Chapter 5


Much of the twenty-third book of the Iliad is given over to an account of the funeral games staged by Achilles in honour of Patroclus. Before the assembled Achaean host the best athletes among the heroes competed in what later became standard Greek events, the chariot race, the foot race, boxing, wrestling, and also in weight throwing. ' And from his ships Achilles brought out prizes, cauldrons and tripods and horses and mules and strong oxen, and also well-girdled women and gray iron' (III 259-61). The first event, described with fantastic power, brilliance and precision, was the chariot race won by Diomedes. Nestor's son Antilochus barely defeated Menelaus for second place, but only because he had fouled the Spartan king on the far turn. Fourth came Meriones, and far to the rear poor Eumelus, thrown from his chariot when the yoke cracked, and forced to complete the course on foot, pulling the chariot behind him.

There was a prize for each Competitor, in a sequence specified by Achilles beforehand. Diomedes immediately took the slave Woman and tripod designated for the victor. Then Achilles proposed-remarkably, it must be said-that Eumelus be given the second prize, a mare, as a mark of compassion for his sorry luck, and the audience assented by acclamation, precisely as if they were sitting in formal assembly. Whereupon Antilochus 'rose and spoke of his right. "O Achilles, I shall be exceedingly angry with you if you carry out what you have said." As for Eumelus, "he ought to have prayed to the immortals, then he would not have come in last of all in the race. If you have pity on him, and he is dear to your heart, you have much gold in your hut, you have copper and sheep, you have slave women and uncloven horses. Take from these and give him an even greater prize. ... But this one I will not give. For her, let him who will try battle at my hand." Achilles smiled and conceded.


'But Menelaus also rose among them, sore at heart, full of indignation at Antilochus. A herald placed the sceptre in his hand and bade the Argives be silent. And then the godlike [isotheos, literally "god-equal"] man addressed them: "Antilochus, you had been wise before, what kind of behaviour was this? You dishonoured my valour and you interfered with my horses, pushing ahead yours, which are very inferior. But come, chieftains and leaders of the Argives, state the right between the two of us."

Before the chieftains and leaders could state the right, how- ever, Menelaus changed his mind and adopted an alternative procedure. ' "Come now, I myself will state the right, and I believe that none of the Danaans will rebuke me, for it will be straight. Antilochus, come here, fosterling of Zeus. According to proper procedure (themis), stand before your horses and chariot, take in your hand the thin whip with which you drove before, and, with your hand on the horses, swear by [Poseidon] the earth-mover and earth-shaker that you did not deliberately interfere with my chariot by a trick." But Nestor's son, 'who had been wise' until his eagerness to win impelled him to trickery, had recovered his wisdom by then, enough to refuse this challenge to perjure himself in the name of Poseidon. He apologized, offered the mare to Menelaus, and restored the peace.

Homer gave this scene the outward form of a regular agora, which it unquestionably was not. Nor did it have to be. Menelaus demanded his right and he had the choice of methods, neither of which required an assembly. The issue between him and Antilochus could either be submitted to arbitration, as he first pro- posed, or it could be decided by oath. The two procedures were equal in validity and fully interchangeable; they were both ways of ‘stating the right', and they were both final, without appeal to any higher earthly authority. Should the answer turn out to be crooked, rather than straight, then the gods would have to arrange proper punishment. Had Antilochus, for example, accepted the challenge and perjured himself, beyond a doubt Poseidon would have taken merciless vengeance for so great an insult to his honour. But it was not the business of any mortal to raise the charge of false swearing.


The earlier issue of right was between Antilochus and Eumelus. Antilochus chose a third method, trial by armed combat. And the decision thus arrived at, had anyone taken him up; would also have been final: to the victor goes the right. There is a nice touch here, though an irrelevant one: between Antilochus and Eumelus there was no question of fact; Eumelus had finished last and Antilochus would have beaten him even if he had raced fairly. Nevertheless, Antilochus could have chosen arbitration or the oath, just as Menelaus could have made trial with Antilochus by the sword. With variations in detail, these were the three ways, and the only- three ways, that were available to the Homeric heroes for the settlement of disputes over rights.

Apart from the moment when the people acclaimed Achilles's gesture of compassion for Eumelus, the assemblage, heroes and demos alike, remained passive spectators. The defence of a right was a purely private matter. He who felt aggrieved had the responsibility to take the necessary steps and the right to choose from among the available methods. His kin or his guest-friends, retainers and followers might intervene in support, but still as a private action. Although there are a few fragmentary phrases in the poems about royal judgements, they are contemporary notes, and therefore anachronistic, which slipped by the poet. He was composing at a time when the community principle had advanced to a point of some limited public administration of justice. But he was singing about a time when that was not the case, except for the intangible power of public opinion. How imposing a factor that was cannot be estimated, but it was surely significant and it must at times have led to intervention by outsiders to keep the peace. The principle remained, however, of strictly private rights privately protected. In no other way would the suitor theme of the Odyssey have been intelligible, and without the suitors' ruthless persistence and Telemachus's impotence there would have been no Odyssey.

Menelaus and Antilochus were equals in status. That was an essential fact, for justice among the heroes, like justice in the aristocratic code of honour of more modem times, was a matter for equals alone. Menelaus could no more have challenged Ther-


sites to an oath than a Prussian Junker could have challenged a Berlin shopkeeper to a duel. Odysseus, we remember, stopped the panic in the Greek forces by appealing gently to the captains and by using the club and the command on the rank and file. The poet was not satisfied to close the scene on that note; instead, he took the opportunity to write a little essay on social classes and the modes of behaviour proper to each. Once Odysseus had succeeded in returning the men to the agora, the narrative took a new turn.

'Now all the others sat down and remained orderly in their seats; only Thersites the loose-tongued kept on scolding, he whose heart was full of words, many and disorderly, quarrelling with the kings vainly and not in good order. ...And he was the ugliest man who came to Ilion. He was bandy-legged and lame in one foot; his two shoulders were hunched and bent in upon his chest, and above them his head was misshapen, with sparse hair growing on it.' The substance of Thersites's complaint was this: The devil with fighting to amass booty for Agamemnon; let us go home.

Odysseus strode to Thersites, ordered him to cease from his reviling of kings, and threatened to drive him naked and weeping from the assembly. 'He spoke thus and beat him on the back and shoulders with the sceptre. And he doubled up and a big tear fell from him, and a bloody welt rose on his back beneath the golden sceptre. Then he sat down and was frightened; smarting with pain and looking foolish, he wiped away the tear. The others, though they were sorry, laughed lightly at him, and this is how one would speak, glancing at his neighbour: "Oh yes! In truth Odysseus has done countless good things before, being pre- eminent in sound counsels and marshalling battles, but this is by far the best thing he has done among the Argives, that he has stopped this foul-mouthed slanderer from haranguing. Hardly, I think, will his arrogant heart again bid him rail at kings with words of reproach." So spoke the multitude' (II 211-78).

Those final words, 'so spoke the multitude', protest too much. It is as if the poet himself felt that he had overdrawn the contrast. Do not think I talk from an aristocratic bias -that is the sense of


the last four words. Even the commoners among the Hellenes stood aghast at Thersites's defective sense of fitness, and, though they pitied him as one of their own, they concurred with full heart in the rebuke administered by Odysseus and in the methods he employed. 'This is by far the best thing he has done among the Argives' indeed, for Thersites had gnawed at the foundations on which the world of Odysseus was erected.

