Tag Archives: myth(ology)

Maria Moog-Grünewald (ed.), Brill‘s New Pauly. Supplements 4. The Reception of Myth and Mythology (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2010)

This encyclopaedia served literally as a pivotal reference work for several generations of students and academics, especially though not exclusively in Continental Europe. However, being as massive as it was impressive, this important source of knowledge was never translated into English in toto. On the contrary, such a fate awaited the newer and thoroughly revised version of the same encyclopaedia, i.e. Der Neue Pauly, published by J.B. Metzler over the period 1996-2003. While the translation of Der Neue Pauly is reaching its completion with the publication of the supplementary volumes, Brill’s already twenty-six-volume New Pauly has become one of the richest encyclopaedias of Western antiquity in today’s Anglophone world, and possibly the most consulted reference work in its field. What is more, the New Pauly provides not only an extensive coverage of the cultures and events in the ancient heart of Europe from early Aegean times to late antiquity, but also a multi-disciplinary study of the reception of classical antiquity in the following centuries—indeed up to the present day. Particular attention has been paid in the New Pauly to the changes and trends in classical scholarship itself, which has witnessed as diverse and turbulent an existence as the Graeco-Roman civilisations themselves.

The supplementary volume reviewed hereby belongs to the latter, multi-disciplinary study area. As the subtitle highlights, it is devoted to the reception of classical myth and mythology. Its original version was published in German in 2008: a two-year backlog for translation in today’s lingua franca of scholarship is not blameworthy. The volume reads as a one-book lexicon of the most important characters in ancient mythology. Each lemma tackles one (e.g. Achilles, 1-14; Zeus, 616-20) or, in alternative, famous pairs (e.g. Agamennon and Clytaemnestra, 37-42) and groups (e.g. Nymphs, 433-43). Information is offered concisely and in a fairly standardised manner: Greek and Latin names come first; then a brief summary of the character’s/s’ main features; a presentation of the relevant myth(s) involving it/them, inclusive of historical and geographical variants; the character’s/s’ relevance in ancient religion(s); and eventually its/their literary and artistic reception in ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary times, inclusive of references to significant philosophical, artistic and political usages and conceptualisations.

A complete overview of all the known receptions of each character would have been impossible or, at least, impractical. However, the lexicon of this Supplement is generous enough with representative varieties of interpretations concerning each mythical character concerned. As such, this volume serves also as a concise history of Western ideas, which means that the fourth Supplement of the New Pauly should appeal not solely to classical scholars and historians, but also to students and academics in the humanities at large. In particular, art historians and cultural theorists may find this volume a very useful reference book; one of those books that should be kept on top of one’s office desk. Still, a more extensive overview would have been possible and, in all probability, even more practical to the academic community. The editorial choice of favouring “the need for brevity and lexical usability” (viii) over the comprehensiveness of the lexicon may be well-intended, yet at the same time it does strike as naïve, especially if one considers the encyclopaedic nature of the whole enterprise to which it belongs. Besides, given the considerable amount of money that university libraries, research centres and individual scholars are expected to disburse for each volume, including the Supplement at issue, not to mention for purchasing or accessing the whole New Pauly online, then it would have been wiser to make the lexicon “fatter” rather than “slender”.

Pecuniary considerations aside, the scholarly fitness of the fourth Supplement remains excellent. It is highly recommended to all humanists and scientists that may need or benefit from expert accounts of ancient myths and their reception in Western culture.

Felice Vinci, Skandinaviskt ursprung för Homeros dikter – Utspelade sig Iliadens och Odysseens äventyr i Östersjön och Nordatlanten. Iliaden och Odyssén och hur en myt vandrer (Tornedalen: Lumio, 2009)

 

To begin with, this very issue is a strange question in itself: how can you say that there should be concrete and precise geographical roots for a mythical story? On the other hand, the book argues in a very powerful way that there might be some Nordic or Baltic origin of phenomena arising eventually in the Mediterranean region and close links between the North and the South of Europe. In truth, we can say that the book provides a whole new perspective on the ongoing process of European unification, because the classics might have been since the beginning part of the larger whole of Europe. From this perspective alone, the book contributes significantly to European integration in that it revolutionises and redescribes Europe’s cultural foundations. To be frank, after reading the book, you hardly believe what you have read, namely that the famous, ancient Greek stories of Homer originated in Scandinavia. Indeed, it is recommended hereby to read the book more than once in order to get an objective overview of the ideas presented in the book.

