HOMER THE HOSTAGE


A Bicultural Epic Poet

Whoever Homer was, if he wrote the Iliad or recited it as a bardic poet , if a collection of pseudo-ballads was collected and put together by Homer, or under the name of Homer..... these things have been under discussion for more than two centuries now. But for those of use who are interested in reading Greek poetry as word-art, whether in Greek or in English, the mass of philological querying is less important than having a coherent text at hand which we can read as a master-poem. The Epic Poems stand as poetry which can be read as they stand, first and foremost. But questions still spring to mind. Is Homer a "person" or just the personal title of an ancient poet called Homeros, the hostage.?

The Greek word 'home:ros" meaning 'a hostage' does not occur in Homeric texts. But there seems to be one appearance of this word in the verbal form at Odyssey. 16, 468 where the pig-herder Eumaeus tells about a stranger appearing with news:

ho:me:re:se de moi par' etairo:n aggelos o:kus
"There met / joined me from the companions a swift messenger"

There are some language problems with the Greek, which I will try to outline succinctly. First this verb, the word 'home:ros", with the unique meaning "He met..." is suspicious, since it is apparently a verbal form from the adjective "homeros" (regularly meaning in Greek a hostage), and it simply cannot fit in with the meaning of this line. We get little help from other readings of this word, which occurs just once here in Homer and only four times elsewhere in Greek writing. The 1st c AD grammarian Harpocration writing a note on the 4th c BC historian Theopompus states that this verb "homereo" means akolouthein "to follow", but one suspects he is basing this view on nothing more than the above line from the Odyssey. Since that line speaks of a "swift messenger", a verb of motion like "following" would fit the context of the line neatly, and so he may have surmised. But there is no use of the Greek root "homeros" in "Homer". There are other guesses of this kind, for example the ancient conjecture that homeros meant tuphlos or 'blind' , which is a mere reflex of an old idea of the poet being blind, not unlike the smith being lame.
Another possibility for dealing with this line involves more aggressive surgery of the text. Perhaps at some earlier stage the verb ho:me:rese was conflated with the similar-sounding verb "ho:mi:le:se" (imperfect. 3 sg. from a much more common verb "homi:lein ") "converse with, come to meet" with a variety of verbal address sub meanings. This would fit the meaning of the line perfectly. Searching the index of papyrus variants would be the next step here here, but let me continue on the basis of the apparent meaning in this line. The word 'homeros' does first appear in Hesiod as 'a hostage' and becomes a standard word in the historiography of Herodotus, even as a neuter plural noun "homera" used for a person, or the noun "homereia" as the stage of hostage-dom. In view of the later use of the word, it seems possible to think of the poet Homer as a hostage, actually a poet whose real name was replaced by "The Hostage", which finally became his only known appellation.

Now there is a problem with the meaning of the English word "Hostage" beside Greek "homeros". Especially at the present time, the word "hostage" is used for a person taken by force in a violent episode of terrorism, and held under life-threatening conditions as security for escape, or for large sums of money as ransom. This is quite different from "homereia" as the political exchange of important persons in the ancient world, ensuring that neither state will violate the rules of agreed upon political behavior.

If the word "homeros" is a compounded term from "hom-" meaning together, with "ar- (ararisko) join, fit", then the ancient hostage term may have had an entirely different meaning from ours. A person retained "by a common agreement" of what has be settled or "put together" as a compact, is a hostage person, who guarantees proper political behavior by this presence in the "other" state. The current use of the word "hostage" as a kidnapped prisoner of political terrorists is entirely different.

Thus we can understand the term "homeros" as used for a special kind of political hostage, who can live a relatively free and unfettered life in a foreign country, and only ensure by his continued presence that there is peace and goodwill for the time being at least, between two states. In this sense, the poet Homer can be seen as a native of Ilion, apparently a man of enough education and social worth to be exchanged for another man, and sent to the Mycenean world to live there as security for an indefinite period. Having the background and cultural orientation of Ilion as his homeland, he can learn to function in the new country both linguistically and socially, becoming the kind of cross-cultural person who combines in his thinking the characteristics of both worlds.

We have traditionally assumed that our Homer was a redactor or perhaps a compiler of episodes, working with talented editing and additions on cycles of Epic poetry, operating somewhere in the unclear historical penumbra of the 9th or 8th c. BC. But this Homer has information from the Trojan Wars of some three centuries earlier, and although his data is incomplete and in some cases corrupted, he must have been tuned to an oral tradition which handed, or rather chanted down stories from the past. If our Homer was of the 8th c., then there must he been various pre-Homers of the 12th c, and behind them the cloudy figure of a "proto-Homer".

I am going to posit a Proto-Homer as someone from the ambiance of the Trojan Wars, and assume that whatever his real or personal name may have been, that he was a security-hostage taken from Troy to Greece, and that he was thus known as The Hostage (= Homer = homeros). This PHomer must have existed, because he represents a triple key of connections, both to being taken as a Hostage, and also being the Aoidos or chanter and recorder of the wars. Our later 8th c. Homer is not a hostage in this kind of tradition, only a poet and the bearer of the title coming down from an ancient PHomer or PHostage.

There has been discussion of Homer as a political hostage, perhaps most imaginatively in the novel by Mary R. Demaine: The Hostage, PZA Publishing, Minneapolis, Mn. But imaginative embroidering on a thin web of semi-historical fabric adds little of solid value for the serious reader of the Homeric epic, and the various attempts to connect the poet with a state of hostage-dom add little enlightenment to our understanding of the poet of the 8th c Dark Age in archaic Greece.

