Cretan Homers: Tradition, Politics, Fieldwork
The notion of horizon requires us to think of perspective, and that, in turn, means we must consider the place from which one looks. In this paper, I gaze at the distant prospect of Homer — whether that phenomenon “Homer” be a line or an object, a particle or a wave — from one place: Crete. In this way, I hope to 1) localize the reception of Homeric poetry on a finer scale than any “national” narrative of Homeric reception allows; 2) examine a full diachronic range, rather than privilege certain periods; 3) view the synchronic layers that make up that range as criss-crossed with lines of tension, reaction, and microdivision (rather than as expressions of some sort of Zeitgeist); and 4) take seriously the role of individual biography in interpretation of Homer — that is to say, of individuality within both performance and (the often linked) exegetical traditions.
The method reverses the terms of “local” interpretive approaches, as practiced for instance in American Studies. Rather than resembling that mode which looks at “the literature of the West” or “Los Angeles in fiction” — how writers, native or not, treat locale — the project I have in mind considers place as the locus for interpretations: how writers, scholars, and others, deal with a tradition that is not of their own place, but from the perspective provided by that place. The paper is arranged as a triptych, with panels devoted to ancient, Renaissance, and modern Cretan Homers.
The first includes brief analysis of the mysterious “city” texts of the Iliad and Odyssey, one of which traditions, attached to Crete, provides some intriguing textual variants. Alterity, variation, and fictionality are shown overall to be the hallmarks of the Cretan topos in relation to Homeric material. Not only is the island the most multicultural; it also boasts at least two, possibly three, time strata: indigenous Eteocretans and Pelasgians; Akhaians and Kydones;and Dorians. Hero-cult further tied at least some segments of these ancient audiences for Homer on the island to figures commemorated in the epic. Startlingly, Zeus himself, on Crete, appears to be a figure of hero-cult, with a tomb protecting the island. Alongside this markedly different theology, Crete offers a different view of literary authority, as seen from traditions about its role in song-making and relative lack of interest in rhapsodic poetry of the Homeric type. Finally, its age-old reputation for mendacity seems to accord with the distinctive fictionalizing talents of its inhabitants, and underlies the framing of the Ephemeris of the Trojan War attributed to an eyewitness “Dictys of Crete” (but stemming most likely from the 1st or 2nd century AD), a work giving us an explicitly different view of the “Homeric” war saga.
The very tendencies marking the Cretan treatment of Homer—resistance, alterity, variation, fictional embroidery, use of a full range of transformative strategies — are precisely what militate against any kind of simple reception of a text. After the Roman period, Crete with the rest of the old empire became Byzantine; a break of a century or so of Saracen rule was ended in 961 by the reconquest of the island engineered by Nicephorus Phocas. His victory was celebrated a year later in a 1039-line, iambic trimeter poem, Halôsis tês Krêtês by an obscure author, Theodosius the Deacon, who calls Homer himself to witness how small the ancient subject of the Trojan War was by comparison with the more recent event. Furthermore, Theodosius charges (as had Pindar before him) that Homer inflated the heroism of his subjects. The case raises a typical literary — historical difficulty in the medieval and Renaissance medieval reception of Homer in Crete. Even if poems are focused on the island, their authors may not be representative of an epichoric tradition; on the other hand, explicitly Cretan-sourced material may not mention Homer (even, or especially, when resembling it). I draw attention in this panel of the triptych to curious discontinuities, in what is not visible but ultimately can have an effect on reception of Homer. Part of this story is the complicated interplay between exegesis of Homer in Byzantium (Tzetzes, Eustathius); the treatment of Troy material in late medieval romance; the Greek translation of such romance, in the Homeric-sized War of Troy (O Polemos Tês Troados); and the textual activities of those around the Cretan Marcus Musurus at Venice in the late 1490s.
The 17th-century Erotokritos, a romance of more than 10,000 lines of rhyming 15-syllable verse, forms the link between the Cretan Renaissance and the story of modern Cretan “Homers” in my third panel. This Cretan poem, long and martial as it is, cannot be characterized as directly “receptive” of Homer. Yet, in a curious and compelling turn of events, the continued re-production of this poem, by means of live oral performances on the island to the present day, have inspired poets and scholars to reinvent Homer in their own ways. I compare and contrast the strategies of two poets — the modernist Kazantzakis (author of The Odyssey : A Modern Sequel) and the resistance fighter Psychoundakis (translator of Iliad and Odyssey into Cretan dialect). In turn, the relationship of these works to the fieldwork of the Greek-American scholar James Notopoulos is examined; and a description of my own fieldwork in western Crete is appended by way of comparison. In conclusion, I find that Crete’s usefulness as a geo-hermeneutic tool lies in its tenacious differentiation of local tradition from mainstream Homeric reception, thereby enabling us to question anew the differentiations and contestations underlying the (now) canonical epics, whether seen as texts or artifacts of performance.