1998-10-25: The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (1979)

by M. I. Finley (1912-1986)

In this work, Finley attempts to describe the world of the warriors about whom Homer wrote, typified by Odysseus. He is careful to distinguish between the world of the Mycenaean warrior class, extolled as the inhabitants of Greece’s Golden Age, and the darker age in which Homer himself (or themselves) lived. The book is a revised edition of a 1954 work, adding two lectures as appendices. In a lecture from 1974, Finley announced his intention to revise the work, particularly his treatment of the common man in the world of Odysseus. In the end, he “found no better or alternative formulation beyond a slight change in nuance in the wording.”

The book is organized in five chapters. In Homer and the Greeks, he discusses the influence of Homer on the character of Greek literature. He quotes Dr Johnson:

‘By the general consent of criticks, the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epick poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions.’ He was thinking of John Milton then, and he concluded his life of the English poet with these words: ‘His work is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first.’ That title had been pre-empted for all time by Homer, whom the Greeks called simply ‘the poet’.

Finley sketches Greek prehistory, with an interesting comment about the gradual infusion of Greek-speakers into the land later (and now) called Hellas:

The human mind plays strange tricks with time perspectives when the distant past is under consideration: centuries become as years and millennia as decades. It requires conscious effort to make the necessary correction, to appreciate that an infiltration would not appear to the participants as a single connected movement at all; that , in other words, neither the Greeks nor the people into whose land they came were likely to have any idea that something big and historical was taking place. Instead they saw individual occurrences, sometimes peacable and in no way noteworthy, sometimes troublesome and even violently destructive of lives and ways of life. Biologically and culturally these were centuries of thorough intermixture. … The end product, after a thousand years or so, was the historical people we call Greeks. In a significant sense, the original migrants were not Greeks but people who spoke proto-Greek and who were to become one element in a later composite which could lay proper claim to the name. The Angles and Saxons in Britain offer a convenient analogy: they were not Englishmen, but they were to become Englishmen one day.

He puts Homer in his own context, some five centuries years after the height of Mycenaean culture, as revealed in archeology and texts of Linear B. The world of Homer was a dark age by comparison, but gifted with the Greek language and men who could use it to great effect. Finley closes the chapter with this paragraph:

If it is true that European history began with the Greeks, it is equally true that Greek history began with the world of Odysseus. And like all beginnings, it had a long history behind it. For history, as Jacob Burckhardt remarked, is the one field of study in which one cannot begin at the beginning.

The second chapter, Bards and Heroes, describes the myth-making process that led to Homer (and Hesiod his near-contemporary). In part this included the traditions, techniques and values of the bards, the oral poets, who perpetuated the old tales that Homer used in his composition, frozen in writing. Finley briefly describes the archeological evidence concerning Troy, if not the Trojan war. He says:

The world of Odysseus was not the Mycenaean Age five or six or seven hundred years earlier, but neither was it the world of the eighth or seventh centuries BC. The list of exclusions of contemporary institutions and practices is very long and very fundamental – no Ionia, no Dorians to speak of, no writing, no iron weapons, no cavalry in battle scenes, no colonization, no Greek traders, no communities without kings. If then, the world of Odysseus is to be placed in time, as everything we know from the comparative study of heroic poetry says it must, the most likely centuries seem to be the tenth and ninth. By then the catastrophe that brought down Mycenaean civilization and made itself felt all over the eastern Mediterranean had been forgotten. Or rather, it had been converted into a ‘memory’ of a no longer existent age of heroes, proper Greek heroes. The history of the Greeks as such had begun.

The third chapter, Wealth and Labour, is the first that deals directly with the world of Homer’s poems. It describes the classes of society, dominated by the great noble families (the aristoi, literally ‘best people’), in turn dominated by ‘kings’ like the great Agamemnon and the lesser Odysseus. There was no collective technical term for the multitude. The divide was near absolute, except for accidents of wars and raids. Marriage was strictly class-bound, blocking that potential path of social advancement. The lower classes contained other, less rigid, divisions. But the poems have no generic word for ‘peasant’ or ‘craftsman’; even slave and freeman are not clearly distinguished. Some specialists, such as carpenters and bards, occupied a social middle ground, above the peasantry and valued by the aristocracy, but not of it.

