Thursday, September 29, 2011

Great Poet, But Was He Babylonian?

Perhaps the greatest epic poet who ever lived wasn’t really a single individual. I think I know better, but I posses no more proof than the collective deposit of all human scholarship asserts. The person I have in mind is Homer. And his name came into my focus this time while thinking about an SF TV series, Babylon 5, whose creator is clearly known by name, J. Michael Straczynski. It occurred to me that in our own time the epic poem is still alive and well, here and there only, as television series. Further that Babylon 5 qualifies as such an epic in its temporal width, breath, scope, content, and indeed in its mythological framing.

Homer’s two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were performed at four-year intervals by rhapsodes (reciter-singers) at the Panathenaen Festival (where the Olympics where also held). Thus these works had performances before extensive audiences. To be sure: those were ages that came before anything like wide-spread literacy had yet taken root—much as Babylon 5 was being performed before vast audiences gradually once more losing those same roots (at least if recent statistical surveys are correct).

But when did our poet live? Certainly after the Trojan War (1194-1184 BC), but how long after? The earliest biographies of Homer appear to have been written some 800 years after the war. A man whom the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) labels pseudo-Herodotus (the real one lived 484-425 BC) puts Homer’s birth at 1102 BC. The real Herodotus thought that Homer had lived “not more than 400 years before me,” which EB assumes meant 830 BC. So there you have the rough range.

In looking all this up—and realizing just how fuzzy and vaporous Homer’s origins really are—it delighted me to discover that a satirist of our own time notation, Lucian (125-180 AD) had suggested, in his True History, that Homer was actually a Babylonian and had been called Tigranes. How Lucian could have known that is not on record, but his argument was that Tigranes, having been taken captive by Greeks, assumed the name Homeros, which in Greek means “hostage.” (A Hostage for the Hinterland, as it were.) This gave me pleasure. It permits me to link a modern poet, Straczynski, and an ancient one. The first came from Babylon 1. The other created Babylon 5.

All things are possible—if the song has the right melody.


  1. I do not know why Lucian would use an Armenian name for a Babylonian, but he was quite a blow-hard in his time.

    Plato's "Ion" is about a rhapsodos and is a pretty good story, and the parallel between a good story like Babylon 5 and the Iliad is very apparent, although some would disagree.

    The rhapsodists were not sitting among trees, playing harps, crowned with laurels, and reciting Homer; they recited accompanied with gestures, grimaces, groans, and a lot of slap-stick when the Iliad required it.
    September 29, 2011 4:57 PM

  2. The lasting works of humanity tend to fall "hostage" to learned cliques as the works "age" out of popular reach. Current popular phenomena, by contrast, no matter how meaningful, are eyed with disdain by the day's avant-gard. The genuine members of the creative minority of any era are always classified as tricksters, beggars, fringers, and fools...

  3. "Hostage" is an apt description. I can easily imagine Melville's "Moby Dick" held hostage, blindfolded, and forced to make videos while reading demands for literary theoretical terrorists.


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