A Review of “The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters” by Adam Nicolson, Part 1

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters is an example of that non-fiction genre so reviled by the anti-White establishment: books that celebrate the European past and the rich and world-transforming culture that emerged from it. Foundational to this culture are the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which have long been pillars of the Western literary canon. While their place in intellectual life of the West has waned over the last century (casualties of the generalized decline of a now Jewish-dominated culture), they remain as alive as ever for many readers. For author Adam Nicolson, in addition to their imperishable literary value, the Homeric epics should matter to all Europeans because through them “Homer tells us how we became who we are.”[i]

Nicolson is an English writer and journalist known for his scholarly but passionately expressed works on history, landscape and literature. The grandson of noted (and controversial) writers Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, he recalls being taught Homer at school, where his fumbling knowledge of Greek meant “it was as if the poems were written in maths.” Today most schoolchildren are unlikely to get even that far — with the majority doubtless associating Homer with The Simpsons and its derisive Jewish caricature of the White American father. Nicolson “rediscovered” Homer in middle age when he found himself electrified by the American poet Robert Fagles’ acclaimed verse translation of the Odyssey.

In The Mighty Dead Nicolson argues that the mainstream historical account of Homer is wrong. The current orthodoxy has the Iliad and the Odyssey as products of the early Iron Age Greece of the eighth century BC, or thereabouts. This was a time, often labelled the Greek Renaissance, when Greek civilization, after five centuries of decline and stagnation, saw a revival that culminated in the golden age of classical Athens in the fifth century BC. This rebirth, yet to be fully explained, coincided with a population boom and the rediscovery of bronze-making, a skill that had fallen into disuse in the preceding four centuries. This was a time in Greek history that saw the growth of

colonies, trade, improved ships, gymnasiums, coinage, temples, cities, pan-Hellenic competitions at Olympia (the first, traditionally, in 776 BC), the art of writing, of depicting the human figure on pottery and in the round, the first written law codes, the dating of history. The first tentative moves towards the formation of city-states: every one of these aspects of a renewed civilization quite suddenly appeared all over the eighth-century Aegean. Homer, in this view, was the product of a new, dynamic, politically inventive and culturally burgeoning moment in Greek history. Homer was the poet of a boom.[ii]

While agreeing that the poems were first written down around 700 BC (or even later), Nicolson maintains that the Homeric epics, “the most miraculous and ancient of survivals in our culture,” are a thousand years older – ultimately tracing back, via a long oral tradition, to the time of the first Indo-European invasion of Greece around 1800 BC. Nicolson offers a range of evidence (much of it plausible yet none altogether conclusive) to support his thesis.


Adam Nicolson

While Nicolson believes the epics were likely the work of several people, rather than one mysterious bard named Homer, he is convinced they were passed down the centuries mostly unaltered by generations of oral storytellers until finally being written down. He relates the discovery in the early twentieth century of Balkan and Gaelic storytellers with prodigious, exact memories of thousands of lines of poetry. This proven power of memory, and the formulaic nature of the epics (where the poetry is constructed on a system of interlocking stock phrases), make it entirely possible, he claims, for the epics to have been preserved through centuries “with a curatorial exactness, resisting the changes imposed by the passing of time, preserving antiquity in detail.”[iii] For Nicolson: “The idea of human memory in monumental form allows one to push Homer beyond the ninth or tenth centuries BC. The epic poem, seen as the deepest of all recording mediums, releases Homer from time constraints, allowing his tales to plunge back into the centuries far before writing.”[iv]

The nature of the original texts

Despite the efforts of some translators to disguise it, Homer’s original Greek is archaic and rough-hewn. The tendency has been for translators, including the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope, to smooth over the harshness and brutality that especially pervades the Iliad. Dr Johnson called Pope’s translation of the Iliad “a treasure of poetical elegances.” Nicolson observes that: “It is as if these editors were trying to make Homer into Virgil, to turn Hector into Aeneas, to transform the Greek epics into tales of irreproachable moral instruction, and in doing so to reduce their emotional and psychological range. But Homer was greater than his editors, rougher, less consistent and less polite. … Homer’s subject is not elegance but truth, however terrible.”[v]

