Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 11

Notes of Change in the “Odyssey”

If the Homeric descriptions of details of life contain anachronisms, points of detail inserted in later progressive ages, these must be peculiarly conspicuous in the Odyssey. Longinus regarded it as the work of Homer’s advanced life, the sunset of his genius, and nobody denies that it assumes the existence of the Iliad and is posterior to that epic. In the Odyssey, then, we are to look, if anywhere, for indications of a changed society. That the language of the Odyssey, and of four Books of the Iliad (IX., X., XXIII., XXIV.), exhibits signs of change is a critical commonplace, but the language is matter for a separate discussion; we are here concerned with the ideas, manners, customary laws, weapons, implements, and so forth of the Epics.

Taking as a text Mr. Monro’s essay, The Relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad, 292 we examine the notes of difference which he finds between the twin Epics. As to the passages in which he discovers “borrowing or close imitation of passages” in the Iliad by the poet of the Odyssey, we shall not dwell on the matter, because we know so little about the laws regulating the repetition of epic formulae. It is tempting, indeed, to criticise Mr. Monro’s list of twenty-four Odyssean “borrowings,” and we might arrive at some curious results. For example, we could show that the Klôthes, the spinning women who “spae” the fate of each new-born child, are not later, but, as less abstract, are if anything earlier than “the simple Aisa of the Iliad.” 293 But our proof would require an excursion into the beliefs of savage and barbaric peoples who have their Klôthes, spae-women attending each birth, but who are not known to have developed the idea of Aisa or Fate.

We might also urge that “to send a spear through the back of a stag” is not, as Mr. Monro thought, “an improbable feat,” and that a man wounded to death as Leiocritus was wounded, would not, as Mr. Monro argued, fall backwards. He supposes that the poet of the Odyssey borrowed the forward fall from a passage in the Iliad, where the fall is in keeping. But, to make good our proof, it might be necessary to spear a human being in the same way as Leiocritus was speared. 294

The repetitions of the Epic, at all events, are not the result of the weakness of a poet who had to steal his expressions like a schoolboy. They have some other cause than the indolence or inefficiency of a cento — making undergraduate. Indeed, a poet who used the many terms in the Odyssey which do not occur in the Iliad was not constrained to borrow from any predecessor.

It is needless to dwell on the Odyssean novelties in vocabulary, which were naturally employed by a poet who had to sing of peace, not of war, and whose epic, as Aristotle says, is “ethical,” not military. The poet’s rich vocabulary is appropriate to his novel subject, that is all.

Coming to Religion (I) we find Mr. Leaf assigning to his original Achilleis —“the kernel”— the very same religious ideas as Mr. Monro takes to be marks of “lateness” and of advance when he finds them in the Odyssey!

In the original oldest part of the Iliad, says Mr. Leaf, “the gods show themselves just so much as to let us know what are the powers which control mankind from heaven. . . . Their interference is such as becomes the rulers of the world, not partisans in the battle.” 295 It is the later poets of the Iliad, in Mr. Leaf’s view, who introduce the meddlesome, undignified, and extremely unsportsmanlike gods. The original early poet of the Iliad had the nobler religious conceptions.

In that case — the Odyssey being later than the original kernel of the Iliad — the Odyssey ought to give us gods as undignified and unworthy as those exhibited by the later continuators of the Iliad.

But the reverse is the case. The gods behave fairly well in Book XXIV. of the Iliad, which, we are to believe, is the latest, or nearly the latest, portion. They are all wroth with the abominable behaviour of Achilles to dead Hector (XXIV. 134). They console and protect Priam. As for the Odyssey, Mr. Monro finds that in this late Epic the gods are just what Mr. Leaf proclaims them to have been in his old original kernel. “There is now an Olympian concert that carries on something like a moral government of the world. It is very different in the Iliad . . . ” 296

But it was not very different; it was just the same, in Mr. Leaf’s genuine old original germ of the Iliad. In fact, the gods are “very much like you and me.” When their ichor is up, they misbehave as we do when our blood is up, during the fury of war. When Hector is dead and when the war is over, the gods give play to their higher nature, as men do. There is no difference of religious conception to sever the Odyssey from the later but not from the original parts of the Iliad. It is all an affair of the circumstances in each case.

