Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 9

Bronze and Iron

Taking the Iliad and Odyssey just as they have reached us they give, with the exception of one line, an entirely harmonious account of the contemporary uses of bronze and iron. Bronze is employed in the making of weapons and armour (with cups, ornaments, &c.); iron is employed (and bronze is also used) in the making of tools and implements, such as knives, axes, adzes, axles of a chariot (that of Hera; mortals use an axle tree of oak), and the various implements of agricultural and pastoral life. Meanwhile, iron is a substance perfectly familiar to the poets; it is far indeed from being a priceless rarity (it is impossible to trace Homeric stages of advance in knowledge of iron), and it yields epithets indicating strength, permanence, and stubborn endurance. These epithets are more frequent in the Odyssey and the “later” Books of the Iliad than in the “earlier” Books of the Iliad; but, as articles made of iron, the Odyssey happens to mention only one set of axes, which is spoken of ten times — axes and adzes as a class — and “iron bonds,” where “iron” probably means “strong,” “not to be broken.” 202. The statement of facts given here is much akin to Helbig’s account of the uses of bronze and iron in Homer. 203 Helbig writes: “It is notable that in the Epic there is much more frequent mention of iron implements than of iron weapons of war.” He then gives examples, which we produce later, and especially remarks on what Achilles says when he offers a mass of iron as a prize in the funeral games of Patroclus. The iron, says Achilles, will serve for the purposes of the ploughman and shepherd, “a surprising speech from the son of Peleus, from whom we rather expect an allusion to the military uses of the metal.” Of course, if iron weapons were not in vogue while iron was the metal for tools and implements, the words of Achilles are appropriate and intelligible.

The facts being as we and Helbig agree in stating them, we suppose that the Homeric poets sing of the usages of their own time. It is an age when iron, though quite familiar, is not yet employed for armour, or for swords or spears, which must be of excellent temper, without great weight in proportion to their length and size. Iron is only employed in Homer for some knives, which are never said to be used in battle (not even for dealing the final stab, like the mediaeval poniard, the miséricorde), for axes, which have a short cutting edge, and may be thick and weighty behind the edge, and for the rough implements of the shepherd and ploughman, such as tips of ploughshares, of goads, and so forth.

As far as archaeological excavations and discoveries enlighten us, these relative uses of bronze and iron did not exist in the ages of Mycenaean culture which are represented in the tholos of Vaphio and the graves, earlier and later, of Mycenae. Even in the later Mycenaean graves iron is found only in the form of finger rings (iron rings were common in late Greece). 204 Iron was scarce in the Cypro–Mycenaean graves of Enkomi. A small knife with a carved handle had left traces of an iron blade. A couple of lumps of iron, one of them apparently the head of a club, were found in Schliemann’s “Burned City” at Hissarlik; for the rest, swords, spear-heads, knives, and axes are all of bronze in the age called “Mycenaean.” But we do not know whether iron implements may not yet be found in the sepulchres of Thetes, and other poor and landless men. The latest discoveries in Minoan graves in Crete exhibit tools of bronze.

Iron, we repeat, is in the poems a perfectly familiar metal. Ownership of “bronze, gold, and iron, which requires much labour” (in the smithying or smelting), appears regularly in the recurrent epic formula for describing a man of wealth. 205 Iron, bronze, slaves, and hides are bartered for sea-borne wine at the siege of Troy? 206 Athene, disguised as Mentes, is carrying a cargo of iron to Temesa (Tamasus in Cyprus?), to barter for copper. The poets are certainly not describing an age in which only a man of wealth might indulge in the rare and extravagant luxury of an iron ring: iron was a common commodity, like cattle, hides, slaves, bronze, and other such matters. Common as it was, Homer never once mentions its use for defensive armour, or for swords and spears.

Only in two cases does Homer describe any weapon as of iron. There is to be sure the “iron,” the knife with which Antilochus fears Achilles will cut his own throat. 207 But no knife is ever used as a weapon of war: knives are employed in cutting the throats of victims (see Iliad, III. 271 and XXIII. 30); the knife is said to be of iron, in this last passage; also Patroclus uses the knife to cut the arrow-head out of the flesh of a wounded friend. 208 It is the knife of Achilles that is called “the iron,” and on “the iron” perish the cattle in Iliad, XXIII. 30. Mr. Leaf says that by “the usual use, the metal” (iron) “is confined to tools of small size.” 209 This is incorrect; the Odyssey speaks of great axes habitually made of iron. 210 But we do find a knife of bronze, that of Agamemnon, used in sacrificing victims; at least so I infer from Iliad, III. 271–292.

The only two specimens of weapons named by Homer as of iron are one arrow-head, used by Pandarus, 211 and one mace, borne, before Nestor’s time, by Areithöus. To fight with an iron mace was an amiable and apparently unique eccentricity of Areithbus, and caused his death. On account of his peculiar practice he was named “The Mace man.” 212 The case is mentioned by Nestor as curious and unusual.

Mr. Leaf gets rid of this solitary iron casse tête in a pleasant way. Since he wrote his Companion to the Iliad, 1902, he has become converted, as we saw, to the theory, demolished by Mr. Monro, Nutzhorn, and Grote, and denounced by Blass, that the origin of our Homer is a text edited by some literary retainer of Pisistratus of Athens (about 560–540 B.C.). The editor arranged current lays, “altered” freely, and “wrote in” as much as he pleased. Probably he wrote this passage in which Nestor describes the man of the iron mace, for “the tales of Nestor’s youthful exploits, all of which bear the mark of late work, are introduced with no special applicability to the context, but rather with the intention of glorifying the ancestor of Pisistratus.” 213 If Pisistratus was pleased with the ancestral portrait, nobody has a right to interfere, but we need hardly linger over this hypothesis (cf. pp. 281–288).

Iron axes are offered as prizes by Achilles, 214 and we have the iron axes of Odysseus, who shot an arrow through the apertures in the blades, at the close of the Odyssey. But all these axes, as we shall show, were not weapons, but peaceful implements.

As a matter of certain fact the swords and spears of Homer’s warriors are invariably said by the poet to be of bronze, not of iron, in cases where the metal of the weapons is specified.

