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

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

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

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.

Excerpt

Gregory Nagy

The Swineherd and the Bow: Class Discourse in the "Odyssey" by William G. Thalmann explores the historical context of Homeric poetry by treating as evidence not only what the Odyssey says but also how it says it through its traditional mythology and poetics. the author traces the communicative power of myth, as variously encoded by archaic Greek poetry in its myriad local varieties but harnessed to political purposes, in order to reconstruct a Homeric world. This world of Homer, he argues, is a cultural construct -- not the real world that some classicists and historians assume it to be. Thalmann's book guards against the pitfalls of treating as reality the mythological and poetic representations of reality. At the same time it highlights these representations -- or even refractions-as historical realities in their own right.

Homer's world as conveyed by the Odyssey is not some passive playback of life in, say, the eighth century before our era. It is an active rethinking of the social processes that led to the formation of the polis or city-state around that time and thereafter. Opinions may differ about whether this kind of rethinking involved some single creative act or rather an ongoing re-creative process, one that paralleled the historical continuum of oral poetic traditions in which each performance entailed varying degrees of re-composition in the very act of performance. Either way, the re-thinking that went into re-presenting reality in the Odyssey is the fundamental empirical given for The Swineherd and the Bow.

The historical realities of performance traditions in archaic Greece have a direct bearing on a vital question about the reception of Homer in the ancient world: is this poetry of and for and even by the elites of society? Thalmann's conscientious search for an answer calls for a thoroughgoing reexamination of . . .

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