SAILING HOMER’S BALTIC
“OR IS THIS ALL HALLUCINATION?”
1. FACT AND FICTION
Fact and fiction are always morphing into each other, and that can be both beautiful and dangerous. It is beautiful that we are free to imagine whatever fictions we wish. On hearing any archetypal plot, how lovely that we can make it our own by imagining it in settings familiar to us. But it is dangerous that we are so good at believing what we want to believe. On hearing any controversial theory, how suspicious it is that we know instantly whether we want it to be true. And, particularly in the information age, it is hard indeed not just to go out and muster lots of facts and claims by lots of experts, for a theory or against it, just to confirm our original gut desire.
For an instance of fiction, take the plot of the Odyssey. Our first exposure to it might be in the Never Never Land of a child’s book of myths. Later we learn that it is set in Greece and Turkey, with some episodes of Odysseus’ weirder wanderings maybe assignable to Sicily and southern Italy. Still later we learn that a handful of experts on ‘Indo-European Studies’ can reconstruct proto-plots about resourceful wandering heroes, and the noble wives they are separated from, as far southeast as India and as far southwest as Ireland—all spread by the same mysterious ‘Indo-European migrations’. Finally, we read James Joyce’s Ulysses and are enormously refreshed to realize that, with a cunning enough imagination, you can relocate the archetypes of the Odyssey’s plot wherever you like. You can arrange for them to be coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Whatever the original facts were, they have now morphed back into unabashed fictions.
For an instance of fact, take global warming. For years now we have been hearing about a dangerous warming of the earth and, ever-increasingly, about evidence that it is principally caused by human activity, is ‘anthropogenic’. Heated disagreements you and I might have over whether the warming is in fact happening, or— even more heated— whether it is anthropogenic, rarely get aired for long without one of us invoking ‘scientific consensus’ to silence the other. Alas, this move elides the fact that not even a consensus of scientists demonstrates that something is true, as shown by all the consensuses defied by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Darwin. My disagreement with you also will rarely proceed long without one or the other of us insisting that the data are still vastly too complex for reliable extrapolation. And which ever side you or I want to believe, both of us are only a few websites and list-serves away from busy and passionate people amassing vastly complex databanks, culled from peer-reviewed scientific journals, giving evidence that our position has much to be said for it.
This June and July I had the most powerfully beautiful trip in my 60 years so far. I moved around among five countries bordering the Baltic and the North Sea, part of the time sailing with five students, part of it alone, part of it in the company of the Italian author of a perfect example of the kind of controversial theory I have just instanced. Discussion of Felice Vinci’s theory is just heating up now because within the last year his book, published in Italian in 199, has made its debuts in Russian and English translations. My project, originated in fact by my students, was to document and promote the theory in a way that would lead to full-scale scientific efforts to confirm or falsify it. In the course of so doing we met an abundance of people who instantly gave signs of wanting it to be true, from taxi drivers to the Director of the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg.
Vinci’s theory is about the northern origin of plots and sites and routes we now read about in the texts of Homer. His elegantly simple Italian title Omero nel Baltico has been rendered in English as The Baltic Origin of Homer’s Epic Tales (Inner Tradition Press, 2006). The theory is in fact nothing more than the combining of a set of assumptions mainstreamed long ago. There is a mainstream ‘consensus’ that proto-Indo-European peoples once lived further north and subsequently, at timeframes and on routes and for reasons about which there is no consensus, migrated south and took with them their gods, myths, epics, tropes, meters and social systems. There is also a long-standing mainstream consensus among climatologists that 4500 years ago the planet as a whole was 4 degrees Celsius warmer, the so-called Post-Glacial Climatic Optimum, a phenomenon of greater interest than ever to us as we watch the planet heat up again and wonder why. Finally, there is much evidence in many cultures of what Vinci calls ‘homotopes’, placenames from an old homeland remapped by settlers onto a new one. New Yorkers, for instance, live in a state enriched by cities names Troy, Ithaka, Syracuse, Utica, Carthage, and Rome. Scholars of the Navajo all agree that only a few hundred years before Columbus they swept down from a homeland further north and remapped their sacred epic onto their present Four Corners region, butte by butte and sacred mountain by sacred mountain, scene after scene from the defining story of how the War Brothers rid the land of monsters. Scholars of the most ancient Hindu text, the Rig Veda, agree that there is nothing in it that fixes its origins specifically to the Indian subcontinent, and that might very well have been imported from further north and west; conjectures range from Afghanistan to the Russian Steppes to the Arctic Circle. (Recent movements among ‘native Indian’ scholars have rejected this consensus; they clearly would prefer to believe it to be true that their founding texts were autochtonous.)
Vinci puts these consensuses together to solve the puzzle, about whose existence there is also a long-term consensus among classicists, that passage after passage in the text of Homer does not accurately describe the eastern Mediterranean Greek and Turkish sites that traditions many centuries old ascribe to them. He argues, in fine-grained detail, that the Homeric epics contain a lot more information than we ever thought about an earlier Indo-European enactment in the Baltic, before the climatic downturn from 2500 to 1600 B.C. made some of the Baltic proto-Greeks move south to a new homeland in the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the Indo-European migrants ended up far inland and dropped their nautical lore and myths. Those who persisted to the eastern Mediterranean may well have stopped there because they found it remarkably similar, in landscape and seascape, to their old homeland in the Baltic— just as many a Swede and Norwegian and Finn has stopped in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Upper Michigan. Vinci’s book contains over 300 homotopes, the vowels and consonants of the Homeric place names linguistically close or identical to present-day place names, of unknown antiquity, all around the Baltic. And unlike our congeries of city names in New York State, his 300-odd homotopes form a set, each in relation to the other, geographically and topographically, as spelled out in Homer.
My students and I set out not to prove Vinci’s theory definitely—that we leave to archaeologists and linguists—but to document it and imagine it. And so for two months there was no escaping a sustained meditation on these uncanny morphing powers both fact and fiction possess. If Vinci’s account of Homer’s Baltic origins is established as fact, we will all be invited to imagine the Iliad and Odyssey afresh in a new seascape which, when it was warmer by 4 degrees Celsius, must have been almost paradisal in its beauty. And I and my students will have been among the first to witness yet another testimony to the prodigious powers which peoples on the move have of taking their old portable stories with them with them and remapping them cogently onto new places. If Vinci’s account is falsified—and I told my students this, by way of a pep talk—then we will have spent our summer in a prodigious exercise of the imagination, right up there with Joyce’s Ulysses. We sailed through a dreamscape and a mythscape, and just like Joyce we took a Mediterranean Greek story and remapped it, in enormous and cunning detail, onto a northern setting.
2. THE V-TEAM
We called ourselves the V-TEAM. This flashy name we collectively acronymized into existence last March after one of the students, Sophia Friedson-Ridenour, got a grant launched our project. We decided to call it the Vinci Team for EpicAncestor Mapping: our team was mapping the northern locations of the epics ancestral to the Mediterranean ones, and at the same time it was using epics to find the origins of our Western ancestors on the map. We further denominated ourselves V-TEAM ‘06 (check us out at http://vteam06.googlepages.com), because we knew that with only three weeks we could visit only a fraction of the places Vinci’s theory was summoning us too. The idea of V-TEAMs ’07 and ‘08 kept us going. V-TEAM ’06 set itself the modest goal of resailing the routes of the Greek expedition, from its gathering at the Bay of Aulis to its landing near Troy. That meant, on Vinci’s account, sailing from Norrtaljë, a day’s sail north of Stockholm to Toija, 100 kilometers west of Stockholm. A much more ambitious V-TEAM ’07 would then retrace the Odyssey by sailing from an archipelago in southern Denmark as far northwest as the Faroe Islands and as far Northeast as the White Sea in Russia, near Murmansk. A grand concluding V-TEAM ’08 would then retrace the route of the Baltic prot0-Greeks’ migration south, which Vinci suggests was most likely just the classic route taken so many times later in the Dark and Middle Ages by one northern people after another, most notably the Vikings, invading or trading. V-TEAM ‘08 would sail to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, where St. Petersburg sits, thence to Lakes Ladoga and Onega to the east of it, from there to the headwaters of the Dnieper, which took the Vikings down through Ukraine to the Black Sea, and thence by the Dardanelles to the eastern Mediterranean archipelago of Greece.
We lost no time in further fundraising for ‘06, in designing a website, and—essential— having a V-TEAM T-shirt printed (check out our logo on these pages and the explanation of it in the website: the chariot and charioteer on the right is Mycenean Greek, the one of the left almost identical to it is Bronze Age Swedish). Once we had a T-shirt, of course, it was clear that we could carry extras of it in all sizes and, as appropriate, confer them upon new friends and donors for the sake of solemnly making them honorary members of the V-TEAM. The first actually to receive this honor was the obvious choice— Jonas Forsell, the skipper who came with the boat we chartered. Jonas, a Stockholmer, was fresh from the Swedish Navy. At 22 he was the baby, since the other four Bardian youths were all 23. And at 6’3” this baby dwarfed us all. He was calm, rational, friendly, articulat. As a skipper all day he was as sober as we could wish, and when we had found harbor at the end of the say and brought out many flavors of Schnapps, he expatiated upon the ingredients of each, served them up with his expert renderings of traditional accompanying Swedish dishes, and sang us sample verses traditionally sung with each. (Riddle: “What is the difference between an alcoholic and a student?” Solution: “A student sings before he drinks!”) As a calm rational Swede and a recently enrolled chemistry major at the Royal Institute of Technology, Jonas, on first having Vinci’s theory expounded to him, smiled tactfully and said he reserved the right to be skeptical. I told him I wouldn’t want it any other way. He described himself as “practically born on a boat”, and proved invaluable as we navigated his beloved Swedish archipelagos and I grilled him on the root meaning in Swedish of the name of hundreds of islands and cities.
The second and most significant recipient of the V-TEAM’s T-shirt was Felice Vinci, whom the students from the beginning couldn’t resist lovingly denominating ‘the V-man himself”. Vinci, with his wife Pina and a German friend Karin Wagner, arranged to show up on July 1 when we brought our boat, the Trinity, safely back to harbor after three weeks sailing to Troy/Toija and back. I had read Vinci’s book in 2001, had corresponded with him encouragingly, met him and Pina for lunch in New York September 2005, blurbed his book (full disclosure here) when it appeared January 2006, and generally backed-and-forthed by email for a long time. He had from the beginning, on email, made clear that he was not happy with his command of English, and so, since I likewise read Italian better than I wrote it, I insisted that he write me in Italian and I write back in English. His first letter in Italian in 2001 decorously began “Illustre Professore”. When I emailed him to unveil Soph’s grant and the nascent V-TEAM he wrote back “Carissimo Bill!” He and his wife are both cultivated and impeccably dressed Romans, unfailingly courteous and genial. I cannot get out of my head when I think of him some archetypal well-dressed and smiling man reappearing every so often on the pages of Wallace Stevens. It was quite a moment when the V-TEAM invited the Vinci’s and Karin Wagner on board our boat, presented him with the T-shirt, and photographed ‘the V-man himself’, clad smiling and proud in his new honorary garb. (And yes, it is not impossible that Vinci is related to the famous Leonardo from the town of that name near Florence, since Felice’s ancestors came to Sicily from Tuscany and commonly adopted as their last name their Tuscan town or origin.)
