Letters From Crete
The time is 3.30 AM Cretan o’Clock. I am currently having a mild asthma attack on account, no doubt, of a series of cats which hover about our Agios Ioannis home waiting for scraps. Making love to m’lady on the outside bed & thus releasing a snowstorm of dander didn’t help things, while the altitude hangs like a Sword of Damocles over my lungs. Another bone of contention is the massive battle I’ve been having with the native mosquitos, & after two hours of carnage I’ve decided to just go out onto the verandah & type an essay through the night. There is a fresh-laid coffee by my side. The goat’s bell is tinkling.
The subject shall be my recent endeavouring with Free Verse. A Parnasssian at heart, formal versification has been my mantra for many years, but I am not completely ignorant to realise that Free Verse has enjoyed, & is still enjoying, a sustained period as the standard. In recent times I have been deliberating that a Pendragon of this particular epoch should formalize & codify the nuances within Free Verse. There was once a time when the highways had hardly any traffic regulation, when Ford Model Ts career’d all over the place with motorized abandon. Such a lawless state is similar to the one in which Free Versifying finds itself today.
Ever since Whitman elongated his lines, voyeurs of fashion began to look upon the form-poem as a faded, rattling jurassic, & turned to the new, to the fresh, to the exciting vogue of vers libre. ‘I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down,’ piped Robert Frost whimsacally in 1935, by which time the political tide had turned, so to speak, & Free Verse poets were more & more taking up seats in the Senate.
I have personally had the odd dabble with Free Verse since my inception as a poet, including one huge vomiting of material in 2003, a piece entitled Bohemia, which contains one my favorite pieces.
THE LOST POEM
I wrote a poem once,
At Hatfield, not far from the scene of disaster
My friend was driving there one sunny day
Smoking reefers & talking about life’s changes
We ended up in a funky metal scrapyard
One of those places you never thought existed
Like when you were younger & joked
About where all the lost odd socks went
But this place was the real deal,
Full of Volkswagon carcasses,
Camper vans & Beetle hulks
& a couple of greasy mechanics,
chilling with the sun
While my friend looked at a ninety-nicker bumper
I was suddenly inspired to write a few desolate lines
About the decaying Earth & the dwindling fuel reserves
& finished it off with an arty kind of twist
About discovering an old photograph of myself
Holding a pretty young lady, she was wearing beads
Sat upon the beach of, perhaps, San Remo
It never happened like that, but all poems need an end
While my friend looked at a ninety-nicker bumper
I was suddenly inspired to write a few desolate lines
About the decaying Earth & the dwindling fuel reserves
& finished it off with an arty kind of twist
About discovering an old photograph of myself
Holding a pretty young lady, she was wearing beads
Sat upon the beach of, perhaps, San Remo
It never happened like that, but all poems need an end
So I stashed it away,
A single sheet of paper folded several times
Constantly forgetting to type the blighter up
Until it turned up in a book I was reading
Livy’s remarkable Early History of Rome
I’d packed it to study on my mission round the Baltic
Where trawling about the soft streets of Stockholm
Wondering what the hell the plastic cows were for
Every time I picked it up the sheet fell out the pages
Constantly reminding me that I should make it safe
It would only take a second, but I never took the time…
I found myself having one of those moments
The sun setting sublimely as I ate my evening meal
Upon the forecastle of the hotel boat I was staying on
The splish-splosh of the waves & a gust of sea breeze
Blew out the sheet as I turned a page
To float on the air like a falling feather
Time was standing still but the paper started F
To slip thro the narrowest of cracks tween the L boards
To be found one day in the distant future I
By somebody breaking up the hold for scrap N
I was gutted at first,
Like the time my girlfriend ran off with a German
But as I ponder’d home to my cabin empty handed,
Past painted memorials of the age of sail
I had a remarkable epiphany
At last my poem had a proper end!
The Lost Poem is pure free verse. No rhyme, no rhythm to speak of, with a piece of aesthetic ‘concrete’ wordplay to boot. Thirteen years after penning the piece, I feel obliged to consider Free Verse now in a formal way, to record its invented ‘species’ just as the Welsh Bards recorded their native forms. In recent weeks I have completed my first survey into the possibility of formalizing 24 Free Verse Forms (FVF), a number identical to the official Welsh metres as codified by Einion Offeiriad & Dafydd Ddu Athro. As exercise is always superior to theory, I utilized these FVF throughout the composition of my ‘Sylvermane: The Last Wolf of Scotland.’ The majority of the FVF were taken from poets of the last few decades, which like stars in the sky I have named after their ‘discoverer,’ or in some cases the actual poem itself. On analysis of my efforts, I have come to the conclusion that although most are quite satisfactory, certain FVF didn’t quite hit the mark, & should be replaced by others at a future reassessment. A dozen, however, have passed my own critical standards, which I would definitively like to offer to the senate of posterity. The poetry they contain is from Sylvermane.
I The Hugo: After the poem ‘April in Cerignola’ by Richard Hugo.
This is Norway, esteemed. The sun is mean
all summer, but underneath the Watchers
gaze on trollskin forests, trunks support
Valhalla on columns of adamantine granite,
misty mountains stitched with river silver,
lynxes prowl by wolverines, brown bears
& tremendous gangs of wolves, among
whom prospers, exhausted, Sylvermane.
II The Respiro: After the collection ‘Journey Across Breath’ by Stephen Watts, translated as ‘Tragitto nel respiro,’ by Cristina Viti.
Upon ancient Cruachan,
Long-lost hill-fort, mossy
gums, rings of gorse, Hipp
olytes’ spear, amber-heade
d, shaft thrust in cavern so
il : Millennia before; in thi
s den tonight a she-wolf e
mpties slowly her womb f
or Old White, these pricele
ss births AT LAST! AT L
AST! & manifesting the di
vine, four wonderful pups;
III The Tomlinson: A staccato stanza From Charles Tomlinson’s ‘Ode to San Francisco.’
The Red Dawn spreads
& did suffuse
a splodge of paint
hits holy canvas
from Culbin’s rooves
gawp in awe
ivy creeps gladly
up sunlit walls
IV The Thorpe: After the poem ‘Putting the Boot In’ by Adam Thorpe.
for full-faced moon
he loved hearing tales
of Cruachan’s Carlin
he comb’d the locks
of Morag, by rivers
he heard the thunder
stun green-robed Watchers
‘Fetch me, my love,
my bier & my bow
& strings so supple’
V The Aygi: After the poem ‘Playing Finger Games’ by Gennady Aygi.
Malcolm welcom’d heartily – the Hunter Poet, whose fresh-spirited lines, in these very halls, have been repeated by lesser-breathing bards – they had stood proudly before the Campbells of Glenorchy – of these, Sir John of Bredalbane had made Kilchurn a barracks – it stands, knifepoint sharp, at the bare throat of cattle-tracks
VI The Wheatley: After the poem ‘A Skimming Stone, Lough Bray’ by David Wheatley
lift the lid of sleep
twitching limbs, raising heads
lick her mouth
blood-flow growing thicker.
Months pass by
burgeoning hierarchies settle
tails between legs
pointing straight at Sylvermane.
VII The Barnstone: After the poem, Family, by Willis Barnstone.
Two years fly by & the pack
Is changing fast, Sylvermane
& his sister
after the season of snows
tension rises with the sun
day of fangs & claws
broke oer Cruachan
it was a mighty match-up ‘til the last
when Sylvermane saw sense & slinked
VIII The Tempest: A wild, stormy, random & meandering form used by Kate Tempest in her ‘Let Them Eat Chaos.’
Angry winds batter land
Sun dimmer than memory remembers
Conducting feebly bleating sheep
IX The Gaer: From the poem ‘The Hill Fort (Y Gaer) by Owen Shears.
