The Swineherd and the Bow: Representations of Class in the Odyssey

Synopsis

The Odyssey, William G. Thalmann asserts, does not describe an actual historical society at any period, but gives a selective, idiosyncratic, and contradictory picture to serve ideological ends, representing rather than reproducing social reality. The Swineherd and the Bow is an ambitious attempt to apply literary and social science theory in order to reveal Homeric epic as a form of class discourse within the context of early Greek social and political development.

Drawing upon recent scholarship in archaeology and cultural anthropology, Thalmann considers the evolution of Greek culture up to the formation of the polis in the late eighth century B.C. He demonstrates that Greek society was already stratified well before that date and that the distinction between an elite and other classes was well developed.

Thalmann concentrates on the representation of slaves and on the dynamics of competition and family structure in the contest of the bow to interpret the Odyssey -- and, implicitly, epic poetry generally -- as an intervention in the conflicts that surrounded the birth of the polis. In the interests of the aristocracy, the poem appropriates a traditional cultural paradigm, enshrined in the story of the Hero's return. The distortions of dark age reality, he maintains, should form the basis of an historicizing reading of the poem.

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