Homer and His Age
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Pages (PDF): 243
Publication Date: 1906
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Andrew Lang's rather academic review of Homer and the epics. Chapters include; The Homeric Age; Hypotheses Of Epic Composition; The Homeric House; The Comparative Study Of Early Epics; and Homer And The French Mediaeval Epics.
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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 today would work on a poem of Trojan times, he would have represented his heroes as using weapons of 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 pleased.
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.” “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. 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. 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.
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