The Odyssey is calmer, more reflective, more religious than the Iliad, being a poem of peace. The Iliad, a poem of war, is more mythological than the Odyssey: the gods in the Iliad are excited, like the men, by the great war and behave accordingly. That neither gods nor men show any real sense of the moral weakness of Agamemnon or Achilles, or of the moral superiority of Hector, is an unacceptable statement. 297 Even Achilles and Agamemnon are judged by men and by the poet according to their own standard of ethics and of customary law. There is really no doubt on this point. Too much (2) is made of the supposed different views of Olympus — a mountain in Thessaly in the Iliad; a snowless, windless, supra-mundane place in Odyssey, V. 41–47. 298 Of the Odyssean passage Mr. Merry justly says, “the actual description is not irreconcilable with the general Homeric picture of Olympus.” It is “an idealised mountain,” and conceptions of it vary, with the variations which are essential to and inseparable from all mythological ideas. As Mr. Leaf says, 299 “heaven, ouranos and Olympus, if not identical, are at least closely connected.” In V. 753, the poet “regarded the summit of Olympus as a half-way stage between heaven and earth,” thus “departing from the oldest Homeric tradition, which made the earthly mountain Olympus, and not any aerial region, the dwelling of the gods.” But precisely the same confusion of mythical ideas occurs among a people so backward as the Australian south-eastern tribes, whose All Father is now seated on a hill-top and now “above the sky.” In Iliad, VIII. 25, 26, the poet is again said to have “entirely lost the real Epic conception of Olympus as a mountain in Thessaly,” and to “follow the later conception, which removed it from earth to heaven.” In Iliad, XI. 184, “from heaven” means “from the summit of Olympus, which, though Homer does not identify it with oupavos, still, as a mountain, reached into heaven” (Leaf). The poet of Iliad, XI. 184, says plainly that Zeus descended “from heaven” to Mount Ida. In fact, all that is said of Olympus, of heaven, of the home of the gods, is poetical, is mythical, and so is necessarily subject to the variations of conception inseparable from mythology. This is certain if there be any certainty in mythological science, and here no hard and fast line can be drawn between Odyssey and Iliad.

(3) The next point of difference is that, “we hear no more of Iris as the messenger of Zeus;” in the Odyssey, “the agent of the will of Zeus is now Hermes, as in the Twenty-fourth Book of the Iliad,” a late “Odyssean” Book. But what does that matter, seeing that Iliad, Book VIII, is declared to be one of the latest additions; yet in Book VIII. Iris, not Hermes, is the messenger (VIII. 409–425). If in late times Hermes, not Iris, is the messenger, why, in a very “late” Book (VIII.) is Iris the messenger, not Hermes? Iliad, Book XXIII., is also a late “Odyssean” Book, but here Iris goes on her messages (XXIII. 199) moved merely by the prayers of Achilles. In the late Odyssean Book (XXIV.) of the Iliad, Iris runs on messages from Zeus both to Priam and to Achilles. If Iris, in “Odyssean” times, had resigned office and been succeeded by Hermes, why did Achilles pray, not to Hermes, but to Iris? There is nothing in the argument about Hermes and Iris. There is nothing in the facts but the variability of mythical and poetical conceptions. Moreover, the conception of Iris as the messenger certainly existed through the age of the Odyssey, and later. In the Odyssey the beggar man is called “Irus,” a male Iris, because he carries messages; and Iris does her usual duty as messenger in the Homeric Hymns, as well as in the so-called late Odyssean Books of the Iliad. The poet of the Odyssey knew all about Iris; there had arisen no change of belief; he merely employed Hermes as messenger, not of the one god, but of the divine Assembly.

(4) Another difference is that in the Iliad the wife of Hephaestus is one of the Graces; in the Odyssey she is Aphrodite. 300 This is one of the inconsistencies which are the essence of mythology. Mr. Leaf points out that when Hephaestus is about exercising his craft, in making arms for Achilles, Charis “is made wife of Hephaestus by a more transparent allegory than we find elsewhere in Homer,” whereas, when Aphrodite appears in a comic song by Demodocus (Odyssey, VIII. 266–366), “that passage is later and unHomeric.” 301

Of this we do not accept the doctrine that the lay is unHomeric. The difference comes to no more than that; the accustomed discrepancy of mythology, of story-telling about the gods. But as to the lay of Demodocus being unHomeric and late, the poet at least knows the regular Homeric practice of the bride-price, and its return by the bride’s father to the husband of an adulterous wife (Odyssey, VIII. 318, 319). The poet of this lay, which Mr. Merry defends as Homeric, was intimately familiar with Homeric customary law. Now, according to Paul Cauer, as we shall see, other “Odyssean” poets were living in an age of changed law, later than that of the author of the lay of Demodocus. All these so-called differences between Iliad and Odyssey do not point to the fact that the Odyssey belongs to a late and changed period of culture, of belief and customs. There is nothing in the evidence to prove that contention.

