This trim introduction to Homer and his time is an installment in Beck’s “Wissen” series of concise monographs on an encyclopedic range of topics. The “Vorwort” (7-8) indicates an intention to draw on evidence contained in the Homeric poems themselves and to appraise properly the formative influence of Near Eastern materials. Patzek promises, too, not to trespass on subjects already handled elsewhere in “Wissen” volumes.1
Chapter 2, “Die homerischen Epen” (9-28), delivers an unobjectionable synopsis of the plot lines of the two epics. The third chapter, “Der homerische Dichter” (29-40), then opens with remarks on shared features of the epics — e.g., their use of a whole spectrum of pre-existing, traditional oral sagas — as well as differences in narrative suspense and the reflection of social and political developments at the time of composition. Patzek next notes the great range of the actual material of the epics: from the compendious roster of heroic characters to rich cosmological lore to mundane matters of handicrafts, seafaring, agrarian economy, etc. She also outlines her particular take on the question of composition and transcription of the poems. What she says here governs many of the interpretative positions adopted later in the book. She believes in a Trojan War ca. 1200 B.C. and an era of Mycenaean heroic saga followed by a phase of discrete strands of heroic saga in the Protogeometric era and then a more widespread development of saga in response to initial orientalizing stimuli in the Early through High Geometric periods (900-750). The narratives of this era included, in broad outline, the substance of the Homeric poems. The Late Geometric (750-700) saw the emergence of a narrower, recognizably Homeric tradition as well as of related tales of such heroes as Herakles. Between 700 and 650, in the Orientalizing Period proper, we have creation stories, the Theban and Trojan sagas, and large-scale epics, including our Iliad and Odyssey, now transcribed (on leather) for the first time and indeed made possible in their ultimate forms only by the availability of alphabetic writing. Patzek, in defense of her comparatively late dating of first transcription to just before 650, as compared to the current consensus date of ca. 725, adduces the telling absence of identifiable Homeric scenes in Greek art prior to 630 and the presence of specifically Near Eastern mythological and literary motifs in the Homeric poems.2 Moreover, she believes the richness and intricacy of the narratives presuppose a poet with facility in a literary, not a strictly oral, tradition of composition—the standard German line in this regard. The chapter closes with speculation that “Homer” was not the author of both poems in the usual sense of the term (Patzek, like many German scholars, sides with the Chorizontes [Separatists]): the name, well-known of course by the fifth century, may go back a rhapsode who headed up a guild of singer-performers before the fifth century (ca. 600?). These singers worked from various written texts of the epics till the official recension in the time of Hipparchus (527-514).
Chapter 4, “Die ‘homerische Frage'” (40-67), works out in more detail the implications of the theory of composition and transmission promulgated in Chapter 3. One section treats “The Singer and His Public,” chiefly from the internal evidence of the poems. Another touches on “Oral Heroic Poetry in Early Greece,” citing the results of oral-formulaic research and the sub-discipline of comparative epic founded by Milman Parry. Patzek maintains that the social and economic conditions that seem to nourish such a tradition are most perceptible in ninth and eighth-century Greece (i.e., before the era of literate composition). She also discusses the shard of the “Nestor-cup” found at Ischia (ancient Pithecussae) in 1953 and dating to ca. 730, judging, pace Latacz, that it does not allude directly to the anything in the Iliad. She also finds no traces in the epics of the style of burial or grave goods revealed in the spectacular (1000-950 B.C.) aristocratic graves excavated at Lefkandi in 1982. Imagined similarities between Homeric burials and those at Lefkandi are due to the general influence of the Near East in the seventh-century milieu of the written versions of the Homeric epics. In concluding sections on Homer, Mycenae, and the Trojan War tradition, Patzek finds no reliable information about Bronze Age Greece in Homer. The old archaeological chestnuts (boar’s-tusk helmet, the Mycenaean “Nestor’s Cup,” etc.) are dutifully examined, but seeming Bronze Age reminiscences turn out to be, on closer scrutiny, the result of an archaizing style of narrative. Further, such recollections could not have been handed down by aristocratic families, since none existed in the intervening Dark Age.
Chapter 5, “Die homerische Zeit und die homerische Gesellschaft” (68-95), is the most valuable segment of the book. It is hardly possible to read the Homeric epics and not wonder about certain extra-literary questions. Did the society depicted in the epics ever actually exist? Is that fictive society to any degree a faithful replica of Bronze Age Greek civilization? How much of the epics’ social, political, and ethical atmosphere mirrors their authors’ own contemporary world? Patzek, in assessing whether the epics may legitimately be read as “history books,” stresses that they are not modern realistic novels, dedicated to an accurate representation of a past culture. The many and varied material objects explicitly described in the epics and sometimes thought to harken back to actual Mycenaean realia are in fact embellishments of items newly familiar from Near Eastern contacts in the poets’ own time. Though a sense of distance from the heroic past was secured by the inclusion of luxury items that were expensive and rare in the world of the epics’ audience, this is only an aspect of the archaizing quality of the narrative, not a proof of historical precision. On the other hand, a modernizing tendency (“das Aktualisieren”) is also obvious in the epics. This sprang from a quite practical concern to ensure audience interest: hence, the value system exhibited in the poems, the heroes’ motivations and norms of behavior, are those of the authors’ contemporary world. Further, telltale signs of Archaic-era city-state culture are manifest in the epics, particularly in the concern for the right relation of individuals to their community. The chapter also discusses the aristocratic qualities evoked in the epics, the importance of athletic competition, the economy of the household and the place of women, and in general the political virtues of good citizens and rulers.
Chapter 6, “Die homerische Mythologie” (96-118), affords a discerning, succinct overview of the supernatural apparatus in the Homeric epics. Individual chapter-sections treat: “The Foundation of Greek Religion in the Time of Homer”; “Greek Mythology”; “Homer’s Gods and Heroes”; “The Cult of Heroes”; “Troy and Mythic Archaeology in the Homeric Epics”; “[Near] Eastern Origins”; “The Homeric Divine Apparatus: Homer’s Theory of Historical Action”; “Gods and Heroes: On Homeric Psychology.” Especially notable is the author’s conversance with current thinking about Near Eastern parallels and sources.
An Epilogue (199-20) asks “Ist Homer noch zeitgemäss?” and answers in the affirmative, noting the enduring influence of Homer’s epics in European literature and intellectual history, particularly since 1700 (with special attention to Enlightenment figures).
This compact book addresses much (often controversial) matter in brief compass with no loss of cogency either in argument or scholarship. To say that one cannot agree with every assertion in it is merely to repeat a very long-standing truism of Homer studies. An English translation is a desideratum.
1. To wit: K.-W. Welwei, Die griechische Frühzeit: 2000 bis 500 v.Chr. (2000); D. Hertel, Troia: Archäologie, Geschichte, Mythos, 2nd ed. (2002); J. Cobet, Heinrich Schliemann: Archäologe und Abenteurer (1997).
2. Some scholars, including Germans, argue for an earlier transcription by contending that facility in written composition was possible already in the mid-eighth century if not earlier and that archaeological/artistic evidence of distinctively Homeric scenes appears not long after: see esp. J. Latacz, Homer: His Art and His World (Ann Arbor 1996) 59-65 and A. Heubeck, Schrift ArchHom 3.X (Göttingen 1979).