The Greek Myths
William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College
Chapter 8:Trade and Economics
When we discuss the economics of the ancient world, we must be careful not to use the concepts of Economics which we use in analyzing our own society, since Economics is a function of the way a society run, not the set of rules by which a society operates. Of course we cannot remove ourselves from awareness of the economic system which our academic disciplines teach, and even if we formally suspend Economics as a framework, we retain the image of the framework in our language and our general pool of ideas. Yet some distancing of ourselves from modern economic theory will be useful in starting an investigation of a foreign world, in order to let the economic operations of that world display themselves in their documentation. There must be some kind of intellectual tabula rasa for use in studying an area which is relatively unknown.
Gyges, a young Lydian shepherd, found a cave one day which he entered, in it (according to Plato's account) he found a hollow cast-brass horse with a dead man's body inside. He discovered that the ring which he pulled off the dead man's finger made him invisible when he put it on his finger. Using this newfound power, he went to the palace of Candaules, king of Lydia, the last of a long line of Heracleid royalty, and first seduced the queen, then with her help killed the king and took his place as ruler of the country. This story marks the appearance of a new private kind of public person, someone unknown who comes out of the earth, as the ancient saying goes, and attains power suddenly largely by virtue of being totally unknown.
In a world in which the rich and famous were all hereditary kings, Gyges points to a new kind of anonymous person who gets rich by NOT being seen. Working in secret he creates a new type of enterprise, which is going to be very useful in business deals, and paves the way for people like Trimalchio in l st c. A.D. Rome, who owes his fortune to a sharp eye on the flow of funds, as seen from the bottom of the social scale. Countless fortunes have been made in exactly the same way in modern times, one thinks of Schliemann, Onassis and more recently the Korean Samsung company's founder, Lee Byung Cheul. On the other hand the economics dynasties of the modern world seldom produce an effective son and almost never a grandson.
The story has clear economic implications, instead of inheriting vast wealth along with kingliness, the new "invisible" man grasps wealth by being intelligent and guileful, traits which from ancient to modern times are the best attributes of the successful businessman. Thus starts off a long chain of little men from the underside of society who become rich and powerful, retaining a great deal of their original invisibility until they are securely successful. The fantastically wealthy and influential freedmen under the early Roman Empire fit this description well, an un-Romanticized version of this economic tradition is given in Petronius' portrayal of Trimalchio, whose very name (' tri- + 'malach-' "King" in the Semitic languages) points to his Eastern origins.
There is a strange resemblance of the bronze horse in the earlier part of this story to the brazen horse of Phalaris, tyrant of Acragas in Sicily, who roasted victims to death in a brass horse under which a fire was set, amusing himself by the strange roars of the beast. The setting and meaning of the story are different, but the two dead bodies in brass horses represent so odd as a figure that they must have some connection.
Midas, an ancient king of Phrygia, entertained the satyr Silenus, who was a companion of the god Dionysos, getting him hospitably drunk, and accepting his offer of choosing any thing that he wished. (The story of Icarios and wine is in some ways parallel, but with a different outcome.) Midas asked that all he touched be turned to gold, but was dismayed to find that his food was gold and his drink was gold. Finally he was instructed to go the Lydian river Pactolus and wash off his wish for gold there, with the result that the Pactolus became famous in antiquity as a river carrying quantities of this precious metal.
Three stories seem to have become interfused: First, there is the story about the "wish", which a satyr or troll offers an unsuspecting mortal. This becomes burdensome only as the result of human greed and folly. In the Germanic version, the peasant who receives three wishes asks for a wurst, upon which his wife angrily wishes the wurst onto his nose, and their last wish is uselessly expended in getting it removed. Germanic and Classical myth cycles occasionally coincide, we do not know exactly how and in which mythic areas, despite intensive research on the subject since the days of the Grimm brothers. A fascinating example of substantial agreement is found in the late Roman novel by Apuleius, in which the middle books tell a maerchen about a Cinderella like girl, that could be virtually Baltic or Germanic in outline and detail.
The second theme is the story of financially accruing fortunes, which are probably based more on interest and especially compound interest than on any lesser magic. The Greeks had a hard time understanding the growth of funds, and they considered growth by interest somehow unstable or even possibly unhealthy. Midas' golden touch with gold was presumably the proper commercial use of the resources which came with his kingdom, which he, better than many others, knew how to use in the most advantageous manner. But in an age in which growth by interest was unknown, or considered obscene, this would seem pure magic. Third, the river Pactolus did wash out metallic gold, and the story of Midas is at a later time joined with the finding of gold in the stream.
