Essay: The Dramatic Iliad of Thales
An essay showing the theatrical origins of Homer’s Iliad, through the pen of Thales, under the direction of Lycurgus of Sparta…
I am currently sat at a table amidst the sunswingingly sensuous delights of Star Beach on the northern shores of Crete. My family & I arrived late last night, hiring a car & eventually tracking down our residence for the next three nights, Petra Village, a mini-resort with pool, bar & a trillion crickets piping a cacophony. It is apt to be here on the Megalonisi, the ‘big island’ of the Greeks, to provide an account of the mesmerizing energy of Homer’s mind-music, that poetical weaver of disparate strands of ancient subject matter into the world’s two most earliest & most majestic epics. That an individual author composed these poems, however, is simply not the case. This ‘Homeric Question’ has tested academic minds for many an age, with Frederick Nietzsche declaring ‘the primary form of this widespread and honeycombed mountain known as the Homeric question can be most clearly observed by looking down at it from a far-off height.’ The ‘far-off’ height mentioned by Neitzsche is the tall mountain upon which the chispologist builds a weather-station & shouts into the gusting breezes that Homer was a quasi-mythological deity, to whom only the highest examples of streaming elysium would be associated – less an individual genius & more the poetic soul of an entire people.
But for now, & for ease of dictate, we shall call Homer by his antique identity, as the singular author of the Iliad & Odyssey. His subject was the Trojan War & its aftermath, an event of deep history whose war-drums still beat resoundingly today. The Iliad centers on a small series of events that took place toward the end of the ten-year war, while the Odyssey sings of the return from Troy of the Grecian hero Odysseus. The poems are, in a word, magnificent, full of comprehension & understanding for the ways of men, while possessing some of the greatest phraseology ever to be uttered by a human tongue. The most astonishing thing about the epics is their sheer antiquity, through which mists of deep time the creation of the poems, & indeed their creator, have been readily obscured.
It was as early as the Classical period that the first doubts appertaining to the origins of the epics were raised. The oldest complete copy of the Iliad – the 10th century BC manuscript – has marginal notes, first published by De Villoison in 1788, which preserve substantial remnants of ancient scholarship on the poems from the intense erudition of Didymus, Aristonicis, Herodian, Nicanor & Antoninian. A century later, a similar note-smitten codex was created which ended up in the library at of the Townleys of Townley Hall, in my hometown of Burnley. Of these scholia, we encounter the thoughts of two obscure figures known as Xenon & Hellanicus, two antique scholars who first speculated that the Iliad & Odyssey had been composed by separate authors. This actually makes sound sense, for where the Iliad contains four times as many similes as the Odyssey, the language of the Odyssey is less archaic than that of the Iliad, to which surmise we may add that words for many common items are different in each poem. Aristotle further highlights the differences between the epics when he muses, ‘the composition of the Iliad is simple & full of pathos, that of the Odyssey complex, as there are recognitions throughout & full of character.’
So far so different, & as the Aegean sea blows a refreshingly wild wind into my beachside boudoir, we may acknowledge that long before the days of word-files & photocopying, the preservation of Homer’s poetry, spread over many centuries, suggests a great number of scribes have handled the text. Along the way, each would add something of their own making, maybe respelling a word, or perhaps re-writing whole passages in order to please a changing audience. As the poems evolved, two vast chains of transcreation would slowly fossilize themselves into the epics we whimsically attribute to a single Homer. One cannot understand why this happened, for the dating of the ‘original’ Homer was offered quite differently by a great many ancient scholars. The early Christian churchman, Tatian, in his Address to the Greeks, identifies this scattered strata of Homeric composition;
Now the poetry of Homer, his parentage, and the time in which he flourished have been investigated by the most ancient writers,— Of these, Crates says that he flourished before the return of the Heraclidæ, and within 80 years after the Trojan war; Eratosthenes says that it was after the 100th year from the taking of Ilium; Aristarchus, that it was about the time of the Ionian migration, which was 140 years after that event; but, according to Philochorus, after the Ionian migration, in the archonship of Archippus at Athens, 180 years after the Trojan war; Apollodorus says it was 100 years after the Ionian migration, which would be 240 years after the Trojan war. Some say that he lived 90 years before the Olympiads, which would be 317 years after the taking of Troy. Others carry it down to a later date, and say that Homer was a contemporary of Archilochus; but Archilochus flourished about the 23d Olympiad, in the time of Gyges the Lydian, 500 years after Troy.
