Ancient Greece: From the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer

By Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy; Irene S. Lemos | Go to book overview

23

SOME REMARKS ON THE SEMANTICS
OF IN HOMER

Martin Schmidt

As is well known, the Homeric epics set the stories they tell in a far-offpast, in the Age of Heroes, while passing over the question of how long ago this was. We, today, assume that these poems of the eighth or seventh century BC refer to the Mycenaean Age of the second millennium BC, but we do not know what distance in time the poets imagined between their own day and that of the heroes.1 The poets established the temporal distance inter alia with the help of their language. This is, as we know, a mixed language. Words and terms of the time of the poets are mixed with words and terms of the past handed down in the language of epic poetry but no longer used in everyday life. Some of these old-fashioned, archaic poetic words are explained to the listener; some, it seems, were no longer exactly understood even by the poets themselves.

This mixture of languages offered many stylistic possibilities; the poets could pull out many stops. On the one hand the old words were necessary for archaising: they provided the patina of the prehistoric past with which the stories had to be invested. A certain vagueness in describing political and social relations, even more so legal facts, had to be and was accepted, even welcomed. On the other hand these old words, because they were either not at all in everyday use or only in a limited way, could acquire a warm emotional timbre and were therefore especially useful in gaining the sympathy or antipathy of the audience for the poet's characters and in describing the feelings and emotions of these characters themselves.

Clearly they [= the poetic words] address rather the feeling and phantasy
than the mind; only thus was it possible that their strangeness did not arouse
rejection or aversion. They were there to strengthen the impression of the
unusual, that the nature of the content was already calculated to arouse. The
more semantically rational and abstract a term, the more normal the form

1 The ten generations during which the newly acquired treasures of Odysseus will suffice to
support their owner (Od. 14.325–19.294) may be an indication of the length of the period, imag-
ined by the poets, between the age of the heroes and their own

-439-

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