Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil: With a Chapter on the Gilgamesh Poems

By Charles Rowan Beye | Go to book overview

2
The Poet's World

Then upon this much nourishing earth still another
generation, the fourth,
did Zeus make, more just and nobler,
a race of heroes, godlike, who are called
demigods, the previous to our own upon this
boundless earth.

—Hesiod Works and Days 157–60

Like any other artifact the Homeric poems belong somewhere in time and space. The earliest pieces of written text of the poems that survive, however, are dated to the third century B.C.E., hundreds of years after the poems seem to have taken shape. References to them, allusion to them in lyric poems and vase paintings go back to the archaic age. Beyond that, scholars employ educated guesswork to try to establish some kind of historical context for the poems. Because of the presumed length of time of their gestation or evolution, the poems seem to describe a world of their own making more than a context identifiable from other sources. It is not unlike the blurred countryside that appears to the passenger peering from the window of the highspeed railway train from Paris to Lyons.

Linguists hypothesize a common original language from which sprang most of the languages spoken in the area from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Called Indo-European, it is the mother of Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Greek, Slavic, Hittite, Sanskrit, Persian, and many others, from which evolved in further permutations English, Latin, French: that is to say, most of the contemporary languages spoken in this same area, except for the Semitic languages of the Near East. The process whereby languages proliferated has to do not only with

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