Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 17


The conclusion at which we arrive is that the Iliad, as a whole, is the work of one age. That it has reached us without interpolations and lacunae and remaniements perhaps no person of ordinary sense will allege. But that the mass of the Epic is of one age appears to be a natural inference from the breakdown of the hypotheses which attempt to explain it as a late mosaic. We have also endeavoured to prove, quite apart from the failure of theories of expansion and compilation, that the Iliad presents an historical unity, unity of character, unity of customary law, and unity in its archaeology. If we are right, we must have an opinion as to how the Epic was preserved.

If we had evidence for an Homeric school, we might imagine that the Epic was composed by dint of memory, and preserved, like the Sanskrit Hymns of the Rig Veda, and the Hymns of the Maoris, the Zuñis, and other peoples in the lower or middle stage of barbarism, by the exertions and teaching of schools. But religious hymns and mythical hymns — the care of a priesthood — are one thing; a great secular epic is another. Priests will not devote themselves from age to age to its conservation. It cannot be conserved, with its unity of tone and character, and, on the whole, even of language, by generations of paid strollers, who recite new lays of their own, as well as any old lays that they may remember, which they alter at pleasure.

We are thus driven back to the theory of early written texts, not intended to meet the wants of a reading public, but for the use of the poet himself and of those to whom he may bequeath his work. That this has been a method in which orally published epics were composed and preserved in a non-reading age we have proved in our chapter on the French Chansons de Geste. Unhappily, the argument that what was done in mediaeval France might be done in sub-Mycenaean Greece, is based on probabilities, and these are differently estimated by critics of different schools. All seems to depend on each individual’s sense of what is “likely.” In that case science has nothing to make in the matter. Nitzsche thought that writing might go back to the time of Homer. Mr. Monro thought it “probable enough that writing, even if known at the time of Homer, was not used for literary purposes.” 378 Sir Richard Jebb, as we saw, took a much more favourable view of the probability of early written texts. M. Salomon Reinach, arguing from the linear written clay tablets of Knossos and from a Knossian cup with writing on it in ink, thinks that there may have existed whole “Minoan” libraries — manuscripts executed on perishable materials, palm leaves, papyrus, or parchment. 379 Mr. Leaf, while admitting that “writing was known in some form through the whole period of epic development,” holds that “it is in the highest degree unlikely that it was ever employed to form a standard text of the Epic or any portion of it. . . . At best there was a continuous tradition of those portions of the poems which were especially popular . . . ” 380 Father Browne dates the employment of writing for the preservation of the Epic “from the sixth century onwards.” 381 He also says that “it is difficult to suppose that the Mycenaeans, who were certainly in contact with this form of writing” (the Cretan linear), “should not have used it much more freely than our direct evidence warrants us in asserting.” He then mentions the Knossian cup “with writing inscribed on it apparently in pen and ink . . . The conclusion is that ordinary writing was in use, but that the materials, probably palm leaves, have disappeared.” 382

Why it should be unlikely that a people confessedly familiar with writing used it for the preservation of literature, when we know that even the Red Indians preserve their songs by means of pictographs, while West African tribes use incised characters, is certainly not obvious. Many sorts of prae-Phoenician writing were current during the Mycenaean age in Asia, Egypt, Assyria, and in Cyprus. As these other peoples used writing of their own sort for literary purposes, it is not easy to see why the Cretans, for example, should not have done the same thing. Indeed, Father Browne supposes that the Mycenaeans used “ordinary writing,” and used it freely. Nevertheless, the Epic was not written, he says, till the sixth century B.C. Cauer, indeed, remarks that “the Finnish epic” existed unwritten till Lbnnrot, its Pisistratus, first collected it from oral recitation. 383 But there is not, and never was, any “Finnish epic.” There were cosmogonic songs, as among the Maoris and Zuñis — songs of the beginnings of things; there were magical songs, songs of weddings, a song based on the same popular tale that underlies the legend of the Argonauts. There were songs of the Culture Hero, songs of burial and feast, and of labour. Lönnrot collected these, and tried by interpolations to make an epic out of them; but the point, as Comparetti has proved, is that he failed. There is no Finnish epic, only a mass of Volkslieder. Cauer’s other argument, that the German popular tales, Grimm’s tales, were unwritten till 1812, is as remote from the point at issue. Nothing can be less like an epic than a volume of Märchen.