Except for an arrow-head (to which we shall return) and the one iron mace, noted as an eccentricity, no weapon in Homer is ever said to be of iron.

The richest men use swords of bronze. Not one chooses to indulge in a sword said to be of iron. The god, Hephaestus, makes a bronze sword for Achilles, whose own bronze sword was lent to Patroclus, and lost by him to Hector. 215 This bronze sword, at least, Achilles uses, after receiving the divine armour of the god. The sword of Paris is of bronze, as is the sword of Odysseus in the Odyssey. 216 Bronze is the sword which he brought from Troy, and bronze is the sword presented to him by Euryalus in Phaeacia, and bronze is the spear with which he fought under the walls of Ilios. 217 There are other examples of bronze swords, while spears are invariably said to be of bronze, when the metal of the spear is specified.

Here we are on the ground of solid certainty: we see that the Homeric warrior has regularly spear and sword of bronze. If any man used a spear or sword of iron, Homer never once mentions the fact. If the poets, in an age of iron weapons, always spoke of bronze, out of deference to tradition, they must have puzzled their iron-using military patrons.

Thus, as regards weapons, the Homeric heroes are in the age of bronze, like them who slept in the tombs of the Mycenaean age. When Homer speaks of the use of cutting instruments of iron, he is always concerned, except in the two cases given, not with weapons but with implements, which really were of iron. The wheelwright fells a tree “with the iron,” that is, with an axe; Antilochus fears that Achilles “will cut his own throat with the iron,” that is, with his knife, a thing never used in battle; the cattle struggle when slain with “the iron,” that is, the butcher’s knife; and Odysseus shoots “through the iron,” that is, through the holes in the blade of the iron axes. 218 Thus Homer never says that this or that was done “with the iron” in the case of any but one weapon of war. Pandarus “drew the bow-string to his breast and to the bow.” 219 Whoever wrote that line was writing in an age, we may think, when arrow-heads were commonly of iron; but in Homer, when the metal of the arrow-head is mentioned, except, in this one case, it is always bronze. The iron arrow-tip of Pandarus was of an early type, the shaft did not run into the socket of the arrow-head; the tang of the arrow-head, on the other hand, entered the shaft, and was whipped on with sinew. [Iliad, IV. 151.] Pretty primitive this method, still the iron is an advance on the uniform bronze of Homer. The line about Pandarus and the iron arrow-head may really be early enough, for the arrow-head is of a primitive kind — socketless — and primitive is the attitude of the archer: he “drew the arrow to his breast.” On the Mycenaean silver bowl, representing a siege, the archers draw to the breast, in the primitive style, as does the archer on the bronze dagger with a representation of a lion hunt. The Assyrians and Khita drew to the ear, as the monuments prove, and so does the “Cypro–Mycenaean” archer of the ivory draught-box from Enkomi. 220 In these circumstances we cannot deny that the poet may have known iron arrow-heads.

We now take the case of axes. We never hear from Homer of the use of an iron axe in battle, and warlike use of an axe only occurs twice. In Iliad, XV. 711, in a battle at and on the ships, “they were fighting with sharp axes and battle-axes” ([Greek text: axinai]) “and with great swords, and spears armed at butt and tip.” At and on the ships, men would set hand to whatever tool of cutting edge was accessible. Seiler thinks that only the Trojans used the battle-axe; perhaps for damaging the ships: he follows the scholiast. [Greek text: Axinae], however, 221 may perhaps be rendered “battle-axe,” as a Trojan, Peisandros, fights with an [Greek text: Axinae], and this is the only place in the Iliad, except XV. 711, where the thing is said to be used as a weapon. But it is not an iron axe; it is “of fine bronze.” Only one bronze battle-axe, according to Dr. Joseph Anderson, is known to have been found in Scotland, though there are many bronze heads of axes which were tools.

Axes ([Greek text: pelekeis]) were implements, tools of the carpenter, woodcutter, shipwright, and so on; they were not weapons of war of the Achaeans.

As implements they are, with very rare exceptions, of iron. The wheelwright fells trees “with the gleaming iron,” iron being a synonym for axe and for knife. 222 In Iliad, XIII. 391, the shipwrights cut timber with axes. In Iliad, XXIII. 114, woodcutters’ axes are employed in tree-felling, but the results are said to be produced [Greek text: tanaaekei chalcho], “by the long-edged bronze,” where the word [Greek text: tanaaekaes] is borrowed from the usual epithet of swords; “the long edge” is quite inappropriate to a woodcutter’s axe. On Calypso’s isle Calypso gives to Odysseus a bronze axe for his raft-making. Butcher’s work is done with an axe. 223 The axes offered by Achilles as a prize for archers and the axes through which Odysseus shot are implements of iron. 224

In the Odyssey, when the poet describes the process of tempering iron, we read, “as when a smith dips a great axe or an adze in chill water, for thus men temper iron.” 225 He is not using iron to make a sword or spear, but a tool-adze or axe. The poet is perfectly consistent. There are also examples both of bronze axes and, apparently, of bronze knives. Thus, though the woodcutter’s or carpenter’s axe is of bronze in two passages cited, iron is the usual material of the axe or adze. Again we saw, when Achilles gives a mass of iron as a prize in the games, he does not mean the armourer to fashion it into sword or spear, but says that it will serve the shepherd or ploughman for domestic implements, 226 so that the men need not, on an upland farm, go to the city for iron implements. In commenting upon this Mr. Leaf is scarcely at the proper point of view. He says, 227 “the idea of a state of things when the ploughman and shepherd forge their own tools from a lump of raw iron has a suspicious appearance of a deliberate attempt to represent from the inner consciousness an archaic state of civilisation. In Homeric times the [Greek: chalceus] is already specialised as a worker in metals. . . . ” However, Homer does not say that the ploughman and shepherd “forge their own tools.” A Homeric chief, far from a town, would have his own smithy, just as the laird of Runraurie (now Urrard) had his smithy at the time of the battle of Killicrankie (1689). Mackay’s forces left their impedimenta “at the laird’s smithy,” says an eye-witness. 228

The idea of a late Homeric poet trying to reconstruct from his fancy a prehistoric state of civilisation is out of the question. Even historical novelists of the eighteenth century A.D. scarcely attempted such an effort.