Since the day she was taken
fuscous darkness stains the mountains
despite gloriously daybreaking worlds
Sylvermane ensared by sadnesses
torturous sensations of stagnancy
of life forfoughten – he paws loosely
Raven swoops by, depress’d by
His doomdrunk dolour, pitying
His gait’s subsidence… a fly drifts by
X The Insom: After the poem ‘Insomonia; By Sydney Lea.
The pack has grown perilously small;
Beside the alpha mates,
in perfect genuflection,
only her parent & brother for protection
& Goldenfang’s nulliparous womb,
‘Let us try again for the Spring’
She nuzzles her beloved
The famous Old White whose thunder-howls pierce
the Trossachs’ sculptured stillness, since him born
his Fur always grey, but his name
was given under noble circumstances –
His mother watched him as a pup
sat stone-still on stones below peaktops hidden
by tottering cumuli, where flashes of cyan sky
erupted in the whiteness of the whitest cloud,
jaws gape open… an old, old soul
XI The Concrete: The universal term for poetry that has both meaning & ashthetic qualities.
XII The Kazantzis: From the collection, ‘The Rabbit Magician Plate’ by Judith Kazantzis
Flipping in her iron-forged talons
she brings back fish for the feasting
Sylvermane coughs up bones
Days pass, stength increases,
cunning accumulates & speed
accelerates as teeth gnaw sharper
Night falls, as was the custom
wolves set off in single file
silently treading, & softly
The scent is caught upon the tracks
red deer, hot blood throbs thro’ veins
churning with bestial intent
From chaos, then, comes order, or at least a semblance of order. Times & tides & of course tastes will change again, that is certain, & new modes of poetic creation will come into play & Free Verse will become confined to fringes along with all the other forms that had been invented, utilized & then put out of fashion by newly-forged forms. The old forms do not go to a graveyard, however, but to a library of mechanisms able to be accessed by the student poet, or the practitioner who feels their soul connected to a particular form. Where we have our Sonnetteers, let us also have our Freeverseers. For the latter, the directorial words of Ezra Pound, one of the leading exponents & standard bearers of free verse, should suffice;
I think one should write vers libre only when one ‘must,’ that is to say, only when the thing builds up a rhythm more beautiful than that of set metres, or more real, more of a part of the emotion of the ‘thing’, more germane, intimate, interpretative than the measure of regular accentual verse; a rhythm which discontents one with set iambic or set anapaestic
In this essay I have made the first tentative steps into organising free verse & bringing the mould into the accepted family of forms. Of course, Free Verse by its nature has needed tidying up a bit, given a close shave, & supplied with the proper lessons of decorum as given to any dilettante, but as with all young rebels, the form must bow to the inevitable & realise it is just a minor prince in a wider nation of princes. The Risorgimento has come.
While lazing in the Cretan hills these past few days I have been chiefly editing my sonnet sequence, The Silver Rose, which has led me to finally finalize the contents of this essay. The Sonneverse has been running around my head since about 2008, when I used to muse on its essence on the long walk from Heather Lodge to Dunbar. One occasion is especially memorable, as I sat on Spott Dod overlooking East Lothian, with the universe surging from my mind. The general thesis is that there is a corpus of human works known as the Sonneverse, an ever-expanding collection of poetry in the sonnet form. Imagine the very first sonnet ever written to be the Big Bang, kinda thing. I have written a sonnet, of course, elucidating its properties;
Every stanza is a planet
Every sonnet is a star
Fourteen sonnets constellations make
But brighter skies by far
Are galaxies of constellations
Fourteen in each one
Stretching epic metaverses,
& when one’s works are done
A host of sonnets ye shall choose
Full seven score & fourteen gems
Most lucious whisp’rings of thy muse
Set in those precious diadems
Crowning the sonnetteer who sings
From Ceasars to our petty kings
When the opening couplet reads, ‘Every stanza is a planet, Every sonnet is a star,’ the meaning is simple. A sonnet is powered by the same energy which emanates from a star; i.e. the fiery light-giving force which giving life to its planetary system. In terms of the sonnet, this energy will then bring to life the poem’s planets – the stanzas – & whether the star’s energy is powerful or weak will depend upon the quality of the sonnet. William Blake once said that the genius & creative spirit of mankind was poetry & it is in the sonneverse that we gain our most natural reflection of the Untold Universe at large.
In one of my Pendragon Lectures of two years ago, I formulated the theory that poems stood upon four pillars – Music, Mood, Mould & Measure.Let us now apply this theory to the exploration of the sonnet form, retaining the ‘quatordicci’ element that seems natural in soneteering, ie the omniprevalent usage of the number 14. The MOULD of every sonnet is bound by a 14-line restriction. Each sonnet, however, may be divided into staves, or stanzettas as I like to call them. These are the planets in orbit around the sonnet’s star. The Petrarchean, for example, contains two stanzettas, of 8 & 6 lines respectively. During my time as an explorer of the Sonneverse, I have mapped out a number of typical planetary systems.
X X X X X X X X – X X X X X X
X X X X – X X X X – X X X X – X X
X X – X X – X X – X X – X X – X X – X X
X X X X X – X X X X X – X X X X
Each planet of a starsystem can be mapped out via its MEASURE. There may be seven Archilochian Couplets, for example, or the 3/3/3/3/2 Oriental system, i.e. four stanzettas of 5-7-5 Haiku, follow’d by the concluding 7-7 couplet. If one had decided upon a structure of 5/5/4, then for your pentet staves you could use a Limerick, perhaps, or the South American Wayra, whose syllable counts are 5-7-7-6-8. There are vastly numbered variants; including irregular sonnets which look & feel like Free Verse, hefty Alexandrines in solid blank verse blocks, & so on, into infinity, one expects.
Every planet also possesses an atmosphere, or MOOD. These could be a Prosodion to Apollo perhaps, or a precious Paean to a new-found paramour. A bubbling Barzelletta; a sensuous Ghazel; a Senryu to a silly friend, a weeping Epicedium; a Protreptic plea to passion; or a soul-stirring Aubade. For the budding sonneteer there are many, many possible ways in which to create one’s words. These are instilled with a poem’s MUSIC, the animated life of both line & the stave, where the poets weave their symphonies utilising elements such as cynghanned & rhymes both internal & line-ending.
The planetary systems created by the sonetteers oscillate between barren anisometric rocks of sterile worlds, or are occupied by single & gigantic fertile planets, buzzing with the operatic voices of man, beast, bird & insect, just as is heard in this fabulous land of Creta. In one corner of the sonneverse, for example, the hardy explorer may encounter the Onegin giant devised by Alexander Sergevich Pushkin for his Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse. Stanzas have 14 lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ababccddeffegg, & the rhymes may be feminine & masculine.
