Saturday, March 29, 2014

TFBT: Honour Xeinoi and Hetairoi, the Better

I cannot say enough good things about Adam Brown’s “Homeric Talents and the Ethics of Exchange”.   I stumbled across it while researching the prizes at Homeric funeral games.   

I started with the chariot race in Iliad 23. 262 "For swift charioteers first he set forth goodly prizes;
  • a woman to lead away, one skilled in goodly handiwork, and an eared tripod of two and twenty measures for him that should be first;
  •  for the second he appointed a mare of six years, unbroken, with a mule foal in her womb;
  • for the third he set forth a cauldron untouched of fire, a fair cauldron that held four measures, white even as the first;
  • for the fourth he appointed two talents of gold;
  • or the fifth a two-handled urn, yet untouched of fire."
Presumably the prizes from first to fifth place would be of descending value, but since I didn’t know the worth of a Homeric” talent” I was unsure.  The first article I came across was “The Homeric Talent, Its Origin, Value, and Affinities” by William Ridgeway.  Ridgeway argues that one talent of gold = one oxen.  Hmm.  When I read that, my response to myself was a commonly used Greek word in my society.   DH!

Brown flies by this minor issue and proceeds to discuss the whole mystery of a Homeric aristocrat’s attitude to wealth.  For example in the archery contest at Iliad 23.862 Meriones vows   he would sacrifice to Apollo “a glorious hecatomb of firstling lambs” if he wins the ten double bit axes.  I don’t know the value of ten axes back then, but 100 lambs would have a sizeable impact on a herd of sheep.  Plus really what would anyone do with 10 axes?  The answer to that is kleos; glory, unfailing glory.   Meriones will have a prize from the funeral of Patroclus.  He can show it off to noble visitors for years to come. And since he has ten, he can re-gift “it” to his guests for decades to come; “honour xeinoi and hetairoi, the better” 

For further discussion of archery contests see “Woman, the Greatest Prize”. 

 “As Glaucus exchanges his gold armour for the bronze armour of Diomede, the poet comments that Zeus must have taken away his wits when he swapped a suit worth a hundred oxen for one worth nine.”   Brown goes on to explain that the comment is made by a man who sings for his supper to a contemporary audience.  " The point of the episode is not that Glaucus was duped, but that because both parties behaved with exemplary chivalry, a happy conclusion was reached.”   

Brown quotes  Bourdieu saying that what distinguishes the aristocratic economy is, “ the labour devoted to form: the presentation, the manner of giving, must be such that the outward forms of the act present a practical denial of the content of the act, symbolically transmuting an interested exchange or a simple power relation into a relationship set up in due form for form's sake, i.e. inspired by pure respect for the customs and conventions recognised by the group”.  Further using this theory to explain Achilles initial rejection of Agamemnon’s gifts, because in their extravagance, Agamemnon clearly did not follow form and rather was attempting to buy Achilles. 

Brown explains all this and so much more better than I.  I highly recommend is essay to anyone with a wish for a deeper understanding of  the first best thing in the western world;  The Iliad. 



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