The first time a man attempted to engrave a sign or a sketchy hunting scene on a rock, he was actually doing more than a simple drawing, he was defying time. That sign allowed him to overcome his transient nature, it was the everlasting witness of his existence, which could also become the legacy of his experience. Man, differently from any other species, soon understood that the transmission and storage of data was the key for his evolution and survival. The outcomes of present experience were to be passed to the next generations in order to be enriched with new developments and discoveries. It is the record of man’s achievements that allows us to overcome the limits our body, which is subjected to time and decay. But how could data be transmitted and stored in times when there was not the help of technology or not even the use of paper yet?
The first rudimentary means could be only memory. Greek epic poems, for example, played an important part in maintaining a record of the great deeds and history of a culture, before the development of writing. At first they were memorized and only later, they were written down. However, it was a huge effort, if you think that a popular translation of the Iliad runs to nearly to five hundred pages in small font, hence, one cannot but wonder on how the rhapsodes could sing their lengthy poems without any written texts. As far as we know, their performances could last many days. Techniques such as rhymes, rhythm, similes etc helped the bards memorize the lines for sure, but the story was the most helpful of all.
The main actors of these stories where the heroes, who actually embodied the highest expression of the values of their society: loyalty, honour, love for the country, sacrifice. With their deeds, they were the symbols of the power, pride but also ethics of their people, thus contributing, through a natural process of identification, in the making of what could be called national awareness. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the many poets and tragedians who followed up Homer‘s themes gave a “running” report of how to be Greek, which the young naturally learned to imitate. We have to consider, that at the time of Plato almost everyone could recite some or many portions of Homer or other poets, therefore, there were many who held in their memory not only the episodes of Polyphemus, Circe etc among the others, but also the knowledge.of the agricultural, metallurgical and building techniques of the times, food recipes etc. thus making epic poetry a sort of tribal encyclopedia as Professor Eric Havelock defined it.
The verses of Homer, in fact, not only guided archaeologists to the interpretation of the finds of excavations, but they proposed significant elements for the study of the first agriculture and livestock in the Aegean world. The Odyssey, in particular, provides some important elements which are absolutely singular. For example, when Odysseus visits the orchards of the King of the Phaeacian, he accurately gives details of the prodigy of irrigated agriculture of the time. Then, once landed in Ithaca he climbs through the woods and comes to the pigsty built by his servant Eumaeus, there he reports about a genuine breeding system for 600 sows, which seems to forerun modern farm models. Two prominent scholars of primitive agriculture, Antonio Saltini, professor of history of agriculture, and Giovanni Ballarini, a professor of veterinary pathology, were able to estimate, from the reading of Homer, the amount of acorns that the oaks of Ithaca could produce and the number of pigs that were breeded. When Odysseus meets his father, he reminds him of the different plants that the old man had given him for his first garden, mentioning 13 varieties of pears, 10 of apples, 40 types of figs and 50 different grapes, as proof of the intensity of the test selection which man had already subjected the fruit species at the dawn of the first millennium BC.
Therefore, Homer and the poets were not only artists but rather “ the equivalent of mass media, Internet and official state religion rolled all in one“. In times when there was no other form of communication, they were those romantic figures who had the task to spread the seeds of knowledge in order they could grow and blossom to guide man to modernity.