Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

May 31, 2002

I was 16 and studying ancient Greek, the only person in the year. "My lower-VIth class," the teacher called me without a hint of humour. She towered above me at her high desk, while I dutifully sat in the front row. Whatever I did, I could be both best and worst in the class, but I wasn't taking the risk.

We began the lesson - translating Homer painstakingly, line by line - the moment the school bell rang, and stopped only when the next bell sounded. There was no discussion of Homer as literature. In fact, there was no extraneous conversation at all. I would even blow my nose before entering the classroom, so as not to disturb the purity of Homeric hexameter.

Then one day, browsing in the school library, I came across an old copy of Moses Finley's The World of Odysseus . Here was a book that was not just interested in the epic language or the sound of the verse, but in the whole way of life Homer might have known. What was most intriguing was the notion that while supposedly Homer was recalling the heroic epic age of Mycenaean Greece, in fact he was describing a culture drawn from his own experience, much later in the 10th or 9th centuries BC.

For the first time, I realised there was more than one way of reading a text, that poems or novels could be read against the grain to reveal very different meanings. Homer had "stitched together" many different strands of tradition and culture. By concentrating on only one, the heroic tradition, we had failed to notice a whole world lurking in the background of the epic. But once Finley had convinced me that Odysseus's relationship with the gods was of less interest in understanding the world in which Homer lived than the relationship between Odysseus and his swineherd Eumaeus, then suddenly this different perspective yielded new possible interpretations, not only for Homer but for later writers too.

It was a memorable realisation, not least because the world that Finley uncovered in Homer was one previously unknown, a time described by historians as the Dark Ages, after the fall of Mycenae. Although life then was impoverished, it was by no means savage or chaotic. Extrapolating from small details in the epics, Finley built up a coherent picture of a society held together, in the absence of writing, by the exchange of objects, gifts and hospitality. Tripods - objects of no use but symbolic value - were the main currency, while metal craftsmanship - making tripods - formed one of the major industries. In the economy of Ithaca, everyone was accounted for, rich or poor, freeman or slave.

Jenny Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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