On the historicity of the `Homeric world΄ - some methodological considerations
- Wekowski Marek
The problem of the historicity of the Homeric world, i.e. of the social and political world depicted in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is still one of the most important issues of early Greek history. For a very significant part of the formative period of Greek civilisation, these are our only extant literary texts. – Can we use them as historical sources at all? – And how should we handle them in order to obtain positive historical data?
To simplify, we can distinguish two different traditional approaches to this problem. On the one hand, there has been a tendency to confront diverse Homeric Realien with our currently available archaeological material. Where both converge, it is believed that we come across hard historical data for a given period, and even that we are entitled to supplement our literary evidence by the archaeological one and vice versa. On the other hand, there have been many attempts at identifying a coherent overall picture of ‘Homeric society’; its historical plausibility can allegedly be verified by ethnographic and historical parallels, and/or supported by pertinent anthropological and sociological models. Both attitudes yield historical results that vary from one study to another, the ‘Homeric world’ being identified with some period within the Dark Ages, or with the contemporary or nearly contemporary times of Homer (however we place them).
Now, both attitudes are not mutually exclusive and are sometimes combined by scholars; in both, at least in the past few decades, one can discern a growing concern about the methodological problem of how an oral epic tradition transmits or ‘records’ historical data. Hence the importance of the concurring theoretical debate about the tools of the Oral Poetry Theory, both in its strictly textual and its comparative aspect, for our assessment of which (if any) historical period could possibly be interpreted in the light of the Homeric picture of social and political relations.
In my paper, I would like to try another method, discarding both the aforementioned reliance on the overall and allegedly coherent Homeric picture and the indiscriminate use of diverse registers, strata and literary devices of the poems in our historical analyses. Instead, I focus on literary phenomena, which belong to the sphere of what can be called ‘immediate referentiality’ of the Homeric text, namely on diverse figurative and meta-narrative devices and/or poetic figures and tropes such as similes, but also on what seems to be taken for granted, e.g. in terms of political decision-making procedures depicted or alluded to in both poems. They are all intended to appeal to everyday experience of the contemporary public of the Homeric poems and hence elude, for our purposes, the requirements of the, I submit, highly anachronistic ‘mainstream’ narrative of heroic deeds in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Here are some general conclusions that can be reached if we follow the method I advocate above. The contemporary historical background of both poems is to be identified not with a ‘pre-state society’ or a pre-political form of, or early, non-integrated and non-formalised, polis, but with a political phenomenon very close to the Greek city in its full-fledged form known to us from later sources. Furthermore, we can presume that this phenomenon had a rather long historical development behind it at the time, since Homer simply cannot help thinking in terms of the polis, although he is well aware of the fact that the ‘heroes of old’ lived in a world dominated by powerful kings and consequently he tries to (re-)create such world in all its imaginary coherence. In a word, then, the polis is an utterly internalised thing for the poet(s) of both poems.
Now, depending on the way we date the appearance (or imagine the origins) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the aforementioned conclusions could accordingly be used in our historical interpretation of diverse periods of early Greek history. I believe we still can reasonably take the Homeric poems as owing their more or less final shape to the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC (perhaps adducing some new arguments to this effect elsewhere). Thus, to simplify, the full-fledged and fully internalised polis in Homer could become a valuable witness to the historical developments of the latter part of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
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