Young Homer Changes the Songs of Troy
by Gwydion M. Williams
The old song-stitcher sat sleeping where he always sat, in the shade of a vast oak even older than he. Besides him were olives, oat cakes, goat’s milk and wine. His wooden chair was the finest in the entire small Greek town: it had been carved long ago when he had arrived and amazed them. When he had sung superior versions of songs they had partly forgotten.
They now knew all of his songs. He had never made a new song, or changed an old one.
On a good day, he might still sing those beautiful and beloved songs. More often now he complained about young Homer, the apprentice who had run off more than two years ago. Or spoke of his dislike for other things no one else cared about. The Elders now wished he would die or go away, but said nothing. If one old man was openly disrespected, who knew where it would end?
The song-stitcher woke up. Briefly he seemed ready to sing something: perhaps a hymn to the setting sun. But then he frowned. Everyone knew with a sinking feeling that he would now complain rather than do his proper job.
“Young Homer wanted me to tell him of the Trojan War. I fought in a small raid against that ancient city, long after the war in which that brutal fool Achilles died of poison fish. He hears, but then weaves together stories from a dozen different times and places. Dumps them like scraps into stew to remake the famous Trojan Tragedy. Soon it is no longer Priam’s story.”
The man stopped and they hoped he’d go to sleep again. Instead he went on:
“The Singing Sages left us the wonderful tale of Priam. How he went from ruin to great wealth and power, and then ruin again. A great king brought down by his pride towards his former friend, High King Agamemnon. That was three generations after Achilles: I gave him the full family history. He recalls it perfectly, but then sings otherwise. Makes his own songs on high matters, as if he were a new Singing Sage. Well, many young fools do so. I have seen five generations proudly devise songs that are now forgotten – yet they sung within the True Histories. All but young Homer, who sings lies.”
The villagers listened ,but did not care. What was truth in songs, indeed? Many queens secretly lay with lowly men, or with women or even with beasts. But to birth a creature with the head of a bull – ridiculous. Those who had seen real wars knew that Hercules could not have been as strong as they said. Nor met exotic monsters in lands that had no perils beyond lions and dull cruel bandits. Still, the old song-stitcher had once sung beautifully of Hercules, inspiring young men to boldness that their elders could then restrain. They owed him much for what he had once been: a vigorous middle-aged man with an astounding voice. A singer of half-forgotten legends.
Before the song-stitcher came, everyone knew that there had been twelve labours of Hercules, but remembered only seven. One of those must have been twisted by a passing prankster. The newly arrived singer – rhapsodist, he called himself, a word new to them – had pointed out that Hercules kissing each hydra-head before chopping it off was ridiculous. He had then sung them the true verses, how he had staunched the neck to stop two heads growing. Had sung splendid verses about the other eleven labours, and much else besides.
Now the man sung less, and brooded on his quarrel with young Homer. But he had been there when most of the Elders had been young warriors. When the men of middle age had been children. Who could doubt that he must be given wine and milk and oat-cakes, and olives when they were ripe? Also the largest and best portions of meat when an animal was slaughtered in honour of god or goddess. (Those powerful, jealous, and sometimes cruel powers were thankfully content with the smoke and essence, so mere humans could dare to eat the flesh and suck the bones.)
The song-stitcher looked around angrily, as if he thought Homer might have sneaked back. In his better days he had gone along with the regional custom of blind singers, which had not been known on the strange island of Crete where he had been born. That he had left for reasons unknown: perhaps a crime, perhaps a feud between powerful families. He had once been eager to please. He now assumed he could stay till he died and act just as he wished, which was sadly true. His blind-man’s staff lay forgotten in the dust. He would sometimes wave it as he was supposed to. More often nowadays he would not bother.
The man began to hum something. People stopped and waited in the hope that he would sing. His voice was not what it had been, but was still far better than anyone else now that young Homer had left. But then his anger returned:
“The young fool twisted the story of King Paris Alexandros. Made him the son of King Priam rather than his great-grandfather. Perhaps he stole or lured the wife of a neighbouring King, though it could have been another Prince Paris. I told him there were several, just as the Egyptians had far too many Pharaohs called Ramesses after the great one. But he merged the tale with the famous abduction of Helen of Sparta. I told him: everyone knows that it was King Theseus who stole Helen and held her until he died. Perhaps of exhaustion from his pretty captive, but his legend will never be forgotten. It has been growing with the years, indeed, with the bull-masked High Priest of Crete transformed into a half-human monster whose killing becomes heroic, rather than the casual butchery it actually was. Still, young Homer cannot write out Theseus and expect to be believed. Or would he have it that Helen was abducted twice? As likely that she hatched from an egg!