The primary economic unit was the oikos, or household of an extended family. (Indeed oikos is the Greek root of the Latin oecus, economics.) Operating an oikos was running an estate, including the management and distribution of the property belonging to, generated by, or otherwise acquired by the oikos. Property included land, crops and animals, cloth, utilitarian and precious metals, and the objects made from all of these. Distribution within an oikos was managed by the heads of the household (the dominant man, some of his sons, and perhaps one or more dominant woman). Distribution across oikos lines might involve raids (or wars), and alliance-building gift-exchange. One method of acquiring property was forbidden to the noble class: trade. This was the way of foreigners, who were not distinguished from pirates. There is no word for ‘merchant’ in the poems.

Chapter four, Household, Kin, and Community, describes the social system and culture of Odysseus’s world. The social system was organized by status, the degree of power and respect a man held. Agamemnon is called the ‘most kingly’, although he is not the best warrior; he brought the most ships and led the most warriors, who felt bound to follow him. In some degree his status was inherited. Status could also be lost or dissipated. The danger of the suitors in Ithaca to Odysseus’s oikos was the rate at which they were consuming his property. The status of a man extended to the administration of justice (such as it was). A man was expected to avenge a wrong (theft or murder) committed against his oikos. Status accrued to those who best filled this social role.

Kinship was manifest in genealogies, prominent in the poems, and contributing to status in proportion to the prominence of the divine ancestors a man could claim. For instance, Agamemnon claimed descent from Zeus, and Achilles from the lesser goddess Thetis.

Another institution, in the poems if not in the real world of Odysseus, is the assembly or council. This functioned to expose the arguments pro and con of an issue, and to show the king or field commander how sentiment lay. He then followed or ignored the advice of the assembly as he thought best. The function of the assembly was not to advise, bind, or authorize the actions of a leader, but to allow the behavior of the leader to be seen to have followed proper form. The word themis signified the notion of “custom, folkways, mores, whatever we may call it, the enormous power of ‘it is (it is not) done’.”

Even though the multitude, the demos, had no formal power, the suitors of Penelope recognized the ability of the demos to take sides in a dispute. Antinous proposed killing Telemachus before the demos turned against the suitors, presumably because the destruction of the property of the oikos would inevitably weaken it, and endanger their own security.

There are puzzles in the poems. Penelope’s apparent ability to transfer the kingship of Ithaca to the suitor she chooses is at odds with other knowledge of the minor role of women. Penelope herself has no power; her family was not royal.

Another institution, whose importance is not really made clear, is guest-friendship. This is the binding of one noble to another on the basis of gifts exchanged, and obligations incurred as a result of hospitality extended and accepted. Such relationships resulted in alliances on which a man could draw, as Agamemnon drew when he led many ships full of warriors to Troy. Gift exchange also served as the social cover for taxation, as the demos ‘gave’ to their masters and kings. However, a commoner would never give to a noble of another house, and a noble could never be obligated to a commoner. There was, however, an obligation to provide at least minimal hospitality to a stranger, even a beggar: “all strangers and beggars  are from Zeus.”

Another part of the society is the retainer. These are the non-aristocratic elements of the household, and might be the cup-bearer at the banquet table or the spear-carrier in battle.

The clearest fact about the relations between the roles of this world is its fragility. The power and status of a king was no guarantee of long life:

‘It is no bad thing to be a king’, said one of the characters in the story. Yet one need only turn the pages of Homer or read at random in the legends of the Greeks to discover that betrayal and assassination were a most common fate among rulers. Olympian Zeus himself had become chief of the gods only by overthrowing his father Cronus and the other Titans … It is scarcely conceivable that the tales could have remained so one-sided in their murders, rapes, seductions, fratricides, patricides, and plottings had kingship in reality been a comfortable position of perquisites in a regular dynastic succession.

By Homer’s time, kingship was gone from most of Hellas. Aristocrats ruled as a group, “equals without a first among them.” The eventual rise of the demos was long after Homer. In the world of Odysseus, there was no challenge to the position of the heroes.

The last chapter, Morals and Values, deserves greater attention. Finley is explicit enough that it should be possible to sketch some of the memic content of the minds of men like Odysseus.

