Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

34 Warfare and Gender According to Homer:
An Archaeology of an Aristocratic Warrior Culture

HELLE VANDKILDE

The constitution of Homeric society is the main focus of this article, which in particular highlights aspect of gender, warfare, and materiality. The underlying expectation is that such a study may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the social world of the illiterate Bronze Age north of the Alps. A social study of Homer1 can, it may be argued, form the basis of a contextually based comparison with Bronze Age societies in temperate Europe, using the principle of relational analogy (Wylie 1985; Ravn 1993). However, such a comparative enterprise is not the immediate objective of the present study, which merely aims at calling attention to the existence of such a potential. The issue of ideology, which is important in Homer’s epics as well as in current archaeology, will receive a few theoretical comments at the end of the article.

The Research Council project ‘War and Society. Archaeological and Social-Anthropological Perspectives’ has put me on the track of past war heroes, martial ideologies and, not least, military societies or warrior bands. Evidently the warrior role has a strong influence on our understanding of European prehistory (Vandkilde and Bertelsen 2000; Vandkilde 2003). When we speak of war and warriors we are not only speaking of social organisation, ideology, prestige and power, but also to a great degree of gender.

More or less exclusive men’s clubs, encompassed by the German term Männerbünde, exist in many societies, often with a strong martial strain (Mallory 1989: 110f; Ehrenreich 1997: 117ff; Vandkilde chapter 26). To be a warrior is therefore a demonstration of a specific male identity, which, of course, cannot be assessed without including other gender identities: all in all, the specific social context cannot be ignored.

It is central to the discussion undertaken that the warrior identity can only be understood in its social context against the background of other social identities and confronted with the current warrior ideal. The Dutch scholar Hans van Wees (1992; 1997) has thoroughly studied the Iliad and the Odyssey in a social perspective, primarily the relationship between status rivalry, war and social hierarchy. Van Wees has indeed been a source of inspiration, particularly in the sense that the epics are considered a meaningful entity. I have, however, extended van Wees’ main theme and added new themes and approaches especially as regards material culture, gender identities, and the warrior retinue. In particular, material culture cannot be ignored, forming as it does the foremost source material in archaeology in addition to being a powerful silent discourse in any society, past or present. Inspiration has also come from studies

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