Feature Articles – Where art thou, Troy?
It may come as a surprise, but the location of Troy is once again in dispute. Rather than Turkey, new thinking places it in Northern Europe… or even our skies.
by Philip Coppens
The Iliad, recounting the final 51 days of the tenth and final year of the Trojan war, and the Odyssey, detailing Ulysses’ voyage home, are the oldest, and perhaps still the grandest, epic poems of Western literature. In his memoirs and books, Schliemann wrote that when he was eight, his father took him on his knee and told him the story of the Iliad, the forbidden love between Helen, the wife of the King of Sparta, and Paris, son of Priam of Troy, and how their elopement resulted in a war that destroyed a civilization. That story, said Schliemann, awoke in him a hunger to search for the archaeological proof of the existence of Troy and Tiryns and Mycenae. In fact, he was so hungry that he went into business to make his fortune so he could afford the search. Eventually, he found Troy, at Hissarlik, a tell in Turkey. Heinrich Schliemann Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy was initially hailed as confirmation that behind Mankind’s ancient legends, lay truth. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were based on fact – for Troy had been located. When Schliemann began his quest, the consensus was that there had never been a real Troy. Of the few that did accept its historical nature, most pointed to a hill named Bunarbashi, in Turkey. Schliemann visited the location, but as the Iliad mentioned that Mount Ida was visible from the walls of Troy and no mountain could be seen from Bunarbashi, he ruled the location out.
Using geographic clues from the Iliad, Schliemann located another hill near the village of Hissarlik that seemed to fit Homer’s descriptions. Furthermore, in 1822, Charles Maclaren had published a book claiming Hissarlik was Troy. Frank Calvert, an Englishman living in Turkey, believed the same. Schliemann thus began excavations, found archaeological remains, stretching back to the right timeframe and concluded one of the archaeological layers corresponded with the “legendary Troy”. One of the greatest historical enigmas had just been solved.
After Schliemann’s death in 1890, excavation in Hissarlik continued. More than a century later, there is ever growing dissent that Hissarlik is Troy, with various authorities vociferously arguing Hissarlik is – cannot be – Troy. To quote Sir Moses Finley: “the more we know the worse off we are” – so much so that it is now, despite what most people believe, deemed totally unlikely Hissarlik is Troy. We should have known, for even the Roman geographer Strabo had this to say when he was shown Hissarlik: “this is not the site of the ancient Ilium”. Henceforth, the quest for Troy is back on. The question is: where is it? There is a well-known statement that “Homer is not a geographer”. This is due to one simple problem: when Homer describes a location, this often does not conform to reality. For example, Strabo wondered why in the Odyssey the island of Pharos, situated just outside of the Egyptian city of Alexandria, was said to lie a day’s sail from Egypt. In reality, it wouldn’t take five minutes. Places like Rhodes were never described as an island by Homer, though you would think he would describe it as such. The location of Homer’s Ithaca does not conform to reality either. Dulichium, the long island, has never been identified, for where it is supposed to be, there is nothing. Professor John Chadwick thus concluded: “there is a complete lack of contact between Mycenaean geography as now known from the tablets and from archaeology on the one hand, and Homer’s accounts on the other.”
Most observers have hence claimed that Homer never visited the locations, made the landscape up, etc. But some recognise that if Troy was not Hissarlik , Homer’s Pharos may not have been near Alexandria… and that would mean that the entire Iliad and Odyssey may not have occurred in those locations in and around the Mediterranean Sea that have become associated with them at all. So if not there, the question remains: where? One important clue comes from Plutarch, who wrote that the island of Ogygia, mentioned in the Odyssey, was situated “five days sail from Britain, towards the west.” Indeed, such a location would make sense of Homer’s description of the site: a large number of seabirds is said to fly around Calypso’s Cave on Ogygia and the North Sea and its islands are far better known for their large number of seabirds than the rather tranquil coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Elsewhere, Homer refers to the wild or singing swan, which is found in Siberia and Scandinavia, whereas Mediterranean countries only know the silent swan. Furthermore, the movement of the tides is often evoked by the bard, in both literal and figurative senses; but the tides are notoriously undramatic in the Mediterranean Sea, but all the more impressive along the shores of the North Sea.