This edition of the book is a translation of the English version of the Italian volume Omero nel Baltico. Le origini nordiche dell’odissea e dell’iliade by Felice Vinci (5th edition, Palombi Publishers, Rome Italy), introduced by Rosa Calzecchi Onesti, a renowned scholar and translator of the Iliad and Odyssey into Italian. The author has travelled to many countries to propose his thesis and the ideas of the book, which may baffle prima facie, have been received as worthy of consideration in many academic quarters. For one, the volume has been adopted as a textbook for the students of Bard College in New York in 2007. And in order to experience the story, a professor of classics at Bard College has been sailing with his students on Ulysses’ course, as this is charted in the book; the event being supported by the US Oceanographic institute. Many American scholars have stated that the book is very interesting and provides new perspectives on Homer and his ideas. The fact that the book is used by the students at Bard College also shows how important Vinci’s work is as regards providing a completely new contextualisation of the works of Homer.

When we think about the importance of the Iliad and Odyssey for European culture, it is mesmerizing to meditate upon the possibility that these poems may describe events and peoples from old Scandinavia, as it is stated in the book. Besides, although revolutionary, the thesis of the book is not entirely new. Many researchers have argued that the origins of Homer’s stories may have a basis in a broader European setting. Under this perspective, it is most interesting how Vinci bases his analyses on concrete interpretations of the peoples, natural landscapes and travels described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The book argues that the geographical description of Homer’s poems corresponds to different Scandinavian and Nordic islands, for example some Danish islands, such as Lyo, Fyen Langeland, Tåsinge and Sjælland. And it is in the Danish island next to Fyn that Ulysses is supposed to have had his home. At the time Homer wrote, according to Vinci, there was a much warmer climate in the Nordic countries; hence there is no obvious climate argument against the notion that those parts of the world could have been at least as populated and active as the Mediterranean area.  We can also find much resemblance between the Nordic stories of different heroes and the stories presented in Homer’s poems.  Perhaps some of the Greek tribes may even have come from the Baltic region.

The first part of the book offers an in-depth analysis of the world of Ulysses. It discusses where we should locate geographically his home and it shows how we can find the tracks of his travels in the Baltic and also in other parts of the Scandinavian and Atlantic regions. This part of the book also makes a comparison between Nordic mythology and the Greek world and it discusses how the Greek world bears many resemblances with Nordic mythology. In particular, the author tries to identify Ithaca with the Danish island of Lyø, near Fåborg and Fyn, Fyn itself being described as the “dark” countryside. In general, this is the part of the book in which the author tries to show most carefully how specific geographic places in Scandinavia can be identified as places in the Odyssey.

The second part of the book discusses the geographical reality of Troy in the Nordic regions, on the basis of the descriptions provided in the Iliad. This part also tries to link the Trojan War with remote events in the Northern countries. According to the book, Troy was not situated in the Mediterranean Sea, but rather along the Baltic coast of Finland.

On this basis, the third part of the book tries to show how the myths of classical Greece have their origins in the Nordic—i.e. Baltic and Scandinavian—mythology of ancient times. And it is further shown how the climate at the time was very different, in order to support the idea that the events narrated in Homer’s Iliad took place in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions.

The fourth part of the book discusses the relations between the myths of Scandinavia and the Baltic region with those mentioned in the works of Homer. Finally, the book contains discussions of the reasons for the migration of Nordic populations to the Mediterranean regions commonly associated with classical Greece.

The book is very provocative to a hermeneutically or textually oriented literary critique, because it takes the scientific and positivistic reading of literature and of the origins of literature to their extreme point, by searching for geographical explanations of all aspects of Homer’s fictional works. The logic implied is such that Homer’s poetic depictions must correspond to specific places and that there must be a real-world explanation to the structure of the literary universe deployed therein. However, we have to understand that literature is characterized by being something that proposes an imaginary universe, which carries only limited adherence to reality. This is also the case with the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are, pace Schlimann’s and Blegen’s archaeological excavations, works of fiction that create an imaginary world that you can enter and live in. As such, they possess only tenuous connections with actual reality.