This was the regular state of things in the Highlands during the eighteenth century, when many chiefs, and most of the clans, lived far from any town. But these rural smiths did not make sword-blades, which Prince Charles, as late as 1750, bought on the Continent. The Andrea Ferrara-marked broadsword blades of the clans were of foreign manufacture. The Highland smiths did such rough iron work as was needed for rural purposes. Perhaps the Homeric chief may have sometimes been a craftsman like the heroes of the Sagas, great sword-smiths. Odysseus himself, notably an excellent carpenter, may have been as good a sword-smith, but every hero was not so accomplished.

In searching with microscopes for Homeric discrepancies and interpolations, critics are apt to forget the ways of old rural society.

The Homeric poems, whether composed in one age or throughout five centuries, are thus entirely uniform in allotting bronze as the material for all sorts of warlike gear, down to the solitary battle-axe mentioned; and iron as the usual metal for heavy tools, knives, carpenters’ axes, adzes, and agricultural implements, with the rare exceptions which we have cited in the case of bronze knives and axes. Either this distinction — iron for tools and implements; bronze for armour, swords, and spears — prevailed throughout the period of the Homeric poets or poet; or the poets invented such a stage of culture; or poets, some centuries later, deliberately kept bronze for weapons only, while introducing iron for implements. In that case they were showing archaeological conscientiousness in following the presumed earlier poets of the bronze age, the age of the Mycenaean graves.

Now early poets are never studious archaeologists. Examining the Nibelungenlied certainly based on old lays and legends which survive in the Edda, we find that the poets of the Nibelungenlied introduce chivalrous and Christian manners. They do not archaeologise. The poets of the French Chansons de Geste (eleventh to thirteenth centuries) bring their own weapons, and even armorial bearings, into the ‘remote age of Charlemagne, which they know from legends and cantilènes. Again, the later remanieurs of the earliest Chansons de Geste modernise the details of these poems. But, per impossibile, and for the sake of argument, suppose that the later interpolators and continuators of the Homeric lays were antiquarian precisians, or, on the other hand, “deliberately attempted to reproduce from their inner consciousness an archaic state of civilisation.” Suppose that, though they lived in an age of iron weapons, they knew, as Hesiod knew, that the old heroes “had warlike gear of bronze, and ploughed with bronze, and there was no black iron.” 229 In that case, why did the later interpolating poets introduce iron as the special material of tools and implements, knives and axes, in an age when they knew that there was no iron? Savants such as, by this theory, the later poets of the full-blown age of iron were, they must have known that the knives and axes of the old heroes were made of bronze. In old votive offerings in temples and in any Mycenaean graves which might be opened, the learned poets of 800–600 B.C. saw with their eyes knives and axes of bronze. 230 The knife of Agamemnon ([Greek: machaira]), which hangs from his girdle, beside his sword, 231 corresponds to the knives found in Grave IV. at Mycenae; the handles of these dirks have a ring for suspension. 232 But these knives, in Mycenaean graves, are of bronze, and of bronze are the axes in the Mycenaean deposits and the dagger of Enkomi. 233

Why, then, did the late poetic interpolators, who knew that the spears and swords of the old warriors were of bronze, and who describe them as of bronze, not know that their knives and axes were also of bronze? Why did they describe the old knives and axes as of iron, while Hesiod knew, and could have told them — did tell them, in fact — that they were of bronze? Clearly the theory that Homeric poets were archaeological precisians is impossible. They describe arms as of bronze, tools usually as of iron, because they see them to be such in practice.

The poems, in fact, depict a very extraordinary condition of affairs, such as no poets could invent and adhere to with uniformity. We are accustomed in archaeology to seeing the bronze sword pass by a gradual transition into the iron sword; but, in Homer, people with abundance of iron never, in any one specified case, use iron sword blades or spears. The greatest chiefs, men said to be rich in gold and iron, always use swords and spears of bronze in Iliad and Odyssey.

The usual process of transition from bronze to iron swords, in a prehistoric European age, is traced by Mr. Ridgeway at Hallstatt, “in the heart of the Austrian Alps,” where a thousand old graves have been explored. The swords pass from bronze to iron with bronze hilts, and, finally, are wholly of iron. Weapons of bronze are fitted with iron edges. Axes of iron were much more common than axes of bronze. 234 The axes were fashioned in the old shapes of the age of bronze, were not of the bipennis Mycenaean model — the double axe — nor of the shape of the letter D, very thick, with two round apertures in the blade, like the bronze axe of Vaphio. 235 Probably the axes through which Odysseus shot an arrow were of this kind, as Mr. Monro, and, much earlier, Mr. Butcher and I have argued. 236

At Hallstatt there was the normal evolution from bronze swords and axes to iron swords and axes. Why, then, had Homer’s men in his time not made this step, seeing that they were familiar with the use of iron? Why do they use bronze for swords and spears, iron for tools? The obvious answer is that they could temper bronze for military purposes much better than they could temper iron. Now Mr. Ridgeway quotes Polybius (ii. 30; ii. 33) for the truly execrable quality of the iron of the Celtic invaders of Italy as late as 225 B.C. Their swords were as bad as, or worse than, British bayonets; they always “doubled up.” “Their long iron swords were easily bent, and could only give one downward stroke with any effect; but after this the edges got so turned and the blades so bent that, unless they had time to straighten them with the foot against the ground, they could not deliver a second blow.” 237 If the heroes in Homer’s time possessed iron as badly tempered as that of the Celts of 225 B.C., they had every reason to prefer, as they did, excellent bronze for all their military weapons, while reserving iron for pacific purposes. A woodcutter’s axe might have any amount of weight and thickness of iron behind the edge; not so a sword blade or a spear point. 238

In the Iliad we hear of swords breaking at the hilt in dealing a stroke at shield or helmet, a thing most incident to bronze swords, especially of the early type, with a thin bronze tang inserted in a hilt of wood, ivory, or amber, or with a slight shelf of the bronze hilt riveted with three nails on to the bronze blade.

