Troy, ah! Troy

what’s in a name?

July 2017

The descriptions of Troy by Homeros for me do indicate that the Hissarlik VIIa Troy is only a paltry substitute for what the real settlement Troy must have been, with its great riches in gold and other metals, its large herds of cattle and horses and many inhabitants, feeling secure in their lands. Even fifty thousand warriors could not take it in ten years.

But Homeros is felt to be a fancy poet, which typification was minted to explain the mismatches found between his descriptions and our own “knowledge”, sometimes dating from Antiquity already. Thus a critic did, and still can come a long way with bending, colouring, curtailing and belittlement of what Homeros sings for us, especially when driven by views of gold in old ruins. A score of German and other professors in the wake of Mr Wolf has fatigued themselves in the nineteenth and even the twentieth century as grievance-mongers to show and adstruct their little idea how the Iliad and Odyssey has been the work of a multitude of poets over a long, long period, an how this has led to a multitude of incongruencies. Dante might have reserved a special place for them; maybe the company of Aristoteles.

On this website about research into Homeros the approach is not to explain everything as being real in the poems of Homeros. The divine world, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, such topics are clearly meant to evoke poetic, emotional, images with the reader, of subjects that the poet does not want to present as realistic. And such should be permitted in beautiful tales by a talented poet. All-explicit poems are not captivating poems usually. The killing scenes by Homeros are, on the other hand, all too often more realistic than we would prefer. I personally feel that he thus expressed his disapproval while giving contemporal audiences their desire.

Homeros’ poems were sometimes “worked up’ or even adapted in translations to be able to place him in the Mycenaean culture, because Hissarlik VIIa seemed to fit so well in the popular image of Troy. The whole procedure is quite effective to shrink the poet, make him ignorant and to belittle him. “He could not help it, he was a child of his time”. When Homeros’ psychology is discussed however, the opinion is diametrically opposed, and then he is called genius. So intelligent, but no good knowledge of geograpy, amazing it is.

And look, the names of places do fit! Then Homeros might not have been so dumb about topography at all! Names however are easily given, to people as well as to locations. There are several Yorks, Amsterdams and Athens. You name it. Also Troy has not escaped replication. Names are no proof, it is naive to see them as unique, as they are taken to other places during migration. Names are, or should be, a good inducement to look more closely to what is there to find, eventually to reject hypotheses (or corroborate them).

An example: the fortress Mykene lies on the edge of the Argos plains, in Greece, as is fitting for the traditional opinion on the poems of Homeros. What is in its name? One of the traditional explanations is that mykene means toadstool or boletus, but also this word could mean pommel, a knob on the end of a sword hilt. It looks alike. See Fig 1. Mykene is also the name of a royal lady mentioned by Homeros (Odyssey II, 120), and in my view a good name for a “delicious” girl who is compared to the delightfully tasting Boletus edulis. Why always flower perfumes?

The heavy pommel helps balance the sword. A sword is since long a symbol of power, and the pommel is the part nearest the heart of the warrior that handles it, it is so to say central when wielding a sword. The point of the sword goes in all directions, the pommel stays near the man. Thus you might see the fortress “Pommel” as the centre of power in a kingdom, and such a symbolic name will easily move with the conquerors to a new kingdom. Or this name, heard elsewhere, inspires an overlord to give it to his new centre. Mykene might have been used several times, and not only in Argos in Greece. And a mykene in the Linear B tablets might simply be a valuable pommel. Often defect or loose parts of costly items were registered on these tablets. See also Fig. 2.

Fig 1. Mycenaean marble stone pommels in the National Museum in Athens.


Fig. 2. Urnfield sword with a large pommel. This excellent sword copy was made in our times by Neil Burridge (see his website,


Hissarlik as Troy?

On Hissarlik site we dearly miss a great plain in front of the (here quite small) town, because we now know that at the time of Troy the plain with its small stream was an open bay, providing little space for the ten thousands of warriors. They must have camped nearly on the threshold of the gates, which is never suggested by Homeros. The established opinion speaks of palaces, with marble walls, but this is an interpretation made in later studies, focussed on later Mediterranean kingdoms. Better name the “palaces” mansions. The supposed “polished marble” of the walls of the sleeping rooms of Priamos’ sons will probably have been some white “stucco” on wattle-and-daub walls. Smoothed calcareous hard surface finishing I think it was. Such housing will burn much better than do stone buildings, and look how Troy burned! No marble stones left over to spot them later.