First, the funeral games for Patroclus remind us that the heroic age valued status, as revealed by competition. Competition could be deadly serious, as in raiding and warfare, or mock serious, as in contests of strength and skill such as the chariot race among Diomdes, Antilochus, Menelaus, Meriones, and Eumelus.

They also valued honor, as revealed in standing for one’s word. When Achilles proposed to grant the second prize to his friend Eumelus who had come in fifth, Antilochus appealed to Achilles sense of honor, and offered to fight to demonstrate his right to the prize.

They valued themis, orderly procedure, as revealed by the scepter that allowed only one man at a time to speak in assembly. When Menelaus felt he was cheated by Antilochus, he held the scepter while he appealed for rightful consideration.

They valued the opinion and power of their chieftains, as when Menelaus appealed to them to arbitrate between himself and Antilochus.

They also valued the ability of a man’s conscience to guide him to right behavior, as when Menelaus changed his appeal directly to Antilochus, challenging him to take an oath that he had not cheated in the race. Antilochus’s who had been to eager to win, recovered his wisdom and granted the prize to Menelaus, restoring peace. However, had Antilochus persisted and sworn a false oath, that would have been a matter between him and the gods, not the business of any other man.

This peace, the accord between allies in the face of other enemies, was also important. Even the strongest of heroes required the aid of allies.

(I believe Finley makes an error when he says any of the disputes arising from the race could have been resolved in any of the three methods: trial by combat, arbitration, or oath. It seems that the nature of a dispute must constrain the methods. The oath has power precisely when it appeals to the mental state we call conscience, presumed transparent to the gods but not to men. Trial by combat is appropriate when the aggrieved knows that the other knows that the aggrieved knows (not merely suspects) he has been wronged; these knowings give extra strength to the aggrieved and sap the strength of the one in the wrong. Arbitration is appropriate in the case that other men know the facts of the case independently of the disputants. Menelaus changed his mind because he could not be sure that the arbitrators could see Antilochus’s interference far out on the course.)

The heroes’ complaints were private matters, to be settled privately. There was no independent law to set standards and impose judgements; none of these men would yield to a higher law established by other men. Even as they might enjoy the support of their friends and allies, the matter was private not public. The men of Odysseus’s world did not value the cool and impartial rule of law, or hold any sense of high justice that could be administered by men.

Disputes like these could only arise and be settled among equals. There was no ‘justice’ for a commoner aggrieved by a noble.

Finley notes that the differences between commoners and nobles did not mean complete differences in their values. Clearly they differed in some key respects (as mentioned above), and  in some incidental respects (such as their attitudes toward labor and perhaps trade). Yet their two communities were interdependent, and thus shared some values. The commoner valued belonging to the oikos of a strong noble with high status, because that improved his own security; even if the noble would never directly defend the commoner, his defense of his property and status would benefit every member of the society that was the oikos.

It is significant that Hesiod’s work portrays different values. His background is far from the hero-loving bardic tradition, and promotes the man of the land. His attitudes toward the gods are different from Homer’s.

Finley says “the main theme of a warrior culture is constructed on two notes – prowess and honour. The one is the hero’s essential attribute, the other his essential aim.” The hero valued honor as the ideal against which his behavior would be evaluated; prowess in attaining honor would be the measure of his fame, either in his own life or after his death.

The heroes did not value rational assessment of the costs and benefits of their alternative courses of action. The choice of a course was entirely determined by their code of honor, once that was recognized. Naturally this sometimes, perhaps often, entailed costly courses of action with relatively small potential benefits. Clearly the Trojans would have benefited most by giving up Helen; but that would have been dishonorable to their kinsman and ally. Hector rejected the possibility, preferring to fight for the fatherland: wife, children, oikos, and landed estate.

Finley points out that this conception of fatherland is actually non-heroic. It values the community in the one circumstance where this was permissible: in the face of the invader. The dispute for Hector was not private, but supremely public. His entire society would stand or fall with him. This conception was the wedge by which the community in the succeeding age would become supreme, and the hero would fade away. “A domesticated hero was a contradiction in terms.”

The heroes valued not only honor, but the visible manifestation of its recognition. Treasure was bestowed on the heroes in proportion to their prowess in pursuing honor; and the man with the greatest treasure demonstrated the highest status.

