A prophecy of doom
by Luka Sommer
The sunlights played
Over the rolling sea;
Far off in the roads the ship shone,
That should carry me home;
But there was no good wind.
And I still sat quietly on a white dune,
On a deserted beach,
And I read the Song of Ulysses,
The old song, the forever young song,
From its sea-roaring leaves
Stepping towards me joyfully
The breath of the gods,
And the bright springtime of man,
And the blooming sky of Hellas.
(Heinrich Heine, Poseidon)
For almost three millennia, the verses of Homer, the creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey, echo like a promise, almost like a prayer through the Orient, telling astonished readers about legendary Greece, the war for the city of Troy, the wrath of the divine Achilles and the odyssey of the cunning Odysseus.
In the meantime the sound of the oscillating hexameter verses has faded away to a large extent. Except for a few hard-working students at humanistic grammar schools and a handful of classical philologists, there are few left who are able to read and understand ancient Greek. The trend in recent years is rather that Latin and especially Greek are being rationalized away like something harmful. But even in his German translation Homer no longer sounds. 1
Of the “divine singer” (as he was known) there is hardly anything left but the memory of a wooden horse. Today, the name of the probably most influential poet of all times is associated above all with a – certainly amiable – but above all completely underexposed, manically obese and helplessly alcoholic yellow comic figure.
Yet he once – and this “once” was not so long ago – had the thinking and creation of Western
influences great minds like no other. The chain stretches from Alexander, Aristotle, Virgil, Caesar, Erasmus, Leonardo, Shakespeare to Diderot, Rousseau, Goethe (of course), Napoleon, Darwin, Rilke, Joyce, Hesse – just to name a few. From Homer Superstar to Homer Simpson it was only a short way.
One could – and the question is not entirely unjustified – now cynically ask: so what? Who is interested in Homer, and why should one put up with the extensive, demanding and not immediately accessible reading? What use are dusty materials from the ancient moth box?
Admittedly, my answers to these questions sound unspectacular: the progressive relevance and significance of Homer arises firstly from the fact that he is the first and thus oldest classic of world literature and secondly because he does not hold this rank for nothing. Both reasons naturally require explanations. After a brief introduction to Homer, these should follow immediately.
So who was Homer?
The historical figure even beats Shakespeare in the lack of biographical data. 2
Historically we can only place him in the 8th century B.C. and geographically in Asia Minor, and we don’t really know anything else about him, not even whether there was a historical Homer at all. Due to the complexity of his work, it is sometimes claimed that Homer was a collective name for different authors, or rather a whole academy of authors.
Others merely doubt that Iliad and Odyssey, with their so different plot structures and different ethics, were written by the same author. Still others contradict and refer to the stringent form and uniform handwriting of the works.
Some even consider Homer to be a Greek version of the Brothers Grimm, i.e. a collector who for the first time wrote down songs and stories that had existed orally for a long time and had been spread by wandering myth singers. This thesis is supported by the fact that Homer’s work is dated to a time when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and were at the beginning of a new culture of writing.
The thought appeals: Homer at the crossroads of times.
And they say he was blind. Today, however, we know that in the ancient world the image of the blind poet was a quite common and honourable attribute for the best among them. A pity, really. For there is indeed something sublime and transcendental about a blind man writing monumental epics.
But I don’t want to become entangled here any longer in speculations and half-truths; the evaluation, classification and interpretation of historical puzzle pieces is the responsibility of the expert, not the layman, and should not play any further role here. The interest in personalities must therefore unfortunately remain unsatisfied at this point. The good thing is that no moving biography distorts the view of the work.
So the argument that one has to continue reading Iliad and Odyssey because it’s been done for centuries, because Homer is a “classic” of world literature, stinks of conservative muff.
It is an achievement (and perhaps also a burden) of our time to question everything, to no longer simply accept traditional things, but to subject everything to examination and in case of doubt to change. And so, for Homer and his poet colleagues, who also died a long time ago, the sea has been getting increasingly rougher for years.
The Schillers, Goethes and Kleist are no longer a matter of course on the syllabi, but must suddenly justify themselves, explain in a credible way why one should still read their old-fashioned and often difficult to understand language, why one should still seek meaning and significance in their works and not simply let them drown in the ocean of time.
Yes, so why?
Generally speaking, the relevance of the classics derives firstly from the fact that they are our cultural legacy, that they are the heritage of our ancestors.