There (5) are two references to local oracles in the Odyssey, that of Dodona (XIV. 327; XIX. 296) and that of Pytho (VIII. 80). This is the old name of Delphi. Pytho occurs in Iliad, IX. 404, as a very rich temple of Apollo — the oracle is not named, but the oracle brought in the treasures. Achilles (XVI. 233) prays to Pelasgian Zeus of Dodona, whose priests were thickly tabued, but says nothing of the oracle of Dodona. Neither when in leaguer round Troy, nor when wandering in fairy lands forlorn, had the Achaeans or Odysseus much to do with the local oracles of Greece; perhaps not, in Homer’s time, so important as they were later, and little indeed is said about them in either Epic.

(6) “The geographical knowledge shown in the Odyssey goes beyond that of the Iliad . . . especially in regard to Egypt and Sicily.” But a poet of a widely wandering hero of Western Greece has naturally more occasion than the poet of a fixed army in Asia to show geographical knowledge. Egyptian Thebes is named, in Iliad, IX., as a city very rich, especially in chariots; while in the Odyssey the poet has occasion to show more knowledge of the way to Egypt and of Viking descents from Crete on the coast (Odyssey, III. 300; IV. 351; XIV. 257; XVII. 426). Archaeology shows that the Mycenaean age was in close commercial relation with Egypt, and that the Mycenaean civilisation extended to most Mediterranean lands and islands, and to Italy and Sicily. 302 There is nothing suspicious, as “late,” in the mention of Sicily by Odysseus in Ithaca (Odyssey, XX. 383; XXIV. 307). In the same way, if the poet of a western poem does not dilate on the Troad and the people of Asia Minor as the poet of the Iliad does, that is simply because the scene of the Iliad is in Asia and the scene of the Odyssey is in the west, when it is not in No Man’s land. From the same cause the poet of sea-faring has more occasion to speak of the Phoenicians, great sea-farers, than the poet of the Trojan leaguer.

(7) We know so little about land tenure in Homeric times — and, indeed, early land tenure is a subject so complex and obscure that it is not easy to prove advance towards separate property in the Odyssey — beyond what was the rule in the time of the Iliad. In the Making of the Arms (XVIII. 541–549) we find many men ploughing a field, and this may have been a common field. But in what sense? Many ploughs were at work at once on a Scottish runrig field, and each farmer had his own strip on several common fields, but each farmer held by rent, or by rent and services, from the laird. These common fields were not common property. In XII. 422 we have “a common field,” and men measuring a strip and quarrelling about the marking-stones, across the “baulk,” but it does not follow that they are owners; they may be tenants. Such quarrels were common in Scotland when the runrig system of common fields, each man with his strip, prevailed. 303

A man had a [Greek: klaeros] or lot (Iliad, XV. 448), but what was a “lot”? At first, probably, a share in land periodically shifted-& partage noir of the Russian peasants. Kings and men who deserve public gratitude receive a [Greek: temenos] a piece of public land, as Bellerophon did from the Lycians (VI. 194). In the case of Melager such an estate is offered to him, but by whom? Not by the people at large, but by the [Greek: gerontes] (IX. 574).

Who are the [Greek: gerontes]? They are not ordinary men of the people; they are, in fact, the gentry. In an age so advanced from tribal conditions as is the Homeric time — far advanced beyond ancient tribal Scotland or Ireland — we conceive that, as in these countries during the tribal period, the [Greek: gerontes] (in Celtic, the Flaith) held in possession, if not in accordance with the letter of the law, as property, much more land than a single “lot.” The Irish tribal freeman had a right to a “lot,” redistributed by rotation. Wealth consisted of cattle; and a bogire, a man of many kine, let them out to tenants. Such a rich man, a flatha, would, in accordance with human nature, use his influence with kineless dependents to acquire in possession several lots, avoid the partition, and keep the lots in possession though not legally in property. Such men were the Irish flaith, gentry under the RI, or king, his [Greek: gerontes], each with his ciniod, or near kinsmen, to back his cause.