As usual we are driven back upon a literary judgment. Is the Iliad a patchwork of metrical Märchen or is it an epic nobly constructed? If it is the former, writing was not needed; if it is the latter, in the absence of Homeric guilds or colleges, only writing can account for its preservation.

It is impossible to argue against a critic’s subjective sense of what is likely. Possibly that sense is born of the feeling that the Cretan linear script, for example, or the Cyprian syllabary, looks very odd and outlandish. The critic’s imagination boggles at the idea of an epic written in such scripts. In that case his is not the scientific imagination; he is checked merely by the unfamiliar. Or his sense of unlikelihood may be a subconscious survival of Wolf’s opinion, formed by him at a time when the existence of the many scripts of the old world was unknown.

Our own sense of probability leads us to the conclusion that, in an age when people could write, people wrote down the Epic. If they applied their art to literature, then the preservation of the Epic is explained. Written first in a prae-Phoenician script, it continued to be written in the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. There was not yet, probably, a reading public, but there were a few clerkly men.

That the Cretans, at least, could write long before the age of Homer, Mr. Arthur Evans has demonstrated by his discoveries. Prom my remote undergraduate days I was of the opinion which he has proved to be correct, starting, like him, from what I knew about savage pictographs. 384

M. Reinach and Mr. Evans have pointed out that in this matter tradition joins hands with discovery. Diodorus Siculus, speaking of the Cretan Zeus and probably on Cretan authority, says: “As to those who hold that the Syrians invented letters, from whom the Phoenicians received them and handed them on to the Greeks, . . . and that for this reason the Greeks call letters ‘Phoenician,’ some reply that the Phoenicians did not discover letters, but merely modified (transposed?) the forms of the letters, and that most men use this form of script, and thus letters came to be styled ‘Phoenician.’” 385 In fact, the alphabet is a collection of signs of palaeolithic antiquity and of vast diffusion. 386

Thus the use of writing for the conservation of the Epic cannot seem to me to be unlikely, but rather probable; and here one must leave the question, as the subjective element plays so great a part in every man’s sense of what is likely or unlikely. That writing cannot have been used for this literary purpose, that the thing is impossible, nobody will now assert.

My supposition is, then, that the text of the Epic existed in AEgean script till Greece adapted to her own tongue the “Phoenician letters,” which I think she did not later than the ninth to eighth centuries; “at the beginning of the ninth century,” says Professor Bury. 387 This may seem an audaciously early date, but when we find vases of the eighth to seventh centuries bearing inscriptions, we may infer that a knowledge of reading and writing was reasonably common. When such a humble class of hirelings or slaves as the pot-painters can sign their work, expecting their signatures to be read, reading and writing must be very common accomplishments among the more fortunate classes.

If Mr. Gardner is right in dating a number of incised inscriptions on early pottery at Naucratis before the middle of the seventh century, we reach the same conclusion. In fact, if these inscriptions be of a century earlier than the Abu Simbel inscriptions, of date 590 B.C., we reach 690 B.C. Wherefore, as writing does not become common in a moment, it must have existed in the eighth century B.C. We are not dealing here with a special learned class, but with ordinary persons who could write. 388

Interesting for our purpose is the verse incised on a Dipylon vase, found at Athens in 1880. It is of an ordinary cream-jug shape, with a neck, a handle, a spout, and a round belly. On the neck, within a zigzag “geometrical” pattern, is a doe, feeding, and a tall water-fowl. On the shoulder is scratched with a point, in very antique Attic characters running from right to left, [Greek: os nun orchaeston panton hatalotata pais ei, tou tode]. “This is the jug of him who is the most delicately sportive of all dancers of our time.” The jug is attributed to the eighth century. 389

