Homer’s Gods

Colin MacLeod

  • Homer on Life and Death by Jasper Griffin
    Oxford, 218 pp, £12.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 814016 9
  • Homer by Jasper Griffin
    Oxford, 82 pp, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 287532 9
  • Homer: The Odyssey translated by Walter Shewring
    Oxford, 346 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 251019 3

Historia locuta est. Sed historiae obloquitur ipse vates et contra testatur sensus legentis’ (History has spoken. But the poet’s own words answer back, and the reader’s impression adds its dissenting voice). This eloquent transition in F.A. Wolf’s Prolegomena to his edition of Homer (1795) might stand as the motto and the problem of Homeric studies ever since. Wolf, who was the first to examine seriously how the Iliad and Odyssey came down to us, thought that such long and complex works could not have been composed in an illiterate age and that they showed signs of their disunity. Wolf expressed himself firmly, but with some trepidation; and in fact he did not deal in any breadth or depth with the larger problems posed by the text. But after him scholars set with a will to the work of ‘analysis’, seeking out evidence of multiple authorship, confident that history had routed literary criticism for good. Yet even the analysts remained loyal at least to the notion of Homer, for they took themselves to be relieving the masterworks of later accretions; and if they claimed to be working as historians, a historian of the 19th century might now find their view of Homer and his audience all too close to the attitudes or aberrations of that time. The early Greeks, who did not have the benefits of scientific enlightenment and technical progress, had to be primitive; and so their poets could not be credited with any kind of artistry which challenged the understanding.

It took a long time for a concerted reaction to set in. If it did in the English-speaking world, this was primarily due to Milman Parry. His work on Serbo-Croat epics and on Homer’s vocabulary showed that very long poems could be composed without the aid of writing and identified some of the techniques which made it possible. The result was that many scholars thought it was enough to murmur the magic words ‘oral epic’, and the problems vanished. However, Parry had not even considered any of the multitude of questions raised by the analysts; and he had not encouraged scholars to look carefully at anything in Homer other than the fact that he used recurrent epithets, lines and scenes. Furthermore, it was doubtful if the Yugoslav epics could tell us very much about poems so far superior to themselves.

A more searching book appeared in 1938, three years after Parry’s untimely death. Wolfgang Schadewaldt’s Iliasstudien showed no interest in oral poetry: but he had taken a hint from Aristotle who observed in the Poetics that Homer’s work had an artistic shape, with deliberate limits and sections, as his successors’ (lost to us) did not. With a mass of detailed arguments Schadewaldt rebutted many of the analysts’ chief points and shed a flood of light on Homer’s art. At last the poet had a weighty spokesman to help him answer back; and though Schadewaldt’s work has never been adequately appreciated outside Germany and Austria, in the last forty years a body of writing has grown up there which, in Mr Griffin’s phrase, makes ‘intellectually respectable the instinctive response of the audience’.

Mr Griffin brings English scholarship up to date by bringing it firmly back to Homer. He generously acknowledges his debt to German work and to ancient Homeric studies, but his books sound a quite fresh and personal note. They have indeed something of the gravity and urgency of the finest of all essays on Homer, Simone Weil’s ‘L’Iliade, ou le Poème de la Force’. His concern is above all with ‘the thought which underlies the poems’. Here and there he makes a counter-thrust at the cavils of the analysts a good example is his treatment, in Homer on Life and Death, of Agamemnon’s words to Menelaus in Iliad 4; and he looks in detail at aspects of the poet’s verbal art – above all, descriptions of the deaths in the lliad. But it is refreshing that these, like other features of Homer, are seen, not so much as mere variations on a traditional theme, but rather as an important part of his view of human life. Mr Griffin puts the essence of this in the third chapter of Life and Death, which is expressively entitled ‘Death and the God-like Hero’. The heroes of the Iliad are god-like, they are favoured by the gods and they resemble them in their beauty and majesty and strength: but whereas the gods live for ever and at ease, men cannot but suffer and die, and it is the gods’ will that they do so. It is for that very reason that they seek glory in battle, as the speeches of Glaucus in Iliad 6 or Sarpedon in Iliad 12 make clear. And if poetry gives ‘deathless fame’, it does so by showing up not only its heroes’ greatness but their helplessness and mortality. Thus, as the opening lines of the Iliad itself imply, the poem is an extended tragedy: it interprets human life by evoking pity and horror no less than wonder; nor does it shrink from displaying the fears and passions and self-deceptions which their life naturally causes men to conceive and to act on. Mr Griffin expounds this poetic vision with great force and clarity. He is also familiar with a wide range of epic poetry and historical narrative from cultures which were neighbours of the ancient Greeks or shared a common origin with them; and this allows him to make what seem, to one far less familiar with the material, illuminating comparisons and contrasts which point up sharply the uniqueness of Homer. His use of the Old Testament is particularly valuable, since that is a book which is still taken seriously, as Homer so often has not been; and his concluding remarks on the Iliad in Homer show very succinctly how some of our most important ideals – the acceptance of suffering and the impartiality of history – are fully present and active in the poem.

