Université Stendhal MSH-alpes : Maison des Sciences de l'Homme CNRS

Dendrochronology in Odyssey 6 : Time past, Present and Future in Homer

Odysseus is the world expert at "saying one thing while hiding another in his heart" (Achilles' phrase at Iliad 9.313). He can talk his way round any person or out of any corner. So here he is in Odyssey 6, washed up on a strange shore, bedraggled and crusted with dried brine, with not a possession in the world except the leafy branch which he is holding in front of his bedraggled genitals. And how does does he treat the beautiful girl standing before him ? He chats her up

"Are you human or divine? if a Goddess, I shall compare thee to Artemis. " [subtext: " you are presumably a virgin. donít worry, Iíll be respectful "] " If human, how proud your family must be when they see a sapling like you on the dance floor - and happiest of all will be your future husband. " [subtext: " I know all about the life-style and marriage-hopes of walthy families. "] Now lines 160-67 in full translation (by Walter Shewring):

"I have seen no mortal creature like you, no man, no woman; astonishment holds me as I gaze. And yet - I have had one vision not unlike, at Delos, besides Appolloís altar - a tender palm-shoot rising in the air. (Delos too was a place I came to, with many warriors escorting me, on that same journey where grief on grief was to overtake me.) That vision was also one that I wondered at for long, because no living shaft like that had ever before sprung up from ground. So now, my lady, I am all wonder and astonishment ..."

The very small, very rocky island of Delos, in the Cyclades near Mykonos, was a major cult centre for Apollo and for Artemis. The Ionians - the Greeks from the central Asia Minor coast, which is generally believed to be Homer's home-ground - used to gather there for a big festival. The early poem known as the "Homeric Hymn to Apollo" tells of displays of boxing and dancing and poetry on these occasions. The little island had its famous tourist spots such as "Mount" Kythnos (112 metres !), the "wheel-shaped" lake with its geese and swans, the temple of Apollo, and the sacred date-palm tree which, it was said, Leto held on to when she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. So, surely, Homer's audiences must have thought of that sacred palm when they heard Odysseus? But, object the scholarly commentators (especially the very recent two, Bryan Hainsworth and Alex Garvie), it can't be that tree, because Odysseus says it was a young sapling (neon ernos), so "something less venerable" (Garvie). But maybe the palm tree on Delos was eternally young, like the sacred olive on the Acropolis at Athens? Or if not, and Homer's audiences knew that it was in fact hoary and venerable, they would still not expect Odysseus to say so - it would hardly be a flattering association for Nausikaa. So - with a touch of nice humour - Odysseus would be saying one thing and hiding another in his heart.

Or there might be yet another explanation, one that has to do with the time-scales of poetry. Modern scientific archaeologists use techniques of dendrochronology to gauge the date of a piece of wood: audiences of epic have to use powers of imagination. For Homer's original audiences (in around 700 to 650 B.C.) how long ago was Odysseus? And how long before him was the birth of Apollo? The myths tend to keep such matters pretty vague. But could not the Odyssey suggest as a kind of joke that back in Odysseus' time, all that long ago, the sacred date on Delos was still young?

Future Generations Present

From the perspective of the audience, all of Homer's stories are, of course, set in the distant past. But there is surprisingly little-or, rather, interestingly little-indication of how far in the past. There are scattered references in both poems to people and events that will be known about or celebrated "among future generations". Near the end of the Odyssey, for example, the ghost of Agamemnon in Hades, when he hears the story of the homecoming of Odysseus, praises Penelope: "And therefore the fame of her virtue will never die, and the gods will see to it that men on earth have a lovely song in honour of chaste Penelope." (24.196-98). (He goes on to contrast the "song" of Clytemnestra.) Homer's audiences, men- and women- down to the present day, are those very hearers of Penelope's lovely song. The time-gap between Penelope and her future admirers is left entirely indefinite.

Similarly, there are some landmarks or monuments, which, it is predicted, will be seen by men of future generations. Thus, the ghost of Agamemnon (again) recalls how the Achaean army at Troy raised a great burial mound for Achilles and Patroclus "on a jutting headland above the broad Hellespont, to be descried from far out to sea by men now living and men who shall live after us" (Od. 24.82-4). Again these future people are, actually or potentially, Homer's own audiences-anyone who might sail along the coast near Troy. There is an excitement for the listeners to think that they may see the physical traces of the great heroes of the past.

It is, perhaps, less flattering to be reminded what weaklings we audiences are compared with them, as in the four places in the Iliad where a warrior easily picks up a great stone which "two men nowadays could not be able to lift", or words to that effect. An example comes when Hector picks up in one hand a boulder to smash through the gates of the Achaean camp: "Even two men, the best in the township, could not easily lever that stone on a wagon from the ground, of the folk that live now ...." (Iliad 12.447-49, Martin Hammond's translation).

There is only one place I can find, where a "now" in the world of the poem might also be taken to refer to the present of the audience. In the great scene in Achilles' tent in the last book of the Iliad Achilles tells king Priam how Niobe, even though all her children had been killed, eventually took food and showed the will to go on living. Eventually, however, the gods turned her into stone: "And now she is somewhere along the rocks, in the lonely mountains, in Sipylos, ... there, thout she is stone, she still broods on the pain the gods gave her" (Iliad 24.614-17). Mount Sipylos is some 30 miles inland from Smyrna, on the coast of Ionia; and several classical Greek sources tell of a rock formation in the foothills which looks in silhouette just like a mourning woman. Some modern guidebooks to Turkey still include the curious landmark. So it may be that Achiles' "now" to Priam can be a "now" for future audiences as well, especially those from the area of Smyrna (often claimed as Homerís birthplace). But if so, it is very unusual - so much so that scholars do not seem to have noticed it.

