Homer's Eutopolis: Epic Journeys and the Search for an Ideal Society *

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IN THE COURSE OF THE SO-CALLED HEROIC AGE, the Greeks mustered a fleet of one thousand ships and sailed to Troy in order to retrieve the radiant Helen, wife of the Spartan king, as well as to avenge the Trojan prince's breach of the sacrosanct relationship between guest and host. (1) Thus it was, as Homer recounts, that hostilities between the Greeks and the Trojans began. The story of the Trojan War and its greatest heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, is, of course, extremely well known, while concrete facts regarding the story's origin still remain largely shrouded in mystery. The usual questions posed by scholars about the Trojan War and the Iliad and Odyssey, our primary sources of information about that event and its participants, are as follows: 1. Was there an historical Trojan War? 2. Was there, in actual fact, a bard called Homer, and did he compose the Iliad and Odyssey? 3. Do the Iliad and Odyssey in any way accurately reflect Greek society at any historical period, or is the social background against which the epic heroes act out the drama of their lives entirely a fictional construct? To these compelling questions, I would like to add another. Could the Iliad and Odyssey both be counted among those literary works that are fundamentally utopian in outlook? On the grounds that they strongly manifest the dream of a society for a better life, I will argue that they should. (2) The Iliad and Odyssey both "pursue the prospect of recasting a [previously existing] political and social order" (Schaer 4), and as such they should be viewed as "pre-texts" or "hypo-texts" of the utopian genre in literature. (3) Specifically, these epic tales "frame a value system that sustains and ... educates a society" by presenting societal evolution from village to polis as an ideal (Nagy, Greek Mythology, 37). Through the words of the epic muse, both the Iliad and Odyssey, each in its unique way, illustrate the post-Mycenean Greek faith in the nascent polis as the primary facilitator and guarantor of human advancement, spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and technological alike. Indeed, more than three centuries after the time of Homer, when the polis was well established as the characteristic social and political organization of the Greeks, it would remain the opinion of Aristotle that the person who forms no part of the polis must be either a beast or a god, a creature well below or well above the level of humanity (Politics 1. 1253a 3-5).

In looking at the Homeric poems from a utopian vantage point, I am making a series of assumptions that will necessarily influence my argument significantly. First, it is my opinion that there was a Trojan War--or wars--dating to the thirteenth century BCE and that there is accordingly a historical core to the poems. (4) Further, I believe that the Trojan saga was handed down orally from generation to generation, being creatively "re-fashioned" with every re-telling, and that Homer represents the culmination of the oral transmission. (5) In my view, Homer would have been a poet trained in the oral tradition who, either himself or via a scribe, recorded the poems in writing. For the Iliad, the date of composition generally agreed upon is 750 BCE, while the Odyssey, it is thought, was composed somewhat later.

The dating of the poems is a critical point because the eighth century was a time of tremendous change and evolution in the Greek world, both socially and politically. Greece had only just emerged from the so-called Dark Age, roughly 1150-800 BCE, a period in which the art of writing had been lost, in which monumental architecture (or anything that could be considered "art") was no longer produced, and in which, generally speaking, people in the Greek world seem to have been reduced to a more or less nomadic, subsistence sort of existence. The end of the Dark Age brought with it a budding social consciousness and a desire to define "what it meant to be Greek" (Hurwit 83). The eighth century saw the re-introduction of the alphabet, now borrowed from the Phoenicians, the organization of pan-Hellenic institutions such as the Olympic Games and the Delphic oracle, active colonization, and, most critically for my purposes, the emergence of the polis (city-state) as a distinct form of social organization. …