Idealized portrait of “Homer” dating from the Hellenistic period

Idealized portrait of “Homer” dating from the Hellenistic period

For the classical scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, brought up in an elite and aristocratic culture, Homer could be seen as a contemporary, his words on honor and self-sacrifice to be taken as relevant instructions for the noble life. Their only task was “to clean Homer up, to make Homer more like them, to classicize him, to rid him of his repetitiveness and his awkward lack of savoir faire, to translate him, as Pope had done, with many delightful felicities overlying the raw Greek.”[vi] Nicolson observes that, while Homer can easily be dressed up as a model of classical elegance, “in truth he is not like that. He is otherness itself: impolite, manly, wild, enormous.”[vii] Interestingly, Lawrence of Arabia thought he was qualified to translate the Odyssey because, among other attributes, he, unlike most Greek professors, “had killed many men.”[viii]

For Nicolson, the early seventeenth-century English poet George Chapman’s older, more muscular translations of Homer (and the more recent translations of Robert Fagles) are much truer to the spirit of the original. It was “Chapman’s distance, his rough-cut unaffectedness” that “stood beyond the refinements of the Enlightenment, as if he were the last part of the old world that Homer had also inhabited, before politeness had polluted it.”[ix] A twenty-year-old John Keats, who had known Homer only through Pope, was stunned and exhilarated on discovering Chapman’s translations in 1816. The encounter prompted his famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and proved to be a crucial moment in his self-realization as a poet.

The historical context of the epics

The power of the Homeric epics to move us ultimately derives, Nicolson asserts, not from their describing the situation of a few emergent states in the eighth-century Aegean, but from a more momentous historical moment. This is when, in the centuries around 2000 BC, early Greek civilization was formed from the confrontation between, and eventual fusion of, two very different worlds: the semi-nomadic, heroic, thoroughly militarized culture of the Indo-European invaders from the north, and the sophisticated, authoritarian and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean.

Indo-European invaders had conquered part of the Balkans by 3000 BC. About 2000 BC, a group split off and entered northern Greece. As they moved south they encountered the relatively advanced Minoan civilization and learnt from it, and by about 1450 BC this first wave of Greeks had conquered the Minoans and occupied all of Greece. The resulting culture is called Mycenaean, after one of its largest cities. In the twelfth century BC, a fresh wave of Greek-speaking tribesmen (the Dorians) entered from the north. The early Dorians were relatively uncivilized, and they destroyed the Mycenaean civilization and plunged Greece into a dark age that lasted for several centuries. In time, however, their descendants and the earlier Greeks intermarried and merged into a single people.

IE migration

While the Homeric epics are often seen as signifying the encounter between east and west, for Nicolson they are “better understood as the great meeting of north and south, what happens to northern adventurers in a southern world. That is the meeting which lies at the roots of Greek civilization, and from which the later history of Europe stems.”[x] According to this interpretation, the epics are legends fundamentally shaped around the upheaval caused by arrival of the Indo-Europeans. Nicolson believes the Iliad and the Odyssey record “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 BC recollected in the tranquility of about 1300 BC, preserved through the Greek Dark Ages, and written down (if not in a final form) in about 700 BC.”[xi] He proposes that:

Greekness – and eventually Europeanness – emerged from the meeting and melding of those worlds. Homer is the trace of that encounter – in war, despair and eventual reconciliation at Troy in the Iliad, in flexibility and mutual absorption in the Odyssey. Homer’s urgency comes from the pain associated with that clash of worlds and his immediacy from the eternal principles at stake: what matters more, the individual or the community, the city or the hero? What is life, something of everlasting value or a hopeless and transient irrelevance?[xii]

The author views the Trojan Wars as an unconscious metaphor for the clash of the civilizations that resulted from the arrival of the Indo-Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean. Instead of the meeting of Achilles and Hector, “it is a deathly confrontation of two ways of understanding the world.” The language of the Iliad symbolizes this clash: words like “city,” “battlements,” “walls,” and “gates” are juxtaposed against the “flatlands,” the “open plain” and the “pedion,” over which Achilles runs like “a being radiant with horror, bringing evil and pain to men.”[xiii] For the author no two worlds could be more different than “the grasslands of the steppes north of the Black Sea [the Indo-European homeland] and the craggy broken boundaries of the Mediterranean.”[xiv] This dialectical tension between steppe and city-dweller is reflected in a key Homeric theme: the Greeks’ deep “distrust of the potential for unmanliness in the city, whose beauties and order are nevertheless deeply desirable.”[xv]

