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The World of Homer By Andrew Lang Characters: 20210

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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Homer conceives of his heroes as living in an age indefinitely remote: their epoch "has won its way to the mythical." They are often sons or grandsons of Gods: the Gods walk the earth among them, friendly, amorous, or hostile. From this fact, more than from the degeneracy in physical force which Homer often attributes to his contemporaries, we see that the mist of time and the glamour of romance have closed over the heroes.

But this might happen in the course of a pair of centuries. In the French Chansons de Geste of 1080-1300, Charlemagne (circ. 814), a perfectly historical character to us,-has become almost as mythical as Arthur to the poets. He conquers Saracens as Arthur conquers all western Europe; he visits Constantinople; he is counselled by visible angels, who to some degree play the part of the gods in Homer.

Perhaps two or three centuries may separate Homer from any actual heroic princes of whom traditions have reached him. Modern research holds that the Achaeans of Homer, by infiltration and by conquest, had succeeded to more civilised owners of Greece.

But Homer has nothing to say about a conquest of Greece by the Achaeans, Danaans, Argives, and the rest, from the north, except in two cases. He speaks of combats with wild mountain-dwelling tribes in Thessaly, in Nestor's youth. Nestor knew "the strongest of men who warred with the strongest, the mountain-dwelling Pheres,"[1] shaggy folk, says the Catalogue, whom Peirithous drove out of Pelion in northern Thessaly, and forced back on the Aethices of Pindus in the west.[2] It appears, from recent excavations, that the age of stone lingered long in these regions, and the people were probably rude and uncultivated, like the Centaurs.

The recent excavators of Zerelia, north-east of the Spercheios valley, the home of Achilles, write that their discoveries in the soil "clearly point to the fact that in prehistoric times the cultures of North and South Greece were radically different. This probably indicates an ethnological difference as well."[3] Before the period when "Late Minoan III." pottery occurs in Thessaly, the people used stone tools and weapons, and knew not the potter's wheel. It may not, therefore, be too fanciful to regard Nestor's tales of fights with a wild mountain race as shadowy memories of actual Achaean conquests in Thessaly, where Aegean culture arrived very much later than in Southern Greece.

Secondly, Homer twice speaks of regions as "Pelasgian," in which he represents the actual inhabitants as Hellenes and Achaeans, not Pelasgic. These regions are the realm of Achilles in south-west Thessaly; and Epirus.[4] But the actual Pelasgians whom Homer knows are allies of Troy; they dwell on the North Aegean coasts (where Herodotus found living Pelasgians), or reside, with Achaeans, Dorians, True Cretans, and Cydonians, in Crete. These facts indicate Homer's knowledge that, in some regions, Achaeans had dispossessed "Pelasgians," whoever the Pelasgians may have been. Again, Homer makes Achilles address the "Pelasgic Zeus" of Dodona in Epirus, in which he locates Perhaebians and Eneienes.

It thus appears that he supposed the Achaeans to have driven out Pelasgians from Epirus and Thessaly, at least, if not from southern Greece. It may well seem to us strange that as the Achaean settlement in Crete, or at least in parts of Crete, must have been comparatively recent when Homer sang, he never mentions so great an event. But reasons for and a parallel to his silence are not hard to find. If, as many authorities hold, the great Cnossian palace had fallen, and the Cretan civilisation had sunk into decadence before the Achaeans arrived in the island,[5] they might meet with but slight resistance; great feats of heroism might not claim record. Again, the Norman Conquest gave rise to no Anglo-Norman epic. The invaders already possessed their epic tradition, that of Charlemagne, borrowed from "the Franks of France," while they presently, in the twelfth century, took up and expanded the epic traditions of the Welsh and Bretons, in the Arthurian cycles of romances. In the same way, for all that we know, the Achaean epics may have a basis in the traditions of the earlier and more civilised populations usually styled "Pelasgians." The manners, however, of the Iliad and Odyssey are Achaean, as the manners of the French romances of Arthur are not Celtic, but feudal and chivalrous.[6] Homer, in any case, conceives of his own race as at home in Greece and Crete, and he has nothing to say about Greek settlements on the Asiatic coast. To him the inhabitants of Miletus are not the Ionian colonists. "Carians uncouth of speech" dwelt by the banks of the Meander, and the Asiatic allies of Priam are people "scattered, of diverse tongues."[7] For purposes of convenience all parties to the war understand each other's speech.[8]

In Odyssey, xix. 172-177, Homer gives an account of populous Crete, with ninety cities, and a mingling of various tongues, "therein are Achaeans, and True Cretans high of heart, and Cydonians, and Dorians in their three divisions, and noble Pelasgians." Did they vary in language, or in dialect and accent merely? We cannot know, we cannot be sure that "True Cretans" were the pre-existing Aegeans. The Cydonians dwelt beside the Jardanus; Jardanus is also a river-name in Elis. Mr. Leaf thinks of the Semitic yarad, "to flow" (Jordan), but we have other such river-names, Yarrow, and the Australian Yarra Yarra; the word may be onomatopoeic, expressing the murmur of the water.

