Merchant explorers of that day, / Hustling Phœnicians, came this way / To ship tin ore from Cornish mines / Three thousand years before these lines. - Charles Harrison, A Humorous History Of England, 1920
Last time we raised the issue of whether Homer’s Odyssey could have been inspired by long-distance voyages from Greece up the European Atlantic coast, possibly for tin. The people most often credited with making such voyages in pursuit of tin were the Phoenicians. No ancient historical source I’m aware of, however, explicitly supports the further claims by 19C British antiquarians that the Phoenicians ‘discovered’ Britain, establishing tin-trading outposts in Cornwall. This is the supposed background to the legend Joseph of Arimatheia came here, bringing Christianity/the Grail/the boy Jesus/Mary Magdalene/refugee Apostles (take your pick). Of course, as I mentioned last post, the Phoenician traders protected their trade-route secret to the extent (the story goes) the senate of the western Phoenician port of Carthage would reimburse any merchant captain who drove his ship on the rocks if unable to shake off pursuit from Roman etc vessels. It’s reasonable the location of tin ore supplies would be kept secret, this being the great secret of the Bronze Age - you needed tin for good quality bronze, and there was then no major supply source known in the Med.
This brings us to where we came in last time, the theory Homer’s Odyssey was a “coded” version of a maritime coastal guide to the distant northern Celtic entrepot known as the Tin Isles [Kassiterides], which Herodotus’s diligent enquiries were unable to locate. As Herodotus was enquiring about it back around 450 BC, and Roman-era writers centuries later could not come to any consensus about the Cassiterides’s location, it was obviously a long-running mystery, or if you prefer, a well-guarded secret.
The Phoenicians themselves remain largely a mystery, right down to their name, which occurs in Homer (Odyssey 13.270), dating it perhaps to at least 800 BC. They were traders, operating not as a single kingdom but as a ‘thalassocracy,’ a far-ranging wealthy sea-trading confederacy. (The Bible [Ezekiel 26:16] refers to them as lords of the sea and its islands who now wear fine embroidered garments but who will soon be punished and tremble with fear.) Starting at Tyre in Lebanon, they established ports including autonomous city-states like Carthage around the Mediterranean shore – and perhaps beyond. How far beyond is the great argument about the Phoenicians. (Some have even claimed they sailed right across the Atlantic, discovering the New World over two millennia before Columbus.) This past year, expeditions by three different replica Phoenician ships have been plying the seas to prove, by means of “Kon-tiki” style reconstructions, that long-distance voyages were feasible in Phoenician-style galleys. For the modern sceptics’ quickest dismissal is that such voyages were simply not practical with the technology of the time. One replica, the 20-meter Kybele (an Anatolian goddess), set out this summer with a volunteer crew of 20 to sail 2,300 miles (3,700 km) across the main part of the Mediterranean to promote awareness of Lebanese heritage. (The modern word ‘Phoenicianism’ has been coined to express this school of Lebanese nationalism which promotes the idea the Lebanese are not transplanted Bedouins – the usual academic theory of Phoenician origins – but descendants of native ancient Lebanon going back to King Solomon and Hiram of Tyre.) Sailing from Turkey, the Kybele’s destination was Marseille, the ancient Greek western outpost [founded c600 BC] of Massilia. (This was the home port of the maritime explorer Pytheas, of whom more soon.) Another, the 13-meter Europa (in legend, the king of Tyre’s daughter, after whom Europe is supposedly named), was to set sail last year from Tyre in Lebanon, but apparently had setbacks: its website now refers to an upcoming 6-8 month voyage in 2010. Organised by the Peace Missions Association, with a Lebanese crew of 16-20, it planned visits to Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Malta, Italy, Spain and France, “to raise awareness among citizens of foreign countries about past and present civilizations in Lebanon.” A third replica, the Phoenicia, set off last year but is still en route as it has a more ambitious itinerary - to circumnavigate Africa before sailing back and forth across the Med, and then up to the south coast of England. The main part of this voyage was inspired by a reference in Herodotus – a sceptical one.
