Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 1

The Homeric Age

The aim of this book is to prove that the Homeric Epics, as wholes, and apart from passages gravely suspected in antiquity, present a perfectly harmonious picture of the entire life and civilisation of one single age. The faint variations in the design are not greater than such as mark every moment of culture, for in all there is some movement; in all, cases are modified by circumstances. If our contention be true, it will follow that the poems themselves, as wholes, are the product of a single age, not a mosaic of the work of several changeful centuries.

This must be the case — if the life drawn is harmonious, the picture must be the work of a single epoch — for it is not in the nature of early uncritical times that later poets should adhere, or even try to adhere, to the minute details of law, custom, opinion, dress, weapons, houses, and so on, as presented in earlier lays or sagas on the same set of subjects. Even less are poets in uncritical times inclined to “archaise,” either by attempting to draw fancy pictures of the manners of the past, or by making researches in graves, or among old votive offerings in temples, for the purpose of “preserving local colour.” The idea of such archaising is peculiar to modern times. To take an instance much to the point, Virgil was a learned poet, famous for his antiquarian erudition, and professedly imitating and borrowing from Homer. Now, had Virgil worked as a man of today would work on a poem of Trojan times, he would have represented his heroes as using weapons of bronze. 1 No such idea of archaising occurred to the learned Virgil. It is “the iron” that pierces the head of Remulus (Aeneid, IX. 633); it is “the iron” that waxes warm in the breast of Antiphates (IX. 701). Virgil’s men, again, do not wear the great Homeric shield, suspended by a baldric: AEneas holds up his buckler (clipeus), borne “on his left arm” (X. 26 i). Homer, familiar with no buckler worn on the left arm, has no such description. When the hostile ranks are to be broken, in the Aeneid it is “with the iron” (X. 372), and so throughout.

The most erudite ancient poet, in a critical age of iron, does not archaise in our modern fashion. He does not follow his model, Homer, in his descriptions of shields, swords, and spears. But, according to most Homeric critics, the later continuators of the Greek Epics, about 800–540 B.C., are men living in an age of iron weapons, and of round bucklers worn on the left arm. Yet, unlike Virgil, they always give their heroes arms of bronze, and, unlike Virgil (as we shall see), they do not introduce the buckler worn on the left arm. They adhere conscientiously to the use of the vast Mycenaean shield, in their time obsolete. Yet, by the theory, in many other respects they innovate at will, introducing corslets and greaves, said to be unknown to the beginners of the Greek Epics, just as Virgil innovates in bucklers and iron weapons. All this theory seems inconsistent, and no ancient poet, not even Virgil, is an archaiser of the modern sort.

All attempts to prove that the Homeric poems are the work of several centuries appear to rest on a double hypothesis: first, that the later contributors to the Iliad kept a steady eye on the traditions of the remote Achaean age of bronze; next, that they innovated as much as they pleased.

Poets of an uncritical age do not archaise. This rule is overlooked by the critics who represent the Homeric poems as a complex of the work of many singers in many ages. For example, Professor Percy Gardner, in his very interesting New chapters in Greek History (1892), carries neglect of the rule so far as to suppose that the late Homeric poets, being aware that the ancient heroes could not ride, or write, or eat boiled meat, consciously and purposefully represented them as doing none of these things. This they did “on the same principle on which a writer of pastoral idylls in our own day would avoid the mention of the telegraph or telephone.” 2 “A writer of our own day,”— there is the pervading fallacy! It is only writers of the last century who practise this archaeological refinement. The authors of Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, of the Chansons de Geste and of the Arthurian romances, always describe their antique heroes and the details of their life in conformity with the customs, costume, and armour of their own much later ages.