Taking the vase, with Mr. Walters, as of the eighth century, I do not suppose that the amateur who gave it to a dancer and scratched the hexameter was of a later generation than the jug itself. The vase may have cost him sixpence: he would give his friend a new vase; it is improbable that old jugs were sold at curiosity shops in these days, and given by amateurs to artists. The inscription proves that, in the eighth to seventh centuries, at a time of very archaic characters (the Alpha is lying down on its side, the aspirate is an oblong with closed ends and a stroke across the middle, and the Iota is curved at each end), people could write with ease, and would put verse into writing. The general accomplishment of reading is taken for granted.

Reading is also taken for granted by the Gortyn (Cretan) inscription of twelve columns long, boustro-phedon (running alternately from left to right, and from right to left). In this inscribed code of laws, incised on stone, money is not mentioned in the more ancient part, but fines and prices are calculated in “chalders” and “bolls” ([Greek: lebaetes] and [Greek: tripodes]), as in Scotland when coin was scarce indeed. Whether the law contemplated the value of the vessels themselves, or, as in Scotland, of their contents in grain, I know not. The later inscriptions deal with coined money. If coin came in about 650 B.C., the older parts of the inscription may easily be of 700 B.C.

The Gortyn inscription implies the power of writing out a long code of laws, and it implies that persons about to go to law could read the public inscription, as we can read a proclamation posted up on a wall, or could have it read to them. 390

The alphabets inscribed on vases of the seventh century (Abecedaria), with “the archaic Greek forms of every one of the twenty-two Phoenician letters arranged precisely in the received Semitic order,” were, one supposes, gifts for boys and girls who were learning to read, just like our English alphabets on gingerbread. 391

Among inscriptions on tombstones of the end of the seventh century, there is the epitaph of a daughter of a potter. 392 These writings testify to the general knowledge of reading, just as much as our epitaphs testify to the same state of education. The Athenian potter’s daughter of the seventh century B.C. had her epitaph, but the grave-stones of highlanders, chiefs or commoners, were usually uninscribed till about the end of the eighteenth century, in deference to custom, itself arising from the illiteracy of the highlanders in times past. 393 I find no difficulty, therefore, in supposing that there were some Greek readers and writers in the eighth century, and that primary education was common in the seventh. In these circumstances my sense of the probable is not revolted by the idea of a written epic, in Greek characters, even in the eighth century, but the notion that there was no such thing till the middle of the sixth century seems highly improbable. All the conditions were present which make for the composition and preservation of literary works in written texts. That there were many early written copies of Homer in the eighth century I am not inclined to believe. The Greeks were early a people who could read, but were not a reading people. Setting newspapers aside, there is no such thing as a reading people.

The Greeks preferred to listen to recitations, but my hypothesis is that the rhapsodists who recited had texts, like the jongleurs’ books of their epics in France, and that they occasionally, for definite purposes, interpolated matter into their texts. There were also texts, known in later times as “city texts” ([Greek: ai kata poleis]), which Aristarchus knew, but he did not adopt the various readings. 394

Athens had a text in Solon’s time, if he entered the decree that the whole Epic should be recited in due order, every five years, at the Panathenaic festival. 395 “This implies the possession of a complete text.” 396

Cauer remarks that the possibility of “interpolation” “began only after the fixing of the text by Pisistratus.” 397 But surely if every poet and reciter could thrust any new lines which he chose to make into any old lays which he happened to know, that was interpolation, whether he had a book of the words or had none. Such interpolations would fill the orally recited lays which the supposed Pisistratean editor must have written down from recitation before he began his colossal task of making the Iliad out of them. If, on the other hand, reciters had books of the words, they could interpolate at pleasure into them, and such books may have been among the materials used in the construction of a text for the Athenian book market. But if our theory be right, there must always have been a few copies of better texts than those of the late reciters’ books, and the effort of the editors for the book market would be to keep the parts in which most manuscripts were agreed.