Homer, in any case, does not despise the Asiatic allies of Troy as "barbarous," does not think them alien wholly, as the poets of the Chansons de Geste regard the Saracens,-worshippers of Mahound and Apollon. The Asians have the same gods and rites as his own people; Glaucus and Sarpedon are as good knights and live in precisely the same sort of polity as Aias or Achilles. Homer does not think of the strife as between Hellenes and Barbarians, that is a far later idea never interpolated into the Epics. All men are children of the Olympians.

It would appear that Homer sang before the northern invasion, usually called "Dorian," caused the Achaean and Ionian migrations from the Greek mainland, and the Greek settlements on the Asiatic coast (950-900 B.C.?). He never alludes to these events, but it may be said that he deliberately conceals them.

The account which Homer gives of the Achaean heroes and their realms is to be found in the Catalogue of the Ships in Book ii., a passage of three hundred lines. It is, perhaps, not very probable that this long list was usually recited at popular gatherings, and there is much dispute as to its date and purpose. We relegate to an appendix some remarks on the debated questions. Whether the Catalogue, or most of it, was part of the original Iliad or not, most of it was certainly composed at a time when the condition of prehistoric Greece was well known, when a lively tradition of its divisions still existed; moreover, it is the work of a poet, and Milton deemed it worthy of imitation in Paradise Lost.

The Catalogue was omitted from many manuscripts of the Iliad, probably because it was thought tedious reading. But to us there is poetry in the very names of "rocky Aulis," and "Mycalessus of the wide lawns," and "dove-haunted Thisbe," and "Lacedaemon lying low among the rifted hills." The author wrote "with his eye on the object," and the doves of Thisbe have survived many empires and religions, still floating round their old domains and uttering their changeless note.[9] "Pleasant Titaresius" still mingles his clear waters with the chalk-stained Peneius, and Celadon brawls as when Nestor heard its music.

The Catalogue enumerates all the Achaeans; Boeotians, Phocians, Minyans; light-armed Locrian slingers; the Abantes of Euboea, fond of close combat; the Arcadians, whose dialect was nearest akin to Homer's own language, but who take no part in the action; the Epeians of Elis, once foes of Nestor's Pylians; the far-off Aetolians, no longer led by golden-haired Meleager; the Cretans of Cnossos, under Idomeneus, grandson of Minos; his neighbour Tlepolemos of Rhodes, of the blood of Heracles, and probably a Dorian, though the Dorian name is not uttered; and some of the Sporades. There are, too, the south Thessalian Achaeans and Hellenes, the Myrmidons under Achilles; the men of Philoctetes, who lies sore hurt by a serpent's bite in the Isle of Lemnos; the descendants in Thessaly (not a Homeric name) of the Lapithae; the Pethraebians from "wintry Dodona"; the men of Argos and Tiryns of the mighty walls, under Diomede; the men of Lacedaemon under Menelaus; the Athenians (much suspected of interpolating their own mention), Odysseus of the western and Aias of the eastern isles (Ithaca and Salamis); and the host of Agamemnon, lord of Corinth, Sicyon, and Mycenae, himself the Over Lord of all.

Taking the Catalogue as it stands, the princes of whom Agamemnon of Mycenae was Over Lord come from the Greek mainland, from southern Thessaly and Aetolia to the southernmost point of the Morea, and the islands as far south and east as Crete, Carpathos, and Rhodes.

Now, as Agamemnon is the Over Lord, and Idomeneus of Cnossos in Crete is one of his thanes, so to speak, the poet clearly regards the Greek mainland as the centre of an Achaean dominion, of which Crete is a great dependency. He shows no idea that Crete had been the centre of another power, and the focus of another civilisation, held by a people who, since the age of stone weapons and implements, had developed its culture without interruption, and had sent its arts to the mainland of Greece. To Homer, Mycenae is the centre; the prince of Cnossos is a great feudatory of Agamemnon.