Treasure was not only for keeping hidden or even for display. The giving of valuable gifts demonstrated that the giver was a man of status, able to afford to give great value to his allies. The greater a man’s status, the greater the gifts he could give. When in doubt of which men to ally with, the one who could bestow the greatest gifts should be favored.

The heroes did not value trade, which could also result in great hoards of treasure. Profits in trade do not reflect honor or prowess in its pursuit. Trade, involving explicit acceptance of the equality in value of the two sides of an exchange, has no honor for either party. The honor involved in giving great gifts creates a relationship and obligations that persist beyond the transaction. Essentially, the expectation of future benefit balancing the cost of the gifts is based trust, the trust that the partner will do the honorable thing at a future time. Such trust is absent from trade transactions, which are consummated in a single balanced episode.

Another manifestation of the bonds between honorable men was the sharing of food. Every person who entered a household (or even the temporary shelters at the Achaeans’ ships) must share his host’s food before attending to his business. This sharing included the gods who shared in the sacrificial portion, and validated common values between host and guest.

The values of the heroes had no place for women, either in combat, the assembly, or the feast. The inferior status of women (really the no-status of women) was not concealed or idealized, with either chivalric or romantic notions. The place of women was clear (with certain inexplicable exceptions in the poems). Women constituted a community of their own, with its own values and culture. This community (or communities of different classes of women) was interdependent with the other communities of their society, but none the less distinct for that. The wife of a noble valued the power of her lord much a commoner did: for the security it conferred. A woman whose husband died was in danger of becoming the slave of another more powerful man, as Hector forsaw could happen to Andromache. His children were likewise endangered.

Love, as we ‘know’ it, was not a value of Odysseus’s world. Though marriage was monogamous, this did not constrain the sexuality of noblemen, who might have many female slaves. The formal wife was the female head of household, including the concubines. Her children were the grandchildren of her father, serving to formally bind two families. The structure of this type of household did not distinguish the ‘nuclear family’ as we do. The emotional attachment of Odysseus for Penelope did not have the same intensity and depth as that between father and son, or between two male companions. However, saying this begs the question of what Paris/Alexander felt for Helen. Could the entire Trojan War have been precipitated for ‘mere’ lust?

Women in general seem to have been a problem for Greeks from Odysseus to the late classical age. Greek philosophers appear to have been somewhat afraid of the influence of women on men, generally for the worse, and generally because of their tendency to create strong biological feelings that were entirely capable of disrupting the social bonds between men.

Perhaps the strongest value represented in Homer is the belief that man understood the working of the world, and that the world was a reflection of the mind of men. The gods and goddesses of the Greeks, with their completely human characteristics, including what we call weaknesses in humans, were the force behind the chance occurrences of the world, The gods and goddesses, with their own motivations, were the force behind the psychology of humankind. As Finley points out, when Telemachus took the risky journey to Pylos and Sparta, a herald said to Penelope: “I do not know whether some god urged him on, or whether his own heart (thymos) stirred him’. Finley calls this view of the gods revolutionary, but does identify the revolutionaries. The view was certainly well-established by Homer’s time, but perhaps not in Odysseus’s.

Among the Homeric gods were a few holdovers of an earlier religious era: gods of the land and harvest, fertility of animals and fields, such as Dionysus and Demeter never died out, and were a disruptive influence on the later pantheon.

The revolution that brought the Olympian gods to prominence was an intellectual one, in the sense that it solved certain problems that arose from analytical thought. Later, another revolution, moral this time, raised the arbitrary power of Zeus to a moral plane, and established the basis for a more modern conception of justice and morality. This is part of what lies in Aeschylus’s Oresteia.

It is also certain that views differed, at least among later thinkers. Xenophanes in the sixth century BC was highly critical of the Homeric view of the gods, and the disservice that belief in them did to mankind. Finley says, “If ‘theft, adultery and deceit’ were commonly accepted as divine practices, then surely divine ancestry of mortals and divine intervention in battle were scarcely less credible.” The genealogies that reflect this belief certainly justified rule by might, and sanctioned aristocratic privilege.

Clearly this work is full of interesting ideas. It shows the value of close reading of these greatest of epics, of reflection on the mode of their composition, and of consideration of the world they depict. Finley provides a bibliographical essay which indicates many works that might be interesting (if only there were time). One work that might be worth following up is:

Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, tr. T. G. Rosenmeyer (1953)

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