Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interesting Assessment of Ancient Greek Tales

An interesting perspective on the war-oriented characteristics of the ancient proto-Greek society portrayed in the ancient epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Compare to this earlier post about a much later civilization, the Vikings. It's all about the women... Excerpted from Hidden histories 'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad' are giving up new secrets about the ancient world By Jonathan Gottschall September 28, 2008 In his influential book, "Troy and Homer," German classicist Joachim Latacz argues that the identification of Hisarlik as the site of Homer's Troy is all but proven. Latacz's case is based not only on archeology, but also on fascinating reassessments of cuneiform tablets from the Hittite imperial archives. The tablets, which are dated to the period when the Late Bronze Age city at Hisarlik was destroyed, tell a story of a western people harassing a Hittite client state on the coast of Asia Minor. The Hittite name for the invading foreigners is very close to Homer's name for his Greeks - Achaians - and the Hittite names for their harassed ally are very close to "Troy" and "Ilios," Homer's names for the city. "At the very core of the tale," Latacz argues, "Homer's 'Iliad' has shed the mantle of fiction commonly attributed to it." But if the Trojan War is looking more and more like a historical reality, there is still the question of whether the poems tell us anything about the motives and thinking of the people who actually fought it. Do the epic time machines actually take us back to the Greek culture of the Late Bronze Age? It is almost certain that they do not. Homer's epics are a culmination of a centuries-long tradition of oral storytelling, and extensive cross-cultural studies of oral literature have established that such tales are unreliable as history. Homeric scholars believe that the epics were finally written down sometime in the 8th century BC, which means that the stories of Achilles and Odysseus would have been passed by word of mouth for half a millennium before they were finally recorded in what was, by then, a vastly changed Greek culture. Facts about the war and the people who fought it would have been lost or grossly distorted, as in a centuries-long game of "telephone." Scholars agree that the relatively simple and poor culture Homer describes in his epics is quite sharply at odds with the complex and comparatively rich Greek kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age, when the war would have taken place. But even if the epics make a bad history of Greece in 1200 BC - in the sense of transmitting names, dates, and accurate political details - scholars increasingly agree that they provide a precious window on Greek culture at about the time the poems were finally written down. Moses Finley, who believed that the epics were "no guide at all" to the history of the Trojan War, did believe they were guides to Homer's own culture. And by turning an anthropological eye to the conflicts Homer writes about, we are now learning far more about what that culture was really like. . . . 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. And understanding Homer's own society gives us a new perspective on the oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism that pervades "The Iliad" and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, "The Odyssey." While even the fiercest fighters understand that peace is desirable, they feel doomed to endless conflict. As Odysseus says, "Zeus has given us [the Greeks] the fate of winding down our lives in hateful war, from youth until we perish, each of us." A shortage of women helps to explain more about Homeric society than its relentless violence. It may also shed light on the origins of a tragic and pessimistic worldview, a pantheon of gods deranged by petty vanities, and a people's resignation to the inevitability of "hateful war." Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author of "The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer," and he is currently at work on a novel of the Homeric age called "Odysseus, A True Story." © Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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