Returning to my sonnet given earlier, where we read ‘fourteen sonnets constellations make,’ in the purest sense of the physics, fourteen sonnets make a traditional sequenza, ie 14 star-systems closely linked in time, in space & by the aforementioned ‘constellation’ of sonnets. ‘The Fourteen Sonnets, Elegiac and Descriptive. Written During a Tour. Bath and London, 1789,’ by William Lisle Bowles are a perfect example. Each sonnets is Petrarchian in mould, iambic pentameter in measure, & are unified by the observatory mood of a travelling poet. In my own experimental periods with the constellation, I tried diversifying the measures, sometimes utilizing the same one for 14 stanzas, sometimes using 14 different ones. I also did the same with the Moods, such as;
Vista : Composed from a high viewpoint
Odes : A tribute to people or places
Pastoral : Poetry describing rural scenes
Amoebean : A conversation between 2 speakers
Ensenhamen : A didactic poem
Epistle : A poem addressed to a friend
Barzelletta : A funny story
History : A poem about a past event
Ghazel : A poem concerning lovemaking
Quasida : A place which recalls lamented lost love
Sutra : A treatise
Tantra : A religious treatise/sermon
Fable : A moral narrative
Geste : An account of deeds / adventures
Of the next step up in the Sonneverse, I wrote there are, ‘galaxies of constellations, fourteen in each one.’ i.e. 196 sonnets again unified by a grand theme we shall call the Gestalt. I have composed several of galaxies; a tour of the far North of Scotland, a tour of Edinburgh, & a tour of India. Of these, the Ediniad galaxy was the most technical, for each of the 14 constellations were unified by a singular measure, such as 14 alexandrines, 14 ottosyllabics, etc. As for the mould, the first sonnet of each constellation would be a dense block of fourteen lines, the next would be seven couplets, the next would be 3/3/3/3/2, the next would be 4/4/4/2 & so on. A incredibly complex, but quite satisfying essay into the possible architectronics of sonnetry. For me, a royal suite of sonnets would be a galaxy in which every sonnet would have a different mould of fourteen varieties, a different metre of fourteen varieties & a differnt mood of fourteen varieties. I have never attempted to create one, but on those lofty walks in the foothills of the Lammermuirs I definitely ruminated upon such… a glimpse through my psychic telescope into the far-flung reaches of the Sonneverse.
I am writing this overlooking the Libyan Sea, high up in the mountain village of Agios Ioanis. We reached here three days ago, calling in at Gortys along the way – the ancient capital of Crete – in 39 degree heat, & far too hot to explore very much. I did pick up a copy of the oldest Law Code in Europe however, & have a mind to mixing it in with some classical poetry Emily gifted me as translated by Robin Skelton. All in the relatively near future of course. From Gortys, we took a wrong turn & ended up back at busy Heraklion, which was perhaps serendipitous as it allowed the girls to have another blast at Star Beach.
At 5 in the evening we set off for our next residence, crossing the island again from sea-to-sea as far as Ireapetra. As we drove south I was delighted to see the stone boat sunk by Poseidon near Pseria, the island I presume to be that of the Phaecaens of the Odyssey. I had searched for the stone boat in vain on Google Earth, thinking it would be hard at the Pseria’s twin Minoan harbours – but is instead closer to the mainland & the Minoan city of Gournia, which may be of some significance.
Agios Ioannis is a 9K drive to the head of a wonderful olive-smitten U-shaped mountain recess. Stacked white against the mountains, it is half dilapidated & half regenerated in the Calcata fashion. Once a bustling town, in the 70s & 80s the inhabitants drifted to easier lives in the city & by the coast, leaving an insanely beautiful ghost-town. Even today, in the winter, there are only six full-time residents. Our house is large… two wings behind an excellent garden tended by the grey-bearded Adonis. Five cats, three dogs & a timid goat contribute to the safari-like nature of our domicile, along with all those grievously nasty mosquitos that are ravaging the girls. There are no shops & only two places to eat; the modernistic, uniquely-detailed Route 55 Café Bar & Kristina’s tavern, where we can take away genuine Greek food to eat at varius places at our homestead & garden. It is over one of these meals, with wine to hand, in the gentle evening light, sat at the table on our porch, that I shall now ruminate on the true Trojan War.
As I have stated in previous essays, the Homeric epics are a grand jumble of creochisps; a wooly ball of well-woven threads of numerous origins. Having extracted the Menalean string at Karames, let us now examine the orgins of the war which Homer clearly sets in NW Turkey. We begin with the supposed date, deduced by examining The Life of Homer – said to have been penned by Herodotus (scholars prefer to call him Pseudo-Herodotus) – which tells us that the poet was born 168 years after the Trojan War & 622 years before the Persian invasion of Greece by Xerxes I. With the Xerxean battle of Thermopyles taking place in 480BC, if we wind back another (622+168=) 790 years, we may assume the Trojan War ended in 1270 BC. This year also fits information supplied by Herodotus’, ‘Pan who was born of Penelope… came into being later than the wars of Troy, about eight hundred years before my time.’
To Herodotus the Trojan War was fought before 1250 BC. To this period, we may also pin the Locrian Curse, which gives us the exact year of the fall of Troy, 1264 BC. The story goes that the Locrian hero Ajax was shipwrecked by Poseidon for raping Cassandra in the temple of Athena just after the fall of Troy. Swimming for his life, when he reached the coast of Eobea he was struck by a bolt of lightning & slain. Lycophron, in his ‘Alexandria,’ describes the Locrians as being subsequently cursed for a thousand years, & were forced to send two unmarried maidens to the temple of Athena at Ilion of Athens each year, where they would spend the remainder of their lives. It was only in 264 BC that the Locrians finally satisfied the curse’s conditions.
Another route comes via combining the date given by ‘Timaeus the Sicilian,’ for the foundation of Rome, who says it was founded at the same time as Carthage, in the thirty-eighth year before the first Olympiad. This year would be 814 or 813. Anchoring our investigation on this date, when we examine the writings of the celebrated 2nd century BC orator Porcius Cato – Cato the Elder – we learn that the Trojan War occurred 432 years before the foundation of Rome. This gives a date of 1246/45.
As for where this war was fought, up until the end of the nineteenth century the enlightened opinion of academia considered the Trojan War to be a battle non gratia, on the basis that nobody could actually find a city called Troy. It took the financial fortune & dogged persistance of Heinrik Schliemann to uncover the long-lost capital citadel of Ilium. As a boy he had been entertained upon his father’s knee by the tales of Achilles, Helen, Paris & Menaleus. Growing into manhood, these stories gripped his imagination more & more, until he decided to plunge his business fortune into a search for the city of Troy. Choosing a site where the Roman ‘New Troy’ had been built – & very much to the scoffs of the scholars – Schliemann began to excavate a certain Hisalrik Hill in NW Turkey. The results were simply astonishing as he & his team of Turkish workers, toiling daily in the sun, slowly unearthed the massive cyclopean walls of a great citadel; the long-lost ‘high-towered Troy.’ Schliemann also discovered a great entranceway, which he dubbed the Homeric ‘Scaean Gate,’ leading him to declare to the planet, ‘I have proved that in a remote antiquity there was in the plain of Troy a large city, destroyed of old by a fearful catastrophe, which had on the hill of Hisalrik only its Acropolis with its temples and a few other large edifices, southerly, and westerly direction on the site of the later Ilium; and that, consequently, this city answers perfectly to the Homeric description of the sacred site of Ilios.’
Scholars were unsurprisingly skeptical as to the size of the city; such a palace, though undoubtedly large, could never have housed the massy legions which swarmed on the Trojan side. Schliemann would eventually die dissapointed that he had not discovered the true Troy. But, to please his ghost, since his passing, layer by layer, like the skins of a field-fresh onion, archeologists have uncovered a series of Troys dating back thousands of years, including parts of a long wall which would have encircled Hisalrik hill, vastly enlarging the city’s size. In total, there are seven ‘layers’ to Troy, ranging from 3000 BC to the aforementioned ‘New Troy,’ built by the Romans c.100 AD. These seven cities are divided into sub-stratific layers, of which Troy VIh & VIIa are the most interesting. Troy VI was initially built on massive scale c.1400 BC, a solid edifice of carefully fitted ashlar blocks, with two of its towers erected not long before the destruction of VIh by an earthquake, about the year 1300 BC.