Now allow me to introduce the core members of the V-TEAM, what Homeric Greek would call your philoi hetairoi, your beloved comrades-at-arms, the buddies you love to death under the stress of travel and battle,. What, Homer would sing, was the beginning point of this great tale? It was when, one day last February Sophia Friedson-Ridenour, Bard College ’05, got a grant from the Armin E. Elsaessser Fellowship through the SEA Semester at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, for her proposed project “Investigating a Baltic Homer”. Soph, as we all called her, instantly told her boyfriend Dane Klinger, BA/MS from Bard ’06, a student I had been friends with since he showed up as a freshman at Bard the fall of 9/11 and participated eloquently in a Joint Seminar I had arranged with West Point on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (just as we were invading Afghanistan). Soph and Dane were both experienced sailors, and together they immediately called another close friend, John Hambley, Bard ’06, who had done more sailing than either of them, and wanted a spell of light-hearted adventure before reporting to the Marines. And once we chartered our 37-foot motorized sailing boat we realized we had room for one more buddy, and we all instantly agreed in summoning to the adventure Caleb Morfit, Bard ’05, John’s boyhood friend from Portland, Maine, and, as my personal trainer his senior year at Bard. All three young men had been close friends of mine over the last five years at Bard, and when I was introduced to Soph I felt like she was a sweet, bright, and very together niece I just happened never to have met before. (I should add that though I am a Professor of Classical Studies at Bard none of these students were Classics majors. I had Dane in a course on “Rhetoric and Public Speaking”, John in “Confucius and Socrates”, the other two not at all. We were friends in the way professors and students can easily become friends, outside of class and over four years, in a small liberal arts college community.)
Surface resumé descriptions are never enough. It is one thing to describe Soph as as Bard Trustee Leader Scholar who spent part of her senior year in Ghana building schoolhouses. It is another to remember her as a quiet meticulous conceptualizer of our whole trip, from the tiniest detail of finance to the phrasing of our daily blog at the highest scholarly and personal level. It is one thing to describe Dane as fresh from his Bard Master of Science in Environmental Policy, bursting with ambition to make his expert grasp of ecosystems mesh with whatever policy or research job can make his eco-idealism most effective. It is another to remember him as the perfect modern instance of an astute young Norseman—his head and beard xanthos, Homer’s word for hair ranging from blond to reddish, which the bard uses of both Achilles and Odysseus— and inside that head a Telemachus ripening into an Odysseus, pepnumenos, ‘always with his wits about him’, always silently sizing up the situation as we came to yet another harbor or town. Dane and Soph slept together in the prow cabin, togther the movers and shakers of our sailing and our project. It is they, bless them, who from the beginning told me, a complete non-sailor, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger, just read them Homer and explain what we were looking for.
It is one thing to remember Caleb as a Sociology major and an emerging professional psychotherapist or psychology researcher. It is another to remember him as a young man who combined perfect physical fitness with modesty, decency, and always a readiness to listen to you. Add to that a high-spiritedness, usually kept subdued, that would occasionally make him the first to go to the local disco and dance till 6 AM, in the company of probably more adoring young women than he could handle. When that high-spiritedness surfaced he would flash an enormous smile that palpably made everyone else present just happy to behold it. It is one thing to describe John, Caleb’ boyhood friend from Portland, Maine as a Political Studies major, fluent in Arabic and fresh from a Senior Project on Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism—a staunch Democrat, who had cleared all the tests in Marine Officers Candidate School, including Intelligence activities, and was due to report for duty sometime before April 2007. It is another to remember Johnnie Boy, as we all called him, as the highest spirited of us all, non-stop, and the most purebred and passionate sailor, always leaping up to the lines with an exhortation to the rest of us, delivered in one of about ten distinct accents he could mimic from Great Britain or the British Commonwealth: “To it, lads!”, “About, mates!” By the end of our sailing I had not only cast Dane as an older Telemachus but Johnnie Boy as Patroclus himself, whom all his mates love as the kind guy with the “buoyant heart”, as Robert Fitzgerald translates menos eu, the phrase by which Achilles remembers the dearest of all his mates after his death. Johnnie Boy and Caleb slept like brothers on the sofas on either side of the galley amidships. (In the two cabins aft slept Jonas and myself respectively.)
When Dane and John and Caleb went into full youthful male-bonding mode, the ship would seem to be propelled forwards by peals of laughter, for what seemed hours. Soph as the only woman, Jonas as the only Swede, I as the only old guy, were always being lifted up by the three bosom friends. Sometimes the Trinity seemed to be lifted up too.
3. HOMERIC DESTINATIONS
Before we even boarded ship we were treated to the finest of Swedish hospitality, in the person of Rolf Classon, a publisher who was keen to get Vinci’s book translated into Swedish and Norwegian, possibly also Finnish and Danish. Rolf summed up, better than anyone other Scandinavian I met, the reason why Scandinavians are bound to want Vinci’s theory to be true: “We Swedes thought we had 2000 years of history, now we’re being told we have 4000.” He rented a van and took us on a long day’s drive northwest of Stockholm so that we could seek out Bronze Age rock carvings in obscure locations, crucial to the archaeological component of Vinci’s case. One carving was so obscure that we got lost on a dirt road and had to ask a farmer to come over from the middle to his field and help us out. The farmer told the urbane Rolf, in a country Swedish dialect, that, yes, he lived next to one of those carvings himself, just had never bothered to figure out what it was all about. The carvings’ favorite theme is men in ships, sometimes with heroes on them, sometimes with the disc of the sun on the ship, as in ancient Egyptian iconography. The sun or perhaps some other celestial body.
I had expected, frankly, that my three weeks’ sailing with the V-TEAM would make a great story later but that it would be pretty much unrelieved physical misery at the time. Though I try for a bluff Hemingway exterior, I feel inside much closer to Proust. I am highly susceptible to seasickness even in the largest of luxury cruisers. And surely the weather in June would be gray, misty, rainy, bone-piercingly damp, and the wind would strip my body heat right off and exhaust me from the start. In the event, the opposite was the case. The state-of-the-art transdermal patch behind my right ear magically made me seasick not a single moment in two months. I bought a gorgeous Norwegian sweater, and the generous Johnnie Boy brought me a redoubtable state-of-the-art gortex jacket for the final layer of wind resistance. It rained only two days in our three weeks, each, conveniently, the day after a perfect peak day, hence each a day at which all that was scheduled was sailing back towards Stockholm.
As a classicist who has feasted his eyes countless times over four decades on the beauty of this or that Mediterranean landscape or seascape, I found myself, to my amazement, formulating a shocking heresy in these luminous June weeks, namely, that on its best summer days the Baltic is more beautiful than the Mediterranean can ever be. It is more fertile. Its summer flowers are deepened by the incessant daylight to much more intense hues of blue and red and yellow. It has hundreds of times more islands and islets and skerries than the Mediterranean. These range from sheer sensuous stone to fairy- tale forests interspersed with meadows, whose green grasses, and riot of flowers, and shadowy entrances to the forest, combine to make you alert for signs of Norse elves and willies or, if you’r clued in, of Greek dryads and hamadryads. Our very first night after departing Stockholm, Jonas found for us a tiny deserted island known to him from a childhood in the Stockholm Archipelago, what the Swedes call “the Garden of the Sea”. We pitched anchor alone in the small bay, then around 10 PM rambled excitedly in the white night through several such island meadows. We were restrained only by Jonas’ prudent military discipline from breaking the law by building a fire and dancing around it.
In this stretch of the Baltic we were sailing, mostly the archipelago of Aland between Stockholm and Helsinki, you are rarely on open sea, and your eye is unremittingly engaged with the immense jigsaw puzzle or kaleidoscope the archipelago is presenting you with. How the first Baltic sailors collectively named these literally hundreds of thousands of islands, and how they circulated the names among themselves as a complete system, was a puzzle my mind kept worrying like a bone. Except when, as was the case a great deal of the time, my mind and its verbalizations shut down altogether, and my eye simply yielded to the light, the sparkling, the distances, the seamarks— all those things the Greeks, already in their earliest Homeric poetry, assigned to the domain of the perfectly fit young god they called Apollo: “You delight in all mountain lookouts, in the sharp peaks/ of high hills, and in rivers flowing seawards,/ and in coasts sloping down to the sea, and in sea-havens.”
Our first ‘Homeric’ destination was Norttälje, Vinci’s candidate for the Bay of Aulis at which the ‘thousand ships’ of the Greek contingents were assembled, and from which, when the bad weather relented and good winds finally prevailed, they launched themselves east to take Troy. Classicists are well aware that that the Aulis on the Greek Mediterranean consists of two small coves much too small to contain the large number of ships assembling for Troy, in fact closer to twelve hundred as reckoned in the text of the Iliad’s famous ‘Catalogue of Ships’. These classicists should come and see Norttälje, about ten miles long east to west and quite narrow north to south, providing mile after mile of sheltered harbors along the east-west axis, like a cathedral nave with a long suite of semi-circular apses on each side. It was easy to imagine, in each grassy, forest-fringed apse, a different fleet and camp of the 29 contingents listed in the Catalogue. (One of the great tour-de-forces of Omero nel Baltico is the stark contrast Vinci establishes between the way the candidate eastern Mediterranean Greek cities in the Catalogue are presented, in a sequence that much of the time jumps randomly over the map, with the way his 29 Baltic homotopes proceed, in a perfect counter-clockwise sequence, most of them homotopic with contemporary Scandinavian names in which are nested the same basic sequence of consonants and vowels as in the place-names in the Homeric text.) It was easy to imagine Agamemnon, king of kings, camping in some prime location, at the entrance or the innermost harbor of the bay, grand and pompous and harried into desperation by the foul weather. For Vinci that foul weather marks the first phase of the climatic downturn form the Post-Glacial Optimum that later drove hordes of Baltic proto-Greeks to abandon the Baltic altogether in search of warmer homelands for themselves in the south. What are the Iliad and the Odyssey, in fact, if not long stories about foul weather?
Our second destination was Lemland, Vinci’s candidate for Lemnos. The initial LEM- identical in these two homotopic islands is cognate with ‘lame’ and ‘limp’, a concept which was taking on an escalating poignance for me because a week before leaving for our tightly-scheduled trip I started have a pain whenever I placed my right heel on the ground in the course of a normal stride. In the end— three months later, after my trip was over and just about when it had healed on its own— it was diagnosed as a fracture in the heel bone. This pain sapped my entire two months in Scandinavia, and midway reduced me to buying a cane and asking for a wheelchair in every museum I visited. The beauty of it was that it put my mind into overdrive, on arriving at this LEM- island, pondering its archetypes of lameness. This was the place where the lame archer-hero Philoktetes was dumped for nine years (on the counsel of Odysseus) because his heel wound from the bite of a sacred snake made his howling and stench ‘pollute’ the Greek expedition. This was the place where the lame smith god Hephaistos was dumped by his mother Hera and her husbandt, in disgust at his deformity; in Milton’s words he was
thrown by angry Jove
Sheer o'er the crystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer's day, and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith, like a falling star,
Ancient Greek smiths were commonly lame, a defect that proves an advantage for that profession: to be a smith you don’t need to walk, just stand at the forge all day, and the upper body muscles you develop in compensation are just what you need for the grueling forge work. Evidence exists to suggest that some boys were actually lamed in their childhood, by way of predestinating them for the smith profession, as likewise others were blinded, to make them grow up to be blind bards like Demodocus in the Odyssey— on the well-known analogue practice of blinding song birds to make them sing more sweetly. All very shocking, until you consider that there were still castrati singing in early 20th century Europe.
