Andrew Lang.

Homer and His Age online

. (page 1 of 23)
Online LibraryAndrew LangHomer and His Age → online text (page 1 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by David Moynihan, Lee Dawei, Miranda van de
Heijning, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.


By Andrew Lang

[Illustration: ALGONQUINS UNDER SHIELD _Frontispiece_]


[Etext Editor's note: Due to unclear typesetting of the original work,
which contains unidentifiable characters and blank spaces, it has not
been possible to capture this text completely. Where we have been unable
to recover the meaning of the text, this has been indicated by the
annotation [sic] or [blank space]. We hope that in the future a complete
edition can be found and these gaps can be filled.]


In _Homer and the Epic_, ten or twelve years ago, I examined the
literary objections to Homeric unity. These objections are chiefly based
on alleged discrepancies in the narrative, of which no one poet, it
is supposed, could have been guilty. The critics repose, I venture
to think, mainly on a fallacy. We may style it the fallacy of "the
analytical reader." The poet is expected to satisfy a minutely critical
reader, a personage whom he could not foresee, and whom he did not
address. Nor are "contradictory instances" examined - that is, as Blass
has recently reminded his countrymen, Homer is put to a test which
Goethe could not endure. No long fictitious narrative can satisfy "the
analytical reader."

The fallacy is that of disregarding the Homeric poet's audience. He
did not sing for Aristotle or for Aristarchus, or for modern minute
and reflective inquirers, but for warriors and ladies. He certainly
satisfied them; but if he does not satisfy microscopic professors, he is
described as a syndicate of many minstrels, living in many ages.

In the present volume little is said in defence of the poet's
consistency. Several chapters on that point have been excised. The way
of living which Homer describes is examined, and an effort is made to
prove that he depicts the life of a single brief age of culture. The
investigation is compelled to a tedious minuteness, because the points
of attack - the alleged discrepancies in descriptions of the various
details of existence - are so minute as to be all but invisible.

The unity of the Epics is not so important a topic as the methods of
criticism. They ought to be sober, logical, and self-consistent. When
these qualities are absent, Homeric criticism may be described, in the
recent words of Blass, as "a swamp haunted by wandering fires, will o'
the wisps."

In our country many of the most eminent scholars are no believers in
separatist criticism. Justly admiring the industry and erudition of the
separatists, they are unmoved by their arguments, to which they do
not reply, being convinced in their own minds. But the number and
perseverance of the separatists make on "the general reader" the
impression that Homeric unity is chose _jugée_, that _scientia locuta
est_, and has condemned Homer. This is far from being the case: the
question is still open; "science" herself is subject to criticism; and
new materials, accruing yearly, forbid a tame acquiescence in hasty

May I say a word to the lovers of poetry who, in reading Homer, feel no
more doubt than in reading Milton that, on the whole, they are studying
a work of one age, by one author? Do not let them be driven from their
natural impression by the statement that Science has decided against
them. The certainties of the exact sciences are one thing: the opinions
of Homeric commentators are other and very different things. Among all
the branches of knowledge which the Homeric critic should have at his
command, only philology, archaeology, and anthropology can be called
"sciences"; and they are not exact sciences: they are but skirmishing
advances towards the true solution of problems prehistoric and

Our knowledge shifts from day to day; on every hand, in regard to almost
every topic discussed, we find conflict of opinions. There is no certain
scientific decision, but there is the possibility of working in the
scientific spirit, with breadth of comparison; consistency of logic;
economy of conjecture; abstinence from the piling of hypothesis on

Nothing can be more hurtful to science than the dogmatic assumption that
the hypothesis most in fashion is scientific.

Twenty years ago, the philological theory of the Solar Myth was preached
as "scientific" in the books, primers, and lectures of popular science.
To-day its place knows it no more. The separatist theories of the
Homeric poems are not more secure than the Solar Myth, "like a wave
shall they pass and be passed."