Lycaon struck Peneleos on the socket of his helmet crest, “and his sword brake at the hilt.” 239 The sword of Menelaus broke into three or four pieces when he smote the helmet ridge of Paris. 240 Iron of the Celtic sort described by Polybius would have bent, not broken. There is no doubt on that head: if Polybius is not romancing, the Celtic sword of 225 B.C. doubled up at every stroke, like a piece of hoop iron. But Mr. Leaf tells us that, “by primitive modes of smelting,” iron is made “hard and brittle, like cast iron.” If so, it would be even less trustworthy for a sword than bronze. 241 Perhaps the Celts of 225 B.C. did not smelt iron by primitive methods, but discovered some process for making it not hard and brittle, but flabby.

The swords of the Mycenaean graves, we know, were all of bronze, and, in three intaglios on rings from the graves, the point, not the edge, is used, 242 once against a lion, once over the rim of a shield which covers the whole body of an enemy, and once at too close quarters to permit the use of the edge. It does not follow from these three cases (as critics argue) that no bronze sword could be used for a swashing blow, and there are just half as many thrusts as strokes with the bronze sword in the Iliad. 243 As the poet constantly dwells on the “long edge” of the bronze swords and makes heroes use both point and edge, how can we argue that Homeric swords were of iron and ill fitted to give point? The Highlanders at Clifton (1746) were obliged, contrary to their common practice, to use the point against Cumberland’s dragoons. They, like the Achaeans, had heavy cut and thrust swords, but theirs were of steel.

If the Achaeans had thoroughly excellent bronze, and had iron as bad as that of the Celts a thousand years later, their preference for bronze over iron for weapons is explained. In Homer the fighters do not very often come to sword strokes; they fight mainly with the spear, except in pursuit, now and then. But when they do strike, they cleave heads and cut off arms. They could not do this with bronze rapiers, such as those with which men give point over the rim of the shield on two Mycenaean gems. But Mr. Myres writes, “From the shaft graves (of Mycenae) onwards there are two types of swords in the Mycenaean world — one an exaggerated dagger riveted into the front end of the hilt, the other with a flat flanged tang running the whole length of the hilt, and covered on either face by ornamental grip plates riveted on. This sword, though still of bronze, can deal a very effective cut; and, as the Mycenaeans had no armour for body or head,” (?) “the danger of breaking or bending the sword on a cuirass or helmet did not arise.” 244 The danger did exist in Homer’s time, as we have seen. But a bronze sword, published by Tsountas and Manatt (Mycenaean Age, p. 199, fig. 88), is emphatically meant to give both point and edge, having a solid handle — a continuation of the blade — and a very broad blade, coming to a very fine point. Even in Grave V. at Mycenae, we have a sword blade so massive at the top that it was certainly capable of a swashing blow. 245 The sword of the charioteer on the stêlê of Grave V. is equally good for cut and thrust. A pleasanter cut and thrust bronze sword than the one found at Ialysus no gentleman could wish to handle. 246 Homer, in any case, says that his heroes used bronze swords, well adapted to strike. If his age had really good bronze, and iron as bad as that of the Celts of Polybius, a thousand years later, their preference of bronze over iron for weapons needs no explanation. If their iron was not so bad as that of the Celts, their military conservatism might retain bronze for weapons, while in civil life they often used iron for implements.

The uniform evidence of the Homeric poems can only be explained on the supposition that men had plenty of iron; but, while they used it for implements, did not yet, with a natural conservatism, trust life and victory to iron spears and swords. Unluckily, we cannot test the temper of the earliest known iron swords found in Greece, for rust hath consumed them, and I know not that the temper of the Mycenaean bronze swords has been tested against helmets of bronze. I can thus give no evidence from experiment.

There is just one line in Homer which disregards the distinction — iron for implements, bronze for weapons; it is in Odyssey, XVI. 294; XIX. 13. Telemachus is told to remove the warlike harness of Odysseus from the hall, lest the wooers use it in the coming fray. He is to explain the removal by saying that it has been done, “Lest you fall to strife in your cups, and harm each other, and shame the feast, and this wooing; for iron of himself draweth a man to him.” The proverb is manifestly of an age when iron was almost universally used for weapons, and thus was, as in Thucydides, synonymous with all warlike gear; but throughout the poems no single article of warlike gear is of iron except one eccentric mace and one arrow-head of primitive type. The line in the Odyssey must therefore be a very late addition; it may be removed without injuring the sense of the passage in which it occurs. 247 If, on the other hand, the line be as old as the oldest parts of the poem, the author for once forgets his usual antiquarian precision.

We are thus led to the conclusion that either there was in early Greece an age when weapons were all of bronze while implements were often of iron, or that the poet, or crowd of poets, invented that state of things. Now early poets never invent in this way; singing to an audience of warriors, critical on such a point, they speak of what the warriors know to be actual, except when, in a recognised form of decorative exaggeration, they introduce

“Masts of the beaten gold
And sails of taffetie.”

Our theory is, then, that in the age when the Homeric poems were composed iron, though well known, was on its probation. Men of the sword preferred bronze for all their military purposes, just as fifteenth-century soldiers found the long-bow and cross-bow much more effective than guns, or as the Duke of Wellington forbade the arming of all our men with rifles in place of muskets . . . for reasons not devoid of plausibility.

Sir John Evans supposes that, in the seventh century, the Carian and Ionian invaders of Egypt were still using offensive arms of bronze, not of iron. 248 Sir John remarks that “for a considerable time after the Homeric period, bronze remained in use for offensive weapons,” especially for “spears, lances, and arrows.” Hesiod, quite unlike his contemporaries, the “later” poets of Iliad and Odyssey, gives to Heracles an iron helmet and sword. 249 Hesiod knew better, but was not a consistent archaiser. Sir John thinks that as early as 500 or even 600 B.C. iron and steel were in common use for weapons in Greece, but not yet had they altogether superseded bronze battle-axes and spears. 250 By Sir John’s showing, iron for offensive weapons superseded bronze very slowly indeed in Greece; and, if my argument be correct, it had not done so when the Homeric poems were composed. Iron merely served for utensils, and the poems reflect that stage of transition which no poet could dream of inventing.

