An archaeology of the Homeric mind.
In this gracefully written and deeply informed book, Nicolson (The Gentry: Stories of the English, 2011, etc.), a fellow of Britain’s Society of Antiquaries, excavates the origins of Homer’s magisterial epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Arguing against the “current orthodoxy” that both books emerged from the eighth century B.C., the author contends that Homer evokes a much earlier period: Bronze Age Eurasia, around 2000 B.C., when seminomadic warriors of the northern steppes confronted the more sophisticated culture of the eastern Mediterranean. In the north, vicious gangs marauded, while in the south, sailing ships replaced paddled canoes, enabling men to travel farther and faster, infusing the culture with new ideas and goods. “This newly energized world,” writes Nicolson, “is the meeting of cultures that Homer records.” Nicolson sees the Iliad as retrospective, “a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and of the past,” while the Odyssey, “for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offers of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given….” Drawing upon archaeological discoveries and teasing out etymological threads, Nicolson finds in Homer’s work “myths of the origin of Greek consciousness” that the West has inherited. He resists the idea that Homer promotes “the sense that justice resides in personal revenge.” Instead, Homer poses transcendent questions: “[W]hat matters more, the individual or the community, the city or the hero? What is life, something of everlasting value or a transient and hopeless irrelevance?” In a universe inhabited by capricious gods, writes Nicolson, Homer offers readers “his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia….”
Nicolson’s spirited exploration illuminates our own indelible past.