When writing on "The Homeric House" (Chapter X.) I was unacquainted with
Mr. Percy Gardner's essay, "The Palaces of Homer" (_Journal of Hellenic
Studies_, vol. iii. pp. 264-282). Mr. Gardner says that Dasent's plan
of the Scandinavian Hall "offers in most respects not likeness, but a
striking contrast to the early Greek hall." Mr. Monro, who was not aware
of the parallel which I had drawn between the Homeric and Icelandic
houses, accepted it on evidence more recent than that of Sir George
Dasent. Cf. his _Odyssey_, vol. ii. pp. 490-494.

Mr. R. W. Raper, of Trinity College, Oxford, has read the proof sheets
of this work with his habitual kindness, but is in no way responsible
for the arguments. Mr. Walter Leaf has also obliged me by mentioning
some points as to which I had not completely understood his position,
and I have tried as far as possible to represent his ideas correctly. I
have also received assistance from the wide and minute Homeric lore of
Mr. A. Shewan, of St. Andrews, and have been allowed to consult other
scholars on various points.

The first portion of the chapter on "Bronze and Iron" appeared in the
Revue _Archéologique_ for April 1905, and the editor, Monsieur Salomon
Reinach, obliged me with a note on the bad iron swords of the Celts as
described by Polybius.

The design of men in three shields of different shapes, from a Dipylon
vase, is reproduced, with permission, from the British Museum _Guide
to the Antiquities of the Iron Age_; and the shielded chessmen from
Catalogue of Scottish Society of Antiquaries. Thanks for the two ships
with men under shield are offered to the Rev. Mr. Browne, S.J., author
of _Handbook of Homeric Studies_ (Longmans). For the Mycenaean gold
corslet I thank Mr. John Murray (Schliemann's Mycenae and Tiryns), and
for all the other Mycenaean illustrations Messrs. Macmillan and Mr.
Leaf, publishers and author of Mr. Leaf's edition of the _Iliad_.






























The aim of this book is to prove that the Homeric Epics, as wholes, and
apart from passages gravely suspected in antiquity, present a perfectly
harmonious picture of the entire life and civilisation of one single
age. The faint variations in the design are not greater than such as
mark every moment of culture, for in all there is some movement; in all,
cases are modified by circumstances. If our contention be true, it will
follow that the poems themselves, as wholes, are the product of a single
age, not a mosaic of the work of several changeful centuries.

This must be the case - if the life drawn is harmonious, the picture
must be the work of a single epoch - for it is not in the nature of early
uncritical times that later poets should adhere, or even try to adhere,
to the minute details of law, custom, opinion, dress, weapons, houses,
and so on, as presented in earlier lays or sagas on the same set
of subjects. Even less are poets in uncritical times inclined to
"archaise," either by attempting to draw fancy pictures of the manners
of the past, or by making researches in graves, or among old votive
offerings in temples, for the purpose of "preserving local colour." The
idea of such archaising is peculiar to modern times. To take an instance
much to the point, Virgil was a learned poet, famous for his antiquarian
erudition, and professedly imitating and borrowing from Homer. Now, had
Virgil worked as a man of to-day would work on a poem of Trojan times,
he would have represented his heroes as using weapons of bronze.
[Footnote: Looking back at my own poem, _Helen of Troy_ (1883), I find
that when the metal of a weapon is mentioned the metal is bronze.] No
such idea of archaising occurred to the learned Virgil. It is "the iron"
that pierces the head of Remulus (_Aeneid_, IX. 633); it is "the iron"
that waxes warm in the breast of Antiphates (IX. 701). Virgil's men,
again, do not wear the great Homeric shield, suspended by a baldric:
AEneas holds up his buckler (_clipeus_), borne "on his left arm" (X. 26
i). Homer, familiar with no buckler worn on the left arm, has no such
description. When the hostile ranks are to be broken, in the _Aeneid_ it
is "with the iron" (X. 372), and so throughout.

The most erudite ancient poet, in a critical age of iron, does not
archaise in our modern fashion. He does not follow his model, Homer, in
his descriptions of shields, swords, and spears. But, according to
most Homeric critics, the later continuators of the Greek Epics, about
800-540 B.C., are men living in an age of iron weapons, and of round
bucklers worn on the left arm. Yet, unlike Virgil, they always give
their heroes arms of bronze, and, unlike Virgil (as we shall see),
they do not introduce the buckler worn on the left arm. They adhere
conscientiously to the use of the vast Mycenaean shield, in their time
obsolete. Yet, by the theory, in many other respects they innovate
at will, introducing corslets and greaves, said to be unknown to the
beginners of the Greek Epics, just as Virgil innovates in bucklers and
iron weapons. All this theory seems inconsistent, and no ancient poet,
not even Virgil, is an archaiser of the modern sort.