Herodotus’s Histories [4.42] refers to a 7C BC Egyptian ruler, Necho II, who abandoned an early attempt to build a Suez canal for trade purposes lest it offer an invasion route to enemies from the east, instead despatched a Phoenician fleet to sail down the east coast of Africa to see if they could return via Gibraltar. This they did, returning several years later with a tale of strange sights. One was that down near the southern tip of Africa, the sun traversed the sky on their right hand as they headed west, i.e. the northern half of the sky. This detail prompted Herodotus to express his disbelief, for in the then-known world, being situated north of the Equator, the sun crosses the southern half of the sky. (This is supposedly the basis of the mnemonic used by those sailing in colonial routes from England to Arabia, India etc. to book a cabin on the shadier side of the ship: POSH = Port Out, Starboard Home.) Today, it is this telling detail that convinces historians that the voyage actually occurred. It also inspired explorer Philip Beale to build his replica the Phoenicia, which as I begin writing this blog post is just crossing the Equator, so that the crew will be seeing the sun rise and set in the northern half of the sky for many months to come. But when the Phoenicia sails north from Gibraltar next year and up to the south coast of Britain, will it really be following in the wake of pioneering Phoenician sailors? Did the Phoenicians also sail north, to establish tin-trade entrepots on the southwest coast of Britain?
The Carthaginian senate also despatched a fleet under their admiral Hanno to circumnavigate Africa anti-clockwise if possible, or at least establish trading outposts down the west coast of Africa, and map the coast. This last part Hanno managed, for his 18-paragraph summary account survived (as a 10th-C copy of a copy of a bronze pedestal inscription Hanno commissioned). This tells of having seen wondrous sights, such as gorillas and a mountain of fire – possibly Mt Cameroon – before turning back after some 35 days. Around the same time, another Carthaginian admiral, Himilco, was (according to Pliny the Elder’s 1st-C AD Natural History) sent 'to explore the outer coasts of Europe', i.e. the Atlantic coast. Sadly, Himilco’s official account did not survive. But a much later surviving source, a poem by a 4C AD Roman official, survives in a 714-line MS copy published in Venice in 1488, which draws in part on this lost account, quoting 3 passages mentioning ‘Punic Himilco’ ‘the Carthaginian.’ This is Rufius Festus Avienus’s Ora Maritima, a title which literally means maritime mouths i.e. inlets, implying it is based on a periplus – if not a coastal-navigation how-to style guide, then at least a memoir-style past-tense equivalent like Hanno’s. (Translated editions of Ora Maritima are titled Description Of The Seacoast From Brittany Around To Massilia [ed. JP Murphy, Chicago 1977]; or simply “Sea-coasts” or “Sea-shores”.) The poem credits its information as “published long ago in the secret annals of the Carthaginians.”
Unfortunately the poem is not a straightforward linear-narrative adaptation, making it difficult to fix some of its place-names on a map. The poem repeats details, and jumps from Cadiz up to Brittany, and gives the route south from there. The overall guide ends back at Massilia, suggesting it is derived from a Greek copy kept there. It may be that Avienus also combined details from the outward and return legs of the voyage. Himilco is mentioned as spending months facing sea monsters, fogs, doldrums, shallows, sandbars, and masses of seaweed, all making progress difficult. (The conventional theory is Himilco’s original account was a negative one to discourage rivals, but as the account would have been kept secret at the time, it may be that he was trying instead to make excuses to the Carthaginian senate, which could impose cruel penalties on officers who failed in their mission, such as crucifixion. Indeed, the Romans parsed ‘Phoenician’ as ‘Men Of the Penalty’ – Poeni.) Avienus says Himilco was not pioneering an unknown route. His was more likely a colonising expedition like Hanno’s, which involved a fleet of 60 penteconter [=50 rowers each] ships carrying 30,000 [sic – 3,000?] settlers, and establishing outposts en route. In practice, these had to be no more than a day’s sail apart - which would explain why it took Himilco 4 months to sail the first part of the route. The poem says he was following in the wake of the Tartessians’ former trade route, northwest from Tartessos. This may be the earliest reference to the fabled Celto-Iberian silver-trade port that once lay near Cadiz (exact location now lost).
The route northwest is referred to as not from Tartessos itself but from its successor port, Phoenician Gadir [later Roman Gades, modern Cadiz], used by ‘folk of Carthage.’ This confirms the origin of Gadir as a western Phoenician port established to open up the Atlantic trade, displacing its Celto-Iberian predecessor, Tartessos. (Some say it was also a Gibraltar-style naval HQ which effectively closed the Straits for centuries. One historian says a peace treaty with Rome survives from the Punic Wars era whereby Carthage retains exclusive rights to the Atlantic trade.) This ancient route leads, says Avienus, to the “bourne” (implying a trade haven) of the Oestrymnides [“extreme western isles”](thought to be around Brittany), where the Oestrymnici [“extreme westerners”?], a proud and vigorous people, carried on trade across the open sea using boats made only from sewn leather hides [i.e. Celtic curraghs]. It’s been suggested by Prof. Barry Cunliffe that Avienus’s description is so confused because there were in fact two clusters of isles called ‘Oestrymnides’ or “extreme western isles,” one in Spain and one in Brittany - just as today there are two peninsula called Finister[r]e [“land’s end”], one the westernmost tip of Spain, and the other, the westernmost tip of Brittany.
