Homer and Hand Tools: A Woodworking Odyssey

It’s high time this blog lived up to its name: this post is on woodworking in a work of literature!

There are a lot of woodworking tools and operations described in Homer’s Odyssey, and some of the most pivotal and memorable episodes of the story turn on an important wooden object.  Aside from the famous Trojan horse (which Homer does not actually describe), the escape from the cyclops, the departure from Ogygia, and Penelope’s test of the bed all closely involve wood and wooden objects, as well as metaphors drawn from woodworking.  This does not mean that Homer was a woodworker, any more than it means he was necessarily a sailor, a cook, or a herdsman, but it does suggest that Homer had observed woodworkers closely.  (Yes, yes, I am aware of the whole authorship debate concerning the Iliad and the Odyssey, and rather than weigh in on the subject, I will merely refer to the poet[s], author[s], and/or redactor[s], whoever he/she/it/they was/were, as “Homer.”)  Describing the actions of craftsmen is always difficult for the outsider, but when we are not even sure what tools and techniques were available in Greece in the 8th century B.C.E., the task of the translator becomes very difficult, especially if said translator does not know an axe from an adze or a mallet from a hammer.  I do not know Greek myself, so like most modern readers, I rely on translations, but I do know a few things about woodworking with hand tools.  And the last time I read the Odyssey, I was struck by several of Homer’s descriptions of woodworking.  I think we can learn a few things from Homer about woodworking in ancient Greece, provided the translator does not get in the way.

Several of Homer’s most vivid descriptions of woodworking come from the best-known episode of the Odyssey, the escape from the cave of the cyclops.  When Odysseus and his men sharpen an olive tree trunk, heat the point in the fire, and thrust it into the cyclops’s single eye, Odysseus (who is telling the story himself at this point) says that he and his men spun the point in the eye like a shipwright spins a drill to bore a hole.  The interesting part, though, is that Odysseus describes a three-man operation in which the shipwright holds the drill steady while two assistants pull a strap back and forth in order to turn the drill bit in the hole.  One translator, Lattimore, mistakenly refers to the tool as a “brace and bit” (9.384), and another translator, Rouse, calls it an “auger” (p. 107), whereas the narrator clearly has in mind something like an enormous bow drill, minus the bow.

A bow drill is typically operated by one worker with two hands: he holds the drill upright with one hand, and with the other he pulls a bow back and forth, with the bow string wrapped once around the shank of the drill bit, so that the bit spins in both directions alternately.  There is no practical reason that a much larger drill could not be constructed on the same principle in order to drill larger or deeper holes, except that the bow would be too long and cumbersome, hence the replacement of the bow with two assistants.  Some early lathes were operated in this manner, but I know of no other reference to such a drill, either in stories or in woodworking literature.  Yet the author seems to have seen something like this drill in operation, or at least heard of it, or else the simile makes no sense.

In the same passage, Odysseus describes the sound of the cyclops’s eye sizzling from the heat of the log’s hot point.  He compares the sound to a red-hot axe or adze head that a blacksmith plunges into a bucket of water to quench.  The blacksmith being an essential artisan in any village, the sight and sound would have been familiar to any ancient Greek, and the simile is unremarkable except that Lattimore mistranslates one crucial word: “As when a man who works as a blacksmith / plunges a screaming great axe blade or plane into cold water, treating it / for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even / so Cyclops’ eye sizzled about the beam of the olive” (9.391-94, emphasis added).  Every other translation on my shelf reads “axe or adze.”

There is quite a difference between an adze (left), which is a blade mounted on the end of a handle, and a plane (right), in which a blade is mounted at an angle in a casing of wood, horn, or metal.  I do not know much about woodworking in Greece in the 8th century B.C.E., and I do not know whether planes were in use during Homer’s era, but I am quite sure that metal plane bodies were not being forged by blacksmiths, since metal-bodied planes were developed only in the 19th century C.E., and those were generally cast rather than forged.  Wooden-bodied planes were certainly used by the Romans, and some even had metal soles, but even here, an entire plane would never be forged and quenched as Homer describes.  If it is indeed a component of a plane that Homer has in mind, then it is certainly the plane iron, or blade, though an adze head is far more likely.  Lattimore was a renowned scholar of Greek, but he did not know his woodworking tools.

