Homer and the Greeks

"By the general consent of criticks," wrote Dr. Johnson, "the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epick poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions." He was thinking of John Milton then, and he concluded his life of the English poet with these words: "His work is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first." That title had been pre-empted for all time by Homer, whom the Greeks called simply "the poet."

No other poet, no other literary figure in all history, for that matter, occupied a place in the life of his people such as Homer's. He was their pre-eminent symbol of nationhood, the unimpeachable authority on their earliest history, and a decisive figure in the creation of their pantheon, as well as their most beloved and most widely quoted poet. Plato tells us that there were Greeks who firmly believed that Homer "educated Hellas and that he deserves to be taken up as an instructor in the management and culture of human affairs, and that a man ought to regulate the whole of his life by following this poet." 1* Faced with such a judgment, on first looking into the Iliad or Odyssey

* References to numbers may be found under "Source References" at the back of the book.


one anticipates a Bible or some great treatise in philosophy, only to find two long narrative poems, one devoted to a few days in the ten-year war between Greeks and Trojans, the other to the homecoming troubles of Odysseus (whom the Romans knew as Ulysses).

Homer was a man's name, not the Greek equivalent of "Anonymous," and that is the one certain fact about him. Who he was, where he lived, when he composed, these are questions we cannot answer with assurance, any more than could the Greeks themselves. In truth, it is probable that the Iliad and the Odyssey which we read were the works of two men, not of one. They stand at the beginning of extant Greek literature and hence of European letters-along with the writings of Hesiod, who lived in central Greece in the district called Boeotia. Modern students think that the Iliad surely and the Odyssey probably were not composed on the Greek mainland but on one of the islands in the Aegean Sea or still farther east on the peninsula of Asia Minor (now Turkey And they think that the period between 750 and 650 as the century of this earliest literature.

For the long history of the Greeks before the time of Homer and Hesiod there is only the mute testimony of the stones, the pottery, and the metal objects unearthed by archaeologists. Intricate analysis of the remains and of place names has demonstrated that people speaking the Greek language, but ignorant of the art of writing, first appeared on the scene about 2000 B.C. Where they came from originally no one knows. In Plato's day, some fifteen hundred years later, they were to be found scattered over a tremendous territory from Trebizond near the eastern end of the Black Sea to the Mediterranean shores of France and North Africa-perhaps five or six million souls all


told. These migrants were not the first inhabitants of Greece by any means, nor did they come as highly civilized conquerors overwhelming savage tribes. Archaeologists have discovered ample evidence of relatively advanced pre-Greek civilizations, some traced back well into the Stone Age, before 3000 B.C. By and large, the level of social and material development in the area was much superior to that of the newcomers. When the people whose language was Greek arrived, they came not in one mass migration, not as a sweeping destructive horde, not in a great trek across the difficult mountain terrain of northern Greece, not as an organized colonizing expedition, but rather in a process of infiltration lasting nearly a thousand years.

The human mind plays strange tricks with time perspectives when the distant past is under consideration: centuries become as years and millennia as decades. It requires conscious effort to make the necessary correction, to appreciate that an infiltration over several centuries would not appear to the participants as a single connected movement at all; that, in other words, neither the Greeks nor the natives into whose world they came were likely to have any idea that something big and historic was taking place. Instead they saw individual occurrences, sometimes peaceable and in no way noteworthy, sometimes troublesome and even violently destructive of lives and ways of life. Biologically and culturally these were centuries of thorough intermixture. There is a clear reminiscence of the situation in the Odyssey, when Odysseus says, jumbling Greek and aboriginal names together: "There is a land called Crete in the midst of the wine-dark sea...and in it are many men beyond number and ninety cities. And there is a mixture of tongues; there are Achaeans there, and great-hearted EteoCretans, and Cydonians and Dorians of the waving hair and


illustrious Pelasgians." 2 Skeletal remains show the biological fusion; language and religion provide the chief evidence with respect to culture. The end product, after a thousand years or so, was the historical people we call the Greeks. In a significant sense, the original migrants were not Greeks, but people who spoke Greek and who were to become one element in a later composite which could lay proper claim to the name. The Angles and Saxons in Britain offer a convenient analogy: they were not Englishmen, but they were to become Englishmen one day.

It was to take the Greeks more than a thousand years to acquire a name of their own-and today they have two. In their own language they are Hellenes, and their country is Hellas. Graeci is the name given to them by the Romans and later adopted generally in Europe. In antiquity, furthermore, their eastern neighbors used still a third name for them-lonians, the lavones of the Old Testament. And all three are late, for we find none of them in Homer. He called his people Argives, Danaans, and, most frequently, Achaeans. Now Achaeans, it so happens, appear quite early in non-Greek sources. In the great Hittite archive discovered at Boghaz-Keui in North Central Turkey there are several references in the period 1365-1200 B.C. to a kingdom called in Hittite Achchiyava, one of whose rulers was named Atarshiyash. On linguistic grounds, it is reasonable to identify Achchiyava with Achaea, and perhaps Atarshiyash with Atreus, in the Homeric poems the father of Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, and of Menelaus, king of the Spartans and husband of Helen of Troy. Achchiyava cannot be located with any certainty, but the probability is that it was either the island of Rhodes or some place on the


Greek mainland. But wherever it was, it was only a local kingdom within the total Greek area, and nothing more.

It is idle to speculate when the word Achaean came to be applied to all Greeks, or why. In 1350 B.C. it was surely not. Near the end of the following century we meet the Achaeans again, this time as participants with other peoples in a great but unsuccessful sea raid on Egypt. The victorious monarch, the Pharaoh Merneptah, had the list of his captives and trophies inscribed on the walls of the temple at Karnak on the Nile. One entry refers to the Achaeans, "whose hands were carried off, for they had no foreskins." 3 Circumcision was a common enough practice in the eastern Mediterranean but it was absolutely unknown among the Greeks in historical -times. -The people Achchiyava who were powerful enough to raid Egypt and Hittite territory were evidently still in the formative stage of becoming Greeks, still non-Greek as well as Greek. When the local name "Achaean" became the word for all the Greeks, even if not the exclusive word and even if only for a brief period before it was replaced by "Hellene," the formative period may be considered ended: the common name is a symbol that Greek history proper had been launched.* For us, that means with the Iliad .

It goes without saying that the formation of a Greek people and a Greek civilization was not a planned process or in any narrow sense a conscious one. Trial and error and imitation were the chief techniques, so that a measure of social and cultural diversity, often of the most striking kind, was characteristic of Hellas in its infancy. Indeed the tempo and direction of change continued to vary throughout Greek history.

* After Homer, both Achaea and Argos survived as local place names, districts in southern Greece.


One element, however, was remarkably stable all the time. The language with which the migrants entered Greece is classified as a member of the numerous Indo-European family, which includes the ancient languages of India (Sanskrit) and Persia, Armenian, the Slavic tongues, several Baltic languages (Lithuanian, for instance), Albanian, the Italic languages, among which are Latin and its modern descendants, the Celtic group, of which Gaelic and Welsh have retained some vitality to our own day, the Germanic languages, and various dead languages once spoken in the Mediterranean region, like Hittite (now recovered), Phrygian, and Illyrian.

