Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


9 August 2016

Homeric reciprocities

Erwin Cook Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 29.1 (2016): 94-104


A modified version of Marshall Sahlins’s model of reciprocity, which maps the modes of reciprocity across kinship distance, helps elucidate reciprocity in Homer. With important qualifications, Homeric reciprocity can also elucidate the social realities of Archaic Greece. There are three primary modes of Homeric reciprocity: general, or altruistic giving, balanced exchange, and negative taking. The model for general reciprocity is family relationships, and it characterizes a ruler’s relationship with the community, where it masks the reality that the upward flow of chiefly tribute exceeds the downward flow of the ruler’s largesse. Balanced reciprocity is practiced between peers within the same community: exchange items are notionally of equivalent value and the transaction is completed within a limited timeframe. Exchanges outside the community tend to be negative: ‘stranger’ is often synonymous with ‘enemy’. Walter Donlan further distinguishes between balanced reciprocities that are compensatory, and tend to be (but are not always) negative, and positive compactual reciprocities such as guest-friendship (xenia). Significantly, compensatory reciprocity includes reciprocities that begin as negative, in which the victim is able to exact compensation (poinē) or revenge (tisis). In Homer, balanced reciprocity consists of seven primary ritual practices: marriage (gamos) and supplication (hiketeia) can be related to xenia, as can sacrifice (iera rezein), somewhat more distantly; ransom (apoina) is related to poinē and tisis. In addition to systematizing further and refining Sahlins’s model, this paper shows that the plots of both Homeric epics are comprehensively structured by reciprocity: whereas the Iliad consists of a causal chain of balanced exchanges, generalized, though not redistributive, reciprocities predominate in the Odyssey. The causal link between exchanges is attenuated as a consequence.


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