Likely Stories: The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley

Mar 7, 2019

An examination of some early theories about the Trojan War.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

 My fascination with the Iliad and the Odyssey dates back to my earliest days of reading about Ancient Greece.  M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus is a wonderful examination of the various theories of what actually happened during the Trojan War, along with a massive amount of information pro and con from other historians.  This book is useful for all those interested in the Trojan War—amateurs and professionals alike.

In 1954, Sir Moses Finley “set out to depict the world in which the Homeric epics had been composed” (vii).   His book is described as “limpid, hard-hitting prose […] and with a bare minimum of footnotes, Finley set out to depict the world in which the Homeric epics had been composed” (vii).  In a second edition, he characterized his original work as ‘a picture of a society, based on a close reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey supported by the study of other societies’” (vii).

Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote, “By the general consent of critics, the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epic poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions” (5).  Dr. Johnson is one of the most brilliant minds ever working with languages, literature, and history.  His word is more than good enough for me, even though he was referring to Milton and his epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Here is a sample of the wrestling required of Finley’s examination.  He wrote, “It was to take the Greeks more than a thousand years to acquire an agreed name of their own—and today they have two.  In their own language they ate Hellenes, and their country is Hellas.  Graeci is the name given to them by the Romans and later adopted generally in Europe.  In antiquity, furthermore, their eastern neighbors used still a third name for them—Ionians, the men of Yavan of the Old Testament.  And all three are late, for we find none of them applied generically in Homer.  He called his people Argives, Danaans, and most frequently, Achaeans” (8).  I have favored Achaeans for quite a few years.

Finley spends a great deal of time on Homer.  He writes, “Homer, it is essential to recall, was not just a poet; he was a teller of myths and legends.  The mythmaking process had of course begun among the Greeks many centuries earlier, and it went on continuously wherever there were Greeks, always by word of mouth and often ceremonially.  It was activity of the highest social (and human) importance, not just the casual daydreaming of a poet here, a more imaginative peasant there.  The essential subject-matter of legend was action, not ideas, creeds or symbolic representations, but happenings, occurrences—wars, floods, adventures by land, sea, and air, family quarrels, births, marriages, and deaths.  As men listened to the narratives, in rituals, at festivals, or on other social occasions, they lived through a vicarious experience.  They believed the narrative implicitly.  ‘In mythical imagination there is always implied an act of belief.  Without belief in the reality of its object, myth would lose its ground’” (13).

To my way of thinking, Homer, The Iliad, and The Odyssey are foundational to our understanding of history and so much else.  M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus has given us a proper hand book for studying and appreciating this world.  Any one who lays claim to any level of erudition owes him a debt.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!