In today’s media landscape, where news circulates faster than ever before, we often hear the demand for better source criticism. The fact that many people never bother to check facts, or think about whether the source is reliable, is however not a new problem. Lack of source criticism goes back to antiquity. As the saying goes – nothing is new under the sun.
Copyright Malena Lagerhorn
How to preserve information with hexameter
Homer’s epic masterpieces the Iliad and the Odyssey only existed in oral form over a long period of time. Around 700 BC, the different versions of the eposes that were in circulation in the ancient world were collected and written down. The eposes thus got their final form and it is these versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey that we can read today. The eposes are composed in hexameter, verses consisting of six feet. Since hexameter “locks” the content – it is difficult to change the words without destroying the rhythm – we can be quite sure that the content has been reasonably intact even during the centuries when the stories were only preserved orally.
Early criticism against modifications of the Iliad and the Odyssey
Despite the final written form of the works, they have nevertheless been changed and adapted. Already in the 6th century BC, there was criticism against the modifications of the texts that were made to make them fit better with the Greek environment. Odd elements, which no one could figure out what they were, were adapted to improve overall understanding. We can see this even today when, for example, we read in the Odyssey that a mast has been made of olive wood. Anyone who knows what an olive tree looks like immediately understands that if there is any kind of tree, which you should notuse for a mast, it is a curved and knotty olive tree. Probably, no one understood what kind of wood Homer was talking about and they simply wrote olive wood instead. Then, like now, people apparently never thought much about whether what they heard was reasonable. Another example is the common occurrence of lions in the Iliad. Homer’s lions behave more like bears. We can read, among other things, that they live alone in caves. The question is which animal Homer spoke about originally.
Questionable modifications of Homer’s works by modern translators
And so it has continued. Year after year. Millennia after millennia. And the modifications continue even today. We can for example read in the latest Swedish translation by Ingvar Björkeson about “the black-eyed Greeks”. Firstly, there were no Greece or Greeks during the time when the events in the Iliad and the Odyssey took place, that is, in the Bronze Age. What we find in the original ancient Greek text (the first version written down after a long time of oral preservation) is that the warriors who attack Troy are called sons of Achaea, Danaans or Argives. This is a really clumsy historical error that Björkeson, however, is not alone in making. There are several English translations where the translators did not think it really mattered that there was no Greece until several hundreds of years after the battle of Troy. When it comes to the word “black-eyed”, it cannot be found in the original Greek text. The word used is “helikopas”, which means light-eyed or bright-eyed.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are still the best “proofs” that we have
Despite the modifications of the Iliad and the Odyssey, we still have access to two texts that have probably only been changed marginally since they were composed in the Bronze Age. Unlike many other works written down in ancient times. If there are any writings that are reasonably reliable, in the sense that they have not changed in content over time, it is Homer’s eposes. And if we want to try to understand the period when the events in the eposes took place, it is the Iliad and the Odyssey that we should use as “proofs”.
There are a number of other works and fragments that are believed to depict the same time. In several of these works we can read that chieftain Agamemnon, who leads the army against Troy, sacrificed his own daughter before the battle. This is a myth that still flourishes today.
But why does the Iliad not portray this very dramatic event? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter is not mentioned in the Iliad with a single word. In the very epos that portrays the battle itself, and which we also know has not changed much since the 6th century BC, this sacrifice does not exist. We can therefore, if we have the ambition to be reasonably critical of our sources and use common sense, conclude that the sacrifice probably never took place but was added afterwards.
Lack of source criticism among modern archaeologists
Some time ago I got a tip from a reader about the TV series “In Search of the Trojan War”. The series is a documentary from the 80’s where we follow the charming Michael Wood as he travels around and speaks to experts. Although we know much more today, the series is still interesting and really worth seeing. But, as in many modern translations of Homer’s works, in the TV series they also speak about “Greeks”. Everyone does it – Wood, archaeologists, historians – everyone! And, of course, about the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter.
Another remarkable thing that most seem to have misunderstood is the description of the wall around Troy. In the Iliad we are told that there is only one wall. The wall is not very old. It is chieftain Priam’s father, Laomedon, who built it. It is clear from the epos that the wall is impressive, according to the dimensions of the time, but that it is an earthwork with pilings. However, when Wood travels around and visits Turkish Hisarlik, they always speak of the magnificent stone walls – two walls – that surrounded Troy since ancient times. As the most reliable source, the Iliad itself, describes a completely different kind of wall, why is it not an earthwork they are looking for? But as stated in the beginning of this article, the lack of source criticism has flourished since ancient times.
In the TV documentary, Wood walks around among old Mycenaean remains on the Peloponnese. We get to see fascinating remains from a very rich culture with high walls, frescoes and wells inside beautiful buildings. This also fits very badly with the primitive environment described in the Iliad, where the chieftains’ sons are herding cattle and where the fighting mostly consists of neighbor feuds where they steel oxen from each other. The culture described in the Iliad hardly built any magnificent stone monuments.
Using exact sciences to find answers
This is where Felice Vinci’s ingenuity stands out – his ability of rational, critical thinking. When Vinci formulated his hypothesis about a Nordic Troy, which you can be read about in his book The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, he used the Iliad and the Odyssey as his main sources. Maybe that is what happens when you are a nuclear physicist and not a historian. You rely less on written sources (besides the Iliad and the Odyssey) and more on precise sciences, such as geography, climatology and astronomy.
The lack of source criticism is not new and it seems like it is something we must live with. After all, it is a trend that has been going on since antiquity. The difference today is that, by means of improved scientific methods and interdisciplinarity, we can more easily notice it.