For a very long time, until about 300 B.C., Greek was a language of many dialects. But the differences among them were chiefly in matters of pronunciation and spelling, less frequently in vocabulary and syntax. They were considerable, but still not so great as to render a speaker in one dialect utterly unintelligible to men brought up on another, perhaps no more so than in the extreme modem instance of a Neapolitan coming to Venice. Even the artificial poetic dialect of Homer, with its Aeolic base embedded in an Ionian frame and its many coined words and forms made necessary by the meter, was apparently understood well enough by the uneducated as well as the learned all over the Greek world.

Exactly when the Greeks began to write has been a secret locked in the undeciphered tablets of Crete and Mycenae; the most recent investigations suggest the date may go back as far as 1400 B.C. The decisive point, however, came considerably later, when the Greeks took over the so-called Phoenician alphabet. With the signs came the Phoenician names for the letters so that perfectly good Semitic words-aleph, an ox; bet al house-were turned into Greek nonsense syllables, alpha, beta,


and so on. The actual borrowing process can be neither de scribed nor dated very closely: the guesses range between 1000 and 750 B.C. The one thing that is certain about the operation is its deliberate, rational character, for whoever was responsible did much more than imitate. The Phoenician sign system was not simply copied; it was modified radically to fit the needs of the Greek language, which is totally unrelated to the Semitic family. Equipped with this remarkable new invention, the Greeks could now record everything imaginable, from the owner's name scratched on a clay jug to a book-length poem like the Iliad . But what they wrote down and what remains today are utterly disproportionate in their bulk. Ancient literature, broadly understood to include science, philosophy, and social analysis, as well as belles-lettres, faced a severe struggle for survival. The works of Homer and Plato and Euclid were written by hand on scrolls, usually of the papyrus reed. From the originals, copies were made, always by hand, on papyrus or later on parchment (vellum). None of these materials is everlasting. What survived was, apart from some accidental exceptions, what was deemed worthy of being copied and recopied for hundreds of years of Greek history and then through more hundreds of years of Byzantine history, centuries in which values and fashions changed more than once, often radically.

How little came through this sifting process is easily illustrated. The names of some 150 Greek authors of tragedy are known, but, apart from odd scraps quoted by later Greek or Roman authors and anthologists, the plays of only 3, Athenians of the fifth century B.C., are extant. Nor is that the end of it. Aeschylus wrote 82 plays, and we have 7 in full; Sophocles is said to have written 123, of which 7 still exist; and we can


read 19 of Euripides' 92. What we read, furthermore, if we read the Greek original, is a text laboriously collated from medieval manuscripts, usually from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries of our era, the end product of an unknown number of recopyings, and therefore always of possibly distorted transcription. Only in Egypt was it possible for written papyrus texts to last indefinitely, thanks to the natural dehydration provided by the peculiar climatic conditions. Egypt came under Greek control in the empire of Alexander the Great, after which there was extensive migration of Greeks to the Nile. From the third century B.C. to the Arab conquest a thousand years later, Greek was the language of letters in Egypt, and many of the papyrus finds contain literary fragments that are much older than the medieval manuscripts. In a few cases-the works of the lyric poet Bacchylides, some comedies of Menander, the mimes of Herondas, Aristotle's little book on the Athenian constitution --the papyri have even brought back to light notable works that had been altogether lost. Their number is so small, however, as to underscore the fact that the process of elimination had been under way long before the monkish copyists of medieval Christendom. In the library established at Alexandria by the Greek rulers of Egypt in the third century before Christ, the greatest library of the ancient world, only 74 or 78 of Euripides' 92 plays were available, revealing a considerable loss in the relatively short span of two centuries. At Alexandria and elsewhere scholars and librarians then resisted the process of desuetude, preserving many works in which general interest had declined or died out altogether. But in the early centuries of the Christian era there was an end even to such efforts, and the disappearance of ancient books proceeded rapidly. The papyri of Egypt also make it abundantly clear that, in


the struggle for literary survival, Homer was without a rival. Of all the scraps and fragments of literary works found in Egypt that had been published by 1949, there is a total of 1233 books by authors whose names are identifiable. This figure represents individual copies, not separate titles. Of the 1233, nearly one-half-555, to be precise-were copies of the Iliad or Odyssey, or commentaries upon them. The Iliad outnumbered the Odyssey by 380 to 113. The next most "popular" author was the orator Demosthenes, with 74 papyri (again including commentaries), followed by Euripides with 54 and Hesiod with 40. Plato is represented by but 36 papyri, Aristotle by 6. These are figures of book-copying among the Greeks in Egypt after Alexander, to be sure, but all the evidence indicates that they may be taken as fairly typical of the Greek world generally. If a Greek owned any books-that is, papyrus rolls-he was almost as likely to own the Iliad and Odyssey as anything from the rest of Greek literature. There were thinkers among the Greeks who doubted that this was good or desirable. To those who called Homer the teacher of Hellas, Plato replied: Yes, he is "first and most poetical among the tragic poets," but a proper society would bar all poetry "with the sole exception of hymns to the gods and encomia to the good. 4 Two centuries earlier the philosopher Xenophanes had protested that "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is disgraceful and blameworthy among men: theft, adultery, and deceit." 5 Like Plato, he recognized the tremendous hold Homer had on the Greeks, and he thought that the effect was all bad. Homer, it is essential to recall, was not just a poet; he was a teller of myths and legends. The mythmaking process had of course begun among the Greeks many centuries earlier, and it


went on continuously wherever there were Greeks, always by word of mouth and always ceremonially. It was activity on the highest social level, not just the casual daydreaming of a poet here, a more imaginative peasant there. The essential subject matter of myth was action, not ideas, creeds, or symbolic representations, but happenings, occurrences-wars, floods, adventures by land, sea, and air, family quarrels, births, marriages, and deaths. As men listened to the narratives, in rituals, at ceremonial games, or on other social occasions, they lived through a vicarious experience. They believed the narrative implicitly. "In mythical imagination there is always implied an act of belief. Without the belief in the reality of its object, myth would lose its ground." 6 That may be true of savages, one may object at this point, but the Greeks were not savages. They were too civilized to believe that it was the god Poseidon who bodily prevented Odysseus from reaching his home in Ithaca, or that Zeus impregnated Leda in the guise of a swan, or that there were witches like Circe with the power to turn men into swine. These are symbolic tales, allegories, parables, perhaps dreamlike reflections of the unconscious, conveying elaborate ethical and psychological analyses and insights. Nothing could be more wrong. Where he is able to study myth which is still alive" and not "mummified," not "enshrined in the indestructible but lifeless repository of dead religions," the anthropologist discovers that myth "is not of the nature of fiction ... but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened."7 The Greeks of Homer were not primitive men, like Malinowski's Trobrianders; they lived in what is often called, by convention, an archaic society. And the Greeks of the succeeding centuries were remarkably civilized people. Yet the