What is most interesting is that the poem seems to give away the great trade secret of the age: it says here in ‘the Gulf Oestrymnian’ [Bay of Biscay] are ‘the widely scattered isles .. rich with their lodes of lead and metalled tin’ – in other words, the long sought-after Kassiterides. I’ve never seen anyone comment on the remarkable fact of this great trade secret, which had Herodotus foxed, being divulged here. Perhaps this is not surprising for those who have written of the mystery as if the metal was actually mined there. It confirms my own view this is an over-literal interpretation, and the Tin Isles were merely trading rendezvous offshore islets which were in effect a moveable feast – the metal was brought there, smelted into ingots, at agreed times. The islands are not referred to in the poem as Kassiterides, but Oestrymnides. This further suggests the ‘the Gulf Oestrymnian’ [Bay of Biscay] took its name from being bounded by the cape of Oestrymnis and Oestrymnides, which suggests a ‘Cape Oestrymnis’ rocky headland in Spain and the string of islets off southwest Brittany as the Oestrymnides. Both names, based on the root meaning ‘westernmost’, are periplus-friendly ones which would tell captains these two were points where you did not want to head any farther west.
For those that have long championed isles off southern Britain as the location of the Tin Isles, I would argue that exploration of the Prettanic Isles with their own Cassiterides, like the tidal isle of “Ictis” described by Diodorus c50 BC, would come later. This is borne out by Himilco/Avienus’s casual passing mentions of Albion [Britain] and neighbouring Ierne [Ireland], given as two days sail away. Both island names are also slightly confused – Albion is parsed as “the Albiones’ isle” and Ireland or Eire as ‘The Sacred or Holy Isle (evidently confusing it with Greek ‘hiero’), and no particulars given of either island, which implies an early era, when the isles were still unexplored. (In the early pre-compass era, merchant ships tended to hug mainland coasts, guided by their periplous, which listed overnight anchorages a day’s sail apart.) Beyond the Oestrymnides, says Avienus, is the land of the Kelts [northern Gaul?]. Beyond these Keltic lands, one enters the frigid zone where the very heavens freeze. Here are only the now-empty fields of the Ligurians. In early Greek accounts, the Ligurians were characterised as fierce headhunting types, and the name Ligures was used loosely the way Keltoi would later be used. But the poem depicts them as farmers, now fearful refugees dwelling across the sea on a remote and rocky shore [Scotland/Pictland?], driven out by Keltic strife.
Similarly, the traders of the Oestrymnides isles, the once proud and vigorous Oestrymnici, have been driven out by “the serpent” [in Avienus’s Latin, multa serpens – many serpents]. This is associated here with Ophiussa, a legendary Greek western region (later a constellation) whose name in Greek means Land Of The Serpent. (There’s an intriguing reference to a Roman legion later encountering a giant ‘worm’ when in Spain, and destroying it with a ballista siege-engine catapult bolt.) While Avienus’s text puts Ophiussa facing Brittany across the ‘gulf’ [Bay of Biscay?] on the coast of Iberia [i.e. northern Spain], Ophiussa is elsewhere claimed to have been a region of Portugal, i.e. on the west [not north] coast of the Iberian peninsula, where a serpent and/or dragon cult, possibly Ligurian, supposedly flourished. Reported there were the Dragani, or Dragon Men as well as the Ophiusians. (Ophis can mean serpent in Greek, and –usa is an old place-name suffix, cf Hittite Wilusa for Greek Ilium, as in Iliad, i.e. Troy.) It looks like the Ophiusians migrated west later on, for Avienus puts Ophiussa only 7 days on foot from the ‘Sardum’ [Sardinian] sea, suggesting it was by the narrow neck of land along the Spanish-French border. The later description in Diodorus said it took the tin-trade pack-pony convoys from ‘Ictis’ off Britain a full 30 days to reach Massilia by crossing the main part of France, from an unidentified cross-Channel port south of Brittany [Nantes?] via the Loire Valley and then down the Rhone.
Of course, a c600 BC account like Himilco’s is still too late to be an actual source of inspiration for Homer’s Odyssey, per our current theory, but it’s as close as we can get at present to a possible underlying source. And there is certainly no lack of mysteries that might inspire a teller of tales - we have a whole boatload of them here, with peoples and places almost as strange as those in the Odyssey.
In some future post we can venture farther north to look at these in more detail – such as the people with a name similar to the Phoenicians – Homer’s Phaeacians, “most remote of men.”