by Michael Wood
Like many people I was fascinated by the story of Troy from childhood. Then, when I was about fourteen, I read Leonard Cottrell’s Bull of Minos with its evocative descriptions of post Civil War Greece. Cottrell had been a war reporter in the Mediterranean and had a keen sense of ancient history as a living presence, and the search for that past as an almost physical excitement. His journey on the old train across the Corinth Canal into the Argolid seemed to open a door to another world: indeed that corner of the Peloponnese still seems to me a magic land, and years later I would try to achieve that heady mix of history, landscape and living culture on film.
I did Modern History at university, but classical civilization remained a great love - especially the Greeks - and in my late teens I went hitching (as we did in those days!) trekking over thyme scented hills, drinking from mountain springs and munching paximadia and goats cheese by shaded chapels. I fell in love with Greece then, not just the magic land, Mycenae Tiryns, Midea- but then Crete- Phaestos, Knossos and Mount Ida, and in time even the minor sites of the Catalogue of Ships: I even got a bus to “Thisbe of the many pigeons!’
After post graduate research I ended up working in documentary making, and in the early eighties we made In Search of the Trojan War. The series told the story of the discovery of the Greek Bronze Age, trying for that mix of history landscape and living culture which Cottrell achieved in his books: history not as dry narrative but a present day detective story, a ‘thriller’ as a reviewer said in ‘Kathimerini’. For us as film makers there were many strands to the story, but one of the most intriguing was the oral poetic tradition. Since then I have had the opportunity to film tale tellers in Ireland, North India, and Iran, living survivals of the Indo- European poetic tradition and to realize how ancient that tradition is, casting a wholly new light on how the story came together. But for me the old questions are still the same: How did the tale come about? Did the war take place? And why does the story matter so much to us?
Well first, it matters because it’s about eternal verities. From the very beginnings of literature, the horror of war and the fragility of human achievement, the cruelty as well as the empathy in human nature, have been central concerns of the poets - hand in hand with the idea that only through the poets can the memory of our deeds survive. One of the world’s earliest and most powerful poetic traditions, the city laments of ancient Iraq, already recognized that ‘the plundering of cities and the singing of lamentations’ came as part and parcel of the gods’ gift of civilization: ‘To destroy the city, to lay waste the temple…O mankind!’ These canonical laments go far back in time, long before the Biblical Book of Lamentations, and the poetry of early Greece. The theme would become a central obsession of Greek myth and literature and is the subject of poetry and art all the way down to our modern narratives of Nanjing and Guernica, Dresden or Berlin. ‘Ask me for the image of human existence’, wrote the Roman Seneca, ‘and I’ll show you the sack of a great city’.
So, starting with basics, the myth of Troy is the story of the destruction of a city and its people. Composed perhaps around 700BCE, Homer’s Iliad is the earliest and richest of its many retellings, by common consent the founding text of western literature. The greatest characters, Agamemnon and Achilles, Odysseus and Hector, Helen and Andromache, were no doubt already part of the poetic tradition when Homer composed; but the roots of the tale lie very much earlier. There were many influences on the plot, from older Greek fairy tales and hero stories to (as we now know) oriental fables that came into Greece in the Iron Age from the Near East. For example, some elements of the tale –as also in the Odyssey- are now thought to have been influenced by the corpus of Near Eastern stories, which grew out of the Gilgamesh epic cycle in Iraq, which can be traced back to the third millennium BCE. The growth of the tale of Troy then gives us a fascinating insight into how myths grow and change over time.
But was there a historical war of Troy? If there was, as we shall see, it probably took place in the 13th century BCE. But Homer’s text, as with all taletellers, draws on many strata of story telling. Modern philologists have identified verse fossils in Homer, including complete lines, which go further back at least to the 16th century BCE. Some of the late Bronze Age Linear B texts found at Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos and Tiryns mention artifacts described in Homer – like the phasganon arguroelon the ‘silver studded sword’, which clearly existed also as a metrical formula. Some characters in the epic, Ajax for example, were also handed down from earlier poetry: indeed Ajax’s long body shield, banging his heels as he ran, was Middle Bronze Age war gear, obsolete by the 13th C BCE.
So heroic poems about kings, sieges, capricious gods, horses and chariots, must go back at least as far as 1500BCE - and a great deal earlier, if we are to judge by verbal and thematic parallels between Homeric verse and Bronze Age Vedic (Sanskrit) poetry in India. These parallels point to the existence of a common Indo-European poetic tradition about war, even before speakers of the language that became Greek came into Greece in around 2200 BCE.