bitterness of Xenophanes in the sixth century B.C. and of Plato in the fourth proves precisely that, with respect to myth, many of their fellow citizens shared the Trobriander view, or at least were closer to it than to the symbolist view. Plato himself had no doubts about the veracity of the history in Homer; it was the philosophy and morality that he rejected, the notions of justice and the gods, of good and evil, not the tale of Troy. We must not underestimate the intellectual feat that it was for later generations to separate out the strands of the Homeric tales, to recreate the Trojan War without the arrows of Apollo or the Odyssey without the gale-producing breath of Poseidon. Few Greeks ever attained the outright rejection of the traditional myth found in Xenophanes. Between that extreme and the primitive acceptance in full there were many intermediate points, and Greeks could be found at each. Writing toward the end of the fifth century B.C., the historian Herodotus said, "The Hellenes tell many things without proper examination; among them is the silly myth they tell about Heracles." That myth describes how Heracles (now better known in the Latin form, Hercules) went to Egypt, was about to be sacrificed to Zeus, and at the last moment slew all his captors. How silly, says Herodotus, when a study of Egyptian customs reveals that human sacrifice was unthinkable among them." But Herodotus had no difficulty in believing that Heracles actually existed once upon a time. In fact, he thought there had been two. Herodotus was a widely traveled man; he found what he identified as Heracles myths and Heracles cults, or parallels, everywhere, in Phoenician Tyre and in Egypt as well as among Hellenes. He tried to sift out truth from fable and to reconcile contradictions and discrepancies. Among the conclusions to which he came were that the name Heracles was originally Egyptian -- for


which Plutarch later accused him of being a "barbarian-lover" -- and that there were actually two figures of that name, one a god, the other a hero. What else could Herodotus have done? The accumulated tradition of centuries of myths and legends, sacred and profane, was all there was in the way of early Greek history. Some of it was obviously self-contradictory from the beginning. In one respect the ancient Greeks were always a divided people. They entered the Mediterranean world in small groups, and even when they settled and finally took control they remained disunited in their political organization. By Herodotus's time, and for many years before, Greek settlements were to be found not only all over the area of modern Hellas but also along the Black Sea, on the shores of what is now Turkey, in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, on the North African coast, and on the littoral of southern France. Within this ellipse of some fifteen hundred miles at the poles, there were hundreds and hundreds of communities, often differing in their political structures and always insisting on their separate sovereignties. Neither, then - nor. at any time in the ancient world was there a nation., a single national territory under one sovereign rule, called Greece (or any synonym for Greece).

Such a world could not possibly have produced a unified, consistent national mythology. In the early centuries, when myth-creation was an active process in its most vital and living stage, the myths necessarily underwent constant alteration. Each new tribe, each new community, each shift in power relations within the aristocratic elite, meant some change in the genealogies of heroes, in the outcome of past family feuds, in the delicate balances among men and gods. Obviously the new


version developed in one area did not coincide with the old, or new, versions known in dozens of other areas. Nor was agreement sought. Neither the myth-tellers nor their audiences were scholars; they were participants in their own social activities and they were not in the least concerned with the myths of others. It was altogether another world when a historian like Herodotus engaged in the study of comparative mythology. Then it became necessary to manipulate the traditional accounts -- manipulate, but not discard. They were checked for inner consistency, corrected and amplified with the knowledge acquired from the very much older records and traditions of other peoples-Egyptians and Babylonians, in particular-and rationalized wherever possible. Thus purified, they could be retained, as history if not as anything more. A human society without myth has never been known, and indeed it is doubtful whether such a society is at all possible. One measure of man's advance from his most primitive beginnings to something we call civilization is the way in which he controls his myths, his ability to distinguish between the areas of behavior, the extent to which he can bring more and more of his activity under the rule of reason. In that advance the Greeks have been pre-eminent. Perhaps their greatest achievement lay in their discovery-more precisely, in Socrates' discovery-that man is "that being who, when asked a rational question, can give a rational answer." 9 Homer was so far from Socrates that he was not even cognizant of man as an integrated psychic whole. Nevertheless, Homer occupies the first stage in the history of Greek control over its myths; his poems are often pre-Greek, as it were, in their treatment of myth, but they also have flashes of something else, of a genius for ordering the


world, for bringing man and nature, men and the gods, into harmony in a way that succeeding centuries were to expand and elevate to the glory of Hellenism. If it is true that European history began with the Greeks, it is equally true that Greek history began with the world of Odysseus. And, like all human beginnings, it had a long history behind it. For history, as Jacob Burckhardt remarked, is the one field of study in which one cannot begin at the beginning.



Bards and Heroes

The tale of man's decline and fall has been told in many ways. One elaborately patterned version, probably Iranian in origin, had man destined to pass through four ages, four steps taking him farther and farther from justice and morality, from the paradise in which the gods had originally placed him. Each age was symbolized by a metal: in descending order, gold, silver, bronze or copper, and iron. In due course this myth traveled west to Greece. But when first we meet it there, in the Works and Days of Hesiod, it has acquired an altogether new element. Between the age of bronze and the iron age of the present, a fifth has intruded. "But when the earth had covered this (bronze) generation also, Zeus the son of Cronus made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a godlike race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven-gated Thebes when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen's sake: there death's end en-


shrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronus gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they lived untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year..." 1

We do not know whether it was Hesiod or some nameless predecessor who converted the eastern myth of four ages into this Hellenic myth of five ages. Nor does it matter, for the substance is clear. A separate Greek tradition was imposed on the ill-digested importation, and the fusion was loosely and carelessly accomplished. By the time the eastern myth came to Greece the Hellenes had firmly fixed in their past history an age of heroes. Under no circumstances would they surrender that brief period of honor and glory. Instead they inserted it into the sequence of metals, leaving it to modern scholars to dig out the crudities and the contradictions and to piece out explanations.

That there had once been a time of heroes few Greeks, early or late, ever doubted. They knew all about them: their names, their genealogies, and their exploits. Homer was their most authoritative source of information, but by no means the only one. Unfortunately, neither Homer nor Hesiod had the slightest interest in history as we might understand the notion. The poets' concern was with certain facts of the past, not with their relationship to other facts, past or present, and, in the case of Homer, not even with the consequences of those facts. The outcome of the Trojan War, the fall and destruction of Troy and the fruits of Greek victory, would have been of prime importance to a historian of the war. Yet the poet of the Iliad was utterly in-


different to all that, the poet of the Odyssey scarcely less so. Similarly with the ages of man. In the Zoroastrian version there is a mathematical precision: each age was of 3000 years, and in each law and morality declined by one-fourth. In Hesiod there is not even a whisper about date or duration, just as Homer gives no indication of the date of the Trojan War Other than "once upon a time."

Later Greeks worked the chronology out in detail. Although they did not reach entire agreement, few departed very far from a date equivalent to 1200 B.C. for the war with Troy and a period of four generations as the age of the heroes. Homer, they decided, lived four hundred years later, and Hesiod was his contemporary-in one tradition, even his cousin.

Heroes are ubiquitous, of course. There are always men called heroes; and that is misleading, for the identity of label conceals a staggering diversity of substance. In a sense, they always seek honor and glory, and that too may be misleading without further definition of the contents of honor and the road to glory. Few of the heroes of history, or of literature from the Athenian drama of the fifth century B.C. to our own time, shared the singlemindedness of their Homeric counterparts. For the latter everything pivoted on a single element of honor and virtue: strength, bravery, physical courage, prowess. Conversely, there was no weakness, no unheroic trait, but one, and that was cowardice and the consequent failure to pursue heroic goals.