Being at home in the world, in Europe, means for the alert, mature mind to know this cultural heritage, the ideas and motivations of past generations and, ultimately, to know itself. We are, after all, products of time, links in a long chain, linked to the beliefs, deeds and inactions of our ancestors; we may condemn or ignore this, but we can never let it go.
It is often only the dialogue with the past that allows us to understand today and to shape tomorrow responsibly and perhaps even wisely. Just as we will not understand the EU without the Second World War, we will not understand Renaissance without Antiquity. The dissolution of forms by the Cubists, above all Pablo Picasso, remains a colourful jumble without the sometimes stubborn perfectionism and realism of previous generations of artists.
Without Arab architecture, there would be no Gothic, without the Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, there would be no Notre Dame de Paris. Without Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”, Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone music would remain a book with seven seals. And without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible and Christian ethics, the most essential key for the whole of European culture is missing.
One arises out of the other, whether out of admiration or rejection.
Homer is now significant in two ways in cultural history.
First, he stands at the beginning of poetry and poetry. He was one of the pioneers who understood words not only as information but also as aesthetics; he made words sound in a hitherto unsurpassed manner under the beat of the sublime hexameter meter; he transformed language into rhythm, into song, into art.
With this he began the relay race, in which generations of poets were to emulate him over the centuries and perhaps even surpass him.
Secondly, the poet’s father can also be confidently described as one of the founding fathers of Europe. Similar to Martin Luther with his translation of the Bible, Homer, at the crossroads of time, defined and unified Ancient Greek, gave it contours, a little exaggerated one could even say: he invented Ancient Greek. And as a creator of language, he is at the beginning of the whole European thought.
For it is language, it is always language, which is at the beginning of thinking.
Only language allows man to use his intellect, a thought is not conceivable outside language. Only through language can complex and abstract mental constructions be created, ideas developed, only through language is reason possible.
Homer provided the (first) mass from which his successors formed, expanded and changed the almost infinite world of thoughts. From Euclidean geometry to Kant’s ethics and the theory of relativity.
Homer, like Prometheus, gave fire to men, the fire that warms and illuminates them, and corrupts and destroys them.
Without Homer no Plato, without Plato no Aristotle, without Aristotle no Alexander, without Alexander no Hellenism, without Hellenism no spreading of Aristophanes, Herodotus and Pythagoras to foreign countries and brains. And without Hellenism: no New Testament. And without the New Testament: no Occident, no Europe, at least none as we know it today. Yes, there would not even have been an Olympus without Homer, since his work was considered the most important source for the Greek pantheon. This underlines his importance for religion and mythology in ancient Greece and beyond.
But the classics are by far not just cultural milestones.
The second reason for their significance and relevance is that they are classics for a reason. Obviously, they have not only struck a nerve of the times, but a timeless nerve of all mankind, if they have outlasted the centuries and inspired and thrilled the best among us.
Our kinship with cultural-historical lighthouses is best shown in painting and architecture. Here it is most clearly visible that knowledge, beauty and aesthetics are not subject to fashion, but hover in spheres above. The pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon of Athens, the Colosseum, the Hagia Sophia, St. Peter’s – have they lost some of their magic or significance because they are several centuries old?
It’s the same in literature. Have the lines of Faust lost even one spark of their power over time? Have Molière’s comedies lost some of their unmasking humour? Do the crimes and punishments of the unhappy Raskolnikov still move us to tears today? Isn’t our world, our life sometimes at least as absurd as that of poor Josef K.?
And it’s no different with Iliad and Odyssey.
On the one hand they are and remain masterpieces of poetic craftsmanship. The (combined) more than twenty thousand verses have lost nothing of their poetic sound, their poetic power and their linguistic depth.
On the other hand, they are dramatically gripping and wonderfully composed narratives, time journeys to Arcadia into the cultural dawn of ancient Hellas, with its so divine heroes and its so human gods.
It all begins with an apple: on the promise to give him the most beautiful woman in the world, Paris decides to give the apple to Aphrodite and thus the rank of the most beautiful goddess. The competitors Athena and Hera are angry. And when Hera is angry, it cannot leave her husband, the father of the gods Zeus, cold.
The conflict reaches Olympic proportions even before it has begun. Paris kidnaps the promised Helen to Troy, her husband, Agamemnon, rages and drums to war, knowing that the offended goddesses Athena and Hera are on his side.
Parallel to the human conflict, the divine one escalates. And the immortal puppeteers bring out all the guns. Winds are manipulated, the plague is spread, emotions are aroused and deceived, in the end there is probably no Olympian, from Athena to Zeus, who does not have his hands in the war for the city of Troy.