But how did Athens, or any other city, come to possess a text? One can only conjecture; but my conjecture is that there had always been texts — copied out in successive generations — in the hands of the curious; for example, in the hands of the Cyclic poets, who knew our Iliad as the late French Cyclic poets knew the earlier Chansons de Geste. They certainly knew it, for they avoided interference with it; they worked at epics which led up to it, as in the Cypria; they borrowed motifs from hints and references in the Iliad, 398 and they carried on the story from the death of Hector, in the AEthiopis of Arctinus of Miletus. This epic ended with the death of Achilles, when The Little Iliad produced the tale to the bringing in of the wooden horse. Arctinus goes on with his Sack of Ilios, others wrote of The Return of the Heroes, and the Telegonia is a sequel to the Odyssey. The authors of these poems knew the Iliad, then, as a whole, and how could they have known it thus if it only existed in the casual repertoire of strolling reciters? The Cyclic poets more probably had texts of Homer, and themselves wrote their own poems — how it paid, whether they recited them and collected rewards or not, is, of course, unknown.

The Cyclic poems, to quote Sir Richard Jebb, “help to fix the lowest limit for the age of the Homeric poems. 399 The earliest Cyclic poems, dating from about 776 B.C., presuppose the Iliad, being planned to introduce or continue it. . . . It would appear, then, that the Iliad must have existed in something like its present compass as early as 800 B.C.; indeed a considerably earlier date will seem probable, if due time is allowed for the poem to have grown into such fame as would incite the effort to continue it and to prelude to it”

Sir Richard then takes the point on which we have already insisted, namely, that the Cyclic poets of the eighth century B.C. live in an age of ideas, religions, ritual, and so forth which are absent from the Iliad 400

Thus the Iliad existed with its characteristics that are prior to 800 B.C., and in its present compass, and was renowned before 800 B.C. As it could not possibly have thus existed in the repertoire of irresponsible strolling minstrels and reciters, and as there is no evidence for a college, school, or guild which preserved the Epic by a system of mnemonic teaching, while no one can deny at least the possibility of written texts, we are driven to the hypothesis that written texts there were, whence descended, for example, the text of Athens.

We can scarcely suppose, however, that such texts were perfect in all respects, for we know how, several centuries later, in a reading age, papyrus fragments of the Iliad display unwarrantable interpolation. 401 But Plato’s frequent quotations, of course made at an earlier date, show that “whatever interpolated texts of Homer were then current, the copy from which Plato quoted was not one of them.” 402 Plato had something much better.

When a reading public for Homer arose — and, from the evidences of the widespread early knowledge of reading, such a small public may have come into existence sooner than is commonly supposed — Athens was the centre of the book trade. To Athens must be due the prae-Alexandrian Vulgate, or prevalent text, practically the same as our own. Some person or persons must have made that text — not by taking down from recitation all the lays which they could collect, as Herd, Scott, Mrs. Brown, and others collected much of the Border Minstrelsy, and not by then tacking the lays into a newly-composed whole. They must have done their best with such texts as were accessible to them, and among these were probably the copies used by reciters and rhapsodists, answering to the MS. books of the mediaeval jongleurs.

Mr. Jevons has justly and acutely remarked that “we do not know, and there is no external evidence of any description which leads us to suppose, that the Iliad was ever expanded” (J. H. S, vii. 291–308).

That it was expanded is a mere hypothesis based on the idea that “if there was an Iliad at all in the ninth century, its length must have been such as was compatible with the conditions of an oral delivery,”—“a poem or poems short enough to be recited at a single sitting.”

But we have proved, with Mr. Jevons and Blass, and by the analogy of the Chansons that, given a court audience (and a court audience is granted), there were no such narrow limits imposed on the length of a poem orally recited from night to night.