"O Zeus and the other gods," prayed Hector, "grant that this my son shall become as I am, most distinguished among the Trojans, as strong and valiant, and that he rule by might in Ilion. And then may men say, 'He is far braver than his father,'


as he returns from war. May he bring back spoils stained with the blood of men he has slain, and may his mother's heart rejoice." * There is no social conscience in these words, no trace of the Decalogue, no responsibility other than familial, no obligation to anyone or anything but one's own prowess and one's own drive to victory and power.

The age of heroes, then, as Homer understood it, was a time in which men exceeded subsequent standards with respect to a specified and severely limited group of qualities. In a measure, these virtues, these values and capacities, were shared by many men of the period, for otherwise there could have been no distinct age of heroes between the bronze and the iron. Particularly in the Odyssey the word "hero" is a class term for the whole aristocracy, and at times it even seems to embrace all the free men. "Tomorrow," Athena instructed Telemachus, "summon the Achaean heroes to an assembly"2 by which she meant "call the regular assembly of Ithaca." That in fact there had never been a four-generation heroic age in Greece, in the precise, self-contained sense of Homer, scarcely requires demonstration. The serious problem for the historian is to determine whether, and to what extent, there is anything in the poems that relates to social and historical reality; how much, in other words, of the world of Odysseus existed only in the poet's head and how much outside, in space and time. The prior question to be considered is whence the poet took his ideas about that world and his stories of its wars and its heroes' private lives.

* Iliad 6.476-81. A problem of translation may be noted here. In Homeric psychology, every feeling, emotion, or idea was attributed. to an organ of the body, such, as the heart or the -- unidentifiable -- thymos. Sometimes the feeling itself was given the name of the organ. Such phrases are scarcely translatable. I have usually rendered all these words by "heart," to fit our customary metaphorical usage, although the sense in Homer is much more literal.


The heroic poem, a genre of which the Iliad and Odyssey are the greatest examples, must be distinguished from the literary epic like the Aeneid or Paradise Lost. Heroic poetry is always oral poetry; it is composed orally, often by bards who are illiterate, and it is recited in a chant to a listening audience. Formally, it is at once distinguishable by the constant repetition of phrases, lines, and whole groups of lines. The coming of day is nearly always, in Homer, "And when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, the child of morn." When a verbal message is sent (and Homeric messages are never in writing), the poet has the messenger hear the exact text and then repeat it to the recipient word for word. Athena is "owl-eyed," the island of Ithaca "sea girt," Achilles "city-sacking." Yet this is no simple, monotonous repetition. There are thirty-six different epithets for Achilles, for example, and the choice is rigorously determined by the position in the line and the required syntactical form. It has been calculated that there are some twenty-five formulaic expressions, or fragments of formulas, in the first twenty-five lines of the Iliad alone. About one-third of the entire poem consists of lines or blocks of lines which occur more than once in the work, and the same is true of the Odyssey.

Sophisticated readers of printed books have often misunderstood the device of repetition as a mark of limited imagination and of the primitive state of the art of poetry. Thus French critics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries placed Vergil above Homer precisely because the former did not repeat himself but always found a new phrasing and new combinations. What they failed to perceive was that the repeated formula is indispensable in heroic poetry. The bard composes -directly before-his audience; he does not recite memorized lines. In 1934, at the request of Professor Milman Parry, a sixty-year-old Serbian bard who


could neither read nor write recited for him a poem of the length of the Odyssey, making it up as he went along, yet retaining meter and form and building a complicated narrative. The performance took two weeks, with a week in between, the bard chanting for two hours each morning and two more in the afternoon.

Such a feat makes enormous demands in concentration on both the bard and his audience. That it can be done at all is attributable to the fact that the poet, a professional with long years of apprenticeship behind him, has at his disposal the necessary raw materials: masses of incidents and masses of formulas, the accumulation of generations of minstrels who came before him. The Greek stock included the many varied and hopelessly contradictory myths that had been created in connection with their religious rites; all kinds of tales about mortal heroes, some fanciful and some reasonably accurate; and the formulas that could fit any incident: the coming of dawn and of the night, scenes of combat and burial and feasting, the ordinary activities of men-arising and eating and drinking and dreaming -- descriptions of palaces and meadows, arms and treasure, metaphors of the sea or of pasturage, and so on beyond enumeration. Out of these building blocks the poet constructs his work, and each work -- each performance, in other words-is a new one, though all the elements may be old and well known.

Repetition of the familiar is equally essential for the audience. To follow a long and many-faceted tale, often told over many days and nights, chanted in a language that is not the language of everyday speech, with its metrically imposed artificial word order and its strange grammatical forms and vocabulary, is also no mean achievement, made possible by precisely


the same formulaic devices that are indispensable for the creator. Poet and audience alike rest frequently, so to speak, as the familiar rosy-fingered Dawns and the messages repeated word for word roll forth. While they rest, the one prepares the next line or episode, the others prepare to attend to it.

Now it is possible, as has recently been argued, that the Iliad as we know it was composed in writing, and not orally. And it is nearly indisputable that the Iliad has a quality of originality and genius beyond all other heroic poems, even the best of them-Beowulf, for instance, or The Cid or The Song of Roland. Even so, both the Iliad and the Odyssey reveal in fullest measure all the essential characteristics of unwritten heroic poetry the world over. Behind them lay long practice in the art of the bard, which had evolved the remarkable but totally artificial dialect of the poems, a dialect which no Greek ever spoke but which remained permanently fixed as the language of Greek epic. Behind them, too, lay the generations that had created the formulaic elements, the building blocks of the poems.

With the Iliad and the Odyssey Greek heroic poetry reached its glory. Soon the bard who composed as he chanted began to give way to the rhapsodist who was primarily a reciter of memorized lines, and to the hack who prepared rehashed versions with scant literary merit. New forms composed in writing, the short lyric and then the drama, replaced the oral epic as the vehicles of artistic expression. Just when the shift occurred is disputed by the experts without end, and without a semblance of agreement. One plausible view is that the Iliad took roughly, but not precisely, the form in which we now have it in the eighth century before Christ, more likely in the latter


half of the century than in the earlier; that Hesiod flourished a generation or so later; and that the Odyssey was composed still another generation or two after Hesiod.

Such a dating scheme, with two Homers a hundred years apart, seems at first thought to be impossible. For more than two thousand years men of taste, intelligence, and expert knowledge never questioned the tradition that one man wrote both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and their unanimous judgment had the support of the style and language of the, poems, which are virtually indistinguishable. But once the technique of ancient bardic composition was rediscovered, and with it the secret of the deceptive uniformity of style, then the really great differences between the two poems could be seen in their full perspective. Some of these differences had already drawn comment in antiquity. The Roman Pliny noted that there is- more magic in the Odyssey, and he was right to a degree. In the Iliad the interventions of the gods have the character of minor miracles, but not even Achilles possess magical powers, though his divine mother Thetis watches over him constantly. The Odyssey has similar interventions, but it also has the Circe episode, which rests on a series of magical formulas in the most precise sense and form.

