Odysseus’ boar hunt

Odysseus’ boar hunt                                                                                            October 2017

 Lead weight used by athletes when jumping                           National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Autolykos, the grandfather of Odysseus, got a remarkable characterization by Homeros. The name can be translated as “the wolf himself”, and Autolykos appears not very sympathetic in the story about the naming of Odysseus. Autolykos, when (accidentally says Homeros) arrived at the house of his daughter Antikleia when she just had given birth to her only son, maybe his only grandson yet, admits that he is not too popular, and that many in the Achaean society hate him. He might have been greeted (not welcomed) as such when showing up in Ithaka town; a reason to avoid visits. Thus, with this experience fresh on his mind, he suggests to name the newborn “he that knows the hate”, which is how the name Odysseus can be translated.

Autolykos was probably some sort of “Devil’s advocate” or a counsellor (in the public meetings) that was able to make crooked law cases appear to be right. A spin doctor. He could speak very loudly, and of course also convincingly. The attempts by the wooers of Penelope in several public meetings to make their views clear and convincing are examples of such procedures in Homeros’ poems. Damaging (powerful) people’s cases by perfid manipulation of the public opinion raises hate of course, and cunning Autolykos must have been quite succesful in getting away with the wrath of his haters. Probably he was very empathic, but in the sense of cognitive empathy, and could he well imagine, foresay, and use to profit, human emotions and reactions. And god Hermes, the god of the merchants, was with him. Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy, as it can be used against people, but Odysseus has inherited a lot of this divine gift of empathy from this grandfather. Odysseus was typically a son of his mother, and also had a good way with women, goddesses and nymphs, generally. The way Odysseus addresses himself to his mother’s ghost in the Hades is much more loving and intense than how he treats his father in the orchard, at first encounter afer twenty year’s absence. Arkesius, his other grandfather is only shortly mentioned, probably being of a more common character. So far for psychology and lineage.

Odysseus, when grown up, probably at the age of 15 or so, goes to his grandfather’s mansion to pick up the promised precious gifts. The mansion (or better: manor) lies near the Parnassos mountain range, traditionally located in (actual) Greece, which means a distance of 160 kilometers, travelling by ship, from Ithaki island. Going by ship was dangerous, and usually done in convoy or with many warriors on board. Telemachos’ trip to Pylos had this aspect of danger very strongly. There is no reference to such a complicated trip in the boar hunt story, which makes me think the situation must have been such that a day’s walk was enough to arrive at Autolykos’ mansion. Such a trip is perfectly possible for a small group of young men in a since long pacified rural region, dominated by Achaean princes. See the map (Google Earth print) in Fig. 1.

Fig 1. Google Earth image of the region between Jerez and San José del Valle. The line indicates a distance of about 30 km, and more or less marks the path of the journey to Autolykos’ mansion.

Thus I do situate the manor of Autolykos close to the nearest mountain range of the “Sierra Gaditana”, from which the actual nature reserve Los Alcornocales forms a part. Nearest by Ithaka/Doña Blanca lies the Sierra del Valle, east from San José del Valle, which is a small settlement bordering on the agricultural lands between Jerez de la Frontera and the Alcornocales hills. This is easily to be reached on foot in one day, a traject in a peaceful agricultural setting. Distance is about 30 kilometres. A part of this journey to be done in a small rowing boat up the river Guadalete also is possible, which would have much shortened the walk. The gulf on which Doña Blanca/Ithaka was situated had to be crossed by ferry anyhow, a detail explicitly mentioned by Homeros elsewhere. See also Fig. 12.  San José del Valle however seems to me not to have been the site of the mansion, because such princes usually were quite selective, and also could do so in the aftermath of their invasion. The area around the spring of El Tempul, a copious source of clean water, appears to be a good place for an estate of a high nobleman. The availablity of so much spring water has led to construction of a water pipeline to Jerez in our days. Springs were, and still are, associated with holy forces, nymphs and gods. See Figs. 2, 3, and 4. I wish Homeros would have mentioned the spring at least once, but alas.

