Perhaps it is the scope of the book that is most astonishing. I thought it was about Homer. It is about chickens (which reached the Aegean from the Far East in about 500 BC, after Socrates, and were known as the 'Persian Bird' ;p 27) and language (the Greek word dedmeto comes from the Indo European damazo from which we get tame, domesticate and dominate; Homer also uses it for seduction (probably a euphemism for rape) and uses it in connection with "young girls, enemies, heifers and wives"; p 21); it even recounts the author's experience of homosexual rape (having lost his way in a Syrian desert a man held a knife to his throat: "He made me undress, holding the knife into the side of my neck as he did so ... I knelt in the dust as he raped me, a pitiable little dog-like action from behind, the point of his knife jiggling in the side of my neck with his frantic movements ... I felt him coming over my thighs and buttocks. It all seemed entirely prosaic ... not anything that would raise my pulse ... I stood for longer than I knew in the shower"; pp 122 - 123).
He explores how the great Homeric epics were composed as oral poetry. They are in hexameters; "the fifth foot is usually a dactyl ... and the final foot is always a spondee"; there is a caesura somewhere in the line. In order to recite so many lines in such a relatively strict form, Homer made use of stock phrases (such as swift ships even when the ships are not swift at all). In a tour de force of analogy, Nicolson recounts an epic recited on the spot by a modern poet in Crete which tells of the kidnap of a Nazi general by Patrick Leigh Fermor (author of A Time of Gifts, another beautifully written book) during the Second World War: Tambakis (a real Cretan hero who had nothing to do with this particular operation) "goes to Herakleion and finds a beautiful girl there (he didn't). She is the secretary to the German general (he didn't have one) ... the German general ... whispering across the pillow, tells her hius plans (Of course he didn't). ... The ambush is laid ... The Cretans stop Kaiseri's car, strip him naked (they didn't) , he begs for mercy for the sake of his children (he didn't, but this is a motif that usually appears at these moments in Cretan poetry) ... They arrive in Sfakia (they didn't) where the people try to kill Kaiseri (they didn't) before a submarine (it was a launch) sweeps him off to Egypt. Hitler is in despair (he probably was in June 1944, if for other reasons)." (p 92) In other words, everything is true except for the facts.
Nicolson attempts to find a historical context for Homer through a variety of routes. For example, he notes that Homer speaks of silver-riveted swords and helmets made from the tusks of boars; these are found in Mycenaean graces up to the sixteenth century BC. He notes that Homeric language stems, as do so many, from Proto Indo European and that this language has "no shared words for laurel, cypress or olive; this cannot have been a Mediterranean place. But cattle and sheep are both there. This is a milky, yoghurty existence" (p 153) from which. with other evidence, he decides that the original Achaeans were cattle and sheep owning horse-riding nomads from the steppes between the Black and the Caspian Seas who were only lately arrived at the sea. (Presumably this is why Poseidon is God both of sea and horses; essentially he was the Olympian Secretary of State for Transport.) Homer is, of course, very keen on describing his heroes in terms of horses: Achilles is as fast as a horse and is told of his death by one of his horses. The Trojans sacrifice horses in the river Scamander. Aeneas has horses bred from some that Zeus owned. And the Trojans are defeated by a wooden horse. Even more excitingly (perhaps this just demonstrates the weird things that get me excited) the PIE word for the pole at the front of a chariot to which the horses are attached became the Greek word for the rudder of a ship, which can also be applied to the reins.