To Hissarlik sometimes a strategic location is ascribed by naive authors. But it must have been easily passed by ships if the captains did not want to visit Hissarlik. Attractivity was the reason to stop there. The really strategic place nearby is the location of Constantinople, as there ships could be easily stopped for taking toll.

The “siege of Troy” is a construct of later commentators, because Homeros tells only about raids on other settlements and sometimes about warriors running around the fortification of Troy but never about an encircling action with all warriors. It was simply not effective or even possible for the undisciplined army to do so at the time. Distances from the Greek camp to Homeric Troy are expressed in hours rather than minutes, as is the trip of Priamus to Achilles. Troy was clearly no city with a harbour in front of it. And where are those two sources near to town as described by Homeros, a hot one and a cold one? Explaining these away in the Hissarlik site is easily done by blaming the frequent earthquakes, so this lack does not help. The streamlet that was baptized Skamandros at Hissarlik is just a trickle in dry summer, and an erosion silted torrent in wet periods, but still not so deep as to be dangerous. One cannot drown there, unless kept with the head under water. The Persian king Xerxes came along, believed the Troy story, but encountered problems in watering his immense army, ten times at least that of Agamemnon, from the small watercourse.

Finding Troy seems a nearly impossible mission after all discussions and quarreling by authors and by real scientists during more than two thousand years. Homeros’ descriptions are brief, and far more deficient than those he gives for Scheria and Ithaka. A fairly large fortified “town”, hopelessly destroyed and its ramparts already flattened some two generations after their founding, situated on a really large plain with various quite deep and dangerous watercourses, a hilly or mountainous range with many streams rising there not far away, a large bay with a sandy beach in a few hours of walking distance. Some islands nearby. Quite some barrows dispersed over the plain.Two sources, one warm and one cold, near to the town and near to each other, plenty of rangeland for cattle and especially for horses, with many “handstones” lying around on the otherwise very well ridable ground. Not wet and swampy. Two dikes or dams (a plausible translation of the word “gefuras”, γεφυρας, that Homeros uses), across this plain. The plain cannot have been flat as a river plain, as Agamemnon sees the campfires of the Troyans near his own entrenched camp, over the rampart that was speedily thrown up to protect the ships. This Achaean fortification is traditionally called a wall (murus), which then suggests it was made of stone, but in fact it must have been a vallum, a Latin term for an earthen dike as rampart which term in this case includes the palissade made of valli (poles) on top of it. The earthen dike was an agger made from the earth coming from the ditch in front of it, and clad with turf or something else to stabilize the surface of the loose earth. The whole vallum is relatively rapid and easy to construct in areas where the soil is deep and has only few stones, and it became standard in the Roman army to make it around each castra, after every day’s march.

The description of Troy is not given by Homeros in the coherent way he does it for Scheria and Ithaka, but just casually, mixed into other aspects of the story. The “description” can easily made up to fit the Hissarlik conditions when one wants so, but this interpretation becomes more difficult the more we really discover locally. The suggestions of Cailleux that indications of Troy all are found nearby Cambridge remains intriguing, but how to be certain with this restricted information? We leave it at that, till archeology helps us with better information. For the time, I have started my research with two places well described, to know Scheria and Ithaka. And these appear to be quite well recognizable in reality

The fancyful poet Homeros should be read as a fairy tale, we do not know how to match it with reality.” That is and was the opinion of many. This is not what the Greeks in antiquity generally did think, save a few learned sceptics such as Eratosthenes at the time. To realize such general belief should make us less arrogant. We may know much more of some details, but do miss much of the old context nowadays.

When reading the books of (my favourite sceptic) historian Finley about this epoch in Greek history, it might be a good exercise to try to interprete some of his chapters, e.g. the one about the “Dark Age” (Finley 1970) with another mindset. One should try to take the Atlantic Stage Hypothesis as a base instead of assuming the usual “Mycenaean Stage Hypothesis”. Such an exercise should not be too difficult for trained researchers, as these have to be able to view things from more than one viewpoint, while for the time avoiding the one viewpoint selected and preferred by them. It might dawn upon them that much of the anomalies ever surfacing in the usual viewpoint just disappear with the Atlantic view. I myself, being 75, now feel that such (temporally) changing of mindset is for elder people often too much to ask for. But it is worth it.