A more striking distinction is to be observed in the relations between the heroes and the gods. Although the basic decisions are made on Olympus in both tales, in the Iliad the gods interfere spasmodically, in the Odyssey Athena leads Odysseus and Telemachus step by step. The later poem opens in heaven with Athena's appeal to Zeus to bring the hero's trials to an end, and it closes when the goddess puts a stop to the blood feud between the hero and the kinsmen of the suitors he had killed. Even the motivation of the gods differs; in the Iliad it is per-


sonal, the expression of the likes and dislikes of individual deities for one hero or another, whereas in the Odyssey the personal element has been supplemented, in part and in stiff rudimentary fashion, by the requirements of justice.

The Iliad is filled with the action of heroes. Even when it departs from its central theme, the wrath of Achilles, its attention never wavers from heroic deeds and interests. The Odyssey, although shorter, has two distinct and essentially unconnected themes: the fairy-tale wanderings of Odysseus and the struggle for power in Ithaca. Given its location in an age of heroes, the Odyssey _ has only one proper hero, Odysseus himself. His companions are faceless mediocrities. His son Telemachus is sweet and dutiful, and when he grows up he may develop into a hero, but the poet does not take him that far. The suitors for Penelope's hand are villains-an incongruity, because "hero" and "villain" are not yet proper antonyms; they are not even commensurable terms; hence there are no villains in the Iliad . Penelope herself is little more than a convenient "mythologically available character.3 Penelope became a moral heroine for later generations, the embodiment of goodness and chastity, to be contrasted with the faithless, murdering Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon's wife; but "hero" has no feminine gender- in the age of heroes.

Finally, the Iliad is oriented eastward, from the vantage point of Greece, the Odyssey to the west. Greek relations with the west began relatively late, not before the middle of the eighth century B.C., in rather tentative fashion, to become, in the following century, extensive penetration and migration into Sicily, southern Italy, and beyond. The presumption is, then, that the Odyssey reflects this new aspect of Greek history by taking traditional materials and facing them westward. This


is not to say that the travels of Odysseus in Never-Never Land can be retraced on a map. All attempts to do just that, and they have been numerous from ancient times on, have foundered. Even the topographical detail of Odysseus' home island of Ithaca can be shown to be a jumble, with several essential points appropriate to the neighboring isle of Leucas but quite impossible for Ithaca.

Despite these differences, however, the Iliad and Odyssey stand together as against the poems of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days. For all his use of the language and the formulas, Hesiod does not properly belong with the heroic poets. Whenever he treats of matters that are not obvious myth, when he deals with human society and human behavior, he is always personal and contemporary in his outlook. Neither heroes nor ordinary mortals of a past age are his characters, but Hesiod himself, his brother, his neighbors. Hesiod is wholly a part of the iron age of the present, specifically of the archaic Greek world of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.

Not so the Iliad or Odyssey. They look to a departed era, and their substance is unmistakably old. The Odyssey in particular encompasses a wide field of human activities and relationships: social structure and family life, royalty, aristocrats, and commoners, banqueting and plowing and swineherding. These are things about which we know a little as regards the seventh century, in which the Odyssey was apparently composed, and what we know and what the Odyssey relates are simply not the same. It is enough to point to the polis (city state) form of political organization, widespread in the Hellenic world by then. On the island of Chios, which made the strongest claim to being "Homer's" birthplace, the polis had even moved to democracy, on the evidence of a fragmentary stone inscrip-


tion scarcely later in date than the Odyssey. Yet neither poem has any trace of a polis in its classical political sense. Polis in Homer means nothing more than a fortified site, a town. The poets of the Iliad and Odyssey, unlike Hesiod, were basically neither personal nor contemporary in their reference.

In our present texts, each poem is divided into twenty-four "books," one for each letter of the Greek alphabet. This was a late arrangement, the work of the Alexandrian scholars, and its arbitrariness is apparent. The individual books vary in length and they do not always have unity of content, although many are so self-contained that one is tempted to think of them as having been planned for recitation at a single sitting. Properly to dissect the poems, one must read them without reference to the Alexandrian division. Then it becomes clear how in the Odyssey the story of the Trojan War, the struggle with the suitors, and a fairy tale, the adventures of a Greek Sinbad the Sailor, were all stitched together-a rhapsodist was literally a "stitcher of songs"-along with many little pieces, like the myth of the adultery between Ares and Aphrodite, myths of the afterlife, or the account of the kidnapping of a young prince and his sale into slavery (the swineherd Eumaeus). The Iliad may not have as obviously independent large pieces, but the snippets are innumerable. Each reminiscence and genealogic tale could have circulated, and unquestionably did, as an independent short heroic poem. The account of the funeral games for Patroclus was appropriate, with no more alteration than a change in the names, whenever the narrative required the burial of a hero. The bits of Olympian mythology fit anywhere. The genius of the Iliad and Odyssey does not lie in the individual pieces, or even in the language, for that was all a common stock of materials available to any bard in excessive


quantity. The pre-eminence of a Homer lies in the scale on which he worked and in the freshness with which he selected and manipulated what he inherited, in the little variations and inventions he introduced-in the stitching. Paradoxically, the greater the mass of accumulated materials, the greater the poet's freedom, given a desire and the ability to exercise it. Through his unparalleled skill in choice of incidents and background formulas and in his combinations, a Homer could create a world in his own image, strikingly different in certain essentials from what older bards had passed on to him, and yet, in appearance, remain within the fixed path of bardic tradition, and, in fact, retain a large part of that traditional world.

Merely as narrative, the Iliad and Odyssey together, for all their unprecedented length, omit very much of what was in their time the accepted history of the Trojan War and its aftermath. This was a matter of free decision, for the poets knew the whole history well, as they assumed their audiences did too. Then other long, clearly inferior epics were composed from the traditional stock, until there was a cycle of seven poems, telling the story from the creation of the gods to the death of Odysseus and the marriage of Telemachus and Circe. For a time they were all attributed to Homer; the Homer whom Xenophanes attacked was probably a collective name for the Trojan cycle.* However, the incomparable qualities of the Iliad and Odyssey were early apparent, although not until the fourth and third centuries B.C. was it concluded that Homer did not write the rest of the cycle as well. The other poems survived for five or six hundred years thereafter and then they

* Xenophanes was born about 570 B.C., perhaps no more than two generations after the composition of the Odyssey. The sharpness of his critique thus testifies to both the enormous popular appeal of the poems and the rapidity of their acceptance.


disappeared, except for a few verses in anthologies or quotations.

Conceivably the bards who finally shaped the Iliad and Odyssey did so in writing. However, the diffusion of the two poems was oral. The Greek world of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. was deeply unlettered, despite the introduction of the alphabet. In fact, Greek literature continued to be oral for a very long time. The tragedies, for example, were surely composed in writing; but they were read by men who could be counted perhaps in the hundreds, and they were heard and reheard by many tens of thousands all over Hellas. The recitation of poetry, heroic, lyric, or dramatic, was always an essential feature of the numerous religious festivals. The origins of that practice are lost in the prehistoric era, when myth was often ritual drama, the vivid re-enactment before the assembled people of the procession of the seasons or whatever other phenomenon inspired the ceremony. In historical times ritual drama lived on and continued to flourish I the Demeter cult and other rites known collectively as "mysteries." But they were no longer the great festive occasions of dramatic performance and poetic recitation. Homer's place was in the official celebrations honoring the Olympic gods, some pan-Hellenic, like the quadrennial Olympic games dedicated to Zeus, others pan-Ionian, like the festival of the Delian Apollo, still others purely local, like the annual Panathenaic in Athens. There ritual drama was gone, except for vestigial remains; instead, the gods were celebrated by other means, which invoked a less direct and less "primitive" communion between men and the immortals.