Of course, Homer reflected the views and values of the aristocracy, from the opening line of the Iliad to the final sentence of the Odyssey. But what does that tell us? Does it mean, for example, that he is never to be trusted when he puts an idea or sentiment on the tongue of a Thersites or a Eumaeus? To answer that question in the affirmative would be to imagine a society in which aristocrats and commoners held two completely contradictory sets of values and beliefs, a society such as the world has never known. Beyond a doubt there were two standards in certain spheres of behaviour, with respect to the ethos of work, for ex- ample, or in the protection of rights. Odysseus's employment of the sceptre offers a fine symbol. On this occasion he had the use of Agamemnon's sceptre, a gift from Zeus himself, fashioned by Hephaestus for the king of the gods, given by Zeus to Pelops, from whom it passed to Atreus, from Atreus to Thyestes, and then to Agamemnon, grandson of Pelops (it finally came to rest as a sacred relic in Plutarch's native city of Chaeronea). The sceptre, any sceptre, was not only the symbol of authority, it was also the mark of themis, of orderly procedure, and so it was given to each assembly speaker in turn to secure his inviolability, as when Menelaus rose to challenge Antilochus. Against Thersites, how- ever, it was a club, for Thersites was of those 'who are not counted either in battle or in council'. He harangued the assembly without themis, he had been given no sceptre by the herald, therefore it was proper for him to receive it across the back.

The trouble is that we simply do not know how rights were determined when commoners were involved, whether between noble and commoner or between commoner and commoner. Neither Homer nor his audience cared about such matters and we have no other source of information. This unconcern goes


much deeper, extending to virtually the whole of the value scale. We are left to guess, and with little to base our guesses on. The evidence of what has been called the peasant type of heroic poetry, oral epics composed and recited among peasants rather than in the halls of barons -a very widespread type in many regions of Europe and Asia- tends to argue that they often told the same kind of stories, about the same kinds of heroes, with the identical values and virtues, as the aristocratic epic of the Homeric type. Against that there is the bitterness of Hesiod, with his peasant orientation, as well as the strong inference that in matters of religion, at least, Homer's indifference to the common people entailed a deliberate rejection of popular religious beliefs and practices. Presumably the commoner of Ithaca stood some- what in the middle, sharing many notions and sentiments with Odysseus, but giving others a different colouring. By and large it is a useless exercise to seek these shadings. What we have on a very rich canvas are the morals and values of a warrior culture, and with that we must be content.

'Warrior' and 'hero' are synonyms, and the main theme of a warrior culture is constructed on two notes -prowess and honour. The one is the hero's essential attribute, the other his essential aim. Every value, every judgement, every action, all skills and talents have the function of either defining honour or realizing it. Life itself may not stand in the way. The Homeric heroes loved life fiercely, as they did and felt everything with passion, and no less martyr-like characters could be imagined; but even life must surrender to honour. The two central figures of the Iliad, Achilles and Hector, were both fated to live short lives, and both knew it. They were heroes not because at the call of duty they marched proudly to their deaths, singing hymns to God and country-on the contrary, they railed openly against their doom, and Achilles, at least, did not complain less after he reached Hades- but because at the call of honour they obeyed the code of the hero without flinching and without questioning.

The heroic code was complete and unambiguous, so much so that neither the poet nor his characters ever had occasion to de- bate it. There were differences of opinion -whether to retreat in


battle or not, whether to assassinate Telemachus or not, whether Odysseus was alive or dead -but these were either disagreements over matters of fact or tactical alternatives. In neither case was extended discussion called for. Or there were critical situations in which the knowledge available to mortals was insufficient, such as the plague that Apollo brought upon the Achaeans when they dishonoured his priest. Then it was necessary to seek answer from the gods, and that fell to the soothsayer Calchas (among the Trojans there was Hector's brother Helenus, skilled in interpreting the flight of birds). Again there was no occasion for genuine discussion: the soothsayer gave the answer, and the heroes either obeyed or they did not, as their hearts bade them. Finally, there were moments when even the greatest of the heroes knew fear, but then it was enough to cry 'Coward, woman!' to bring him back to his senses.

The significant fact is that never in either the Iliad or the Odyssey is there a rational discussion, a sustained, disciplined consideration of circumstances and their implications, of possible courses of action, their advantages and disadvantages. There are lengthy arguments, as between Achilles and Agamemnon, or between Telemachus and the suitors, but they are quarrels, not discussions, in which each side seeks to overpower the other by threats, and to win over the assembled multitude by emotional appeal, by harangue, and by warning. Skill with words had its uses in the struggle for public opinion- Phoenix reminded Achilles that it was he who had taught the latter 'to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds' (IX 443).

The figure of Nestor is perhaps the most revealing in this regard. Eventually Nestor became the prototype of the wisdom of old age, the voice of experience, but not once in his interminable talking did Homer's Nestor draw upon his experience as the ground for choice between alternative procedures. In fact, throughout the Iliad he made but one suggestion that could in any proper sense be called a significant and reasoned one, his proposal that the Achaeans build a great defensive wall before their camp on the beach. With that single exception, Nestor's talk was invariably emotional and psychological, aimed at bol-


stering morale or at soothing overheated tempers, not at selecting the course of action. For the former,'his yean of experience were very important, but in the unique sense of giving him the greatest store of incidents upon which to draw for models of heroic behaviour, for reminders by example of the way to honour and glory. Odysseus, on the other hand, was the man of many devices, and his superior skill in that respect took the form of deception and mendacity. 'Deceit and artful tales', Athena told him, not in criticism, 'are dear to you from the bottom of your heart' (13.295) Odysseus lied all the time, on the assumption that it could do no harm and might turn out useful in the end; and he lied cleverly. This may have been purposeful deception in a general sense, but it was not controlled rational behaviour. It was surely not wisdom.

The modern reader may be misled by the numerous formulas which, in one or another variant, speak of a man of counsel. For us counsel is deliberation; wise counsel, deliberation based on knowledge, experience, rational analysis, judgement. But counsel for Homer pointed less to the reasons than to the decision itself, and hence to the power of authority. Only in that sense could Nestor have called Agamemnon and Achilles 'first of the Danaans both in counsel and in battle' (I 258). Neither was pre- eminent in the giving of advice -Achilles particularly not -but by status and power they outranked the others in the right of decision. There was much talk about a king's seeking counsel; and there was scarcely any offered that was more than encouragement or admonition. After all, the basic values of the society were given, predetermined, and so were a man's place in the society and the privileges and duties that followed from his status. They were not subject to analysis or debate, and other issues left only the narrowest margin for the exercise of what we should call judgement (as distinct from work skills, including knowledge of the tactics of armed combat).

There were situations in which one could legitimately disagree whether or not the counsel of prudence was also the voice of cowardice. Then it was not a question of mere tactics, nor the illegitimate one of challenging or defending the code of honour, but a matter of properly classifying and evaluating a specific


choice of procedures. In the Iliad prudence was personified in the Trojan Polydamas (not in Nestor), and his interchanges with Hector underscored the true quality of the hero. Polydamas urged caution: Do not attack the Achaeans lest Achilles be roused and return to the fight and destroy us all. This was the prudent road to success, and Hector was utterly impatient with it, for it was not the road of honour. Polydamas was right, of course, and thanks to Hector's imprudent heroism the poem soon reached the final stage of preparation before the decisive single combat between Hector and Achilles.

Prudence made one last attempt, this time in the persons of Priam and Hecuba, who begged their son not to fight Achilles, for the outcome was certain: Hector would be slain and Troy destroyed. Hector knew they were right in their prediction, as Polydamas had been earlier, and he said as much, but in a long soliloquy he rejected their plea and re-asserted the paramount claim of honour. 'I am ashamed before the Trojan men and the women of trailing robes, lest one worse than I should say: "Hector by trusting in his own might has destroyed the people." , What if I were to offer surrender and promise to return Helen and all her possessions and to pay in amends half the wealth of Troy? Achilles 'would kill me, unarmed, as if but a woman' (XXII 105- 25).