The poet is much interested in Crete; not only does the Iliad dwell on the prowess of Idomeneus the prince of Cnossos, and of Meriones; but in the feigned tales of Odysseus, when he returns to Ithaca, he represents himself as a Cretan adventurer. Homer avoids the Athenian tales about

Cretan tyranny, about the Minotaur, and the prowess of Theseus in aid of the freedom of Athens. These things are not touched upon, as they certainly would have been had Athenians freely interpolated the poems. Homer entirely ignores all Athenian and Ionian traditions.[10]

This is not the place to ask whether Achaeans from the mainland were the men who took and sacked the palace of Cnossos in Crete about 1400 B.C., or whether the spoilers were "Pelasgians," that is, people living on the mainland in Cretan conditions of culture, driven from the mainland by the Achaean irruption; or whether the palace was wrecked during an internal revolution before the Achaeans came to the island.[11] Homer undeniably regards Idomeneus as an Achaean and a descendant of Minos; and Minos as a son of Zeus.[12] Rhadamanthus of his blood, is "the golden-haired," like Menelaus, Meleager, and some other heroes.[13] We are not here concerned with discrepant traditions, and with the idea that Minos is an Aegean as Pharaoh is an Egyptian name of kings in general. That may be so; Minos may have been a figure in Cretan legend before the Achaeans came thither; if so, they adopted him as their own. We are only stating Homer's view of the relations between Crete and the Achaean power on the mainland.

Homer's Catalogue of the Asian allies of Troy is brief, and contains only about sixty lines. There was a Trojan Catalogue in the Cypria, a lost Ionian epic poem of the eighth century, and as the Ionian colonists in Asia knew the country of their settlement well, it is likely to have been copious. Beginning, in Homer's Trojan Catalogue, with the Dardanians under Aeneas, who may be said to represent "the Orleans branch" of the Trojan royal family, we next hear of the Trojans under Pandarus, who, in fact, broke the solemn oaths of truce, and sealed the doom of Ilium (Iliad, iv.), but who somehow as "Sir Pandarus of Troy" acquired another kind of ill fame among our mediaeval poets. He dwelt by the Aesepus. "At the extreme north of the Troad, where the Hellespont opens out into the Sea of Marmora," lived Adrastus and Amphius. Asius led forces from Sestus and Abydus, on both sides, European and Asian, of the Hellespont: there were also Pelasgians, apparently from the European side. There were, from Europe, Thracians and Cicones; the chief Thracian contingent arrived later (see Iliad, Book x.). The Cicones, with whom Odysseus has trouble when first he leaves Troy, in the Odyssey, are also European, as were probably, in origin, the people of Troy itself. European are the Paeonians, the Paphlagonians, again, are Asiatic; the Alizonians are remote and unrecognisable. Then we have Asiatic Mysians and Phrygians, and Maeonians from near Sardis, and under Mount Tmolos inland. The Carians of Miletus (later an Ionian city) follow, the Meander is their river; last come the Lycians under Sarpedon (whom legend connects with Crete), and Glaucus; another Glaucus was son of Sisyphus of Ephyre (Corinth), in Argos, and was father of Bellerophon. Bellerophon, again, was sent to his death in Lycia, by Proetus, who had married a Lycian princess. The Lycian Glaucus of the Iliad is a grandson of Bellerophon (Iliad, vi.).

According to this story, Greeks freely passed to Lycia and intermarried with Lycians. Only the Carians are described as "barbaric" in language. Homer knows not, we said, the distinction of Hellenes and Barbarians; the Greeks did not know it till the struggle of their Asiatic colonies against Lydia and Persia produced the sense of "racial" repulsion. In Homer any Greek prince going to Asia is courteously treated, perhaps settles there like Bellerophon, or makes hereditary guest-friendships, like the ancestors of Glaucus and Diomede.

The distinction which Homer does know is that between god-fearing men, with cities, laws, and rulers, on one hand, and men who are like the Cyclops, lonely, and lawless (Od. ix. 112-115). The Cyclops is not so godless as he boasts himself to be; he does pray to his father Poseidon, but he is wholly lawless, and each man is king in his own family. The cannibal Laestrygones, even, have a king and a city, though their manners are disgusting. Homer cannot easily, we see, conceive of men whose polity and cities are not like those with which he is familiar. He may have heard vaguely of far northern tribes abiding by their fiords in the land of amber, the land of the nightless summer and of the sunless winter. Such tales would come with the amber from the Baltic coasts, for which merchants bartered the bronze swords and vessels of their own civilisation. He had certainly heard of "the proud Hippemolgoi," drinkers of mares' milk, nomad Scythians north of the Danube, living like Tartars on koumiss.[14] If he has heard of any empire in the Asian hinterland, he may speak of it as one of the two Ethiopian realms; but here all is mythical.

