Shakespeare vs. Oxford debates.] 

Because for much of human history, the idea of authorship was much more fluid than what we consider it. Stories often grew out of a pre-literate oral tradition, and were passed on by designated people who told the stories, but weren’t its authors in the general sense of that term. Bards like Homer would perhaps embroider the stories with their own style or commentary, but they weren’t the ones who created the whole-cloth plot. In this way, ancient storytellers have more in common with modern fan fiction authors than what we identify as traditionally published writers. 

[Or with certain self-published authors dabbling in historical fantasy fiction…]

So, the versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey we think of as Homer’s are simply the most popular of a larger cloud of stories about the Trojan War — an event far enough in the pre-written past that for much recorded history there has been healthy debate as to whether it actually occurred. Modern archeologists are reasonably comfortable with identifying the Turkish site of Hisarlik as a likely location for the great walled city of Troy, but these ruins were only discovered in the mid-19th century, so for much of history, there was little tangible evidence of its existence outside of the literary tradition. But that’s why even today we still have variations on the core plot points of the war and its aftermath. One of the most well-known examples of this is the version of the story that says that beautiful Helen doesn’t run away with Paris to Troy, the catalyst for the war, but rather, Aphrodite creates a fake Helen who ends up in Troy while the real Helen is kept safe in Egypt by the gods while the war happens.

The Egyptians loved this version, obviously; giving their favorite pharaoh, Ramses II, a chance to flirt with the stranded Spartan queen. But the Greek playwright Euripides also uses it for his play Helen, which centers on Helen’s (still awkward) reunion with her husband, Menelaus. This might seem like a weird wrinkle to introduce into the story — if Helen isn’t abducted by the Trojan Paris, what is the point of the terrible war that happens in both versions? But I think that in itself is the point: that the war was fated to happen and nothing could have averted it. And as feminist criticism has always suspected, it really wasn’t about Helen at all.

This also accounts for the different versions of the Iphigenia story that we touched on in my entry about Racine, where sometimes she is sacrificed for favorable winds for the Greeks and sometimes she’s saved at the last minute by Artemis (with either no sacrifice in her place, or the Greek princess Eriphyle in her place).

Similarly, ancient writers came up with all sorts of biographical elements for the person they designated as Homer, the author of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and a lump of sacred poetry. Homer’s blindness comes from a hymn to Apollo supposedly composed by him, where the poet-speaker at the end directly addresses the audience as “the blind man that dwells in rocky Chios,” which is where we also get the notion that he is from Chios, the fifth-largest of the many islands that surround the Greek peninsula. Part of this checks out, as the visually impaired were often trained as bards or musicians in ancient times, since those were skills that didn’t require sight to perform.

A blind Egyptian harpist

Homer was said by some to be the son of the Meles River (in Smyrna, in ancient Anatolia/Turkey) and Critheïs, who is sometimes described as a nymph, or as the daughter of a local Greek man in Cumae (also in Asia Minor/Turkey). The Cumae tradition says that Critheïs became pregnant by an unknown man whom she wouldn’t name, and she was sent to friends in Smyrna to wait out her pregnancy to avoid shaming her family. There, she gave birth on the banks of the Meles, hence the idea of the river being Homer’s “father.” When later biographers simply wanted a straight-up mythological origin story, Critheïs becomes a nymph (presumably a nereid, a water nymph) and the Meles literally becomes his father.

The less fanciful versions of his biography, the ones that try to place him in the historical timeline, make Homer a contemporary of the Greek poet Hesiod, whose place in the timeline is also hotly debated, but is generally thought to have lived in the mid-700 – mid-800s BC. Hesiod was the first written poet of Ancient Greece, his two greatest works being his Theogony, and his Works & Days, which are the oldest sources we have for Greek mythology, and societal thought and customs, respectively. Homer and Hesiod together form the basis of much of what we know about the ancient Greeks, so it was natural for even later historians to link them together. Homer is perhaps the last of the great oral poets and Hesiod is the first of the new order, the written poets.

To try to contextualize this in terms of the Trojan War itself, that event (if it occurred), is usually thought to have taken place in the 1200-1100s BC — about 400 years before Hesiod is thought to have lived, and 1,400 years after somebody painted those weird geese in Nefermaat’s tomb in Meidum. But that’s how the story seems to change so rapidly: four hundred years after Homer, people already thought his mother had sex with a river, so it’s easy to see why Homer would have made the gods such active players in a war that happened four hundred years before the story got to him.

[It just takes one bad apple…]

That timeframe for the war and its bard is also cobbled together through references to various objects described in the poem, especially armor and weaponry. Homer gives the warriors Bronze Age weapons, rather than the iron weaponry thought to belong to his own time, but he’s not always consistent. Sometimes they use the larger Mycenaean shields appropriate for the Bronze Age, but sometimes they’re mentioned with the smaller apis shields that men in the Iron Age would use. Similarly, cremating the dead (as is done in the Iliad) is an Iron Age practice, whereas burial was preferred by people of the Bronze Age. But it’s these anachronisms that scholars use to point to the idea that the author(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey were retelling the story of the war at a significantly later date. Original Bronze Age elements remain in certain parts, but Iron Age items might have crept in so that an audience of that time period would understand what was going on. Also, if another Iron Age person is writing down what a bard is saying, they might not bother to differentiate between shield types, assuming an audience of their time would think of the apis anyway.

[Look, he said “shield!” I’m a writer, not an armorer!]

This might also be accounted for by the (known) later dates of the compiling of these texts, which we also touched on a few months ago. If you recall from my entry about the Library of Alexandria, several of the first six Head Librarians are the men who were responsible for collecting and unifying the various Homeric texts into what we now typically identify as the canonical versions; namely, Zenodotus of Ephesus (#1), Aristophanes of Byzantium (#4), and especially Aristarchus of Samothrace (#6). These men were living roughly in the mid-200 – mid-100s BC, at least another five hundred years after the proposed death of Homer, the last acknowledged author of the texts in question, and nearly a thousand years after the war itself. That’s a lot of time to have things lost in translation.

[Half of you are picturing this when you think about something that happened a thousand years ago…]

All of this is a very roundabout way to say that the Iliad and the Odyssey have come down to us in a long, ancient game of Telephone, and we’re probably a long way from being able to make sweeping, clickbait statements like “The Greeks Couldn’t See Blue!!” The more interesting question might rather be wondering who the other authors of these stories are, the ones who might account for everything from the divergent objects scattered across the narrative to the noticeable stylistic differences between the two poems. There’s a mystery we’re no more likely to resolve than Homer’s paternity. What a challenge for a antiquarian or a novelist.

[I had to include this insert of Raphael’s painting Parnassus, which shows Homer (center), Virgil (right), and Dante (left), because every depiction of Dante makes him look like he’s fiftieth in line at the DMV. Even when he’s hanging out with his favorite people.]

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