Evidence of destruction at Troy has been found to correspond to a range of dates from 2200 BC to 1180 BC. Homer’s portrait of the Greeks at Troy fits events in the centuries after 2000 BC when newly empowered northern warriors, equipped with sailing ships, and could besiege a rich trading city that lay temptingly and glitteringly to the south. That Troy was worth sacking is confirmed by Cambridge archaeologist Andrew Sherratt who notes that “in the eyes of its northern neighbors Troy must have been the brightest light on the horizon.”[xvi] Nicolson points out that: “No equivalent of Troy existed further north or west. Only the palace center at Knossos in Crete could rival the extent of Troy in the centuries after 2000 BC. Just as the Vikings and the Crusaders would later lust after the riches of Byzantium and Constantinople, the Greeks longed for Troy.[xvii]

Nicholson discusses the amazing synchronicity whereby the technology of the new high-speed chariots, probably from the north, and the technology of the sailing ship, certainly from the south, seem to have arrived in the Greek world around the same time (about 1800 BC), coinciding with the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. Nicholson notes that: “High-speed chariots, high-speed sailing ships and a warrior culture from the north all come together in the Aegean at the same moment, which is also the moment the Homeric poems were born,” and that this “newly energized world is the meeting of cultures that Homer records.”[xviii]       

Homer and the uniqueness of Western civilization

For Nicolson, the civilization that emerged in Greece after the arrival of the Indo-European warrior elite produced something distinct from both the culture of the northern steppe lands of Bronze Age Europe and the autocratic bureaucracies of the south-eastern Mediterranean. It gave birth to a “way of thinking by which Greeks defined themselves, the frame of mind which made them who they were, one which, in many ways, we [as Europeans] have inherited.” [xix] The Iliad and the Odyssey each represent different facets of this mindset: the Iliad is dominated by prestige-motivated fighting, while the Odyssey is filled with the kind of intellectual agility, heroic adventurism and sense of possibility that has characterized so much of European history.

In his book The Uniqueness of the Western Civilization, Ricardo Duchesne argues that the Indo-European speakers who invaded Europe after 3500 BC and subordinated the natives, “were a uniquely aristocratic people dominated by emerging chieftains for whom fighting to gain prestige was the all-pervading ethos.” The noblest ideal of Indo-European aristocratic warriors was “the pursuit of prestige through the performance of heroic acts in proud contempt for one’s biological survival.”[xx] He asserts that: “Only in reference to Indo-European aristocratic berserkers … can we speak in Hegelian terms of a fight to the death for the sake of pure prestige.”[xxi] Prestige-motivated fighting pervades both Homeric epics. In the Iliad the first fighting does not begin until 2,380 lines into the story, but thereafter the blood flows, increasingly, with an increasing intensity and savagery, until, as Nicolson notes, “the climax comes in the crazed berserker frenzy of Achilles’s grief-fuelled rampage through the Trojans. The culmination is the death of Hector, when steppe-man finally meets and kills the man of the city.”[xxii]

Achilles depicted on a Greek vase

Achilles depicted on a Greek vase

Nicolson sees the Greek elite shock troops in the Iliad, the Myrmidons, as exemplars of the Indo-European berserker archetype. He notes that the “great Greek heroes all have blond hair (unlike the Trojans who are dark-haired), and they have lots of it, lustrous, hair being an essential quality of the hero.”[xxiii]  Interestingly, studies of ancient DNA which have followed the archaeological trail of Indo-European cultures eastwards across the Pontic steppe, have found that: “Their DNA indicated mainly blue or green-eyed, fair-skinned and light-haired people.”[xxiv] One source, noting that fair hair is a physical trait long associated with the Indo-Europeans, observes that, while the genes for blue eyes were already present among Mesolithic Europeans belong to Y-DNA haplogroup I, “the genes for blond hair are more strongly correlated with the distribution of haplogroup R1a” – this being the haplogroup that predominates among the ancient Indo-European males tested.