Rather than that, Hector chose honourable death by combat, and the end of his city and his people. Once when Polydamas pointed to an ill omen as ground for caution, Hector brushed him off with 'One omen is best, to fight back for one's fatherland' (XII 243). But his whole course of behaviour gave the lie to that retort. *.The fact is that such a notion of social obligation is fundamentally non-heroic. It reflects the new element, the community, at the one point at which it was permitted to override everything else, the point of defence against an invader. In the following generations, when the community began to move from the wings to the centre of the Greek stage, the hero quickly died out, for the honour of the hero was purely individual, something

* The constituent elements of 'fatherland' soon turn out to be, again in Hector's words (xv 496-9). wife, children, oikos, and landed estate.


he lived and fought for only for its sake and his own sake. (Family attachment was permissible, but that was because one's kin were indistinguishable from oneself) .The honour of a community was a totally different quality, requiring another order of skills and virtues: in fact, the community could grow only by taming the hero and blunting the free exercise of his prowess, and a domesticated hero was a contradiction in terms.

Achilles, as a leader of the invading army, was not enmeshed in the extraneous strands of obligation. Writing long after Homer, Aeschylus would invent a scene (in a play now lost) in which the Myrmidons rebelled against Achilles for his refusal to fight. The Athenian playwright thus injected the notion of duty into the tale, but not once did Homer or Agamemnon or Odysseus charge Achilles with anything so anachronistic as public responsibility. Achilles was honour-bound to bring his incomparable prowess into the battle. But when Agamemnon took the girl Briseis from him his honour was openly shamed, and once 'honour is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses'. * The dilemma became at once unbearable: honour pulled in two opposing directions, and though one way pointed to victory in a great war and the other to a trifle, one captive woman out of thousands, the tremendous conflict lay precisely in the fact that honour was not measured like goods in a market, that the insult was worth as much as the war. Briseis was a trifle, but Briseis seized from Achilles was worth 'seven tripods that have never been on the fire and, ten talents of gold and twenty glittering cauldrons' and twelve prize-winning race-horses and twenty Trojan captives and seven cities and a few other odds and ends (IX 121-56).

I t was when Achilles refused this proper, and under all normal circumstances satisfactory, gift of amends that the real tragedy of the Iliad began. 'Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Peleus's son Achilles.' The hero's mistake was not made at the beginning; it came at the refusal of the penal gift, for that marked him as a man of unacceptable excesses, shameless in breaching the heroic code. 'Why,' said Ajax in indignation, 'a man even accepts

* Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, translated by T. G. Rosenmeyer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), p. 160.


amends from the murderer of his brother or for his dead son, and the killer remains in his own country, having paid much. ... But for you, the gods have put an implacable and evil emotion in your breast on account of a single girl' (IX 632-8). Homer could not close the tale with the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, for that would have left us with Achilles the too angry man, not with Achilles the redeemed hero. Achilles had still to expunge his wrath. This he did by abandoning his idea of throwing Hector's body to the dogs -a new excess, stemming from his grief over the death of Patroclus -and by returning the body to Priam for the proper rites. Now the slate was clean. Achilles had vindicated his honour on all sides, and had done so both honour- ably and with the fullest display of his prowess.

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others. And because the heroes were warriors, competition was fiercest where the highest honour was to be won, in individual combat on the field of battle. There a hero's ultimate worth, the meaning of his life, received its final test in three parts: whom he fought, how he fought, and how he fared. Hence, as Thorstein Veblen phrased it, under 'this common-sense barbarian appreciation of worth or honour, the taking of life honourable in the highest degree. And this high office of slaughter, as an expression of the slayer's prepotence, casts a glamour of worth over every act of slaughter and over all the tools and accessories of the act.'* The Iliad in particular is saturated in blood, a fact which cannot be hidden or argued away, twist the evidence as one may in a vain attempt to fit archaic Greek values to a more gentle code of ethics. The poet and his audience lingered lovingly over every act of slaughter: 'Hippolochus darted away, and him too he [Agamemnon] smote to the ground; slicing off his hands with the sword and cutting off his neck, he sent him rolling like a round log through the battle-throng' (XI 145-7).

* The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Modern Library. 1934; London: Allen & Unwin, 1924). p. 18.


To Nietzsche the constant repetition of such scenes and their popularity throughout the Greek world for centuries to come demonstrated that 'the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate'. * But what must be stressed about Homeric cruelty is its heroic quality, not its specifically Greek character. In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy. While a battle is raging only the poet can observe Agamemnon's feat of converting Hippolochus into a rolling log. The other heroes are too busy pursuing glory for themselves. But a trophy is lasting evidence, to be displayed at all appropriate occasions. Among more primitive peoples the victim's head served that honorific purpose; in Homer's Greece armour re- placed heads. That is why time after time, even at great personal peril, the heroes paused from their fighting in order to strip a slain opponent of his armour. In terms of the battle itself such a procedure was worse than absurd, it might jeopardize the whole expedition. It is a mistake in our judgement, however, to see the end of the battle as the goal, for victory without honour was un- acceptable; there could be no honour without public proclamation, and there could be no publicity without the evidence of a trophy.

In different ways this pattern of honour-contest-trophy reappeared in every activity. Achilles could find no more fitting way to mourn his dead comrade than to set up a competitive situation in which the Achaean nobles might display their athletic prowess. The moment Diomedes brought his chariot to the finishing line in first place he leaped to the ground and 'he lost no time; ... eagerly he took the prize and gave his high-spirited companions the woman to lead away and the tripod with handles to carry; and he unyoked the horses' (XXIII 510-13). This unselfconscious delight in the prizes, demonstrated before the excited assemblage, had little to do with their intrinsic worth; Diomedes, like Achilles,

* "Homer's Contest", in The Portable Nietzsche, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1954; London: Chatto & Windus, 1971). p.32.


had slave women and tripods enough in his hut. His impetuosity -he did not even stop to attend to his horses-was an emotional response, open and unabashed, honour triumphant. We might call it a boyish gesture; for Diomedes it was pride in his manliness.

The contest was to playa tremendous part in Greek public life in later centuries. Nothing defines the quality of Greek culture more neatly than the way in which the idea of competition was extended from physical prowess to the realm of the intellect, to feats of poetry and dramatic composition. For that step the world of Odysseus was of course unprepared. It was also unprepared to socialize the contest, so to speak. Diomedes sought victory in the chariot race, as on the battlefield, for himself alone, for the honour of his name and in a measure for the glory of his kin and companions. Later, when the community principle gained mastery, the polis shared in the glory, and in turn it arranged for Victory songs and even public statues to commemorate the honour it, the city, had gained through one of its athletic sons. And with \he dilution of the almost pure egoism of heroic honour with civic pride went still another change for which the Homeric world was unprepared: the olive wreath and the laurel took the place of gold and copper and captive women as the victor's prize. *

Prestige symbols have a complex history. Among many primitive peoples they may be objects of little or no intrinsic worth, cowrie shells or wampum or cheap blankets. The world of Odysseus was not a primitive world, and in their higher sphere the Greeks of that time insisted on treasure. Their goal was honour, and the signs of honour are always conventional; but they would have nothing to do with conventional signs like cowrie. A beautiful young captive was a more honorific trophy than an old woman, and that was all there was to it. Even when the use of treasure was in display, in its prestige function, only its intrinsic worth gave it proper value.

