Tue, 21 Jun 2016
Travelling with Heroes

In the fifteenth book of Homer's Illiad, the goddess Hera flies across to Mount Olympus and the poet compares her to a particular movement of the human mind. When a man has travelled far and wide, he tells us, his mind will sometimes leap and he will think, "I wish I was here, or I wish I was there", as he "longs for many things". Hera's sideways flight is as swift as these inconsistent thoughts as she moves from the peak of one mountain to another.

Robin Lane Fox's book Travelling Heroes has some poetic passages, including his opening paragraph above, but not enough to save it for me.

The book is a look at how myths travelled around the Mediterranean Sea with early Greek traders, pirates and mercenaries, primarily from the island of Euboea, off the Eastern coast of mainland Greece. The myths travelled with the people but the contact with the Near East, particularly the Phoenicians and Neo-Hittite people influenced and modified the tales. At some point in the 9th Century, some form of Greek/Phoenician meeting was the foundational cause of the Greeks regaining their lost literacy when the Phoenician alphabet crossed over. As you could say, the rest is history.

Although Homer is an anchor point in the text, much of the discussion is over what is missing in Homer's knowledge of people and places. The poet Hesiod, who is posited to have won a Euboean poetry competition in the 800's with his Theogony, is also much debated.

This book should have been something to treasure reading and exactly the sort of book I often love, but in the end there was too much plodding detail, particularly over the pottery, but even landscape and archaeology. Too much detail and not enough poetry.

I didn't know the BBC did a television program based on the book in 2013 but was pleasantly surprised. I decided to read the book first, then watched the program. Fox reminds me a little of Kenneth Clark in Civilisation as he potters around the Med, but the television was quite good, and a lot more succinct, as well as beautiful to look at in many parts. In this instance, I would recommend watching television over reading.