Notebook, 1993-


[From: Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. Vol. One. New York: Random House, Vintage Books. 1951.]

The Heroic and
Homeric Ages

The Homeric epics are the oldest poems in Greek that survive, but certainly not the oldest there were. It is not merely that their structure is too complicated and that we can point to contradictions in their contents; the legend of Homer himself contains many features incompatible with the portrait of the poet which we should construct from the sophisticated, sceptical and even frivolous spirit of the poems. The traditional picture of the blind old singer of Chios is largely made up of memories that go back to the time when a poet was a vates--a priestly and God-inspired seer. His blindness is merely the outward sign of the inward light that fills his being and enables him to see things other cannot see. This bodily infirmity expresses--as does the lameness of the divine smith Hephaestus--a second idea that was current in primitive times: that a maker of poems, ornaments and other products of handicraft can only come from the ranks of those who are unfit for a war and foray. But, apart from this feature, the legendary "Homer" is an almost perfect example of the mythical poet who was still half-divine, a wonder-worker and a prophet. We find the clearest embodiment of this idea in Orpheus, the primeval singer who had his harp from Apollo and instruction in the art of song from the Muse herself; with his music he could move not merely men and beasts but even rocks and could reclaim Eurydice from the bonds of death. "Homer" no longer boasts such magical power, but still retains the features of an inspired seer and remains conscious of a [p. 56] mysterious and sacred intimacy with the muse whom he so confidently invokes.

We can be sure that the poetry of the earliest Greeks, like that of all other peoples at a primitive stage, consisted of magic formulae, oracular sayings, prayers and charme, songs of war and work. All these types have something in common; they may be termed the ritual poetry of the masses. It never occurrred to the makers of charms and oracular verses, the composers of dirges and war-chants, to create anything individual; their poetry was essentially anonymous and intended for the whole community; it expressed ideas and feelings that were common to all. In the visual arts we find on the level corresponding to this impersonal ritual poetry the fetishes, stones and tree-trunks, which the Greeks revered in their temples from the earliest times and which can barely be called sculptures, so slight are the vestiges of human shape. These, too, like the oldest charms and hymns, are primitive community art, the rude and clumsy artistic expression of a society that knows scarcely any differentiation of classes. We know nothing about the social position of their makers, the part they played in the life of the group or the repute they enjoyed with their contemporaries; but the probabilityis that they were less highly esteemed than the artist-magicians of the Palaeolithic or the priestly singers of the Neolithic age. It may be remarked that the sculptors also had their mythical ancestors. Daedalus, we are told, could bring wood to life and make stones walk; that he made wings for himself and his son to fly over the sea appears to the narrator of the legend no more miraculous than his power of carving figures and designing labyrinths. He is by no means the only artist-magician, but it may be that he was the last important one, since the conception of Icarus' wings and his falling in the sea seems to symbolize the end of the age of magic.

With the beginning of the heroic age, the social function of poety and the social position of the poet changed completely. The secular and individualistic outlook of the warlike upper class gives poetry a new content and assigns new tasks to the poet. He now abandons his anonymity and his priestly aloofness, and poetry loses it ritual and collective character. The kings and nobles of the [p. 57] Achaean principalities of the 12th c. B.C., the "heroes" who gave its name to this age, are robbers and pirates--they are proud to call themselves "plunderers of cities" - and their songs are worldly and profane, the tale of Troy, the crown of this fame, is nothing more than the poetical glorificaton of freebooting and piracy. Their lawless and irreverent spirit is the outcome of the continuous state of war in which they found themselves, of the train of victories which they achieved and the abrupt changes of cultural level which they experienced. Victors over a more civilized folk than themselves and exploiters of a far more advanced culture than their own, they became emanicipated from the ties of their ancestral religion while despising the religious precepts and prohibitions of the conquered people just because they are conquered. [1] Thus the life of these restless warriors becomes one of unruly individulaism which sets itself above all tradition and all law. Everything from them is a prize to be fought for, an object for personal adventures, since in their world everything depends on personal strength, courage, skill, and cunning.

From a sociological point of view, the age is characterized by the decisive turn which is now taken away from the primeval clan organization and towards the social system of a feudal monarchy relying on the personal loyalty of vassals to their lord. This system, so far from depending upon, actually ran counter to kinship relations and in principle overrides the duties of the kin to one another. The social ethics of feudalism reject the solidarity of blood and race; the moral ties become individual and rational.