The way money grows fascinated and amazed the diners at Trimalchio's Banquet in the first century A.D. novel., since they talk endlessly about financial growth. In the Cena section of the Satyricon someone says of a local millionaire that he grew like a honeycomb and that he is so rich that he doesn't know what he is worth. It still amazes Americans to learn that the company of the lady in Utah who made the best chocolate-chip cookies in town is now grossing $30 million a year. Man the hunter is hard pressed in the dawn of civilization by Man the fabricator and engineer, and they are both eclipsed in recent millennia by Homo Economicus, the man of the present and apparently the man of the future.
Ixion has been discussed in detail in Chapter 7 under inventions, suffice it to note here that the economic results of two of his concerns, horse raising and wheel making, are enormous. Transportation made possible not only the mass conveying of the Indo-European speaking flood which crosses Europe and spilled down into Persia and India over the period of several millennia, but it also made possible the transport of food materials and manufactured commodities back and forth within Europe. The two modes of transportation which made man's population of Europe fruitful were water transport throughout the Mediterranean, and land transport by wagon with horse or ox within the landmass. That Ixion should be punished for the wheel is made probably by the very fact that he is punished,with clear symbolism, on the wheel. As noted before, change always faces resistance, it is only in simplistic textbooks that we hear of the linear march of progress as Western Civ. evolves into its present form.
Autolycos' name is from 'auto + lukos",hence "the wolf himself, a very wolf". His father was Hermes, God of Trade, and his daughter was Anticleia, Odysseus' mother. On the earlier and also the later side of his pedigree Autolycos' family is characterized by swindling and duplicity, these are the very things which made his name (in)famous in the Homeric world (as at Iliad X 267 and Od. XIX 295). He was said to have had the power of making himself invisible, and also making invisible and unrecognizable the things which he had stolen. Since his father Hermes, the regular god of business and commerce, is actually somewhat tricky and not a little dishonest, Autolycos may be suspected of having an inherited commercial aspect to his thievery. The appearance of a thief like Autolycus marks the beginning of the conversion from barter between proprietors, to purchase for considerations and terms by agents, who are as invisible as their contractual agreements. Early people had not yet understood that these things are necessary in an expanding world with varied and interlocking major markets.
Autolycos' son in law Odysseus continues the mercantile motif and is distrusted not only in the Homeric epics, but in the later period when he was admitted to be clever, but somewhat of a scoundrel. Rockerfeller, Carnegie, Mellon and Ford have been thought scoundrelly at one time or another, but we have learned to live with their astuteness as part of what we assume our society needs.
Laomedon, king of Troy and the great grandson of Dardanos in the Trojan genealogy, somehow "employed" Apollo and Poseidon to build walls for him around the city, and later refused to pay them. Poseidon sent a sea monster against the city, to avoid which it was ordained that Laomedon must sacrifice his daughter, Hesione. (One thinks of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter on the way to Troy in order to gain fair winds, which also relate to Poseidon and sea passage.) Heracles offered to slay the beast if Laomedon would give him his horses, but when the task was done, Laomedon refused payment to him too. Raising a band of soldiers, Heracles captured the city, claiming the girl for Telamon who had led in the attack.
The interesting point is the matter of defaulting on debts attributed to the Trojan ruling house. This kind of fraud demands a certain level of business sophistication, which must be coupled with gullible workers who have no recourse to court or contract. It would seem that in the Trojan world of Asia Minor, which is closer to the Eastern seats of ancient culture and business, this sort of thing happened from time to time, but it was inconceivable to the "Greeks" who were not aware of financial trickery.
Being cheated is an offense which seems to last in the memory a long time, in the South of the United States there are still negative attitudes toward New England merchandising "carpetbaggers", more than a century and a half after the Civil War. Vermonters still seem to have a deep dislike for "New Yorkers", which can probably be traced back to the l764 arrangements by which Vermont settlers were informed they would have to repurchase their lands from New York authorities in Albany, since their area had no valid claims to the land on which they had settled. When the Pope visits Holland, he can expect a bad reception because of Spain's attempts (over four hundred years ago) to Catholicize the Dutch, and in certain American Protestant communities the Jews are still blamed for the death of Jesus!