However, apart from its stark break with the methods of literary hermeneutics and the idea of the non-reference of a literary work, we can also try to read Vinci’s book as partly a literary text itself. It is not just or perhaps not even mainly a scientific book. It is rather a dream about a hypothetical world in which the classical Greek myths are also Scandinavian. And why not? We can enter this new literary world of Troy and Ithaca and all the other mythical figures of the Iliad and Odyssey and we can conceive of ourselves as both Vikings and people from the classical world. After all, this is the privilege of the European civilization, which combines the North of Europe with Southern Europe and their rich legacies of myths and literary works. I therefore recommend the reader to enjoy the book on its own premises and dream about the adventures of the classical and Nordic worlds at the same time.

Felice Vinci, Omero nel Baltico. Le origini nordiche dell’Odissea e dell’Iliade (5th edition; Rome: Palombi Editori, 2009)

The book tells, and documents, the author’s journey following his original intuition: can the geography described by Homer in his epics be related not to the Mediterranean coasts and towns, but to the Scandinavian ones? Vinci pursued such an ‘experiment’: he tried to fit Homer’s places into the Scandinavian context. And according to Vinci’s studies, partially supported by further studies by Nilsson and Tilak, the protagonists of the Iliad and the Odyssey could have actually lived and performed their heroic deeds on the coasts of the Baltic Sea. One of the starting and strongest points of Vinci’s research is already suggested in the ancient historical sources: Plutarch stated that Ogygia island, where Calypso kept Ulysses for several years, was in the Northern Atlantic, five days of navigation away from Britannia. Then, the evidences mingle with an unstoppable sequence of facts and hypotheses, reasonings and dreams. For example, why is it said that the island of Faro, in front of Egyptian Alexandria, took one day of navigation from Egypt?

As Vinci bears witness to with his studies, the names of Homeric places still overlap with the names of Northern villages and cities. The same applies to the distance between towns, the description of the warriors’ garments and habits, as further substantiated by well-documented archaeological and historical studies that match Vinci’s peculiar theory. Furthermore, there is an answer to the issue of the climate described in Homer’s poems: the Baltic Sea was warmer at that time, just before the end of the ‘climatic optimum’ that forced Nordic populations to move to warmer places, i.e. to the Mediterranean area.

As the cooling of the climate is concerned, I must confess that I felt myself shivering: what an intellectual vertigo does induce Vinci’s notion, whereby Europe’s classical culture shifts suddenly northward. Torn between my Mediterranean birth and my sympathy for Nordic countries, having visited Greece and the ‘epic’ places of Achilles and Telemachus, I still find it difficult to accept the idea that Ithaca may be one of the Danish islands, Troy to be in the Gulf of Finland, Crete in Pomerania, and Mycenae, perhaps, the ancestral cradle of today’s Copenhagen. Not to mention Ulysses–thus interpreting Tacitus’ definition–being a forerunner of the Vikings, maybe even the Ull recalled in the Edda.

Yet, as the classical scholar Rosa Calzecchi Onesti states in the foreword to Vinci’s book, none of the great previous researches on Homer’s geography is in doubt, because Vinci argues that such Northern populations recreated a second ‘Baltic’ along the Greek coasts and islands. As historical novelist Franco Cuomo writes in the preface, Vinci’s book must be “read like the memory of a population who, moving elsewhere, brings along its own myths” (p. 9) . Vinci’s book evokes Homer’s epics as a primordial portrait of a ‘greekness’ that we have learned to know and imagine through classical texts, visual arts, movies, travels, etc. We know that history is crowded of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and Vinci’s theory shall be seriously considered as a new approach to Homeric and classical studies.

The book suffers from the poor quality of the pictures contained therein. Also, I cannot comment on the conclusiveness of Vinci’s revolutionary thesis. Still, I can appreciate its originality, the personal approach of Vinci when he recalls his journeys throughout Scandinavia, the careful descriptions of the landscapes he visited and their comparison with well-known Homeric places, and the wealth of historical sources cited to support his stance.

Vinci copertina Palombi