In large part the reciters and performers were professionals, and it is one of the interesting facts of social history that in


many sectors of the world they were among the first to break the primeval rule that a man lives, works, and dies within his tribe or community. There is a hint of this in the Odyssey when the swineherd Eumaeus, berated for having brought a foreign beggar to the banquet in the palace, disingenuously countered the charge with a rhetorical question: "For who ever summons a stranger from abroad and brings him along, unless he be one of the craftsmen (demioergoi), a seer or healer of ills or worker in wood, or even an inspired bard who can charm with his song?" 4 The frame of reference here is, of course, the private, purely secular feast, not a religious festival. But the traveling ritual player-even the organized company, such as the Arioi of the Society Islands and the Hula of Hawaii-is known from much more primitive societies, Traveling artists were important in Greece throughout its history. Plato's Ion takes its name from a rhapsodist, Ion of Ephesus in Asia Minor. When the dialogue opens, Ion tells Socrates that he has just come from Epidaurus, where he won first prize for his Homeric recitation at the quadrennial games to Asclepius, and that he fully expects to be equally successful in the coming Panathenaic festival in Athens.

The combination of oral transmission and lack of political centralization could in time have led to many Iliad s, diverging further and further from the "original." The temptation to tamper with the text must have been great, on political grounds alone. As the unchallenged authority on early history, Homer was often an embarrassment-to the Athenians, for example, whose pathetically small role in the great "national" war against Troy was increasingly incommensurate with their ascending role in Greek political affairs. But in her sharp sixth-century struggle with Megara for control of the island of Salamis, which dominates the Athenian harbor, Athens was able to justify her claim on historical grounds. "Ajax," says the Iliad , "brought twelve ships from Salamis, and bringing, he stationed them alongside the hosts of the Athenians." 5 To this Megara had but one answer - for neither the accuracy of Homer's history nor its relevance in territorial disputes was subject to question - and that was to charge forgery. The "and bringing" clause, said the Megarians, was a deliberate Athenian interpolation, not part of the genuine text at all.

In the Salamis case the Alexandrian scholars in later centuries tended to agree with Megara. The forger, they thought, was Pisistratus, tyrant of Athens from 560 to 527 B.C., who, together with Solon, had taken Salamis from Megara. Far more important, it was Pisistratus who was widely reputed to have settled the problem of an authentic Homeric text once and for all by having it fixed by experts and committed to writing in a formal edition, so to speak. There was a competing tradition which assigned this role to Solon, author of the great Athenian constitutional reform of 594 B.C. In the words of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers in the third century after Christ, but who is here quoting a fourth-century B.C. author of a Megaran History, it was Solon who "prescribed that the rhapsodists shall recite Homer in fixed order, so that where the first leaves off, the next shall begin from that place." 6

That there was a relatively ancient sixth-century Athenian recension at the root of our present texts of the Iliad and Odyssey seems to have been demonstrated from a close study of the dialect of the poems. There is some reason to accept the tradition that Pisistratus was the sponsor of that "edition." The attribution to Solon sounds suspiciously like a late effort


to transfer the credit from a tyrant to the man who had become to the Greeks the counter-symbol, the constitutional, moderate aristocrat, at once against tyranny and despotism and against "mob rule."

A Pisistratean Homer poses two problems. The first and simpler of the two is this: Our present texts of the poems derive from medieval manuscripts, none earlier than the tenth century, and from numerous fragments on papyrus, a few as old as the third century B.C. How much was the text changed from the time of Pisistratus, through copyists' errors, censorship, or any of the other ills that plague all ancient texts in their transmission by hand? The answer, based primarily on a comparison with the extensive quotations from Home in Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek writers, is: substantially little; and remarkably little indeed, apart from verbal changes of interest only to the philologist.

But how close was the sixth-century Athenian edition to the original? Here we have little to go on. One thing seems sure: there was no excessive tampering with substance. The Athenian editors may have permitted their own linguistic habits to creep in now and then. Perhaps they even added the line about Ajax lining up his twelve ships alongside the Athenians. But they did not consciously modernize the poems, of that we can be fairly certain, and they did not tailor the political implications in any radical way to the needs of sixth-century Athenian foreign affairs. Had they attempted to do so, they could scarcely have succeeded. The poems were already too well known and too deeply enshrined in the minds of the Greeks, and in a sense in their religious emotions. Besides, sixth-century Athens absolutely lacked the authority, political or intellectual, to


force a corrupted and distorted Homer on the other Hellenes. None of this is decisive, to be sure, but it permits the historian to work with his Iliad and his Odyssey, cautiously and always with suspicion, yet with a reasonable assurance that basically he is working with a fair approximation of eighth- and seventh-century poems.

Through all this dark history of the early transmission, public performance, and textual preservation of the poems, a key role may have been played by a group on the island of Chios who called themselves the Homerids, which means, literally, the descendants of Homer. Their beginnings are lost, but they survived at least into the fourth century B.C., for Plato writes in his Phaedrus: "but some of the Homerids, I believe, recite two verses on Eros from the unpublished poems." 7 For all we know, the Homerids may in fact have been linked to "homer" by kinship. Among modern Slavonic bards there are outstanding instances of transmittal of the skill within a family for several generations, and family specialization in various crafts is a common enough phenomenon in primitive and archaic societies. But it really matters little. Whether kin in fact or by accepted fiction, the Homerids were the recognized authorities on Homer for two or three centuries. And we may be sure that they would have been zealous in opposition to any effort, by Pisistratus or by anyone else, to undermine their superior knowledge and weaken their special professional position by producing a thoroughly rewritten text.

In one respect the Homerids themselves were able to introduce a false note. Commonly rhapsodists prefaced their recita-


tions by short prologues, sometimes of their own composition. To that extent they represented a transitional form between the bard and the actor. As the recognized possessors of Homer's "unpublished writings," members of the Homerid guild could claim direct Homeric authorship for the prologues they wrote. The few which are still extant were collected in later antiquity and combined with five longer myth poems under a single title, Homeric Hymns, misleading in both its terms. Some of these thirty-three poems very probably originated among the Homerids in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. The most extensive of them was addressed to Apollo; its first section closes with these highly personal lines:

"Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: 'Who think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?' Then answer, each and all, with one voice: 'He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme.' As for me, I will carry your renown as far as I roam over the earth to the well-placed cities of man, and they will believe also; for indeed this thing is true." 8

Even Thucydides, the most careful and in the best sense the most skeptical historian the ancient world ever produced, explicitly accepted Homer'' authorship of this hymn, and the personal allusion of the final lines. 9 That was a truly astonishing error in judgment. The language of the "hymns" is Homeric, and the comparison ends right there; they are on a lower plane not only as literature but in their conceptual world, in their view of the gods.