Gift-giving too was part of the network of competitive, hono-

* Not many centuries were to pass, it must be added, before the post- Homeric Greeks were compelled to supplement the victor’s' wreaths with cash bonuses (awarded by the native cities, not by the management of the Olympic or Pythian Games).


rific activity. And in both directions: it was as honourable to give as to receive. One measure of a man's true worth was how much he could give away in treasure. Heroes boasted of the gifts they had received and of those they had given as signs of their prowess. That is why gift-objects had genealogies. When Telemachus re- fused Menelaus's offer of horses, the Spartan king countered with the following proposal: 'Of the gifts, such as are treasures lying in my house. I will give you the one which is finest and most valuable. I will give you a skilfully wrought bowl; it is all of silver, finished with gold on the rim, the work of Hephaestus. The hero Phaedimus, king of the Sidonians, gave it to me.'* A trophy with such a history obviously shed greater glory on both donor and recipient than just any silver bowl, as the armour of Hector was a far greater prize to his conqueror than the arms of one of the lesser Trojans. Status was the chief determinant of values, and status was transmitted from the person to his possessions, adding still more worth to their intrinsic value as gold or silver or fine woven cloth.

It was this honorific quality that distinguished the wealth of the heroes, and their almost overpowering accumulative instinct, from the materialistic drives of other classes and other ages. Wealth meant power and direct material satisfaction to Odysseus and his fellow-nobles, to be sure, and that equation was never absent from their calculations. When Odysseus awakened on Ithaca, where the Phaeacians had landed him while he slept, he failed to recognize the island because Athena had covered it with a mist. His first reaction was one of anger that Alcinous and his men had broken faith and conducted him to some strange place. And almost in the same breath he began worry about the gifts they had given him, lest they be stolen. Athena then appeared, quickly straightened him out, and personally helped him hide the treasure in a cave. Later, in his first meeting with Penelope, Odysseus in disguise deliberately misled her with an elaborate tale which ended with the story that he had but recently met the long-lost hero in Thesprotia, from which country 'he is bringing much good treasure as he begs up and down the land'.

* 1.374-5, repeated 2.239-40.


He would have returned sooner, 'but it seemed to his heart more advantageous to collect much goods as he went over the earth' (19.272-84).

The tale was false, but as the poet said, it was 'in the likeness of truth' (19.203). Odysseus actually used the verb 'to beg' (aitizo), the very word employed by Eumaeus when he advised his disguised master to go into town and beg for food. But what Odysseus meant and what Eumaeus meant were altogether different. A king 'begged' for gifts of treasure as part of the normal course of his travels and his relations abroad, with kin and guest- friends, old and new, as a way of adding new links to the endless chain of gift and counter-gift. When King Alcinous asked him to remain overnight so that the proper parting gifts could be assembled, Odysseus replied: I would wait a year if necessary, 'for more advantageous would it be to come to my dear fatherland with a fuller hand, and so should I be more reverenced and loved among men, whosoever should see me after I returned to Ithaca , (11.358-6r). This he said in the same court in which he had reacted so violently to the suggestion that he might be a trader seeking 'coveted gains'.

There were delicate distinctions here, between honourable acquisition and a trader's gain. The heroes had a streak of the peasant in them, and with it went a peasant's love of possessions; a calculating, almost niggardly hoarding and measuring and counting. Wealth was an unequivocal good; the more wealth, the greater the good, a subject for boasting, not for concealment. But the heroes were more than peasants, and they could give as proudly as they took, and they could set honour above all material goods. The same Achilles who reminded Agamemnon that 'it was not on account of the Trojan warriors that I came here to fight, for they have committed no offence against me; they have not robbed me of my cattle or my horses' (1 152-4), could reject with contempt Agamemnon's compensatory gifts, fabulous as they were: 'For cattle and fine sheep can be rustled, and tripods and chestnut horses can be acquired' (IX 406-7). The circulation of treasure was as essential a part of heroic life as its acquisition; and it was this movement, the fact of its existence


and the orbits it followed, that set that life apart from any other life of accumulation.

What tends to confuse us is the fact that the heroic world was unable to visualize any achievement or relationship except in concrete terms. The gods were anthropomorphized, the emotions and feelings were located in specific organs of the body, even the soul was materialized. Every quality or state had to be translated into some specific symbol, honour into a trophy, friendship into treasure, marriage into gifts of cattle. In the furious quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles reached such a point of wrath that he drew his sword. Athena promptly appeared beside him, unseen to anyone else, and checked him with a command curiously put in the language of a plea, and ending with these words: 'For thus do I declare, and it shall come to pass: hereafter shall splendid gifts come to you in threefold measure, because of this [ Agamemnon's] insolence; but restrain yourself and hearken to us' (1212- 4). This was the only intelligible language of pleading, and by gifts the goddess meant material goods, not blessings of the spirit.

Because the concrete expressions of honour and friendship were always articles of intrinsic value, not cowrie shells, the prestige element was concealed under an overlay of treasure. In fact, both counted greatly, the wealth on the one hand, and the wealth as symbol on the other. That is why the giving and receiving were ceremonial acts, an added touch that would have been needless were possession sufficient unto itself. King Alcinous personally stowed the Phaeacian gifts aboard Odysseus's ship, as the head of a modem state personally signs a treaty before assembled dignitaries. In a significant- sense the gifts of guest-friendship were the archaic forerunners of articles of agreement. What other firm proof could there have been, in that unlettered world, that a relationship had been established, creating obligations and responsibilities? .

At no point was the bond between ceremonialism and the satisfaction of material wants more tightly knit than in the end- less feasting. 'For I say that there is nothing more gracious than when one has good cheer among the whole population, and the sharers in the feast in all the homes, seated in order, listen to the


minstrel, and the tables alongside them are laden with bread and meat, and the cupbearer draws wine from the mixing-bowl and serves it around and pours it into the goblets' (9.5-10). Odysseus was weary. After ten years of war and another ten years of the most incredible and taxing adventures he had come to the Phaeacian Utopia, and his mind was reaching out to his own home, to the approaching end of his wanderings-. He began to relax, and he made this pretty little speech.

But there was more than good cheer and Gemütlichkeit to Homeric feasting. 'Idomeneus,' said Agamemnon, 'I honour you above all the Danaans of the fleet horses, whether in war or in some other work or in the feast, when the Argive nobles mix the sparkling wine of the elders in the bowl' (IV 257-70). This formulation of the hierarchy of aristocratic activities, setting the banquet alongside the battle and 'other work', was precise, for it was feasting that occupied the heroes when they were not immediately engaged in the pursuits of combat, and it was heroic feasting, not only in its magnitude but also in its ethics. What was blameworthy about the suitors, for example, was not the total idleness and luxury of their daily banqueting in the halls of Odysseus. That was proper aristocratic behaviour, but it was most improper to carry on the feasting at one man's expense, all the more so when it was done in his absence. 'Sharers in the feast' was the phrase (one word in the Greek) Odysseus used in Phaeacia, and by it he meant those who shared the cost as well as the pleasures. 'Leave my palace,' Telemachus demanded of the suitors in all earnestness, with no trace of mockery, 'and hold your feasts elsewhere, eating your own substance, going from house to house in turn.'*

Just as there could be no ceremonial occasion without gifts of treasure, so there could be none without a feast. The Iliad closes with the Trojan mourning for Hector. For nine days they mourned, and on the tenth they cremated his body, placed the bones in a golden urn, and buried them in the presence of the assembled Trojan army. ' And having heaped the burial mound, they went back; then they gathered and feasted well in a glorious

* 1.374-5, repeated 2.139-40.


feast in the house of Priam, the king nourished by Zeus. Thus they performed the funeral rites for Hector, tamer of horses' (XXIV 801-4-). Or, to take a different example, there is Nestor's advice to Agamemnon: 'Give a feast for the elders, that is proper for you and not unseemly' (IX 70). On such occasions, of course, there was no sharing of cost; Priam gave the feast that closed the funeral rites, and Agamemnon feasted his council of elders before they deliberated.

