Many years after reading Homer’s Iliad, the opportunity to read its sequel, The Odyssey, arose when it was designated a set book for a daughter’s studies for the baccalaureate university entrance examinations. After some 2700 years of acclaim from most of the world’s great authors and literary critics, the book needs no new reviews, but it cannot fail to provoke some comment on life as it was then, and how it is now.
In evolutionary terms, 2700 years is an insignificantly small period of time. The people in Homer’s world shared much the same hopes and fears as modern people. They were intensely loyal to family and friends and hospitable towards strangers who came in peace, but hostile and often violent towards adversaries. Just as now, they suffered the rule of oligarchs and plutocrats, it was, after all, the Greeks who invented the terms, but some city states were run by benign dictators, and the hero of Homer’s tale, Odysseus, and before him his father, Laertes, had established such a reputation. The economy depended upon slave labour but unlike today the slaves were well treated, many serving their masters for a lifetime with great loyalty and affection on both sides.
The Ancient Greeks began the process of the scientific investigation of nature but the benefits in terms of practical inventions came mostly after their time. Young people today might especially note the absence of the Internet, but instead, the Ancient Greeks had the gods who performed much the same function. Just like the Internet, the gods knew everything that was happening, and had happened, everywhere. They also knew what would happen in the future although this information was more difficult to access; suppliants needed a special relationship to the service providers. Odysseus enjoyed such a special relationship with the goddess, Athene, daughter of Zeus, the King of the Gods.
Gaining access to the gods was in many ways easier than accessing the Internet; one didn’t need a computer or a mobile telephone. The only personal data required was one’s father’s name, or sometimes one’s mother’s name or the name of a grandfather. There was no need to reveal one’s email address, post code or telephone number and if a password was needed it was part of a well-known incantation, unlikely ever to be forgotten. There was, however, the need to make a burnt offering, usually parts of a domestic animal with some barley-meal and wine, and providing this could be expensive, especially if the horns of the victim needed to be gilded with gold. Then, as now, all things were possible to those who had the means to pay.