It is not the concern of these books to examine the architecture of the Iliad; and that is a legitimate restriction. But Mr Griffin’s account of the gods in the poem is inadequate because it fails to consider Book 24 in connection with what goes before. In his last chapter Mr Griffin gives a brilliant exposition of the gods’ role as onlookers in the Iliad: Zeus and his family observe what men do, not ‘with a view to the defence of their own and the punishment of wrongdoers’ (a conception plainly familiar both to the Greeks and to other early societies), but as an audience ‘by turns serenely contemplative and passionately emotional’. This is true of the bulk of the poem: but in Book 24 the gods are indeed the defenders of justice and civilisation. Mr Griffin touches on the speech of Hera from the debate in that book in which she insists that Hector, a mere common mortal, must not be given honours equal to those given to Achilles, who is the son of a goddess. But it is not Hera’s view which wins: the gods agree to let Hector be buried, and the speech of Apollo expresses their disapproval of Achilles when he degrades Hector’s corpse. This is striking, because elsewhere in the poem, when the gods come to an agreement, it is to men’s disadvantage. Here they are united, if only precariously and temporarily, as the vindicators of humanity. Thus the debate on Olympus in Iliad 24 represents, in the dramatic manner of Homer, what are more abstractly called in Attic tragedy ‘the laws of the gods’ in action. It remains true that the gods have let Hector, their faithful worshipper, die and will let the god-fearing city of Troy fall a prey to Athena’s and Hera’s resentment against the one man who insulted them, Paris. (The story of the Judgment of Paris is not, as Mr Griffin says, suppressed in the poem: it is mentioned once, and then with tragic force.) If this is an inconsistency, it is one which reflects the life that the gods determine: fellow-feeling and restraint can prevail among men, but so, too, perhaps more often, can ferocity and indifference.

Another matter which needed ampler and more thorough treatment is characterisation, the subject of the second chapter in Life and Death. This contains many fine observations, as one would expect: but where Achilles’s speeches are concerned, for example, a few sketchy remarks on some of their stylistic features are not enough. The whole poem represents Achilles’s passage through fury, bitterness and anguish to the dearly-bought understanding of Book 24; and each of the phases in the story finds its rhetorical arguments and expression, as he responds to the events he has brought about. In particular, it would be rewarding to consider when and how Achilles appeals to his self-esteem, and when and how he is moved by the fate of others. But it is understandable that in a work of this compass Mr Griffin could not do more than he has done, which is a good deal.

The treatment of characters in the Odyssey, however, is more seriously flawed. It is not very enlightening to be told of Penelope that she is ‘mysterious’, of Arete that she is ‘enigmatic’, of Helen that ‘we cannot read her mind,’ and of the poem in general that it shows an ‘interest in the inscrutable hearts of women’ or that its ‘characters are remarkable for their opaqueness’. For example, the episode in Book 18 which, as Mr Griffin says, ‘has perplexed many readers’ is subtle but not deliberately obscure. Athena puts into Penelope’s mind the notion of appearing to the suitors so as to fill them with desire and induce them to give her gifts; that in its turn makes Odysseus admire her for what he sees as her ingenuity. In Book 13 Athena had noted with amused appreciation that he wished to test his wife’s fidelity; and though she tells him the truth there and then, she still helps him put his plan into effect by disguising him. This is proper, partly because the goddess, now that Poseidon’s wrath is over, openly gives her favourite all the help and information he needs, partly because if she still leaves him, in the manner of Greek gods, to pursue his aims for himself, that allows Odysseus’s endurance and wit to be displayed in the second part of the poem as they were in the first. In Book 18 the plan succeeds; and the phrase Athena used of Penelope in Book 13 (‘in her heart she cherishes other aims’) recurs in Book 18 as part of Odysseus’s reflections on the episode. Indeed, Penelope appears not only as faithful, but as no less wily than her husband, who had himself attracted gifts from the Phaeacians in Book 11: At the same time the scene is ironic and pathetic because Penelope does not understand what she is doing, and the words which lure the suitors into making her presents are, from her point of view, a plaintive protest against their behaviour and a gloomy forecast that sooner or later she will have to marry one of them. In Book 23 the tables are turned. This time Odysseus is ready to recognise his wife, but it is she who tests him. As she herself later explains, since she has waited and been disappointed for twenty years, her mood is reserved and mistrustful; and the simile which, echoing Books Five and Six, compares her joy when she finally embraces Odysseus to the joy that shipwrecked men feel on sighting land, reminds us how the husband’s and the wife’s sufferings have run parallel.

