previous section
Introduction
next chapter

Introduction

The Homeric poems, as I hope to show, constitute acts of interpretation as well as acts of creation. The elucidation of their oral nature has taught us to look at Homeric composition not as a matter of rigidly prescribed transmission of inviolate requirements, but as a choice among alternative arrangements of fundamental compositional elements—formulas, diction, "themes," type-scenes—that allow for modification within established contours.[1] The process of participating in a poetic


2

tradition, far from being a simple matter of inflexible dependence on antecedents, has emerged, on the contrary, as a process of selection at every stage.

On another level, but analogously, I propose, the Iliad and the Odyssey interpret the mythological material they inherit. As we shall see, they select not only from among different myths—combining those chosen into a


3

narrative within which certain central concerns illustrated by the myths are allowed full development—but also from among different variants and aspects of a single myth. As with rearrangements of formulas or themes, alternative combinations of the features of a myth are possible and equally legitimate, the choices serving to reveal the framework imposed on its subject matter by traditional genre requirements of heroic epic.[2]

But just as an individual formula implies a system of formulaic usage—in each instance expresses not only its individual "essential idea" but a principle of "formularity"[3] —and just as any type-scene involves a recognized


4

pattern, so, I will argue, a particular version of a myth is part of a larger whole that invites shaping, focusing, and integrating within a narrative structure, but that, however partially represented, can be invoked in all its dimensions. The epic audience's knowledge of the alternative possibilities allows the poet to build his narrative by deriving meaning not only from what the poem includes but from what it conspicuously excludes. A telling instance of this is the Iliad's treatment of the Judgment of Paris. Presupposed by the poem and implicit in its plot, where it underlies divine as well as human alignments,[4] the Judgment of Paris would, however, remain an obscure reference, occurring as it does in a single allusion at the end of the poem (24.25-30)—if we were not able to look to sources outside Homer to recover the content of the myth and thus to appreciate the Iliad's


5

particular use and placement of it.[5] The epic can highlight or suppress attributes associated with a particular character, allowing their meaning to be colored by the specific narrative context, thus revising or manipulating its audience's expectations. And, in a complementary movement, it can appropriate the resonance of mythological variants that the narrative context may not explicitly accommodate. In adapting specific features in this way, the poem acts traditionally; it does not violate tradition (although it may be violating one particular tradition) but remains within it, exploiting its possibilities and using traditionality as an instrument of meaning.[6]

The discovery that the dynamics of selection and combination, modification and revision, are intrinsic to participation in an oral poetic tradition—that is, are traditional operations themselves—applies, as I will argue in the present study, to the relationship the epic has with the mythology that is its medium, from which it derives both its identity as part of a system and its distinctive individuality. But if one suggests that modifications of formula, phrase, or type-scene find an analogy in the


6

poem's handling of mythological variants, it is important to stress that no aboriginal prototype of a myth exists that can claim priority over other versions.[7]

This study will examine the processes by which Homeric epic draws on the full mythological range of each character in the development of that character's role and its relation to the poem's central ideas. An especially revealing example is the figure of Thetis. Her role in the Iliad (which has not previously been the subject of any special critical scrutiny) presents a number of enduringly enigmatic and apparently contradictory features that need to be considered in any interpretive approach to the poem, especially because the poem's use of her has important implications for its view of its principal character, Achilles, and hence of its dominant themes. The Iliad's treatment of Thetis offers a crucial instance of the way in which its narrative incorporates traditional material from mythology that does not overtly reflect the subject matter of heroic poetry. To what end does it do so? How does the resonance of this material contribute a wider context and meaning to the Iliad's central themes? Such a study thus aims to make a contribution to Homeric poetics, in that unraveling the functional identity of a figure like Thetis leads necessarily to the larger enterprise of determining what is and is not com-


7

patible with Homeric epic's definition of its subject matter and realm of function—its boundaries as a genre. In pursuing this inquiry, it will be useful to compare how features of Thetis's mythology are exploited by independently inherited poetic traditions, such as those of lyric poetry and the Epic Cycle.

