I’ve always preferred the ODYSSEY to the ILIAD. Homer’s account of the end of the Trojan War is too slow and rambling for my taste, whereas Odysseus’ post-war adventures on his way home to Ithaca are faster and much more entertaining, even though his tale is a myth. Or is it?
I’ve been watching some daytime tv this last week – something I almost never do, but I’ve had a summer cold which I couldn’t shake off, and it made me feel very washed-out. Among the documentaries I’d have missed if I’d been at my desk was an interesting speculation on one of the history channels about whether any of the events in the Odyssey could be remotely based on fact.
Take the one-eyed cannibal giant Cyclops, for instance. There’s a disease named Cyclopia apparently (called after him, presumably;) if a pregnant woman is exposed to certain poisonous substances her child can be born with one central eye. Did this give Homer, whoever he was (or they were,) the idea for his fearsome giants? Or, another suggestion: could some Greek traveller have encountered the skull of an elephant, which apparently has a large central cavity and small inconspicuous eye sockets…and got the wrong idea?
Then consider the siren songs which lured sailors to their deaths. There’s an island (can’t remember its name, blame my woolly memory on my cold,) containing deep caves which magnify any sound made in them to a level which would have been remarkable in ancient times. And the almost-melodic call of the monk seal, if made within the caves, might it have been heard by mariners sailing past, and mistaken for a human song?
Being no expert on Bronze Age Greece, I’ve no idea whether these ideas are new, or even seriously likely. But Greeks were brave and widely-travelled sailors in ancient times. I went back and re-read the Odyssey with enjoyment.
Then I remembered an even more fascinating book about a later Greek seafarer, Pythias from Marseilles, who was undoubtedly fact, not fiction. “THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE OF PYTHIAS THE GREEK,” by Professor Barry Cunliffe, tells how this remarkable sailor travelled out of the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic seaboard. He visited and wrote about Brittany, the British Isles (even as far north as Orkney,) and the eastern coasts of the North Sea. And all this in an age when Greeks knew virtually nothing about the Ocean except (a) they thought it surrounded the inhabited world, and (b) they were afraid of it.
Pytheas’ account of his explorations, “On The Ocean,” published about 320 BC, is now lost. Only fragments remain, quoted in other Greek scholars’ works, and Cunliffe has used them, with very many other sources, to bring us a picture of Pytheas’ life, times, and above all, travels. What sort of boat would he have sailed? How would ha have navigated in unfamiliar waters? What did he make of the peoples he met along the way? It’s all here, and it’s fascinating.
Cunliffe makes the point that while many of Pythias’ readers must have regarded his stories with disbelief, others thought him a true pioneer and a scientist, and so do scholars of today; they place Pythias alongside Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus, not alongside Odysseus.
Next time you need to take your mind off a summer cold, or even a winter one, these two very different heroes do the job perfectly.