Jump to content

Heat Treating In The Odyssey

Caleb Harris

Recommended Posts

Currently in history, I'm studying the Homeric period, and especially the Epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I got a reading assignment, chapter 9 of the Odyssey, the situation with the Cyclopes. I will say it's pretty gruesome at places, but at the area where they're blinding the Cyclopes, I found some interesting text.


As a blacksmith plunges an axe or hatchet into

cold water to temper it- for it is this that gives strength to the iron-

and it makes a great hiss as he does so, even thus did the Cyclops' eye

hiss round the beam of olive wood, and his hideous yells made the cave

ring again.

I'm not quite sure how exact the text is, as it gives Roman names instead of Greek, but this is supposed to be a very close translation. The thing is, was heat treating as such developed by the time of Homer (7th and 8th centuries B.C.)? I do know that Iron would have been well developed by that time, but I had thought that heat treating came much later; during the time of the Roman Republic at least. Any thoughts on this?


EDIT: Also, he says the quenching 'tempers' the iron. I'm pretty sure that the old 'tempering' is the word for the whole heat treating sequence; is that correct?

Edited by Caleb Harris

Trying to make each knife just a little better than the last

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A quick trip to Wikipedia and you will find that Homer did live in the early iron age so iron being plunged into water to cool it so the scene is not necessarily a later addition by a Roman translator. However iron was not very common. Homer refers to iron 22 times in the Iliand and 29 times in the Odyssey, but bronze is the major metal in the epic. Iron was in that period rare and had high value. (Buchwald, Iron and Steel in Ancient Times) If Iron was rare then steel was rarer but it is possible that Homer was aware that some iron, you would have to see if there are terms in ancient Greek that differentiate between iron and steel, could quench harden.


The reference to tempering the iron would be incorrect as we now use the term and may have just simply be the product of someone who didn't understand iron/steel processing.



HELP...I'm a twenty year old trapped in the body of an old man!!!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm going to be a buzzkill and say we can't use Homer as a source for much historically. Homer wasn't a single guy but a group of bards who lived over probably a 400-500 hundred year period (despite what wikipedia may say), orally passing down a group of stories that are indo-european in origin. They were called the Homeridae, claiming descent from Homer, but Homer's Greek name "Homeros" just means hostage. These poets would perform episodes from from what scholars call "the epic cycle"--two to three hours snippets of a greater story known to everyone in the audience. When it came time to write these stories down, some 500 years after their origin, the result is a stitched-together, uneven feel (thought still absolutely beautiful) feel to the story with anachronisms and inconsistencies. As an example, Caleb, check out the stories around Orestes in the Odyssey--every time he's brought up, it's a different version of the story.

These inconsistencies transfer over to the nature of the weapons and armour in the Iliad and Odyssey as well. Doug is right that bronze is the dominant metal of the epic, and indeed, many of the arms described in the poem had parallels in the mycenaean period (the boar's tusk helm, shield construction, e.g.), not the archaic. The nature of Homeric warfare isn't clear, but it has nothing to do tactically with archaic Greek warfare. The Archaic poets Tyrtaeus and Callinus provide good evidence of this--their dialect and vocabulary is entirely Homeric (Old Ionic with Aeolian additions), despite them being Dorians. Their description of shields, for example, is clearly Homeric and not contemporary Spartan--they say their shields had bosses on them, Homeric shields do, but Spartan shields did not.

With all that being said, the passage in question presents an interesting philological challenge. The original Greek (from Munro and Allen's edition) is as follows "ὡς δ᾽ὅτ᾽ἀνὴρ χαλκεὺς πέλεκυν μέγαν ἠὲ σκέπαρνον
εἰν ὕδατι ψυχρῷ βάπτῃ μεγάλα ἰάχοντα
φαρμἀσσων: τὸ γὰρ αὖτε σιδήρου γε κρατός ἐστίν:
ὣς τοῦ σιζ᾽ ὀφθαλμὸς ἐλαϊνεῳ περὶ μοχλῷ.

My translation "as when a man bronze-smith (Χαλκεύς Khalkeus is a bronze worker, Σιδηρεύς Sidereus (a non homeric word) is an iron worker) plunges an great axe or an adze(line end) into cold water and it hisses loudly (line end), hardening it--for this is the strength of iron,(line end) so did his eye hiss around the olive plank.(line end)

I highlighted the part that refers to hardening. The word for hardening used in the passage occurs once in the Homeric corpus, which is weird. The word is related to pharmakon, where we get the word pharmacy from, and in this sense it has to mean something like "treat," perhaps akin to our term heat treat. Notice how the sense of heat treating and strength is limited to one line. Notice how the line pertaining to heat treating, if you leave it out, detracts nothing from the meaning of the metaphor. Notice also how the metal worker is a bronze worker, and the material in the bold line is iron. These all point to this line being a later addition, and this addition is known as a gloss in classical epic poetry. They show up a lot and it's easy to see why. Imagine, Caleb, that you were studying the Odyssey in the post-classical, maybe Alexandrian or Roman world. You being an eager young student, as you seem to be, wondered "why on earth would the smith plunge a blade into water?" You ask someone, and then you write in the margin "heat treating strengthens Iron" in your very expensive hand-written text book. The next student comes along and reads your note and says "oh! that must be a line left out, I'll fix it in my copy." And so you have a new line in an old text.

I'd be willing to bet Martin West's edition of the Odyssey will have deleted that line. I'm emailing a friend tonight to confirm it. Edit: West didn't do a version of the Odyssey, just the Iliad. I had heard a rumour about 7 years ago that one was forthcoming, but I was wrong. I still think the hardening line is a gloss, though.

Edited by Tyler Miller
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...