Flaith seems clearly to mean land-owners,” or squires, says Sir James Ramsay. 304 If land, contrary to the tribal ideal, came into private hands in early Ireland, we can hardly suppose that, in the more advanced and settled Homeric society, no man but the king held land equivalent in extent to a number of “lots.” The [Greek: gerontes], the gentry, the chariot-owning warriors, of whom there are hundreds not of kingly rank in Homer (as in Ireland there were many flaith to one Ri) probably, in an informal but tight grip, held considerable lands. When we note their position in the Iliad, high above the nameless host, can we imagine that they did not hold more land than the simple, perhaps periodically shifting, “lot”? There were “lotless” men (Odyssey, XL 490), lotless freemen, and what had become of their lots? Had they not fallen into the hands of the [Greek: gerontes] or the flaith?

Mr. Ridgeway in a very able essay 305 holds different opinions. He points out that among a man’s possessions, in the Iliad, we hear only of personal property and live stock. It is in one passage only in the Odyssey (XIV. 211) that we meet with men holding several lots of land; but they, we remark, occur in Cretean isle, as we know, of very advanced civilisation from of old.

Mr. Ridgeway also asks whether the lotless men may not be “outsiders,” such as are attached to certain villages of Central and Southern India; 306 or they may answer to the Fuidhir, or “broken men,” of early Ireland, fugitives from one to another tribe. They would be “settled on the waste lands of a community.” If so, they would not be lotless; they would have new lots. 307

Laertes, though a king, is supposed to have won his farm by his own labours from the waste (Odyssey, XXIV. 207). Mr. Monro says, “the land having thus been won from the wastes (the [Greek: gae aklaeros te kai aktitos] of H., Ven. 123), was a [Greek: temenos] or separate possession of Laertes.” The passage is in the rejected conclusion of the Odyssey; and if any man might go and squat in the waste, any man might have a lot, or better than one lot. In Iliad, XXIII. 832–835, Achilles says that his offered prize of iron will be useful to a man “whose rich fields are very remote from any town,” Teucer and Meriones compete for the prize: probably they had such rich remote fields, not each a mere lot in a common field. These remote fields they are supposed to hold in perpetuity, apart from the temenos, which, in Mr. Ridgeway’s opinion, reverted, on the death of each holder, to the community, save where kingship was hereditary. Now, if [Greek: klaeros] had come to mean “a lot of land,” as we say “a building lot,” obviously men like Teucer and Meriones had many lots, rich fields, which at death might sometimes pass to their heirs. Thus there was separate landed property in the Iliad; but the passage is denounced, though not by Mr. Ridgeway, as “late.”

The absence of enclosures ([Greek: herkos arouraes]) proves nothing about absence of several property in land. In Scotland the laird’s lands were unenclosed till deep in the eighteenth century.

My own case for land in private possession, in Homeric times, rests mainly on human nature in such an advanced society. Such possession as I plead for is in accordance with human nature, in a society so distinguished by degrees of wealth as is the Homeric.

Unless we are able to suppose that all the gentry of the Iliad held no “rich fields remote from towns,” each having but one rotatory lot apiece, there is no difference in Iliadic and Odyssean land tenure, though we get clearer lights on it in the Odyssey.

The position of the man of several lots may have been indefensible, if the ideal of tribal law were ever made real, but wealth in growing societies universally tends to override such law. Mr. Keller 308 justly warns us against the attempt “to apply universally certain fixed rules of property development. The passages in Homer upon which opinions diverge most are isolated ones, occurring in similes and fragmentary descriptions. Under such conditions the formulation of theories or the attempt rigorously to classify can be little more than an intellectual exercise.”

We have not the materials for a scientific knowledge of Homeric real property; and, with all our materials in Irish law books, how hard it is for us to understand the early state of such affairs in Ireland! But does any one seriously suppose that the knightly class of the Iliad, the chariot-driving gentlemen, held no more land — legally or by permitted custom — than the two Homeric swains who vituperate each other across a baulk about the right to a few feet of a strip of a runrig field? Whosoever can believe that may also believe that the practice of adding “lot” to “lot” began in the period between the finished composition of the Iliad (or of the parts of it which allude to land tenure) and the beginning of the Odyssey (or of the parts of it which refer to land tenure). The inference is that, though the fact is not explicitly stated in the Iliad, there were men who held more “lots” than one in Iliadic times as well as in the Odyssean times, when, in a solitary passage of the Odyssey, we do hear of such men in Crete. But whosoever has pored over early European land tenures knows how dim our knowledge is, and will not rush to employ his lore in discriminating between the date of the Iliad and the date of the Odyssey.

