c. 75,000 b.c.e.—c. 2800 b.c.e.
The very origins of literature are lost.
An oblong piece of ocher, found in the Blombos Caves on the southern coast of present-day South Africa, is crosshatched with a regular pattern of diamonds and triangles. It is 77,000 years old. Whether these geometric designs are supposed to be symbolic, whether they are supposed to mean anything at all, they present us with one irrefutable fact. A precursor of modern humanity deliberately engraved marks onto a medium. It was a long way yet to the word processor and text messages, but a first step of sorts had been taken.
The period around 45,000 to 35,000 years ago in humanity’s evolution has been called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution or, more catchily, the Creative Explosion. More complex tools were fashioned, from fishhooks to buttons to needles. Moreover, they are decorated, not only with schemata of lines and dots: a lamp contains an ibex, a spear tip transforms into a bison. There are also statuettes with no immediately discernible use: squat figurines of dumpy women. Is it possible to have slings but not songs, arrows but not stories?
Looking at the cave paintings from Lascaux, Altamira, and Chavette, created some 18,000 years ago, it is overwhelmingly tempting to try and read them. Do these images record successful hunts, or are they imagined desires and hopes? Is this “Yesterday we killed an aurochs” or “Once upon a time there was an aurochs”? What do the squiggles and zigzags, the claviforms and tectiforms over the animal images signify? Occasionally, looming out from an inconceivably distant time, a human handprint appears, outlined in pigment. A signature, on a work we cannot interpret.
Where did writing come from? Every early culture has a deity who invents it: Nabu in Assyria, Thoth in Egypt, Tenjin in Japan, Oghma in Ireland, Hermes in Greece. The actual explanation may be far less glamorous—accountants in Mesopotamia. All the earliest writing documents, in the blunt, wedge-shaped cuneiform style, are records of transactions, stock-keeping, and inventories. Before cursives and uncials, gothic scripts and runic alphabets, hieroglyphics and ideograms, we had tally marks.
But, by the first few centuries of the second millennium b.c.e., we know that literature has begun, has begun to be recorded, and has begun to spread. It was not until 1872 that the first fragments of The Epic of Gilgamesh resurfaced in the public domain after four millennia. The excavation of ancient Nineveh had been undertaken by Austen Henry Layard in 1839. Nearly twenty-five thousand broken clay tablets were sent back to the British Museum, and the painstaking work of deciphering the cuneiform markings commenced in earnest. The Nineveh inscriptions were incomplete, and dated from the seventh century b.c.e., when King Ashurbanipal of Assyria had ordered his troops to seek out the ancient wisdom in the cities of Babylon, Uruk, and Nippur. These spoils of war were then translated into Akkadian from the original Sumerian.
Over time, the poem was supplemented by more ancient versions discovered in Nippur and Uruk, as well as copies from places as far apart as Boghazköy in Asia Minor and Megiddo in Israel. Gradually, an almost complete version of The Epic of Gilgamesh was assembled out of Hittite, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Old Babylonian.
Who first wrote it? We do not know. Was it part of a wider cycle of myths and legends? Possibly, even probably, and there is a slim chance that further archaeological research will answer this. What, finally, is it about?
Gilgamesh is a powerful king of Uruk. The gods create an equal for him in the figure of Enkidu, a wild man, brought up among beasts and tempted into civilization by sex. They become firm friends, and travel together to the forest, where they slay the ferocious giant Humbaba, who guards the cedar trees. This infuriates the goddess Ishtar, who sends a bull from Heaven to defeat them. They kill and sacrifice it, and Ishtar decides that the way to harm Gilgamesh is through the death of Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh travels through the Underworld in search of eternal life, and eventually meets with Utnapishtim at the ends of the world. Utnapishtim was the only human wise enough to escape the Flood, and, after forcing Gilgamesh through a purification ceremony, shows him a flower called “The Old Are Young Again.” It eludes his grasp, and Gilgamesh dies.
The themes resonate through recorded literary endeavor. Gilgamesh wrestles with mortality; he declares he will “set up his name where the names of the famous are written.” Death is inevitable and incomprehensible. Even the giant Humbaba is given a pitiable scene where he begs for his life. Prayers, elegies, riddles, dreams, and prophecies intersperse the adventure; fabulous beasts sit alongside real men and women. The fact that we can discern different styles and genres within The Epic of Gilgamesh hints that unknown versions existed prior to it.