"For indeed this thing is true." If the Greeks were pressed


to explain how their Homer, the blind minstrel, could sing truly of events four hundred years before his time, as they believed almost without an exception, they would have pointed to tradition handed down from generation to generation, and they would have pointed to the divine spark. "An inspired bard," said Eumaeus the swineherd; and the Greek word thespis means literally "produced or shown by a god." And thespis provides the necessary frame of reference for the opening line of the Iliad : "Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles."

Hesiod began his Theogony with a longer introduction, in which the simple invocation has become a full-blown vision and personal revelation:

"And one day they (the Muses) taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me ...:

"'Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.'

"So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy olive, a marvelous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last."

Hesiod's divine voice sounds like a direct quotation of the description of the soothsayer Calchas, "who knew things that were and things that shall be and things that were aforetime." 10 This close link between poetry and divine knowledge of the past and future found its personification in Orpheus, the sweet


singer of legend in whose name a mass of mystical and magical writing piled up through the centuries. As if to underscore the point, when the Greeks came to give Homer a genealogy, as inevitably they would, they traced his ancestry back ten generations, precisely to Orpheus.

It would be wrong to turn such things aside as mere poetic fancy. When the bard Phemius said in the Odyssey, "I am self-taught; the god has implanted in my heart songs of all kinds," 11 to the poet and his audience that meant what it said and was to be taken like everything else in the poem, like the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, or of Odysseus identifying himself by his ability to wield the bow no one else had the strength to pull. The best witness is Odysseus himself. In the palace of King Alcinous of the Phaeacians, where the hero had appeared incognito, there was a bard named Demodocus, to whom "God had given the art of song above all others." 12 After he had told various tales about the Trojan War, Odysseus said to him: "Demodocus, I praise you above all mortal men, whether it was the Muse, daughter of Zeus, who instructed you, or indeed Apollo. For you sing truly indeed of the fate of the Achaeans ... as if you yourself had been present or had heard it from another." 13 Earlier Demodocus's precise knowledge had already been explained: "For so Phoebus Apollo had told him in prophecy." 14

Still another echo is available, in a man who neither knew of Homer nor shared his inherited formulas, a nineteenth-century Kara-Kirghiz bard from the region north of the Hindu Kush: "I can sing every song; for God has planted the gift of song in my heart. He gives me the word on my tongue without my having to seek it. I have not learned any of my songs; everything springs up from my inner being, from myself." 15


The historian's verdict, obviously, can rest neither on faith in the divine origin of the poems nor on the once common notion that sufficient antiquity is a proper warrant of truth - "we have the certainty that old and wise men held them to be true," says the preface to the Heimskringla, the saga of the Norse kings. 16 The historian, having established the point that neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey was essentially contemporary in outlook, must then examine their validity as pictures of the past. Was there ever a time in Greece when men lived as the poems tell (after they are stripped of supernatural intervention and superhuman capacities)? But first, was there a Trojan War?

Everyone knows the exciting story of Heinrich Schliemann, the German merchant with a vision and a love for the language of Homer, who dug in the soil of Asia Minor and rediscovered the city of Troy. Some three miles from the Dardanelles, at a place now called Hissarlik, there was one of the mounds that are the almost certain signs of ancient habitation. By careful analysis of topographical detail in ancient writings, Schliemann concluded that under this mound were the remains of the city of Ilion, which later Greeks had established on what they thought was the site of Troy and which outlived the roman Empire for a good many centuries. When he tunneled into the mound he found layers of ruins, the oldest of which, we now know, dates from about 3000 B.C., and two bore unmistakable signs of violent destruction. One of these layers, the seventh according to more recent excavators, was no doubt the city of Priam and Hector. The historicity of the Homeric tale had been demonstrated archaeologically.

It is a shame to upset such a pretty and rare success story, but there are enough disturbing facts to compel the conclusion that 'there is something wrong either with Schliemann's Troy


or with Homer's." 17 Without entering into technical archaeological analysis, we may point to the battle terrain. The Iliad is filled with details, for that is the stuff of heroic narrative. Basically they are so consistent that a serviceable map of the area can be drawn from the poet's specifications. That map and the region of Hissarlik fail to coincide, and the discrepancies are so crucial that it has been proved impossible to recreate essential scenes of the Iliad on the actual site.

More interesting than the disappearance of the city is the total disappearance of the Trojans themselves. To begin with, as a nationality in the Iliad they are quite without distinguishing characteristics. They are a s Greek and as heroic as their opponents in every respect. If the opening line of the Iliad introduces Achilles, the closing line bids farewell to Hector, the chief Trojan hero: "Thus they performed the funeral rites for Hector, tames of horses." Hector is a Greek name (unlike the name of Hector's father, Priam), and as late as the middle of the second century after Christ travelers who came to Thebes in Boeotia on the Greek mainland were shown his tomb, near the Fountain of Oedipus, and were told how his bones had been brought from Toy at the behest of the Delphic oracle. This typical bit of fiction must mean that there was an old Theban hero Hector, a Greek, whose myths antedated the Homeric poems. Even after Homer had located Hector in Troy for all time, the Thebans held on to their hero, and the Delphic oracle provided the necessary sanction.

Among the Trojan allies there were peoples who were certainly non-Greek. It was for one of them, the Carians, that the poet reserved the epithet barbarophonoi (barbarous-talking, that is, unintelligible). The Carians are well known historically;


the tomb of their fourth-century king, Mausolus, gives us our word mausoleum. Other Trojan allies are also historically identifiable, and that serves to underscore the curious fact that the Trojans themselves, like Achilles' Myrmidons, have vanished so completely. Even if we were to accept the ancient explanation for the disappearance of the city, that it was so thoroughly demolished by the victors that 'there is no certain trace of walls" 18 - which would involve us in new difficulties with Schliemann and his successors, who found traces of walls - it is hard to discover a parallel for the mysterious failure of the people themselves to leave any traces.

On the Greek side there is a high correlation between the important place names given in the Iliad and the centers of the so-called Mycenaean civilization rediscovered by modern archaeologists, although the poverty of the finds in Odysseus' Ithaca is a notable exception. This civilization flourished in Greece in the period 1400-1200 B.C., and here the name of Schliemann as the first discoverer must remain unchallenged. But again Homer and archaeology part company quickly. On the whole he knew where the Mycenaean civilization flourished, and his heroes lived in great Bronze Age palaces unknown in Homer's own day. And that is virtually all he knew about Mycenaean times, for the catalogue of his errors is very long. His arms bear a resemblance to the armor of his time, quite unlike the Mycenaean, although he persistently casts them in antiquated bronze, not iron. His gods had temples, and the Mycenaeans build none, whereas the latter constructed great vaulted tombs in which to bury their chieftains, and the poet cremates his. A neat little touch is provided by the battle chariots. Homer had heard of them, but he did not really vis-


ualize what one did with chariots in a war. So his heroes normally drove from their tents a mile or less away, carefully dismounted, and then proceeded to battle on foot.

