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The World of Homer By Andrew Lang Characters: 11207

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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Though Homer describes a military aristocracy he is remarkable for his love of peace and hatred of war. His war-god, Ares, is a bully and a coward; his home is Thrace; and he is never mentioned with sympathy. It seems to follow that Homer's people are conceived as long settled in tranquil homes; and, though Achilles says that "cattle are to be had for the raiding of them" (Iliad, ix. 406), actual fighting to recover captured cattle is thrown back into the youth of Nestor. Young adventurers, however, expend their energy, like the Icelanders of the sagas, in "going on viking," "risking their own lives, bringing bane to alien men." The great war against Thebes is a memory of an earlier generation; as are the combats with the wild and shaggy hill tribes, and the war between Meleager and the Couretes. When war is in hand it has no more spirited singer than Homer; he has a special word (if correctly rendered) for "the joy of battle" (χ?ρμη), but it has often been remarked that his men are not very resolute and stubborn fighters. They are not like the Spartans or the Macleans, with their traditional rule of never retreating.

War may be a duty, in the eyes of Homer, but it is not a pleasure; and this is the more singular as, in early societies, the bard, who, like Ian Lom,[1] does not fight himself, is fond of provoking men to battle. Though Odysseus, in his feigned tales of himself as a Cretan adventurer, speaks of piracy, and of raids on the coasts of Egypt, and though casual homicides are lightly mentioned, the Homeric is a peace-loving world. The wild justice of the blood-feud, after a fatal blow struck in anger, exists, and, as a rule, the slayer goes into exile, to some friendly prince, and thus avoids the feud of the dead man's kin.

On the Shield of Achilles was depicted a scene at the Althing (to use the Icelandic expression): "The folk were gathered in the assembly place; for there was a strife arisen, two men striving about the blood-price of a man slain; the one claiming to pay full atonement, expounding to the people, but the other denied him, and would take naught." The people are taking sides, and shouting, the heralds restrain them, the γ?ροντε? (the probi homines or prud'hommes) sit listening, on stone seats in the sacred circle.[2] The public sense had enabled the slayer to remain at home, if the kin of the dead would accept the blood-wyte, and allow the feud to be pacified. As Aias says to Achilles, "a man accepts recompense of his brother's murderer, or for his dead son; and so the manslayer for a great price abides in his own land...."[3] Probably it was usual to accept the blood-price if a man had been slain openly, sword in hand; but when a premeditated murder was committed, actual revenge was desired. There was nothing reckoned mean or contemptible in the pacific arrangement: in heroic Iceland it was hard indeed to induce men to accept it.

These are the manners of a settled people, who will bear much for the sake of peace, and of a people free from superstitious dread of the blood curse, and ignorant of the filthy rite of purification by the blood of swine, which was a regular piece of ritual in historic Hellas, and is familiar to Aeschylus,[4] the Ionian epic poets, and to Apollonius Rhodius. Certainly the rite was unknown to Homer, who mentions many homicides but says nothing of purification or of pollution. This point is later studied in detail. The life of the heroes in peace is the life of all early aristocracies who do not idle, and do not intrigue in a Court. The women spin and embroider, like Penelope and Helen, and keep their eyes on household affairs, and on their poultry, mainly geese. Nausicaa sees to the washing of the linen. The men hunt hares and boars, and attend "days of law" in the legal courts, and take part in funeral games. As yet we hear of no periodical games, such as the Olympian, Isthmian, and Pythian, though the legends of historic Greece pretend that these were founded in pre-Homeric times.

The princes also looked well to their lands. Odysseus alone is mentioned as a skilled ploughman, carpenter, and shipwright, as some of the Icelandic heroes are swordsmiths, but we see little of any prince but Odysseus in peaceful life. There are professional artisans, whose services are highly valued, carpenters, potters, bronze-smiths, and weavers.

The women meanwhile are amused by the visits of Phoenician pedlars, who bring goods and gauds of every kind, and steal a child or carry away a serving maid if they have the opportunity, as in the case of Eumaeus. After supper the minstrel of the prince chants lays, like Demodocus in Phaeacia. As Spenser observed in Ireland, and as the Brehon laws declare, the minstrel was highly honoured and trusted; the minstrel of Agamemnon is charged, during the war, with the care of Clytemnestra. These poets did not accompany the host to the war, where Achilles solaced himself by singing to the harp "the renowns of men."[5]

Such is the general picture of Homer's world in time of peace, as far as the days and works of the princely class and the gentry are concerned. They are richly equipped with cups of gold, and furniture inlaid with ivory and silver, even in the house of Odysseus. This was but the dwelling of a king of a rocky isle. Entering the hall of Menelaus, Telemachus bids his companion, the son of Nestor, marvel at the gleam of bronze, gold, electrum, silver, and ivory.[6] Apparently the home of Nestor in Pylos was not so rich and lordly. The house of Menelaus is a picture of a dwelling rich in such treas

ures as have been found in the Royal graves of Mycenae and in the palace of Cnossos in Crete. In the house of Odysseus we hear of no bathroom and bath, in which the girls of the house bathed princely guests and gave them change of raiment.[7] Weapons adorn the walls (in the house of Odysseus only), unless this be a later addition to the picture.