These pages had been written before my attention was directed to M. Bérard’s book, Les Pheniciens et l’Odyssée (Paris, 1902). M. Bérard has anticipated and rather outrun my ideas. “I might almost say,” he remarks, “that iron is the popular metal, native and rustic . . . the shepherd and ploughman can extract and work it without going to the town.” The chief’s smith could work iron, if he had iron to work, and this iron Achilles gave as a prize. “With rustic methods of working it iron is always impure; it has ‘straws’ in it, and is brittle. It may be the metal for peace and for implements. In our fields we see the reaper sit down and repair his sickle. In war is needed a metal less hard, perhaps, but more tough and not so easily broken. You cannot sit down in the field of battle, as in a field of barley, to beat your sword straight. . . . ” 251

So the Celts found, if we believe Polybius.

On the other hand, iron swords did supersede bronze swords in the long run. Apparently they had not done so in the age of the poet, but iron had certainly ceased to be “a precious metal”; knives and woodcutters’ axes are never made of a metal that is precious and rare. I am thus led, on a general view, to suppose that the poems took shape when iron was very well known, but was not yet, as in the “Dipylon” period in Crete, commonly used by sword-smiths.

The ideas here stated are not unlike those of Paul Cauer. 252 I do not, however, find the mentions of iron useful as a test of “early” and “late” lays, which it is his theory that they are. Thus he says:—

(1) Iron is often mentioned as part of a man’s personal property, while we are not told how he means to use it. It is named with bronze, gold, and girls. The poet has no definite picture before his eyes; he is vague about iron. But, we reply, his picture of iron in these passages is neither more nor less definite than his mental picture of the other commodities. He calls iron “hard to smithy,” “grey,” “dark-hued”; he knows, in fact, all about it. He does not tell us what the owner is going to do with the gold and the bronze and the girls, any more than he tells us what is to be done with the iron. Such information was rather in the nature of a luxury than a necessity. Every hearer knew the uses of all four commodities. This does not seem to have occurred to Cauer.

(2) Iron is spoken of as an emblem of hard things, as, to take a modern example, in Mr. Swinburne’s “armed and iron maidenhood “— said of Atalanta. Hearts are “iron,” strength is “iron,” flesh is not “iron,” an “iron” noise goes up to the heaven of bronze. It may not follow, Cauer thinks, from these phrases that iron was used in any way. Men are supposed to marvel at its strange properties; it was “new and rare.” I see no ground for this inference.

(3) We have the “iron gates” of Tartarus, and the “iron bonds” in which Odysseus was possibly lying; it does not follow that chains or gates were made of iron any more than that gates were of chrysoprase in the days of St. John.

(4) Next, we have mention of implements, not weapons, of iron — a remarkable trait of culture. Greek ploughs and axes were made of iron before spears and swords were of iron.

(5) We have mention of iron weapons, namely, the unique iron mace of Areithous and the solitary iron arrow-head of Pandarus, and what Cauer calls the iron swords (more probably knives) of Achilles and others. It is objected to the “iron” of Achilles that Antilochus fears he will cut his throat with it on hearing of the death of Patroclus, while there is no other mention of suicide in the Iliad. It does not follow that suicide was unheard of; indeed, Achilles may be thinking of suicide presently, in XIII. 98, when he says to his mother: “Let me die at once, since it was not my lot to succour my comrade.”

(6) We have the iron-making spoken of in Book IX. 393 of the Odyssey.

It does not appear to us that the use of iron as an epithet bespeaks an age when iron was a mysterious thing, known mainly by reputation, “a costly possession.” The epithets “iron strength,” and so on, may as readily be used in our own age or any other. If iron were at first a “precious” metal, it is odd that Homeric men first used it, as Cauer sees that they did, to make points to ploughshares and “tools of agriculture and handiwork.” “Then people took to working iron for weapons.” Just so, but we cannot divide the Iliad into earlier and later portions in proportion to the various mentions of iron in various Books. These statistics are of no value for separatist purposes. It is impossible to believe that men when they spoke of “iron strength,” “iron hearts,” “grey iron,” “iron hard to smithy,” did so because iron was, first, an almost unknown legendary mineral, next, “a precious metal,” then the metal of drudgery, and finally the metal of weapons.

The real point of interest is, as Cauer sees, that domestic preceded military uses of iron among the Achaeans. He seems, however, to think that the confinement of the use of bronze to weapons is a matter of traditional style. 253 But, in the early days of the waxing epics, tools as well as weapons were, as in Homer they occasionally are, of bronze. Why, then, do the supposed late continuators represent tools, not weapons, as of iron? Why do they not cleave to the traditional term — bronze — in the case of tools, as the same men do in the case of weapons?

Helbig offers an apparently untenable explanation of this fact. He has proposed an interpretation of the uses of bronze and iron in the poems entirely different from that which I offer. 254 Unfortunately, one can scarcely criticise his theory without entering again into the whole question of the construction of the Epics. He thinks that the origin of the poems dates from “the Mycenaean period,” and that the later continuators of the poems retained the traditions of that remote age. Thus they thrice call Mycenae “golden,” though, in the changed economic conditions of their own period, Mycenae could no longer be “golden”; and I presume that, if possible, the city would have issued a papyrus currency without a metallic basis. However this may be, “in the description of customs the epic poets did their best to avoid everything modern.” Here we have again that unprecedented phenomenon — early poets who are archaeologically precise.

We have first to suppose that the kernel of the Iliad originated in the Mycenaean age, the age of bronze. We are next to believe that this kernel was expanded into the actual Epic in later and changed times, but that the later poets adhered in their descriptions to the Mycenaean standard, avoiding “everything modern.” That poets of an uncritical period, when treating of the themes of ancient legend or song, carefully avoid everything modern is an opinion not warranted by the usage of the authors of the Chansons de Geste, of Beowulf, and of the Nibelungenlied. These poets, we must repeat, invariably introduce in their chants concerning ancient days the customs, costume, armour, religion, and weapons of their own time. Dr. Helbig supposes that the late Greek poets, however, who added to the Iliad, carefully avoided doing what other poets of uncritical ages have always done. 255

This is his position in his text (p. 50). In his note 1 to page 50, however, he occupies the precisely contrary position. “The epic poems were chanted, as a rule, in the houses of more or less warlike chiefs. It is, then, à priori probable that the later poets took into account the contemporary military state of things. Their audience would have been much perturbed (bien chequés) if they had heard the poet mention nothing but arms and forms of attack and defence to which they were unaccustomed.” If so, when iron weapons came in the poets would substitute iron for bronze, in lays new and old, but they never do. However, this is Helbig’s opinion in his note. But in his text he says that the poets, carefully avoiding the contemporary, “the modern,” make the heroes fight, not on horseback, but from chariots. Their listeners, according to his note, must have been bien chequés, for there came a time when they were not accustomed to war chariots.

