Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

The new issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal contains an article by James Whitley, entitled “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Its abstract reads as follows:

In recent years, material culture studies have come to embrace contemporary Melanesia and European prehistory, but not classical archaeology and art. Prehistory is still thought, in many quarters, to be intrinsically more ‘ethnographic’ than historical periods; in this discourse, the Greeks (by default) become proto-modern individuals, necessarily opposed to Melanesian ‘dividuals’. Developments in the study of the Iron Age Mediterranean and the world of Homer should undermine such stark polarities. Historic and proto-historic archaeologies have rich potential for refining our notions both of agency and of personhood. This article argues that the forms of material entanglements we find in the Homeric poems, and the forms of agency (sensu Gell 1998) that we can observe in the archaeological record for the Early Iron Age of Greece (broadly 1000–500 bc) are of the same kind. The agency of objects structures Homeric narrative, and Homeric descriptions allow us precisely to define Homeric ‘human–thing entanglement’. This form of ‘material entanglement’ does not appear in the Aegean world before 1100 BC.

If Whitley is right, of course, this is an important discovery that cuts to the heart of how we understand the Greek world, the history of the Western notion of personhood, and so on. Obviously it’s not possible in a short blog post to touch on every aspect of Whitley’s argument, so I’m just going to concentrate on a series of claims that Whitley makes about the Homeric poems. Whitley argues (397)  that “it is the particular entanglements of people, narratives and things… that form much of the matter of both Homeric poems.” This argument pins down a key claim of Whitley’s, namely that (398)

the ‘entanglement’ of objects within peoples’ lives, and the agency attributed to objects in many kinds of narrative in many genres undermines the stark dichotomy between a morally autonomous ‘Western’ individual and a socially-entangled Melanesian ‘dividual’. It should no longer be taken as self-evident then that those proto-Westerners, ‘the Greeks’, whose ‘individualism’ many authors have taken as rising in Archaic times, were ‘individuals’ in the modern sense at all.

Whitley’s discussion of Homer focuses on two types of objects in Homer: those with extensive biographies, and those which are described at great length (these descriptions are known as ekphrasis). Whitley claims (399) that subjects of ekphrasis provide occasions for brilliant poetic performance, but have little narrative force, whereas biographical objects, while rarely described in detail, are often agents that drive the narrative forward. An example of an ekphrasis for Whitley is the gold brooch described by Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to Penelope. But Whitley says that in ekphrasis “images act as a prompt to oral narrative” (399). But in this case, the brooch is entirely absent: the whole point is that Odysseus/the beggar is describing the brooch totally from memory. So it seems odd to focus on the materiality of an immaterial thing. And the fundamental immateriality of this exchange is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is just the introduction to the beggar’s overall description of Odysseus that causes Penelope to weep: the brooch is described in 6 lines (19.226-31), but the beggar’s description of Odysseus takes up a full 24 lines (19.225-248).

In fact, Whitley’s focus on material objects is a problem to begin with. Whitley focuses on artifacts (Agamemnon’s scepter, Achilles’s arms, Odysseus’s helmet) that are potentially recognizable archaeologically, because he’s an archaeologist. But this is surely far too limiting: after all, as much as archaeologists might wish it to be true, it’s not the case that the world is just made up on individuals, dividuals, and artifacts. It’s not. There are animals, plants, actions, features of persons, and divine signs, among many, many other things.

I didn’t pick these examples at random. When I think about those marks that are most entangled with personhood in Homer, I think about these, not artifacts. Odysseus’s identity, after all, is not revealed mainly by artifacts. It is instead revealed by an animal, Odysseus’s dog Argos, who dies when at last his master returns home after 20 years (Od. 17.290-310), by his amazing knock-out of Iros with a single punch (Od. 18.88-117), by a scar on his leg that he got while hunting in the mountains with his grandfather Autolykos (Od. 19.386-502), by divine portents seen by Theoklymenos (Od. 20.350-357), by his ability to string his bow — notice that it is his ability to manipulate this ‘biographical’ artifact and not the artifact itself which is decisive here — and his use of it to slaughter the suitors in his heroic persona, with divine assistance (Od. 21.404-22.41), and finally, and most decisively, by his clear and detailed recollection of a fixed bed which he built with his own hands from a living olive tree (Od. 23.181-204).

It’s very odd to read an article about non-human things and personhood in Homer that doesn’t refer to any of these things. It might be possible to describe Homeric poems as “narratives of people and things” (411), but only if we radically cut down our full range of vision to a tiny subset of interactions in order to suit one particular argument.

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2 thoughts on “Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Pingback: Thinking Forests and Resistance | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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