Fig. 2. The site at the El Tempul spring appears to have qualified for a rich man’s mansion since long. The place is actually not accessible.

Fig. 3. El Tempul estate lies in a small wooded valley opening to the North-East, with also having agricultural fields nearby.

Fig. 4. El Tempul estate as seen on Google Earth image. The artificial lake, the Embalse de Guadalcacin, has been excluded here from the picture.

Many other places nearby are possible as home for Autolykos of course, with so few decisive characteristics given by Homeros. The farms in the valley Los Llanos also might be subject to further research. See Fig. 5. The Garganta de Boga, a rift with a seasonal streamlet, lying between the Sierra de la Sal and the Sierra de las Cabras , gives a passage, though difficult, to El Tempul. Remarkable fact: the hill top of the Sierra de la Sal, at a height of some 500 m, right above the said rift, is called Cerro Pajarraco, which means Hill of the Sneaky One (or of the Cunning One). And near El Tempul there is on the map a wild olive tree (Acebuche) named “de los cuquillos”. This word base comes back in the name of the location, “Los Choquillos”. Choque indicates conflict, clash, and Cuco has amongst others the meaning of astute, sly. Names, even when deformed over time, can be very, very, old. But what’s in a name? El Tempul always was a special place, for sure.

Fig.5. The valley Los Llanos, looking up to the Sierra de las Cabras,.The Garganta de Boga is left from this view. Various farms are active here.

Autolykos and his family receive Odysseus very affectionate, and his sons quite like Odysseus, as Homeros says. (My idea about remarks and epithets by Homeros is that he makes these when he wants to change the mood or impression given to the audience /reader in earlier verses. The introduction of Autolykos in preceding text is not one of a sympathetic person. But here he is a very loving grandfather.) A barbecue is held, for which a steer is killed, which indicates there is meat for hundreds of people, and all is very well indeed. Next early morning the hunting party leaves at dawn, and within a short time, they arrive in more steep terrain. Los Alcornocales is a large hilly landscape covered with Oak forest, often Cork Oak and the ecosystem is perfect for feral pigs, that of course also enrich their diet with agricultural crops, and thus are prone to be hunted, not only for their delicious meat.

The rising sun already shines on the agricultural fields behind and below the troupe when the beaters encounter a big boar, that chooses to attack the foremost and youngest in the silent line of hunters. The young Odysseus appears to me to have underestimated the speed and aggression of such heavy boars, as he is said by Homeros to hold a “long-shadow” spear, which in the still low rays of the sun, for me suggests that he keeps the spear upright, with the point downwards. A good start for to throw a spear, but not for stopping a rapidly onrushing boar. Odysseus is severely hit above his knee, but remains agile and rapidly puts his spear into the boar’s right flank, killing it. The boar did come from the left, hitting Odysseus and then passing by him to the right. Everything must have happened very fast and Odysseus has shown his proficiency in throwing a spear. His uncles, the sons of Autolykos, probably regret their insufficient instructions to the boy, who had probably some experience in hunting roedeer and chamois, but not pigs. The story about his old dog Argos suggests that Odysseus in later times has hunted quite often. The Europeans already in early medieval times had special spears (Saufeder) for such boar hunts, with a short crossbar behind the broad spearhead to prevent the boar to run up too far into the spear shaft. This habitude of attacking the hunters is, of course no belligerence, but a way to escape from the encirclement.

The story commented on above gives, of course, no proof of the validity of the proposed location, but all over, this positioning is well possible, at least as much as the location in Greece near Parnassos mountain. I have visited Delphi, which for such an important sacred site is amazingly steep and little accessible. The spring here must have had an important role when selecting this holy location. Overgrazing (by goats) during millennia has reduced the forest to small remnant woodlots and planted trees.

Fig.6. Delphi in Greece. Many flowers, few trees on the hills.