In defining Thetis through a selective presentation of her mythology, the Iliad makes explicit, emphatic use of her attributes as a nurturing mother—a kourotrophos —and protector. To put it another way, this aspect of Thetis's mythology—her maternal, protective power—which is adapted by the Iliad , makes possible one of the poem's central ideas: the vulnerability of even the greatest of the heroes. Semidivine as Achilles is, death is inevitable even for him. At the same time, as we shall see, the Iliad returns us to Thetis's role in the theogonic myth of succession. In its superbly overdetermined economy, the Iliad shapes Thetis as thoroughly from the perspective of its hero's response and ultimate mortal concerns as it delineates his human dilemma against the dimension of a particular divine genealogy. The formal accommodation of Thetis's mythology within epic is recapitulated in the shape of the Homeric Iliad . In defining Thetis, therefore, the poem defines itself.

The discovery of the oral and traditional nature of the Homeric poems, and our increased grasp of the extraordinary complexity and refinement of their oral evolution, has prompted the suggestion that we need a new poetics in order to read them. J. A. Notopoulos, for example, whose work represented an important contribu-


8

tion to the early discussion of oral epic, urged the founding of a new, "non-Aristotelian" criticism of Homer. In fact, what may be called for, as Richard Janko has argued, is a more complete appreciation of the old poetics.[8]

What we need is not to produce our own new basis for reading Homer, but to recover as much as possible what an ancient "reading" might have been based on; or rather we might say that to gain greater access to what Homer's audience heard in the epics—that is, to return to the oldest way of hearing Homer—would be, paradoxically, to achieve for ourselves new grounds for interpreting the Iliad and Odyssey . Just as basic etymological studies of single words (using modern tools of linguistic reconstruction) have brought us closer to the meaning of traditional diction, and finally of Homeric themes,[9]


9

similarly, by uncovering the constituent components of a single Iliadic character we may come closer to understanding how the Iliad conjoined these elements and what the Homeric audience recognized in the depiction of that character.

In our pursuit of the poetic archaeology of Homer, small fragments of evidence will prove indispensable. If careful excavation and comparative analysis of relevant testimony outside the Iliad can show us how to fit together disparate pieces of a mythopoeic entity like Thetis—as we proceed on the assumption that they were once intact, and recognizably so—then even a single successful linkage can show us where to look for further interlocking connections. It can help us to see the shape of the whole structure; it may even turn out to be a cornerstone.

The Epic Cycle has emerged as our most productive (if controversial) resource for understanding the "uniqueness of Homer."[10] The search for the sources of the Iliad , as it was pursued, with exceptional imagination and industry, by scholars in the middle decades of this century, focused attention on the lost poems of the Epic Cycle—whose contents are known to us only indirectly, in a summary dating to the second century A.D.[11]


10

as the crucial clue to finding "das Homerische in Homer."[12] This goal remained elusive to those concerned with specifying the Iliad's literary origins within the Cycle poems' sequence of narratives, as sketched by Proclus's summary, from the genesis of the Trojan War to its aftermath; but their scholarly investigations were stimulating in the scrutiny to which they subjected puzzling and obscure passages of the Iliad .[13] And although their efforts to reconstruct the Iliad's specific literary prototypes were inconclusive, their discussions of the common features shared by the Iliad and the Cycle poems were fruitful, because in attempting to establish which work constituted model and which transformation or revision the "neoanalyst" approach gave impor-


11

tant consideration to the general question of the Iliad's adaptation of preexisting traditional material, such as that inherited by the Cycle poems and (despite their later date) embedded in them.[14]

Especially illuminating along these lines was the work of J. Th. Kakridis, whose studies in the morphology and transformation of story patterns are grounded in solid ethnographic empiricism.[15] Subsequent researches showed in detail that the Cycle poems inherit traditions contingent to our Iliad and Odyssey and preserve story patterns, motifs, and type-scenes that are as archaic as the material in the Homeric poems, to which they are related collaterally, rather than by descent.[16] The Cycle poems and the Iliad offer invaluable mutual perspective on the recombination of elements deriving from a com-


12

mon source in myth, which makes possible the continuous evolution of themes and characters appropriate to individual epic treatments—a dynamic process that must be understood as a function not only of the individual genius of a given practitioner of oral poetry, but of the "many centuries of what must have been the most refined sort of elite performer/audience interaction,"[17] through which the focus and central concerns of poetic entities like the Iliad and the Odyssey could develop, reflecting the developing consciousness of their culture.