All attempts to prove that the Homeric poems are the work of several
centuries appear to rest on a double hypothesis: first, that the later
contributors to the _ILIAD_ kept a steady eye on the traditions of the
remote Achaean age of bronze; next, that they innovated as much as they

Poets of an uncritical age do not archaise. This rule is overlooked by
the critics who represent the Homeric poems as a complex of the work of
many singers in many ages. For example, Professor Percy Gardner, in his
very interesting _New chapters in Greek History_ (1892), carries neglect
of the rule so far as to suppose that the late Homeric poets, being
aware that the ancient heroes could not ride, or write, or eat boiled
meat, consciously and purposefully represented them as doing none of
these things. This they did "on the same principle on which a writer of
pastoral idylls in our own day would avoid the mention of the telegraph
or telephone." [Footnote: _Op. cit._, p. 142.] "A writer of our own
day," - there is the pervading fallacy! It is only writers of the last
century who practise this archaeological refinement. The authors of
_Beowulf_ and the _Nibelungenlied_, of the Chansons de _Geste_ and of
the Arthurian romances, always describe their antique heroes and the
details of their life in conformity with the customs, costume, and
armour of their own much later ages.

But Mr. Leaf, to take another instance, remarks as to the lack of the
metal lead in the Epics, that it is mentioned in similes only, as though
the poet were aware the metal was unknown in the heroic age. [Footnote:
_Iliad_, Note on, xi. 237.] Here the poet is assumed to be a careful
but ill-informed archaeologist, who wishes to give an accurate
representation of the past. Lead, in fact, was perfectly familiar to the
Mycenaean prime. [Footnote: Tsountas and Manatt, p. 73.] The critical
usage of supposing that the ancients were like the most recent
moderns - in their archaeological preoccupations - is a survival of the
uncritical habit which invariably beset old poets and artists. Ancient
poets, of the uncritical ages, never worked "on the same principle as a
writer in our day," as regards archaeological precision; at least we are
acquainted with no example of such accuracy.

Let us take another instance of the critical fallacy. The age of the
Achaean warriors, who dwelt in the glorious halls of Mycenae, was
followed, at an interval, by the age represented in the relics found in
the older tombs outside the Dipylon gate of Athens, an age beginning,
probably, about 900-850 B.C. The culture of this "Dipylon age," a
time of geometrical ornaments on vases, and of human figures drawn in
geometrical forms, lines, and triangles, was quite unlike that of the
Achaean age in many ways, for example, in mode of burial and in the use
of iron for weapons. Mr. H. R. Hall, in his learned book, _The Oldest
Civilisation of Greece_ (1901), supposes the culture described in the
Homeric poems to be contemporary in Asia with that of this Dipylon
period in Greece. [Footnote: Op. cit., pp. 49, 222.] He says, "The
Homeric culture is evidently the culture of the poet's own days; there
is no attempt to archaise here...." They do not archaise as to the
details of life, but "the Homeric poets consciously and consistently
archaised, in regard to the political conditions of continental Greece,"
in the Achaean times. They give "in all probability a pretty accurate
description" of the loose feudalism of Mycenaean Greece. [Footnote: Op.
cit., pp. 223, 225.]

We shall later show that this Homeric picture of a past political and
social condition of Greece is of vivid and delicate accuracy, that it
is drawn from the life, not constructed out of historical materials. Mr.
Hall explains the fact by "the conscious and consistent" archaeological
precision of the Asiatic poets of the ninth century. Now to any one
who knows early national poetry, early uncritical art of any kind,
this theory seems not easily tenable. The difficulty of the theory is
increased, if we suppose that the Achaeans were the recent conquerors
of the Mycenaeans. Whether we regard the Achaeans as "Celts," with Mr.
Ridgeway, victors over an Aryan people, the Pelasgic Mycenaeans; or
whether, with Mr. Hall, we think that the Achaeans were the Aryan
conquerors of a non-Aryan people, the makers of the Mycenaean
civilisation; in the stress of a conquest, followed at no long interval
by an expulsion at the hands of Dorian invaders, there would be little
thought of archaising among Achaean poets. [Footnote: Mr. Hall informs
me that he no longer holds the opinion that the poets archaised.]