Some further thoughts about the Mycaenean context of Homeros

The frequent barbecues given for a lot of people, as described by Homeros, do not fit the generally frugal lifestyle of the ancient Greeks as we know it from archeology. I think it wishful thinking of ourselves (and the ancient interpreters of Homeros) to give these people such an opulent lifestyle, in which slaughtering a cow is not a problem anyway. Plenty cattle, that is the tendency in Homeric tales, and meat in large pieces is standard food for the Achaioi, of course with some bread, for health reasons. Fish is for the poor and starved. With all those archaeological finds in Greece, not a real match exists with the several luxurious bronze roasting spits and flesh hooks found on sites along the Atlantic. Even if fertility of the land was better in early Bronze Age times, before erosion set in, still the landscape of Greece is and was not good for agriculture except in the (once marshy) flats between the (now barren) hills. The Achaioi, being noblemen, of course, could provide much better food than the common people and slaves, but it still required much more cattle than plausible for this region. Compare this with the agricultural opportunities in e.g. Andalucia or Northern France with its loess soils. The pride of the ancient Greeks was their sobriety coupled with their martial training, or so at least I understood their fame. This made them conquer and survive the Persians.

In general, the sometimes hilarious attempts to squeeze the tales of Homeros in a Mycenean context becomes too much to swallow (for me). This squeezing is done mainly for reason that the finds of Schliemann, and followers Dörpfeld and Blegen, of the Mycenean culture, were so surprising at a time (end of 19th century) that all Homeric tales were still generally seen as mythology. Andrew Lang (1906, 1910), a poet and literator himself, has studied the subject to see what matched, and what not, with Mycenean and other archaeological finds. He found the bad congruence between Homeric descriptions and (scanty) archaeological findings quite puzzling, for arms, clothes and housing as well. He was not yet inclined to give up or simply blame Homeros for being fancy. Indeed, why should the poet be fancy about all-day things and habits? Lang still respected Homeros in these studies. Finley (1954) finally concludes that the famous Trojan war should not be included in the history of Greek Bronze Age, as it does not fit. He found a host of incongruencies like Lang found them, in his studies (Finley, 1954) He was right, that’s my opinion.

The basic mood ever changed with people doing such studies later on, and the archaizing poet has been brought up the scene, to explain discrepancies. It even became the general opinion that Homeros was fancy. This explained all, and in such a simple and efficient way. Very attractive to solve the problems this way. Finley (1954), in a much later era than Lang, bluntly calls the lands that Homeros describes (such as Scheria) simply never-neverland, a strong expression of doubt on its existence. What I cannot find, that must be non-existent indeed. From simplifying the problem to a simplistic solution. This is Occam’s razor to the utmost, an instrument to be proud of, but not always to be applied. The toddler with the hammer sees too many things as nails to be hit. Is this science?

Fig. 7. Mycenean rapiers; without (riveted) hilts and pommels. A heavy shield asks for stabbing tactics, be it spear or sword. The Roman legions were quite successful with it for half a millennium, when fighting barbarians with their “chimpanzee” clubbing attacks. Until these barbarians found out.

Fig. 8. Complete but very oxidized rapier with gilded pommel.Separately a few unclad pommels.

Fig. 9. A recent copy of an Urnfield sword, well fit for slashing and some stabbing as well, with the pommel cast in one piece with it.  See website Bronze Age Swords where they are at sale.

Despite this now traditional but still fashionable critical attitude to Homeros, there seemed to be no alternative but to place Homeros’ tales in the great Mycenean period. A single, or somewhat more frequent, find of a leather helmet, clad with boar tusks, as described by Homeros, was made a great argument. Bronze swords at the time of Schliemann had not so frequently been found in Western Europe, and the Mycenean rapiers, so unfit for slashing, were taken for Homeric. Etcetera. A meagre harvest it is.

Fig. 10. Boartusk-clad (leather ) helmet, not great work of an artist but just handicraft. The tusks have been shaved to lamellas that barely show their proud descent; they seem to be made of ivory, as the little figurines are. No peculiar and thus culturally determined decoration on it. Probably common as cheap helmets or magic strong caps in the Bronze Age all over Europe wherever boars were hunted. National Archeological Museum, Athens

Fig. 11. A fresco in the museum in Thebes shows beautifully restored frescos with rows of half-naked (?) soldiers (?) with this type of headgear. They have their supposed spears in their left hands, remarkably and unusual. No suggestion of shields.