But Mr. Leaf, to take another instance, remarks as to the lack of the metal lead in the Epics, that it is mentioned in similes only, as though the poet were aware the metal was unknown in the heroic age. 3 Here the poet is assumed to be a careful but ill-informed archaeologist, who wishes to give an accurate representation of the past. Lead, in fact, was perfectly familiar to the Mycenaean prime. 4 The critical usage of supposing that the ancients were like the most recent moderns — in their archaeological preoccupations — is a survival of the uncritical habit which invariably beset old poets and artists. Ancient poets, of the uncritical ages, never worked “on the same principle as a writer in our day,” as regards archaeological precision; at least we are acquainted with no example of such accuracy.

Let us take another instance of the critical fallacy. The age of the Achaean warriors, who dwelt in the glorious halls of Mycenae, was followed, at an interval, by the age represented in the relics found in the older tombs outside the Dipylon gate of Athens, an age beginning, probably, about 900–850 B.C. The culture of this “Dipylon age,” a time of geometrical ornaments on vases, and of human figures drawn in geometrical forms, lines, and triangles, was quite unlike that of the Achaean age in many ways, for example, in mode of burial and in the use of iron for weapons. Mr. H. R. Hall, in his learned book, The Oldest Civilisation of Greece (1901), supposes the culture described in the Homeric poems to be contemporary in Asia with that of this Dipylon period in Greece. 5 He says, “The Homeric culture is evidently the culture of the poet’s own days; there is no attempt to archaise here. . . . ” They do not archaise as to the details of life, but “the Homeric poets consciously and consistently archaised, in regard to the political conditions of continental Greece,” in the Achaean times. They give “in all probability a pretty accurate description” of the loose feudalism of Mycenaean Greece. 6

We shall later show that this Homeric picture of a past political and social condition of Greece is of vivid and delicate accuracy, that it is drawn from the life, not constructed out of historical materials. Mr. Hall explains the fact by “the conscious and consistent” archaeological precision of the Asiatic poets of the ninth century. Now to any one who knows early national poetry, early uncritical art of any kind, this theory seems not easily tenable. The difficulty of the theory is increased, if we suppose that the Achaeans were the recent conquerors of the Mycenaeans. Whether we regard the Achaeans as “Celts,” with Mr. Ridgeway, victors over an Aryan people, the Pelasgic Mycenaeans; or whether, with Mr. Hall, we think that the Achaeans were the Aryan conquerors of a non-Aryan people, the makers of the Mycenaean civilisation; in the stress of a conquest, followed at no long interval by an expulsion at the hands of Dorian invaders, there would be little thought of archaising among Achaean poets. 7

A distinction has been made, it is true, between the poet and other artists in this respect. Monsieur Perrot says, “The vase-painter reproduces what he sees; while the epic poets endeavoured to represent a distant past. If Homer gives swords of bronze to his heroes of times gone by, it is because he knows that such were the weapons of these heroes of long ago. In arming them with bronze he makes use, in his way, of what we call “local colour. . . . ” Thus the Homeric poet is a more conscientious historian than Virgil!” 8

Now we contend that old uncritical poets no more sought for antique “local colour” than any other artists did. M. Perrot himself says with truth, “the Chanson de Roland, and all the Gestes of the same cycle explain for us the Iliad and the Odyssey.” 9 But the poet of the Chanson de Roland accoutres his heroes of old time in the costume and armour of his own age, and the later poets of the same cycle introduce the innovations of their time; they do not hunt for “local colour” in the Chanson de Roland. The very words “local colour” are a modern phrase for an idea that never occurred to the artists of ancient uncritical ages. The Homeric poets, like the painters of the Dipylon period, describe the details of life as they see them with their own eyes. Such poets and artists never have the fear of “anachronisms” before them. This, indeed, is plain to the critics themselves, for they, detect anachronisms as to land tenure, burial, the construction of houses, marriage customs, weapons, and armour in the Iliad and Odyssey. These supposed anachronisms we examine later: if they really exist they show that the poets were indifferent to local colour and archaeological precision, or were incapable of attaining to archaeological accuracy. In fact, such artistic revival of the past in its habit as it lived is a purely modern ideal.