This would place Homer’s epic in northern Europe, which may seem startling at first, but not to such well-respected authorities as Stuart Piggott: “The nobility of the [Homeric] hexameters should not deceive us into thinking that the Iliad and the Odyssey are other than the poems of a largely barbarian Bronze Age or Early Iron Age Europe.” So Europe, but where in Europe? For Felice Vinci in “The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales”, the answer is the Baltic States, along the coastlines of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Poland, etc. As to the location of Ogygia, for Vinci it should be identified with the Faroe Islands, specifically the island Kalsoy. Kalsoy Vinci is not the first to argue for a Scandinavian setting. It was also offered by the Swedish historian Martin P. Nilsson. Others, such as Bertrand Russell, stated that the Mycenaean civilisation originated with fair-haired northern invaders of Greece. One obvious question is why a Northern European story would become the backbone of the Mycenaean – Greek – civilisation in Southern Europe. For Vinci, the answer is simple: when the climate began to change and grow colder, these people were forced to migrate south. One tribe, the Achaeans, reached the Peloponnese and founded the Mycenaean civilisation. The migrants had brought their legends with them, but the geography of the north did not transpose on the south, hence the discrepancy. So where precisely does Vinci locate these battles? The Iliad is placed along the Gulf of Finland and the Odyssey in and around Denmark. Troy itself is Toija in Finland; Thebes is Täby in Sweden; the Peloponnese was Zeeland, in Denmark. Vinci’s argumentation is linguistic, showing similarities in place-names, but hence suffers from a potentially fatal flaw, as most of these names cannot be traced back to before ca. 800 AD. This means that a gap of two to three millennia exists; as mentioned by Vinci himself, these people left their homeland in 1000 BC, so how can we be certain where was what, as there was no continuous tradition present?
Still, it is clear that there is some connection between north and south Europe, for there was trade between these Baltic states and Mycenea, as revealed by the large quantity of Baltic amber that was found in the most ancient Mycenaean tombs in Greece. That Ogygia is clearly not situated in the Mediterranean Sea, seems clear. Its vegetation does not conform to the Mediterranean climate. And in Homer’s epics, there are frequent references to fog, even snow, and of how the sun does not seem to set but instead lingers just beyond the horizon, a phenomenon that is typical for summer in the northern regions. In the Odyssey, we read: “Here we can perceive neither where darkness is nor where dawn is/ nor where the Sun shining on men goes down underground / nor where it rises.”
Furthermore, the sea is never described as being bright, but grey and misty. The characters wear tunics and “thick, heavy cloaks” which they never remove, not even during banquets. The sun or its warmth are seldom mentioned in the book, yet are what would immediately come to mind in a Mediterranean setting. Indeed, there is nothing in this geographical description that hints at a Mediterranean setting; even if Homer was not a geographer, he should at least have known what a typical Mediterranean landscape looked like – as he is believed to have lived there. Instead, it seems he lived elsewhere… Though Vinci may be right, Piggott is most definitely right: the Achaean warriors used chariots to move across the battlefield, a method of fighting that was unknown in Greece. But similar chariot fighting was described by Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain; what he witnessed, seemed taken word by word from Homer’s accounts. Furthermore, the “great walls” of Troy (never said to be made out of stone) could be identical with the palisades around various megalithic tumuli and Celtic settings. The sweet wine the warriors drink may seem typically Mediterranean at first, but we now know that wine was grown in northern Europe, but that honey was added… making the wine indeed sweet; such an addition was not required for Mediterranean wines, and once again, it seems Homer’s heroes were thus fighting elsewhere. Finally, in Homer’s account, everyone drinks from bronze chalices, which is typical of Celtic customs – and largely absent from Mediterranean cultures. The walls of Hissarlik, the traditional Troy A Celtic setting therefore works, but the question does remain: where in northern Europe? Iman Wilkens argues that “the Trojan War was a major conflict between the European continent and the British Isles for free access to a raw material which was found nearly exclusively in Cornwall and that was essential in the Bronze Age as crude oil is at present. This raw material was tin required for the production of bronze.”
Wilkens thus tackles one of the greatest archaeological mysteries – the megalithic civilisation – and links it with the greatest historical epic. Indeed, this culture could provide the most logical answer to the problem. The Cornish tin mines were exhausted in 1200 BC, when we see the end of the megalithic civilisation. But around 1400-1200 BC, there was potentially still hope – and great anxiety: without bronze, the continent would return to primitive living conditions, unless tin could be obtained from England – either through trade or by force.
The trade option was unrealistic, as the continent had nothing to offer in return. Hence war was the only option. That, for Wilkens, is the true stage of the Trojan War: the struggle of the European continent to continue its way of life, resulting in an attack on Britain. The question is: where in Britain? In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief in the Trojan origins of many western European people. The Romans claimed they descended from Aeneas, the British and the Franks claimed Trojan stock. The British were never precise, claiming that Brutus the Trojan had founded “New Troy”, i.e. London. In 1879, the French-born Belgian lawyer Théophile Caillieux argued that Troy was situated in East Anglia, where he discovered two huge war-dykes between Cambridge and the Wash.
Wilkens too focused on the frequent mention of dykes in Homer’s account, suggesting that the war involved low-lying lands – which is perhaps one of the few uncontested issues of Homer’s geography. The Fleam Dyke and the Devils Dyke are indeed enigmas. The Devils Dyke is the largest monument of its kind in Britain. The Fleam Dyke is a ditch and rampart 26 metres wide and up to 3.5 metres high, running for 5 km from Fulbourn across the dry chalklands to Balsham.