Thus the poets who, in Dr. Helbig’s text, “avoid as far as possible all that is modern,” in his note, on the same page, “take account of the contemporary state of things,” and are as modern as possible where weapons are concerned. Their audience would be sadly put out (bien chequés) “if they heard talk only of arms . . . to which they were unaccustomed”; talk of large suspended shields, of uncorsleted heroes, and of bronze weapons. They had to endure it, whether they liked it or not, teste Reichel. Dr. Helbig seems to speak correctly in his note; in his text his contradictory opinion appears to be wrong. Experience teaches us that the poets of an uncritical age — Shakespeare, for example — introduce the weapons of their own period into works dealing with remote ages. Hamlet uses the Elizabethan rapier.

In his argument on bronze and iron, unluckily, Dr. Helbig deserts the judicious opinions of his note for the opposite theory of his text. His late poets, in the age of iron, always say that the weapons of the heroes are made of bronze. 256 They thus, “as far as possible avoid what is modern.” But, of course, warriors of the age of iron, when they heard the poet talk only of weapons of bronze, “aurient été bien choqués” (as Dr. Helbig truly says in his note), on hearing of nothing but “armes auxquels ils n’étaient pas habitués,”— arms always of bronze.

Though Dr. Helbig in his text is of the opposite opinion, I must agree entirely with the view which he states so clearly in his note. It follows that if a poet speaks invariably of weapons of bronze, he is living in an age when weapons are made of no other material. In his text, however, Dr. Helbig maintains that the poets of later ages “as far as possible avoid everything modern,” and, therefore, mention none but bronze weapons. But, as he has pointed out, they do mention iron tools and implements. Why do they desert the traditional bronze? Because “it occasionally happened that a poet, when thinking of an entirely new subject, wholly emancipated himself from traditional forms,” 257

The examples given in proof are the offer by Achilles of a lump of iron as the prize for archery — the iron, as we saw, being destined for the manufacture of pastoral and agricultural implements, in which Dr. Helbig includes the lances of shepherds and ploughmen, though the poet never says that they were of iron. 258 There are also the axes through which Odysseus shoots his arrow. 259 “The poet here treated an entirely new subject, in the development of which he had perfect liberty.” So he speaks freely of iron. “But,” we exclaim, “tools and implements, axes and knives, are not a perfectly new subject!” They were extremely familiar to the age of bronze, the Mycenaean age. Examples of bronze tools, arrow-heads, and implements are discovered in excavations on Mycenaean sites. There was nothing new about bronze tools and implements. Men had bronze tips to their ploughshares, bronze knives, bronze axes, bronze arrow-heads before they used iron.

Perhaps we are to understand that feats of archery, non-military contests in bowmanship, are un sujet à fait nouveau: a theme so very modern that a poet, in singing of it, could let himself go, and dare to speak of iron implements. But where was the novelty? All peoples who use the bow in war practise archery in time of peace. The poet, moreover, speaks of bronze tools, axes and knives, in other parts of the Iliad; neither tools nor bronze tools constitute un sujet tout à fait nouveau. There was nothing new in shooting with a bow and nothing new in the existence of axes. Bows and axes were as familiar to the age of stone and to the age of bronze as to the age of iron. Dr. Helbig’s explanation, therefore, explains nothing, and, unless a better explanation is offered, we return to the theory, rejected by Dr. Helbig, that implements and tools were often, not always, of iron, while weapons were of bronze in the age of the poet. Dr. Helbig rejects this opinion. He writes: “We cannot in any way admit that, at a period when the socks of the plough, the lance points of shepherds” (which the poet never describes as of iron), “and axe-heads were of iron, warriors still used weapons of bronze.” 260 But it is logically possible to admit that this was the real state of affairs, while it is logically impossible to admit that bows and tools were “new subjects”; and that late poets, when they sang of military gear, “tenaient compte de l’armement contemporain,” carefully avoiding the peril of bewildering their hearers by speaking of antiquated arms, and, at the same time, spoke of nothing but antiquated arms — weapons of bronze — and of war chariots, to fighting men who did not use war chariots and did use weapons of iron.

These logical contradictions beset all arguments in which it is maintained that “the late poets” are anxious archaisers, and at the same time are eagerly introducing the armour and equipment of their own age. The critics are in the same quandary as to iron and bronze as traps them in the case of large shields, small bucklers, greaves, and corslets. They are obliged to assign contradictory attitudes to their “late poets.” It does not seem possible to admit that a poet, who often describes axes as of iron in various passages, does so in his account of a peaceful contest in bowmanship, because contests in bowmanship are un sujet tout à fait nouveau; and so he feels at liberty to describe axes as of iron, while he adheres to bronze as the metal for weapons. He, or one of the Odyssean poets, had already asserted (Odyssey, IX. 391) that iron was the metal for adzes and axes.

Dr. Helbig’s argument 261 does not explain the facts. The bow of Eurytus and the uses to which Odysseus is to put it have been in the poet’s mind all through the conduct of his plot, and there is nothing to suggest that the exploit of bowmanship is a very new lay, tacked on to the Odyssey.

