--Could Homer's Odyssey be inspired by actual voyages of discovery by pioneering Mediterranean sailors up the North Atlantic coast?
This is a speculative theory which is not entirely new. That is, it was not simply born of the current publishing trend towards creating conspiracy-theory scenarios revealing the "secret history" of a contentious figure or event previously covered up. In this case, there are references in ancient codex sources dating back to Roman times suggesting the “northern” theory was entertained back then. However, modern books tend to go for grand schemes which don't simply suggest a tale based on an early northern pioneering voyage, but claim a 1:1 correspondence between every Homeric place name and a northern locale. It's suggested in some of these modern books that the Odyssey contains a secret navigational code hidden inside a novelistic wonder tale. Usually translated from German, French, or Dutch originals, they tend however to be disdained or ridiculed by the mainstream media in England.
For example, in 1990, I came across jokey dismissive references in Private Eye and on Ned Sherrin’s Loose Ends on Radio 4 to a new book which apparently argued the “real” Troy had stood near the motorway running past Cambridge, generating newspaper headlines like ‘Troy Relocated To A Happy Eater Off The A11.’ This was Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery Of Homer's Iliad And Odyssey Revealed, the English translation of a Dutch work by the Paris-based Dutch-born author Iman Wilkens. It argued that not only was the Odyssey “really” set in the North Sea area, but that similarly, the Iliad was really based on a huge war that took place in eastern England among the Celtic tribes. It soon went out of print, which turned it into a sought-after cult book – by 2004 copies were on eBay for £395 – but then was re-published in 2005 in an expanded revised edition, with companion DVD. I had already been given a copy of the original version by the book’s English copyeditor, and at £37.60 I wasn’t buying a new edition just to see what had been tweaked. But I was able to comparison-read a sample chapter emailed to me as a PDF by the UK publishers. (You can now do this yourself if interested, link here).
I have to say I myself don’t buy the approach of playing place-name scrabble to give every single Homeric locale a 1:1 north-Atlantic identification, ranging all over the ocean, from Madeira to Newfoundland. For example in Wilkens, the River Cam which gives Cambridge its name is identified as the original of Homer’s River Scamander on the plain before Troy, and so on. Not to pick on Wilkens, this interpretation is credited to a 19th-C. Belgian lawyer, Théophile Cailleux, in a book written in French which placed Troy in the same spot, a century before, in 1878. This was echoed by Ernst Gideon in a 1973 book in Dutch, Homerus Zanger der Kelten, which doesn’t seem to be available in English. Evidently there were northern-odyssey books some two centuries ago, though again not in English. One was by Johan Voss, the German mythologist and translator of Homer, in 1804, and another in 1806 by the French writer Charles-Joseph de Grave, which put Odysseus in the British Isles and Western Europe respectively. Cailleux has been cited as inspiration by other postwar authors besides Wilkens, like the French amateur sailor Gilbert Pillot in his 1969 [trans. 1972] The Secret Code Of The Odyssey: Did The Greeks Sail The Atlantic?, whose Homeric-voyage identifications range from Madeira up around Ireland and the Hebrides, to Iceland. Other authors use both sides of the Atlantic in their search for similar place-names or geographic features. For example, Henriette Metz’s 1964 The Wine-Dark Sea evidently put the Scylla-Charybdis whirlpool in Newfoundland’s Bay of Fundy, where there is a dramatic tidal range.
The “North Atlantic Odyssey” theory is still worth exploring here, for it deals with unresolved issues referred to in ancient manuscripts relating to British prehistory - part of our range on this blog. The underlying premise of both the traditional Mediterranean theory and the North Atlantic one is that Homer based his Odyssey on early long-distance coast-navigation guides called in Greek periplous, which provided sailing times and directions, and coast features to watch out for. Classical enthusiasts have thus spent decades trying to fit Odysseus’s voyage onto a map of the Med without any consensus - the sailing times and directions Homer gives just don’t match up consistently enough. (Some amateur sailors have given this a good try, and written books of their own modern odysseys, either in modern yachts or replica galleys, which make enjoyable armchair-travel reading, like Ernle Bradford’s Ulysses Found and Tim Severin’s The Ulysses Voyage – both still in print.)