In consequence, the poetry of the heroic age is no longer folk poetry for the masses; we do not find songs or hymns for groups, but individual songs about the fate of individuals. Poetry no longer has the task of rousing men to battle but rather of entertaining the heros after the battle is over; it has to sing their praises, to name them by name, to spread and perpetuate their glory. In fact, the heroic lay owes its origin to the warlike nobles' thirst for glory; to satisfy this is its principal task--any other merits are of secondary importance in the eyes of the audience. To a certain extent it must be recognized that all ancient art is a response to a desire for fame and to the wish to be renowned in the eyes of contemporaries and posterity. [2] The story of Herostratus, who set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus to make his name immortal, gives an idea of the undiminished power, even in later times, of this passion, which, however, was never so creative as in the heroic age. The poets of the heroic songs are bestowers of praise and fame; this is the basis of their existence and the source of their inspiration. The subjects of their poetry are no longer hopes and wishes, magical ceremonies or animistic rites, but tales of successful encounters and bloody war. With the disappearance of its ritual function, poetry loses its lyrical character and becomes epic; in this mood it gives birth to the oldest European poetry we know of which is secular and independent of religion. In fact, these poems originate in a [p. 59] kind of war report, a chronicle of how the war is going. At first they probably confined themselves to the "latest news" of the successful warlike enterprises and the profitable forays of the tribe. "The newest song gets the loudest applause," says Homer [Od. I, 351, 2] and makes his Demodokos and Phemios sing of the latest events of the day. But his singers are no longer mere chronciclers, for the war report has meantime beocome a mixture of history and saga and taken on the style of the ballad, mingling dramatic and lyric elements with the epic. No doubt this was already the case with the heroic lays, the bricks of which the epics are built, though in their case the epic element was the characteristic one.

The heroic lay not merely recounts the deeds of an individual person, it is also recieted by an individual person, not by a community or chorus. [3] Originally it was probably composed and recited by the warriors and heroes themselves; that is to say, both audience and author belonged to the master caste and were noble, sometimes even princely amateurs. The scene portrayed in Beowulf, in which the Danish king calls on one of his thanes to sing a song about the fight they have just been through, no doubt holds generally good of conditions in the Greek heroic age. [4] But the role of the noble amateur is soon taken over by a professional--the court poet and singer or bard--who through long practice can give a more artistic and so more effective rendering of the heroic lay . Like Demodokos at the court of the Phaeacian king and Phemios in the palace of Odysseus, they sing their lays at the common tables of the kings and their chieftains. They are professional singers, but at the same time vassals and retainers of the king, and, though employed for reward, they hold an honourable position. They belong to the court society and are treated as equals by the heroes. They live the secular life of the court, and, though they still sometimes claim that the God put these songs into their soul [Od. XXII, 347, 8] and cherish memories of the divine orign of their art, they are as well versed in the rough trade of war as their hearers are; in fact, they have [p. 60] more in common with them than with thier own spiritual ancestors, the seers and magicians of an earlier age.

The picture of the social position of the poet which we get from the Homeric poets is not consistent. One singer belongs to the retinue of the prince while the other is something between a court singer and a folk singer. [5] It would seem that there is a confusion between the conditions of an earlier age and of the "Homeric Age" itself, when the poems were compiled and edited. At any rate, we may suppose that even in the early days there were, besides the bards of the aristocratic court society, wandering singers as well who entertained folk in the market places and round the fires in the [Greek text] with songs of a less heroic and dignified character.[6] We can form no notion of these, unless we assume that anecdotes such as the adultery of Aphrodite originated in this way. [7]

In the plastic arts the Achaeans continue the Cretan and Mycenaean tradition, and the social position of the artist cannot have been very different from that of the artist-craftsman in Crete. At any rate, it is inconceivable that a sculptor or painter could ever have sprung from the nobility or belonged to court society. In fact the essays of princes and nobles in poetry and the familiarity of the professional poets with the practice of war were bound to increase the social distance between the artist who worked with his hands and the poet who worked with his brains. This new circumstance is the chief cause of the higher social standing of the poet in the heroic age, compared with that of the scribe in the ancient East .

The Dorian invasion brings the end of the age in which warlike enterprises and adventures are immediately translated into song and saga. The Dorians were a rude and sober-minded peasant folk who made no songs about their victories, and the "heroic" people they drove out are no longer so keen on adventure after they have settled on the coast of Asia Minor. Their military monarchies become peaceful agricultural and commercial aristocracies in which the former kings are merely great landlords, [p. 61]

[Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. Vol. One. New York: Random House, Vintage Books. 1951.]



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