The length of the Iliad yields, therefore, no argument for expansions throughout several centuries. That theory, suggested by the notion that the original poem must have been short, is next supposed to be warranted by the inconsistencies and discrepancies. But we argue that these are only visible, as a rule, to “the analytical reader,” for whom the poet certainly was not composing; that they occur in all long works of fictitious narrative; that the discrepancies often are not discrepancies; and, finally, that they are not nearly so glaring as the inconsistencies in the theories of each separatist critic. A theory, in such matter as this, is itself an explanatory myth, or the plot of a story which the critic invents to account for the facts in the case. These critical plots, we have shown, do not account for the facts of the case, for the critics do not excel in constructing plots. They wander into unperceived self-contradictions which they would not pardon in the poet. These contradictions are visible to “the analytical reader,” who concludes that a very early poet may have been, though Homer seldom is, as inconsistent as a modern critic.

Meanwhile, though we have no external evidence that the Iliad was ever expanded — that it was expanded is an explanatory myth of the critics —“we do know, on good evidence,” says Mr. Jevons, “that the Iliad was rhapsodised.” The rhapsodists were men, as a rule, of one day recitations, though at a prolonged festival at Athens there was time for the whole Iliad to be recited. “They chose for recitation such incidents as could be readily detached, were interesting in themselves, and did not take too long to recite.” Mr. Jevons suggests that the many brief poems collected in the Homeric hymns are invocations which the rhapsodists preluded to their recitals. The practice seems to have been for the rhapsodist first to pay his reverence to the god, “to begin from the god,” at whose festival the recitation was being given (the short proems collected in the Hymns pay this reverence), “and then proceed with his rhapsody”— with his selected passage from the Iliad, “Beginning with thee” (the god of the festival), “I will go on to another lay,” that is, to his selection from the Epic. Another conclusion of the proem often is, “I will be mindful both of thee and of another lay,” meaning, says Mr. Jevons, that “the local deity will figure in the recitation from Homer which the rhapsodist is about to deliver.”

These explanations, at all events, yield good sense. The invocation of Athene (Hymns, XI., XXVIII.) would serve as the proem of invocation to the recital of Iliad, V., VI. 1–311, the day of valour of Diomede, spurred on by the wanton rebuke of Agamemnon, and aided by Athene. The invocation of Hephaestus (Hymn XX.), would prelude to a recital of the Making of the Awns of Achilles, and so on.

But the rhapsodist may be reciting at a festival of Dionysus, about whom there is practically nothing said in the Iliad; for it is a proof of the antiquity of the Iliad that, when it was composed, Dionysus had not been raised to the Olympian peerage, being still a folk-god only. The rhapsodist, at a feast of Dionysus in later times, has to introduce the god into his recitation. The god is not in his text, but he adds him. 403

Why should any mortal have made this interpolation? Mr. Jevons’s theory supplies the answer. The rhapsodist added the passages to suit the Dionysus feast, at which he was reciting.

The same explanation is offered for the long story of the Birth of Heracles which Agamemnon tells in his speech of apology and reconciliation. 404 There is an invocation to Heracles (Hymns, XV.), and the author may have added this speech to his rhapsody of the Reconciliation, recited at a feast of Heracles. Perhaps the remark of Mr. Leaf offers the real explanation of the presence of this long story in the speech of Agamemnon: “Many speakers with a bad case take refuge in telling stories.” Agamemnon shows, says Mr. Leaf, “the peevish nervousness of a man who feels that he has been in the wrong,” and who follows a frank speaker like Achilles, only eager for Agamemnon to give the word to form and charge. So Agamemnon takes refuge in a long story, throwing the blame of his conduct on Destiny.

We do not need, then, the theory of a rhapsodist’s interpolation, but it is quite plausible in itself.

Local heroes, as well as gods, had their feasts in post-Homeric times, and a reciter at a feast of AEneas, or of his mother, Aphrodite, may have foisted in the very futile discourse of Achilles and AEneas, 405 with its reference to Erichthonius, an Athenian hero.

