Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.10

William G. Thalmann, The Swineherd and the Bow: Representations of Class in the Odyssey.   Ithaca:  Cornell, 1998.  Pp. 330.  ISBN 0-8014-3479-3.  $47.50.  

Reviewed by William F. Wyatt, Brown University (
Word count: 1835 words

This book is morally earnest, intelligent, and "explicitly political" (p. 2). T. regards the Odyssey "as an ideological production within the conflicts surrounding the formation of the polis in the late eighth century;" and wants to consider the poem "not as a passive reflection of history but as actively engaged in it." By the Odyssey, as it turns out, T. means primarily books 13-24 of that poem (though 1-4 figure also marginally). Thus the poem is both a political tract and not an entertainment. I am not in sympathy with this position, preferring to enjoy the entire poem; and regard thinking of it as political either wrong or reductive. The book is also too insistent and too long. "Cultural Poetics" (p. 2), if legitimate, requires a secure methodology which T. does not provide: there must be constraints on any such methodology. There will be those, however, who will applaud the work, and I believe that one -- anyone -- can learn from it: I would suggest that one first read the final chapter in order to determine what T. is about, and then consult the (excellent) index and read in the book selectively and in accordance with one's interests. T. has written much and helpfully on Homer, his views are important and must be considered as thoughtfully as he has presented them. It may be that I am too little political, too positivistic, too little intrigued by deep structures, too much a humanist to appreciate what T. has attempted. I hold that he is too political, too abstract, too addicted to theory.

The work is divided into three parts, each consisting of two chapters: 1) "Some 'Minor' Characters in the Odyssey"; 2) "Oikos and community: The Contest of the Bow"; 3) "Paradigms and Audiences."

Chapter One deals with non-free characters in the poem, and in it T. concludes that they are all slaves (16-17), observing that English lacks a term like the German unfrei. But one could perhaps just as easily label these people "dependents," a term that would replace class with status, and would allow both for gradations of servitude and would avoid the (pseudo-)problem of "the good slave." Chapter two treats of those in subservient positions in the oikos of Odysseus, and is insistent on slave status. I find his referring to "the representation of slaves in the service of the poem's controlling ideological outlook" troubling. Of the nouns in this phrase I can accept only "poem" and neither of the adjectives. It is nonetheless clear that none of the characters in a dependent status can be considered a free agent. Mobility is a function and a privilege of privileged people, as, for instance, Telemachus. T. employs the terms "elite" and "aristocrats," wrongly I think because these terms are loaded and require thorough definition if they are to be used. I have no better suggestion, and hence adopt "privileged."

The second section widens the horizon, and T. passes from ideology to anthropology and parallels from modern societies. There is no need for me to indicate the hazards of any such undertaking and the problems of cultural typologies. T. provides wide-ranging discussions of such matters as the oikos, honor, violence, competition, marriage. All of these have been much discussed, and in fact T. adds little to what is known -- or thought -- on these subjects. I would observe, however, that violence is a boundary condition on all human behavior, and is not particularly to be commented on in Homer; save that in Homer there were relatively fewer societal means of controlling it. T. and I will differ concerning violence within the house of Odysseus, and I have no way of adjudicating who is correct. One knows that Odysseus slays 108 of the cream of young manhood from the neighborhood plus 12 maids. I maintain that the slaughter must take place inside because of the poetic need to have the suitors trapped on the one hand and on the other not be able to call to townspeople outside. T., rather, points to the intrusion of violence from the public sphere into the private, a structural, cultural, phenomenon.

Honor has been much discussed, and I would point out that honor (timê) is not an abstract and ideological quality primarily, but is instead basically and most importantly a physical one, and means something like "portion." One may compare Iliad 15.186-9, in which Poseidon, Zeus and Hades each received a share of the earth, and are homotimoi. It may therefore be that in ancient Greece "honor" had a status at least slightly different from that evidenced in the societies T. cites. The oikos is of course an old chestnut, and scholars like to argue over it. There can be little question that the oikos is the basic unit of Homeric imagination, as it is of Aristotelian. Whether or not the "integrity of the oikos" (204) constitutes the "poem's ideological centerpiece" (203) will be a matter of opinion. The Iliad (15.661-3, cf. 15.497-8) insists that one fights not only for the oikos, but also for children wives, property and parents, and that is pretty much what the Odyssey tells us. Marriages, however, are culturally difficult events, goodness knows, and in parts of Rhode Island are merely the occasion for drunken brawls, as anciently they were with the Lapiths and the Centaurs.

