Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 2

Hypotheses as to the Growth of the Epics

A theorist who believes that the Homeric poems are the growth of four changeful centuries, must present a definite working hypothesis as to how they escaped from certain influences of the late age in which much of them is said to have been composed. We must first ask to what manner of audiences did the poets sing, in the alleged four centuries of the evolution of the Epics. Mr. Leaf, as a champion of the theory of ages of “expansion,” answers that “the Iliad and Odyssey are essentially, and above all, Court poems. They were composed to be sung in the palaces of a ruling aristocracy . . . the poems are aristocratic and courtly, not popular.” 17 They are not Volkspoesie; they are not ballads. “It is now generally recognised that this conception is radically false.”

These opinions, in which we heartily agree — there never was such a thing as a “popular” Epic — were published fourteen years ago. Mr. Leaf, however, would not express them with regard to “our” Iliad and Odyssey, because, in his view, a considerable part of the Iliad, as it stands, was made, not by Court bards in the Achaean courts of Europe, not for an audience of noble warriors and dames, but by wandering minstrels in the later Ionian colonies of Asia. They did not chant for a military aristocracy, but for the enjoyment of town and country folk at popular festivals. 18 The poems were begun, indeed, he thinks, for “a wealthy aristocracy living on the product of their lands,” in European Greece; were begun by contemporary court minstrels, but were continued, vastly expanded, and altered to taste by wandering singers and reciting rhapsodists, who amused the holidays of a commercial, expansive, and bustling Ionian democracy. 19

We must suppose that, on this theory, the later poets pleased a commercial democracy by keeping up the tone that had delighted an old land-owning military aristocracy. It is not difficult, however, to admit this as possible, for the poems continued to be admired in all ages of Greece and under every form of society. The real question is, would the modern poets be the men to keep up a tone some four or five centuries old, and to be true, if they were true, to the details of the heroic age? “It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some part of the most primitive Iliad may have been actually sung by the court minstrel in the palace whose ruins can still be seen in Mycenae.” 20 But, by the expansionist theory, even the oldest parts of our Iliad are now full of what we may call quite recent Ionian additions, full of late retouches, and full, so to speak, of omissions of old parts.

Through four or five centuries, by the hypothesis, every singer who could find an audience was treating as much as he knew of a vast body of ancient lays exactly as he pleased, adding here, lopping there, altering everywhere. Moreover, these were centuries full of change. The ancient Achaean palaces were becoming the ruins which we still behold. The old art had faded, and then fallen under the disaster of the Dorian conquest. A new art, or a recrudescence of earlier art, very crude and barbaric, had succeeded, and was beginning to acquire form and vitality. The very scene of life was altered: the new singers and listeners dwelt on the Eastern side of the Aegean. Knights no longer, as in Europe, fought from chariots: war was conducted by infantry, for the most part, with mounted auxiliaries. With the disappearance of the war chariot the huge Mycenaean shields had vanished or were very rarely used. The early vase painters do not, to my knowledge, represent heroes as fighting from war chariots. They had lost touch with that method. Fighting men now carried relatively small round bucklers, and iron was the metal chiefly employed for swords, spears, and arrow points. Would the new poets, in deference to tradition, abstain from mentioning cavalry, or small bucklers, or iron swords and spears? or would they avoid puzzling their hearers by speaking of obsolete and unfamiliar forms of tactics and of military equipment? Would they therefore sing of things familiar — of iron weapons, small round shields, hoplites, and cavalry? We shall see that confused and self-contradictory answers are given by criticism to all these questions by scholars who hold that the Epics are not the product of one, but of many ages.

There were other changes between the ages of the original minstrel and of the late successors who are said to have busied themselves in adding to, mutilating, and altering his old poem. Kings and courts had passed away; old Ionian myths and religious usages, unknown to the Homeric poets, had come out into the light; commerce and pleasure and early philosophies were the chief concerns of life. Yet the poems continued to be aristocratic in manners; and, in religion and ritual, to be pure from recrudescences of savage poetry and superstition, though the Ionians “did not drop the more primitive phases of belief which had clung to them; these rose to the surface with the rest of the marvellous Ionic genius, and many an ancient survival was enshrined in the literature or mythology of Athens which had long passed out of all remembrance at Mycenas.” 21

Amazing to say, none of these “more primitive phases of belief,” none of the recrudescent savage magic, was intruded by the late Ionian poets into the Iliad which they continued, by the theory. Such phases of belief were, indeed, by their time popular, and frequently appeared in the Cyclic poems on the Trojan war; continuations of the Iliad, which were composed by Ionian authors at the same time as much of the Iliad itself (by the theory) was composed. The authors of these Cyclic poems — authors contemporary with the makers of much of the Iliadwere eminently “unHomeric” in many respects. 22 They had ideas very different from those of the authors of the Iliad and Odyssey, as these ideas have reached us.