All the earliest authors are anonymous. A legendary name, an Orpheus or Taliesin, serves as a conjectural origin, a myth to shroud the namelessness of our culture’s beginnings. Although anonymity is still practiced, it is as a ruse to conceal Deep Throats, both investigative and pornographic. It is a choice, whereas for generations of writers so absolutely lost that no line, no title, no name survives, it is a destiny thrust upon them. They might write, and struggle, and edit, and polish, yet their frail papers dissipate, and all their endeavor is utterly erased. To those of whom no trace remains, this book is an offering. For we will join them, in the end.
c. late eighth century b.c.e.
Homer was . . .
The verb’s the problem here. Was there even such a person as Homer?
There was, or there was believed to be, a Homer: minds as skeptical as Aristotle’s and as gullible as Herodotus’ knew there was, of sorts, a, once, Homer.
“When ’Omer smote ’is bloomin’ lyre . . . They knew ’e stole; ’e knew they knowed,” says Rudyard Kipling.
“But when t’ examine ev’ry part he came, Nature and Homer were, he found, the same” was Pope’s interpretation.
Samuel Butler, in “The Authoress of the Odyssey” (1897), proposed that at least half of Homer was a woman.
E. V. Rieu, in 1946, patriotically complained:
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have from time to time afforded a first class battleground for scholars. In the nineteenth century in particular, German critics were at endless pains to show, not only that the two works are not the product of a single brain, but that each is a piece of intricate and rather ill-sewn patch-work. In this process Homer disappeared.
The imperishable Homer dwindles, a hum, an er, an inconclusive pause. Let’s begin with what we know: Il. and Od. Two long poems exist, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and somehow someone somebody called Homer became convoluted within them.
The Iliad and The Odyssey were considered by the Greeks to be the pinnacle of their literary achievements, and subsequent centuries and countries have concurred. Egyptian papyrus fragments of the texts outnumber all other texts and authors put together; the two poems are the basis for many of the tragedies and are quoted, almost with reverence, by critics, rhetoricians, and historians. It is tempting to extract information about the poet from the poetry, as did Thomas Blackwell, who, in “An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer” (1735), found such a happy similarity between the work and the world. Or, like the archaeologist and inveterate pilferer Schliemann, one might scour the coasts of Asia Minor in search of hot springs and cold fountains similar to those in the verse. But Homer, himself, herself, whatever, is irredeemably slippery.
Take customs. Bronze weaponry is ubiquitous in The Iliad, and iron a rarity, leading one to assume the poem describes a Mycenean Bronze Age battle. Yet the corpses are all cremated, never interred, a practice associated with the post-Mycenean Iron Age. The spear and its effect are historically incompatible. The language itself bristles with inconsistencies. Predominantly in the Ionic dialect, it contains traces of the Aeolic, hints of Arcado-Cypriot. Are these the snapped-up snatches of a wandering bard, linguistic sticky-burrs hitching on to the oral original? Or the buried lineaments of disparate myths corralled into a cycle, the brick from a Roman villa reused in the Gothic cathedral? The artificer cannot be extrapolated from the artifact.
To the Greeks, The Iliad and The Odyssey were not the works of a poet, but of the Poet. So impressed were the people of Argos with their inclusion in The Iliad that they set up a bronze statue of Homer, and sacrificed to it daily.
Seven cities—Argos, Athens, Chios, Colophon, Rhodes, Salamis, and Smyrna—claim to be the birthplace of Homer, although, significantly, all did so after his death. When he was born is just as contentious: Eratosthenes places it at 1159 b.c.e., so that the Trojan War would have still been in living memory, though a plethora of birthdates up until 685 b.c.e. have been offered. Most opt for the end of the ninth century b.c.e., a convenient average of the extremities. His father was called Maeon, or Meles, or Mnesagoras, or Daemon, or Thamyras, or Menemachus, and may have been a market trader, soldier, or priestly scribe, while his mother might be Metis or Cretheis, Themista or Eugnetho, or, like his father, Meles.
One extensive genealogy traces him back to his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather, the god Apollo, via the mythic poet Orpheus and his wife, the muse Calliope (though she has also been advanced as his mother). Since, as a muse, she would undoubtedly have been immortal, this is possible, though unsavory.
The Emperor Hadrian tried to untangle these contradictory accounts by asking the Pythian Sibyl for her tuppence, and was told, “Ithaca is his country, Telemachus his father, and Epicasta, daughter of Nestor, the mother that bore him, a man by far the wisest of mortals.” If she was correct, and Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, was Homer’s sire, The Odyssey becomes a biography of his grandfather as much as an epic poem.