The meaning of this ceremonial eating together becomes clearest in still another context. Without exception, whenever a visitor arrived, whether kin or guest;-friend, emissary or stranger, the first order of business was the sharing of a meal. This was a rule on all levels, when Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix came to Achilles with Agamemnon's proposal of a gift of amends, or when the then unidentified beggar appeared at the hut of Eumaeus the slave and swineherd. Only after the meal was it proper for the host to inquire who his guest was and what his mission. 'But come along,' said Eumaeus, 'let us go into the hut, old man, so that after you have satisfied yourself with bread and wine to your heart's con- tent, you may tell whence you are and how many troubles you have suffered' (14-.4-5-7).

This was a ritual that could not be refused, akin to the taboo- purging rituals of the primitive world. Hence the meal was shared not merely by host and guest and their retainers, but also by the gods. 'Then the swineherd stood up and carved. ..and he divided and distributed the whole into seven portions. The first he set aside for the nymphs and for Hermes son of Maia, having prayed, and the others he distributed to each. ..and he made burnt offering to the everlasting gods' (14-432-6). The descriptions of the sacrifices vary, and so do the names of the participating gods, but the essential notion was always the same. Through the sharing of food-in substantial quantities, it should be noted, not just symbolically -- a bond was instituted, or renewed, in ceremonial fashion, tying men and gods, the living and the dead, into an ordered universe of existence. It was as if the constant repetition of the feast were somehow necessary for the preservation of the group, whether on the oikos level or on the larger scale of the class,


and also for the establishment of peaceful relations across lines, with strangers and guest-friends.

Conversely, exclusion from the feast was a mark of the social outcast. Upon learning of the death of Hector, Andromache in her great grief lamented the fate in store for the boy Astyanax: , And in his need the child turns to his father's companions, pulling one by the cloak, another by the tunic; and of those who take pity one gives him a sip, and he moistens his lips, but his palate he does not moisten. And some unorphaned child drives him from the feast with blows of the hand, reviling him with abuse: " Away, you! Your father does not share the feast with us"' (XXII 492-8).

Andromache could not protect her child, not even in her imagination, for women had no place at the feast. Not only was this a man's world, it was one in which the inferior status of women was neither concealed nor idealized, which knew neither chivalry nor romantic attachments. 'Do they then alone of mortal men love their wives, these sons of Atreus?' Achilles is quoted as asking, according to the usual translations.*.The Greek, how- ever, does not say 'wives', it says 'bed-mates' ; Achilles was speaking of a woman he had 'won with the spear. Earlier Agamemnon had said of Chryseis, the priest's captive daughter, 'Yes, I prefer her to Clytaemnestra, my wedded bed-mate' (I 113-4). In fact, from Homer to the end of Greek literature there were no ordinary words with the specific meanings 'husband' and 'wife'. A man was a man, a father, a warrior, a nobleman, a chieftain, a king, a hero; linguistically he was almost never a husband.

And then there is the word 'to love'. That is how we render philein, but the question remains open as to what emotional quality, what overtones, the Greek verb really possessed. It was used in every context in which there were positive ties between people. When he visited Aeolus, keeper of the winds, Odysseus reported, 'he treated me hospitably for a full month' (10.14), and Philein was the word by which hospitable treatment was expressed. But where in the many references to Odysseus's sad longing for his home and his wife is there a passage in which sentiments and passions that the modern world calls 'love' shine through? More

* IX 340-1, in the translation by A. T. Murray in the Loeb Classical Library.


often than not Penelope was omitted from the image of home, for the standard formula was the one used by Nausicaa: 'Then there is hope that you will see your friends, and come to your home good to dwell in, and to your native land.'*

Odysseus was fond of Penelope, beyond a doubt, and he found her sexually desirable. She was part of what he meant by 'home', the mother of his dear son and the mistress of his oikos., Monogamous marriage was the rule.# There are no confirmed bachelors in the poems and no spinsters, and the sole reference to divorce is the somewhat dubious one in which Hephaestus threatened to return his adulterous wife, Aphrodite, to her father (a threat that was not carried out) (8.317-20). The meaning of monogamy must not be misconstrued, however. It neither imposed monogamous sexuality on the male nor did it place the small family at the centre of a man's emotional life. The language had no word for the small family, in the sense in which one might say, '1 want to go back to live with my family.'

Neither in the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope nor in any other relationship between man and mate in the Homeric poems was there the depth and intensity, the quality of feeling -on the part of the male -that marked the attachment between father and son on the one hand, and between male and male companion on the other. The poems are rich in such images as this: 'as a father greets his dear son who has come from a distant land in the tenth year' (16.17-18); but there are no similes drawn from a husband's joy in his wife. In the narrative itself one need only recall the key role of the love of Achilles for Patroclus, and the massive grief of Achilles at the death of his comrade.

There is an ancient dispute, still unresolved, whether overt eroticism was part of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The text of the poems offers no directly affirmative evidence at any point; even the two references to the elevation of

.6.314-5; repeated by Athena 7-76-7, and used earlier by Zeus, 541-2, and by Hermes, 5.114-5.

# The sole 'exception', Priam with his several wives, fifty sons, twelve daughters and uncounted grandchildren, is as mysterious to us as it may have been to the poet. No other man is polygamous, not even in Troy, nor is any god.


Ganymede to Olympus speak only of his becoming cupbearer to Zeus. Pederasty was a widely accepted practice in the Greek world at a very early date, and it remained an integral part of Greek culture for many centuries, as the literature from Theognis to Plato eloquently testifies. What was involved, furthermore, was not homosexuality in the sense o[the direction of erotic impulses and activity exclusively to members of one's own sex, but a full bisexuality. Neither Greek practice nor Greek ethics, there- fore, would have seen anything inconsistent or unlikely in the coexistence of an erotic relationship between heroes and their vaunted prowess with the opposite sex. If historical proof is needed it is enough to point to the warrior elite of Thebes. And so, to explain the striking intensity of Achilles' passion and to fit the world of Odysseus into the mainstream of Hellenic culture, it has been argued that on this matter we are faced with an instance of 'expurgation' in the poems, that 'Homer has swept this whole business, root and branch, out of his conception of life'. *

Be that as it may, there is no mistaking the fact that Homer fully reveals what remained true for the whole of antiquity, that women were held to be naturally inferior and therefore limited in their function to the production of offspring and the performance of household duties, and that the meaningful social relationships and the strong personal attachments were sought and found among men. The classic exposition may be read in the eighth book of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, on philia, which we render with the pale word 'friendship'. When there is philia of a lower kind, says Aristotle, between unequal partners, as between a man and a woman, 'each of the two differs in virtue and function, in the ground for friendship, and therefore also in affection and friendship. Accordingly, the affection should be proportionate to the respective worths of each: 'the better [of the two], for example, should receive more affection than he gives'. And that is precisely what we find in Homer. While Odysseus was absent the loss to Penelope, emotionally, psychologically,

* Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (3rd edn., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), p. 125. Other examples of possible 'expurgation' will be noticed below.


affectively, was incomparably greater than the loss to her husband. The grief of Achilles was nearly matched by the sorrow of Hecuba and Andromache at the death of Hector, son to one and husband to the other.

Some caution must be exercised here. What we nave is a skilfully shaped portrayal of the second sex; in which a bard who shared the conviction of the natural inferiority of women defined their feelings to their lords and superiors. The image which emerges is a complicated one, and in some respects an enigmatic one. The two characters in the poems who are not fully resolved are both women, Arete, queen of the Phaeacians, with her strange unwomanly claims to power and authority, and Hellen, who is a very peculiar figure. Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, was Aphrodite's favourite, and thanks to the gifts of the goddess she succeeded in embroiling Greeks and Trojans in a gigantic struggle that cost both sides dearly. Helen was no innocent victim in all this, no unwilling captive of Paris-Alexander, but an adulteress in the most complete sense. For Paris there was no atonement. 'Lord Zeus,' prayed Menelaus, 'grant that I be avenged on him who first did me wrong, illustrious Alexander, and subdue him at my hands, so that any man born hereafter may shrink from wronging a host who has shown him friendship' (III 351-4). But Helen received no punishment, and scarcely any reproach. She ended her days back in Sparta, administering magical drugs obtained in Egypt, interpreting omens, and participating in the life of the palace much like Arete and not like a proper Greek woman.