It is possible to match these events to a creochisping mythomeme of a demigod called Herakles, & his own destruction of Troy. According to Herodotus (c.450 BC), Herakles was born ‘about nine hundred years,’ before his own time, ie c.1350. The legend of the demi-god’s destruction of Troy, as found in the Iliad & the Bibliotheke of Apollodorus, shows Poseidon, The Earthshaker, attacking Troy with the help of a sea-beast, a probable euhemeristic account of an earthquake & tsunami striking the shores of Asia Minor. The Roman historian Strabo tells us;
Poseidon, as the story runs, became angry with Laomedon the king of Troy in connection with the building of its walls, and sent forth from the sea a monster to ravage the land. By this monster those who made their living by the seashore and the farmers who tilled the land contiguous to the sea were being surprised and carried off. Furthermore, a pestilence fell upon the people and a total destruction of their crops, so that all the inhabitants were at their wits’ end because of the magnitude of what had befallen them. Consequently, the common crowd gathered together into an assembly and sought for a deliverance from their misfortunes, and the king, it is said, dispatched a mission to Apollo to inquire of the god regarding what had befallen them. When the oracle, then, became known, which told that the cause was the anger of Poseidon and that only then would it cease when the Trojans should of their own free will select by lot one of their children and deliver him to the monster for his food, although all the children submitted to the lot, it fell upon the king’s daughter Hesionê.
Luckily for Hesione, Herakles turns up just in time & offers to slay the monster in return for some of Laomedon’s quality horses. After Herakles upheld his side of the bargain & slew the beast, Laodemon then went back on his word, resulting in a very angry demigod sacking Troy. Another Roman historian, Diodorus Siculus, writes;
Aye, what a man, they say, was Heracles in might, my father he, steadfast, with heart of lion, who once came here to carry of the mares of King Laomedon, with but six ships and scantier men, yet sacked he then the city of proud Ilium, and made her streets bereft.
During the slaughter, Herakles killed Laodemon & all of his sons except a young Priam, the Homeric king of Troy. Hesione also survived, marrying Herakles’ companion Telamon & settling in Greece. According to the myths, Herakles placed the young Priam on the throne of Troy. The actual foundations of this story can be discerned through certain letters discovered at Hattusa, the capital of a Near Eastern empire ruled by the Hittites. In them we may read how, in about the year 1290BC, a certain Tawagawala, the brother of the King of Ahhiyawa (Grecian Achaea), supports a certain Piyamaradu in southern Turkey. It is time to assemble a couple of babel-chains;
That Herakles is Tawagalawa is supported by the Hattusa letter placing him in Lycia, a region on the southern Turkish coast. ‘When the men of the city Lukka transferred their allegience to Mr. Tawagalawa, he came into these lands. They transferred their allegience to me in the same way, and I came down into these lands.’ These events are also mentioned by Panyassis of Helicarnassus – a student of Herodotus – whose epic poem on Herakles, the Heracleia, has the hero rescuing certain Cretan colonists in Lyica. ‘It is certain,’ states Christoper Prestige Jones, ‘that Panyassis’ epic brought Heracles to Lycia, & here too the poet may well have followed local tradition.’
The Hittite letters describe Piyamaradu as a renegade ‘adventurer,’ who at one point tries to reassert his dynastic claim to the throne of Troy, called Wilusa in the letters. We also learn how he married his daughter off to Ata, the ruler of Millawanda, or Miletus, the very same city where Hesione is said by the Greeks to have sought refuge from her unwanted marriage to Telamon. From Miletus, Piyaramadu launched his quest to regain the throne of Troy, at which time was occupied by a certain Alaksandru. This name is the Hittite philochisp of Alexandros, a confusing alternate name given to Paris in the Iliad. According to the Hattusa letters, Alaksandu wrote to Muwatalli II asking for assistance against Piyaramadu, which resulted in a treaty between Troy & the Hittites, concluded about 1280 BC. Troy was now a vassal state of its neighbouring superpower, & the treaty was guaranteed by a god named Apaliunas, ie Apollo, a diety of the Iliad who stands firmly on the side of the Trojans. Just after the treaty was signed, the ancient world was witnessing an epic conflict being played out between the Hittites & the other near-eastern superpower, Egypt.
It very much seems that the battles of Troy were less the greatest conflict of the heroic age, more a side-show in a much larger conglagaration in which was fought the famous Battle of Kadesh on the Orontes River near the border between Syria & Lebanon. The gargantuan struggle would last for two decades, between 1278BC & 1258BC, into which time-frame fits the historically dated Trojan War. That the Trojans were involved in a larger war can actually be seen in the Iliad, where Hittites are listed as among the allies of Troy. The city’s location as the watchtower over the vital Dardanellian gateway to the Mediterranean, would have been motive enough for either side to want its control.
There is a problem, however, & that is the date given for the fall of Troy by the normally reliable & accurate 3rd Century Greek geographer, Eratosthenes; 1184BC. This date. However, falls extremely close to the destruction layer of the next Troy. After the destruction of Troy VIh the builders of its successor, Troy VIIa, patched up the fortification walls & created a city which would last until 1190 BC – the date of its destruction layer being supported by pottery styles discovered in that strata. This layer seems to record the city being razed during the invasions of the so-called Sea Peoples. King Ammurapi of Ugarit, writing about 1185, describes the onslaught;
My father, behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka…Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
What exactly went on up there in turbulent, windy Troy is uncertain. The Sea-Peoples attack may even be remembered in the Iliad as the army of ships beached on the sands of Ilium, forming another ingredient in the Homeric soup. Mixing all the names & dates together suggests that Priam was replaced on the throne of Troy by a man – Alexandros – who could not have been his son as stated by Homer. A chispological embellishment seems evident, with Homer understanding Priam & Alaksandu were both in Troy at the right time, but got things muddled up whether purposefully or not. As for Alexandros being also called Paris, this supports my theory that the Helen abduction motif was played out in Egypt three centuries before the battles in NW Turkey. Paris was perhaps the name of the 16th Century BC abductor of Helen, while Alexandros was the chieftan of the 13th century BC citadel at Ilium. In the same way, the Egyptian Troy was conflated with the Turkish Ilium by Homer, the fusion of which created something more-than-real, something majestic enough to become the subject of his superhuman poetry.
13th July, 2017
I am currently sat on the patio of an air B&B in Karemas, southern Crete, overlooking the Libyan Sea. It is morning. In the foreview to my left are the double rocks of the pretty Paximadian Islands, upon which the Cretans say Apollo was born. To my right is Gavdos, the most southerly point of Europe. There is a high wind blowing fiercely, as it has been for four days now, we are told. We drove here yesterday, first calling in at the many-peopled ‘funfair’ that the Knossos site has become; then entering & crossing the Cretan hinterland, a mixture of beautiful hills dotted with olive trees as if they were woven into some starlet’s hair, roughed up here & there by rather desolate villages. After stopping in at the oasis watering hole that are the Goanesque beaches of Agia Galini, we took a serendipitous wrong turn which snaked us out through the heart of the quite breathtaking Kedros range, via the villages of Apodolou, Nithavris, Agios Ioannis & Agia Pareskevi. Another wrong turn later & we were high up in the idyllic hilltop village of Vrisses, where, finally swapping our tourist map for a more detailed & accurate one contained in my portable library’s 1995 book on Crete, we finally came to Kerames.
On arrival we were met at the mini-market by stylish Kleopatra, a teacher of ancient Greek & Latin in Athens, who returns to her home village to rent out the house to erstwhile travelers. Built in the 16th century, it has been the home of two saints & a Cretan governor, & has also played host to many a village dance. An excuisitely beautiful building, made from a mixture of searocks & quarried stone, it is a geologist’s dream, & is ours for last night & the next two to come. Kleopatra delighted in showing us around the house, its history, & also walking us through the village so the locals knew we were with her. The encounter with her plump mother was amusing to say the least; with the mother mocking Kleopatra’s slight build & saying she was far too thin, that she was like a little girl, & that she needs to eat more… much to the agreement of the other plump women of a certain age sat on chairs in the vicinity.