In general, Mr Griffin’s treatment of the Odyssey is less firm and penetrating than his treatment of the Iliad. To claim that in the second half of the poem ‘bulk is being sought for its own sake’ is hardly a just criticism. It may be that in previous versions of the story Odysseus revealed himself to his wife earlier on: but if he does not in the Odyssey, that is part of the poem’s design. The toils and the wiles of the hero must go on beyond his return home. (Neither did Dante or Tennyson, for whom Odysseus was above all the restless inquirer, let him stay put at home after his return and triumph.) This is the burden of Tiresias’s prophecy in Book 11, which Odysseus recalls after he and his wife have come together: he has ‘vast labour, long and vexing’ to endure even then. So if he moves about his own house as a butt for the suitors’ and servants’ mockery or cruelty, that is appropriate. Likewise, it is appropriate that he should have things thrown at him no less than three times: the motif is repeated because significant. The episodes in which this happens are, moreover, carefully graded. The first time Odysseus is hit; the second, he is missed, and Telemachus cows the suitors with a sharp rebuke; the third time there is again a miss, again Telemachus rebukes them – and then Theoclymenus clairvoyantly sees and foretells their doom.

Mr Griffin uses the Odyssey effectively as a foil for the Iliad and brings out many of its peculiar features. But whereas he sharply defines the essence of the Iliad’s view of life, he does less well by the Odyssey. If the Iliad is ‘the poem of death’ (Homer, page 74), the Odyssey might be called the poem of social existence, or, to use the more eloquent Latin word, of humanitas. The hero suffers and schemes to regain his home, his property, his kingdom, his wife and son; and for these human goals he renounces the immortality that Calypso would have given him and endures all the trials of his long voyage. His enemies are those who deny or defy order and civilisation: the Cyclops pointedly reverses the rites of hospitality – he does not feed his guests, but eats them, and his idea of a guest gift to Odysseus is to eat him last; the suitors likewise maltreat the stranger, and disregard kingship and property. Conversely, the Phaeacians or Nestor or Menelaus are welcoming, helpful and tactful hosts who feel pity for Odysseus and his family. If in the Odyssey the gods are more obviously and constantly the guarantors of human morality, that corresponds to the character of the whole poem. But here, too, the gods can be harsh: natural or pardonable folly in men, like Odysseus’s taunting of the Cyclops or his companions’ eating the Oxen of the Sun, brings swift and terrible retribution. The gods are in their way just, but their justice can often evoke human pity and horror, as the Attic tragedians, following Homer, saw. Despite many differences of tone and emphasis, the Iliad and the Odyssey represent the same view of life; and their essential agreement is the clearer if we reflect that Iliad 24, where at the gods’ behest a supplication is accepted and civilised restraint and human sympathy for a while prevail, is the proper conclusion of the poem.

A hundred and twenty years ago Matthew Arnold engaged in a controversy with F.W. Newman over the translation of Homer, and his lectures on the subject have been justly admired ever since. Yet English Classicists’ work on Homer has been far closer to Newman, because, I suppose, it is easier if great art can be labelled ‘quaint’ and ‘antique’, or if it fits neatly into some historical or anthropological pigeon-hole. It is a pleasure to greet writing which has digested the fruits of historical and anthropological learning, but breathes the critical spirit of Arnold and responds to the poetry of Homer.

It is fitting that Mr Shewring’s Odyssey should appear at the same time as Mr Griffin’s books, for two reasons. First, because it is a blemish in them that he quotes from the translations of Lang, Leaf and Myers, and of Butcher and Lang, which are a byword for preciosity, whereas Mr Shewring’s is faithful and dignified. Second, because Mr Griffin offers us a Homer who is a classic, and Mr Shewring’s translation is fit for a classic: the English is nourished by a familiarity with many centuries of the language (and of translations of Homer) and it avoids any jarringly contemporary notes; at the same time, it is vigorous, flowing and moving. In an epilogue Mr Shewring lucidly describes his problems and places his own work.