Not even Penelope was altogether free of suspicion and the element of enigma. When Athena bade Telemachus return immediately from his visit to Menelaus, lest Penelope, who was weakening under pressure from her father and brothers, not o1lly accept one of the suitors but strip the palace of treasure to boot, the goddess concluded with a sweeping generalization: 'For you know what is the emotion in the breast of a woman, that she wishes to increase the household of him who weds her, and of her former children and of her dear husband she neither remembers once he is dead nor inquires' (15.20-3).

This was a strange way indeed to talk about Penelope, and


it came from a very interesting source. On Olympus the gods were altogether superior to the goddesses, considered collectively -superior not only in their power but also in their appeal, in the feelings they inspired among men. The chief exception to the rule was Athena, and the significant quality of Athena as a goddess was her manliness. She was the virgin goddess in a world that knew no original sin, no sinfulness of sex, no Vestal Virgins. She was not even born of woman, having sprung from the head of Zeus-an insult to the whole race of women for which Hera never forgave her husband, Hera Who was the complete female and whom the Greeks feared a little and did not like at all, from the days of Odysseus to the twilight of the gods.

Neither Athena nor the poet went further in explaining Penelope's behaviour. The responsibility for Helen, however, was explicitly Aphrodite's. Early in the Iliad, Paris engaged Menelaus in single combat and was within an inch of losing his life when , Aphrodite snatched him up most easily, being a god, and covered him with a heavy mist and set him down in his fragrant, incense- smelling chamber. And she herself went to summon Helen' from the battlements. ' "Come here. Alexander summons you to go home. He is there in his chamber and inlaid bed." , Helen demurred. 'Then angrily divine Aphrodite addressed her: "Do not provoke me, wretch, lest in my wrath I abandon you, and in this , wise hate you as now I love you beyond measure" , (Ill 380-415). And Helen was afraid, and she took herself to the fragrant chamber and the inlaid bed.

The reason for Helen's reluctance had been given some verses before. In the guise of Laodice, Priam's fairest daughter, the divine messenger Iris had talked with her and had 'placed in her heart sweet yearning for her former husband and her city and parents' (Ill 139-40). This impasse in which Helen was placed was nothing unusual, for in the Homeric psychology every human action and every idea could be the direct consequence of divine intervention. In ordinary affairs one could never be sure (and a man could anyway fail to grasp or to follow the divine guide-line). Thus, in reply to Penelope's request for an explanation of Telemachus's risky journey to Pylos and Sparta in search


of news of his father, the herald Medon said (4.712-3): 'I do not know whether some god urged him on, or whether his own heart (thymos) stirred him to go to Pylos.'

However, when the action was witless or otherwise astonishing, there was no doubt that the gods had intervened. When Eurycleia informed Penelope that Odysseus had returned and destroyed the suitors, the queen replied in utter disbelief: 'Good mother, the gods have made you mad, they who are able to make witless even those with the best wit, and they bring the weakminded to prudence. They have distracted you, who were formerly right- minded' (23.11-14). The examples can be multiplied from every page and every conceivable situation.

Nowhere is the historian faced with a more subtle problem. Was all this literal belief or poetic metaphor? When the heroes are called dios (divine), isotheos (god-equal), diotrephes (nourished by Zeus), precisely what significance shall we attach to the epithets? What did they mean to the poet and his audience? When Menelaus began to drag Paris in the dust and Aphrodite tore off the latter's helmet-strap just before it strangled him, was that a fancy poetic figure for chance, for a lucky accident that broke the strap in time, or did Homer believe literally what he sang? What we believe in these matters is irrelevant and misleading. Modern critics who call Homer's gods 'symbolic predicates', the activity on Olympus the poet's 'scenario', not only inject modern theology and modern science into the world of Odysseus, they destroy the poems. The narrative itself collapses without the interventions of the gods, and so do the psychology and the behaviour of the heroes.

A fair test is provided by the genealogies, which gave most aristocratic families, and even whole tribes, divine ancestry. Poseidon was angered beyond measure by the Phaeacians be- cause they not only rescued Odysseus but returned him to Ithaca laden with treasure, and his anger was compounded by the fact that the Phaeacians 'come from my own stock' (13.130). In Odysseus's account of his journey to Hades there is one lengthy

* Following an accepted convention, I have translated dios as 'illustrious' throughout.


section which parades various women proud to have borne mortal sons to Zeus or Poseidon. The converse was exceedingly rare -Calypso even protested: 'You are merciless, you gods, and jealous beyond compare, who begrudge goddesses that they have intercourse with men openly, if one makes one her dear bedfellow' (5.118-20). From one such union came Achilles, son or Peleus and of Thetis the sea-nymph; from another, Aeneas, son of Anchises and Aphrodite.

It is inconceivable that this passion for divine genealogy was mere poetic fancy. Here was sanction for aristocratic privilege, for rule by might, and an ideology that no one believes is an absurdity. Xenophanes, in the sixth century, was not tilting at windmills when he raised his voice in the sharpest possible protest against the Homeric view of the gods. If 'theft, adultery and deceit' were commonly accepted as divine practices, then surely divine ancestry of mortals and divine intervention in battle were scarcely less credible. The irrelevance of so many of the interventions, which contribute nothing to the development of the narrative, is a further argument. Presumably there is much here that was part of the inherited bardic formulas, repeated and perpetuated after much of primitive belief had degenerated into mere clichés of speech and story-telling. The essential difficulty is to find the proper line between a thought-world that was gone and a rationality that was yet to come.

One element which deserves particular notice is the complete anthropomorphism. God was created in man's image with a skill and a genius that must be ranked with man's greatest intellectual feats. The whole of heroic society was reproduced on Olympus in its complexities and its shadings. The world of the gods was a social world in every respect, with a past and a present, with a history, so to speak. There was no Genesis, no creation out of nothing. The gods came to power on Olympus as men came to power in Ithaca or Sparta or Troy, through struggle or family inheritance. Here is the account in Poseidon's words (xv 187-93) of what followed the forcible overthrow of the Titans: 'For we are three brothers, sons of Cronus, whom Rhea bore, Zeus and I, and Hades is the third, who rules the underworld. And in three


lots we divided everything, and each drew his share of honour [i.e. his domain]: I drew the white sea to inhabit forever. when we cast lots, and Hades drew the murky darkness, and Zeus drew the wide heaven, in air and clouds; but the earth and high Olympus are common to all' (xv 187-93).

These sentences were part of a very angry speech. Poseidon had entered the battle on the Greek side, and the Trojans were in rout. Zeus sent Iris to him with an order that he withdraw from the fight. 'Highly indignant, the renowned earth-shaker answered her: "Oh no, for strong as he is, he has spoken insolently if he will master me by force, against my will, I who am his equal in honour"' (xv 184-6). Poseidon gave in, of course, but in the colloquy the parallel between gods and heroes was perfectly drawn. Like any hero, Poseidon was concerned solely with honour and prowess. He bowed to the authority of Zeus, but only because the elder brother was prepotent. Earlier, when Hera first proposed that together they could outmanoeuvre Zeus and save the Achaeans from the slaughter that was planned for them, Poseidon would have none of it. 'Hera reckless in speech, what manner of talk have you spoken! I would not see us all at war with Zeus Cronion, for he is far greater' (VIII 209-11 ).