Roll on three days & I am finishing this off in the pinkening sunrise on the lazy morning on the 10th of July. On tour first full day, upon a visit to the amazing Preveli Beach, via a rough & twisting Himalayanesque mountain road & reached only by footpath as in Gokarna; after swimming in a lagoon I suddenly found my foot pierced by a palmleaf spine &, well, ouch. The next dawn, me & Emily left the girls sleeping & drove to nearby Spili & its free health centre. Cue two female doctors writhing at my poor wound, trying to drag the thorn out. At one point one of the nurses turned her to mine & looking at me with a most solemn stare, said quite plainly, ‘pain?’ Through my acute grimacing I could only nod. The thorn, alas, was buried too deep & so with prescription in hand we returned to Agia Galini for another day at the beach & to buy some antibiotics. During that sunkissed day I collated my notes for this essay, which I am polishing off the now. Last night was very special, with us all getting dressed up & hitting the village square for a wonderful meal of native meat & salads which cost only 22 euros – our hostess refusing a tip & also joining us in the complimentary ouzo shots!
Kemares village is a white-washed, narrow-streeted affair in the Italian style, & rather the perfect place to work upon one of my thornier essays – that of the character of Menaleus, appearing in the Homeric epics. In summary, I believe he was not actually around in the thirteenth century BC to fight the traditionally dated Trojan War, but was instead active three centuries earlier, & that his deeds were later superimposed upon the story of the Trojan War by Thales. I believe his story was one of the ‘Homeric fragments’ discovered by Lycurgus & that the Trojan War in which Achilles fought was a different fragment altogether, with Thales splicing them together into a single story. I also believe that the War which Menaleus fought – in order to retrieve Helen – was not in NW Turkey, but in Egypt.
We shall anchor our investigation upon a figure in Greek mythology called Phineus, son of Bellus, the brother of Aegyptus & Danaus. Analyzing the contextus of Phineus, we discover a certain tale – as given by Ovid – in which he brandishes a spear against Perseus while squabbling over the daughter of Casseiopeia, who had been declared by her mother to be more beautiful than the Nereids. The names & situation massively reflect a Biblical figure called Phinehas, in whose tales we see an incident with remarkable echoes to that of Phineus. For Casseiopia we have a certain idolatrous Cozbi, & we may observe the Biblical Phinehas also brandishes a spear. The ‘most beautiful woman’ motif contained in Ovid finds its Biblical reflection in Flavius Josephus, who asserts that the enemies of the Israelites sent their most beautiful women to seduce the Jews into idolatry. Josephus explains the result was the slaying of Cozbi by Phinehas, after which God rewarded him & his posterity with the covenant of an everlasting hereditary priesthood.
The Biblical priestly Phinehas is said to have assisted Moses throughout the Exodus, even being master of the sacred Ark of the Covenant. Also active in those ‘days of Moses’ was a certain Gaythelos, or Goidal Glas, whose name seems to contain part of the Hebrew moniker for High Priest – the ‘Kohen Godal.’ According to Irish sources, the grandfather of Goidal Glas was a certain Fenius Farsaid. Thus Fenius, the grandfather of a Hebrew High Priest, can be matched on ethnological & phonetical grounds with Phinehas, one of the holiest men in the entourage of Moses.
The crux of the matter comes with the observance that between Fenius Farsaid & Gaythelos comes, according to John of Fordun, a ‘certain king of the countries of Greece, Neolus.’ Variant names given in other medieval sources include Nel (Lebor Gabala Erenn), while Geoffrey Keating gives Fenius two sons, Nenual & Niul, which seem to be a genflation of the same person. It is time for a wee babel-chain.
At the heart of this babel chain we see the name of Menaleus, whose eloping wife Helen initiated the Homeric Trojan War. In support of the Menaleus-Neolus connection, three ancient sources state that Menaleus had a son called Aithiolas, being the Scholion to Homer’s Iliad 3 (175th); Eustathius of Thessalonica & the Byzantine Suda (alphaiota 124). It is by no stretch of the imagination to see how the name Aithiolas transchispers into Gaythelos, or better still Gaithelos, as given by other records.
In my book, The Chisper Effect, I showed how Gaythelos was a prince with connections to Minoan Crete, & by studying the lineage of Menaleus, we can see why. The old tales have it that a certain Cretan king called Catreus begat a daughter called Aerope, who became the mother of Agamemnon and Menelaus, either by Plisthenes or by Atreus, in Mycynae. This means that Gaythelos was Minoan on his mother’s side, explaining why the treasures found at Mycynae contain, according to Martin Bernal, ‘an increase of the Minoan influences.’
The ancient city of Mycenae was sited in the northwest corner of the Plain of Argos, on the Peloponnese, in which place Pausanius, the Greek travel writer of the 2nd century AD, recorded, ‘the underground chambers of Atreus & his children, in which were stored their treasure. There is the grave of Atreus, along with the graves of such as returned with Agamemnon from Troy.’ In the late 19th century, a renegade amateur archeologist from Germany called Albert Schliemann excavated the site, discovering fabulous grave treasures which included the ‘Mask of Agamemnon,’ proving that the Homeric epithet, ‘Mycenae, rich in gold,’ was no exaggeration. Dated to 1550 BC, scholars have suggested that the treasures cannot be connected to the Mycynean leadership fighting a Trojan War in the 13th Century BC. But unraveling the factochisp & moving Menaleus & Agamemnon back three centuries, when Schilemann telegraphed the King of Greece that he had, ‘gazed on the face of Agamenon,’ his proud & swoony statement may bear out to be true, although not in the way standard Homeric scholarship has imagined.
When examining the other Homeric epic, the Odyssey, we encounter certain adventures of Menaleus which may be dated to the 16th Century BC. ‘It was nearly eight years,’ he says, ‘before I could get home with my fleet. I went to Cyprus, Phoenicia and the Egyptians; I went also to the Ethiopians, the Sidonians, and the Erembians, and to Libya.’ Each of these regions saw military activity during the reign of Amenhotep I (1546 -1526 BC); where the tomb biography of Ahmose Pen-Nekhebet says Amenhotep fought in Kush (Ethiopia) so Menaleus places himself in that same land; where Pen-Nekhebet states Amenhotep campaigned in Kehek – ie against the Qeheq tribe – so Menaleus places himself in Libya; where, in the tomb of Amenhotep I, we find a hostile reference made against the Transjordanian Qedmi, so Menaleus places himself among the Erembians, or the Arameans, the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the Syrian Desert.
It seems that the Mycyenean leadership of the 16th Century BC has been poetically superimposed onto the basic narrative infrastructure of the Trojan War. On investigating the matter deeper, it seems that there was a siege of Troy in order to reunite Menaleus with his errant wife, but this was not the citadel in NW Turkey, but was a site near Memphis in Egypt. In the Bronze Age, the city we now know as Troy was in fact Illium, or Wilusa, hence the Iliad. The earliest time the name ‘Troy’ is applied to Ilium was Homer’s poetry, i.e. the 9th century BC. As we are slowly discerning, the poet appears to have blended several strands of material from different periods & places in order to create his poems. That the Trojan siege occurred in Egypt fits well with the question mark that has hung since antiquity over the war’s causus belli. Stesichorus, for example, stated that Helen never went to the Turkish Troy & that the war was fought for a phantom. Euripides elaborated further, saying that Hermes took Helen to Egypt where she would spend the entire war. The grand old donjon of history himself, Herodotus, also raised serious doubts as to a Turkish Troy, making a serious study of the matter, from which we may read;
When I inquired of the priests, they told me that this was the story of Helen. After carrying off Helen from Sparta, Alexandrus sailed away for his own country; violent winds caught him in the Aegean and drove him into the Egyptian sea; and from there (as the wind did not let up) he came to Egypt, to the mouth of the Nile called the Canopic mouth, and to the Salters’. Now there was (and still is) on the coast a temple of Heracles; if a servant of any man takes refuge there and is branded with certain sacred marks, delivering himself to the god, he may not be touched. This law continues today the same as it has always been from the first. Hearing of the temple law, some of Alexandrus’ servants ran away from him, threw themselves on the mercy of the god, and brought an accusation against Alexandrus meaning to injure him, telling the whole story of Helen and the wrong done Menelaus. They laid this accusation before the priests and the warden of the Nile mouth, whose name was Thonis.