In Chapter Four "The Contest at the Hearth: Family Values with a Vengeance" T. refers to "the gratuitous nature of this contest" (174), a claim that would surely startle most readers of the poem. He is of course correct that to most readers Odysseus' killing of the suitors is an excessive act of revenge, and one might inquire why there had to be so much killing. Or why Homer had chosen so large a number of suitors. The killing does set up the problem of Ithakan revenge on Odysseus, a problem created already by his loss of his men on the return from Troy, and one that is not -- for us -- satisfactorily resolved by book 24. T. speaks also of male values and competition with Penelope the prize, thus (all but) denying Penelope any personality or independent status. He also instances the "problem" of young Telemachus' having to yield position in the house to his father; and Penelope's having again to subordinate herself to her husband. These problems are important, are not restricted to the Odyssey within Greek (or later) society, and are far from unique. The latter problem was replayed more recently after the end of World War II when men returned to their jobs, displacing women from the positions they had occupied during the war. The women returned to the home, stayed there, and produced children. In part at least the Odyssey is a poem that approaches the problem of how a long-absent father will reintegrate himself into his household and society.

In "The Dark Age and Hierarchy" T. is concerned to show that Homeric and Dark Age society were hierarchically organized; as he puts it (271): "Greek society before the eighth century already knew organized forms of social and economic inequality." He also holds that we must understand developments within the eighth century as part of a continuum from earlier stages of Greek culture. This does not surprise me, and I would have thought it unnecessary to state. T. invokes an imaginary "we" that "tend to think of Greek history as a succession of distinct periods" (249); and "view [the state] as the natural outcome of human development." I am not one of these "we," and cannot imagine who "we" may be. There are many "would, should, may, might" (e.g., 253) that make me at least feel queasy. I also am not so enamored of various models of society as is T., and do not care whether a basileus is a chief or a big man. There is too much here that is abstract and schematic, too little that is concrete. Is Agamemnon's taking of Briseis from Achilles really "a blatant act of negative reciprocity?" (265).

The final chapter "The Odyssey as social process" sums up the whole, and contains a summary of earlier chapters, a conclusion to the argument, and the reasons for the nature of T.'s argument. I begin with this last. T. hopes that his revealing of the ideological nature of the poem can "help us look afresh at the discourses that today variously justify and disguise huge and ever growing economic, social, and racial inequalities." I doubt that this will be the result of his work, but admire him for his courage and persistence in pursuit of his goal. That the poem represents traditional values should come as no surprise; that those values support the views of those who paid for the performance -- if one may make such a leap -- is nearly inevitable; that there should be in any dramatic confrontation of characters the possibility of cultural criticism seems obvious; that the Odyssey is open to such confrontations is a tribute to its creator.

I remain unreconstructed and unconvinced by T.'s arguments. I was also disappointed by his approach. He is too heavy-handed, too encyclopedic in his canvassing of views from elsewhere, too little attentive to the poem. I do not disapprove of political readings of things, and in fact applaud -- as would Allan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind -- the active confrontation with ancient texts as opposed to the "isn't it all so grand?" approach with which we (most of us) were brought up. T. is correct in demanding that ancient texts speak to us on our terms and that we query them on their terms. We must avoid querying them on our terms.

I can agree (of course) that the poem assumes a cultural outlook, and that that outlook privileges those who have higher rank in society. The poem constantly refers to the delight of song and discourse, and we must take this into account. Most audiences, I should imagine, like most audiences today, valued the work for its entertainment value. They may also have commented on the issues raised by the characters and the plot, but they probably did not regard the poem as a bit of propaganda or ideology. They felt, I think, delighted that Odysseus was reunited with his family -- while querying his long stays with other women; they were grateful that the killing was brought to an end in book 24 -- while recognizing that the resolution was not completely satisfactory; they admired Penelope's faithfulness -- while wondering at a twenty-year wait; and worried with Telemachus as he grew to manhood. They may even have felt that not only is this the way the world should work, but that they could also in their own way replicate the adventures of Odysseus and his family. Husbands, wives and children -- i.e., Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus -- are the main characters, not the oikos and its defence; people, not theories, are the subject (and object) of the poem.

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