The tradition, started a hundred years, maybe sometimes more than two millennia ago, has done its confirming and curdling work. Homeros should be, and thus is, a founder of Greek culture, so he must have originated in Greece. Too bad for nationalism that this place where Homeros lived in now lies in Turkey. Why then change this traditional opinion, so attractive, such a nice conviction, even if it does not fit well.? Let peace reign on this, leave us alone, we do not foster doubts, this is our dear tradition that has come to us since ages. We respect so much the scientists before us. Why spoil a myth? A Dutch proverb is: “ zo de ouden zongen piepen de jongen” (as the old cock crows, so crow the young). And so the accretion of fouling grows, like on old ships left in the harbor. Or in age-old organizations. The Cyclic Poems, also studied extensively by Lang, have added to this process a lot, a reason for me (along with Lang) not to include them as sources of information in my studies on Homeros, however alluring their stories may be.

Scientific research has often destroyed convictions. This is one of our best tools to perceive what has happened and how things cohere. Some of it is confirmed, other “facts” are found false. Experiment and cross-check have to be applied in science methodology, whatever the established opinion is. Science is indeed basically a methodology, rather than an accretion of information.

The reader might easily accuse me of filling in the stories with my own opinions, a technique often used by preachers. I, however, use this approach here to show how much filling already has been taken over by tradition, starting with the interpretations by the ancients. An example is the way that the story of the bad encounter with the Cyclops usually is interpreted. This monstrous humanoid is not only incredibly strong but also should have one eye only. But cyclops just means round-eye. The ancient illustrators placed this supposedly single eye in the middle of the forehead, sometimes leaving two withered “eyes” below, in the usual place. Since then this is standard. His low voice, however is, according to Homeros, more impressive and bewildering for Odysseus and his mates than is the eye, which even is not mentioned to be strange. Common looks for the Cyclops, nothing unusual, I conclude. Indeed Homeros tells us that “the eye” of the Cyclops is drilled and burned by the team of Odysseus. But nowhere is said he had a single central eye, a construction that exists with none of all mammal species or even reptiles. Makes it more mythic would traditionalists say. Fine. I see this laid-back characterization of the Cyclops’ eye as an important tool the poet Homeros uses (frequently) to arouse our own phantasy. Great! Explicitness kills poems.

My own view is thus that the Cyclops had already lost one of his two eyes, a quite frequently occurring event in primitive societies and especially with rowdy people such as the traditional pirate with the eyepatch. Polyphemos was not quite social, according to the story, and his neighbors’ reactions are confirming it. It is not a real problem for pastoralists to keep functional with only one eye. His size and strength is a bit exaggerated indeed, and his size requires a fathom’s (six feet) length of sharpened pole to drill his eye, thus a large head indeed for that large eye to sit in. I see the Cylops, a son of earthshaker Poseidon, as the personification of a volcano, as already suggested by many authors before me. What this story then contains is not (yet) clear to me, I must confess that. Some sort of code might be involved. Such has also been suggested for Scylla and Charybdis and other strange tales of Homeros. Monsters do better in tales when they are incomprehensible.

To change one’ s view on a subject is sometimes a difficult task, also internally, as already explained by Kuhn in his well-known treaty of scientific paradigmata. I am already quite old and feel the brunt of it.

Fig.12. Map of the Bay of Cadiz and the Lacus Ligustinus in the Bronze Age. One sees how far the estuary of the Rio Guadalete is navigable upstream. El Tempul lies on, or near, the right hand border of this map, at the height of Puerto de Santa Maria (which not yet existed then). Also is well visible that the region of Chipiona to El Cuervo lies on what justly could be called a peninsula, as well as Puerto Real (also a modern name) lies on such a peninsula.