In other cases the rhapsodist rounded off his selected passage by a few lines, as in Iliad, XIII. 656–659, where a hero is brought to follow his son’s dead body to the grave, though the father had been killed in V. 576. “It is really such a slip as is often made by authors who write,” says Mr. Leaf; and, in Esmond, Thackeray makes similar errors. The passage in XVI. 69–80, about which so much is said, as if it contradicted Book IX. (The Embassy to Achilles), is also, Mr. Jevons thinks, to be explained as “inserted by a rhapsodist wishing to make his extract complete in itself.” Another example — the confusion in the beginning of Book II. — we have already discussed (see Chapter IV.), and do not think that any explanation is needed, when we understand that Agamemnon, once wide-awake, had no confidence in his dream. However, Mr. Jevons thinks that rhapsodists, anxious to recite straight on from the dream to the battle, added II. 35–41, “the only lines which represent Agamemnon as believing confidently in his dream.” We have argued that he only believed till he awoke, and then, as always, wavered.

Thus, in our way of looking at these things, interpolations by rhapsodists are not often needed as explanations of difficulties. Still, granted that the rhapsodists, like the jongleurs, had texts, and that these were studied by the makers of the Vulgate, interpolations and errors might creep in by this way. As to changes in language, “a poetical dialect . . . is liable to be gradually modified by the influence of the ever-changing colloquial speech. And, in the early times, when writing was little used, this influence would be especially operative.” 406

To conclude, the hypothesis of a school of mnemonic teaching of the Iliad would account for the preservation of so long a poem in an age destitute of writing, when memory would be well cultivated. There may have been such schools. We only lack evidence for their existence. But against the hypothesis of the existence of early texts, there is nothing except the feeling of some critics that it is not likely. “They are dangerous guides, the feelings.”

In any case the opinion that the Iliad was a whole, centuries before Pisistratus, is the hypothesis which is by far the least fertile in difficulties, and, consequently, in inconsistent solutions of the problems which the theory of expansion first raises, and then, like an unskilled magician, fails to lay.

378 Iliad, vol. i. p. xxxv.

379 L’Anthropologie, vol. xv, pp. 292, 293.

380 Iliad, vol. i. pp. xvi., xvii.

381 Handbook of Homeric Study, p. 134.

382 Ibid., pp. 258, 259.

383 Grundfragen der Homerkritik, p. 94.

384 Cretan Pictographs and Prae–Phoenician Script. London, 1905. Annual of British School of Athens, 1900–1901, p. 10. Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1897, pp. 327–395.

385 Diodorus Siculus, v. 74. L’Anthropologie, vol. xi. pp. 497–502.

386 Origins of the Alphabet. A. L. Fortnightly Review, 1904, pp. 634–645

387 History of Greece, vol. i. p. 78. 1902.

388 The Early Ionic Alphabet: Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. vii. pp. 220–239. Roberts, Introduction to Greek Epigraphy, pp. 31, 151, 159, 164, 165–167

389 Walters, History of Ancient Pottery, vol. ii. p, 243; Kretschmer, Griechischen Vasen inschriften, p. 110, 1894, of the seventh century. H. von Rohden, Denkmaler, iii. pp. 1945, 1946: “Probably dating from the seventh century.” Roberts, op. cit., vol. i. p. 74, “at least as far back as the seventh century,” p. 75.

390 Roberts, vol. i. pp. 52–55.

391 For Abecedaria, cf. Roberts, vol. i. pp. 16–21.

392 Roberts, vol. i. p. 76.

393 Ramsay, Scotland and Scotsmen, ii. p. 426. 1888.

394 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p, 435.

395 Ibid., vol. ii. p. 395.

396 Ibid., vol. ii. p. 403.

397 Grundfragen, p. 205.

398 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. pp. 350, 351.

399 Homer, pp. 151, 154.

400 Homer, pp. 154, 155.

401 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. pp. 422–426.

402 Ibid., p. 429

403 Ibid., VI. 130–141

404 Ibid., XIX. 136.

405 Ibid., XX. 213–250.

406 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 461.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57