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The Sea and the Text

The Returns of Odysseus: Colonization and Ethnicity by Irad Malkin (University of California Press, 331 pp., $45) 

Celebrating Homer's Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited by J.V. Luce (Yale University Press, 260 pp., $35)

For the modern traveler, Greece and its environs seem surprisingly small, a sea-girt checkerboard most often first glimpsed from the air. Most of the Aegean islands are on nodding terms with each other. The crossing from Brindisi to Corfu is brief, and (as one whimsical theologian pointed out) without interest except for determining at what precise point the filioque dropped out of the Creed. Vertically, the great mountains of the north still challenge our assumptions; but horizontally, in an age when jet travel and e-mail have turned the world into a parish, we move from Rome to Athens to Istanbul more easily than the ancient Spartan or Macedonian did from village to village. Fortunately, perhaps, Poseidon can still on occasion rebuke our presumption. When writing this review, I should have been on my cherished island of Lesbos; but I had to do the job in my Athens apartment, after a series of storms that turned the Aegean--still among the world's most dangerous seas--into a roiling maelstrom, canceling flights and sailings nationwide, a cogent reminder of just how Odysseus came to wash up, naked and near-dead, on the shores of Scheria.

Early Greek myth, not surprisingly, is much concerned with exploration and discovery. Jason and his Argonauts, greatly daring, threaded the Clashing Rocks and entered the Black Sea, pushing their luck all the way east to Colchis and the Golden Fleece. Once the Clashing Rocks had been passed, we are told, they ceased to clash, became fixed for ever. This was inevitable. Liminality--the establishment of fixed boundaries, of the threshold that cannot be crossed--has always been a strong magical deterrent; but once the taboo is broken, it becomes useless. As soon as sailors began to make regular passage through the Bosporos, they could see those rocks for themselves.

The story of what the Greeks shorthanded as the Inhabited World, the oikoumene, to begin with the eastern Mediterranean, is one of slow but steady expansion. As exploration filled in the blank spaces, the more colorful myths were pushed out further and further toward the periphery. Herodotus argued flatly that the old notion of a world ringed by the stream of Ocean was nonsense. Pindar still acknowledged the liminality imposed by the Pillars of Heracles, but this was last-ditch poetic conservatism. The Atlantic beckoned enticingly, and Phoenicians had already circumnavigated Africa, noting as they sailed westward past what we know as the Cape of Good Hope that they had the sun on their right, to the north of them--a detail that Herodotus disbelieved, but which in fact, ironically, clinches the truth of the tradition.

This early classic instance of unwarranted intellectual skepticism crossed my mind more than once while reading these two books. Both, in very different ways, have to combat it in order to make sense of their material. J.V. Luce has the more straightforward task. As he reminds us (professionals, alas, know this all too well), "it is currently fashionable to regard the Homeric accounts of landscape and locality as `poetic constructions,' with the implication that much of the detail is fictional and imaginary." This scholarly trend, moreover, is not restricted to Homer, nor indeed to classics. It forms a convenient hold-all for anyone disinclined to acquire facts, with a consequent preference for self-generated theory. Luce has an uphill battle to fight in his effort to vindicate the overall accuracy of Homer's topography of Troy, Ithaca, and adjacent regions; but his arguments--aided by superb color photographs--though here and there pushed too far, are fundamentally convincing.

Irad Malkin has to cope with the fashion for "poetic reconstructions" in a different and rather more complicated way. His problem is not with poetic reconstruction as such. What he argues, in effect, is that current reconstructions are too arbitrary, too limited to modern preoccupations, and not ready enough to take into account the actualities of colonization and exploration when trying to make sense of the "myths of return," largely generated by the Trojan War, in which Greek tradition abounded. The tale of Odysseus, the original "protocolonial hero," as Malkin describes him, is the best-known of these tales, but in one respect it is atypical, since it takes him "off the map" into a frightening world of myth. Still, like other returning heroes, from Nestor to Philoctetes, Odysseus can be utilized to found settlements, to validate genealogies and ethnicities (non-Greek no less than Greek), to extend frontiers of knowledge, to underscore links made via trade or the interpenetration of beliefs and cultures.

