Thursday, January 12, 2017

TFBT: Review of Dona F. Wilson

 I read “Ransom, Revenge and Heroic Identity in the Iliad” by Dona F. Wilson.  Not being a linguist and having little faith in Indo-European etymologies it is a hard read for me.  Very much a close reading.  And very worthwhile. 

True Love

I ran across something at lunch yesterday that darkened my romantic image of Achilles. 

“Wealth in Homeric society appears to be organized into four spheres; subsistence goods, prestige goods, persons and cultural wealth… They (women) are located in the sphere of persons when they are figured as belonging to a kinship and marriage group, but when viewed relation to their captors they are located in the sphere of prestige goods…redefining a (slave) woman in terms of familial relationships as - Agamemnon and Achilles shall be seen to do in the quarrel - locates her in the spheres of persons and augments the compensation on my demand for her loss.” 

So all that stuff about Agamemnon preferring the daughter of Chrysies to Clytemnestra, his wedded wife and Achilles comparing his relationship to Briseis to that of the Atreides and their wives; “Are the only mortal men in the world who love their wives the sons of Atreus?” (Iliad 9.341) All that was so much posturing for greater compensation (and honor).  True love takes another hit!  Darn! 

Institutional Misrecognition of Compensation

 Wilson’s book is very much about revenge, ransom, the economic system of compensation that underlies them and the elite warriors that use the system.  Wilson also demonstrates that that there is an “institutionally organized failure” to recognize how the system truly works. The heroes think “compensation, as in gift exchange…the system is primarily symbolic as opposed to economic.”  

Wilson divides wealth in Homeric society into four categories; materials wealth, prestige goods, persons and cultural wealth; 
·      Prestige wealth is…confined to elite intercourse; as gift exchange, distribution of honorific prizes, raiding, and purchase from foreign traders.”

·      Examples of cultural wealth are might in battle, skill as an orator, priesthood, a god for a parent and a gold studded “scepter handed down from Zeus.” 

·      Material wealth is represented by gold, slaves, cows, tripods, etc.

But the institutionalized misrepresentation of the economic system means that aristocrats fail to recognize the connection between material wealth and prestige.  They think they have great herds back home because they are great kings not vice versa.  So kings like
Nestor (Iliad 1.277-79) speaks from a perspective that there exists a natural, divinely legitimized relation between Agamemnon’s cultural wealth, specifically the scepter and the (prestige) privileged status he enjoys as commander-in-chief of the armies gathered at Troy. We may say therefore that Nestor misrecognized the relation between Agamemnon’s scepter and his status. “  
Glaucus and Diomedes were family friends because their grandfathers had eaten together and housed one another.  Meeting on the battle field and discovering their relationship; they exchanged gifts.   Glaucus seeing no connection between material wealth (his gold armor) and prestige happily exchanges his armor for the armor of the famous Diomedes conqueror of Thebes (prestige wealth).  Meanwhile, Homer not being a Mycenaean prince, but rather someone who literally sings for his dinner, doesn’t understand the exchange by Glaucus and Diomedes. (Iliad 6.199ff)


The narrative of Lykaon and Achilleus illustrates the ideology of reciprocity claiming implicitly that because they had eat together when Achilles captured him (the first time) their commensality makes rejecting is plea (that his father pay ransom for him) impossible.”  Achilles slew the Trojan prince at his knees begging for his life.  Clearly Achilles did not consider Lycaon a family-friend (xenos) and maybe not even an elite warrior, plus his famous wrath was in full-swing.  However, “the single most important factor in the success of an offer of ransom (is) whether the offer is made/in the time of the primary fabula, between Chryses’ arrive in the Achaean camp in Book 1 and Priams’ in Book 24…All offers of ransom in the time between Chryses’ and Priam’s offers fail.” (pg 31)

 Other Interesting Thoughts

·      The Iliad aligns accepting material settlements including ransom and limited revenge with the male and culture and denying material settlements and/or limits on revenge with the female and nature.”

·      “All relations between men are reducible to their honor and consequently (following his abuse by Agamemnon)…Chryses’ anguish (over loss of honor) is more important than his daughter.”

·      “Life and honor are not the property of the individual only, but also of his or her family.”


  1. I remember also the sacrifice Trojan women made to Athena, which did not soften her a bit. Do you count sacrifice as a sort of ransom?

    1. I would say prayer is more like gift-exchange between aristrocats. Sacrifice is part of prayer. "The typical structure of prayer in epic is; the invocation of the divine, a reminder of the reciprocal obligations between the god and man and the specific request." Reciprocal obligations is often, how many cow thighs I burned on the altar for you or will burn for you. There are many times that the suppliants request is denied like Lykaon and Achilleus. Lycaon thought they had a relationship because they'd broken bread together. Achilles rejects the notion.

      I've always found that scene so ironic. And sad.


  2. “The Iliad aligns... denying material settlements... with the female and nature.”

    My Thetis rejects ransom for a long time: "I do not want a ransom, I want my child. Give me Achilles back!"