Nor was the lame smith merely a grunting workman. Vinci assembles evidence of lameness as a trait of Arctic Eurasian shamans, and combines this with evidence in both north and south—the smith cult of the Finnish Kalevala, the Kabeiroi in Mediterranean Greece— that smiths, like masons, organized themselves in guilds in which they passed on esoteric knowledge of the cosmos. This ‘cosmic’ knowledge may well, he argues, have to do with the meteoric origin of iron. Whatever men were bold enough to first look undaunted on a newly fallen meteorite, molten and glowing, and to approach it and ‘tame’ it and learn to reproduce it, in glowing furnaces whose metals were brought by his assistants over many days to a divine incandescence— such men, who thus gave their societies the weapons of war and hence of triumph, might well have lorded it over other men, and triumphed themselves, in their lameness and their superior cunning, over those who depended on them for kettle and breastpiece, sword and helmet. One thinks of Edmund Wilson’s essay, “The Wound and the Bow”, in which he takes Philoktetes’ wound, which pollutes him, and his bow, which wins him glory because in the end it is essential if the Greeks are to triumph over Troy, and makes these two opposites into metaphors for the artist who fashions out of his own psychic wounds the work by which he will triumph over time and society. This is Yeats’ “Only an aching art/ Can make a changeless work of art”. This is Joyce’s shy, near-sighted Stephen Daedalus vowing “to forge upon the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”. And here I was, on Lemnos, limping, lame with the best of them. Who would not be half in love with lameness in such a place? Or in any of the places nearby with ‘smith names’, as Vinci points out: Hammerland, Hammaruddda, Lumparland.
Lemnos, or rather the tiny island just off of it at which we decided to harbor, turned out to be yet another rock- and forest- and meadow-haunted isle, just like the one Jonas found for us on our first night out. But with one difference: one of the three or four wooden structures on the island was a sauna, which one could reserve for one’s own group. We reserved it for 10 PM, and set out for it in another long gloaming along the shore. Inside we found birch branches, and took turns in ecstatic self-flagellation with plenty of horseplay. Naturally the lads, with Jonas now as ringleader, could not resist running straight from the sauna to an icy midnight Baltic plunge, while Soph and I contented ourselves sagely with the distant music of their hollering. We were now, in fact, in the archipelago of Aland, technically part of Sweden but with its own flag and its own sense of inalienable independence. That night’s sauna was followed by drinking deep of Finnish vodka, whose toxins we purged the next morning, as good Finns do, by another long sauna before breakfast.
Our third Homeric destination was Ordnalsklint, the highest ‘mountain’ in Aland. Mountain is a relative term. At all of 423 feet high, this mountain still rises high enough to take you almost literally within view of Troy, or at least the ‘Troad’, as the Achaeans called the geographical and cultural area that surrounded the imperial city. This view Vinci identifies with the view Poseidon commands from the top of Samothrace, name of his sacred island and also his sacred mountain west of the Troad, from which, after watching with anxiety the Trojans whomping his beloved Achaeans, he moves with three giant strides, from one cult place of his to another, till finally he can take his place up close near Troy. We climbed Ordnalsklint, passing a Bronze Age stone fortress on a side-ridge on the way up, and feasted our eyes on the literally hundreds of islets stretching toward the Finnish mainland. We photographed ourselves with Poseidon’s view behind us.
A few yards away was the cabin of a man famous in Aland for leading resistance to the Nazis, which had been made into a tiny two-room museum. Alone there, we megalonomiacally inscribed in the museum guest book the verses of the Iliad, in Greek, singing of Poseidon’s view and his great strides, along with a few words in English to the effect that “The V-TEAM was here”. Come and see that, posterity!
Our last destination west of the Finnish mainland was the most miraculously beautiful of all, Applö, a name Vinci associates with Apollo, in the middle of the stretch of almost open sea called Delet, which he associates with Delos, central island of Apollo’s cult. Its beauty was all the more moving because we decided, for the sake of our demanding schedule, just to sail past it, in the mid-afternoon, and not to stop and explore the by now familiar configurations on it of meadows radiant with flowers, forests beckoning behind them, headlands lambent in the angle of the light. In one sense Apollo’s sacred island, if such it was, seemed not so different, element by element, from all the many others we had seen and been moved by so far. But something was in the air for me, as I sat alone on the prow and let my imagination, fortified by the Vinci hypothesis, spellbind me minute by radiant minute, almost siren-like, as we sailed past.
Here indeed was the payoff for entertaining on my travels a theory which, if true, makes each sight astounding in a new way, and which, if false, nevertheless had the power to spirit me effortlessly into dreamscape and mythscape. The solstitial light, that blue mid-afternoon, seemed uncannily right on the contours of Apollo’s island, as we sailed between it and one after another islet or skerry fitted into the jigsaw puzzle with it. The white swans in the bays seemed veritably Apollo’s swans. As at Norttälje, harborage would have been there in abundance for hundred and hundreds of ships bringing folk from all quarters to celebrate the Delian festival, and the whole site seemed well chosen pragmatically as well as by whatever kind of divination went into the first shaman’s choice of it. And the same beauty I was spellbound by from the prow, looking at it through Vinci’s lens, somehow cast a spell on Jonas too as he stood at the stern steering, calm and sober as ever. Remember that Jonas, on first hearing from me, our first night in Stockholm together, about Vinci’s theory, politely claimed for himself the right to remain skeptical till he could see more evidence. Now Jonas and I were the only two on deck, the four Bardian young people being engaged in much needed napping below. And Jonas just could not prevent himself from calling down, in his fluent English, “Hey guys, come on up, this is really beautiful!” We all stood in silence and watched this putative sacred island of Apollo slide by in the perfection of the deepening afternoon light. We rejoiced in the god’s headlands and beaches. As in the first book of the Iliad, he seemed to be dispatching a favorable wind for us that made “a great violet wave sing aloud around the stem of the ship as it sped forward”.
A note on swans. They are Apollo’s bird because on the day of his birth some fifteen of them— perhaps the number of dancers in a Greek chorus— assembled and yoked themselves to a chariot and bore the wondrous babe straightway to the land of the Hyperboreans, that paradisally calm and spring-like realm ‘Beyond the North Wind’, where ever after the god of light and music and dance spends the winter months being feted by the happy folk there. It is the same kind of realm, in the Greek poets’ descriptions of it, that the preeminently virtuous heroes are privileged to inhabit after death, Achilles among them, the so-called Islands of the Blessed. Vinci, like others before him, adduces here the common cultural construct by which peoples hold in memory some lost Golden Age in the past— in Greek the age of Cronus, in Latin the age of Saturn— and then reserve as reward for the virtuous dead in the future a realm just like that peaceful springtime realm from the foretime. Vinci’s addition is simply to remind us that for peoples dwelling in the far north during the Post Glacial Climatic Optimum— remember, the planet on average was four degrees Celsius warmer, and you could have sailed from northernmost Norway to northernmost Canada with hardly an ice cap to bar your way— there had indeed been a Golden Age which was subsequently lost. The paradisal meadow flowers we were gazing at during this summer solstice would have been blossoming for them, perhaps, in March, as soon as days equaled nights in length (and for Pindar the Islands of the Blessed are fixed in a perpetual vernal equinox). What wonder that according to their descendants the god of light, on the day of his birth, late born in the harsher new age of Zeus, was whisked by white swans back north to a place and time, a mythscape, beyond the reach of the chill north wind.
Sailing replete with my Greek swan lore, I couldn’t take my eyes off each swan I saw, from the first one I spied alone our first day of sailing, to the serene pair I spotted our last evening before returning to Stockholm, drifting across the red twilight which was being reflected from one end to the other of the cove where Jonas had cast anchor. “Passion or conquest, wander where they will,/ Attend upon them still./ But now they drift on the still waters,/ Mysterious, beautiful…” Yeats wrote those lines looking at the lake in Coole Park in western Ireland, about which he said to another poet: ''I've always thought this is the most beautiful place in the world.'' Swans are of course famous in northern lore, and, like geese and cranes, much more in evidence than in the Mediterranean. The Baltic swan became for me the signature, everywhere, that Vinci was right. Not only because they are so omnipresent and celebrated in northern lore, but also because, right next to Apollo’s cult altar on the island of Delos in the Cyclades, is an altar to the two Hyperborean Maidens, who, like swans, unambiguously associate the origins of at least one Greek god with the Far North.
Or, maybe not. Sometimes a white swan is just a white swan is just a white swan. Enough to spend a blue June looking at them, drifting on the nightless waters, ‘mysterious, beautiful’.
4. THE TROAD
As we moved towards the solstice we moved towards Troy.
Vinci’s chronology of the original Trojan War, as described in the Iliad, takes meticulous account of the well-calibrated fact that the landmass of the countries around the Baltic began an uplift several thousand years ago and is currently rising at the rate of sixteen inches per century. The ‘hypostatic’ geological forces causing this have rendered into land, mostly fertile fields, what before was bay and inlet and waterway. Once we were docked at Hangö, about 35 miles south of our ultimate destination of Toija, our ‘true Troy’, we began training our eyes, as we drove north, to distinguish the flat and fertile fields that had formerly been inlets from the steep and stony ridges that would have been looming up over them at the time of the arrival of the Greek expedition. We thus had a double re-imagining to do at every point: seeing landscape as seascape, and feeling the whole environment considerably warmer and lusher.
For Vinci these ridges looking out over inlets and sea provide a crucial point at which already excavated archaeological sites speak in support of his thesis. We went straight to one of these, Perniö. A short steep climb through dense green forest took us to a ridge-top series of tumuli, barrows of heaped stone, which archaeologists agree were reserved only for the pre-eminent— great aristocrats, warriors, chiefs— in a timeframe stretching back from the Viking Age to the early Bronze Age. Northern and southern epic converge in setting forth the symbolism intended by these sitings: just as the mound on the ridge can be seen by those far off at sea, so the fame of the hero buried there will be seen by those far off in future ages. Hector imagines such a mound for any hero courageous enough to die by man-to-man combat with him. At the end of the Odyssey the ghost of Agamemnon assures the ghost of Achilles that the Achaean spearmen had collected together the bones of Patroclus and Achilles himself and had (in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation)
heaped a tomb for these
upon a foreland over Helle’s waters,
to be a mark against the sky for voyagers
in this generation and those to come.
