S. A. Paipetis’s recent The Unknown Technology in Homer (2005), now available in English (2010), purports to be a mechanical engineer’s evaluation of extraordinary and precocious technological knowledge embedded in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two of the foundational texts of the Western tradition composed sometime around 700 BCE. According to the author, this anomalous knowledge demonstrates that the Mycenaeans, the ancient people of whom Homer’s poems sang, had advanced modern technology c. 1600-1200 BCE. The volume was published under the aegis of the academic publisher Springer’s History of Mechanism and Machine Science series, making it a somewhat higher grade of pseudoscience pretending toward legitimacy, but pseudoscience nonetheless.
The first third of the book is an incoherent set of digressions, most of which have no bearing on the subject of ancient technology. Instead, we are treated to works of Renaissance and modern art and discussions of the Greek-revival style vacation house built by the Austro-Hungarian empress Elisabeth, whose nickname is embarrassingly mistranslated as “Sissy” instead of “Sisi.” What does the existence of a nineteenth century vacation house have to do with Mycenaean technology? Unfortunately, this tendency toward digression and irrelevancy mars an already short book (200 pages) with about 50-75 pages of padding. Worse still, the translation from the author’s original (modern) Greek to English is stilted and awkward, with innumerable mistakes of grammar and spelling that are by turn humorous or obfuscating.
The author demonstrates a clear ignorance of the ancient material he purports to analyze. In Chapter 11, he follows a long-disproved idea that the so-called Orphic Argonautica (c. 450 CE) predated the Odyssey (c. 700 BCE). Earlier, the author assumes that the river Acheron in Epirus is the actual river Acheron flowing through Hades and to which Odysseus sails. While later Greeks identified the two, the location of the physical Acheron in western Greece hardly matches the description of the infernal Acheron flowing at the ends of the Ocean. His discussions of Greek mythology are everywhere tinged with a non-specialists over-simplification and ignorance of contemporary work in the field, especially complications and controversies that would undermine his simple thesis.
Relying on long-outdated studies of Greek myth and history (including the early twentieth century work of Arthur Evans and the Depression-era studies of Martin Nilsson largely to the exclusion of any modern work), Paipetis builds a house of cards whereby the presumption that the Myceaeans had advanced technology leads him to interpret mythological events as technological descriptions, thus “proving” the existence of the technology.
One example can stand for them all. In discussing Odysseus’ passage between Scylla and Charybdis, the author assumes that the description records a Greek discourse on the physics of vortexes. Thus, Homer’s phrase “drive ship by as fast as you can” should, in the author’s words, be translated as “move fast, to account [for] speed loss due to friction and remain in course instead of diving to the bottom.” This he compares to the “gravitational sling” used by NASA to launch spacecraft out of the solar system by utilizing Jupiter’s gravitational force. However, the “friction” is the author’s own interpolation, a scientific term hardly necessary for the Greeks to understand the concept of going fast to escape from a whirlpool.
The author also believes that Homer’s descriptions of the automata built by the smith god Hephaestus represent descriptions of real robots with artificial intelligence. However, it has long been known that the ancients had mechanical or clockwork animals. The Byzantine emperors were particularly famous for their mechanical lions and birds. A poetic exaggeration of these real-life marvels is likely all that lies behind Hephaestus’s “robots,” with no naively literal reading of the Odyssey or speculation about ancient electricity necessary. (The author backtracks some and does state that he cannot prove that electricity and computing technology was available to run the robots.)
The author’s claim that Hephaestus’ invisible net is evidence of manmade Kevlar or a related material is simply ridiculous:
Such materials are rather modern technological achievements, e.g., glass and carbon fibres, or even organic fibres such as Kevlar. If such materials were available in Homer’s era, undoubtedly that civilization was marked by this highly developed technology.
His identification of the Phaecians’ boats as “probably a high speed jet hydrofoil” is laughable. Homer sang that the Phaecians’ boats had no pilots but sailed according to projected thoughts. There is no reason to imagine magical boats as a thousand-year memory of Mycenaean-era technology if the only evidence for their existence is Homer’s own poem, a poem filled with all sorts of magic that no appeal to technology could ever sufficiently explain.
That this study was published by Springer (albeit in the mechanics rather than classics arena) has given it a false legitimacy that may deceive the unwary into assuming that this is a scholarly work on Greek history. Instead, it is a work of rank speculation masquerading as science, using false analogies and wishful thinking to recreate a lost world that never was.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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