After writing this chapter, I observed that my opinion had been anticipated by S. H. Naber. 262 “Quod Herodoti diserto testimonio novimus, Homeri restate ferruminatio nondum inventa erat necdum bene noverant mortales, uti opinor, acuere ferrum. Hinc pauperes homines ubi possunt, ferro utuntur; sed in plerisque rebus turn domi turn militiae imprimis coguntur uti aere. . . . ”

The theory of Mr. Ridgeway as to the relative uses of iron and bronze is not, by myself, very easily to be understood. “The Homeric warrior . . . has regularly, as we have seen, spear and sword of iron.” 263 As no spear or sword of iron is ever mentioned in the Iliad or Odyssey, as both weapons are always of bronze when the metal is specified, I have not “seen” that they are “regularly,” or ever, of iron. In proof, Mr. Ridgeway cites the axes and knives already mentioned — which are not spears or swords, and are sometimes of bronze. He also quotes the line in the Odyssey, “Iron of itself doth attract a man.” But if this line is genuine and original, it does not apply to the state of things in the Iliad, while it contradicts the whole Odyssey, in which swords and spears are always of bronze when their metal is mentioned. If the line reveals the true state of things, then throughout the Odyssey, if not throughout the Iliad, the poets when they invariably speak of bronze swords and spears invariably say what they do not mean. If they do this, how are we to know when they mean what they say, and of what value can their evidence on points of culture be reckoned? They may always be retaining traditional terms as to usages and customs in an age when these are obsolete.

If the Achaeans were, as in Mr. Ridgeway’s theory, a northern people —“Celts”— who conquered with iron weapons a Pelasgian bronze-using Mycenaean people, it is not credible to me that Achaean or Pelasgian poets habitually used the traditional Pelasgian term for the metal of weapons, namely, bronze, in songs chanted before victors who had won their triumph with iron. The traditional phrase of a conquered bronze-using race could not thus survive and flourish in the poetry of an outlandish iron-using race of conquerors.

Mr. Ridgeway cites the Odyssey, wherein we are told that “Euryalus, the Phaeacian, presented to Odysseus a bronze sword, though, as we have seen” (Mr. Ridgeway has seen), “the usual material for all such weapons is iron. But the Phoeacians both belonged to the older race and lived in a remote island, and therefore swords of bronze may well have continued in use in such out-of-the-world places long after iron swords were in use everywhere else in Greece. The man who could not afford iron had to be satisfied with bronze.” 264 Here the poet is allowed to mean what he says. The Phaeacian sword is really of bronze, with silver studs, probably on the hilt (Odyssey, VIII. 401–407), which was of ivory. The “out-of-the-world” islanders could afford ivory, not iron. But when the same poet tells us that the sword which Odysseus brought from Troy was “a great silver-studded bronze sword” (Odyssey, X. 261, 262), then Mr. Ridgeway does not allow the poet to mean what he says. The poet is now using an epic formula older than the age of iron swords.

That Mr. Ridgeway adopts Helbig’s theory — the poet says “bronze,” by a survival of the diction of the bronze age, when he means iron — I infer from the following passage: “Chalkos is the name for the older metal, of which cutting weapons were made, and it thus lingered in many phrases of the Epic dialect; ‘to smite with the chalkos’ was equivalent to our phrase ‘to smite with the steel.’” 265 But we certainly do smite with the steel, while the question is, “did Homer’s men smite with the iron?” Homer says not; he does not merely use “an epic phrase” “to smite with the chalkos,” but he carefully describes swords, spears, and usually arrow-heads as being of bronze (chalkos), while axes, adzes, and knives are frequently described by him as of iron.

Mr. Ridgeway has an illustrative argument with some one, who says: “The dress and weapons of the Saxons given in the lay of Beowulf fitted exactly the bronze weapons in England, for they had shields, and spears, and battle-axes, and swords.” If you pointed out to him that the Saxon poem spoke of these weapons as made of iron, he would say, “I admit that it is a difficulty, but the resemblances are so many that the discrepancies may be jettisoned.” 266

Now, if the supposed controversialist were a Homeric critic, he would not admit any difficulty. He would say, “Yes; in Beowulf the weapons are said to be of iron, but that is the work of the Christian remanieur, or bearbeiter, who introduced all the Christian morality into the old heathen lay, and who also, not to puzzle his iron-using audience, changed the bronze into iron weapons.”

We may prove anything if we argue, now that the poets retain the tradition of obsolete things, now that they modernise as much as they please. Into this method of reasoning, after duly considering it, I am unable to come with enthusiasm, being wedded to the belief that the poets say what they mean. Were it otherwise, did they not mean what they say, their evidence would be of no value; they might be dealing throughout in terms for things which were unrepresented in their own age. To prove this possible, it would be necessary to adduce convincing and sufficient examples of early national poets who habitually use the terminology of an age long prior to their own in descriptions of objects, customs, and usages. Meanwhile, it is obvious that my whole argument has no archaeological support. We may find “Mycenaean” corslets and greaves, but they are not in cremation burials. No Homeric cairn with Homeric contents has ever been discovered; and if we did find examples of Homeric cairns, it appears, from the poems, that they would very seldom contain the arms of the dead.

Nowhere, again, do we find graves containing bronze swords and iron axes and adzes. I know nothing nearer in discoveries to my supposed age of bronze weapons and iron tools than a grave of the early iron and geometrical ornament age of Crete — a tholos tomb, with a bronze spear-head and a set of iron tools, among others a double axe and a pick of iron. But these were in company with iron swords? To myself the crowning mystery is, what has become of the Homeric tumuli with their contents? One can but say that only within the last thirty years have we found, or, finding, have recognised Mycenaean burial records. As to the badness of the iron of the North for military purposes, and the probable badness of all early iron weapons, we have testimony two thousand years later than Homer and some twelve hundred years later than Polybius. In the Eyrbyggja Saga (Morris and Maguússon, chap, xxiv.) we read that Steinthor “was girt with a sword that was cunningly wrought; the hilts were white with silver, and the grip wrapped round with the same, but the strings thereof were gilded.” This was a splendid sword, described with the Homeric delight in such things; but the battle-cry arises, and then “the fair-wrought sword bit not when it smote armour, and Steinthor must straighten it under his foot.” Messrs. Morris and Maguússon add in a note: “This is a very common experience in Scandinavian weapons, and for the first time heard of at the battle of Aquae Sextiae between Marius and the Teutons.” 267 “In the North weapon-smiths who knew how to forge tempered or steel-laminated weapons were, if not unknown, at least very rare.” When such skill was unknown or rare in Homer’s time, nothing was more natural than that bronze should hold its own, as the metal for swords and spears, after iron was commonly used for axes and ploughshares.