Just how, Malkin asks, did these "returns," which often in the strict sense did not return at all, least of all to their starting-point, "mediate encounters and conceptualize ethnicity and group identity" in the historical period? Attacking, like Luce, a currently fashionable, and originally French, theory of the world that divides it into Hellenes (superior, Self, soi) and Barbarians (inferior, Other, autrui), he emphasizes that "the issue relates less to a binary model of Greeks and Others than to the intricate, sometimes hybrid, mutually reflecting world of exploration, contacts, colonization and coexistence involving various Greek and native populations." Fair enough. This Ariadne's thread he proceeds to trace "through a whole spectrum of protocolonial perceptions, friendly mediating contacts, justification of expansion and annexation, and failure and decolonization." Malkin is hard work. He has (especially in his opening chapter) a dense, highly abstracted style that makes for difficult reading. For those with the stamina to stay with him, however, the rewards are great. The Western Greeks (and indeed Odysseus) will never look quite the same again.

Malkin and Luce are very different kinds of scholar, and the juxtaposition of their work is enlightening in unexpected ways. Malkin's intellectual essence is cerebral, theoretical, deductive: a yacht trip around the Ionian islands from Corfu in 1992 was clearly something out of the ordinary for him, like field-work for Levi-Strauss. For Luce, by contrast, autopsy in its strict original sense, personal inspection of evidence, and of terrain in particular, is where the intellectual process begins, and often where it ends, too. You can catch the surprise in Malkin's voice as he notes that "depending on weather conditions and visibility, everything is practically within sight and even swimming distance." He explains how the trip helped him "to visualize the geographical and maritime position of Ithaca and Corfu" in relation to their immediate surroundings. There is no suggestion that he ever went back, or that the historical problems raised by these close proximities (why wasn't the West explored and familiar much earlier?) have exercised him overmuch. For Luce, however, these experiences of the land and the sea are not serendipitous discoveries. They are the axioms of his method.

Occasionally Luce and Malkin overlap, and when they do the combination of methods can produce fascinating results. This is nowhere more apparent than in the matter of what might be called, with apologies to Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Thirteen Tripods." The locale in question is a cave on the north side of Polis Bay on Ithaca. In 1868 and 1873, a landowner named Loizos (Luce gets the name right; Malkin calls him Louisos) found here, among other things, a bronze cauldron-tripod, afterwards melted down to avoid trouble with the authorities, but before that seen by reputable witnesses. At some point in late antiquity the roof of the cave had fallen in, thus preserving earlier artifacts that were placed there when the cave had functioned as a shrine. Access was made more difficult by a rise in the sea-level, and it was not until the early 1930s that Sylvia Benton, of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, carried out a systematic excavation.

What she found there was of considerable interest in itself, and for Homeric scholars a fascinating conundrum, still not finally resolved, and probably not resolvable. Pottery and votive offerings--some to the nymphs--showed that the cave had been in use as a shrine from the Bronze Age to the first century AD. But one inscribed sherd carried the words "My prayer to Odysseus"; and the excavating team also unearthed the fragments of twelve more splendid bronze tripods, dated to the late ninth and early eighth centuries B.C. Homeric scholars who knew their Odyssey were not slow to point out the extraordinary coincidence (if coincidence it was) represented by these finds.

The coincidence is this. During the sojourn of Odysseus on Scheria, King Alkinoos proposes that he and the other lords of the community, being thirteen in number, shall give the stranger guest-gifts. After Odysseus's lengthy account of his wanderings in Books 9-12, Alkinoos calls for another gift from the same source: "Come, let each of us, man by man, give him a large tripod/and cauldron...." Thirteen lords, thirteen tripods. Loizos found one, and Sylvia Benton found twelve. Combined with that dedicatory inscription to Odysseus, such congruence between epic tradition and archaeological evidence indeed, as Luce mildly observes, "gives much food for thought."

Yet it also poses a tantalizing series of riddles. The tripods were dedicated long after the time of Odysseus (if he ever existed), but before the period in which those same scholars would agree that the Homeric poems were composed in roughly their present form. What, then, produced the coincidence? Were those thirteen tripods already a fixture in the oral tradition from the late Bronze Age on? Was the cave always associated with Odysseus, or identified as the one where the Phaeacians left him sleeping amid his guest-gifts? Did some munificent visitor, knowing all this, deliberately make an offering that recalled that scene in the Odyssey? Or did tripod dedications just accumulate haphazardly until the right number was reached? Did some local guide then have the bright idea of identifying them to the credulous as the very ones that accompanied Odysseus? Finally--here is the real gift to the narratologists and the deconstructionists--may it not have been the number of existing dedications that in fact dictated Homer's account?

Luce makes a very strong case for Homer having known Ithaca at first-hand. What could be more likely, in that case, than his working those thirteen tripods into his narrative, and then equipping Alkinoos with the right number of councilors as their givers? Still, as Luce rightly concedes, "such questions are easy to ask and impossible to answer with certainty." What the evidence primarily suggests to him--a literary conclusion to a topographical investigation--is "a single mastermind ordering and controlling all the manifold elements of the narrative."