The “Northern” theory instead proposes a fresh approach of trying to fit at least the ‘flashback’ part of Odysseus’s voyage onto a map of the North Atlantic. At first, this may seem odd due to our standard mental image of Ulysses and his bronzed crew sailing the sunny Mediterranean, but this is likely based on modern screen versions being filmed there. (Iman Wilkens’s own personal starting point for his own take on the Iliad was wondering why the weather described by Homer is so rainy and foggy – more like his native Holland than the sunny Med…) With this approach you can keep Troy alias Ilium (hence Iliad) in the Aegean, where more evidence of a Homeric-scale city has recently been excavated (undermining one of Wilkens’s premises, that the ‘Troy’ in Turkey was too small). There are also mentions of the city in the records of their Hittites neighbour, as Wilusa (-usa being the Hittite suffix equal to the –ium in Homer’s Ilium), and of their war with the Akkihiyoi (Homer’s Achaeans), conducted by one Prince Aleksandros (Paris’s other name being Alexandros). (On this, see Michael Wood’s In Search Of The Trojan War.)
Instead, you can postulate a long-distance voyage west across and out of the Med. (Ulysses is blown off course westward by a storm for 17 days, which Gilbert Pillot says would more than do it if you work out the maths, i.e. 17 x 24 hrs at 5-10 knots/hr, the Med being only some 2500 km wide). This puts the story onto a larger world map and would help explain why Odysseus was away for 19 years – he went literally to the edge of the known world. It would also explain Homer’s odd reference to a shepherd being able to make twice as much money doing the night-watch in winter, something that makes more sense in the isles of the north, where the nights can be 16 hours long in winter. Others point to Homeric references to the singing swan, which is found only in northern latitudes. There are also apparent references to tidal currents in river mouths, something the Med is too small to generate, as well as the Scylla-Charybdis whirlpool being dangerous thrice a day. (Pillot identifies it with the Correyvreckan whirlpool off Mull which nearly drowned George Orwell.) Homer’s constant references to the “wine-dark” or “wine-faced” sea also seem an odd way to describe the Med’s famously blue-green colour (the “Northern” explanation for this is to do with eroded sandstone and red earth colouring coastal waters).
There are also odd references in the works of early classical writers, like the Roman writer Plutarch, who in passing suddenly claims Homer’s Ogygia (where Calypso keeps Odysseus captive) is located in the North Atlantic, "five days' sail from Britain" (some have suggested the Faeroes as the right distance here). Strabo, who investigated Homeric geography, thought Plutarch might be right. The poet Apollodorus thought the Odyssey unhistorical, but part-set in the North Atlantic. The Roman historian Tacitus said there was a memorial in the far north of Caledonia, i.e. Scotland, commemorating the visit there of Ulysses (the Roman version of Odysseus). Tacitus also says in his Germania the tribes venerate the Greek hero Hercules. There is also an odd Greek legend of a visit to ‘Britannios’ by Hercules. Odd because he was believed by ancient Greeks to have lived in the 13th C. BC, and to have marked the western limit of Greek exploration at the ‘Pillars Of Hercules’ - the Gibraltar Strait. Others, like 5th C. BC historian Thucydides, doubted the Iliad was historical - that their ancient Greeks forebears with their tiny city-states could have ever mounted a war on such a scale as at Troy.
The theories cited up to now have suggested an early voyage by Mediterranean sailors (Greek, or perhaps Phoenician) west and then north, recorded in a precious periplous which was worth keeping secret. (Later, the senate at Phoenician Carthage would reward any merchant captain who wrecked his ship if he could not shake off pursuit, in order to protect their secret trade routes from their rival Rome - which suggests these did remain secret until well into the Roman era.) Pillot’s 1969 northern-odyssey book is titled The Secret Code Of The Odyssey because he argued the verse epic was a Greek syndicate's way of concealing navigation data inside an “entertainment” which acted as an elaborate mnemonic. (Florence and Kenneth Wood's 1999 Homer’s Secret Iliad suggested the Iliad was also such a mnemonic work, to enable the congnoscenti to grasp cyclic star movements, with Achilles representing Sirius, and so on.) The ancient Greek mariners could thereby remember yet protect the key details (sailing directions, times, dangers) of their all-important northern trade route. This was to the sought-after sources of tin (the Kassiterides or Tin Isles, which the 5th-C BC historian Herodotus complained were unlocatable), which were the key to prosperity in the Bronze Age. (Tin was needed to make good-quality bronze and there was then no known supply of tin ore in the Med.) The Kassiterides or Tin Isles were later identified as various islets off the northern coast of Spain, Brittany, and the southwest coast of Britain. Wilkens also plumps for tin as the cause of his Britain-versus-NW Europe war.
