Young and Old in Homer and in Heike Monogatari

Young and Old in Homer and in Heike Monogatari

By Naoko Yamagato

Greece & Rome, Vol.40: 1 (1993)

Introduction:┬áHomer’s epics have been compared with many other epic traditions in the world, such as Sumerian, Indian, Serbo-Croatian, Medieval German, and Old French epics, from various points of view, such as narrative techniques, genesis of traditions, oral or writtern nature of texts, and motifs. If comparative studies of the existing sort have any significance, it is rather surprising that there has been no serious attempt to compare Homer’s epics and Heike monogatari (translated as The Tale of the Heike, Heike for short), the best of the medieval Japanese epics, for there are many reasons to believe that the comparison could be worthwhile. While many of the oral epic traditions in Europe, including Homer, have been long dead, the Heike has kept a lively tradition of performance (chanting accompanied by a type of lute) by travelling bards until recently, and still today there are a few performers. One can therefore still obtain first-hand knowledge of the performance which might throw light on some unknown features of oral epics. Rather like Homer’s influence over Greek literature and culture, the Heike has influenced the way of life and thinking of the Japanese profoundly thanks to its popularity and wide circulation. The way in which the Heike influenced other arts, such as no plays, is comparable to Homer’s influence on later Greek literature such as tragedy, and the way the Heike’s warriors set models for later warrior ethics is comparable to the Homeric influence on the later Greek senses of virtue (arete), honour (time), hame (aidos), and so on.

While doing some pilot research on Homer and the Heike, however, I have come to realize that there are other comparable elements than the merely external structures of both traditions which I have mentioned above. This paper will present one particular aspect in which the two epic traditions can be compared, and appreciated in a broader context than the confines of their own cultural backgrounds – namely, characterization of youth and old age and the description of generation gaps.

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