Nicolson makes the point that in these epics the Trojans are the civilized people living in the city and weaving cloth on their looms. The Greeks are the gangsters, the pirates, the barbarians at the gates. "The symbols at the heart of the city of Troy are those elegant, well-swept corridors of polished stone and the beautiful woven cloth its people give their gods; for the Greek camp it is edge-sharpened bronze and the unsheathed phallus." (p 181) Nicolson compares the Greeks to the urban gangsters of St Louis, Missouri: "Revenge is at the heart of their moral world, a repeated, angry and violent answer to injustice, to being treated in a way that does not respect them as people. ... Authority resides in the men themselves and their ability to dominate others. ... Crime itself on these streets becomes moral, and revenge a form of justice. Like the Greeks, these gangsters are 'urban nomads' ... rootless, dependent on themselves, displaying their glory on their bodies, in their handsomeness, their jewellery and in the sexiness of the women on their arms and in their beds." (p 187) Disrepect makes them suddenly extremely violent. And the violence makes them feel good, one of them comparing breaking a man's legs to the feeling of ejaculating inside a woman. (p 189) Disrespect, personal affronts, minor slights, attack their core identity. This is what is behind the concepts of honour and glory in the Iliad, and the idea of fate, and the idea of undying fame, because when violence is your way of life those lives are necessarily brutish and short so it is important that you are remembered. "Gangs ... have their epics" (p 190). "The gangs treasure kleos aphthiton, deathless glory, because in their vulnerability and their transience, the way in which there is nothing beyond their bodies and the memory of their actions, they need it more than anyone who is lucky enough to live in the law-shaped, law-embraced, wall-girdled city" (p 191) And of course, behind the glory is sexuality. Homer "buries and dignifies" the connection between sex and violence in which the US gang members glory and delight, but the Iliad is after all the tale of greedy Agamemnon stealing from Achilles the slave girl Briseis and the murderous consequences that ensued. But although violence is in the foreground of Homer: war in the Iliad and the raging sea in the Odyssey "but throughout Homer the world of peace consistently resurfaces as a place of reproach and yearning, both memory and possibility." (p 167)
"The Iliad's subject is not war or its wickedness but a crisis in how to be. Do you, like Agamemnon, attempt to dominate your world? Do you, like Odysseus, manipulate it? Do you, like Hector, think of your family above all and weaken your resolve by doing that? Or do you, like Achilles, believe in the dignity of love and the purity of honour, as the only things that matter in the face of death?" (p 152) "Homer's subject is not elegance but truth, however terrible." (p 45)
Betrayal is a theme of the Odyssey. As the tale of the great trick, the Trojan Horse, is told Menelaus also remembers how Helen, the wife who had already betrayed him, called to the warriors hidden inside in the voices of the wives they had missed for ten years: "Is this intimacy now an attempt to betray them again?" (p 162)
Nicolson shows how the Odyssey is written as a complement to the Iliad; not only in that it fills out the back story to the Iliad but also in the sense that it describes wanderings while the Iliad is restricted in time and location and Achilles is a hero quite different from Ulysses. (p 60)
- The Iliad is set on the plain before Troy but it often moves location to Olympus and the Gods fly across the Aegean. "But the poem never goes to Greece." (p 181)
- "This is Odysseus's virtue: in the face of life's impossible choices, he is able to navigate between the whirlpool and the rock." (p 240)
- "We are all vagabonds on earth, nothing belongs to us, out lives have no consequence and our possessions are dross. We are wanderers, place-shifters, the cosmic homeless" (p 152)
- "Nothing in a storm can be inherited from one moment to the next." (p 235)
But the scope of Nicolson's book is far beyond just Homer; like Odysseus himself he ranges all over the known world:
- "People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail. That is why the goddesses of prayer in the Homeric universe are broken, tragic figures." (p 183)
- Baths were important across the ancient world. Homer's word for bath is asaminthos, linked to hyacinth and labyrinth. Heroes in epics all had a bath when they got home: Jacob in Genesis, Gilgamesh, Odysseus abd Sinuhe (in an Egyptian epic) (pp 214 - 215)
- anagnorisis: the moment when you see beneath the surface; the shock of recognition that Keats had 'On the first looking into Chapman's Homer'. (p 20)
- "All modern versions of Homer are descendants of the edition made by a French nobleman" in 1788 (p 35)
- The Isle of Ischia near Capri in the Bay of Naples was a cosmopolitan place in 700 BC; the graves show no ethnic zoning and contain corpses from Italy, Phoenicia, Syria and Greece. (p 62)
- The word prekteres links to practice, practical, pragmatic ... (p 218)
- The Philistines who invaded Gaza in the 13th and 12th centuries BC may well have been Mycenean Greeks (p 224)
- "Certain clusters of human genes ... which have their heartland in the copper-mining districts of Albania ... rarely appear elsewhere in Europe, except in two specific concentrations: one in the modern inhabitants of Galicia in north-west Spain, the other in the people of north-west Wales, both important centres of copper mining in the early Bronze Age." (p 116)
- "Lizards seem to be the only liquid" (p 134)
- Homer associates heroes with fame and glory, klus or klutos, and throughout the Indo-European world hero names have parts reflecting this, such has Herakles. (Presumably also Patroclus, beloved of Achilles and Phereclus, the Trojan shipwright.)
- Hermes "is the god of the thief, the shepherd, the craftsman, the herald, the musician, the athlete and the merchant. He is at home with all kinds of cunning and trickery, charms and spells. He is the god who invented music and discovered fire. Dangerous magic and a kind of phallic potency glimmer around him like static. He is at home outside the limits of normality and stability, and so he is the god of boundaries and thresholds, of roads and doors, of transitional and alien places, of mines and miners, of the ability to make and transform the fixities and pre-arrangements of the world." (p 231)
- Homer describes Penelope as periphron: "she has a mind which encompasses all sides of a question". (p 243)
- Homer uses the word doupeo (thump) for the sound of a dead body falling to the ground; it is often accompanied by the rattle of his armour (arabeo) (p 120)
In brief, this is a phenomenal book, justly longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction in 2014 but why wasn't it short-listed, why didn't it win?
September 2016; 251 pages