This mention of Thonis is interesting, as a remembrance of Helen in Egypt slipp’d into the Odyssey, where she is said to have had, ‘such ingenious drugs, Good ones, which she had from Thon’s wife, Polydamna, an Egyptian.’ Homer continues;
When Thonis heard it, he sent this message the quickest way to Proteus at Memphis: “A stranger has come, a Trojan, who has committed an impiety in Hellas. After defrauding his guest-friend, he has come bringing the man’s wife and a very great deal of wealth, driven to your country by the wind. Are we to let him sail away untouched, or are we to take away what he has come with?” Proteus sent back this message: “Whoever this is who has acted impiously against his guest-friend, seize him and bring him to me, that I may know what he will say.”
Hearing this, Thonis seized Alexandrus and detained his ships there, and then brought him with Helen and all the wealth, and the suppliants too, to Memphis. When all had arrived, Proteus asked Alexandrus who he was and whence he sailed; Alexandrus told him his lineage and the name of his country, and about his voyage, whence he sailed. Then Proteus asked him where he had got Helen; when Alexandrus was evasive in his story and did not tell the truth, the men who had taken refuge with the temple confuted him, and related the whole story of the wrong. Finally, Proteus declared the following judgment to them, saying, “If I did not make it a point never to kill a stranger who has been caught by the wind and driven to my coasts, I would have punished you on behalf of the Greek, you most vile man. You committed the gravest impiety after you had had your guest-friend’s hospitality: you had your guest-friend’s wife. And as if this were not enough, you got her to fly with you and went off with her. And not just with her, either, but you plundered your guest-friend’s wealth and brought it, too. Now, then, since I make it a point not to kill strangers, I shall not let you take away this woman and the wealth, but I shall watch them for the Greek stranger, until he come and take them away; but as for you and your sailors, I warn you to leave my country for another within three days, and if you do not, I will declare war on you.”
This, the priests said, was how Helen came to Proteus. And, in my opinion, Homer knew this story, too; but seeing that it was not so well suited to epic poetry as the tale of which he made use, he rejected it, showing that he knew it. This is apparent from the passage in the Iliad (and nowhere else does he return to the story) where he relates the wanderings of Alexander, and shows how he and Helen were carried off course, and wandered to, among other places, Sidon in Phoenicia.
In the 16th century BC, there was an Egyptian city called Troy, of which Diodorus Siculus recorded (in the first century BC); ‘even to this day exists on the bank of the Nile.’ Strabo gives us more gloss on the Egyptian Troy;
In the neighbourhood of the quarry of the stones from which the pyramids are built, which is in sight of the pyramids, on the far side of the river in Arabia, there is a very rocky mountain which is called “Trojan,” and that there are caves at the foot of it, and a village near both these and the river which is called Troy.
Diodorus describes Menaleus crossing into Egypt where facing the Trojans of the Egyptian Troy he, ‘maintained a warfare until he granted them safety and freedom.’ The actual story behind the original Trojan siege may be embedded in an account of Herodotus, who places both Menaleus & Helen in Egypt;
When I asked the priests whether the Greek account of what happened at Troy were idle or not, they gave me the following answer, saying that they had inquired and knew from Menelaus himself. When these were let inside the city walls, they demanded the restitution of Helen and of the property which Alexandrus had stolen from Menelaus and carried off, and they demanded reparation for the wrongs; but the Trojans gave the same testimony then and later, sworn and unsworn: that they did not have Helen or the property claimed, but all of that was in Egypt, and they could not justly make reparation for what Proteus the Egyptian had. But the Greeks, thinking that the Trojans were mocking them, laid siege to the city, until they took it; but there was no Helen there when they breached the wall, but they heard the same account as before; so, crediting the original testimony, they sent Menelaus himself to Proteus.
Menelaus then went to Egypt and up the river to Memphis; there, relating the truth of the matter, he met with great hospitality and got back Helen, who had not been harmed, and also all his wealth, besides. An idea is arising here that Menaleus thought Helen was at a city by the ‘Trojan’ mountain, known today as the Hill of Toorah near Memphis. After raising its citadel he discovered that Helen was in fact at Memphis, perhaps whisked there by the Pharaoh on discovering Menaleus was attacking the Egyptian Troy. That is all a great big ‘perhaps’ of course, but there are too many factors & facts pointing to an Egyptian locality for denoument of the kidnapping of Helen. Other memories of Menaleus in Egypt can be found at Canopus, an ancient coastal town, located in the Nile Delta & named after Menealeus’ pilot. Legend describes how Menelaus built a monument to his memory on the shore, around which the town later grew up. This leads us to a passage in the Odyssey, one of the ‘Cretan Lies’ told by Odysseus which distinctly remembers a military campaign in Egypt;
We came to fair-flowing Aegyptus, and in the river Aegyptus I moored my curved ships. Then verily I bade my trusty comrades to remain there by the ships, and to guard the ships, and I sent out scouts to go to places of outlook. But my comrades, yielding to wantonness, and led on by their own might, straightway set about wasting the fair fields of the men of Egypt; and they carried off the women and little children, and slew the men; and the cry came quickly to the city. Then, hearing the shouting, the people came forth at break of day, and the whole plain was filled with footmen, and chariots and the flashing of bronze. But Zeus who hurls the thunderbolt cast an evil panic upon my comrades, and none had the courage to hold his ground and face the foe; for evil surrounded us on every side. So then they slew many of us with the sharp bronze, and others they led up to their city alive, to work for them perforce. But in my heart Zeus himself put this thought—I would that I had rather died and met my fate there in Egypt, for still was sorrow to give me welcome. Straightway I put off from my head my well-wrought helmet, and the shield from off my shoulders, and let the spear fall from my hand, and went toward the chariot horses of the king. I clasped, and kissed his knees, and he delivered me, and took pity on me, and, setting me in his chariot, took me weeping to his home. Verily full many rushed upon me with their ashen spears, eager to slay me, for they were exceeding angry. But he warded them off, and had regard for the wrath of Zeus, the stranger’s god, who above all others hath indignation at evil deeds. “There then I stayed seven years, and much wealth did I gather among the Egyptians, for all men gave me gifts.
Further support for a 16th century BC date for the Menaleus-Helen story turned up in finds excavated at the 16th century BC palace near Xirokambi, just to the south of the Menalean kingdom of Sparta. Cups excavated at the site are both Minoan & Mycynean in origin, while Xirokambi’s bull motifs are evocative of images found at Knossos & Avaris. The latter connects with Menaleus’s Minoan son, Gaythelos. Furthermore, tablets found at Xirokambi indicate that the palace there was a center of two productions – perfume & fabric – which have strong echoes in the Odyssey. The following passage sees Helen at home in her native Sparta;
While he was thus in two minds Helen came down from her high vaulted and perfumed room, looking as lovely as Diana herself. Adraste brought her a seat, Alcippe a soft woollen rug while Phylo fetched her the silver work-box which Alcandra wife of Polybus had given her. Polybus lived in Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world; he gave Menelaus two baths, both of pure silver, two tripods, and ten talents of gold; besides all this, his wife gave Helen some beautiful presents, to wit, a golden distaff, and a silver work-box that ran on wheels, with a gold band round the top of it. Phylo now placed this by her side, full of fine spun yarn, and a distaff charged with violet coloured wool was laid upon the top of it. Then Helen took her seat, put her feet upon the footstool, and began to question her husband.