The key to the Homeric confusion lies in the bardic technique. The raw materials of the poem were the mass of inherited formulas, and as they passed through generations of bards they underwent change after change, partly by deliberate act of the poets, whether for artistic reasons or from more prosaic political considerations, and partly by carelessness and indifference to historical accuracy, compounded by the errors that are inevitable in oral transmission. That there was a Mycenaean kernel in the Iliad and Odyssey cannot be doubted, but it was small and what little there was of it was distorted beyond sense or recognition. Often the material was self-contradictory, yet there was no bar to its use. Poetic convention demanded traditional formulas, and neither the bard nor his audience checked the details. The man who started it all by abducting Helen is named both Alexander, which is Greek, and Paris, which is not (just as his city had two names, Ilion and Troy); he is both a contemptible, unheroic coward and a true hero. As usual, later generations began to seek explanations, but not the poet of the Iliad .

We may take it for granted that there was a Trojan War in Mycenaean times; more correctly, that there were many Trojan wars. War was normal in that world, and the Achchiyava reference in Hittite records shows that the ancestors of the Hellenes of history fought in Asia Minor. It is even conceivable that the war was fought over a woman. "The people of Asia," says Herodotus, "when their women were seized, made no issue of it, whereas the Greeks, on account of a single Lacedaemonian


woman, collected a great expedition, came to Asia, and destroyed the power of Priam. 19

But a ten-year war, or a war of any smaller number of years, is out of the question. "Would that I were in the prime of youth and my might as steadfast as when a quarrel broke out between us and the Eleans over a cattle raid ... Exceedingly abundant was then the booty we drove out of the plain together, fifty herds of cattle, as many flocks of sheep, as many droves of swine, as many wide herds of goats, and a hundred and fifty bays, all mares ... And Neleus was glad at heart that so much booty fell to me the first time I went to war." 20

This was a typical "war" as narrated by Nestor, a raid for booty. Even if repeated year after year, these wars remained single raids. There is a scene in the third book of the Iliad in which Helen sits alongside Priam on the battlements of Troy and identifies Agamemnon, Odysseus, and a few other Achaean heroes for the old king. That could make sense at the beginning of the war; it can make no sense in the tenth year (unless we are prepared to believe that the poet could find no better device by which to introduce some details of no great importance). It could also make sense in a brief war, and perhaps this is an illustration of the way in which one traditional piece of the story was retained after the war had ballooned into ten years and the piece had become rationally incongruous. While the war was growing, furthermore, the bards neglected to make proper arrangements for recruits to replace the fallen men, for the feeding of besiegers and besieged, or for the establishment of some sort of communication between the battlefield and the home bases of the Greeks.

The glorification of insignificant incidents is common in


heroic poetry. The French Song of Roland tells of a great battle at Roncevaux in the year 778 A.D., between the hosts of Charlemagne and the Saracens. Like Homer, the poet of the French epic is unknown, but he certainly lived in the twelfth century, at the time of the Crusades. Unlike Homer, he could read and he had access to chronicles, which he explicitly says he used. But the facts are these: the actual battle of Roncevaux was a minor engagement in the Pyrenees between a small detachment of Charlemagne's army and some Basque raiders. It was neither important nor crusade-like. The twelve Saracen chieftains of the poem and their army of 400,000 are pure invention; some even have German or Byzantine names. And all the details of the background are wrong.

The Song of Roland can be checked against written records. The Iliad and the Odyssey cannot, and, insofar as historical detail is concerned, there is no way of reversing the process of distortion and re-establishing the original kernel. Comparison with other examples of the genre leads to what Rhys Carpenter has called the "theorem ... that the more an oral poet seems to know about a distant event the less he really knows about it and the more certainly he is inventing." 21

The Song of Roland also shares another negative with the Iliad and Odyssey. It is not contemporary in its social conditions, its politics, and its details of wars and warriors. Not that it lacks realism. On the contrary, it is of the essence of heroic poetry that, "since heroes move in what is assumed to be a real world, their background and their circumstances must be depicted," always "with realism and objectivity." 22 Specifically, the background of Roland is the France of about a century before the poet's own time, as if the formulas and the traditions coming down from the days of Charlemagne froze about the


year 1000 and then on with little further change. This suggests what hints in Greek literature and comparative studies tend to confirm, that the Homeric picture is analogous. The world of Odysseus was not that of the seventh century B.C., neither was it the Mycenaean age five or six or seven hundred years earlier. * If it is to be placed in time, as everything we know about heroic poetry says it must, the most likely centuries seem to be the tenth and ninth. By the long years of wandering and infiltration were over, the mixture of race and culture had been completed, the catastrophe that brought down Mycenaean civilization and made itself felt all over the eastern Mediterranean had been forgotten. The history of the Greeks as such had begun.

Essentially the picture of the background offered by the poems is a coherent one. Anachronistic fragments cling to it in spots, some too ancient and some, particularly in the Odyssey, too recent, a reflection of the poet's own time. For historical study, the accuracy of the background is quite separable from the demonstrable inaccuracy of the episodes and the narrative detail, the action. "Homer," wrote Aristotle, "is praiseworthy in many respects, and especially because he alone of poets perceives the part he should take himself. The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person ..." 23 But this technical virtue, become a vice to poets of another world, should not mislead us, as it did not less gifted a critic than Coleridge. "There is no subjectivity whatever in the Homeric

* Important new evidence for this conclusion comes from the widely publicized suggestion by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick that the language of the Mycenaean tablets is Greek. Their first tentative readings, published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies for 1953, reveal (if they are right) a world altogether unlike the Homeric, one that was materially far more advanced, as we already knew from the archaeology; and institutionally more complex and reminiscent of the ancient Near East.


poetry," was the judgment of Coleridge the romantic, neither the "subjectivity of the poet, as of Milton, who is himself before himself in everything he wrote," nor the "subjectivity of the persona, or dramatic character, as in all Shakespeare’s great creations." 24 This standing at a distance from his characters and their behavior, which is the mark of Homeric technique, had nothing to do with indifference, with disinterest, with an unwillingness to become involved. The poet transmitted his inherited background materials with a deceptively cool precision. That enables us to treat his materials as the raw materials for the study of a real world of real men, a world of history and not of fiction. But it also besets our analysis with traps, for the temptation is ever present to ignore the implications in the poet's conscious selectivity and to brush aside apparent confusions and contradictions in social or political matters (as distinct from narrative incidents) as nothing more than the carelessness of a bard who really did not care.

Of course there must be something of a historian's license in pining down the world of Odysseus to the tenth and ninth centuries before Christ. And that license must extend still further. There are sections in the poems, such as the tale of the adultery of Ares and Aphrodite or the scene in Hades in the final book of the Odyssey, which appear to have a later origin than other sections. By license, we here ignore the distinction for the most part, just as we sometimes speak of one Homer, as if the Iliad and Odyssey were contemporaneous works, the products of one man's creation. Some distortion results, but the margin of error can be held to a rather acceptable minimum, because the patterns we draw rest on an over-all analysis of the poems, not on any one single verse, segment, or narrative incident; because all parts early or late, were build so much


from the old formulas; and because later Greek history and the study of other societies together offer a great measure of control. It is convenience, finally, rather than license, that suggests retention of the ten-year war, and of Achilles and Hector and Odysseus and all the other famous names, as useful labels for unknown King X and Chieftain Y.

To Chapter III.