The opposing interpretation would be that the entire genesis of the original, ur-Odyssey was northern-European, deriving from proto-Celtic/-Germanic or other early Nordic seafaring peoples. This is how the Iliad ends up being given an entirely northern interpretation, for it makes more sense in terms of fitting the idea of a Nordic origin for the epic than does the Odyssey, whose voyage begins with known places in the Med. One literary-transmission theory is that early Greek sailors might have come for long-distance trade in tin etc, and also took this wonderful epic tale back with them, transforming it into a national epic when it was written up in verse. If the northern peoples preferred not to write out their compositions, relying on prodigious feats of memory (as Caesar said of the Keltic bards), over time the original northern version could have been lost in wars and migrations. Another north-to-south literary-transmission theory is that the northern tribes were the ‘Sea Peoples’ mentioned in Egyptian records who swept south to attack Greece and Egypt around 1200 BC, obliterating the earlier Greeks, who assimilated the northerners’ campfire tales and made them their own when they flourished again as a nation after the Greek Dark Ages. Each theory has its proponents.
The second variant of this north-to-south literary-transmission theory can be found in an Italian book suggesting a largely Finnish setting, which got the usual dismissive reception (“Finnish scholars were quick to label it an interesting joke.”) It’s another “northern Troy” book, here arguing for a Scandinavian-Baltic rather than a Celtic-British setting, Troy being identified with Toy or Toija in Finland. The first of author Felice Vinci’s books on the topic, his 1993 Homericus Nuncius, was evidently not translated, but his 2nd, his 1998 Omero nel Baltico was published in English in the US in 2005 as The Baltic Origins Of Homer's Epic Tales: The Iliad, the Odyssey, And The Migration Of Myth
Vinci is not a Finn, but an Italian nuclear engineer, from Rome, and is not just - as is so often the case - nationalistically promoting his own homeland as the cradle of European civilisation. According to Vinci, Odysseus himself was Dutch. His argument is that a mighty northern Bronze Age civilisation invaded the Mediterranean, taking with them their epic tale of a great war in the Baltic, and its sequel, concerning the seafaring wanderings of one survivor between the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic. The place names were adapted into Greek, but the geographical detail simply did not fit the Med.
This is a theory that was foreshadowed in several books by a German pastor, amateur archaeologist and classical scholar, Jurgen Spanuth (1907-98), though his thesis was that these events survive in distorted version not just in Homer but in Plato’s Atlantis parable. Spanuth compared Homer’s and Plato’s descriptions on a point-for-point basis, and suggested both derived from a common origin. This was the rise and fall of a mighty Bronze Age seafaring nation based in and around Jutland, which fell when an ‘Atlantean’ North Sea flood drove them southward into the Med, where the Egyptians defeated these invading ‘Sea Peoples’ in the Nile delta. He refined his thesis in several books also published in English, from Das Entratselte Atlantis, 1953 [Atlantis-The Mystery Unravelled, 1956] through Die Atlanter [Atlantis Of The North, 1976/79], now all out of print. He argued when the Egyptians defeated the Sea Peoples, they recorded their tale of how their empire collapsed in a flood, and Plato’s source his uncle Solon the Lawgiver, picked it up, just as Solon said, on a visit to Egypt, and Solon and then Plato each wrote up a version.
However, some of Spanuth’s cited evidence and chronology have since proved mistaken. Coming from Germany in particular, the nationalistic enthusiasm which can lead to making such inflated claims - in effect assuming credit for another country’s cultural foundations - has caused a concern one can sense in review coverage. (The contrary, south-to-north, approach long supported by classicists was long promoted as what-the-Greeks-and-Romans-did-for-us 'cultural diffusion', though Carbon-dating of trade goods has somewhat undermined this one-way scenario.) Rebuffed by the mainstream, Spanuth published items in some right-wing German magazines, which marginalised him further, for one of the concerns with this type of historical claim is that nationalist political groups will use it as an intellectual justification for xenophobia.
However he is credited with prompting further research into sunken North Sea ports, in this case Rungholt, where underwater excavation has now, reportedly, found ceramics evidencing trade between Frisia and (wait for it) Minoan Crete dating back to 1600-1400 BC. This was of course around the time the Minoan Empire collapsed in the wake of the Thera/Santorini eruption – an event claimed by some classical scholars (and others) as inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis tale. (The new finds are detailed in cultural historian Hans Peter Duerr's 2005 book given as Rungholt: The Search For A Lost City, though it’s not clear if this is actually published in English.) Spanuth’s final work, from 1989, dealing with how the matter of this north-to-south cultural transmission might have worked, does not appear to have been translated. (Die Rückkehr der Herakliden: das Erbe der Atlanter; der Norden als Ursprung der griechischen Kultur - “The Return Of The Heraclides: The Legacy Of The Atlanteans, The North As The Origin Of Greek Culture.”)