They obviously served a military purpose and formed a barrier. It is known that the wide plain had already been cleared around 1500 BC and that the barriers were likely erected to stop horse-drawn war chariots. Officially, though, they are said to be 1200 years old, and constructed by the Saxons. Still, the problem is that no-one knows what battles were fought here. Caillieux and Wilkens hence put two problems together, concluding that the barriers were there to stop the Achaeans in their path to attack troy. For them, Troy was located on the heights just above Cambridge, the Gog Magog hills; the acropolis of Troy (known as Pergamus) was thus identified with the Wandlebury Ring. Wilkens identifies Argos with France and Mycenea with the modern French town of Troyes, whose name is indeed taken from Troy. Ithaca is placed in Cadiz, in Southern Spain. Indeed, all of these locations have strong Celtic, megalithic connections and a war between Britain and the continent over tin is logical. The work of Barry Cunliffe also underlines that this ocean-facing megalithic civilisation had experienced sailors, conform to the strong sailing tradition that runs through Homer’s epics.
As to the Odyssey, Wilkens transforms this into a transoceanic voyage, our hero reaching the New World, as well as places like Senegal, the Cape Verde Islands, the Dutch Antilles and Cuba, before arriving back home in Ithaca – Cadiz. As to Ogygia, for Wilkens this is the island of St Miguel, in the Azores. The Iliad and the Odyssey are epic poems – legends. Though there is no doubt they have a historical aspect to them, the question is how much, what precisely, and whether there is sufficient material that will ever allow a precise location “somewhere” in Northern Europe.
Epic poems also have a symbolic nature. Ulysses’ voyage in the Odyssey is often seen as being a description of a man’s initiation into a mystery cult; some of the battles have an archetypal nature. And in the past century, astronomical connotations to ancient myths are slowly been discovered. For Edna Leigh, as recounted in “Homer’s Secret Iliad” by Florence and Kenneth Wood, the Iliad was indeed not a historical, but an astronomical text. In fact, she felt it was the world’s oldest substantial astronomical text. She believed that the Iliad was created to preserve ancient knowledge of the heavens. There are star names listed in the Iliad, so at the very least, the text has some astronomical connection. Furthermore, sailing instructions in the Odyssey are given with such confidence that they must reflect the learning of a man who could use the skies for practical purposes. But Leigh went much further than these basic astronomical observations. Eventually, she would identify no less than 650 stars and 45 constellations in the Iliad. Her strongest point is the Catalogue of Ship, which is believed to have been the oldest part of the Iliad. But equally, it is the most boring; it is literally a catalogue of ships that participate in the attack on Troy… a very boring part of an otherwise great epic. So boring that it could indeed be an index – or catalogue – of… stars. Leigh detected an underlying logic in the epic. She realised that the main warriors of the Iliad were stars; the brighter the star, the more powerful the warrior was. Their victims were always the less bright stars. When seen as such, the Greek and Trojan regiments represented 45 constellations; The commanders and leaders were the seventy-three brightest stars in the constellations, such as Aeneas (Spica), Agamemnon (Regulus), Menelaus (Antares), Aias (Canopus), Patroclus (Procyon), Paris (Betelgeuse) and of course Odysseus (Arcturus). Fleam Dyke So: where is Troy? For Leigh, Troy is the universe, as we see it: the night’s sky. The scheming and battles were the futile efforts to halt the precession of the equinoxes, specifically the decline of Thuban in Draco as the pole star and the return of Sirius, the brightest star, to the skies of Greece – for that is indeed the location where she places it. Sirius was identified with the hero Achilles, the greatest warrior at Troy. Hence also why Achilles is known to chase Hector… Orion.
In summary, Leigh interpreted the epic as a battle in the sky, visible from roughly 2800 BC and ending in ca. 1800 BC. Still, as the return of Sirius to our skies occurred in the 9th millennium BC, she argued that the entire story began then, with the return of Achilles to the field of battle (ca. 8900 BC), the story ending in ca. 2200 BC, shortly before the arrival of the new pole star.
Achilles’ return to the battlefield, to which Homer devotes several books, is indeed a moment of astronomical importance. It is one of the most elaborate descriptions, with the smith-god Hephaestus creating a new shield for Achilles: “He wrought the Earth, the heavens, and the sea, the Moon also at her full and the untiring Sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of Heaven – the Pleiades, the Hyades, huge Orion, and the Bear, which man also call the Wain and which turns round forever in one place, facing Orion and alone never dips into the stream Oceanus.” These particular constellations mark the area of the night sky in which Sirius and its constellation, Canis Major, reappeared. So, Troy is likely “out there”: it marked a time of change, in the night’s sky, an observation that was perhaps made by those great astronomers of the megalithic civilisation, who are renowned for incorporating astronomical alignments in their stone circles. But what about the Northern setting of the epic, and the great age of 8900 BC? Sirius’ apparition in Northern Europe was later than in Greece. And hence, perhaps the epic of Troy is indeed a battle of the skies, but perhaps those recording these changes did not live in Greece, but in Northern Europe. This would make Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey not only the epic tales of a lost age, but of a lost civilisation.