On the great Homeric Question, in other words, he is a unitarian. Here he stands (correctly, I am convinced) with almost all creative writers but with far fewer analytical scholars, a striking contrast that has not attracted the attention that it deserves. He also demonstrates the crucial value of autopsy in a way that puts him right up there with legendary classical topographers such as that intrepid Victorian Colonel Leake or, in our own day, W.K. Pritchett, the famed Berkeley epigraphist, who must have worn out more pairs of boots walking every inch of Greece than any man alive.

Malkin's interests are rather different. What grabs him, when you really get down to it, are the varieties of colonial ethnic propaganda, which (then as now) depend on the creative re-shaping of myth. As an Israeli historian, he understands the pitfalls attendant upon "the use of mythological justification," and its evaluation by later scholars. Except for the evidence of archeology, he observes, could we not "easily conceive of someone a few centuries hence arguing forcefully that the relevant verses in Genesis were interpolated during the third quarter of the twentieth century by nationalist religious Jews to support irredentist claims that the earlier pragmatic, secular, and socialist-oriented Zionists had never taken too seriously?"

Perhaps only those familiar with past work done on early Mediterranean exploration and colonization, and its theories, will appreciate what a barbed comment this is. One of the few virtues of Martin Bernal's Black Athena was the uncomfortable reminder of just what a packet of political and ethnic prejudices anyone studying colonization brought to the job, from the friendly paternalism of those brought up to believe in the British Raj to the racist fantasies generated by De Gobineau and his admirers.

On the other hand, we all should be uncomfortably conscious today, with the violence in the Balkans as a horrible object-lesson, of just where myths of origins and belonging can take us. The Returns of Odysseus is, at one level, an immensely learned clearing operation in the arcana of classical scholarship; but its subject-matter makes it, perhaps more importantly, an all-too-relevant tract for the times, a splendid refutation of the current populist notion that high-level research in the humanities should be dismissed as obsolete mandarinism.

The Greek word nostos means, roughly, "homeward return." Returning heroes, as Malkin asserts, were not personalized as Nostoi (nor does Gregory Nagy, where cited for this irritating affectation, in fact say so); but the idea of nostos in connection with Mediterranean exploration was indeed closely tied up with the subsequent adventures of Greek heroes, Odysseus in particular, after the Trojan War. There has been a tendency, among historians and literary critics alike, to keep myth and actuality apart when investigating this phenomenon. What Malkin sees, with commendable clarity, is that they are inseparable:

From the ninth century B.C. on, Greeks sailed, explored, established guest-friendship (xenia) relations, raided, traded, and colonized on the coasts beyond Ithaca. These were real people, doing concrete things, observing coasts and populations in the Ionian, Adriatic, and Tyrrhenian Seas, but they perceived the reality that they encountered there through screens woven of both experience and myth. Myths, especially about the Nostoi--the returning heroes from the Trojan War--were projected onto new lands, articulating landscapes, genealogies, and ethnicities. Nostos myths provided cultural and ethnic mediation with non-Greeks and, once integrated, often came to provide the terms of self-perception for native populations.

What follows is an erudite, richly documented, and stringently argued demonstration of this thesis. It tracks Odysseus beyond Ithaca, the point of no return, the way-station to the West, the offshore island by Epiros--Cavafy's source of the kale taxedhi, the "wonderful journey"--to the Greek cities of South Italy, to Pithekoussai and the Etruscans. It throws in Nestor, Philoctetes, Diomedes, and other "returners" for good measure. It is itself, in every sense, a kale taxedhi.

Along the way a whole series of suggestive notions awaits the alert reader. Malkin argues that most of the "historical" elements--as opposed to the "offthe-map" elements--in the Odyssey were well-known in the ninth century B.C., and may indeed depend on Bronze Age oral traditions--a view that Luce, I am sure, would enthusiastically endorse. What Malkin calls "ethnogenesis" generated myths galore in antiquity without any sense of nationalism--which in this context is a modern import, and still the cause of untold tension between kratos and ethnos, between state and people. (Panhellenism was something quite different, a kind of ethnic collectivism.)

There are lessons to be learned here. Perhaps the most important is that mere facts enjoy very low priority when establishing any kind of traditional authentication for ancestry, language, cult, or territorial claims. Malkin's book abounds in endless varieties of manipulated or revamped evidence to bring the past into line with current requirements: did these people consciously know what they were doing? Were they deliberate (and cynical) propagandists, or was the past for them a kind of innocent and malleable plasma, to be shaped to one's needs and then firmly believed in when shaped? When the Etruscans took over Odysseus and Aeneas together, when Rome absorbed the second but not the first, when everyone modified and added to the genealogies as they needed, and varied foundation legends, and reinterpreted hero-cults, and changed boundaries and nationalities and territorial claims, where did faith end and politics take over?