Helbig states this curious fact, that the Homeric poems are free from many recent or recrudescent ideas common in other Epics composed during the later centuries of the supposed four hundred years of Epic growth. 23 Thus a signet ring was mentioned in the Ilias Puma, and there are no rings in Iliad or Odyssey. But Helbig does not perceive the insuperable difficulty which here encounters his hypothesis. He remarks: “In certain poems which were grouping themselves around the Iliad and Odyssey, we meet data absolutely opposed to the conventional style of the Epic.” He gives three or four examples of perfectly unHomeric ideas occurring in Epics of the eighth to seventh centuries, B.C., and a large supply of such cases can be adduced. But Helbig does not ask how it happened that, if poets of these centuries had lost touch with the Epic tradition, and had wandered into a new region of thought, as they had, examples of their notions do not occur in the Iliad and Odyssey. By his theory these poems were being added to and altered, even in their oldest portions, at the very period when strange fresh, or old and newly revived fancies were flourishing. If so, how were the Iliad and Odyssey, unlike the Cyclic poems, kept uncontaminated, as they confessedly were, by the new romantic ideas?

Here is the real difficulty. Cyclic poets of the eighth and seventh centuries had certainly lost touch with the Epic tradition; their poems make that an admitted fact. Yet poets of the eighth to seventh centuries were, by the theory, busily adding to and altering the ancient lays of the Iliad. How did they abstain from the new or revived ideas, and from the new genre of romance? Are we to believe that one set of late Ionian poets — they who added to and altered the Iliad — were true to tradition, while another contemporary set of Ionian poets, the Cyclics — authors of new Epics on Homeric themes — are known to have quite lost touch with the Homeric taste, religion, and ritual? The reply will perhaps be a Cyclic poet said, “Here I am going to compose quite a new poem about the old heroes. I shall make them do and think and believe as I please, without reference to the evidence of the old poems.” But, it will have to be added, the rhapsodists of 800–540 B.C., and the general editor of the latter date, thought, we are continuing an old set of lays, and we must be very careful in adhering to manners, customs, and beliefs as described by our predecessors. For instance, the old heroes had only bronze, no iron — and then the rhapsodists forgot, and made iron a common commodity in the Iliad. Again, the rhapsodists knew that the ancient heroes had no corslets — the old lays, we learn, never spoke of corslets — but they made them wear corslets of much splendour. 24 This theory does not help us. In an uncritical age poets could not discern that their genre of romance and religion was alien from that of Homer.

To return to the puzzle about the careful and precise continuators of the Iliad, as contrasted with their heedless contemporaries, the authors of the Cyclic poems. How “non-Homeric” the authors of these Cyclic poems were, before and after 660 B.C., we illustrate from examples of their left hand backslidings and right hand fallings off. They introduced (1) The Apotheosis of the Dioscuri, who in Homer (Iliad, III. 243) are merely dead men (Cypria). (2) Story of Iphigenia Cypria. (3) Story of Palamedes, who is killed when angling by Odysseus and Diomede (Cypria).

Homer’s heroes never fish, except in stress of dire necessity, in the Odyssey, and Homer’s own Diomede and Odysseus would never stoop to assassinate a companion when engaged in the contemplative man’s recreation. We here see the heroes in late degraded form as on the Attic stage. (4) The Cyclics introduce Helen as daughter of Nemesis, and describe the flight of Nemesis from Zeus in various animal forms, a Märchen of a sort not popular with Homer; an Ionic Märchen, Mr. Leaf would say. There is nothing like this in the Iliad and Odyssey. (5) They call the son of Achilles, not Neoptolemus, as Homer does, but Pyrrhus. (6) They represent the Achaean army as obtaining supplies through three magically gifted maidens, who produce corn, wine, and oil at will, as in fairy tales. Another Ionic non-Achaean Märchen! They bring in ghosts of heroes dead and buried. Such ghosts, in Homer’s opinion, were impossible if the dead had been cremated. All these non-Homeric absurdities, save the last, are from the Cypria, dated by Sir Richard Jebb about 776 B.C., long before the Odyssey was put into shape, namely, after 660 B. C. in his opinion. Yet the alleged late compiler of the Odyssey, in the seventh century, never wanders thus from the Homeric standard in taste. What a skilled archaeologist he must have been! The author of the Cypria knew the Iliad, 25 but his knowledge could not keep him true to tradition. (7) In the AEthiopis (about 776 B.C.) men are made immortal after death, and are worshipped as heroes, an idea foreign to Iliad and Odyssey. (8) There is a savage ritual of purification from blood shed by a homicide (compare Eumenides, line 273). This is unheard of in Iliad and Odyssey, though familiar to Aeschylus. (9) Achilles, after death, is carried to the isle of Leuke. (10) The fate of Ilium, in the Cyclic Little Iliad, hangs on the Palladium, of which nothing is known in Iliad or Odyssey. The Little Iliad is dated about 700 B.C. (11) The Nostoi mentions Molossians, not named by Homer (which is a trifle); it also mentions the Asiatic city of Colophon, an Ionian colony, which is not a trivial self-betrayal on the part of the poet. He is dated about 750 B.C.