This controversial north-to-south cultural-transmission theory is centuries older than German nationalism. There had been an attempt centuries before to place the inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis in the Baltic, which was the grandaddy of all these books. In the 17th C, the Swedish allround Renaissance scholar (physician, astronomer, archaeo-historian etc) Olaus or Olof Rudbeck caused consternation with his northern-thesis 4-part, 2,500 page work Atland eller Manheim, translated from Swedish into Latin for scholarly use as Atlantica. This cited linguistic parallels between Swedish, Hebrew etc to claim the oldest district of his home town Uppsala was centre of 'lost Atlantis' and thus - by the extravagant logic of cultural diffusion - Sweden was the cradle of western civilisation going back to Adam and Eve.
Despite ridicule from his local university colleagues (who accused him of forging evidence) Rudbeck's grandiose claim of Swedish precedence made him a national icon, though his life and work were cut short when his nominated 'true Atlantis' Uppsala had its own Atlantis-style disaster. This was not through earthquake and flood, but fire. Despite his climbing onto his roof to direct the fire-fighting, the blaze destroyed most of the university town, including his house and most of his manuscripts, and he died soon after. His notorious academic reputation notwithstanding, Swedish monarchs would be crowned over his grave, and his son carried on his father’s extravagant linguistic claims, evidently to help Sweden claim a place among the European powers of the day. Old Uppsala, the pre-Christian district he based his claim around, where among burial mounds is the remains of a strange 'temple' church, continues to attract interest from Neo-Pagan groups, as a place where pagan worship, including human sacrifice, continued long into the Christian era. Like nearly all succesful writers in this field, Rudbeck did not simply invent from whole cloth, but drew on still-unresolved mysteries from the past.
Rudbeck's monumental, obsessive work does not seem to be available in English. However US historian David King has published a 2005 study of Rudbeck's career and Swedish-Atlantis claim. His Finding Atlantis: A True Story Of Genius, Madness, And An Extraordinary Quest For A Lost World (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in the US), describes how "Rudbeck challenged scholars to come to Sweden and prove him wrong; he would pay the expenses, he boasted. Indeed, for a time, some scholars credited Rudbeck with revolutionizing our understanding of the past. He was admired at the court of Louis XIV, proposed as a member of the Royal Society in London, and celebrated in cafés, salons, and academies across the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. Avid readers were Leibniz, Montesquieu, and the famous skeptic Pierre Bayle. Even Sir Isaac Newton wrote to request a personal copy of Rudbeck's Atlantica."
Rudbeck's contentious Atlantis claim was the subject of a famous, somewhat satiric illustration, shown here, captioned "The archaeologist Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) reveals his 'Predecessors' - Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Apollodorus, Tacitus, Odysseus, Ptolemy, Plutarch and Orpheus - the 'Truth' about Atlantis." King adds his own interpretation: "Like a physician dissecting in his anatomy theater, Olof Rudbeck cuts open a map of the modern world and reveals the secret history of Sweden. Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and many other well-known figures of antiquity sit around the dissection table like students. Plato strains to take a closer look, and Apollodorus slaps his head in surprise. Ptolemy, who is so often criticized by Rudbeck for faulty geography, looks away in disgust."
Nascent nationalist enthusiasm causing researchers to get carried away in their claims of cultural-historical precedence is an ages-old problem in this subject area. Even Plato’s Atlantis fable was evidently angled to highlights of the dangers of this mindset. The author of The Republic reworked his ancestor Solon the Lawgiver’s unfinished verse epic into a cautionary political fable, told as an educational dialogue, about national hubris leading to the downfall of a mighty empire when it loses favour with the gods. As with Solon’s planned epic, Plato’s fable was never completed. Possibly this was for a similar reason of self-censorship, born of fear of what the Germans call realpolitik. Here it would be concern about which city leaders (known locally as tyrants) might suspect their regime was the model for this arrogant and doomed empire. A lesson there for us all, perhaps…
Having invoked the dread taboo name Atlantis, perhaps we’d better stop there for the moment.