It is through these ‘Homers’ that the story of the Trojan War & its aftermath would pass, until the Iliad as we know it began to take shape in the 9th century BC – as I believe – under the auspices of the Spartan King, Lycurgus. Not a poet himself, the task was given to a certain verse-maker called Thales, whom he met on Crete, an island which I am yet to explore but have made my first landing as if I was one of the German gliders crash-landing in advance of the German Fallschirmjäger in 1941. It is through the vita of Lycurgus, as given by Plutarch, that we gain a heady hint of just how powerful a poet-thinker was Thales. We join the vita with Lycurgus on some kind of state visit to Crete;
One of the men regarded there as wise statesmen was Thales, whom Lycurgus persuaded, out of favour and friendship, to go on a mission to Sparta. Now Thales passed as a lyric poet, and screened himself behind this art, but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble.
This description of Thales tells us he was the perfect poet, a teacher who used the soft & easy words of the lyric, but resonant with meaning in order to teach the people of Crete just how to be, how to live a good life. I have only been here a few hours, but so far all the Cretans we have met have been decent & open; from the young couple on a moped who led us to the beach road in the dark last night, to our cool & friendly waiter here at Star Beach, the appropriately named ‘Adonis.’ ‘Don’t worry be happy’ is the mantra & if these easy vibes emanated from the ancient wisdom of Thales, then to be in his actual company would have been a tremendous sensation for Lycurgas, & it is no wonder, I suppose, that he was invited to join the royal Spartan party. Agreeing to terms, perhaps, Thales left his gorgeous rock at the edge of Europa & joined Lycurgas on a visit Asia Minor, where Plutarch tells us the Spartan king;
Made his first acquaintance with the poems of Homer, which were preserved among the posterity of Creophylus; and when he saw that the political and disciplinary lessons contained in them were worthy of no less serious attention than the incentives to pleasure and license which they supplied, he eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take them home with him. For these epics already had a certain faint reputation among the Greeks, and a few were in possession of certain portions of them, as the poems were carried here and there by chance; but Lycurgus was the very first to make them really known.
At this point in time we have a certain Spartan king in possession of the two foundation stones of what would become the Iliad, these being those fragments of the early Homeric materials, & a poet who could do something with them, to turn them into something cohesive & infinitely beautiful. Such a moment provided the perfect conditions for what can only be called a regurgitation of Homer, a moment remembered by Demeterius of Magnesia, who placed the author of the Iliad in the same ‘very ancient times’ of Lycurgus. With all the pieces in position, all that was need was a catalyst to spark off the creative furnace that would produce the Iliad, & it came in the form of the first Olympic Truce. We begin with Plutarch, who writes of Lycurgas; ‘Some say that he flourished at the same time with Iphitus, and in concert with him established the Olympic truce. Among these is Aristotle the philosopher, and he alleges as proof the discus at Olympia on which an inscription preserves the name of Lycurgus.’ The truce forged by Lycurgas, Iphitus of Elis & Cleosthenes of Pisa was designed to bring peace to the Peloponnese; all three sides were bogged down in endless rounds of bloodshed, and it was decided that they would try to soothe their differences by staging a peaceful games at Olympia. A tribute to the unity of the Greek nation was needed, & a tribute to the pan-Grecian unity as it fought the Trojan War was a perfect theme, & subject worthy of Thales’ pensmanship. The following passage by the 5th Century BC Athenian historian, Thucydides, backs up the sentiment;
The weakness of the olden times is further proved to me chiefly by this circumstance, that before the Trojan war, Hellas, as it appears, engaged in no enterprise in common.