One final piece of evidence I shall include in my lecture are a couple of references to a Bronze Age Libyan peoples called the Meshwesh. Their first historical mention occurs during the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Amenhompet III (1386-1349 BC), being cited as a source of cattle provided to the palace at Malkata. The actual origin of the Meshwesh is defined by Herodotus himself;
West of the Triton river and next to the Aseans begins the country of Libyans who cultivate the soil and possess houses; they are called Maxyes; they wear their hair long on the right side of their heads and shave the left, and they paint their bodies with vermilion. These claim descent from the men who came from Troy.
This definitively places the Meshwesh after the ‘Trojan War’, which means that, as they existed during the reign of Amenhomet III, the Trojan War must have occurred before his floruit in the the 14th century BC. That the name of the tribe, Maxyes or Meshwesh, can be transchispered into Mycynae with relative ease suggests that the tribe was indeed founded by the soldiers of Menaleus. To conclude, it appears that Homer discarded the true story of Helen’s kidnapping & instead wanted to resituate his epic during the siege of Ilium in the 13th century BC, rather than in Egypt in the 16th century BC. In my next lecture I shall attempt to understand why.
10th July, 2017
A poem is never finished, only abandoned
I am currently sat at an outside restaurant table amidst the sunswingingly sensuous delights of Star Beach, a free-to-all leisure resort on the northern shores of Crete. The family & I arrived late last night, hiring a car & eventually tracking down our residence for the next three nights; Petra Village, a cool set of apartments with a pool, a bar & a trillion cicada piping a rickety cacophony. This coming period shall see me complete my training as a Pendragon, with the essays being constructed from both my notebooks & from my experiences on the ground as we tour Megalonisi, the ‘big island’ of the Greeks. During this ‘duesettimane,’ the lava that has been my poetic studies is set to finally cool, & the volcano that has spewed forth two decades worth of poesis from my animated soul finally return to a dormant state (for now).
I shall begin my dissertation with an account of the mesmerizing energy of Homer’s mind-music, that weaver of disparate strands of ancient subject matter into the world’s earliest & most majestic epic poems. That an individual author composed them, however, is simply not the case. This ‘Homeric Question’ has tested academic minds for many an age, with Frederick Nietzsche declaring ‘the primary form of this widespread and honeycombed mountain known as the Homeric question can be most clearly observed by looking down at it from a far-off height.’ The ‘far-off height’ is the tall mountain eyrie on which the chispologist builds a weather-station & shouts into the gusting breezes that Homer was a quasi-mythological deity, to whom only the highest examples of streaming elysium would be associated, less of an individual genius & more the poetic soul of an entire people.
For ease of dictate, however, we shall call Homer by his antique identity, that of the singular author of the Iliad & Odyssey. His subject was the Trojan War & its aftermath, an event of deep history whose war-drums still beat resoundingly today. His ‘Iliad’ centers on a small series of events that took place towards the end of a ten-year siege of the city of Troy, while his ‘Odyssey’ sings of the return from that war of the Grecian hero Odysseus. The poems are, in a word, magnificent, full of comprehension for the ways of men, while at the same time possessing some of the greatest phraseology ever uttered by a human tongue. The most astonishing thing about these two epics is their sheer antiquity, & it is through the mists of deepest time that the creation of the poems, & of course their creator, have been obscured.
It was as early as the Classical period that the first doubts to the origins of the epics was raised. The oldest complete copy of the Iliad, the 10th-century manuscript ‘Venetus Marcianus Graecus 454,’ first published by De Villoison in 1788, has marginal notes which preserve substantial remnants of ancient scholarship on the poems; nuggets of studied wisdom obtained from the intense erudition of Didymus, Aristonicis, Herodian, Nicanor & Antoninian. A century later, a similar note-smitten codex was created which eventually ended up in the library of the Townleys of Townley Hall, in my hometown of Burnley. Of the scholia it contained, we encounter the thoughts of two obscure figures known as Xenon & Hellanicus, antique scholars who speculated that the Iliad & Odyssey had been composed by separate authors. Such a notion makes sound sense, for where the Iliad contains four times as many similes as the Odyssey, the language of the Odyssey is less archaic, to which we may add that words for many common items are different in each poem. Aristotle further highlights the differences between the epics when he muses, ‘the composition of the Iliad is simple & full of pathos, that of the Odyssey complex, as there are recognitions throughout & full of character.’
So far so different, & as the Aegean blows a refreshing wind into my beachside boudoir, let us acknowledge that, long before the days of word-files & photocopying, the preservation of Homer’s poetry, spread over many centuries, suggests a great number of scribes have handled the text. Along the way, each new copyist would add something of their own making, maybe respelling a word, or perhaps re-writing whole passages in order to please an ever-changing audience. As the poems evolved, two vast transchispering chains would slowly but surely fossilize themselves into the epics we whimsically attribute to a single Homer. A loose remembrance of such a transmission as this may be traced in a passage by the early Christian churchman, Tatian, whose ‘Address to the Greeks’ identifies the scattered strata of Homeric composition;
Now the poetry of Homer, his parentage, and the time in which he flourished have been investigated by the most ancient writers,—by Theagenes of Rhegium, who lived in the time of Cambyses, Stesimbrotus of Thasos and Antimachus of Colophon, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, and Dionysius the Olynthian; after them, by Ephorus of Cumæ, and Philochorus the Athenian, Megaclides and Chamæleon the Peripatetics; afterwards by the grammarians, Zenodotus, Aristophanes, Callimachus, Crates, Eratosthenes, Aristarchus, and Apollodorus. Of these, Crates says that he flourished before the return of the Heraclidæ, and within 80 years after the Trojan war; Eratosthenes says that it was after the 100th year from the taking of Ilium; Aristarchus, that it was about the time of the Ionian migration, which was 140 years after that event; but, according to Philochorus, after the Ionian migration, in the archonship of Archippus at Athens, 180 years after the Trojan war; Apollodorus says it was 100 years after the Ionian migration, which would be 240 years after the Trojan war. Some say that he lived 90 years before the Olympiads, which would be 317 years after the taking of Troy. Others carry it down to a later date, and say that Homer was a contemporary of Archilochus; but Archilochus flourished about the 23d Olympiad, in the time of Gyges the Lydian, 500 years after Troy.
It is through all these ‘Homers’ that the story of the Trojan War & its aftermath would pass, until the Iliad as we know it began to take shape in – I believe – the 9th century BC, under the auspices of the Spartan King, Lycurgus. The task was given to a certain verse-maker called Thales, whom Lycurgus had met on Crete. It is through the vita of Lycurgas, as given by Plutarch, that we gain a heady hint of just how powerful a thinker was Thales. We join the story with Lycurgus on some kind of state visit to Crete;
One of the men regarded there as wise statesmen was Thales, whom Lycurgus persuaded, out of favour and friendship, to go on a mission to Sparta. Now Thales passed as a lyric poet, and screened himself behind this art, but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble.