Reasons for being cheated and deceived may be forgotten, but the idea of being treated badly has an way of persisting for centuries, and hate would seem to outlast love by a long shot. We are entirely too economically oriented when we explain the causes of the Trojan War as a need for Greek free trade into the rich Euxine area, although this may also have been involved. But if the Trojans habitually distrained on debts, and the Greeks built up a bad memory of many such defaults, this would provide exactly the kind of insult upon which a war could be based. But since the common people need simpler reasons, and in the ancient world people prefer personal actors behind historical events, Helen can better serve as the nominal cause for the war.
Odysseus' family tree must have demonstrated a special moral to the Greek mythologers, since each generation on his family tree is in one way or another connected with over-sharp dealing. Odysseus' mother was Anticleia, the daughter of Autolycos, who was known as a professional thief and virtually con-man, and he himself was the son of Hermes, the deic dealer in goods of trade. If Odysseus ever seems a bit tricky, he comes by it naturally. So it is no surprise to find that when Cadmos brings an alphabet of Phoenician letters to the Greeks, Odysseus steals it and claims it as his own. We are not surprised to find that Odysseus has somehow wangled the famous arms of Achilles for himself, despite the claims of other warriors and the natural expectation of Achilles' son Neoptolemos to inherit them. Euripides' treatment of this situation in the play about Philoctetes give special weight to the poet's point of view, but it is certainly consistent with the general opinion of the hero.
Greeks derived Odysseus' name from the verb 'odyssasthai', "to be hated (by the gods, especially Poseidon)", but the derivation could also include the meaning "hateful". Odysseus is never a favorite son of Hellas, although they admire his cleverness grudgingly, much as we admire, while we deplore, the American "robber barons" of l9th century finance. Even the simple and fun-loving Phaeacians, when Odysseus turns down their invitation to participate in the games, note that he looks like a commercial skipper with his eye on trade, a remark which is not far from the truth. Odysseus takes good care of himself, but we see that when he arrives home at long last, he is alone. He takes good care of himself while his companions are on their own, in this case with less good luck. The businessman first business is to take care of himself, heroics are for the heroes who are going to finish last, and true heroism is something which Odysseus can easily dispense with.
Odysseus has one reclaiming human characteristic, his basic monogamousness, despite many chances for fun with ladies and nymphs who were probably a great deal more interesting than the down-to-earth wife he left behind. His instinct is for homing, and this probably represents the theme of an earlier animal-story, in the manner of Aesop and his Indian sources. Animal stories in Greek, except for the late Aesopic importations from the East, are almost totally lacking, the only surviving example is the story of the nightingale, and the rest seem to have been converted to purely human stories at an early date. (It seems fair to make this assumption, since all European societies, before and after the Greeks, have a goodly store of animal tales, and there is no reason to think that the earlier Greeks lacked them entirely.) The key to Odysseus' monogamousness strangely lies in his wife's name, Penelope, in Greek 'Penelopeia', which is in derivation identical with the noun 'penelops', "a duck". (There can be no question that these two words, with seven identical phonemes in the same order, have the same meaning.) Wild waterfowl are monogamous, and clearly the story of Odysseus' years-long wanderings over the face of the waters, opposed by high seas and the god Poseidon, retells in human terms the story of the drake winging his way homeward against all odds. This is Odysseus' nature, just as faithfulness to her drake is the mark of Penelope, who fusses and preens at her embroidery, while avoiding competitive males and waiting for her husband.
In the Odyssey (but not in the Iliad), Odysseus displays, a special kind of discourse almost every time he speaks, in which he sets out a pair of opposing possibilities for the situation at hand, and then selects the one which seems best, which he puts into immediate action. This seems to be a new method of discourse and certainly a new way of thinking, it does not appear in the Iliad to any extent, on the other hand it characterizes the development in society of the new Greek "commercial" man who is trading successfully after the seventh century all over the Mediterranean.
When we have seen this double-headed logic a few dozen times, we may find it thin, but to people who had never had such a tool of logic, it would be an important lesson in the structure of organized thought. Shades of this type of argument can be found in Heracleitos' doctrine of the complementary opposites, and perhaps even Plato's duality of ideas-versus-things. By the 4th century society is in need of intellectual simplification of the possibilities, and Aristotle criticizes Plato's Theory of Ideas in the introductory book of the Metaphysics, on the grounds that it doubles the number of entries for classifying things, since each item must have an idea-entry as well as a thing-entry. He clearly prefers a single entry system for his intellectual bookkeeping, since he is living in a complex world in which the need to simplify comes before the development of new tools of thought. The Odyssean world has no such constraints, and the idea of noting down the two major possibilities for an action, and the choosing the "best" one, leads to decisions which are "weighed", even if they have to be made in a hurry. The more one engages in business, the more one has to learn to think this way, since there are always at least two ways to invest money; one will earn you a dollar and the other will probably lose it.