The squabbling Greeks of the Olympic Truce would need to be reminded of a time when they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity. If anything could convince them to settle their differences, the Homeric poems of Troy recreated by a noble-minded Thales would definitely do the job. That Thales handled the Iliad is unconsciously supported by Pausanius, who describes the Greece of Lycurgus’ time as being grievously worn by internal strife and plague, while the Iliad actually begins with a plague. Indeed, Pausanius tells us that Thales, ‘stayed the plague at Sparta,’ during which time, I conject, he was likely to have been composing the Iliad. The dates also fit, for where Herodotus tells us, ‘Hesiod and Homer I suppose were four hundred years before my time and not more,’ i.e. 850 BC, the Olympics of Lycurgus can be approximately dated to the same period. The Greeks counted their Olympiads from 776 BC, but the Olympic Games of Lycurgas were said to be much earlier. Sources vary as to when these actually took place; both Polybius (quoting Aristodemus of Elis) & Eratosthenes tell us that the 776BC victors were recorded 27 Olympiads from that of Iphitops & Lycurgas, whereas Callimachus differs by saying 13 Olympiads had passed. If we average that out & say 20 Olympiads, a timespan of 80 years, we gain a date of 856 BC for the Lycurgean Olympics.
Delving further into the ordinance of what I shall now call the Thalian Iliad, it’s form appears to have been based upon the ritualistic & quite theatrical mystery plays of Greece & Egypt, played out over several days like the Ring Cycle of Wagner. Plutarch even places Lycurgas in Egypt at one point, where he would have encountered an Egyptian Drama full of soliloquies by narrator-style priests, actor dialogue & dramaturgical expressions of stage-craft still used in our modern theatre. Egyptian drama of the Lycurgan period was sophisticated; consisting of a prologue, three acts subdivided into scenes & a concluding epilogue. Two have come down to us whole, the ‘Ramesseum Coronation’ & the ‘Myth of Horus at Edfu.’ In the latter, both mortals & immortals play out the action, a motif also present in the Iliad.
Over the centuries, academics have subconsciously suspected that the Iliad was in its origins a dramatic performance. The Roman writer Quintilian praises the second book of the Iliad in particular for the greatness of its speeches, while the 17th century English poet, Alexander Pope, stated, ‘for a farther preservation of this air of simplicity, a particular care should be taken to express with all plainness those moral sentences & proverbial speeches which are so numerous in this poet. They have something venerable, & as I may so oracular, in that unadorned gravity & shortness with which they are delivered.’ In recent years we have Jenny Strauss Clay’s description of the Iliad’s ‘extraordinarily high percentage of direct speech – much more than any other epic;’ Bernard Fenik’s, ‘direct discourse comprises 67 percent of the Iliad;’ & Laura M Slatkin’s, ‘extraordinary refinement & complexity of oral performance,’ from which erudite opinions we should acknowledge that the Iliad was in fact played out through a series of scenes in which actors & actresses were given lengthy speeches. Interspersed are the battle scenes, which may have been played out in the manner of the Egyptian dramas, reminiscent of gladiators in a Roman arena – beautifully choreographised physical theatre but without the actual bloodshed.
Roll on a few millennia & the Iliad material is coming full circle, so to speak. Three years ago, for example, I reviewed a stage version of the material for Mumble Theatre. Unfortunately, the original theatrical purpose of the Iliad was slowly eroded by time, when the mega-money spectacular of Lycurgas would gradually give way to performances by individual singers called Rhapsodes, such as the the Homeridae, the ‘Children of Homer.’ Perhaps it was their memories which preserved the Thalian Iliad, which were later transcribed by the librarians of Alexandria, or perhaps one of the scripts survived enough centuries to be copied down on fresh papyrus, but either way all evidence points to a mid-ninth century BC origin for the Iliad, when one poet & one benefactor shine out through the darkness of their times – Lycurgus the Spartan King, & Thales, the Cretan poet. Meanwhile, some chilli olives & soft Cretan red wine await me at the Petra Village.
Damian Beeson Bullen