Other references to woodworking appear when Odysseus returns to his house in Ithaca disguised as a beggar, though the four translations on my shelf differ quite a bit in their renderings.  As Odysseus enters his house, he leans against a cypress post that a craftsman had long ago made straight and smooth.  The mention of the texture of the wood is a homely touch, appropriate since Odysseus is walking into his own house and recognizing all the once-familiar details of its construction, down to the texture of a doorpost.  As to how exactly it got to be so flat and smooth, the translators are divided.  Lattimore describes “a doorpost of cypress wood, which the carpenter / once had expertly planed, and drawn it true to a chalkline” (17.340-41).  Again with the planes.  Apparently Lattimore is convinced that they did use planes in ancient Greece.  Perhaps they did, since Fagles also describes “a cypress post a master joiner planed smooth and hung with a plumb line years ago” (17.374-75).  Perhaps it was a plane, but did the craftsman use a chalkline or a plumbline in conjunction with the tool?  Is the reader to envision a horizontal line snapped along a log to guide an adze or a plane in truing up a surface, or a vertical line drawn by a weighted string to ensure that the post perfectly upright?  The chalk line and the plumb line are very different tools today, but they may have been the same tool in Homer’s time: simply attach a weight to your chalk line, and you have a plumb line.  It would certainly cut down on the number of tools that a carpenter would have to carry to the worksite.

By way of comparison, Fagles agrees with Rouse, who describes “a doorpost of cypress-wood, which some craftsman had pared and polished so well and made straight as a plumb-line” (p. 197).  Ah, but we don’t typically measure the straightness of stock with a plumb line, so the translation doesn’t quite make sense.  (Also, how would polishing make it straight?  Polishing doesn’t remove significant material.)  However, if the plumb line and the chalk line are the same tool, then the rendering does make sense.  Another translator, Rieu, is more appropriately vague when he describes “a pillar of cypress smoothed by some carpenter long ago and deftly trued to the line” (p. 228).  “Trued” could refer to the straightness of the stock, or to its being perfectly upright, and the use of the ambiguous “line” could suggest either a chalk line or a plumb line, leaving the reader free to imagine a process of either flattening the face of a log or of setting in upright posts.

Evidently, the toolkit of the ancient Greek carpenter was pretty limited, as the Odyssey mentions only a few specific woodworking tools: the axe, the adze, the chalk/plumb line, and the drill/auger.  For example, early in book 5, when Odysseus builds a raft to sail away from Ogygia, the island of the nymph Calypso, she lends him an axe, an adze, and some equipment for boring holes, and with those tools he crafts pegged joints to join 20 logs into a seaworthy raft, complete with a mast, tiller, and gunwales.  The work may have looked crude by our standards, but we are also accustomed to having a plethora of tools to choose from.  Conspicuously absent from the Homeric toolbox are saws and chisels, as well as mallets and any kind of mechanical fastener, such as nails.  We know that the ancient Egyptians used saws even before the Odyssey was composed, so it is likely that the ancient Greeks used them too.  Chisels would almost certainly have been necessary for cutting any kind of tight joint, but that is sheer speculation on my part.  In an age before widespread iron mining, nails would have been prohibitively expensive, hence the pegged joints mentioned in book 5.  The craftsman who regularly handles only a few tools must learn to use each one expertly, which is apparently what Odysseus has done.

The longest and most detailed description of woodworking in the Odyssey is Odysseus’s description of the construction of his own bed near the end of book 23.  Once Odysseus has revealed his identity to his household and killed the malicious suitors who were attempting to court Penelope his wife, he announces his true identity to Penelope last of all.  Incredulous that her husband could really return after a 20-year absence, she devises a simple test.  She orders that Odysseus’s bed, the one that he himself had built, should be brought out of the bedroom and placed in the hall for the mysterious stranger to sleep on, so that they can discuss the matter further in the morning.  Hearing this order, Odysseus is dismayed because he knows very well that his bed was built into the structure of the house, and that it would be impossible to move the bed without destroying both the bed and the bedroom.  He loudly protests that the bed is immovable and lists several details of its construction, and before he knows what he has done, Odysseus has produced indisputable proof of his identity.  Penelope embraces him, and they live happily ever after.