A distinction has been made, it is true, between the poet and other
artists in this respect. Monsieur Perrot says, "The vase-painter
reproduces what he sees; while the epic poets endeavoured to represent
a distant past. If Homer gives swords of bronze to his heroes of times
gone by, it is because he knows that such were the weapons of these
heroes of long ago. In arming them with bronze he makes use, in his
way, of what we call 'local colour....' Thus the Homeric poet is a more
conscientious historian than Virgil!" [Footnote: La _Grète de l'Epopée_,
Perrot et Chipiez, p. 230.]

Now we contend that old uncritical poets no more sought for antique
"local colour" than any other artists did. M. Perrot himself says with
truth, "the _CHANSON DE ROLAND_, and all the _Gestes_ of the same cycle
explain for us the Iliad and the Odyssey." [Footnote: op. cit., p. 5.]
But the poet of the _CHANSON DE ROLAND_ accoutres his heroes of old time
in the costume and armour of his own age, and the later poets of the
same cycle introduce the innovations of their time; they do not hunt for
"local colour" in the _CHANSON DE ROLAND_. The very words "local colour"
are a modern phrase for an idea that never occurred to the artists of
ancient uncritical ages. The Homeric poets, like the painters of the
Dipylon period, describe the details of life as they see them with their
own eyes. Such poets and artists never have the fear of "anachronisms"
before them. This, indeed, is plain to the critics themselves, for
they, detect anachronisms as to land tenure, burial, the construction
of houses, marriage customs, weapons, and armour in the _Iliad_ and
_Odyssey_. These supposed anachronisms we examine later: if they really
exist they show that the poets were indifferent to local colour
and archaeological precision, or were incapable of attaining to
archaeological accuracy. In fact, such artistic revival of the past in
its habit as it lived is a purely modern ideal.

We are to show, then, that the Epics, being, as wholes, free from such
inevitable modifications in the picture of changing details of life as
uncritical authors always introduce, are the work of the one age which
they represent. This is the reverse of what has long been, and still is,
the current theory of Homeric criticism, according to which the Homeric
poems are, and bear manifest marks of being, a mosaic of the poetry of
several ages of change.

Till Wolf published his _Prolegomena_ to [blank space] (1795) there was
little opposition to the old belief that the _ILIAD_ and Odyssey were,
allowing for interpolations, the work of one, or at most of two, poets.
After the appearance of Wolfs celebrated book, Homeric critics have
maintained, generally speaking, that the _ILIAD_ is either a collection
of short lays disposed in sequence in a late age, or that it contains an
ancient original "kernel" round which "expansions," made throughout
some centuries of changeful life, have accrued, and have been at last
arranged by a literary redactor or editor.

The latter theory is now dominant. It is maintained that the _Iliad_ is
a work of at least four centuries. Some of the objections to this theory
were obvious to Wolf himself - more obvious to him than to his followers.
He was aware, and some of them are not, of the distinction between
reading the _ILIAD_ as all poetic literature is naturally read, and by
all authors is meant to be read, for human pleasure, and studying it in
the spirit of "the analytical reader." As often as he read for pleasure,
he says, disregarding the purely fanciful "historical conditions" which
he invented for Homer; as often as he yielded himself to that running
stream of action and narration; as often as he considered the _harmony_
of _colour_ and of characters in the Epic, no man could be more angry
with his own destructive criticism than himself. Wolf ceased to be a
Wolfian whenever he placed himself at the point of view of the reader or
the listener, to whom alone every poet makes his appeal.