With respect to power, the divine world was as differentiated as the human, and the range was very wide. Not only were there great differences in the quantity possessed by the individual gods, there were also significant distinctions in the spheres in which power could be applied. Aphrodite, for example, was invincible in matters of erotic desire. But when she tried to take part in the actual fighting, Diomedes attacked her, 'knowing that she was a feeble god' (v 331), and he wounded her in the hand. Aphrodite went weeping to Zeus, only to receive a gentle rebuke: 'Not to you, my child, are given the works of war, but do you pursue the loving works of wedlock and all these will be looked to by fleet Ares and Athena' (v 428-30).

Only Zeus occupied a position without earthly parallel. Al- though he was not perfect, neither omnipotent nor omniscient - that must be underscored -his power was overwhelming, beyond the dreams of even the greatest king. And Zeus maintained a dis-


tance between himself and the mortal world that was also unique. He alone of the Olympians never intervened directly in speech or act, but through a verbal message carried by Iris, Dream, Rumour, or one of the other gods, or through the still less direct form of an omen, such as thunder or the flight of an eagle. Even on Olympus there was distance: when Zeus entered his palace, 'all the gods rose at once from their seats in the presence of their father' (1533-4). It would be a mistake, however, to imagine Zeus as some kind of Eastern super-potentate. For all his uniqueness, he had much of the Greek basileus in him (though Homer never gave him the title), a special sort of first among equals. The Odyssey opens with an appeal by Athena that he put an end to the travail of Odysseus. In reply Zeus first denied responsibility for what was happening. 'It is Poseidon the earth-mover who has stubbornly remained angry, because of the Cyclops whom he [Odysseus] blinded in the eye.' Then Zeus proposed a course of action: 'But come, let us all here consider his homecoming, that he might return. Poseidon will give up his anger, for he will be powerless against all the immortals, striving alone against the will of the gods' (1.68-79).

This mixture of might and counsel bespoke the archaic world. Even Poseidon admitted the power of Zeus to compel obedience, and yet the poet was reluctant to reduce the decision to force alone. He was not always able to achieve full consistency in the heavenly picture. The case of Zeus is outstanding, but there are others, such as the two conceptions of fate, one that it was the work of the gods and the other that it bound all, mortals and immortals alike (including Zeus because his knowledge fell short of omniscience) ; or the notion of Hades as neutral, as a place where the shades of men live on in utter dullness and emptiness, but where, nevertheless, a few like Tantalus are doomed to ever- lasting torment. The inconsistencies merely point up how tremendous was the effort to re-create the heroic world on another plane, and how very successful it was. The evidence can be drawn from every sphere, from wealth and labour, gift-giving and feasting, honour and shame.

A measure of failure was inevitable. That the gods were


immortal was one source of difficulty, but perhaps not the chief one. Because they could not die, the gods could not be true heroes. They might fail to attain a specific goal, but they could try again .and again, and there was never any risk of death in the attempt. Still, it was possible to overlook that one flaw and to have the gods behave otherwise exactly as heroes would behave. It was possible, too, to take care of minor technicalities of immortality: blood was the physiological key to mortality, and therefore it had to be replaced by another substance, called ichor. What was not possible was to define power in purely human terms, even on the most heroic scale. Divine power was supernatural in the precise sense. It was superior to human power in its quality, in its magic. Diomedes could defeat Aphrodite in direct combat, but only so long as the feeble goddess failed to avail herself of the super- natural powers that even she commanded. She could have covered him with a heavy mist and snatched him up and away, for instance. Against such arts Achilles himself would have been outmatched. Only the gods, further, had the power to take a man's wits from him, or to teach bards and seers to know things that had been and things that were to be.

The humanization of the gods was a step of astonishing bold- ness. To picture supernatural beings not as vague, formless spirits, or as monstrous shapes, half bird, half animal, for instance, but as men and women, with human organs and human passions, demanded the greatest audacity and pride in one's own humanity. Then, having so created his gods, Homeric man called himself godlike. The words 'man' and 'godlike' must be stressed sharply. On the one hand, Homer never confused 'godlike' with 'divine' ; he never crossed the line between the mortal and the immortal. Hesiod spoke of 'a godlike race of hero-men who are called demi-gods', but there were no demi-gods in the Iliad or Odyssey. Kings were honoured like gods, but never worshipped. Heroes were men, not cult objects. Though they had divin ancestors, blood ran in their veins none the less, not ichor. On the other hand, there were no local, regional or national dividing- lines of genuine consequence among men. Neither in matters of cult nor in any other fundamental aspect of human life did


the poet distinguish or classify invidiously. Individuals-and classes varied in worth and capacity, but not peoples, neither between Achaeans and others nor among the Achaeans themselves. This universality of Homer's humanity was as bold and remarkable as the humanity of his gods.

That we are faced here with a new creation, a revolution in religion, can scarcely be doubted. We do not know who accomplished it, but we can be sure that a sudden transformation had occurred, not just a slow, gradual shift in beliefs. Never in the history of the known religions, Eastern or Western, was a new religion introduced otherwise than at one stroke. New ideas may have been germinating for a long time, old ideas may have been undergoing constant and slow change, still other notions may have been imported from abroad. But the actual step of trans- formation, the creation of a new conceptual scheme, has always been sharp, swift, abrupt.

It is no underestimation of the magnitude of the revolution to add that it was far from complete. More precisely, it was not universal: the history of Greek religion in subsequent centuries shows great variation on this score, according to social class, education, individual temperament, circumstance. Xenophanes did not speak for the illiterate mountaineers of Arcadia or the semi- literate peasants of his native Colophon or his adopted Sicily. Age-old magical practices and cults, such as those associated with hot springs, continued to flourish. The pre-Olympian cosmological myths had ,a long life ahead. All the more remarkable, there- fore, that the traces in the Homeric poems ( in contrast to Hesiod ) are so few as to warrant another reference to Homeric 'expurgations'. The old nature gods, for instance, were either debased or ignored. Helius, the sun, was so impotent that when Odysseus's starving men committed the terrible offence of killing some of his cattle he could do no better than rush to Zeus and ask the latter to take vengeance for him. Selene, the moon, was of no consequence whatsoever.

Most notable of all is the indifference to Demeter, goddess of fertility, for unlike Helius and Selene, Demeter remained a major figure in Greek religion for many centuries after Homer. Her


rites celebrated the procession of the seasons, the mystery of the plants and the fruits in their annual cycle of coming to be and passing away. Demeter-worship was carried on outside the formal Olympian religion, for its founders had place neither for her nor for mystery rites altogether. Homer knew all about Demeter (she is mentioned six times in the Iliad and Odyssey) ; and that is just the point. He deliberately turned his back on her and everything she represented.

'Honour him like a god with gifts' is a recurrent phrase about kings; the converse is that the gods are to be honoured like kings with gifts. In practice that meant gifts of food, of feasting, through burnt offerings, and gifts of treasure, through dedications of arms and cauldrons and tripods arrayed in the temples. The temples and their priests, incidentally, were themselves part of the new religion. The forces of nature had been worshipped where they were; the gods conceived as men were housed, like men, in appropriate palaces. Mystery rites (literally 'orgies', a word which does not appear in either poem) and blood rites and human sacrifice and everything else that dehumanized the gods were ruthlessly discarded. Thus the important story of the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia was omitted, and the many gross atrocities in the prehistory of the gods were toned down radically. Achilles, it is true, sacrificed 'twelve brave sons of great-hearted Trojans' on the funeral pyre of Patroclus, but the poet promptly labelled that act of primitive horror for what it was: 'such evil deeds did he contrive in his heart' (XXIII 175-6).