In the Homeric hall, each guest had his own little table and his chair. The prince and his wife sat in the centre, beside the fire, under the chief pillars. Honoured guests sat by them; the beggar was placed on the threshold, with his mess of meat. As in heroic Ireland, where the rules were very minute, some portions of the flesh were more honourable than others. In the lost Thebais, Oedipus curses his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, because they send him, not the shoulder, but the haunch (?σχ?ον)[8] This is a very archaic touch.

Homer's world is aristocratic. The poet, none the less, has his eye on the folk; on the honest poor woman who carefully weighs her wool; on the aged female thrall who is busy all night over her task of grain-grinding, and prays that the wooers who have broken her strength may now eat their latest meal. He is keenly interested in the work of artisans, such as the currier and shield maker who wrought the great shield of Aias; in the fisherman with his nets, or line and bait; in the diver for oysters; in the woodmen with their axes; in sowing and ploughing, and the relative merits of oxen and mules as plough-beasts; in the quarrel between two farmers over their boundary balk in the common field; in the lot of the hind of a landless man, the hardest lot of any; in gold-workers and spinners; shepherds, hunts-men, herdsmen; in the potter who "sitting by his wheel maketh trial of it whether it run"; in the virtues of a swineherd, a slave, who is noble by birth, like Eumaeus; in all seafaring men down to the pursers and stewards; in the laughing girls that gather in the vintage, while a boy makes sweet music, and sings the song of Linus with delicate voice; in the ploughman who has a drink of wine at the end of the furrow; in the gardener with his orchard, the watering of a plot as it is done to this day in the East; the fruit trees that Odysseus as a child was given "for his very own"; in the smith's warm forge where masterless tramps sleep at night; in the beggar men with their wallets, who crouch on the outer part of the threshold; in the old cadger who goes on the errands of the wooers; in the little girl that runs till she is weary by her mother's side, and catches at her skirt, praying to be taken up in her arms; in the children who build castles with the sea sand; in boys who, "always fond of mischief," stone the wasps' nest, and make the angry wasps a common nuisance; or cudgel the stubborn ass that is too strong for them; in all poor wayfarers who wander under the protection of Zeus; in all suppliants who, having slain a man, embrace the knees of the prince to whom they flee. All mankind are as interesting to Homer as the gallant youths at the bridal dance who wear "daggers of gold in baldrics of silver"; such bronze daggers with gilded blade-centres as were found in the tombs of Mycenae and elsewhere.

It is plain from Homeric descriptions of palaces, and of works of art, that his age had not lost touch with or memory of the Aegean culture. Whether some great Aegean or Mycenaean palaces with friezes of cyanus (dark blue glass paste), and of metals, were still in a habitable state, in Homer's days, or whether only the tradition of their glory survived,-as memories of Roman buildings dwell in the early Anglo-Saxon poem on the Ruined City of the Romans in England,-it is clear that plenty of Aegean artistic work in gold and other metals, cups and sword hilts, was preserved, and known to the poet. The Achaeans did not invade merely to destroy, like the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Romanised Britain. Far more civilised and refined than these rude hordes, they could appreciate and preserve as well as burn and break,-in an hour of furious sack,-the treasures of the more civilised race. But these treasures they could not imitate and reproduce, apparently (they are often spoken of as the work of the god Hephaestus), and the ancient Aegean art waned and passed under new and crude influences.

Much as Homer delights in works of art, and vividly as he describes them, and describes the toil of weavers, carpenters, shipwrights, ploughmen, reapers, and vintagers, he never shows us a painter at work on wall or vase, nor a mortal hand delineating, in any material, men and women; except when Helen is weaving a great purple web, and embroidering thereon, or interweaving there-with, "many battles of horse-taming Trojans and mail-clad Achaeans."[9] This art implies some knowledge of drawing and painting: from the Homeric age we have no relics of this art; but such webs might, like the Bayeux tapestry, last long, and might be imitated, and it may have been from such old Aegean fabrics or copies of them that Homer took his idea.

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[1] The bard of the Macdonalds in the year of Montrose.

[2] Iliad, xviii. 497-504.

[3] ix. 632-634.

[4] Eumenides, 273.

[5] Iliad, ix. 186, 189.

[6] Odyssey, iv. 70-75.

[7] Ibid. iii. 464-469. The word for bath, ?σαμ?νθο?, is thought, like other words with the same termination, to be of the language of the Aegean race, whoever they may have been: the termination is common in place-names, and names of flowers.

[8] Kinkel, Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, p. 11.

[9] Iliad, iii. 125-127.

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