Like other Greek myths then, elements of the Troy myth originated far back in time. The names of the key gods in the tale - Poseidon, Zeus, Athena and Ares – have all been found on clay tablets from the 14th century BCE and no doubt were already in the poetic tradition. However intriguingly, Apollo (with whose anger towards the Greeks the Iliad begins), in Greek tradition is not Greek but Lycian, Anatolian, and indeed may appear in Hittite texts of the time as Appaliunas, a deity explicitly associated with the region of Troy itself.
But how much of the story of the war itself is based on fact is another matter. The core of the plot, the seizure of a queen and the expedition to win her back, is an old theme in Indo- European poetry, in Irish epic for example, and most famously in The Ramayana. Around this simple core generations of poets wove their tales, from the Golden Apple, to Leda and the Swan, to the Wooden Horse. Helen herself may be a stock motif inherited by the poets. Although, the seizure of women was a part of Bronze Age warfare, and captive Asiatic women from many places along the Aegean coast are listed in Greek Linear B palace archives, uncannily suggesting the fate of the Trojan Women in later poetry and drama. However distantly then, the story does reflect Late Bronze Age reality.
All this has been put on a different footing in modern times by the excavation of the site by the Dardanelles, which Greek tradition always said was Troy. The site was devastated by the early digs by the German Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s and 80s, but subsequent digs in the 1890s and 1930s were able to untangle the chronology of a Bronze Age settlement, which is certainly the one described by the epic poets. This conclusion has been amplified in the last thirty years (since we made our films) with the re-excavation of the site. We now know that what was found in the 19th century was just the royal citadel; a 6000 metre lower circuit has now been traced with defensive ditches enclosing a lower town. So now we have a much clearer understanding of a regional capital in 1500-1250BCE whose importance is reflected (if exaggerated) in Homer’s epic.
A further exciting dimension to the tale has come from the modern revaluation of the archives of the Hittite empire discovered early last century in central Turkey. Though long controversial (as it was when I made my films) it is now clear that these include a collection of diplomatic letters between a king of the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks) and the Hittite king. These letters refer to hostilities between the two on the Aegean coast in the early 13th century BCE, focusing on North-West Anatolia, Lesbos, and a city that very likely is Troy. This makes it almost certain that one element in the growth of the myth was a real Greek expedition to Anatolia, and the sack of a real city which the Hittites called Wilusa, a name which clearly lies behind Homer’s name for Troy (W)Ilios (with the archaic digamma lost in classical Greek). Amazingly, in the Hittite texts one ruler of that city is called Alaksandush-strikingly recalling Alexandros, Homer’s alternative name for Helen’s lover Paris. This ruler was a contemporary of the Hittite emperor Muwatalli 1295-72 BCE and it is a good guess that the war was in his time.
So like most Greek myths, the Troy story was shaped over many centuries. At the deepest level of poetic language, some elements may go back even before the ancestors of the Greeks entered Greece. Songs about the sack of cities and the deeds of heroes like Ajax were already sung in the Middle Bronze Age. Later on, the sack of Troy itself may have been a real event which inspired the bards: perhaps because it was the last great expedition by the ‘high kings’ of Mycenae. Then in the Greek Dark Ages in Thessaly such tales were shaped into longer and more elaborate poems, especially round the local hero Achilles; and then in the Iron Age these were transmitted to the Ionian islands, which is where Homer comes in. His version was so admired that it was faithfully transmitted by his descendants and soon after 600BCE was written down in Athens. Since then, for more than two and a half millennia, the tale has been constantly reinterpreted and reworked, right down to the recent Hollywood epic starring Brad Pitt, which, for all its computer-generated wizardry, missed the essential heart of the tale when the scriptwriters had Paris and Helen run off together into the sunset. The point of great myths is that we all know how they will end and in the great Greek myths, there are few happy endings.
So finally, what does the tale of Troy tell us about myth itself? Myth draws on everything, sometimes over hundreds of generations. When the first telling was, no one can ever say. Over time, the myth becomes a framework on which the taletellers can hang almost anything. Myth, of course, sometimes grows out of fairytale and is then pegged onto real events, as a way of telling history. Conversely, it can begin with a historical core, which in the end is transmuted into fairy tale. But at its heart, as with Homer’s tale of Troy, is a psychologically realistic view of life, of love and hatred, cruelty and heroism. As the recent tragic events in the Near East show us, with refugees fleeing from the Asiatic coast near Troy to Lesbos, the fate of ‘Women of Asia’ is no less meaningful today. The fall of a city like Aleppo, with its bazaars, colleges, mosques and mansions, one of the most beautiful of all living ancient cities and one which was already old when Troy fell, shows us that ‘sackers of cities’ still do their worst; that the destruction of cities, the killing of captives and the enslaving and abuse of women and children are still unchanging facts of the human condition. And ultimately, that is why Homer’s unsparing vision still speaks to us so powerfully today.