Homer and the Dark Ages
During the last class, I described for you briefly the earliest periods
of Greek history, the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. The
Minoans--centered on Crete--created the earliest European civilization
we know anything about. They were a remarkably advanced society,
possibly the source of many of the ings that we associate with later
The Mycenaeans were Greek speakers from the north who, when they came
into contact with superior Minoan civilization, adopted many of its
best features for themselves. As I mentioned last time,
historians sometimes speak of the Minoans and Mycenaeans together with
other peoples of the area/time period (e.g., the people of the
Cyclides) and call this Aegean civilization. I think that, in
some ways, this is a much better name, and, when one looks at the dates
of different artificacts, it's pretty clear that we've got overlapping
civilizations, not clear breaks.
II. Dorian Invasion/Dark Ages
The Mycenaeans belong to what archaeologists call Bronze Age
Greece--but, in contrast to the immediately following period, the
Mycenaean period was a golden age. The Dorians with their iron
sweep in from the north (c. 1100 BC) and we enter a dark age. The
Dorians apparently pushed the Mycenaeans into isolated stongholds
(e.g., Athens), displacing the Mycenaens in the Peloponessian Peninsula
(places like Sparta). Material culture declines, and writing
disappears. There's not much to see as "Dark Age" levels of
But one great achievement does come out of the Dark Ages (1100-800
BC)--the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Later Greeks
considered these writings "theopneutos," god-breathed, and, is some
ways, these poems are the closest things the Greeks had to a
Bible. If one wanted authoritative teaching abou the gods and
their dealings with mankind, one turned to Homer. Passages culled
from the Iliad and the Odyssey served as "proof texts" for any point
one might try to make. Likewise, Homer's works were the starting
point for later "inspired writers," e.g., Aeschylus, Sophocles, and
Euripides. But Homer's works are a very strange sort of Bible
Now in talking about a great work of literature, it's nice to begin
with a bit of information about the author. Who was he?
When and where did he write? But, unfortunately, there's not much
to put on the dust jacket when it comes to Homer. There's a joke
told by ancient historians:
One historian says to another, "I just proved Homer didn't write the
"Who wrote it then?"
"Another guy with the same name."
That's a joke because all we really know about Homer is the name.
There is a late, unliable tradition that he was blind. At least
seven different Greek cities claimed to be Homer's birthplace, and one
can make a claim for any of them.
We don'r really know when Homer wrote either. Guesses range from
1200 BC to 700 AD. Much of the material reflects accurately
condidtions of the late Mycenaean period. The bronze weapons, the
catalogue of ships emphasizing just the right cities, the use of
"wanax" for king. But there are reflections here and there of
later times: shield shape is sometimes more typical of the Dark
Ages. Also, there are a few references in the text that indicate
that Homer is writing about an age earlier than his own, lines like "He
easily lifted a stone, while men of the present day would struggle with
a stone half its weight."
Herodotus guessed that Home lived about 850 BC, and, while that may be
a bit early, the late Dark Age seems a good guess.
Homer himself would have been an "aoidoi," a singer of his own
poem. His work would have been impressive enough that "rapsodes"
would have learned it and passed on the tradition to other professional
singers of other men's poems.
Certain portions of the Bible may be somewhat similar, remembered as
oral tradition for some time before being written down. But what
is certainly like the Bible is Homer's reliance on poetic language.
Unfortunately, much of what Homer does here does not come through in
translation. He uses a type of meter called iambic hexameter or
dactylic hexameter: six feet per line with each foot composed of either
one long and two short syllables or two long syllables.
There are many possible patterns:
--/--/--/--/--/-- ; ^^-/--/^^-/--/^^-/-- etc.
The accent here is a pitch accent, not a stress accent. I suspect
the sound might have been much like the chants one hears at drum
circles: but it was certainly exciting.
Also, like all good poetry, the language is extraordinarily vivid and
memorable, though the translators don't always keep the images.
"Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, that terrible
wrath that hurled many souls of heroes to Hades while they themselves
lie on the battlefield, a feast for dogs and birds."
As when reading the Bible, a good translation makes a lot of
difference. For the English poet John Keats, it was finding
Chapman's translation that really opened up the poem to him:
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
Much have I
travell'd in the realms of gold,
many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
many western islands have I been
Which bards in
fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide
expanse had I been told
deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman
speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like
some watcher of the skies
a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez
when with eagle eyes
star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other
with a wild surmise—
upon a peak in Darien.
What also helps open up the poem is knowing a bit of the back story
which is (basically) as follows:
There's a great wedding celebration for Thetis and Peleas with plenty
of gods and mortals in attendance. But deliberately not invited,
"Eris," Strife. She is offended and so decides to disrupt
things. She tosses in a golden apple with a message: to the
fairest. The mortal women have the sense not to claim the apple,
but three goddesses all insist that it is theirs: Hera, Athena, and
Aphrodite. Zeus is asked to adjudicate, but he has the good sense
to duck this. Instead, Alexander (Paris) a shepherd ends up as
judge. Now it turns out that Alexander was really a Trojan
prince, sent away from the city because of dream indicating he would
bring destruction on Troy.
The three goddesses each offer Paris a reward if he awards her the
apple. Hera promises wealth and power. Athena promises
wisdom and skill in battle. Aphrodite promises the most beautiful
woman in the world.
Paris goes with Aphrodite. But he has angered Athena and Hera
(bad news). Equally bad, the most beautiful woman in the world is
already married to someone else, the Spartan king Menelaos.
Nevertheless, with Aphrodite's help, Paris persuades Helen to desert
her husband (bringing along a great deal of wealth too). They end
up running away to Troy. Menelaos' brother Agamememenon raises a
great force of Greeks (who had pledged ahead of time to bring Helen
back to her husband if anyone ever stole her away). The Greeks
spend ten years attacking Troy, eventually conquering the city and
returning Helen to her husband to live happily ever after--or not, as
the case may be.
Now that's a great story, but it's not the story Homer tells.
Instead, he talks about events in the 9th year of the war, events
involving a quarrel between Achilles and Agamenon.
[The Spark Note
plot summary will probably be useful if you are stuggling with the
translation and if you don't mind spoilers.]
[The material below summarizes what classes over the years have
concluded one might expect to find in a Bible. As you study for
the 2nd potential essay question, you might want to note how the Iliad
does/does not include these things. You should also prepare some
comments on what makes the Iliad a strange sort of "Bible."]
one finds in a Bible
- Explanation of
the relationship between man and gods
- Shows character
- Hope and comfort
- Fallibility of
- Infallibility of
consequences of actions
- Shows struggle
between good and evil
unexplained/Source of unity
- Sense of purpose/history
- Sweet stories
- Truth (key lines, insights from Blog)
- Affirmation of religious beliefs
- What God has done
- God’s gifts
- Ethical guidance (anger issue especially)
- Relationship guidance (role of women)
- Role models (which character most admirable)
- Eschatology/dealing with death
How Iliad is like/unlike Bible:
II. Human/Divine interactions
A. Sample prayer
B. Worship/religious ritual
E. Creation story
G. Explanation of natural phenomena
B. Beautiful language
D. Purpose/Meaning (why things are the way
E. Strength Comfort
G. Memorable stories
A. Good vs. Evil
B. Specific Commandments
C. Dealing with tough issues
D. Specific examples (stories/parables with