Among the storied ranks of these blond Greek heroes is Achilles, the “city destroyer” who is the ultimate symbol of an Indo-European warrior elite that was “ferociously male in its focus, with male gods and a cultivation of violence, with no great attention paid to dwellings or public buildings, but a fascination with weaponry, speed and violence.”[xxv] Even in the world of the Iliad, Achilles’ homeland in Thessaly is further north than that of any other character. For Nicolson, “Achilles carries a pre-southern, pre-urban, pre-complicated world of purity and integrity within him.”[xxvi]

The willingness of Achilles to defy the authority of King Agamemnon is certainly illustrative of Duchesne’s culture of “aristocratic egalitarianism” where a leader is regarded as a “first among equals.” It is only natural, therefore, that Achilles “cannot tolerate the overarching kingliness of Agamemnon.”[xxvii] When Odysseus intercedes between Agamemnon and Achilles he suppresses the former’s injunction for Achilles to “submit himself to me, since I am so much more kingly,” because he knows that “the steppe consciousness of Achilles will not accept an overking.”[xxviii]

To indicate how widespread this ethos was throughout Europe, Duchesne cites the Anglo-Saxon saga Beowulf which, while set in the Germanic/Scandinavian 6th century AD, also depicts an “aristocratic ethos of companionship and equality.”[xxix] Linking the Indo-European warrior elite of the Homeric epics with their counterparts further north, Nicolson contends that:

In his Greek heroes, Homer gives voice to that northern warrior world. Homer is the only place you can hear the Bronze Age warriors of the northern grasslands speak and dream and weep. The rest of Bronze Age Europe is silent. Echoes of what was said and sung in Ireland or in German forests can be recovered from tales and poems collected by modern ethnographers, but only in Homer is the connection direct. That relationship travels both ways. Homer can illuminate Bronze Age Europe, and Bronze Age Europe can throw its light on the Homeric world.[xxx]

Berserker-style violence is a leitmotif in both Homeric epics. At the conclusion of the Odyssey, a reprise of the extreme violence of the Iliad suddenly erupts into the poem, bringing with it “an almost orgasmic release of destructive energy, a balloon of mesmeric violence” in which Odysseus slaughters all 108 of the men who hanker after his wife and kingdom. “It is a frenzy of killing, an orgy of revenge that leaves the floors of the palace swimming in blood” and “a moment of ecstatic slaughter, a huge gratification, filled with delight that he has done it and destroyed his enemies.”[xxxi] Pope was not alone in being shocked at the “spirit of cruelty which appears too manifestly in the Iliad” while the English poet and artist William Blake blamed Homer for desolating Europe with wars. By contrast, Goethe thought that if Europe had only considered Homer and not the Bible as its holy scripture, the whole of history would have been different, and better.[xxxii]

Go to Part 2 of 3.

[i][i] Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (London: William Collins, 2014), xvii.

[ii] Ibid., Xvii-xviii.

[iii] Ibid., 97.

[iv] Ibid., 95.

[v] Ibid., 44-5.

[vi] Ibid., 71.

[vii] Ibid., 24.

[viii] Ibid., 47.

[ix] Ibid., 20.

[x] Ibid., 113.

[xi] Ibid., xxi.

[xii] Ibid., xviii.

[xiii] Ibid., 203.

[xiv] Ibid., 148.

[xv] Ibid., 198.

[xvi] Ibid., 192.

[xvii] Ibid., 194.

[xviii] Ibid., 174.

[xix] Ibid., Xviii-xix.

[xx] Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Boston: Brill Academic, 2012), 40.

[xxi] Ibid., 387.

[xxii] Nicolson, The Mighty Dead, 186.

[xxiii] Ibid., 136-37.

[xxiv] Jean Manco, Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Adventurers to the Vikings (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015) 148.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Nicolson, The Mighty Dead, 148-49; 149.

[xxvii] Ibid., 149.

[xxviii] Ibid., 150.

[xxix] Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 398.

[xxx] Ibid., 117.

[xxxi] Ibid., 245.

[xxxii] Ibid., 12.

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