Egypt, too, appears in the tales of Odysseus when he represents himself as a Cretan adventurer, a raider in the lands by the river Aegyptus. Helen has been in Egypt, and received the drug nepenthes from the wife of the king, just as she has been in Egyptian Thebes, and carried treasures thence (Od. iv. 130 ff.). Achilles[15] knows the wealth of Egyptian Thebes, and its hundred gates, and countless charioteers. Sicily is known to the Odyssey, a poem of Ithaca and the west, and of "perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn"; it is not mentioned in the Iliad, a poem of the east and the Asian shore. The Phoenicians are familiar as traders (Iliad, xxiii. 743), and are much better known, as is natural, to the sea-poem, the Odyssey. The appearance of the Phoenicians in the Odyssey, when they sell jewels to the women and kidnap the child Eumaeus, has been spoken of as work of the seventh century B.C.; a scene of contemporary life in that late age. But Mr. H. R. Hall, writing on early relations between Greece and Egypt, as depicted in Egyptian wall-paintings of the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty, represents commerce between the Aegean peoples of Greece and Crete as filtering through "Phoenician channels." The Phoenicians were active navigators and were merchants then and afterwards, that is, from the sixteenth century B.C. onwards. A fresco in an Egyptian tomb of the early date shows the arrival of "beaknosed" Phoenicians "in voluminous and multi-coloured robes," one of them carrying "a small Mycenaean amphora," at the Theban quays.[16] This being so, it is not so easy to bring down the Phoenicians of the Odyssey to the seventh century B.C. The Sidonians make the goods which the Phoenicians transport, but the Phoenician slave of the father of Eumaeus declares that she comes from the town of Sidon, and the Phoenician sailor knows her parents (Odyssey, xv. 415-433). No very clear distinction seems to have been drawn between Phoenicians and Sidonians.

These Semitic peoples were persistently credited, till lately, with all the finer works of art and craft which Homer mentions. The discovery of the art of Minoan Crete has made this unqualified attribution impossible.[17] Certainly Homer conceives of the Semites as doing a large trade, and as kidnapping children in the Greek seas; but their own art was imitative, and it is unlikely that, in Homer's time, the characters of their alphabet had ousted those of Aegean civilisation. It is curious that the place in which Phoenicians exercised most influence, Cyprus, was also the place where the Phoenician alphabet was so long in supplanting the native syllabary, akin to the unread documents of Minoan Crete.

We may thus conceive Homer's ancestors, by 1400 B.C., as men far from savage or barbarian,[18] who then succeeded to an Aegean civilisation much more luxurious and artistic than their own; and, centuries later, when Homer sang, the glow of the Aegean culture still flushed the sky: its art was known to the poet.

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[1] Iliad, i. 266-268.

[2] Iliad, ii. 741-744.

[3] Proceedings, British School of Athens, xiv., 1907, 1908, p. 223.

[4] Iliad, ii. 681-684, xvi. 233-235.

[5] Mackenzie, "Cretan Palaces," in Brit. School of Athens, xii. pp. 216-258.

[6] The parallel has been brought to my notice in detail by Mr. J. W. Mackail; it had already occurred to me in a general way.

[7] Iliad, ii. 867, ii. 804.

[8] In the line just cited, and in the Carians Βαρβαροθ?νω of Iliad, ii. 867, we cannot positively know whether Homer is thinking of different languages, or of differences in accent and dialect.

[9] Leaf, on Iliad, ii. 502.

[10] Save in the interpolated name of Theseus, twice, and in doubtful parts of Odyssey, xi.

[11] These various views are held, or have been held, by Mr. Evans, Mr. Ridgeway, Dr. Mackenzie, and others (Monthly Review, 1901, pp. 121-131; Times, Oct. 31, 1905; Annuals, British School of Athens, xi. p. 14; ibid. xii. 216 et seqq., xiii. 423 et seqq.). In Dr. Mackenzie's ample arguments, cf. Hogarth, Ionia and the East, pp. 32, 33, the Pelasgians were the sackers of Cnossos. The evidence is mainly archaeological, and might be argued over endlessly.

[12] Iliad, xiii. 450.

[13] These views are suggested by Professor Ridgeway in a paper read to the British Academy; see Athenaeum, June 5, 1909.

[14] Iliad, xiii. 5, 6, and Leaf's note.

[15] Ibid. ix. 381. Mr. Leaf attributes the lines to "some person with a dull chronological mind," who remembered that Thebes in Greece had been left in ruins by the war of the Epigonoi. "He forgot, however, that Egypt is elsewhere unknown to the Iliad." If a place is unknown because no one has occasion to mention it, unknown is Thebes to the Iliad. But to say that a poet familiar with Crete never heard of Egypt; that Egypt was rediscovered between the dates of composition of Iliad and Odyssey, is arbitrary. We might as well say that Shakespeare, who never mentions tobacco, never heard of the weed, or that no Biblical author ever saw a cat (out of the Apocrypha).

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[16] B. S. A. viii. 174.

[17] See Hogarth, Ionia and the East, pp. 83-86.

[18] Ibid. pp. 112-115.

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