“King Achilles slew King Alexandros in honest battle, but then dragged his body behind his chariot and let it rot unburnt and unburied, which was shameful. And then died of poison fish, most likely an accident. Young Homer has invented a vengeful princess. Captive princesses don’t do the cooking. The horrible Achilles had plenty of enemies, and perhaps no friends.
“But he now wants to give him one. Patroclus slayer of Clysonymus, who lived much later. He gives King Priam extra sons and daughters, as if six of each were not right and proper and according to the cycle of the months. And he was adding better tales for that savage trickster Odysseus. He’s a perfectly good villain, quarrelling with and finally destroying the thug Great Ajax. Why make him a hero?”
The man spat and added: “everyone knows that Odysseus drowned with all but one of his men on his way home. Perished due to the anger of the gods. That his son was murdered when his father was reported dead, or else was killed when he tried to throw out his mother’s suitors. There are also stories of two or three fellows turning up claiming to be the lost King of Ithaca. All failed. Yet young Homer says, the audience likes Odysseus. He gives him the tales of Ulixes and other lost sea-farers. He makes Odysseus a hero rather than a sinner.”
He then went silent and slept some more. Everyone hoped he’d forget the misdeeds of Homer when he woke up. He did indeed to that – but only to begin another rant:
“These are degenerate days. Most men cannot read, or use the worthless squiggles of the Phoenicians. I am almost the last who knows the word-wisdom of the Elder Peoples of my beloved Crete. Their strange language I never learned well: all wisdom is everywhere fading. But wise men took their signs and made them fit for Greek. Once the wise High Kings of Mycenae made sure it was used. But Mycenae is gone; her Lion Gate a ruin. All now forgotten except for Agamemnon, and him just for the pointless wars he fought.”
The old man sighed. “I looked once at the Phoenician system. It has far too few signs to show civilised speech: no more than a couple of dozen. I myself know all 193 signs of the Cretan system, but who nowadays will take the time to learn them? Young Homer would not. He says that he hears the words well enough, and replays the sounds in his head. That script would only confuse him.”
The old man sighed again. “These Phoenicians choose the leaders of their cities by voting, as if a city were no more than a war-band where allied kings must debate and decide. Well, that will never get a grip on Greece. We still know that cities must choose kings from the famous families that have at least a little of the blood of the gods.”
The small town acknowledged a king in a nearby city, but governed itself by Elders. It had never actually had voting and did not want it. Elders chose new Elders, and everyone talked until everyone was agreed, or at worst was tired of arguing against the majority. None of them claimed even a little of the blood of the famous gods, though one man’s grandmother claimed to have been raped by a satyr. Most people knew it was to explain a baby she’d had by an unknown man, but her family had been too powerful for it to be openly called a lie.
Regarding writing, they knew that if you learned the peculiar Phoenician markings, you could set down speech and let a stranger look at it to summon up the same words. But only two men knew the markings, useful for trade. No one had any use for it in common matters. Some priests said that using it for Divine Verse would be a blasphemy: that was a matter for priests and song-stitchers, who had vast memories for rituals and songs. But the townspeople had gradually realised that their song-stitcher had a memory that might not be so perfect. That he had several odd objects that he called scrolls, marked with the strange and ancient Cretan symbols. There, perhaps, were stored at least some of the songs he sung. It might be a blasphemy, but they had seen no ill-luck. Or none except for him quarrelling with young Homer.
Having lapsed into silence for a while, the old man grabbed his stick, got up and waved the stick at the sun, which was now almost set. “By the Mother and by her younger brother and husband the Thunderer, I call down and invoke…” The man trailed off, looking confused. “I call down and invoke…” he repeated, but then fell forward flat on his face. Several people rushed to help him. The best of the town’s three doctors attended him. But said that he knew not the sickness, unless it was old age. And soon pronounced him dead.
“Well, do we burn or bury him?” asked one Elder. “Did he tell us how they do it in Crete?”
“Never did say much about his life there” replied another. “Let’s burn him, on a very high pyre and with the sacrifice of whatever animals we can spare. He was a great man once, which I find more real than his sad final decline. Burn his body.”
“Burn his scrolls with him, just in case the gods are offended by them” said a third. There were nods of agreement. Then the Elder who had spoken first said “and do we now try to get another song-stitcher? Or just wait till one turns up?”
“Is there one who’d come to our small town?”