There is less disagreement among the translators as to the construction of Odysseus’s bed.  All agree that the entire bedroom—a second-story chamber, perhaps—was built around the bole of a large olive tree, off of which Odysseus hewed the limbs in order to use the bole itself, still rooted in the earth, as one of the bedposts.  The translators also agree that Odysseus used a line of some sort, generally called a plumb line (though Lattimore sticks to “chalkline” here), to true up the bole.  The plumb line makes sense, for it would be impossible to lay the trunk down horizontally in order to true up one face, and the work would all have to be done with the workpiece held vertically.  Nevertheless, Lattimore’s “chalkline” also has merit, since a chalkline can easily be used vertically, though horizontal use is more typical.  Regardless, this is no easy task for the workman, but Odysseus informs us that he managed it with an adze according to all the translations on my shelf.  (Finally, they all agree on something!)  We are also told that Odysseus bored all the holes himself, with an auger say Lattimore and Fagles, whereas Rieu and Rouse do not mention the tool being used.  An auger is reasonable, since small augers similar to spoon bits are very old indeed, and simple spear-point bits may be even older.  Both could have been used with a fixed T-handle and turned relatively slowly, in contrast to the bow drill’s speed of rotation.

There is more disagreement about the nature of the gold, silver, and ivory decorations that apparently comprised the finish.  Lattimore merely says that Odysseus “decorated it [the bed] with gold and silver and ivory” (23.200), whereas Rouse and Rieu more specifically say that Odysseus used ivory, gold, and silver for inlay work (p. 257 and p. 294, respectively).  Fagles splits the difference, saying that Odysseus “gave it ivory inlays, gold and silver fittings…” (23.225).  Superficially, Fagles’s description makes sense, since ivory is more commonly used for inlay whereas metals are better suited to hardware.  Nevertheless, given the other three translators’ renderings, I suspect that Fagles is taking liberties here.  If this is indeed an inlay job, then it appears that Odysseus used all three materials for the same purpose.  It must have been a magnificent bed!

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of all this is that the King of Ithaka, who owns many slaves and commands a small army and navy, still insists on doing some physical work himself.  In the Homeric world, even a king engages in manual labor, and he may cook, plow, harvest, and build alongside his slaves, just as his wife spins and weaves alongside her slaves.  I cannot say whether this reflects the social realities of Greece in the 8th century B.C.E., but I rather doubt it.  I am not even sure that Odysseus’s craftsmanship is typical of Homeric heroes.  It is hard for me to imagine Agamemnon or Achilles building anything useful with their own hands.  (As the poet W. H. Auden observes in his book The Dyer’s Hand, “The only Greek god who does any work is Hephaestus, and he is a lame cuckold” [430].)  Perhaps this is Homer’s way of showing us the sheer expanse of Odysseus’s intellect, which is his greatest heroic feature.  Odysseus is a superior military strategist and intelligence officer, but he is also able to master any practical craft he puts his hands too, whether it be building a bed, a seaworthy raft, or the Trojan horse, and we feel sure that, had it been necessary for him to fashion a clay pot or make a pair of sandals on his journey, he would have been equally adept at it.  To me, this suggests that the Odyssey was produced in culture in which even the humble trades were recognized as important, and even admired.  They were, after all, worthy of being put into poetry.

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2 Responses to Homer and Hand Tools: A Woodworking Odyssey

  1. Paul Sellers says:

    I have enjoyed catching up on you through your blog. Great stuff. Loved seeing the hand work.
    Best regards,

    Paul Sellers

  2. Steve S. says:

    Paul, I’m delighted that you dropped by, and that you liked the blog. I’ve been enjoying woodworking so much since I first took classes from you and Frank back at Homestead Heritage. They were exactly the foundation I needed to start making my own furniture. (Your spatula-making demo got me started on wooden spoons, by the way.) I hope you’re doing well.

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