We are to show, then, that the Epics, being, as wholes, free from such inevitable modifications in the picture of changing details of life as uncritical authors always introduce, are the work of the one age which they represent. This is the reverse of what has long been, and still is, the current theory of Homeric criticism, according to which the Homeric poems are, and bear manifest marks of being, a mosaic of the poetry of several ages of change.

Till Wolf published his Prolegomena to the Iliad (1795) there was little opposition to the old belief that the Iliad and Odyssey were, allowing for interpolations, the work of one, or at most of two, poets. After the appearance of Wolfs celebrated book, Homeric critics have maintained, generally speaking, that the Iliad is either a collection of short lays disposed in sequence in a late age, or that it contains an ancient original “kernel” round which “expansions,” made throughout some centuries of changeful life, have accrued, and have been at last arranged by a literary redactor or editor.

The latter theory is now dominant. It is maintained that the Iliad is a work of at least four centuries. Some of the objections to this theory were obvious to Wolf himself — more obvious to him than to his followers. He was aware, and some of them are not, of the distinction between reading the Iliad as all poetic literature is naturally read, and by all authors is meant to be read, for human pleasure, and studying it in the spirit of “the analytical reader.” As often as he read for pleasure, he says, disregarding the purely fanciful “historical conditions” which he invented for Homer; as often as he yielded himself to that running stream of action and narration; as often as he considered the harmony of colour and of characters in the Epic, no man could be more angry with his own destructive criticism than himself. Wolf ceased to be a Wolfian whenever he placed himself at the point of view of the reader or the listener, to whom alone every poet makes his appeal.

But he deemed it his duty to place himself at another point of view, that of the scientific literary historian, the historian of a period concerning whose history he could know nothing. “How could the thing be possible?” he asked himself. “How could a long poem like the Iliad come into existence in the historical circumstances?” [Footnote, exact place in paragraph unknown: Preface to Homer, p, xxii., 1794.]. Wolf was unaware that he did not know what the historical circumstances were. We know how little we know, but we do know more than Wolf. He invented the historical circumstances of the supposed poet. They were, he said, like those of a man who should build a large ship in an inland place, with no sea to launch it upon. The Iliad was the large ship; the sea was the public. Homer could have no readers, Wolf said, in an age that, like the old hermit of Prague, “never saw pen and ink,” had no knowledge of letters; or, if letters were dimly known, had never applied them to literature. In such circumstances no man could have a motive for composing a long poem. 10

Yet if the original poet, “Homer,” could make “the greater part of the songs,” as Wolf admitted, what physical impossibility stood in the way of his making the whole? Meanwhile, the historical circumstances, as conceived of by Wolf, were imaginary. He did not take the circumstances of the poet as described in the Odyssey. Here a king or prince has a minstrel, honoured as were the minstrels described in the ancient Irish books of law. His duty is to entertain the prince and his family and guests by singing epic chants after supper, and there is no reason why his poetic narratives should be brief, but rather he has an opportunity that never occurred again till the literary age of Greece for producing a long poem, continued from night to night. In the later age, in the Asiatic colonies and in Greece, the rhapsodists, competing for prizes at feasts, or reciting to a civic crowd, were limited in time and gave but snatches of poetry. It is in this later civic age that a poet without readers would have little motive for building Wolfs great ship of song, and scant chance of launching it to any profitable purpose. To this point we return; but when once critics, following Wolf, had convinced themselves that a long early poem was impossible, they soon found abundant evidence that it had never existed.