This description of Thales tells us he was a poetical teacher, who instilled in the soft & easy words of the lyric plenty of subtle meaning in order to educate the Cretans in how to lead a good life. I have only been on the island a few hours, as if I was one of the German gliders crash-landing in advance of the German Fallschirmjäger in 1941, but so far all the Cretans we have encountered have been decent folk & the most openhearted; from the young couple on a moped who led us to the beach road in the dark last night, to our cool & friendly waiter here at Star Beach, the appropriately named ‘Adonis.’ ‘Don’t worry be happy’ is the mantra, & if these easy vibes I am experiencing emanated from the original wisdom of Thales, to have been present in his actual company would have been a tremendous sensation for Lycurgus. It is no wonder that Thales was invited to join the royal Spartan party, to leave this gorgeous rock at the edge of Europa & to return with Lycurgas to Sparta. En route, according to Plutarch, Lycurgas visited Asia Minor, where he;
Made his first acquaintance with the poems of Homer, which were preserved among the posterity of Creophylus; and when he saw that the political and disciplinary lessons contained in them were worthy of no less serious attention than the incentives to pleasure and license which they supplied, he eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take them home with him. For these epics already had a certain faint reputation among the Greeks, and a few were in possession of certain portions of them, as the poems were carried here and there by chance; but Lycurgus was the very first to make them really known.
At this point in time we have a certain Spartan king in possession of the two foundation stones of what would become the Iliad; i.e. fragments of the early Homeric materials, & a poet who could turn them into something cohesive & infinitely beautiful. Such a moment provided the perfect conditions for what can only be called a transcreation of Homer, an occasion remembered by Demeterius of Magnesia, who placed the author of the Iliad in the same ‘very ancient times’ of Lycurgus. With all the pieces in position, all that was needed was a catalyst to spark off the creative furnace that would produce the Iliad as we know it, & there are certain evidences which point towards the first Olympic Truce.
We must return to Plutarch once more, who writes of Lycurgus; ‘some say that he flourished at the same time with Iphitus, and in concert with him established the Olympic truce. Among these is Aristotle the philosopher, and he alleges as proof the discus at Olympia on which an inscription preserves the name of Lycurgus.’ The truce forged by Lycurgas, Iphitus of Elis & Cleosthenes of Pisa was designed to bring peace to the Peloponnese; all three sides were bogged down in endless rounds of bloodshed, and it was mutually agreed upon that they would try to soothe their differences by staging a games at Olympia. This is where I think Thales entered the picture, for to celebrate the event, an artistic tribute to Pan-Grecian unity was needed. The 5th Century BC Athenian historian, Thucydides, backs up the necessity of a unifying model;
The weakness of the olden times is further proved to me chiefly by this circumstance, that before the Trojan War, Hellas, as it appears, engaged in no enterprise in common
The squabbling Greeks of the Olympic Truce needed reminding of when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. If anything could convince them to settle their differences, Homeric poetry recreated by a noble-minded Thales would definitely do the job. That Thales handled the Iliad is unconsciously supported by Pausanius; where he describes the Greece of Lycurgas’ time as being grievously worn by plague, the Iliad actually begins with a plague. Pausanius tells us that Thales, ‘stayed the plague at Sparta,’ during which time, I conject, he was likely to have been composing the Iliad. The dates also fit, for where Herodotus tells us, ‘Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more,’ i.e. 850 BC, the Olympics of Lycurgas can be approximately dated to the same period. The Greeks counted their Olympiads from 776 BC, but the Olympic Games of Lycurgas were said to have taken place much earlier. Sources vary as to when; both Polybius (quoting Aristodemus of Elis) & Eratosthenes tell us that the 776B.C. victors were recorded 27 Olympiads from that of Iphitops & Lycurgas, whereas Callimachus differs by saying 13 Olympiads had passed. If we average these out, & say 20 Olympiads – a timespan of 80 years – we obtain a date of 856 BC for the Lycurgan Olympics.
Returning to Tatian’s Address to the Greeks, where he says, ‘some say that he lived 90 years before the Olympiads, which would be 317 years after the taking of Troy,’ we gain the following timline.
776 BC: First Olympiad begins
866 BC: Homer
1183 BC: Fall of Troy
According to calculations made by Eratosthenes, Troy fell in 1184 BC, a date backed up by archaeological evidence showing a destruction layer to Troy VIIa in that very period. Wherever Tatian got his information from, it seems certain that one layer of the Homeric material was set in stone at the heart of the 9th century BC. Delving further into the ordinance of what I shall from now on call the Thalian Iliad, its form appears to be based upon the ritualistic & theatrical mystery plays of Greece & Egypt, played out over several days like the Ring Cycle of Wagner. Plutarch places Lycurgas in Egypt at one point, where he would have encountered Egyptian theatre full of soliloquies by narrator-style priests, actors’ dialogue & dramaturgical expressions of stage-craft which are all still used in the theatres of today. Egyptian theatre of the Lycurgan period was quite sophisticated; consisiting of a prologue, three acts divided into scenes, & a concluding epilogue. Two of the plays have come down to us whole, the ‘Ramesseum Coronation’ & the ‘Myth of Horus at Edfu.’ In the latter, it must be noted, both mortals & immortals play out the action, a motif present also in the Iliad.
Over the centuries, academics have subconsciously suspected that the Iliad was originally intended for dramatic performance. The Roman writer Quintilian praises the second book of the Iliad for the greatness of its speeches, while the 17th century English poet, Alexander Pope, stated, ‘for a farther preservation of this air of simplicity, a particular care should be taken to express with all plainness those moral sentences & proverbial speeches which are so numerous in this poet. They have something venerable, & as I may so oracular, in that unadorned gravity & shortness with which they are delivered.’ In recent years we have Jenny Strauss Clay’s description of the Iliad’s, ‘extraordinarily high percentage of direct speech – much more than any other epic;’ Bernard Fenik’s, ‘direct discourse comprises 67 percent of the Iliad;’ & Laura M Slatkin’s, ‘extraordinary refinement & complexity of oral performance.’ From such erudite opinions we may not be so foolish to suggest that the Iliad was in fact played out through a series of scenes in which actors & actresses were given lengthy speeches. Interspersed are the battle scenes, which may have been acted out in the manner of the Egyptian dramas, reminiscent of gladiators in a Roman arena – beautifully choreographised physical theatre, but without the actual bloodshed.
One expects that the creation of the Thalian Iliad would have called for a written script to be shared around the actors. Indeed, Josephus in the first book of his history states the Greeks did noot have an alphabet until the time of Homer. It is interesting that before 850 BC we find no record of the Greek alphabet anywhere, but within a few decades of the Lycurgan Olympics its first relics were preserved for posterity. The earliest recognizable sample of the Greek alphabet was based upon that of the Phoenicians, who were positively active in Crete c.900 BC – when Thales would have been a boy – depositing objects at Knossos, Kommos & the Idaean cave. One can only imagine the young, studious Thales learning Phoenician & its script, realising how wonderful an entity was the recorded word, & understanding how vital such a recording would be when promulgating the script of the Iliad among the actors. In doing so, he consolidated all the dialects of Greece into a single, slightly artifical literary lingua franca, creating the unifying language of the ancient Greeks.
The original theatrical purpose of the Iliad would be slowly eroded by time, when the mega-money spectacular of Lycurgas would gradually give way to performances by individual singers called Rhapsodes, such as the Homeridae. In a modern context it would be like the script of a Holywood movie being reduced to being aired as a radio-play. Eventually, from the memories of the rhapsodes, or perhaps a well preserved piece of papyrus that contained the Thalian script, that the Iliad was transcribed into literary life by the librarians of Alexandria. So that is all for today. Some chilli olives & a soft Cretan red await me back at the Petra Village, to where I shall be idly sidling the now!
5th July, 2017