But he deemed it his duty to place himself at another point of view,
that of the scientific literary historian, the historian of a period
concerning whose history he could know nothing. "How could the thing
be possible?" he asked himself. "How could a long poem like the _Iliad_
come into existence in the historical circumstances?" [Footnote, exact
place in paragraph unknown: Preface to Homer, p, xxii., 1794.]. Wolf was
unaware that he did not know what the historical circumstances were. We
know how little we know, but we do know more than Wolf. He invented the
historical circumstances of the supposed poet. They were, he said, like
those of a man who should build a large ship in an inland place, with no
sea to launch it upon. The _Iliad_ was the large ship; the sea was the
public. Homer could have no _readers_, Wolf said, in an age that, like
the old hermit of Prague, "never saw pen and ink," had no knowledge
of letters; or, if letters were dimly known, had never applied them
to literature. In such circumstances no man could have a motive for
composing a long poem. [Footnote: _Prolegomena to the Iliad_, p. xxvi.]

Yet if the original poet, "Homer," could make "the greater part of the
songs," as Wolf admitted, what physical impossibility stood in the way
of his making the whole? Meanwhile, the historical circumstances, as
conceived of by Wolf, were imaginary. He did not take the circumstances
of the poet as described in the Odyssey. Here a king or prince has a
minstrel, honoured as were the minstrels described in the ancient Irish
books of law. His duty is to entertain the prince and his family and
guests by singing epic chants after supper, and there is no reason why
his poetic narratives should be brief, but rather he has an opportunity
that never occurred again till the literary age of Greece for producing
a long poem, continued from night to night. In the later age, in the
Asiatic colonies and in Greece, the rhapsodists, competing for prizes at
feasts, or reciting to a civic crowd, were limited in time and gave but
snatches of poetry. It is in this later civic age that a poet without
readers would have little motive for building Wolfs great ship of song,
and scant chance of launching it to any profitable purpose. To this
point we return; but when once critics, following Wolf, had convinced
themselves that a long early poem was impossible, they soon found
abundant evidence that it had never existed.

They have discovered discrepancies of which, they say, no one sane poet
could have been guilty. They have also discovered that the poems had
not, as Wolf declared, "one 'harmony of colour" (_unus color_). Each
age, they say, during which the poems were continued, lent its own
colour. The poets, by their theory, now preserved the genuine tradition
of things old; cremation, cairn and urn burial; the use of the chariot
in war; the use of bronze for weapons; a peculiar stage of customary
law; a peculiar form of semi-feudal society; a peculiar kind of house.
But again, by a change in the theory, the poets introduced later
novelties; later forms of defensive armour; later modes of burial; later
religious and speculative beliefs; a later style of house; an advanced
stage of law; modernisms in grammar and language.

The usual position of critics in this matter is stated by Helbig; and
we are to contend that the theory is contradicted by all experience of
ancient literatures, and is in itself the reverse of consistent. "The
_artists_ of antiquity," says Helbig, with perfect truth, "had no idea
of archaeological studies.... They represented legendary scenes in
conformity with the spirit of their own age, and reproduced the arms and
implements and costume that they saw around them." [Footnote: _L'Épopée
Homerique_, p. 5; _Homerische Epos_, p. 4.]

Now a poet is an _artist_, like another, and he, too - no less than the
vase painter or engraver of gems - in dealing with legends of times past,
represents (in an uncritical age) the arms, utensils, costume, and the
religious, geographical, legal, social, and political ideas of his own
period. We shall later prove that this is true by examples from the
early mediaeval epic poetry of Europe.

It follows that if the _Iliad_ is absolutely consistent and harmonious
in its picture of life, and of all the accessories of life, the _Iliad_
is the work of a single age, of a single stage of culture, the poet
describing his own environment. But Helbig, on the other hand, citing
Wilamowitz Moellendorff, declares that the _Iliad_ - the work of four
centuries, he says - maintains its unity of colour by virtue of
an uninterrupted poetical tradition. [Footnote: _Homerische
Untersuchungen_, p. 292; _Homerische Epos_, p. I.] If so, the poets must
have archaeologised, must have kept asking themselves, "Is this or that
detail true to the past?" which artists in uncritical ages never do,
as we have been told by Helbig. They must have carefully pondered the
surviving old Achaean lays, which "were born when the heroes could
not read, or boil flesh, or back a steed." By carefully observing the
earliest lays the late poets, in times of changed manners, "could avoid

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryAndrew LangHomer and His Age → online text (page 1 of 23)