They have discovered discrepancies of which, they say, no one sane poet could have been guilty. They have also discovered that the poems had not, as Wolf declared, “one ‘harmony of colour” (unus color). Each age, they say, during which the poems were continued, lent its own colour. The poets, by their theory, now preserved the genuine tradition of things old; cremation, cairn and urn burial; the use of the chariot in war; the use of bronze for weapons; a peculiar stage of customary law; a peculiar form of semi-feudal society; a peculiar kind of house. But again, by a change in the theory, the poets introduced later novelties; later forms of defensive armour; later modes of burial; later religious and speculative beliefs; a later style of house; an advanced stage of law; modernisms in grammar and language.

The usual position of critics in this matter is stated by Helbig; and we are to contend that the theory is contradicted by all experience of ancient literatures, and is in itself the reverse of consistent. “The artists of antiquity,” says Helbig, with perfect truth, “had no idea of archaeological studies. . . . They represented legendary scenes in conformity with the spirit of their own age, and reproduced the arms and implements and costume that they saw around them.” 11

Now a poet is an artist, like another, and he, too — no less than the vase painter or engraver of gems — in dealing with legends of times past, represents (in an uncritical age) the arms, utensils, costume, and the religious, geographical, legal, social, and political ideas of his own period. We shall later prove that this is true by examples from the early mediaeval epic poetry of Europe.

It follows that if the Iliad is absolutely consistent and harmonious in its picture of life, and of all the accessories of life, the Iliad is the work of a single age, of a single stage of culture, the poet describing his own environment. But Helbig, on the other hand, citing Wilamowitz Moellendorff, declares that the Iliad — the work of four centuries, he says — maintains its unity of colour by virtue of an uninterrupted poetical tradition. 12 If so, the poets must have archaeologised, must have kept asking themselves, “Is this or that detail true to the past?” which artists in uncritical ages never do, as we have been told by Helbig. They must have carefully pondered the surviving old Achaean lays, which “were born when the heroes could not read, or boil flesh, or back a steed.” By carefully observing the earliest lays the late poets, in times of changed manners, “could avoid anachronisms by the aid of tradition, which gave them a very exact idea of the epic heroes.” Such is the opinion of Wilamowitz Moellendorff. He appears to regard the tradition as keeping the later poets in the old way automatically, not consciously, but this, we also learn from Helbig, did not occur. The poets often wandered from the way. 13 Thus old Mycenaean lays, if any existed, would describe the old Mycenaean mode of burial. The Homeric poet describes something radically different. We vainly ask for proof that in any early national literature known to us poets have been true to the colour and manners of the remote times in which their heroes moved, and of which old minstrels sang. The thing is without example: of this proofs shall be offered in abundance.

Meanwhile, the whole theory which regards the Iliad as the work of four or five centuries rests on the postulate that poets throughout these centuries did what such poets never do, kept true to the details of a life remote from their own, and also did not.

For Helbig does not, after all, cleave to his opinion. On the other hand, he says that the later poets of the Iliad did not cling to tradition. “They allowed themselves to be influenced by their own environment: this influence betrays itself in the descriptions of details. . . . The rhapsodists,” (reciters, supposed to have altered the poems at will), “did not fail to interpolate relatively recent elements into the oldest parts of the Epic.” 14

At this point comes in a complex inconsistency. The Tenth Book of the Iliad, thinks Helbig — in common with almost all critics —“is one of the most recent lays of the Iliad.” But in this recent lay (say of the eighth or seventh century) the poet describes the Thracians as on a level of civilisation with the Achaeans, and, indeed, as even more luxurious, wealthy, and refined in the matter of good horses, glorious armour, and splendid chariots. But, by the time of the Persian wars, says Helbig, the Thracians were regarded by the Greeks as rude barbarians, and their military equipment was totally unGreek. They did not wear helmets, but caps of fox-skin. They had no body armour; their shields were small round bucklers; their weapons were bows and daggers. These customs could not, at the time of the Persian wars, be recent innovations in Thrace. 15

Had the poet of Iliad, Book X., known the Thracians in this condition, says Helbig, as he was fond of details of costume and arms, he would have certainly described their fox-skin caps, bows, bucklers, and so forth. He would not here have followed the Epic tradition, which represented the Thracians as makers of great swords and as splendidly armed charioteers. His audience had met the Thracians in peace and war, and would contradict the poet’s description of them as heavily armed charioteers. It follows, therefore, that the latest poets, such as the author of Book X., did not introduce recent details, those of their own time, but we have just previously been told that to do so was their custom in the description of details.

