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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer

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DID IT REALLY HAPPEN?

Was there a Troy? Did the grand palaces of the Greeks (the Akhaians) really exist, splendidly decorated in bronze, gold, and ivory? Was there really a man called Odysseus?

It's hard to know for certain. Although the poems were written down about 750 B.C., the events in them probably took place as long ago as 1600 to 1200 B.C. This period is called the Bronze Age because that was when people discovered how to mix tin and copper to make bronze. From this durable yet workable material they crafted impressive artistic objects as well as tools and equipment. Not much is known about this period. But for centuries people have been fascinated by the Bronze Age heroes in Homer's stories, and this fascination has led to much research and investigation.

Three discoveries have convinced scholars of the truth behind the legends. In 1876, Heinrich Schliemann, a retired merchant and amateur archaeologist, unearthed a burial circle at Mycenae on mainland Greece. The gold and bronze materials, and the high degree of artistry in the objects he found, made it clear that an advanced, aristocratic people had lived there, people like the ones Homer described. In 1900, Arthur Evans excavated Knossos on the island of Crete and found more similar treasure, evidently the riches of the powerful King Minos. The name and reputation of Minos, like those of Agamemnon, Menelaos, and Odysseus, had come down through the ages in the oral legends.



The link between myth and legend is very close. For example, the myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and a monster called the Minotaur says that Ariadne helped Theseus through a labyrinth by giving him a spool of thread and a sword. With the sword he could kill the Minotaur, with the thread he could find his way back out. Legend tells that a gift of maidens and youths was sent as a tribute each year to King Minos. It doesn't take much imagination to turn the cruel king into a monster, and his vast, complex palace into a labyrinth. King Minos and Crete dominated mainland Greece until eventually Mycenae superseded the mother city.

In 1952 another gifted amateur, Michael Ventris, who was trained as an architect, not as an archaeologist, deciphered the writing called Linear B found on clay tablets in these two digs. What he was able to read was not Homeric poetry, but merchants' accounts, yet his cracking of the code made it clear that the Minoans and Mycenaeans were Greek and spoke Greek. Of course, the early Akhaian material of these times was altered and expanded over the centuries of oral transmission. But the archaeological evidence gives a basis in fact to Homer's stories.

Around the time of the fall of Troy (roughly 1260 B.C.) the flourishing Greek civilization collapsed under raids by a less-advanced group called the Dorians. Mycenae at its most prosperous was the size of a little country town, and the effect of even these small-scale raids was disastrous, resulting in a Dark Ages from which the Greek peoples took five hundred years to recover. The cities were burned; writing disappeared until around 776 B.C. when the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks. It's a tribute to Homer as a poet and to the power of the stories that they survived.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Odyssey by Homer
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