Homer and the Dark Ages

I.  Intro.

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 Greek greatness. 

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 weapons 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 archaelogical sites.

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 indeed.

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 Iliad." 

"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

By John Keats (1795-1821)
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
   Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
   That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
   Yet 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
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, 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."]

What one finds in a Bible

Spiritual guidance

 Moral/ethical guidance

 Other elements

 How Iliad is like/unlike Bible:

I.  Genealogy/history

II. Human/Divine interactions
    A.  Sample prayer
    B.  Worship/religious ritual
    C.  Theology
    D.  Faith
    E.  Creation story
    F.  Eschatology
    G.  Explanation of natural phenomena

III. Inspiration
    A.  Affirmation/Confirmation
    B.  Beautiful language
    C.  Poetry
    D.  Purpose/Meaning (why things are the way they are)
    E.  Strength Comfort
    F.  Heroes
    G.  Memorable stories
V. Ethics/Morality
    A.  Good vs. Evil
    B.  Specific Commandments
    C.  Dealing with tough issues
    D.  Specific examples (stories/parables with meaning)