Seeing the polar possibilities of any situation suits a trader and his business deals, it errs mainly in placing both of the possibilities completely in the conscious mind, and thus avoids opening the unconscious storehouse of experience. Odysseus' logicism never delves into deep or mysterious things, it is always used for immediate and practical matters, and it may be this superficiality of Odysseus' mind which turned the later Greco-Roman world so entirely against him. But the important thing to note about this "new logic", is that it IS really new, and belongs to the revived Greek society which awoke after the Dark Age. It does not appear often in the Iliad, which reflects the older Minoan-Mycenean civilization and the early world of mythopoeia.
Nestor in the Iliad is a fine gentleman of the old school, garrulous and moralistic, with something of the tone of an earlier day Polonius. Here we have the portrayal of a worthy old grandfather, highly respected in a patriarchal society, who, despite his longness of speech and shortness of memory as to the real actions of the past, is all the same quite bearable and somewhat lovable. In the Odyssey we find him back at home, ruling his ancestral city of Pylos, the name of which is so similar to the Gr. 'pylai' "Gates, gateway" that we must assume that Pylos was gateway to the well watered lands which lay north and east of its site. In this very town of Pylos we find Telemachos visiting after the war, bathing in a bathtub or 'asaminthos', of a design which we find abundantly represented at museum at Cnossos, enjoying the hospitality of a real Mycenean palace. Here we find the real Nestor, effective ruler of an important shipping port town.
Now that archaeological discoveries have revealed the real city of Pylos, and the surprising fact that some ten thousand clay tablets were buried there, bearing in the Greek language lists of commodities shipped in and out of the port, we begin to see the economic implications of a Mycenean shipping center. Year by year more of these tablets are deciphered, and they reveal an entirely different kind of culture that the Odyssey portrays. It is a business society, with accountants, scribes, managers, bosses, and upper level administrators, each with his own special prerogatives and title, although we are not always sure from the tablets of the organization of this economic hierarchy. In fact, what Odysseus is doing with his traveling and trading, follows in the wake of what had gone on half a dozen centuries before, as Greece after a lapse into a three hundred year oblivion starts to reassert itself. Nestor and his economic empire represent a world once thriving but long since gone, with only a few verbal traces in the myths and the ten thousand clay tablets..
In Petronius' Satyricon a story is told of a man who invented a new type of unbreakable glass, which he demonstrated to the Emperor. The emperor asked if anyone else knew of this secret formula, the man said he and the emperor were the only two, upon which the emperor had the man killed. This episode was discussed previously in Chapter 6, the only thing to note here is that the story has a clear line of economic meaning. The emperor realizes that anything that disturbs the glass industry, which we know to have a major industry at Rome if only from the amounts of glass which archaeologists recover, will disturb the country economically, and this may easily lead to political turmoil. His reaction is economically sound: If it is that good, keep it off the market.
Although this falls outside the strict realm of earlier Euhemeristic mythology , it has all the elements which a myth of this sort requires: A royal name, confrontation with a problem, the new idea of economic preservation of an existing market (rather than slaying of monsters), and it focuses upon a single moment at which the story line says something more important happened than is immediately evident. Myth and fact coincide in all Euhemeristic stories, but always in a covert manner.
In this case we can see the meaning of the story, since we know this sort of thing has occurred in our own time, and we are not surprised at the "new invention" which is simply too good to put on the market. Even now we hear "myths" again and again of the man who has a car which will get one hundred miles to the gallon of gasoline, but it is kept off the market by the big car manufacturers. Several people aver that they can authenticate the story of an engineer who worked for a major glass company which produced an undullable glass razorblade, which was duly researched, tested, patented and kept off the market for a large price. Since this story is placed in the early Roman Empire, we know a great deal about the politics and economics of the time,. and can witness among the Romans the development of a brand of economics the main purpose of which must have been to maintain existing markets despite engineering advances. Since we know this can occur again, we are likely to call the process prescient viewing of social economics; but if we had no inkling of what the story meant, and had no idea that such an occurrence could ever repeat itself, the story would be classed as obscure mythologizing, and we would probably search for an abstruse psychological or religious interpretation.
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