Ripley’s Believe it or not! The telling contribution of the Minoans & of the great metropolis of Knossos to the Trojan War according to Homer. Iliad II, “The Catalogue of Ships” - lines 615-652: Click to ENLARGE
With reference to the great Minoan civilization, to Knossos, a metropolis of some 55,000 citizens (the size of Classical Athens), Phaestos & some 100 (!) Minoan cities in prominence in these few lines of the Iliad (according to Homer), this is far and away the most significant passage in the entire “The Catalogue of Ships” as far as we as researchers into Mycenaean Greek and its civilization, should truly be concerned with. Click to ENLARGE:
There are several points of note we feel we must raise here:
(a) It is hugely surprising that Homer should take so much trouble to refer to so many Minoan cities and settlements under the Mycenaean aegis, at least as far as the Trojan War is concerned. This is because Knossos at the acme of its power was supposed to have fallen no later than 1400 BCE, but the Trojan War took place at least 200 years later! (ca. 1200 BCE). So what is going on with Homer? Is he off his rocker? I sincerely doubt that, when it comes to perhaps the greatest Epic poet of all time. Either Homer is truly confused with his “historical facts” or Knossos did not fall around 1400 BCE, but hung on as a major Minoan/Mycenaean centre of economic and maritime naval power for at least another 200 years, or... or what? What on earth can we make of this bizarre scenario? – bizarre to us, that is. I find it positively intriguing that Homer should be so insistent on mentioning by name several Minoan cities and outposts, and that he should then go on to inform us that there were at least 100 of them overall. This is simply astonishing!
(b) The memory of the great Minoan civilization on the island of Crete appears not to have faded one jot by Homer’s era, another point of contention in our modern historical understanding of the time lines for the height of the magnificent Minoan maritime empire and for the Mycenaean Empire. Homer’s emphatic references to the major contribution of the Minoan Cretans to the expedition against Troy flies straight in the face of all modern archaeological evidence to the contrary. So who has got their “historical facts” right or wrong, Homer or we ourselves today? Or perhaps no-one has got it “right”, neither Homer nor we ourselves. This is just one exasperating instance of the innumerable glaring discrepancies between Homer’s interpretation of the so-called “historical facts” and our own, where the toponyms, the disposition of the geographical and cartographic features of the expedition and a great many other finicky details of the Trojan War are concerned, and refuse to go away.
(c) The question is – as it always has been – can we reconcile these perplexing paradoxes? The answer is bluntly, NO. I for one suspect that Homer (or whoever “wrote” the Iliad, whether or not this was one author or multiple authors) must have known a good deal more about the recent Trojan War, from his perspective a mere 400 years or so after it, than we credit him for. It would be risky at best, and pure folly at worst to dismiss his observations out of hand. The primary reason for my asserting this is simply that he gives us so much detail, not only about the Minoan participants in the Trojan War, but about the participation of all of the other Argives or Achaeans in it.
Just because he mentions so many place names that no longer exist does not mean they never existed. And even if he has got his geography all wrong, can we blame him for that? I hardly think so. After all, were there any competent cartographers anywhere in the ancient world at the time Homer lived, whenever that was – somewhere between 800 & 700 BCE? When I say, were there any good map makers at the time, I mean precisely that. How do we know? How can we know, in the patent absence of evidence to the contrary? I am quite serious when I say this, since only about 10 % of all ancient Greek literature alone – never mind that of other great ancient civilizations – survives to this day. That is a pitiable resource-base of primary documentation we have to reply on. When I speak of primary documentation, I mean in any form whatsoever, whether or not this be engravings on signets, tablets such as those in Mycenaean Linear B or Arcado-Cypriot Linear C, monuments or burial stones and the like, on buildings or edifices, on shards or pottery, in actual writings by the ancient Greek authors, etc. etc. Frankly, we really do not have much to go on.
(d) Archaeological data, while accurate where it has been decisively confirmed, is never the same as written records, and cannot be relied upon to convey the same core of what we nowadays call “information”, however reliable that information may or may not be. This includes historical information, and, if anything, primary historical information is itself subject to all sorts of contradictions, anomalies and paradoxes which cannot ultimately be resolved, no matter how much of it we have at our disposal. Quantity can never replace reliability or the presumed lack of it of primary sources.
Yet Homer is, let’s face it, a primary, if not the primary, literary source for the Mycenaean War against the Trojans. What then? I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. Yet I for one dare not draw any, for fear of trapping myself in a quandary of conflicting “evidence” between confirmed reliable archaeological findings and the much more unstable and inconsistent historical written records we are nevertheless fortunate enough to still have on hand. Still, the astonishing detail Homer provides us in this single brief passage alone from “The Catalogue of Ships” in Book II of the Iliad begs the question. How did he come to be consciously aware of all these historical details, however “right” or “wrong” the majority of researchers take them to be. Perhaps it might be better for us all if we just dropped the notion of “right” or “wrong” where the ancient authors in general are concerned, and above all else, in the case of Homer, who really does seem to know what he is talking about. In other words, I believe that we should take what he has to say with much more than a grain of salt. Rather, we should be taking much of what he says quite seriously. But in what regards and in what applications to modern interpretations of the Trojan War and the deep, dark recesses of Mycenaean history I cannot, I dare not say. For all of this, somehow, somehow deep down inside, I instinctively, intuitively suspect he knew a lot more than we possibly can ourselves, if for the sole reason that he lived only a mere 4 centuries from the actual events in the Mycenaean War, while we live at the historical remote in the time line of events exceeding 3,200 years!
(e) Finally, and especially in light of that huge gap between ourselves and the Mycenaean era, we are in no position to understand with anywhere near the insight Homer must have had what the Mycenaean Trojan War was all about anyway. After all, Homer was Greek in the so-called “dark ages” of archaic Greece (another misnomer, if ever there was one); so he, being Greek, and living at that time, must have been immersed, not only in the mythology of the Trojan War – if indeed it ever was mythology to him, which I sincerely doubt – but in the historical facts as probably most of the Greeks of his era then understood them. Sadly, we shall never know how much they still knew about the Mycenaean War against the Trojans, nor how accurate their knowledge of it was. But the fact remains, they did indeed know about it, and if the Iliad is any indicator of their knowledge of it, they were consciously aware of a hell of a lot more about that great event in human history than we can ever hope to understand today. How the ancient Greeks understood and related to the world they lived in is beyond our ken. But we still must endeavour to understand their world on their own terms, in so far as this is humanly possible. This is a basic tenet of modern historical research. Do not judge ancient civilizations – or for that matter, much more recent ones – on our terms, but try to understand them on theirs. A huge bill to fill? You bet. But we must do the best we can; otherwise, we learn nothing of any real value even to ourselves in our modern society, with all its technological and scientific marvels. Science and technology cannot unearth the past, any more than we can in good conscience dig up the graves of the dead without desecrating them.
Am I giving up the search for understanding the far-flung past? Far from it. I am merely saying that we have to watch ourselves at every turn, no matter how sophisticated the scientific and technological tools, marvels as they are, at our command. To summarize, it takes real human empathy to actually try to relate to civilizations long-since dead and gone. I myself always try to imagine what a life I would have been living, were I Minoan or Mycenaean. To my mind, that sounds like a good place to start.... indeed the right place.
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