And in his last words Beowulf orders his troops (in Seamus Heaney’s translation)
to construct a barrow
on a headland on the coast, after my pyre has cooled.
It will loom on the horizon at Hronesness
and be a reminder among my people—
so that in coming times crews under sail
will call it Beowulf’s Barrow, as they steer
ships across the wide and shrouded waters.
Our hearts high, we lost no time in photographing one after another hero of the V-TEAM in front of one mound after another.
The destination which truly began to make our heroic hearts beat was Aijala, equivalent for Vinci to Aigialos, the Homeric word for beach or coast. Now almost ten miles inland, it would then have been the very beach on which the Greek fleet landed and camped.
Vinci had laid the basis for some extraordinary hospitality to greet our ‘landing’ in the ancient Troad. It was provided by a spirited Finnish woman, Jaana Shelby, a mover and shaker in local politics around Toija. She had been, quick already back in 1994, to recognize the importance for her community of the theory Vinci had just unveiled in a short essay in Italian which he called Homericus Nuncius, a learned Latin title by which he was invoking a supreme predecessor in the annals of Italian science, the Sidereus Nuncius in which Galileo first told the world of the strange things he could see through his telescope. Jaana had bought around twenty copies at the time, even though she was the only local who could read Italian. Suffice it to say that the locals were satisfied with her oral précis of it, and, familiarly enough, were inclined to believe it to be true because they wanted it to be true— wanted to find themselves living on some of the most storied real estate in Western history, not to mention forming the epicenter of a someday booming ‘Homeric Voyages’ tourist industry. To this end they soon orchestrated, in 1994, the first annual ‘Helen of Troy Beauty Contest’, one big-boned blonde contesting with another. I promised the lads of the V-TEAM, who since graduating from Bard were finally able to drop the taboo among undergraduates against talking about getting married, that I would not leave Toija without securing from Jaana Shelby a list of each year’s winter of the contest and an opportunity to meet at least some of them.
Typical of Jaana’s astuteness was the fact that she had reserved three canoes for the six of us, to spend the afternoon of our Day at Troy using the 9 km long lake between Aijala and Toija as the optimal platform for photographing the surrounding topography. In order to narrate our climactic day properly I will have to spell out this the elements of this topography in some detail.
The twin centerpieces of Vinci’s book are the perfect fit he establishes between topography surrounding Toija = Troy and Lyø = Ithaka. Whereas classicists have been pained for generations at the lack of fit between the Turkish Hisarlik and Homeric Troy and between the Mediterranean Ithaka and the Homeric, Vinci’s simply walks in and ‘aces’ it in both cases. As a scientist, he knows that that the more falsifiable a theory is the better it has been framed, and accordingly he has proposed, as ultimate tests, that the archaeologists’ spades be turned on to his candidate sites for the citadel of Troy and the palace of Odysseus. (Some professors at the University of Pavia are already trying to organize an international research team to test this theory archaeologically.) In both cases, significantly, there are already Bronze Age stone tumuli near both of his candidates sites. The next day we were able to photograph in the Helsinkin National Museum the impressive Bronze Age swords and other artifacts which Finnish farmers have been finding for centuries in places like the fields around Toija.
Even without another turn of the archaeologist’s spade, however, Vinci has a tight case in the perfect fit between the natural landscape features around Toija and every single line of the Iliad describing such features. It is important to begin by noting that the body of water on which we were to be doing our afternoon’s canoeing, Lake Kirrkoharvi, is the result of periodic freshwater flooding from the two rivers which converge into it, Kurkelanjoki = Scamander/Xanthos from the northeast, Mammalanjoki = Simois from the northwest. Unlike many of the plains we photographed in the last few days, which would have still been inlets in the Baltic 4000 years ago, and therefore saltwater, this plain is sufficiently high to have been part of the landmass even back then. And it would have been then, as it is now, susceptible to flooding, something Vinci points out could have formed the natural basis for the climactic battle scene in the Iliad in which Achilles provokes the wrath of the river Scamander by choking it with the bodies of Trojans he slays on his berserker rampage; in response Scamander berates him verbally and then actual floods the plain. The present lake covers the eastern half of what would have been the broad plain at the foot of the ridge on which Troy’s citadel was perched, and the western half of that plain is now a lovely quilt of fields of rye and other crops, soughing in the wind of the blousy blue day we visited it.
Our day proceeded by driving counterclockwise all around the lake. First we photographed the view down over the great plain from the now forested ridge where the citadel stood— the view Priam and Helen would have shared, when at his request she looks out over the plain and names for him of the Greek heroes assembled there (most of whom, including her husband Menelaus, are described by Homer as xanthos, blonde or redheaded). We then made our way to the west side of the northern stretch of the lake, where our canoes were waiting for us. Before getting to the shore we walked to a grove on the top of a hill from which we could look south for miles over everything, the fields, the lake, the ridge of Troy itself. The approach to this grove of deciduous trees trembling in the breeze consisted of grasses dotted with the most vividly colored flowers imaginable. We noted that Homer mentions two hills on the plain of troy, Batieia or ‘Thorn Hill’ and Kallikolone or ‘Beautiful Hill’. Thorn Hill awaited us as a headland we would be canoeing towards, jutting into the north end of the lake. Beauitufl Hill had actually several candidates; the one where we stood to look down over the plain of Troy certainly seemed beautiful enough.
When we got to the top of that, hill time stood still for a while in mid-afternoon. Each of us was lost in his or her historical meditation. That those events might have first happened here… That we were among the first to be looking at these fields through the Vincian telescope… That at his time of final glory before dying, during a solstitial “white night” this far north, Patroclus would fought right through this starless night (Vinci’s interpretation of the mysterious phrase amphiluke nux, literally “night with light on both side”.) That Hector killed Patroclus here, and Achilles Hector… That over this great plain at dawn Priam set out for the beach, Aigialos = Aijala, where he would find Achilles’ tent and be shown compassion by the berserker who had been at last, just before dying, restored to his humanity… Eventually these thoughts had to be stopped by the only sensible way to stop them: a group photo of the proud V-TEAM with the Beautiful Hill behind it.
We then went canoeing. It was as though a great burden had been taken off of us; the tension required to sustain a great drive had at last been released. Dane and Soph paddled off as lovers in their canoe, Jonas and Caleb (by now great friends) in theirs. John the marine and I the landlubber manned the third canoe, he generously providing the paddling energy, I simply adding a few strokes from time to time. I tried to get us to rise to the occasion by yoking the two canoes which contained Caleb and John and myself and recording a reading of Fitzgerald’s translation of the scene in which Achilles (Caleb) and the river Xanthos (Johnnie Boy) duked it out verbally, with myself as the presumably old and impartial Homeric narrator. Once this was over, and our photographs of Troy’s ridge from the lake had been taken, we simply abandoned ourselves to the deepening light and freshwater fragrance of the long solstice late afternoon. We stopped at a small island in the middle lake, another candidate for Beautiful Hill, and pretty soon Dane and John and Caleb were up to their usual hijinks horsing around in the water. We deserved our hijinks. We deserved to enjoy to the full what Henry James calls the most beautiful phrase in the English language, “summer afternoon”. We had made it this far.
5. PSYCHODYNAMICS OF THE RETURN TRIP
The next day we finally got into the big city, Helsinki, and photographed for our CD-rom the ornate Bronze Age swords and helmets found in Finland and lodged in the National Museum— proto-Mycenean in style, one proof among many, for those with eyes to see, that already in the early Bronze Age Scandinavia smiths were capable of highly refined and patterned art, like their Viking descendants. These objects struck us as altogether worthy of Homeric heroes.
We were also interviewed there by two journalists, one Italian and one Finnish, for one of the two principal Finnish dailies, Iltalehti. The Italian spent our two hours mainly getting to be pals with my students. The Finn asked me a number of rigorous questions, signs of a decent self-respecting skepticism. I sensed he was putting on a good professional mask to disguise the fact that he too, like every Scandinavian I had talked to so far, instinctively wanted to believe this theory because national pride made him want it to be true. The article appeared in the first issue after the Midsummer holiday, with the proud picture of the V-TEAM on the field of Troy, of Professori Mullen being interviewed in the esplanade at the heart of Helsinki, and of Achilles and Hector fighting to the kill on a Greek vase. Finnish is a non-Indo-European language and I can’t make head nor tail of the article on my own. A friend who read it summarized it as a neutral account of Vinci’s theory and the V-TEAM’s activities.
The return ten days from Helsinki to Stockholm inevitably had a sense of anti-climax that put us in something of a quandary. We tried to spend more time than ever on our daily blogs, worrying the larger implications of Vinci’s theory. I decided we need a shot in the arm of Bard College morale, so we sat on the deck for roughly the 80 minutes of a standard Bard seminar class and went around each answering such questions as “What has been the peak moment for you of this trip so far?” and “What is the Iliad really about?” The first day we sailed back west was one of only two in three weeks when it rained and we had rough waves to brave—a relief and a joy, actually, for the most nautically adept, Dane and Johnnie Boy, who, as Soph blogged it, “grinned as the drops dripped form their noses”. Nerves got frayed and one night we even allowed ourselves a knock-down drag-out political disagreement on whether the European Union on its own could ever put up a credible deterrent threat to Iran’s nuclear intentions, with me, the old guy, playing the heavy realist. “No hard feelings, I trust?”, Johnnie Boy ended it, with one of his best imitations of upper class Brits he had been pals with on the Maine sailing circuit. We all went up from the heated cabin to the cool deck, lifted a glass of wine, smiled, started surfing again on the great wave of our camaraderie. One of the islands on the way back was a party island with many a pub, and was hosting a regatta racing to Gottland. It was definitely time to blow off steam, and I went out with the young-un’s to Pub Number One and then left it to them to make their way through the other five or six of them and test their fortunes with the youth of Sweden before dawn.
As for my own psyche in this last stretch, I confess that in the last few days of our sailing it was harder than ever to be a team player. And that for the simple reason that I had been rereading the whole of the Iliad in Greek and was entering the great final tragic arc of it, from the death of Patroclus to Achilles’ compassionate restoration of the corpse of Patroclus’ killer to that killer’s aged father. At the end of each of these days, once we had secured harbor, I would simply abscond with my Greek text to some distant part of the island where I could be alone and read. At this point it was my Iliad, not Vinci’s, not my beloved master Fitzgerald’s, not Milton’s or Virgil’s or Athens’ or Alexandria’s, just mine. People attest to the same feeling in all deepest reading: it is now my Proust; I am alone with my beloved at last. The final night out, when Jonas had once again found us a tiny island known and beloved to him since boyhood, I set out again in the long gloaming through the woods and came out on a high rock on the far side. There I read the last book, Achilles and Priam together, while looking out, south, from about 9 to 11 PM, to yet another immense stretch of the archipelago’s jigsaw puzzle, one islet and skerry after another turning pink and red in the unending sunset. I ached, and was happy.
Utmost harmony had been restored by the memorable evening in which we docked once more in the quiet wealthy suburb of Sweden from which we had set off three weeks earlier. There we were welcomed by “the V-man himself”.