The 12th c. PHomer has three points of identification:

a) He knows Mainland and Ilion societies , something which dates before Troy destroyed.

b) He has Luwian words and turns of phrase, later disappeared.

c) He portrays mainland AND Ilion societies as coeval, something soon to become later unthinkable.

Since the mid l980's there has been a great deal of linguistic work done on Ilion by Watkins and others, who have been working with the Luwian language of Troy in scholarly detail. (Good summary of his investigations in his book "How to Kill a Dragon" Oxford l995.) A number of Luwian words has somehow been transferred into the Greek language, not only names like Hittite based Alexandros, but even a particle 'tar' which is not the same as Greek "t' ar(a)" of the epics. and the frequent use of the war-axe "pelekus" from Hittite pilahhu. Connections between Luwian Ilion and Greek Mycene are not merely strategic, naval, or economic, but now it appears they can involve words, and we may suspect in the future finding further fragments of texts.

I posit (with reservations of course, since Philology is a discipline which demands "proof" in Euclidean fashion before hypothesis) that Homer was a Luwian speaking Trojan, who at some point was captured and taken as an educated and literary hostage back to the Greek homeland. At some point he constructed a large-scale body of poetic work, perhaps revising and combining previous oral materials which connected both side of the Greco-Trojan Wars and so represented in some detail the participants on both sides of the Aegean Sea.

This bilateral approach shows in the portrayal of both Greeks and Trojans (the Ilioni) in the Iliad, but there is a clear differentiation in the portrayal of the Greeks and the people of Ilion. Since the documents would have been constructed by The Hostage in Greece, the language would be Greek and the orientation initially from the point of view of the Hellenic soldiery. But the lead characters are drawn as a rough and brutal Agamemnon, paired with his disagreeable brother Menelaos whose wife Helen might well have left him on the basis of Homer's character sketch. This is not a nice family, and the latter Greek tradition further delineates the disagreeable and murderous penchants of the clan.

But someone has to hold the Greek heroic attention, and Achilles is elected as a man from the far West, a local king of a small country somehow drawn into the army from Ithaca, just as Odysseus was unwillingly conscripted on the basis of some threads of loyalty. So here we have a hero pair with an isolated and alienated Achilles driven only by Honor, and a clever Odysseus driven by self interest and survivorship. Achilles is a lone and emotionally isolated figure with only a young boyfriend as companion, Odysseus has a wife and family but they are out if the picture, far distant in space and time. The Greeks are men without roots, fighters who focus on nothing but the War, and this represents Homer the hostage poet's view of men on the Western fighting front.

But Homer was by birth and origin an Ilioni. That was his background and when he describes the people he grew up with, he takes a different tone. Hector is a family man, he is warm and thoughtful, loves his wife and son who appear for a moment as a little cameo in the story. Helen is now shown as a good and warm woman, she has a new life with a family entourage, while her gentle brother-in-law Alexandros is the virtual opposite of the fiery and ugly Greeks. He is light and airy, light headed, no soldier at all but a charming sort of coward who loves life and has no interest in death for honor. His actual name is drawn from the ancient Hittite vocabulary, not a "man-protector" as the later Greeks tried to etymologize him . Life in Luwian speaking Ilion was culturally Near Eastern with a long heritage back to the great civilization of Eastern Turkey, quite the opposite of the hard and suspicious fortress people at Mycenae and Tiryns where men were at war even in times of peace.

I have always felt there were foreign threads in the Homeric epics, even a suspecting at times hat "Homer" was translated at least in part from an Eastern language. A bilingual "Hostage" would have easily moved back and from between Luwian and Greek, even with allusions to the ancient Assyrian formula of 'lugal lugalu' as King of Kings, naturally converting this to Homeric "anax andron" or King of Men in a world where there were no hierarchies of kings piled on kings. Ancient Semitic literature would have been easily a part of the Luwian background which could reach back to Gilgamesh, much as Modern Christianity reaches back to the records of Moses and David the King.

Further investigation of this view --- of a bilingual, bicultural Hostage Figure who crossed the seas between the Greek homeland and the established Anatolian culture ---- must be done with factual detail. This can only come from new findings and new interpretations of the linguistic remains from the Western part of the Anatolian territories. But as Watkins and a new generations of linguistic scholars continue to assemble the pieces of the linguistic puzzle which centers around Ilion, we may soon want to come back and reconsider the bi-cultural and bi-literary possibilities which this papers presents, with additional materials,

There is not much information of value about Homer which can be squeezed out of the later Greek literary tradition, but on the other hand there seems to be a good possibility of much relevant information coming from the configuration of the West-East cultural relationships which precede the Age of the Greek Epic . Here history combines with archaeology and art to establish a rough framework, but when we find linguistic connections to bind together the languages of Luwian Ilion and Mycenean Greece we will be able to speak more confidently about who Homer was, where he came from, and what he was actually writing about in a reality situation.

In the meantime we have the poems, the great and grand war scenes before Iliadic Troy and the variegated sea-scape of the Odyssey, which continue to stir the imagination of readers everywhere in every millennium. Readers will always be content with this magnificent pair of books, which cover human emotion from blind rage to sadness and tender grief. But if we have further information about actual bilingual and bi-cultural societies on opposite sides of the Aeolic Sea, on which was built an double social and literary tradition standing behind the pages of the Greek printed text, would that not enrich and augment the value of our reading of our Greek Epic Poetry?

A further study of Homer and the Trojan War suggests extension of these ideas for possible use in a documentary film .

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris/