Saturday, January 4, 2014

Wine-Dark Sea

Not to belabor the obvious, but I have taken a long and unplanned vacation from this blog. After more than six years it has become a challenge to come up with topics that have not already been beaten to death here.

So I will make absolutely no promises about frequency or consistency of posting, but here you go!

There is a curious enchantment to Dark Ages. They are dark mainly to us, with few if any written records, yet they loom large in our imaginative heritage.

The Dark Age of Greece - by convention it is in the singular, not 'Dark Ages' - might be dated with traditionalist pseudo-precision as running from 1174 BC to 776 BC. The end date is the first Olympiad, the earliest recorded date of 'historical' Greece. The start date is ten years after the fall of Troy, when Odysseus finally gets back to Ithaca, last of all the surviving Achaean heroes to make his way home.

The traditional dates for the Trojan War itself, 1194-1184 BC, were an estimate by Eratosthenes, better known in geekdom for his impressively accurate computation of the size of the Earth. But the first curious thing about the Dark Age of Greece is that his date for the fall of Troy is also impressively accurate, even though it was based on premises that were shaky, obscure, or both.
The current archeological dating for the destruction of Troy VIIa - a destruction apparently due to war - is given as 1230-1190/1180 BCE, a range that just neatly overlaps the traditional date.

True that Eratosthenes' dating was only one of several classical estimates for the fall of Troy, and if you include enough of the others you can make a plausible case that Eratosthenes merely got lucky. If you scatter a dozen estimates over a 200 or 300 year period, one of them is likely to fall within a couple of decades of any given date.

But 1184 became the standard traditional date for the fall of Troy. Score one for Eratosthenes, not to mention Homer.

To us the oddest episodes in the Odyssey may be when Odysseus' son Telemachus visits Sparta and finds Menelaus and Helen living in comfortable domesticity, as though all that awkward business about Paris of Troy had never happened. Other homecomings, the Nostoi in Greek tradition, were more turbulent.

Odysseus, not home yet, would have his own troubles, though they seem to end well for everyone except those annoying suitors (and the servingmaids who had been overly friendly with them). Most notorious of the homecomings was that of Agamemnon, King of Men, finished off in his bath by wife Clytemnestra. (She arguably had good reason.)

To judge by the archeological record, however, practically all of the homecomings must have gone badly. Every Mycenaean palace was destroyed, with the sole exception of the (rather minor) palace at Athens. As a further complication the wave of destruction - one scholar has dubbed it simply the Catastrophe - peaked right around 1200 BCE, slightly before the putative date of the Trojan War.

What sticks most in my mind is sandy Pylos, the city of wise old Nestor. Telemachus also visited Pylos in his journey, where he found Nestor leading his people in sacrificing bulls (or was it oxen?) to Poseidon. All seems to be going well for the Pylians - if Homer had wanted Foreshadowings of Doom in his narrative, he could have provided them, and he doesn't.

In fact, however, sandy Pylos went down in flames circa 1200 BCE. And unlike Mycenae, which struggled on through a couple of archeological destruction layers before final abandonment, Pylos went down for the count.

Left in the smouldering ruins were clay tablets, fortuitously baked in the conflagration, on which scribes had carefully recorded all the unromantic details of Bronze Age palace management.They also provide the Foreshadowings of Doom that immortal Homer does not: Watchers have been dispatched to guard the coast, some 600 rowers are being mustered, and there are hints of an emergency human sacrifice.

The fashion in the fairly recent past was to downplay any real connection between Bronze Age events and the Homeric tradition. The magisterial Moses I Finley dismissed any Bronze Age element in the epics as a mere few Mycenaean 'things.' Lately the scholarly fashion cycle seems to be going the other way, helped along by other fire-preserved clay tablets, from Hittite archives, that mention a place called Taruisa or Wilusa, and troublesome people called Ahhiyawa - evoking Troy, its alternate name Ilios, and the Achaeans, sackers of cities.

For historical, or para-historical fiction, this would be more than enough. A lot of plausible reconstruction of events can be slipped through the error bars in archeological dating. If Troy fell in 1230 BCE, then whatever happened to Pylos happened a generation after Telemachus' visit, give or take, and had no reason to be hinted at in the Odyssey. Perhaps it belonged to a different story line.

But that is the mystery and enchantment of the Greek Dark Age. Moses I Finley may have been wrong to dismiss 'Mycenaean things,' but he is right in saying not to judge a culture only by its material poverty.
An oral tradition persisted and developed through its obscure generations.

The tradition did not preserve everything. If there was ever an epic sung of the fiery end of Pylos, it vanished nearly without trace. (A sketchy account held that Nestor's descendents were exiled from Pylos, turned up in Athens, and eventually founded Ionia.) But the tradition did preserve some things, however much refracted by oral transmission.

It is unlikely that we will ever find a source document that directly records the specific people and events that have come down to us as the wrath of Achilles and the wanderings of Odysseus. We glimpse them - vividly so - across a wine-dark sea of time.


Obligatory space reference: When your subject is Odysseus, the Major Tom of Bronze Age heroes,  you don't really need an obligatory space reference. But I provided one anyway.

The image of an archaic era Greek galley comes from a Project Gutenberg ebook.