Now Studniczka 16 explains the picture of the Thracians in Iliad, Book X., on Helbig’s other principle, namely, that the very late author of the Tenth Book merely conforms to the conventional tradition of the Epic, adheres to the model set in ancient Achaean, or rather ancient Ionian times, and scrupulously preserved by the latest poets — that is, when the latest poets do not bring in the new details of their own age. But Helbig will not accept his own theory in this case, whence does it follow that the author of the Tenth Book must, in his opinion, have lived in Achaean times, and described the Thracians as they then were, charioteers, heavily armed, not light-clad archers? If this is so, we ask how Helbig can aver that the Tenth Book is one of the latest parts of the Iliad?

In studying the critics who hold that the Iliad is the growth of four centuries — say from the eleventh to the seventh century B.C. — no consistency is to be discovered; the earth is never solid beneath our feet. We find now that the poets are true to tradition in the details of ancient life — now that the poets introduce whatever modern details they please. The late poets have now a very exact knowledge of the past; now, the late poets know nothing about the past, or, again, some of the poets are fond of actual and very minute archaeological research! The theory shifts its position as may suit the point to be made at the moment by the critic. All is arbitrary, and it is certain that logic demands a very different method of inquiry. If Helbig and other critics of his way of thinking mean that in the Iliad (1) there are parts of genuine antiquity; other parts (2) by poets who, with stern accuracy, copied the old modes; other parts (3) by poets who tried to copy but failed; with passages (4) by poets who deliberately innovated; and passages (5) by poets who drew fanciful pictures of the past “from their inner consciousness,” while, finally (6), some poets made minute antiquarian researches; and if the argument be that the critics can detect these six elements, then we are asked to repose unlimited confidence in critical powers of discrimination. The critical standard becomes arbitrary and subjective.

It is our effort, then, in the following pages to show that the unus color of Wolf does pervade the Epics, that recent details are not often, if ever, interpolated, that the poems harmoniously represent one age, and that a brief age, of culture; that this effect cannot, in a thoroughly uncritical period, have been deliberately aimed at and produced by archaeological learning, or by sedulous copying of poetic tradition, or by the scientific labours of an editor of the sixth century B.C. We shall endeavour to prove, what we have already indicated, that the hypotheses of expansion are not self-consistent, or in accordance with what is known of the evolution of early national poetry. The strongest part, perhaps, of our argument is to rest on our interpretation of archaeological evidence, though we shall not neglect the more disputable or less convincing contentions of literary criticism.

1 Looking back at my own poem, Helen of Troy (1883), I find that when the metal of a weapon is mentioned the metal is bronze.

2 Op. cit., p. 142.

3 Iliad, Note on, xi. 237.

4 Tsountas and Manatt, p. 73.

5 Op. cit., pp. 49, 222.

6 Op. cit., pp. 223, 225.

7 Mr. Hall informs me that he no longer holds the opinion that the poets archaised.

8 La Grète de l’Epopée, Perrot et Chipiez, p. 230.

9 op. cit., p. 5.

10 Prolegomena to the Iliad, p. xxvi.

11 L’Épopée Homerique, p. 5; Homerische Epos, p. 4.

12 Homerische Untersuchungen, p. 292; Homerische Epos, p. I.

13 Helbig, Homerische Epos, pp. 2, 3.

14 Homerische Epos, p. 2.

15 Herodotus, vii. 75.

16 Homerische Epos, pp. 7–11, cf. Note I; Zeitschrift fur die Oestern Gymnasien, 1886, p. 195.


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