In the Odyssey, the ranks thin out and it is only Athena and Poseidon who fight over the fate of Odysseus. Oh, Ulysses. He is the counterpart to the radiant Achill, the demigod and conqueror of Hector, only vulnerable at the famous heel. Achilles and Ulysses split “two basic ways of looking at the world and overcoming it”. 3
While the furious sword of Achilles brings much suffering and tears among the Trojan people, in the end, a much more powerful weapon is needed to defeat them: the mind of Ulysses.
Only through his Trojan horse did the Greeks win the war, only through his cunning did his companions escape the hunger of the giant Polyphemus, only through his ingenuity could he, tied to the mast of his ship, listen to the seductively perishable song of the sirens, and only through his unshakable faith, despite the seductions of the nymph Calypso, could he return to his faithful Penelope after almost twenty years, naturally not without having first taught the impudent suitors a lesson in archery.
Most readers should have noticed long ago: there is a lot of familiar stuff, even if you have never read Homer. The horse, which nowadays likes to sneak into computers, the Achilles heel, which indicates vulnerable spots, the term “apple of discord”, derived from the (corrupted) election to Miss Olympus, the Cassandra call, which warns of imminent disaster.
Homer has left his mark, Homer has inspired. And Homer can still inspire today.
His work is not only significant in terms of cultural history, but has lost none of its linguistic monumentality or dramaturgical genius even after almost three thousand years. To put it in other words: even after almost three thousand years, Homer is still topical, captivating, worth reading. The breath of the old gods has never stopped blowing from his pages. And it would be an incredible loss if there were no one left to breathe it.
It is up to us, to you and me, not only to carry our rich, European culture before us like a vendor’s tray, but to remain or become true bearers of this heritage, true Europeans, through reading and reflection. It is up to us to pass on to future generations not the ashes, but the flame of Greece, which burns so ablaze in Homer’s work.
There is no doubt that the Iliad and the Odyssey are ambitious.
The language – even in English translation – is unwieldy for the untrained reader, lengthy dialogues with repetitive phrases make undivided attention difficult, the lyrical sentence structure often requires repeated reading; there are no mysterious murders, no breathtaking sex scenes (in defiance of Hollywood!), and in the end no stunning plot. Accordingly, it is rather disadvisable for beginners to begin their literary journey with Homer. 4
But here, too, whatever should apply in life: difficulty must never be an obstacle. High art is simply a fruit that hangs high. It often requires patience, practice, silence, concentration, repeated contemplation, meditative engagement – in other words, everything that is increasingly difficult to apply in our crazy, with its dizzy speed.
Unfortunately, looking into our telephones, we have not yet noticed that the constant tickle of our thirst for information and sensation is making us so slowly blind to the world around us and within us that our cognitive abilities are on the decline.
Symptomatic of this is that more and more people find it harder and harder to concentrate on one thing for several hours. Paranoidly, it is easier for most people to fly to Rome for a weekend than to read Michael Kohlhas in one evening.
The sad diagnosis is: we have forgotten how to read.
But instead of accepting the challenge and educating ourselves to intellectual greatness through discipline and hard work, instead of at least trying to understand the complexity of literature and the things around us, we also flirt with our inability and serve everything in linguistically, and meanwhile also in content digestible morsels. In order not to overtax anyone or to offend anyone.
The consequence is that the average becomes the norm, that ordinariness becomes the goal. And a target down inevitably becomes a downward spiral. It is also about much more than the survival of literature. If we lose the ability to read, we lose the ability to think, fantasize, marvel, sympathize. To put it bluntly: we are threatened with mental disintegration with drastic consequences for society as a whole if we do not succeed in reversing the downward trend.
Reading Homer is only one of many building blocks, but it is an important one.
Whoever seriously tries it in spite of obstacles will grow, ripen and eventually reach the high hanging, sweet fruits – promised!
So: get out into the bookshops of your villages and cities, buy a translation of your choice, dive into the magical world of antiquity and join the chain that spans the entire history of our continent. I would wish for myself, for you, for us, that my Cassandra call be heard.
1 There are numerous translations of Homer’s work and classical philologists are in constant dispute as to which is closest to the original. The author of this text is familiar (only) with the translations of Johann Heinrich Voss (1781) and Wolfgang Schadewaldt (1958).
2 The key historical data and facts I have presented here are based on the book “Homer and his time” by the ancient historian and Homer expert Dr. Barbara Patzek.
3 According to the classical philologist Joachim Latacz.