Long-distance Shot Through Time

Many poems throughout the world which sing the praises of warriors of the past are performed for the benefit of the descendants of those great men. Often there are specific genealogies worked in, so that members of the audience can think "he was my great-great-great grandfather" (or whatever). Yet in the whole of Homer there is only one clear reference to the future descendants of a particular character. In book 20 of the Iliad, the gods decide that they must rescue Aeneas from the hands of Achilles because, unlike Priam and his sons, his line is destined to survive. Poseidon explains: "Mighty Aeneas will be king over the Trojans, and his children's children born in future times" (20.307-8). So the story already existed that Aeneas will escape the sack of Troy - though not yet that his family will move to Italy. But even this prediction of future rulers is the exception that proves the rule: there is no actual genealogy ("Aeneas begat B, and B begat C..." etc.), and no reference to "nowadays". If the Iliad was in fact performed for princes at Troy who claimed to be descendants of Aeneas, it does not spell it out.

Once, and once only, the narrator moves back and scans the whole Trojan war from the perspective of the future. Here a kind of receding long-distance shot eventually gets back to the camera which is located in the time of the narrator himself and his public. This unique passage is about the great ditch and wall around the Achaeans' camp on the shore. They construct this with hurried hard labour at the end of Iliad 7; and it is much fought over in the middle parts of the poem, especially in book 12. Unlike the walls of Troy, which were built with the personal help of Poseidon and Apollo, the Achaean wall was given no divine backing. Homer makes a point of spelling out what will happen to it :

"Therefore it did not stand long. For as long as Hektor was alive, and Achilleus kept up his anger" [for the length of the Iliad, that is] "and the city of Priam remained unsacked, the great wall of the Achaeans stood firm. But when all the leading men of the Trojans had been killed, and many of the Achaeans brought down - while others survived - and the city of Priam was sacked in the tenth year, and the Argives had left in their ships for their dear native land, then Poseidon and Apollo planned the destruction of the wall.. " (Iliad 12.9-18)

He goes on to tell how the two gods combined all the rivers in the region to sweep the wall away into the sea, and leave not a trace behind.

So this is not an explanation of how the mighty labours of heroes left a monument behind, but how they did not leave any. And this fascinating "aside" has an almost archaeological dimension to it. For the waters washed away not only logs and stones, but churned up the ground: " where many ox-hide shields and helmets and a race of men half-divine had fallen in the dust" (12.22-3). In other words ancient bones and armour, the archaeological deposits of the past, are turned up, only to be swept away. This almost chronological perspective is also there in the phrase "a race of men half-divine", which comes nowhere else in Homer. Even though some of them have gods for parents, the people in Homer are all fully human and mortal, vulnerable and fallible.

The Latest Old Favourite

What these passages combine to show is that Homer could bring out the gap in time between the story and its audience, an could make this explicit. He could, but only rarely did. Why this should be so is an interesting question, to which there is no obvious or accepted answer. Perhaps, for example, he was careful to avoid connecting his narrative with any particular audience, because he wanted his poem to be for all the Greeks, without stirring up local rivalries. A full exploration of the possibilities would need another whole article in OMNIBUS. What I want to do finally in this one is to draw attention to another passage where there is an exploitation of the gap of time. This one is rather playful and self-conscious and that may be why serious-minded scholars have not spotted it. It is in the Odyssey, and the Odyssey is generally more overt than the Iliad about its interest in the status and place of poets and in the form and function of poetry.

This poetic self-consciousness is first established in the passage in Odyssey book 1 about the bard Phemios, and how he sings for Penelope's suitors on Ithaca (1.325-359). Phemios is singing the troubles that the various Achaean heroes had in getting home from Troy. (The word for "coming home" is nostos, as in the "ache to get home", nostalgia) Penelope is upset and complains to Phemios that the subject is particularly painful for her (because of Odysseus): he knows plenty of other songs, so why can't he sing one of those ? But her son Telemachos takes issue with her in a newly grown-up way. It is Zeus not the poets who send humans their troubles, he says, so: " why grudge this faithful bard the right to please us by any path that his fancy takes .... if Phemios sings of the sorrows of the Danaans, that is in no way blameworthy, for men will applaud most eagerly whatever song falls freshest on the listening ear" (1.346-52). Now, for the listeners on Ithaca stories about the returns, the nostoi, from Troy are indeed the "freshest", the most novel (neotate) - so much so that one nostos, at least, is still unfinished. But for Homer's original audiences - let alone for us in the late twentieth century - they are far from novel subject-matter: the nostoi are about heroes from centuries ago, and they are a traditional subject for poetry, the subject for song already for many generations. What is new in the era in which the story is set is "ancient history" by the era of the audience. Homeric epic usually covers over this kind of gap, but here attention is drawn to it, and there is a kind of play, almost a joke, on how the new and the now can be also familiar and long past.

So maybe that is the best explanation of the sapling (neon ernos) in book 6 after all: the sacred palm was young back in those distant days. It would spoil the joke to ask too literally how old the palm tree was when Leto gave birth, or how many decades or centuries had passed between then and the era of Odysseus. As a fleeting play on the time-scales, the dendrochronological possibility is suggested and then quiclcly left behind. Perhaps back in Odysseusí day, we wonder for a moment, the venerable old tree was as fresh and graceful as an unmarried princess? Even if it were already aged and bedraggled, Odysseus is certainly not the one to say so.

Magdalen College, Oxford

Numéro 6 (1996)

Numéro 6 (1996)


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