From the very first Vinci had, of course, been delighted at the plans of the V-TEAM, and soon arranged that his wife Pina and he, along with Karin Wagner, what the Germans call a “private scholar” and admirer of his work, would meet us when we came to harbor July 1. My students had put their rowdy undergraduate side far behind them and were quintessentially civilized young people, like Telemachus, charming their elders by considerate behavior. They had cleaned the boat till it was sparkling, had laid up fine Italian wines and cheeses, and had prepared a computer slide show of the very best of the more than a thousand digital photos they had taken. The lovely civilized Italians and German arrived, hugged us effusively, took many a photo of ourselves and the Trinity, came on board to sip wine. I took out my copy of Omero nel Baltico, the Italian original of Vinci’s book, and asked the author to trace with a red pen, on the many maps in its index, how many of the routes and sites of the Homeric epics he himself had traveled since his master idea overtook him in 1992. He had traced many sites near Troy in the Iliad, it turned out, and had made trips to Lyø, his candidate Ithaka, and to Stavanger, his candidate Phaeacia on the Southwest coast of Norway, but had never in fact been to any of the wilder and further flung sites of the adventures he posits for Odysseus, all the way out to the Shetland and the Faroe Islands and all the way up and around the northernmost point of Norway and beyond to the White Sea. Much work left to do for us all, it seemed. We gave the V-man the V-team’s T-shirt, and photographed him beaming and trying it on. Vinci was formally induced, at this moment, into the Vinci Team for Epic Ancestor Mapping.
An excellent restaurant, at it happened, was right next to our ship, a quiet place with a large outdoor terrace. We had reserved a table for nine, and there the Italian author and his wife (a neurologist and Kleinian psychotherapist), the German scholar, the Bard professor, the four 23 year-old American recent Bard grads, the 22 year-old Swedish captain of the ship, all ate and drank and toasted and let the the long dusk deepen. In a quiet voice Vinci, at my side, said, to me alone, “You know, if my theory is vindicated, this evening will be a historical moment.” I beamed and agreed. And abandoned myself to the blissfully ironic thought that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was participating in an historical moment hypothetically. Either the V-TEAM was Mullen’s Folly or it was a ship whose prow was at the cutting edge of Western scholarship. At this particular moment no one at our festive board could be positively sure which.
The next evening was my last with my four students. We chose a quiet Japanese restaurant, fitting our mood. Conversation was desultory. I started talking about the classes I would be giving in the fall, then realized that that could on y remind them that, while I had my secure tenured life at Bard to go back to, each of them had a career to start building. Indeed, apart from John, securely enlisted in the marines for the next three years, the rest of them had no definite jobs waiting for them at all, and when they flew back to the States they would have to hit the ground running and hustling and self-promoting. A spell of youthful happiness together was about to recede into memory.
Which didn’t prevent them from wanting to hit some major Stockholm party places in their last night together. I waived them goodbye from the sidewalk outside the restaurant. I told them that wherever I went I would always try to conduct myself worthily of the V-TEAM.
6. THE INNER CHAMBERS OF THE HERMITAGE
Vinci had been invited a while back, by Prof Kruglov, Curator of Ancient Sculpture at the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, to come visit him there. Kruglov had read Vinci’s book in the Russian translation which appeared in 2004 (and so beat the English translation to the draw by a year and a half). He wished Vinci to meet the formidable Prof. Piotrovsky himself, Director of the Hermitage, a kind of Philippe de Montebello Plus, not only director of one of the three or four greatest art museums of the West (for sheer scale, along with quality, its only rivals are the Metropolitan, the Louvre and the Prado) but also a highly visible culture czar in Russia at large. When he had accepted the invitation Vinci had decided to time his visit there so as to follow his welcome of the V-TEAM’s return to Stockholm, and had asked me to then accompany him and Pina from Stockholm to St. Petersburg and be part of this high-level meeting. From the point of view of poetic revery I have no doubt that my peak moment was on the field of Toija. From the point of view of practical progress in getting Vinci’s theory tested I have no doubt it was our meeting with Piotrovsky.
Joining us for the momentous morning at the Hermitage was my dear friend and colleague Prof. Tatiana Boborykina, with whom I had just finished team-teaching a semester long “Virtual Campus” course, “Rhetoric and Public Speaking”, between Bard College and its sister Smolny College, the first post-Soviet liberal arts college experiment, which Bard had planned and helped found shortly after 1989. Tatiana is a vivacious translator into Russian of the ‘wit and wisdom’ of Shaw and Wilde and Twain. Fortified by her virtuoso abilities as an interpreter, we felt confident that no linguistic detail, as among Italian and Russian and English, would escape the assembled company. Indeed, as Pina and Felice and I waited in the Hermitage’s corridors of power to meet Piotrovsky we actually spoke French with another, a practice we had agreed on when it was clear that both Vinci’s spoke French better than English and that I spoke French better than Italian; the agreement was a civilized way of leveling the linguistic playing field. Tatiana on joining us— in the entrance hall, we later learned, reserved for only the highest aristocrats under the czars— was at first mystified at this French babbling, but we all soon agreed it had excellent snob appeal for Russians remembering their glory days, when every other word at the great balls and soirées (as in Tolstoy) was in French.
Kruglov greeted us and ushered us from the entrance hall to the ante-ante-chamber of the Director. A gentle and polite and articulate younger man, he conversed with us in muted tones for a half hour until the great doors were opened. We were then ushered through a vast antechamber in which about six secretaries were busy at six desks, and finally into the Director’s yet vaster inner chamber, where a portrait of Catherine the Great smiled benignly down on us for the half hour of our meeting. As he moved to take his place at the end of a long conference table, Piotrovsky gestured to us to sit around it, and by a kind of collective instinct Tatiana sat on on his right and I on his left; Vinci then on my left and Pina on Tatiana’s right, husband and wife facing each other; finally Kruglov at the other end. We thus immediately secured, through Tatiana’s English and my Italian, a protective linguistic barrier between Pietrovsky, of whose English we had not yet taken the measure, and Vinci, the first to admit that his English is not what he would wish it to be. No linguistic nuance would escape us at this summit of cultural negotiation.
Piotrovsky was sporting his signature ascot, known throughout Russia via the media, of which he is said to be a very savvy orchestrator. His English turned out to be impeccable. He lost no time in showing that he understood how impressive Vinci’s argumentation was for his theory and at the same time how controversial it was bound and how extensive would be the testing necessary to validate it. He also lost no time in putting the question his position made it incumbent upon him to ask: “What is there in all this for St. Petersburg?” Vinci explained to him that the Greek and Trojan cultural worlds he reconstructs in the Baltic extend right across the three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (where he locates Achilles’ Phthia, a border country) to the eastern end of the Bay of Finland, hence to the site of St. Petersburg itself. I added two more reassurances that St. Petersburg’s location would make it a major player. First, Vinci’s book establishes about twelve overlaps between detailed elements of narrative in the Homeric epics and in the Kalevala, the so-called Finnish national epic collected in the 19th century by a proto-anthropologist, Elias Lönnrot, who moved around for years, often on snow-shoes, not only in what is now the territory of Finland but also in Karelian Russia and Estonia. Second, I pointed out that the route Vinci posits for the migration south of that subset of the Bronze Age Baltic peoples who eventually settled in the eastern Mediterranean was the same route south as later taken by many northern peoples, most famously the Vikings, and that it involved sailing first to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, i.e., the site on which Peter the Great would later impose Russia’s new capital in the classical style, and thence up the Neva to Lake Ladoga east of St. Petersburg, from which it is a short overland to the headwaters of the Dnieper, which will take you right down to the Black Sea and thence the Mediterranean. The Russians themselves have a phrase for this famous and repeated migration pattern, “the route of three seas”, Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean, or, if you go to the headwaters of the Volga rather than the Dnieper, then Baltic, Caspian, and Indian Gulf. In order to become the Greeks we all know, these Baltic proto-Greeks had to pass through proto-St. Petersburg.
Piotrovsky’s question, “What is in this for St. Petersburg?”, summed up, with the terseness one expects of a culture czar, the dynamic likely to play itself out as Vinci’s book gets translated, as is now being planned, into Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and German, all countries covered by the geographically proto-Greek territory it reconstructs (along with Poland and the three Baltic States). Given that these neighbors have, as neighbors all too often do, a long history of deadly rivalry and struggle to dominate each other, it is only natural that some hearty cultural rivalry will kick in again as scholars and culture czars in each country learn that Vinci’s theory is starting to be promoting by some other country first. In Finland I got the distinct impression from my savvy Finnish interviewer that there is nothing the Finns would like more than to scoop their condescending Indo-European neighbors to the west, not to mention their ancient imperial enemy and overlord to the East, and show that the speakers of this weird Finno-Ugric language were actually the first to be sharp enough to see what Vinci was onto. In Norway, likewise, more than one person to whom I spelled out Vinci’s work saw an opportunity to beat the Swedes to the draw and at last one-up this neighbor to whom it was always comparing itself and who seemed so infuriating uninterested in reciprocating the comparison. Tiny Denmark, of course, will not have forgotten that it used to reign over Norway and much of Sweden alike. And as for Germany— well, suffice it to say that Vinci’s encounter with the formidable tradition of German classical Wissenschaft will be a defining moment for both players.
As we wound down a harmonious half hour, Pietrovsky, urbane and at the same time reserved throughout, graciously asked what the Hermitage could do to help. Vinci said that his theory had been set up to be falsifiable or verifiable by excavation in a few key sites, principally Toija = Troy and Lyø = Ithaka, and that any help the Hermitage’s archaeological staff could give would be immensely appreciated. In consequence of this request, Prof. Kruglov at the Hermitage and Prof. Messiga at the Univ. of Pavia have started preliminary contacts directed towards reaching an agreement to undertake a research project comparing northern and southern finds from the Bronze Age and early Iron Age, involving in particular objects found in Russian kurgans (barrows heaped over burial chambers, a type of mound well known to have spread east, south, and west from the Russian steppes). Indeed, immediately after the meeting Kruglov and Vinci and I spent considerable time with vases and jewelry found in the Ukraine whose motifs were both distinctly Nordic and distinctly Mycenean. Real work began immediately after the meeting, and is now ongoing.
Vinci had the astuteness to seize the last few minutes to make one more point, in a kind of larger and more ideological response to Piotrovsky’s gracious offer to be of help, and this is the same point he chose to make in the original final paragraph of his book. No one aware of the cultural politics of the countries his theory covers can do anything but breathe a sigh of relief on learning that its author is Italian and not German—is from a Mediterranean country which stands to lose its association with the foundations of Homeric epic, not from a Nordic country which stands to gain by the new prestige of such association. And no one thus aware can refrain from a shudder at the thought of what the neo-Nazi skinheads waiting in the wings will make of this revelation that the original “culture-bearers” of the foundational Western epics came down from the pale cold north. A Russian dissident classicist, Vasily Rudich, who had fled the Soviet Union to Yale in the 60’s, spent about two hours warning me of this inevitable fallout the day before I left for my trip. He was not talking just about young skinheads, but about the cadre of intellectuals who trace their lineage back to René Guénon (the so-called “Hitler without tanks”), all those anti-Atlanticists, from France to Russia, for whom American-led globalization is the one and only enemy, to defeat whom one should be prepared to make pacts with the devil himself (i.e. Islamic fundamentalists in Europe). Rudich and I saw eye-to-eye on both aspects of the problem: first, that there was no way to prevent Vinci’s book from falling into their hands, and second, that we needed to preemptively prepare an answer to them.