Thus, more than a century before the Odyssey received its final form, after 660 B.C., from the hands of one man (according to the theory), the other Ionian poets who attempted Epic were betraying themselves as non-Homeric on every hand. 26

Our examples are but a few derived from the brief notices of the Cyclic poets’ works, as mentioned in ancient literature; these poets probably, in fact, betrayed themselves constantly. But their contemporaries, the makers of late additions to the Odyssey, and the later mosaic worker who put it together, never betrayed themselves to anything like the fatal extent of anachronism exhibited by the Cyclic poets. How, if the true ancient tone, taste, manners, and religion were lost, as the Cyclic poets show that they were, did the contemporary Ionian poets or rhapsodists know and preserve the old manner?

The best face we can put on the matter is to say that all the Cyclic poets were recklessly independent of tradition, while all men who botched at the Iliad were very learned, and very careful to maintain harmony in their pictures of life and manners, except when they introduced changes in burial, bride-price, houses, iron, greaves, and corslets, all of them things, by the theory, modern, and when they sang in modern grammar.

Yet despite this conscientiousness of theirs, most of the many authors of our Iliad and Odyssey were, by the theory, strolling irresponsible rhapsodists, like the later jongleurs of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in mediaeval France. How could these strollers keep their modern Ionian ideas, or their primitive, recrudescent phases of belief, out of their lays, as far as they did keep them out, while the contemporary authors of the Cypria, The Sack of Ilios, and other Cyclic poets were full of new ideas, legends, and beliefs, or primitive notions revived, and, save when revived, quite obviously late and quite unHomeric in any case?

The difficulty is the greater if the Cyclic poems were long poems, with one author to each Epic. Such authors were obviously men of ambition; they produced serious works de longue haleine. It is from them that we should naturally expect conservative and studious adhesion to the traditional models. From casual strollers like the rhapsodists and chanters at festivals, we look for nothing of the sort. They might be expected to introduce great feats done by sergeants and privates, so to speak — men of the nameless [Greek: laos], the host, the foot men — who in Homer are occasionally said to perish of disease or to fall under the rain of arrows, but are never distinguished by name. The strollers, it might be thought, would also be the very men to introduce fairy tales, freaks of primitive Ionian myth, discreditable anecdotes of the princely heroes, and references to the Ionian colonies.

But it is not so; the serious, laborious authors of the long Cyclic poems do such unHomeric things as these; the gay, irresponsible strolling singers of a lay here and a lay there — lays now incorporated in the Iliad and Odyssey — scrupulously avoid such faults. They never even introduce a signet ring. These are difficulties in the theory of the Iliad as a patchwork by many hands, in many ages, which nobody explains; which, indeed, nobody seems to find difficult. Yet the difficulty is insuperable. Even if we take refuge with Wilamowitz in the idea that the Cyclic and Homeric poems were at first mere protoplasm of lays of many ages, and that they were all compiled, say in the sixth century, into so many narratives, we come no nearer to explaining why the tone, taste, and ideas of two such narratives — Illiad and Odyssey — are confessedly distinct from the tone, taste, and ideas of all the others. The Cyclic poems are certainly the production of a late and changed age? 27 The Iliad is not in any degree — save perhaps in a few interpolated passages — touched by the influences of that late age. It is not a complex of the work of four incompatible centuries, as far as this point is concerned — the point of legend, religion, ritual, and conception of heroic character.

17 Companion to the Iliad, pp. 2,8. 1892.

18 Iliad, vol. i. p. xvi. 1900.

19 Companion to the Iliad, p. II.

20 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. xv.

21 Companion to the Iliad, p. 7.

22 Cf. Monro, The Cyclic Poets; Odyssey, vol. ii, pp. 342–384.

23 Homerische Epos, p. 3.

24 The reader must remember that the view of the late poets as careful adherents of tradition in usages and ideas only obtains sometimes; at others the critics declare that archaeological precision is not preserved, and that the Ionic continuators introduced, for example, the military gear of their own period into a poem which represents much older weapons and equipments.

25 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 354.

26 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. pp. 347–383.

27 For what manner of audience, if not for readers, the Cyclic poems were composed is a mysterious question.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03