Monday, 14 June 1999

M.I. Finley: The World of Odysseus (1954)

Edition: Pelican, 1972
Review number: 272

The World of Odysseus is the book which made Finley's name as a classical scholar. He takes a fresh look as a historian at Homer's two great poems, which (even if not by the same hand) show many similarities in the world they depict. He uses insights derived from studies of other peoples based on an oral tradition to assess how the Odyssey and Iliad might relate to historical fact. (Poems like the Nibelungenlied and the Yugoslav poetry studied by Milman Parry include events and people known from more conventional historical sources, making this easier.)

Finley manages to distinguish two kinds of writing in Homer, other than principally fanciful episodes (like the Cyclops encounter in the Odyssey). There are distorted reflections of some past time, and insertions from the poet's own time. Sometimes they are combined, as in the descriptions of chariot fighting: the poet knows that chariots were used, but not how (because the use had died out by his time), so imagines them to be a kind of taxi to get to the battlefield, where the hero gets out to fight on foot. The description of gift exchange, which closely parallels similar systems known to anthropologists, is ancient; similes involving iron are contemporary.

Finley discusses many issues related to his theme, and is always interesting and convincing. There is the relationship between the poems and the Linear B tablets; between the poems and the excavations by Schliemann and others at Hissarlik and in Greece; between the works of Homer and Hesiod, near contemporaries; how later editing (known to have occurred) might have affected the poems; the existence and identity (identities) of Homer; the attitude towards the gods revealed in the poems (a downplaying of the more homely, primitive gods like Dionysus and Demeter). To a non-classicist like myself, his conclusions always seem to make sense. It is the romantic weight of the poems themselves, as evidenced in the desire to connect Hissarlik to the Troy of the Iliad by going beyond the archaeological evidence, which meant that The World of Odysseus caused such controversy.

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