“Assuredly. Young Homer, who we know already. I liked him and have asked after him. A merchant told me he is in the citadel of a small king some way away. But might be glad to leave, because a powerful priest there does not like the way he is changing the Tragedy of Troy. Is offended by the extra deeds given to gods and goddesses, not all of them flattering.”
“Could be dangerous for young Homer. If they have a bad year, the priest might blame him and convince the king of it. So would he come?”
“We can ask. He may want to change more than he dare do there. The merchant likes songs, and didn’t care if they were true or not. Can’t sing better than a frog, but he makes up words very nicely. Between them, they have changed a lot more than our poor old song-stitcher was offended by. They’ve cooked up a much better ending for Troy than the one we know. I always felt it spoiled the tale, having the Greeks wait ten months and then swarm in and kill all after an earthquake cracked the walls. If it was Poseidon’s wrath against Troy, why didn’t he do it earlier?
“But there is another story from a different city that the merchant wants to use instead. An army besieged a strong city and then went away, but left behind a large wooden horse as an offering to Poseidon. The men of the city came out, took a look and thought it best to burn it, since it might carry a curse. Give Poseidon something else and something of greater value, so he’d not be angry. So they began gathering wood and pouring oil, but then the top of the horse opened and a frightened little fellow popped out.”
“A miracle? A man born of horse?”
“No, a fool who had hoped the horse would be taken into the city. That he could then come out at night and open the gate for the army, who were lurking nearby just in case. That he could wave a torch to signal them.”
“He thought that the men of the city would have built a wall, but not keep a watch on the gate at night?”
“Of course there was a guard. Maybe he thought he could overpower them, though I doubt it would work with even half-decent guards. It was foolish, and the men of the city fell about laughing. Pardoned the man who had tried to get them all killed, though of course he was made a slave. But well treated, because they see him as clown.”
They all laughed at that. But then one said “But Troy did fall. Will young Homer have the wise King Priam fall for such a simple trick?”
“He has some coils of story still to devise. I think he plans to make the horse bigger: too big to bring in without breaking a gate.”
“Taking it even further from the true tale.”
“Does that matter? If it entertains, if it teaches the young to do the right thing, need it be true? Are the songs we know always true?”
There were nods of agreement. But then the oldest Elder said “We must also stop calling him ‘young Homer’. We tell him to make himself look older. That he must act seriously when seen by the common people. He can jest with we Elders as much as he likes, but not in public. And he must act as if he were born blind. Or has gone blind since he last lived here.”
“Why? Only the children believed the old fellow was really blind.”
“Yes, but the young and the women think it proper. They believe that gods and spirits watch their every action, and so live better lives and lie less than they otherwise would. We Elders know that the gods are mostly busy and neglectful, and can be bribed to overlook almost anything. But we have the most to lose. We must not confuse them.”
“True. Yes, let young Homer – let the distinguished rhapsodist Homer play with words as he pleases. His work might even become famous beyond this little town of ours”
And so it was. The little town was later destroyed and forgotten. But the words of ‘young Homer’ were to last beyond all measure.
Troy was a real place, but the standard picture from archaeology does not fit Homer:
- Troy was a very old settlement, and not Greek. Perhaps became a western extension of the Hittite Empire. Or an unknown people with a loose allegiance to them.
- Tory also traded with the Mycenaean Greeks, whose High Kings sometimes had Great King status. One Trojan king had the part-Greek name Priam Alexandros, suggesting intermarriage. Maybe a mix of trade and war with the many rival Greek cities.
- Troy VI was as rich and powerful as Homer shows: the city’s high point. It existed in the right era, but was destroyed by an earthquake, not warfare.
- Troy VIIa was a shadow of Troy VI. It was eventually sacked and burnt, perhaps by the enigmatic Sea People. Many Greek cities were also destroyed in this period. Some, including Agamemnon’s Mycenae, were never rebuilt.
- Troy became an unimportant Greek city. But they remembered it as the setting of Homer’s epic.
If this is right – there are many disputes – then my imagined Tragedy of Troy was also not the historic truth. If Priam existed, he ruled the weak and impoverished Troy VIIa.
Interestingly, Greek legend has general ruin for the Greeks after the fall of Troy. Perhaps a hazy memory of the fall of Late Bronze Age civilisation.
As for writing: early Greeks wrote in Linear B, adapted from the older and undeciphered Linear A. Later Greeks got the alphabet and probably the idea of republican government from the Phoenicians.
See Priam’s Tragedy and the Wrath of Achilles for more on the history behind this fiction.
Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.
The story first appeared in an anthology called Stories to Make You Smile, published by the Coventry Writers Group.