Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From swords to plowshares...

The  Curiosity probe recently discovered a large iron meteor on the surface of Mars.

This instantly reminded me to a reference to a large hunk of a metal in Homer's Iliad. At the funeral games of Patroclus (Iliad Book 23), Achilles offers a piece of iron as the prize in a throwing contest. This quantity of the metal is described as "iron enough for five years."

Interestingly, Achilles states that the winner of this prize "won't need to send his plowman into town to get more of it, even if his farmland is remote."

It has been suggested that the description of iron for farming implements (and not primarily for weapons) is an indication that the setting of this story is a time when iron is quite common. In other words, the setting of the Iliad is the Iron Age and not the Bronze Age it purports to depict. 

Andrew Lang describes fully how references to iron and bronze in Homer are consistent with reflections of the Bronze Age, albeit with some expected anachronisms by the later poet. 

I personally side with the view that Homer substantially preserves cultural memories centuries older than himself. In fact, I would suggest that Achilles having a massive piece of iron at all is proof of a Bronze Age context. Once you can derive iron from ore, you transport it in smaller chunks. This piece of iron "enough for five years" is nothing other than a found meteor.