The case of modern Greece offers disquieting answers. Even highly educated and intelligent individuals, academics included, seem quite capable of not only invoking the most patently absurd historical myths, but, worse, of actually believing them. One of the hardest notions to swallow in Malkin's analysis is that of ethnic groups that brazenly (as it would seem) borrow or invent a suitable past, and then, with all apparent sincerity, treat it as gospel. Ancient naivete, you might think.

But look now at a book that lately generated considerable interest, not least when Cambridge University Press backed out of publishing it, on the alleged excuse that to do so might put the lives of its representatives in Greece at risk. I refer to Anastasia Karakasidou's Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990, which the University of Chicago Press published a few years ago. It describes, in chilling detail, the use of "Hellenization" as an instrument for the eradication and the absorption of minority cultures in Greece. My point here is how successful the process has been. In only two generations, a group of Macedonian Slavs living north of Thessaloniki not only became convinced of their Hellenic ancestry, not only saw it as stretching back to antiquity, but became extremely upset when Karakasidou started confronting them with a few historical facts to the contrary.

What has become known as the Macedonian Question--were they Greeks or weren't they Greeks?--abounds in this kind of paradox. It is a given in Greece, for example, that Macedonian as a language is a chimera. Never mind that a Macedonian grammar was published in Athens in 1925. But when Pope John Paul II's Christmas message in 1991 included a greeting in Macedonian, Greeks took him to task for using the "nonexistent Macedonian tongue." And every improbable mythic device that Malkin lists for the archaic world, every bizarre or irrational affectation, is certainly alive and well in the Balkans today. Indeed, in one respect antiquity was a clear improvement on the present imbroglio: it had not yet sampled the heady joys of religious intolerance, which, like it or not, has been one of the main forces driving the disaster in Kosovo.

Current preoccupations thus lend peculiar interest to what might otherwise seem distant, even arid. But these myths and movements, these cross-currents of language, now betray, even after nearly two millennia, a fearfully familiar urgency. Linguistic variants--as in the name of Odysseus, where the Corinthian "Olytteus" generated the Italian "Ulysses"-- hint at more widespread emigrations than have hitherto been supposed. Epiros and Illyria, later regarded by many as "barbarian," seem to have exported fundamental Greek ethnic patterns to the West, including the Western name Graikoi for what the Greeks themselves called Hellenes. Etruscans took over Greek nostos myths with enthusiasm: for them, "the Homeric epics were not only attractive aesthetically and socially but provided a `full past.'" Greek myths offered genealogical charters for some highly un-Greek princely families: Odysseus as companion to Aeneas, as progenitor of those Italic characters Agrius and Latinus, "conforms to a peripheral vision of Italic peoples as seen from the area of the Bay of Naples." Nestor and Philoctetes generated foundation-myths all round the heel of Italy. Diomedes turns up at a surprising number of non-Greek sites.

Yet behind the politics and the propaganda, the use of mythic ancestry to validate civic or ethnic pretensions, one senses an older, more tentative, less confident and less pragmatic past, when the wonders that lay in the uncharted West had not been tamed or labeled, and the firm distinction between fact and fantasy had by no means been established. Charybdis and Scylla might have been located somewhere in the Straits of Messina, but their nature was no more precisely determined than that of the Cyclops. Above all, the one Western journey carefully ignored by both Malkin and Luce is the journey of Odysseus to Hades. It raises, in every sense, too many ghosts.

In later times, the hereafter was to beckon enticingly for those deprived in this world; but not in the Odyssey. Never again in European literature was there to be so resounding a declaration in favor of life on earth over the life that followed. What Homer called the "weak heads of the dead," flitting in a gray underworld, needing warm blood to revivify them, are the most sheerly negative denizens of any afterlife known to us. Achilles would rather be a hired hand on earth than reign as a king among the dead. This is the joyful creed, preserved in oral tradition, of a Bronze Age aristocracy that loved life with a manic fierceness, and treasured it all the more for its brevity and perils. "As is the generation of leaves, so is that of men": this is one of the most poignant moments in the Iliad. What on earth happened, during a brief century or two, to replace this attitude with the crippling pessimism of the Greek city-states, summed up in that famous phrase "Call no man happy till he's dead"? That still remains one of the most tantalizing enigmas bequeathed to us by antiquity.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.