The Homeric World

What can we learn from Homer. Lots …

Odysseus

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Reconstructing a prehistoric world from literary sources is rife with complications. But there are aspects of life in the Homeric era upon which most scholars agree. Homer paints a coherent picture of Greek attitudes, ideology, customs, manners, and mores that is consistent with the 8th century archeological record, and holds together based on anthropological knowledge about societies at similar levels of cultural development. For instance, we can trust that the Greeks’ political organization was loose but not chaotic – probably organized at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine, worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within and between communities.

This violence, in fact, opens an important window onto that world. Patterns of violence in Homer are intriguingly consistent with societies on the anthropological record known to have suffered from acute shortages of women. While Homeric men did not take multiple wives, they hoarded and guarded slave women who they treated as their sexual property. These women were mainly captured in raids of neighboring towns, and they appear frequently in Homer. In the poems, Odysseus is mentioned as having 50 slave women, and it is slave women who bear most of King Priam’s 62 children. For every slave woman working a rich man’s loom and sharing his bed, some less fortunate or formidable man lacks a wife.

In pre-state societies around the world – from the Yanomamo of the Amazon basin to the tribes of highland New Guinea to the Inuit of the Arctic – a scarcity of women almost invariably triggers pitched competition among men, not only directly over women, but also over the wealth and social status needed to win them. This is exactly what we find in Homer. Homeric men fight over many different things, but virtually all of the major disputes center on rights to women – not only the famous conflict over Helen, but also over the slave girls Briseis and Chryseis, Odysseus’s wife Penelope, and all the nameless women of common Trojan men. As the old counselor Nestor shouts to the Greek hosts, “Don’t anyone hurry to return homeward until after he has lain down alongside a wife of some Trojan!”

The war between Greeks and Trojans ends in the Rape of Troy: the massacre of men, and the rape and abduction of women. These events are not the rare savageries of a particularly long and bitter war – they are one of the major points of the war. Homeric raiders always hoped to return home with new slave-concubines. Achilles conveys this in his soul-searching assessment of his life as warrior: “I have spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their women.”

Historical studies of literature are sometimes criticized for ignoring, or even diminishing, the artistic qualities that draw people to literature in the first place. But understanding how real history underlies the epics makes us appreciate Homer’s art more, not less. We can see Homer pioneering the artistic technique of taking a backbone of historical fact and fleshing it over with contemporary values and concerns – the same technique used later by Virgil in “The Aeneid,” by Shakespeare in his history plays, and by Renaissance painters depicting the Bible and classical antiquity.

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