K ing Nestor
The Wine Red Sea: Journeys of Odysseus
© Copyright 2014 -2020 by Peter J Ponzio

Background Information

Moses I Finley on the Odyssey Finley, M.I., The World of Odysseus. London: The Folio Society, 2002. Print. Finley notes that myth-making can be observed in several modern "primitive" cultures, and that these same types of influences are at work in the Iliad and the Odyssey: "Where he is able to study 'myth which is still alive' and not 'mummified', not 'enshrined in the indestructible but lifeless repository of dead religions', the anthropologist discovers that myth 'is not of the nature of fiction . . . but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened'" (Finley 9). Quotation from B. Malinowski "Myth in Primitive Psychology," reprinted in his Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. According to Finley, there was no centralized, unified "Greece" as we know it today. Rather, the Greek peninsula was divided into hundreds of smaller kingdoms, some ruled by an aristocracy, some by a kingship, some by a tyrant, some by the people. He goes on to say that as a result of this political landscape, myths often mutated, so that there might be several extant "myths" about particular heroes or events. "Such a world could not have possibly produced a unified, consistent national mythology. In the early centuries, when myth-creation was an active process in its most vital and living stage, the myths necessarily underwent constant alteration" (Finley 10). Gradually, the Greeks began to arrange myths in such a way as to make them more coherent, and to achieve certain political ends. "Homer occupies the first stage in the history of Greek control over its myths; his poems are often pre-Greek, as it were, in their treatment of myth, but they also have flashes of something else, of a genius for ordering the world, for bringing man and nature, men and the gods, into harmony in a way that succeeding centuries were to expand and elevate to the glory of Hellenism" (Finley 11-12). Finley mentions that the Greeks inherited a notion of the four ages of man from the Persians. The ages were divided into the following categories, each of which resulted in a diminution of man's nature and powers: gold, silver, bronze, iron. The Greeks were not entirely content with this formula and inserted a fifth age, in between that of the bronze and iron, called the Age of Heroes. The Age of Heroes was characterized by men who were throw-backs to the golden age, and lasted approximately 4 generations. These heroes consisted of Heracles, Perseus, Jason, and the warriors in the Trojan War (Finley 13). Finley notes (as does Knox in the Introduction to the Odyssey) that the poems were originally sung and in some cases were ad-libbed from a collection of stock phrases which were designed to fit the meter of the poem. These stock phrases allowed the bards to compose portions of the story on the spot: The Greek stock included the many varied and hopelessly contradictory myths that had been created in connection with their religious beliefs and practices; all kinds of tales about mortal heroes, some fanciful and some reasonably accurate; and the formulas that could fit any incident: the coming of dawn and of the night, scenes of combat and burial and drinking and dreaming—descriptions of palaces and meadows, arms and treasure, metaphors of the sea or of pasturage, and so on beyond enumeration. Out of these building-blocks the poet constructs his work, and each work—each performance, in other words—is a new one, though in all elements may be old and well known. (Finley 16-17) Many people have attempted to locate scenes in the Odyssey, and have been unsuccessful. Finley quotes Eratosthenes regarding these attempts: "You will find the scene of Odysseus' wanderings when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds" (Finley 20). The Greeks believed that poets were inspired by gods or demi-gods to recite their poetry. Since Homer was the preeminent poet of the Greeks, it was thought that he also was inspired by the gods (inspire means to blow in). Homer's genealogy was traced back to Orpheus by the ancient Greeks in an attempt to link him to the demi-god, as noted by Finley: "As if to underscore the point [of divine inspiration of the poet], when the Greeks cam to give Homer a genealogy, as inevitably they would, they traced his ancestry back ten generations, precisely to Orpheus" (Finley 29). To the Greeks, the family unit was the primary means of protection; venturing outside the family unit was not done: "Hypothetically one might push beyond the frontier and take up vacant land, but few men did anything so absurd and foolhardy, except under the most violent compulsions. It was not out of mere sentiment for the fatherland that banishment was deemed the bitterest of fates. The exile was stripped of all ties that meant life itself; it made no difference in this regard whether one had been compelled to flee or had gone from home in the search for more land by free choice" (Finley 49). The giving of gifts was seen as a way of cementing bonds between guest and host. "Such objects had some direct use value and they could provide aesthetic satisfaction too—characteristically expressed by reference to the costliness of the raw materials and to the craftsmanship applied to them—but neither function was of real moment compared to their value as symbolic wealth or prestige wealth" (Finley 50).