202 In these circumstances, it is curious that Mr. Monro should have written thus: “In Homer, as is well known, iron is rarely mentioned in comparison with bronze, but the proportion is greater in the Odyssey (25 iron, 80 bronze) than in the Iliad” (23 iron, 279 bronze). — Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 339. These statistics obviously do not prove that, at the date of the composition of the Odyssey, the use of iron was becoming more common, or that the use of bronze was becoming more rare, than when the Iliad was put together. Bronze is, in the poems, the military metal: the Iliad is a military poem, while the Odyssey is an epic of peace; consequently the Iliad is much more copious in references to bronze than the Odyssey has any occasion to be. Wives are far more frequently mentioned in the Odyssey than in the Iliad, but nobody will argue that therefore marriage had recently come more into vogue. Again, the method of counting up references to iron in the Odyssey is quite misleading, when we remember that ten out of the twenty references are only one reference to one and the same set of iron tools-axes. Mr. Monro also proposed to leave six references to iron in the Iliad out of the reckoning, “as all of them are in lines which can be omitted without detriment to the sense.” Most of the six are in a recurrent epic formula descriptive of a wealthy man, who possesses iron, as well as bronze, gold, and women. The existence of the formula proves familiarity with iron, and to excise it merely because it contradicts a theory is purely arbitrary. — Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. p. 339.

203 Helbig, Das Homerischi Epos, pp. 330, 331. 1887.

204 Tsountas and Manatt, pp. 72, 146, 165.

205 Iliad, VI. 48; IX. 365–366; X. 379; XI. 133; Odyssey, XIV. 324; XXI. 10.

206 Iliad, VII. 472–475.

207 Iliad XVIII. 34.

208 Iliad, XI. 844.

209 Leaf, Iliad, xxiii. 30, Note.

210 Odyssey, IX. 391.

211 Iliad, IV. 123.

212 Iliad, VII. 141.

213 Iliad (1900), VII. 149, Note.

214 Iliad, XXIII. 850.

215 Iliad XVI. 136; XIX. 372–373.

216 Iliad, III. 334–335

217 Odyssey, X. 162, 261–262

218 For this peculiar kind of Mycenaean axe with holes in the blade, see the design of a bronze example from Vaphio in Tsountas and Manatt, The Mycenaean Age, p. 207, fig. 94.

219 Iliad, W. 123.

220 Evans, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. xxx. p. 210.

221 Iliad, XIII. 611.

222 Iliad, IV. 485

223 Iliad, XVII. 520; Odyssey, III. 442–449.

224 Iliad, XXIII. 850; Odyssey, XXI. 3, 81, 97.

225 Odyssey, IX. 391–393.

226 Leaf, Iliad (1902), XXIII. line 30, Note.

227 Iliad, XXIII. 835, Note.

228 Napier’s Life Of Dundee, iii. p. 724.

229 Hesiod, Works and Days, pp. 250, 251.

230 Early Age of Greece, i. 413–416.

231 Iliad, III. 271; XIX. 252.

232 Tsountas and Manatt, p. 204.

233 Ibid., pp. 145, 207, 208, 256. Evans, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol xxx. p, 214.

234 Early Age of Greece, i. 413–416.

235 Monro, Odyssey, vol. ii. 176.

236 Ibid. (1901), vol. ii. Book XIX. line 572. Note. Butcher and Lang, Odyssey, Appendix (1891).

237 Early Age of Greece, vol. i. 408.

238 Monsieur Salomon Reinach suggests to me that the story of Polybius may be a myth. Swords and spear-heads in graves are often found doubled up; possibly they are thus made dead, like the owner, and their spirits are thus set free to be of use to his spirit. Finding doubled up iron swords in Celtic graves, the Romans, M. Beinach suggests, may have explained their useless condition by the theory that they doubled up in battle, leaving their owners easy victims, and this myth was accepted as fact by Polybius. But he was not addicted to myth, nor very remote from the events which he chronicles. Again, though bronze grave-weapons in our Museum are often doubled up, the myth is not told of the warriors of the age of bronze. We later give examples of the doubling up, in battle, of Scandinavian iron swords as late as 1000 A.D.

239 Iliad, XVI. 339.

240 Iliad, III. 349, 380.

241 Iliad (1900), Book VI, line 48, Note.

242 Tsountas and Manatt, p. 199.

243 Twenty-four cuts to eleven lunges, in the Iliad.

244 Classical Review, xvi. 72.

245 Schuchardt, Schliemann’s Excavations, p. 265, fig. 269.

246 Furtwängler und Loeschke, Myk. Va. Taf. D.

247 This fact, in itself, is of course no proof of interpolation. Cf. Helbig, op. cit., p. 331. He thinks the line very late.

248 Ancient Bronze Implements, p. 8 (1881), citing Herodotus, ii. c. 112. Sir John is not sure that Achaean spear-heads were not of copper, for they twice double up against a shield. Iliad, III. 348; VII. 259; Evans, p. 13.

249 Scutum Herculis, pp. 122–138.

250 Evans, p. 18.

251 Bérard, i. 435.

252 Grundfrager des Homerkritik, pp. 183–187. Leipsic, 1895.

253 “Nur die Sprache der Dichter hielt an dem Gebrauch der Bronze fest, die in den Jahrhunderten, während deren der Epische Stil erwachsen war, allein geherrscht hatte.”

254 Sur la Question Mycénienne. 1896.

255 La Question Mycénienne, p. 50.

256 Op. laud., p. 51.

257 Op. laud., pp. 51, 52

258 Iliad, XXIII. 826, 835; Odyssey, XIV. 531; XIII. 225.

259 Odyssey, XIX. 587; XXI. 3, X, 97, 114, 127, 138; XXIV. 168, 177; cf. XXI. 61.

260 op. laud., p. 53.

261 La Question Mycénienne, p. 54.

262 Quaestiones Homericae, p. 60. Amsterdam. Van der Post, 1897.

263 Early Age of Greece, vol. i. p. 301.

264 Early Age of Greece, p. 305.

265 Early Age of Greece, i. 295.

266 Ridgeway, i. 83, 84.

267 The reference is erroneous.


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