ELEFTHERNA, Crete — One of the goriest scenes in Homer's "Iliad," when Achilles slaughters 12 Trojans beside a funeral pyre, may have been a real practice among some ancient Greeks, according to new evidence.
A recent archeological find on Crete lends further weight to the belief that Homer, writing in the 8th Century before Christ, was chronicling actual customs and rituals, not just spinning colorful yarns.
"For the first time we have found absolute archeological evidence confirming the custom described by Homer in the 23rd book of the 'Iliad,' " said Nikos Stambolidis, associate professor of archeology at Crete University.
Achilles, greatest of the Greek warriors in the Trojan War, swears over his slain boyhood friend, Patroclus: "Before your funeral pyre I'll cut the throats of 12 glorious children of the Trojans, such is my murdering fury at your death."
He then builds a wooden pyre, covers it with offerings and slaughters his young Trojan captives.
The epic describes a great military campaign that united the Greek communities spread throughout the Aegean in the late Bronze Age--the siege of Troy in about 1200 BC.
Thought by many to be the finest epic poem ever, it tells of a feud between Achilles and the Greek commander, Agamemnon, who stole one of his handmaidens.
In anger, Achilles, the son of a goddess, refuses to fight and returns to battle only when Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero Hector.
Stambolidis, excavating among 10th to 7th Century BC pyres in a cemetery in the foothills of Mt. Ida in central Crete, found the skeleton of a man whose arms were bound behind him and his throat cut so violently that he was decapitated.
Evidence of human sacrifice has been found in the ancient civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean but this is the first discovery that matches Homer's ritual execution beside a pyre.
"We found a slaughtered man, about 30 to 40 years old, next to a funeral pyre," Stambolidis said during a recent walk among the terraced hillside vineyards and olive groves near the site.
"His head is missing. There is a broken knife next to the neck and a whet-stone to sharpen the executioner's blade," he said.
Stambolidis believes a prominent citizen or noble from the ancient city of Eleftherna was cremated on the pyre. He dates the find to 725-700 BC, meaning the killing happened about the time Homer composed his epic.
A compelling point for Stambolidis in the 2,700-year-old puzzle is that, so far, no head has been found. He believes it was burned on the pyre, which he will excavate next summer.
He points to suggestions in the "Iliad" that Achilles, after killing Hector in battle, burned the head of the Trojan hero on Patroclus' pyre.
On one point Stambolidis is certain: "The executed man . . . was an offering at the pyre, along with an ox, some sheep, perfume jars and fruit."
The archeologist knows the wind blew from the south on the day of the execution because of how the bones were singed. He also knows it was August or September because laboratory tests show the grapes among the offerings were fresh.
But he cannot say whether the executed man was a criminal, a prisoner of war or an innocent victim like one of Achilles' Trojans, slaughtered to appease the "murdering fury" of someone still living.
"I believe he was a prisoner of war who killed the person cremated on the pyre, but we'll never know for sure," he said.
Uncertainty and controversy surround the early history of the Greek world in the eastern Mediterranean. Disputes are also fierce over Homer and his epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Scholars debate which parts of Homer describe practices of the Mycenaean Greeks who dominated the Aegean in the 13th Century BC, and which parts describe later events or customs from Homer's own era, and which may have been invented simply to entertain.