Vinci’s own answer he places in his last paragraph, and what he said to Piotrovsky was a paraphrase of it: “Finally, this ‘rediscovery’ of Homer could foster a new cultural approach to the idea of European unity and could contribute to the birth of a new humanism in Western culture…” Nordic peoples began the Homeric tradition, Mediterranean peoples continued and refined it, until the two epics became the literary masterpieces committed to papyrus in the form we have received them. Some of these Northern peoples, moving through Russian territory, had themselves descended to the Mediterranean and intermarried with the locals; Vinci cites mainstream archaeologists’ frequent commentary on the presence in the same tomb of a dolicocephalic husband (the long thin skill typical of northern peoples—think Max von Sydow) and a round-skulled wife (the bachycephalic skull). One should further add that these vigorous hybrid Greeks then proceeded to intermingle with all the Levantine cultures from Assyria to Egypt. The famous Gilgamesh epic is well known for having fine-grained parallels to moments in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it exists in versions in the Indo-European language Hittite as well as the Semitic Akkadian and the mysterious sui generis Sumerian. A generous cultural reading of the dynamic Greek miracle would say that it came from an area whose “promiscuous concourse of breeders” (Jefferson’s phrase, against eugenics) ended up being every bit as mongrel as the dynamic United States of America today. Skinheads and Guenonites take note.
7. THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL VOYAGE
From St. Petersburg I flew to Oslo and thence made my way, across glacier and down fjord, to Bergen, starting point of “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage”. This is the Norwegian Coastal Cruise, or Hurtigrute at it is known in Norway, meaning Quick Route, since when the line was established in 1891 it was far quicker to traverse the coast by boat than to go by craggy land. Its fleet of twelve luxury cruisers ply their way every day of the year along the treacherous and fantastical Norwegian coast, all the way up to Nord Kapp, or North Cape, and around to Kirkenes, abutting Russia and Finnish Lapland.
I had said goodbye first to my students in Stockholm, after three weeks of intimate sailing, and to Vinci and his wife in St. Petersburg, after a week we all considered a triumph (about five other major Russian classicists, linguists, archaeologists, and experts on Indo-European epic met with us that same week, entertained generously the possibility that Vinci may be onto something, called for a conference in St. Petersburg last year, clearly wanted Russian scholarship to be in the lead on this matter). And now, according to my projected itinerary, I was still only way through the two months I had planned. The first half was the Iliad half; we had sailed from where the Greek ships had gathered at Aulis and had made our way all the way to the citadel and field of battle at Troy. Now, alone, and on a ten day luxury cruise and tour of Lapland I had booked, I would be retracing the fabulous routes of Odysseus’ wanderings in Books 5-12 of the Odyssey. If energy still remained (and, still limping, I was by no means sure energy would still remain), I would head finally to Copenhagen—site, Vinci argues, of ancient Mycenae itself— and thence to the tiny island in the archipelago southwest of it, Lyø. There, like Odysseus, my travels would end and I could go back to my own home, New York.
I had taken leave of my students with an old affection for them deepened beyond what I had thought possible. When I took my leave of the Vinci’s it was like saying goodbye to people who had once been acquaintances and now, through the test of traveling together, were good and solid friends. The solitude ahead of me was, in fact, appealing as a complement to all this conviviality. Moreover, I fancy myself a poet and a thinker, and as result I have never own a camera in my life, so that not a single moment of my meditation in the next three weeks would be arrested and turned into a photo-op. Others would have to return after me to complete the task of documentation the V-TEAM had begun. I was glad to be free to look and think and feel.
A scholar in Stockholm had pointed out to me that my own first name, William, was cognate with the Ul- of Ulysses, most easily seen in the German version Willhelm. There the helm (cf. helmet) can be dropped, and the basic root will- is cognate not only with Ulysses but with the cunning Norse archer hero Ull. Over these densely packed two months I was certainly, like Homer’s hero, “seeing the cities and knowing the minds of many men.” I decided that, like the cunning and curious god Odin (Vinci makes him cognate with the Od- of Odysseus), or indeed like any good Viking, I would from now on travel alone, keep my own counsel, keep my wits about me, and not trust or talk to anyone too much for the rest of the trip. Just keep my eyes open.
The “World’s Most Beautiful Voyage” most assuredly deserves its name. If you have the means you should not die without taking it. And fjords are among those fabled phenomena which do not disappoint when you actually see one, in fact strike most people as even more stupendous than expected. Vinci is not the first to propose that when Odysseus describes the land of the Laestrygonians his combination of two details— daybreak following immediately on dusk, and a bay reaching far inland with high rock faces— makes the setting sound uncannily like a Norwegian fjord. In my first few weeks at Harvard, Fall 1964, I was privileged to take Robert Fitzgerald’s course on “Narrative Verse”, which we began by his reading his own recently completed masterpiece, his translation of the Odyssey. I took copious verbatim notes, among which are his remarks that Phoenician merchants in the long summer sailing days might have made their way all the way up to the North Sea and brought back reports of fjords— reports which Odyssey bards then readily fashioned into one fantastical episode among many for their sailing hero. Even the grave Wace and Stubbings, in their fat 1963 “Companion to Homer”, acknowledge that “We cannot dismiss the Laestrygones without wondering whether Achaean mariners may not have heard of real cannibals in their wanderings… in some land far north of the Mediterranean, where ‘the paths of day and night are near to one another.’” In this matter of Odyssean fjords, at least, the venerable Classics establishment gives you permission to indulge your fancy in the North Sea.
I did not get further south enough on the Norwegian coast to see where the mountains end and the coastal plain begins to feature tidal estuaries and beaches, leading Vinci to locate the sybaritic Phaeacians there. These might be called the southern Californians of the Post-Glacial Climatic Optimum, not particularly warlike or into contact sports, but (to continue using the translation of my beloved teacher Fitzgerald) “… all our days we set great store by feasting,/ harpers, and the grace of dancing choirs,/ changes of dress, warm baths, and downy beds.” Perhaps in the Post-Glacial Optimum surfing would have been added to the list. This was the first of many a site in Odysseus’ wanderings I noted down as Not Seen This Summer, Come Back Next. From the funicular above Bergen, though, I could gaze out at a port seascape at least as complex and heart-winning as San Francisco. I went into a very dark northern forest on the top of the mountain, a gloomy cathedral with shafts of light and large bare areas of pine needles between the soaring trunks. I sat down there and started reading the Odyssey in Greek.
The next afternoon my cruiser Vesterålen started to ply its week north. At this point in his misadventures Odysseus, heading for home south of Fyn in Denmark and attempting to round the cape near the Swedish city of Malmö at the southernmost point of Sweden (for Vinci MALmö is the Greek Cape MALea), is blown by the wrath of Poseidon inexorably further and further north, along the Norwegian coast and even to distant outlier islands such as the Shetland and the Faroe. If you take the full-scale two week Hurtigrute you will see by day, on the second week coming back, all the sights you missed when you sailed past them at night, on the first week heading for North Cape. You will also, as it happens, go a long ways towards recapitulating the narrative structure of the Odyssey Books 9-12, where Odysseus tells the story of his wanderings in an order which places the most terrifyingly remote point of them, the House of Hades, at the midpoint of an elaborate and precise symmetrical structure, Book 11. Since the Hurtigrute was not designed to reenact the wanderings of Odysseus, I only chanced to see a few of the sights directly; the rest I noted when we passed them, as being, on the map, this island over beyond that ridge, or these rocks out in the ocean beyond that island. Thus my Baltic re-imagining of the most fairy-tale part of Homer was sometimes anchored in what was before my eyes but more often was still drifting just over the horizon. All the more reason to come back next summer and do it all with a tailor-made vessel, crew, skipper expert in local waters, and documentary film group. V-TEAM ’07.
The first of the sights I actually eyeballed was a great hole in the mountain of Torghatten, near Tosenfjorden, a fjord Vinci sees as named after Thoosa, the mother of the one-eyed Cyclops, whose father Poseidon spends much of the Odyssey venting his anger on Odysseus for having blinded his son. The Cyclops, which can mean either “Round Face” or “Round Eye”, is not only the kind of ill-mannered giant Norse myths are full of; he is also described by Odysseus as “a brute/ so huge, he seemed no man at all of those/ who eat good wheaten bread; but he seemed rather/ a shaggy mountain reared in solitude”. You feel safe and modern when your luxury cruiser sails serenely past this hole in the mountain, which stares at you with its one round eye. You quickly see it as an eye if you’ve already developed, as tourists are soon taught to do, the Norse habit of finding physiognomy everywhere in the mountains’ shapes, in the same way that you have already been trained to see many a troll’s nose. For Vinci’s northern Greeks, as for Norse myth, culture recapitulates topography: the peoples dwelling near the gentle plains and beaches of the south are civilized, the creatures inhabiting the alps and fjords of the north are barbarous. You also feel safe because, though global warming may be underway, you are not, like Odysseus, experiencing violent storms associated with an ongoing climatic downturn experienced as the vengeful wrath of the sea-god— a wrath directed personally at you for having saved yourself from being eaten by his damned cannibal lout of a boy.
On the fourth day of the cruise, July 14, I crossed into the Artic Circle. At this latitude the ‘Midnight Sun’ does not set for a two month period roughly May 19-July 19. July 19 was in fact the day I had booked a flight south from Kirkenes. My timing thus was such that my five days without sunset were the last five days without sunset in the arctic summer at that latitude. Every night I stayed up till midnight, but for the first three nights all I saw was dim mist or fine precipitation.
This gray washout was not without its own power over the imagination. The second set of sights I saw with my own eyes, to the west in the endless evening, was the whirlpool of Charybdis, the cave of Scylla opposite it, and south of both of them Thrinakia, the “Trident” island of the Cattle of the Sun. Vinci identifies Charybdis with nothing other than the Maelstrom, in Norwegian Moskenesstraumen, which can still terrify us in Poe’s or Jules Vernes’ account of it. (There is nothing remotely as powerful in the Mediterranean.) To the right, or north, I saw the precipitous descent of the rocky southernmost point of the island of Lofotodden, southernmost in the whole Lofoten Island complex, the cave of Scylla. To the left, or south, I saw the three peaks of Thrinakia. Between them was the sucking of Charybdis. The grey mist made the whole seascape more nightmarish. Again I was happy to be sitting snug on my luxury cruiser. And again I dreamed the not impossible dream, of returning next summer with a small craft whose local skipper would know exactly what he was doing in these supremely treacherous waters. Vinci has asked me to accompany him in accepting the invitation he received form the Director of the Lofoten Islands Museum, something we hope to do around the vernal equinox, when everything is still snow-covered but the days are at last equal the nights. The Hurtigrute will be plying those same waters then too, dependably. A good time to look into booking a boat and skipper for next summer.
