Homer between East and West
There has been a growing trend in Homeric studies to investigate the connections between Homeric epic and the so-called ‘Ancient Near East’. In this paper I reflect on the nature of this trend, as well as proposing a new approach to some of the issues it raises. My argument is in three parts.
In a first section, I briefly revisit the so-called ‘Troy debate’ in the German media, a high-profile row over the precise nature of the city that is currently being excavated by the Tübingen scholar Manfred Korfmann. I argue that the debate had little to do with ancient realities and everything with the cultural and political climate in post-unification Germany.
I then turn to the study of Near Eastern motifs in the Homeric epics as pioneered by Walter Burkert and Martin West. Once again, I suggest that we are witnessing not so much the disinterested discovery of new facts, but a complicated and in many ways contradictory process of fashioning a new image of Homer. Particularly striking in this process is a tendency to reinforce existing cultural boundaries: as well as opening up new perspectives, scholars relentlessly emphasise the difference between Greek epic and everything that happened before or elsewhere.
In the third and final section of my paper I ask what happens if we place cultural value on what is not uniquely Homeric. The gods of epic are universal in conception, as is the human condition which they help to define. It is therefore not surprising to find in early Greek epic the same fundamental grammar of cosmogonic thought that we see in neighbouring narrative traditions. I argue that, as part of a much wider dialogue about the gods and the human condition, Homeric epic was international in conception as well as in ‘fact’.