In a famous passage in his autobiography, John Stuart Mill wrote of his father: 'I have a hundred times heard him say that all ages and nations have represented their gods as wicked, in a constantly increasing progression; that mankind have gone on adding trait after trait till they reached the most perfect conception of wickedness which the human mind can devise, and have called this God, and prostrated themselves before it.' For Homeric religion, at least, this is not a pertinent judgement, not because Homer's gods were incapable of wickedness, but because they were essentially devoid of any ethical quality whatsoever. The ethics of the world of Odysseus were man-made and man-


sanctioned. Man turned to the gods for help in his manifold activities, for the gifts it was in their power to offer or to withhold. He could not turn to them for moral guidance; that was not in their power. The Olympian gods had not created the world, and they were therefore not responsible for it.

When Odysseus awoke on Ithaca, Athena appeared to him in the guise of a shepherd and was greeted by one of Odysseus's characteristic inventions, how he came from Crete, fought at Troy, slew the son of Idomeneus, fled to the Phoenicians, and so forth. Athena smiled, resumed her female shape, and offered the following comment: 'Crafty must he be and shifty who would outstrip you in all kinds of cunning, even though it be a god that encountered you. Headstrong man, full of wiles, of cunning insatiate, are you not to cease, even in your own land, from deceit and artful tales, so dear to you from the bottom of your heart? But come, let us speak no more of these things, being both practised in craft; for you are far the best of all mortals in counsel and speech, and I am: celebrated among all the gods in craft and cunning' (13.291-9).

This is what the line of philosophers from Xenophanes to Plato protested, the indifference of the Homeric gods in moral matters. Just before the close of the Iliad (XX:IV 527-33), Achilles stated the doctrine explicitly: 'For two jars stand on Zeus's threshold whence he gives of his evil gifts, and another of the good; and to whom Zeus who delights in thunder gives a mixed portion, to him befalls now evil, now good; but to whom he gives of the baneful, him he scorns, and evil misery chases him over the noble earth, a wanderer honoured neither by gods nor by mortals.'

Chance, not merit, determined how the gifts fell to a man. And since it was not in his power to influence the choice, man could neither sin nor atone. He could offend a god mightily, but only by dishonouring him, by shaming him -through a false oath, for example, or disobedience of the direct command of an oracle or failure to make a sacrificial gift-and then it was incumbent upon the offender to make amends precisely as he made amends to any man he might have dishonoured. But this was not penance;


it was the re-establishment of the proper status relationship. Without sin there could be no idea of conscience, no feelings of moral guilt. The evils of which Achilles spoke were mishaps, not the evils of the Decalogue.

And there was no reverential fear of the gods. 'Homer's princes bestride their world boldly; they fear the gods only as they fear their human overlords.'* No word for 'god-fearing' is ever used in the Iliad. Nor, it scarcely need be added, was there-a word for 'love of god' : philotheos makes its first known appearance in the language with Aristotle. For moral support the men of the Iliad relied not on the gods but on their fellow-men, on the institutions and the customs by which they lived; so complete was the intellectual revolution that had occurred. Having lifted the incubus of unintelligible and all-powerful natural forces, man retained a consciousness .that there were powers in the universe which he could not control and could not really understand, but he introduced a great self-consciousness, a pride and a confidence in himself, in man and his ways in society.

But what of the men whose life gave no warrant for pride and self-confidence? For it is self-evident that the gods of the Iliad were the gods of heroes, or, plainly spoken, of the princes and the heads of the great households. What of the others, those for whom the iron age had come, when 'men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night'?# They had reason enough to fear the gods, but they had no reason to be god-fearing if the gods were truly as the poet described them. For them there was little question of choice of gifts; there was always the certainty that the gifts would come from the wrong jar: 'Evil misery chases him over the noble earth, a wanderer honoured neither by gods nor by mortals.' The poet of the Iliad could turn away from Demeter in contempt, but to the iron race of men she gave promise of a harvest, as the god Dionysus, whom Homer also ignored, meant wine and joy and forgetfulness of sorrow. 'Apollo moved only in the best society, from the days

* E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press, 1951), p. 29.

# Hesiod, Works and Days, 176-8.


when he was Hector's patron to the days when he canonized aristocratic athletes; but Dionysus was at all periods demotikos, a god of the people.'*

The Olympian religion could not stand stilt and yet survive. The intellectual revolution reflected in the Iliad required still another revolution, a moral one, in which Zeus was transformed from the king of a heroic society to the principle of cosmic justice. There are elements of this new conception in the Odyssey, for the suitor theme is in some fashion a tale of villainy and retribution. 'Father Zeus,' said old Laertes when Odysseus revealed himself and told him of the slaughter of the suitors, 'indeed you gods still exist on high Olympus, if truly the wooers have paid for their evil insolence' ( 24.35 I -2) .The contrast with the Iliad is striking. There the destruction of Troy was, if anything, an act of divine injustice. Paris had insulted Menelaus, and both sides, Achaeans and Trojans alike, were prepared at one point to rest the decision on single combat between the two heroes. Menelaus was the victor, and the war should have ended then, with the return of Helen and the payment of amends, but Hera and Athena would not be content until Ilion was sacked and all its men killed. The interest of the two goddesses was strictly heroic, an insistence on full retribution for the shame they once had suffered at the hands of Paris when he judged Aphrodite more beautiful. This and nothing else brought about the fall of Troy.

Zeus bowed to Hera's demand, even though, in his own words, 'of all the cities under the sun and the starry heave in which dwell earthly men, most honoured of my heart was holy Ilion, and Priam and the people of Priam of the good ashen spear'. Hera responded in kind: 'Indeed there are three cities most dear of all to me, Argos and Sparta and widewayed Mycenae. May these waste whenever they become hateful to your heart; for them I shall neither stand up nor hold a grudge' (IV 44-54). For the decision to be put into effect, it should be added, Athena was called upon to trap the Trojans, by the most malicious deception, into violating the oaths they and the Achaeans had taken when Menelaus and Paris met in single combat.

* Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, p. 76.


From such a view of divine motives to the punishment of the suitors was a long step, and the poet of the Odyssey took it hesitantly and incompletely. Its implications were extensive and complex, and he did not always see them by any means. When he did, the effect was startling. No sooner had Eurycleia returned to the great chamber of the palace and seen the carnage among the suitors than 'she was about to cry out in exultation, beholding so great a deed. But Odysseus restrained her. ..."Rejoice in your heart, old woman, and restrain yourself and do not cry aloud. It is an unholy thing to glory over slain men. These men the destiny of the gods had overpowered, and their (own) merci- less deeds"' (22-4:08-13). Not only was this sentiment unheroic, for heroes commonly exercised their prerogative to exult publicly over their victims, but in a sense it remained un-Hellenic, as Nietzsche's dictum suggests. It was as if, groping to understand a new vision of man and his fate, the poet saw something so pro- found, and yet so far beyond the horizon of his world, that he gave it expression in a few brief verses, only to draw back from it at once.

Interestingly enough, the Odyssey also has a considerable revival of the elements of belief that had been so rigorously 'expurgated' from the Iliad. The eleventh book, the scene in Hades, is filled with ghosts and dark blood and eerie noises, like a canvas of Hieronymus Bosch, not at all heroic in its texture. In the end, it remained for a poet who stood outside the heroic world to take the great next step. In the case of Hesiod we are certain, as we cannot be for the poet of the Iliad: it was he who organized the individual gods into a systematic theogony and made justice into the central problem of existence, human as well as divine. From Hesiod a straight line leads to Aeschylus and the other great tragedians.

In those succeeding centuries the miracle that was Greece unfolded. Homer having made the gods into men, man learned to know himself.


Back to Beginning