Who was Homer? Was he (or she) one person or many? Did a person named Homer even exist? Are the Homeric epics, so rich in detail, a record of a great conflict that took place at ancient Troy? And if so, why have archaeologists never reached a consensus about when it took place or indeed if it happened at all? Those of us who are interested in ancient history in general and Homer in particular cannot help but wonder about these questions.
Being passionate about Homer, I was thrilled to discover The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. It is a riveting, unexpectedly beautiful book, an extraordinary redefinition of Homer that takes us back through the mists of time for a look at what just might have been the origin of the Homeric epics.
The Trojan War, Nicolson believes, took place far earlier than we have previously conjectured. He imagines a conflict, or clash of cultures, “a fusion of two very different worlds,” that happened around 2,000 BC between “the semi-nomadic, hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppes,” the peoples who migrated south to inhabit the land we know as Greece, and “the sophisticated, authoritarian, and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean.” He defends his thesis with convincing evidence from ancient history, archaeological sites and relics, the oral traditions of Bronze Age cultures, and many other sources. “Greekness,” he writes, “and eventually Europeanness, emerged from the meeting and melding of those two worlds.” His quest takes us on a journey of discovery, and in the process we learn who—or what—Homer is, and why he is relevant to our modern civilization.
To Nicolson the question is not “Who was Homer?” but “What is Homer?” Although Nicolson personifies Homer as “he,” he defines him not a single person or even a group but as “the inherited tradition and memory” of a culture, passed down over millennia, and its essence, he says, is “a form of concentrated wisdom about the condition of life on this earth.”
But Homer is real and may be encountered in one’s life, as Nicolson did, and Keats before him, and many others whose stories Nicolson relates, and as I too have felt in coming face to face with the truth of the Homeric poems. Reading Nicolson’s marvelous book, I found myself saying, Yes, this makes sense, or Yes, this is why I find Homer so compelling, and highlighting some of the most beautifully written and cogent passages so that I could return to them again and again. I recommend this book to all who care about history and the deepest truths of our journey on this earth.
Reviewed by Elena Douglas (AKA Barbara Brunetti)