At Chios, a group of later rhapsodes announced themselves as the Homeridae, or the sons of Homer, who solemnly learned, recited, and preserved the works of the Poet. Were there literal as well as figurative offspring? Tzetzes mentions that a poem called The Cypria, dealing with the prequel to the Trojan War and attributed to one Stasinus, was for the most part written by Homer, and given to the poet Stasinus, along with money, as part of a dowry. One presumes that this means that Homer had a daughter. The Cypria, however, was also sometimes thought to be the work of Hegesias of Troezen; little of it survives, and it is thus impossible to confirm the conjectural daughter.
Accounts agree, however, on one important feature. The Poet was blind. The birthplace claim of Smyrna is bolstered by the contention that homer, in their dialect, means “blind” (though not, as in the description of the Cyclops, in The Odyssey). A section in the Hymn to Delian Apollo is taken, by vague tradition, to be a self-description of Homer—or Melesigenes, as he was called before the Smyrnans christened him “Blindy”:
“Who think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?” Then answer, each and all, with one voice: “He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme.” As for me, I will carry your renown as far as I roam over the earth to the well-placed cities of man, and they will believe also; for indeed this thing is true.
It seems that, rather than being born sightless, Homer went blind: cataracts, diabetic glaucoma, infection by the nematode Toxocara. The later poet Stesichorus was struck blind by the gods for slandering Helen, and only had his sight miraculously restored when he rewrote his work, insisting that Helen had not eloped. Instead, she had been spirited away to Egypt and replaced with a phantom fashioned of clouds. Stesichorus blamed Homer, and Homer’s version of events, for his temporary loss of sight. Presumably Homer’s blindness was occasioned by a similar infraction. If, after The Iliad, he was struck blind, then the blinding of Polyphemus the Cyclops in The Odyssey must supposedly be drawn from personal experience.
The place of Homer’s death, thankfully, is barely in dispute: the island of Ios. Indeed, Homer himself was informed by a Pythian Sibyl that he would die on Ios, after hearing a children’s riddle. She referred to the island as the homeplace of his mother (but Nestor’s daughter came from Pylos, a good 150 miles away! One of the priestesses must be mistaken). Eventually Homer went to Ios, to stay with Creophylus. What qualities or creature comforts this Creophylus possessed that would make the bard travel to exactly the place where he had been warned that he would die must be left to the imagination. On the beach he met with some children who had been fishing. When he asked them if they had caught anything, they replied, “All that we caught we left behind and we are carrying all that we did not catch.” Nonplussed, he asked for an explanation, and was rewarded with the information that they were talking about their fleas. Suddenly remembering the oracle and its dire warning about riddling kids, Homer composed his epitaph, and died three days later.
At least we have the texts; the 27,803 lines that are “Homer.” But even these are susceptible to error. Despite the best efforts of the Homeridae, the texts were unstable, misremembered, interpolated. The librarians of Alexandria—Zenodotus, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus—all later endeavored to fix the text, to staunch the ebb of letters. The two poems were divided into books, each poem into twenty-four books, exactly the number of letters in the Greek alphabet. No other recorded epics had such an elegant numerology. Earlier, Aristotle himself prepared an edition for Alexander, who placed it in a jewel-encrusted golden casket despoiled from King Darius at the battle of Arbela, with the words: “But one thing in the world is worthy of so costly a repository.” But opulent boxes cannot preserve, nor can locks and keys keep back, the depredations of error. Before any of these scholars tried to secure The Iliad and The Odyssey, less reverent hands had handled the manuscripts.
The sixth-century b.c.e. Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was generally held to be an enlightened man, who reformed taxes and developed the Solonic legal systems. He was also a patron of the arts and the founder of the Dionysia festival; and he was concerned with establishing a standard text of the works of Homer. To this end, he employed a writer called Onomacritus, who undertook the task.
On the surface, Onomacritus seemed to be an ideal choice; he had, after all, already edited the poems and oracles of Musaeus. But, Herodotus informs us, there was a less professional side to the man. Lasus of Hermione, who is credited with teaching the lyric poet Pindar, had accused Onomacritus of misattribution, and even forgery, in his edition of Musaeus—brazenly importing his own words.
Excerpted from The Book of Lost Books by Stuart Kelly. Copyright © 2006 by Stuart Kelly. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.