Not much proof of change in institutions between Iliadic and Odyssean times can be extracted from two passages about the ethna, or bride-price of Penelope. The rule in both Iliad and Odyssey is that the wooer gives a bride-price to the father of the bride, ethna. This was the rule known even to that painfully late and unHomeric poet who made the Song of Demodocus about the loves of Ares and Aphrodite. In that song the injured husband, Hephaestus, claims back the bride-price which he had paid to the father of his wife, Zeus. 309 This is the accepted custom throughout the Odyssey (VI. 159; XVI. 77; XX. 335; XXI. 162; XV. 17, &c.). So far there is no change of manners, no introduction of the later practice, a dowry given with the bride, in place of a bride-price given to the father by the bridegroom. But Penelope was neither maid, wife, nor widow; her husband’s fate, alive or dead, was uncertain, and her son was so anxious to get her out of the house that he says he offered gifts with her (XX. 342). In the same way, to buy back the goodwill of Achilles, Agamemnon offers to give him his daughter without bride-price, and to add great gifts (Iliad, IX. l47)— the term for the gifts is [Greek: mailia]. People, of course, could make their own bargain; take as much for their daughter as they could get, or let the gifts go from husband to bride, and then return to the husband’s home with her (as in Germany in the time of Tacitus, Germania, 18), or do that, and throw in more gifts. But in Odyssey, II. 53, Telemachus says that the Wooers shrink from going to the house of Penelope’s father, Icarius, who would endow (?) his daughter ([Greek: eednoosaito]) And again (Odyssey, I. 277; II. 196), her father’s folk will furnish a bridal feast, and “array the [Greek: heedna], many, such as should accompany a dear daughter.” Some critics think that the gifts here are dowry, a later institution than bride-price; others, that the father of the dear daughter merely chose to be generous, and returned the bride-price, or its equivalent, in whole or part. 310 If the former view be correct, these passages in Odyssey, I., II. are later than the exceedingly “late” song of Demodocus. If the latter theory be correct the father is merely showing goodwill, and doing as the Germans did when they were in a stage of culture much earlier than the Homeric.

The position of Penelope is very unstable and legally perplexing. Has her father her marriage? has her son her marriage? is she not perhaps still a married woman with a living husband? Telemachus would give much to have her off his hands, but he refuses to send her to her father’s house, where the old man might be ready enough to return the bride-price to her new husband, and get rid of her with honour. For if Telemachus sends his mother away against her will he will have to pay a heavy fine to her father, and to thole his mother’s curse, and lose his character among men (odyssey, II. 130–138). The Icelanders of the saga period gave dowries with their daughters. But when Njal wanted Hildigunna for his foster-son, Hauskuld, he offered to give [Greek: hedna]. “I will lay down as much money as will seem fitting to thy niece and thyself,” he says to Flosi, “if thou wilt think of making this match.” 311

Circumstances alter cases, and we must be hard pressed to discover signs of change of manners in the Odyssey as compared with the Iliad if we have to rely on a solitary mention of “men of many lots” in Crete, and on the perplexed proposals for the second marriage of Penelope. 312 We must not be told that the many other supposed signs of change, Iris, Olympus, and the rest, have “cumulative weight.” If we have disposed of each individual supposed note of change in beliefs and manners in its turn, then these proofs have, in each case, no individual weight and, cumulatively, are not more ponderous than a feather.

292 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. pp. 324, seqq.

293 Odyssey, VII. 197; Iliad, xx. 127.

294 Monro, odyssey, vol. ii. pp. 239, 230.

295 Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. pp. xii., xiii.

296 Monro, Odyssey, ii. 335.

297 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 336.

298 Ibid., ii. 396.

299 Note to Iliad, V. 750.

300 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 336.

301 Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. p. 246.

302 Ridgeway, Early Age of Greece, i. 69.

303 Grey Graham, Social Life in Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, i. 157.

304 Foundations of England, i. 16, Note 4.

305 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vi. 319–339.

306 Maine, Village Communities, P. 127.

307 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vi. 322, 323.

308 Homeric Society, p. 192. 1902.

309 Odyssey, VIII. 318.

310 Merry, Odyssey, vol. i. p. 50. Note to Book I 277.

311 Story of Burnt Njal, ii. p. 81.

312 For the alleged “alteration of old customs” see Cauer, Grundfragen der Homerkritik, pp. 193–194.


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