Reading Homer as an anthropologist

What happens when you stop thinking of the Iliad as a work of fiction but instead see it as a primary text to help explain an ancient society?

That’s what archaeologist Tara Carter does in lecture 21 and lecture 22 of her great UC San Diego course Prehistory and the Birth of Civilization (audio).

She presents the Iliad as a window into the culture and norms of the society of Mycenaen Greece, a civilization that collapsed 400 years before the Iliad took written form sometime around 800 BCE.

The Lion Gate at Mycenae. Image credit*

She presents evidence that the Iliad, originally an oral epic, retains echoes of the vanished civilization that probably gave it birth. Here are some of the echoes according to Carter:

  • The Iliad reflects a “chiefly society” in which powerful chiefs controlled trade and raiding and shared the profits with their subordinates. (Earlier in the course she described the Vikings of Iceland, another chiefly society, the subject of her own academic research.)
  • The “horse taming” Trojans, as Homer called them, were probably dominant in the Mediterranean horse trade, and controlling that trade may have had more to do with the Trojan war than the beauty of Helen.
  • The conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon is an example of the kind of conflict that arises in chiefly societies between skilled warriors and the official chiefs.

For more on the Trojans, check out the following:

  • This lecture by Yale historian Donald Kagan, part of his course Introduction to Ancient Greek History (website, iTunes).
  • The Trojan War – Myth or Fact: Recent Excavations at Troy (iTunes), presented by archaeologist C. Brian Rose, part of a series from archaeology museum at the University of Pennsylvania.

(Note: UCSD classes will vanish from the server in mid-December. Grab Carter’s course while you can.)

*Image credit: Wikipedia. Creative Commons License.
This entry was posted in Academic podcasts, Anthropology, Archaeology, Courses, Five-star professors, History, Literature and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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