Late the next evening I stared west into mist again, but only towards something Vinci’s map put just beyond the Hurtigrute’s horizon, the island of Håja, or in Greek Aiaia— island of Circe, daughter of the Sun and granddaughter of ‘the River Okeanos’, a phrase Vinci equates very specifically with the current of the Gulf Stream. Even had the sun been shining, I could only imagine the disorientation of Bronze Age sailors finding themselves in a realm, and at a time of year, when there was no point on the horizon at which the sun set and no starry sky at night by which to tell north. Odysseus says as much to his shipmates as they approach the island “where the Dawn has its circle dances”:
O my dear friends, where Dawn lies, and the West,
and where the great Sun, light of men, may go
under the earth by night, and where he rises—
of these things we know nothing.
The word for “West”, zophos, also means ‘mist’ or ‘gloom’, what you see more often than not when you look out from the European coast to the Atlantic, and very much what I had been seeing for three evenings. Over the crests of Håjafjord Circe was singing to me from her island of Håja. “Come back with your crew next summer, “ she sang. “In a smaller boat— less safe.”
The effulgence of the midnight sun reserved itself for my last ‘night’ on the Vesterålen. There were still some strips of cloud in the sky, so it was touch and go all night whether I would in fact see the sun pass the northernmost point on the horizon without dipping under it. I decided to spend my vigil on the upper deck, wrapped against the relentless wind in sweater and gortex and blanket, reading Book 11 of the Odyssey, the central and longest episode in his symmetrical tale, the hero’s voyage along the Ocean Stream to the House of Hades. This god’s name means “Invisible”. Or, if you like, wrapped in perpetual fog and gloom. With some relief I realized that Vinci’s Hades too was a sight I would have to postpone till next summer, since he locates it way east on a western port of the White Sea, into which he shows each river mentioned in the Homeric topography—Styx, Pyriphlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron— all with modern homotopes, and all configured according to every specification in the text. Hades was beyond Norway, beyond Finland, beyond Lapland, in Karelian Russia. All I knew is that after passing North Cape we had been sailing inexorably east and south, the Gulf Stream on our left and the coast on our right, and that many days more of this would take us to Hell itself. No wonder that, when Circe tells Odysseus that “home you may not go/ unless you take a strange way round and come/ to the cold homes of Death”, his comment, to his soft Phaeacian audience, is that “At this I felt a weight like stone within me,/ and, moaning, pressed my length against the bed,/ with no desire to see the daylight more… “ In due time he and his men set sail for the land of gloom, as instructed, “in tears, with bitter and sore dread upon us.”
All night I was in a combined state of exhaustion and exhilaration the likes of which I’ve never quite felt. For days my whole body had been saying, “RIGHT!” whenever I read those oft-repeated word about Odysseus’ kamatos, weariness, and algea, pains. At which my mind would always comment, “Well, haven’t you always been proud to be define a hero to your students as someone who just keeps on going when ordinary people would give up?” Tonight was the test.
And the sun and I together passed the test. I read the whole of Book 11 in Greek, just lifting my eyes from time to time towards the northern horizon. “Now the souls gathered, stirring out of Erebos…” All the ghosts the hero encountered clustered around me, given blood to speak by the Greek words. “By night/ our ship ran onward toward the Ocean’s bourne,/ the realm and region of the Men of Winter,/ hidden in mist and cloud.” Odysseus leaves no doubt in his narration that they were sailing towards a place on the surface of the earth where for part of the year the sun never rose: “Never the flaming/ eye of Helios lights on those men/ at morning, when he climbs the sky of stars, nor in descending earthward out of heaven;/ ruinous night being rove over those wretches.” When Odysseus’ meets the ghost he loves most, that of his own mother who died of “only my loneliness for you”, she cries out sadly to him: “Child,/ how could you cross alive into this gloom/ at the world’s end?— No sight for living eyes;/ great currents run between, desolate waters…” And when Odysseus tries three times in vain to embrace her shade— as before him Achilles tries to embrace Patroclus’ shade, and Gilgamesh Enkidu’s, and as after him Aeneas tries to embrace his father’s shade, and Dante the poet Statius’— he finally asks, “Or is this all hallucination?” My exhaustion and exhilaration was making me wonder the same thing about the midnight sun. But there it was, cloudless for hours along the northern sky, rounding downwards and then turning upwards, in triumph, without ever disappearing.
At some point well into the wee hours of the morning the sun’s heroic blazing as it rose converged utterly with my accompaniment of Odysseus back out of the land of invisibility, “out of the Ocean Stream,/ riding a long swell on the open sea/ for the Island of Aiaia. Summering Dawn/ has dancing places there, and the Sun his rising…”
8. LOOP AROUND LAPLAND
I then spent a three day loop among the Lapps, in a private car with guide. My driver on the third day was a young German whose main trade was taking tourists over the wastes of snow on sleds drawn by huskies. Not even Lapland was far enough north for him; he had spent a whole season in Svalbard, the set of islands to the north of Norway, which is slowly now opening up for tourism, complete with internet access and ice hotels. “As far as I’m concerned”, he admitted, “summer here is no good at all, it would be better if it snowed tomorrow.” By this time I knew what he felt like. I had seen two I-MAX-like films at museums within the arctic circle which took me on planes that swooped over the glaciers and riverbeds of Svalbard, a kind of absolute trans-human space, with only Vinci to remind me that in the past it might have been warn enough for people to live here. I had grown obsessed with the extreme north. I wanted some day to drink ice-cold Vodka in a Svalbard ice hotel, after a day of husky tourism, like people in the latest James Bond flick Jonas had shown us on the Trinity.
My young German was fascinated by Vinci’s hypothesis, which reminded him of a documentary he’d seen last year of a team who sailed on a reconstructed Viking ship on exactly the same “route of three seas” Vinci has his proto-Viking Achaeans sail, down the Dniepr to the Black Sea. They were following the route of the Swedish saga of Vidar the Vittfar (a name which by Indo-European roots ought to me He Who Sees and Knows, and Who Fares Far and Wide— perfect for Odysseus). I made a mental note to get in touch with those guys— perfect pool from which to recruit a V-TEAM ’08.
The Lapps were a sunny people, welcoming and cheery. A third of them still live the traditional life of reindeer herding: clothes, tent, diet, all come from reindeer, like the camel for the traditional Arab. And yes, Vinci weighs in even on reindeer. Pindar tell us how Hercules’ journey to the Hyperboreans Beyond the North Wind in order to capture the Cerynean hind with “golden horns”, and points out that the only European doe that has horns is the female reindeer. The hinds are yoked to Artemis’ wagon, and only reindeer are strong enough to pull a wagon. The placename ‘Cerynean’ is cognate with hreinn, the old Norse word for reindeer, and hence with the rein- of ‘rein-deer’ itself.
My last day I took a tranquil cruise on the lake whose southern tip was the epicenter of today’s Lapp culture, Inari, to a sacred island on it, tiny and in a weird rock shape. There traditional Lapps performed blood sacrifice in times of stress to the god of thunder and lightning. What kind of blood sacrifice depends on how far back you go. Before the altar of Artemis in Sparta boys were scourged, and the great Pindaric commentator Gildersleeve argues that “both doe and scourging indicate a substitution for human sacrifice.” I climbed to the top and looked out over the lake, 60 kilometers long from northeast to southwest, and again found myself looking at literally hundreds of islets and skerries. My northern obsession seemed spent for the season. The next day I flew over 2000 kilometers south to Copenhagen, almost exactly the distance from New York City to easternmost Newfoundlound or southernmost mainland Florida.
9. ITHAKA, LYØ, HOME
I arrived at Copenhagen in a state of complete exhaustion, knowing only that I had nine days before my flight back to New York. Even after ten days with a cane my right foot kept building up such daily pain that self-medication by wine seemed the only proper solution. I decided that R&R should consist of long hours in museums in a wheelchair, staring up at Nordic masterpieces. In the National Museum I sat and stared up at the supreme masterpiece of the Northern Bronze Age, the golden Sun Chariot, a work of such elegance, refinement, and symbolic potency, that it leaves you in no doubt that the northern Bronze Age at its best could rival its southern cousins. In the Roman-style museum built to house the classicizing works of the Danish national sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, I sat and stared up at perfect Nordic versions of Achilles, Apollo, the three Graces. (How happy I was that Nielsen was Danish, not German!) In the State Museum’s new Hall of Sculpture I sat and stared, in the state of semi-sexual arousal no doubt intended by the sculptor, at a post-Nietzschean celebrations of eros as the essence of artistic passion, in the form of nude Danes in vigorous embraces.
I knew that for Vinci Copenhagen sat square on top of ancient Mycenae, domain of Agamemnon, King of Kings, and that ancient Lacedaemon for him was an hour south on the island of Zealand, ancient Pylos an hour west. I knew full well that just a few hours travel southwest was Vinci’s candidate for Ithaka, the tiny island of Lyø in the South Fyn archipelago. I knew all this, and yet honestly felt I would rather postpone all those sights, along with so many others, to next summer. So near and yet so far. And yet I also knew that for years I had been telling my students that heroes were people who keep going when normal people would be too exhausted to. And I also knew that I had entered precisely the state of deep kamatos, and algos, and longing for nostos (homecoming, hence our word nost-algia) in which Odysseus kept going till he got back to wife and son and killed his enemies there. After a few days of wheelchair-bound esthetic R&R, the logic of the matter clarified itself. Precisely because I was deeply exhausted, I should keep going, like Odysseus, to Lyø.
Lest I make myself sound too heroic, I should add that what confirmed my decision was “the kindness of strangers”. In advance of my arrival at Copenhagen Vinci had emailed me about a couple, Niels and Mona Damkjaer, who lived three hours west in Jutland, had been his guests in Rome, and were sympathetic to his work. On contacting them I found, as with Rolf Classon in Sweden, the treasures of urbane Danish hospitality being lavished on me. On learning of my foot condition and my doubts about venturing outside of Copenhagen, Niels gallantly offered to drive with Mona an hour east and meet me at the main train station in Fyn, two hours west of Copenhagen, whereupon the three of us would drive an hour south and take the ferry to Lyø. We would spend a summer’s day there, armed with his digital camera. Niels is a playwright and director in his mid-sixties, who was a young Turk in the golden days of Peter Brook and Grotowski, and over four decades has directed over 200 plays of his own and of others. He and Mona together make masks and give mask-making workshops. She also teaches Danish to foreigners, and is kindness personified. Niels had sharp eyes of immense intelligence and wit. The three of us clicked perfectly, and were fast friends by the end of our day in Ithaka.
The approach to Lyø on the half hour ferry ride was a perfect way to check out with my own eyes all of Vinci’s fits between the South Fyn archipelago and the four islands of which Ithaka is said, repeatedly in Homeric verse, to be the westernmost, the other three being Doulikion, Samos and Zakynthos. For a very long time classicists have been vexed and embarrassed that the Mediterranean Ithaka is one of only three islands— there is no Doulikhion to be found— and that of these three it is by no stretch of the imagination the westernmost. (They have also quarreled at length over every site on Ithaka mentioned in the text, for the simple reason that the Mediterranean Ithaka does not readily present these sites to the visitor, nor has archaeology settled the matter.) Doulikhion in fact means in ancient Greek “long and thin”, hence our word dolicocephalic for the distinctive Nordic long and thing skulled type sported by the handsome likes of Max von Sydow and, as mentioned earlier, found frequently in the husbands, but not the wives, in Mycenean graves. One of the jewels of Vinci’s thesis is that Lyø is precisely the westernmost of four continuously inhabited islands, the easternmost of which is the long and thin island of Langeland, “Long Land”.
And he finds on Lyø every topographical feature and monument mentioned in the Homeric text. The island is only four kilometers wide, and with a car you can see in about four hours every feature mentioned in the Odyssey, as we did, efficiently, between about noon and four before taking the ferry back. (For a satellite photo of Lyø in color go to http://www.krak.dk/Kort.aspx?MapState.) The ferry arrives at the main harbor at the center of the north coast, just where Vinci has proposed to test his work by archaeological excavation of Odysseus’ palace, making the assumption that, as commonly, the name of the island was identical with the name of its principal town, which would be where the best harbor was. Should extensive Bronze Age artifacts and evidence of buildings be found under just two places, the area east of Toija where Vinci claims the citadel of Troy stood and the area around this main harbor and town in Lyø, his hypothesis might well be vindicated definitively.
We began with a picnic packed by Mona and Niels, on the beach to the east of the island, in a spot where grass and bushes made us unable to see anyone else, just three summer picnickers for all the world like figures in a 19th century Danish or Luminist plein air painting. There we figured out that, in an process opposite from that at Aijala and Toija, here the hypostatic geological forces operating along an axis from northwest to southeast Denmark would have actually put below sea level the port and cave of Phorcys, the old man of the sea: “… two points/ of high rock, breaking sharply, hunch around it,/ making a haven from the plunging surf…” These were now sunk in the sea beneath us, where we went wading, along with the Naiades’ “cave of dusk light” where “there are looms of stone, great looms, whereon/ the weaving nymphs make tissues, richly dyed/ as the deep sea is…” It was enough to keep our eyes trained on the web of light shifting on the water’s surface to feel that the nymphs were still in evidence there, weaving their rich loom. Or was this just hallucination?
Stuffed like Homeric feasters with excellent Danish cheese and Italian sausage, we set out, after our spellbound minutes of wading, driving to the other principal sites. Unlike the Mediterranean Ithaka, Lyø is low and mostly flat (chthamale), just as Homer says. To the southeast we saw the hill of Neritos, “the wooded mountain”. As at Ordnalsklint = Samothrace, the rise was slight but enough to command a view of most of the rest of the island, hence worthy of the name “Mount”. A small hill just south of the port and the town was “Hermes’ Hill”. We saw a community of aging hippies (like us, we laughed) camped on the beach at the southernmost point, Kong Lauses Høj, “the hill (or tumulus) of King Lauses” (Laertes, Odysseus’ father?). As the grand culmination, we visited at the far west of the island a Neolithic dolmen, the Klokkesten in Danish, which means “bell stone”, referring to the resonant noise that issues from it when hit at certain spots with a rock. (They leave small rocks out for you and indicate where on the big rock to hit, so you can be sure of hearing the “chime”). Being Neolithic, it was already ancient in the Bronze Age, and is Vinci’s candidate for the Korakos Petra, or Crow’s Rock, mentioned by Athena to Odysseus as being close to where he will find the pigs of his swineherd Eumaeus grazing. He argues that, given the well-known substitutability of ‘l’ for ‘r’ (as in Chinese English, “velly velly good”), the Homeric and the modern Danish names have the same onomatopoetic consonantal root, K-R-K or K-L-K, whether the onomatopoeia is interpreting the rock’s resonant sound as a crow’s cry or a clock striking. As explained in the archaeologists’ sign at the site, these massive rocks were made to lean against each other in such a way as to leave enough space beneath them for a chief or hero to be buried and for his survivors and descendants to gather for anniversary funereal meals. The rocks would have been covered over, and the whole structure, on a rise sloping down to the west coast, would have been yet another tumulus, or burial barrow, symbolizing to those who saw it from the sea the far-shining fame of the great man buried there. As in the case of his other principal candidate site for archaeological testing and verification or falsification of his theory, the citadel at Toija with the extant burial mounds on the ridges of Perniø not far, so here too: not far from the palace of Odysseus is an extant burial mound old enough for proto-Odyssey bards, such as Phemios himself at the court of Ithaka, to mention it as a monument everyone who had actually seen the island would know well.
It was over. We had a beer in the hour before catching the ferry. Lyø felt like nothing so much as the mild meadows and small village streets of many an English village where I had tasted the sweets of Henry James’ candidate for the most beautiful phrase in the English language, “summer afternoon”. My ancestry is half English, and, I reflected, what are the English if not mongrels whose ancestors were in good part Danish. I myself am dolicocephalic. Maybe I had really come home after all. The amiable company of Mona and Niels certainly made me feel so.
10. V-TEAMS OF THE FUTURE
The day after Lyø I was up for one more outing: to the Viking Ship Museum, at the southern end of a long bay (called Roskilde Fjord, but flat on both sides, like all of Denmark) in which five 11th century AD Viking ships had been deliberately sunk to block invaders. Archaeologists have now not only preserved the fragments but gotten a whole industry going, in a shipyard adjacent to the sleek modern museum, that builds Vikings ships with Viking original instruments, and sails them. This summer the recently built Sea Stallion, a classic Long Ship designed for 65 warriors, is testing the waters, and next summer a team of over a hundred people will rotate as members of 65- person crew sailing it and rowing to Dublin, where it was originally built. (You can follow it on www.seastallion.dk.) The following summer the Sea Stallion will hospitably be sailed back from Dublin to Roskilde.
When I told Vinci about the Sea Stallion he replied, without missing a beat, that the name is a ‘kenning’ also to be found in the Odyssey. The kenning is the signature trope of Norse poetry, a metaphorical phrase deliberately presenting itself as a riddle to be solved or already understood by the conoscenti. What is a “stallion of the sea”? Why a ship, of course. And in Odyssey 4.708 Penelope assumes as much, speaking of “swift-travelling ships, which are the horses of the sea”.
It was clear to me that in the volunteers for this sailing, as in the participants of the Dnieper sailing of the crew of Vidar the Vittfar, I had the ideal pool for recruiting V-TEAM’s ’07 and ’08. I had discussed this with my four Bardians, and we had agreed that they might well like to be part of these teams but could not, as young professionals just launching their careers, commit in advance to doing so. Moreover, my meditation on the ironies of people believing what they want to believe, and so often on the basis of national origin, made me feel that, in this particular case of documenting Vinci, the more multi-national the crew the better. As a thought experiment, I asked myself how many nations my dream V-TEAM’s ought to be recruited from.
Well, let’s start with Italians, since if Vinci is vindicated he should take his place in a line of Italian scientists and explorers and polymaths, Galileo and Columbus and Leonardo. Earlier in July I had been asked to be interviwed by live telephonic transmission to an Italian program for young people in their teens and twenties, called Detto tra Noi, literally “Talked about among Ourselves”, really something like “Among Friends”. The friendly and excitable young Italian interviewer wanted to know all about how the sailing of the V-TEAM had gone. I had begun by quoting the speech of Dante’s Ulysses, in which he said that he and his companions were already vecchi e tardi, old and slow, before he stirred them up to his final voyage to the south pole, in verses which Primo Levi quoted to a fellow Italian in Auschwitz: Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,/ ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza. “You were not born to lie like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” I had told i giovani d’Italia that as a professor I loved my students and that it had been a privilege to be made to feel young and quick again by my four Bardian sailors. Clearly the ideal multinational V-TEAM would begin by intermingling Americans and Italians.
It should then, with equal appropriateness, include all the Scandinavian countries, not just the cousin cultures of the Danes and the Norwegians and the Swedes, but also the strange non-Indo-European Finns, as well as Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. It should include Irish and Scots and Brits, because Vinci’s homotopes actually extend to the Thames and beyond, just like Viking warships. It should include Germans and Poles, because their northern Baltic borders are part of Vinci’s reconstructed proto-Greek homeland. And of course, after the handsome offer of Piotrovsky to be of help, it should recruit from Russians, above all St. Petersburgers, the city built by the sailor/czar Peter the Great, on the site from which Vikings, and many proto-Vikings, set sail south on the route of three seas. But why stop there? It should include Ukrainians and Georgians, as along the route south. And—here would be the ultimate sweetness— it should include Turks and Greeks, also on the route south! My dream team would be “young and quick”, and being young they would be generous and eager to make a point of transcending the nasty national antipathies their elders had saddled them with. Friendship on board between young people of many a nation that had formerly dominated its neighbor would be integral to the message. As would be the “new humanism” and “new basis for the unity of Europe” of which Vinci spoke to Piotrovsky and wrote in his final paragraph. Skinheads not admitted.
I would give them, on board, the same no-lose formula as I had given the four Bardians. Either we would be on the cutting edge of a revolution in the West’s conception of its origins, or we would form collectively another imagination like James Joyce’s in Ulysses, traveling the world and hallucinating the Homeric archetypes as we traveled. I would in particular give the Greeks a pep-talk I have long mentally rehearsed for them: “Let no one tell you that Homer has been taken away from you. Your ancestors came from many places, including the Baltic. Once settled and amalgamated in the Mediterranean, they spent centuries, under the skies of Athens and Alexandria, refining those old Baltic proto-epics into the masterpieces of literary art we now possess. Your masterpieces. For all we know the Baltic originals bore to the texts we now have the same relation the crude story of Hamlet has in the Gesta Danorum to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. We will never know how those old Baltic songs sounded. Your masterpieces we can hear to this day.”
Shortly before his death I had the idiotic temerity to ask the poet James Merrill about the title place of his long poem The Changing Light at Sandover. Where was Sandover, I asked him. By which I meant simply, what was the place whose photograph he had put on the cover of his book? The answer to that literalist question was, the dining room of the mansion of his fabulously wealthy father, the founding Merrill of Merrill Lynch. But the poet Merrill at first looked taken aback, and then answered, kindly, “But there is no Sandover”. Meaning that, as he shows Proust doing in his poem “For Proust”, he had conflated from many stately mansions an archetype, Sandover, in which his poem is set. We then chatted a bit about fiction and fact— fact which, as he put it, “sooner or later always changes back into fiction”. I shuddered for a moment— the Holocaust changed back into fiction? Perhaps better than ‘fiction’ would have been ‘archetype’. Hitler’s Holocaust has unquestionably become an archetype for us, even though Stalin seems to have been responsible for ten times as many deaths as Hitler, and for all we know Mao for more than Stalin.
Cultures takes facts and condense them to the archetypes they need to survive and prosper. Surely that is what the Baltic bards did with the facts of the lives of their sailing and warring heroes. Surely that compacted knowledge was portable south. And surely it can be brought north again. And then south again.
Something like that is what I want to say to V-TEAM’s of the future.