Similarly, as we shall see, an important source of comparative evidence offering insight into the themes of the Iliad is choral lyric poetry, where treatment of closely related mythic material provides the possibility of recovering archaic poetic traditions not overtly employed by Homer.[18] As Emile Benveniste has demonstrated, we may even see preserved in Pindar poetic traditions whose Indo-European provenance is clearly discernible.[19] On a similar basis, evidence from Hesiodic poetry proves indispensable.[20]


13

Because the contents of myth must necessarily be adapted to the restrictions and demands of poetic form, such apparently disparate evidence can shed valuable light on the criteria involved in heroic epic's generic regulation of its content. It may illuminate, moreover, any given epic's idiosyncratic handling of content, beyond the first level of adaptation to the formal conventions of epic, to convey the particular ideas and themes of a particular composition—a process that comparison with epic other than the Iliad also shows us. It is essential to bear in mind these two operative levels of selection in order to escape the automatic conclusion that traditional material that does not have an overt role in the Iliad was "not known" to Homer, and, rather, to perceive that either the genre did not encompass it or the thematic development of a particular epic composition did not appropriate it as directly functional. From the latter perspective, as we shall see, the Aethiopis is especially interesting for the student of the Iliad , featuring as it does an alternative development of the theme of the hero's acquisition of immortality through his mother.

Thus, as noted above, the Iliad all but ignores that not inconsequential piece of Iliadic prehistory, the Judgment of Paris; and yet, as we discover in Book 24—although not until then—the Judgment of Paris is indeed known to Homer, but carefully contained in a brief reference.


14

Similarly, we may note that neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey overtly includes or elaborates theogonic mythology, although the myth of the struggle for divine sovereignty is a fundamental and pervasive one.[21] But the poems' references to "Zeus, son of Kronos" (as well as to other divine relations) make clear that the Iliad and the Odyssey assume a divine order dependent upon the myth of succession in heaven. We owe our familiarity with the content of that myth to Hesiod's Theogony ; without it we would be unaware of the developed "history" of the Olympians implicit in the Iliad's use of Zeus's patronymic.[22] Comparably, it has been shown that the reference to the wall built by the Achaeans in Iliad 12 evokes a complex myth of destruction to which even the myth of the Flood has been assimilated; yet we would have no awareness of such a myth without the Cypria and the Hesiodic Catalogue, as well as comparative evidence from the Near East.[23] In such instances, without a knowledge of mythological material from outside the Iliad and the Odyssey , not only would we not be able to identify what lies behind the allusions, but we would not even recognize that they are allusions.


15

For a clearer understanding of Homeric poetics we need to see that the exclusion of such traditional mythological material, or its displacement into more or less oblique references (rather than overt exposition), including its subordination within digressions, is a defining principle by which the Iliad demarcates its subject and orients the audience toward its treatment of its themes. Consider the vivid example of this illustrated by the observation known as Monro's Law, so called after the editor who formulated it in his 1901 edition of the Odyssey : that the Odyssey "never repeats or refers to any incident related in the Iliad. "[24] It is scarcely possible to imagine that the Odyssey was composed without the slightest knowledge of the Iliad and its tradition, given its reliance throughout on the Trojan story for its own background.[25] It is certainly more likely that this "exclusion" of the Iliad is part of a deliberate narrative strategy that serves the Odyssey's goal of staking out its own poetic territory in relation to the Iliad , according to its own bearings.

It is a reasonable surmise, then, that numerous allusions to traditional material may go unidentified by the modern reader unless special effort is made to locate them. if we make the effort, we will be able to discern


16

both foreground and background in the poems' use of mythology and gain a clearer picture of how that mythology is integrated or subsumed. In this way, we will be able to avoid not only denying to Homer knowledge that we did not realize he possessed, but also—and just as importantly—ascribing to him supposed "inventions" that are in fact part of a received heritage and have been employed to be recognized as such. Thus we may achieve a fuller sense of how the epics' specific relation to tradition informs their self-definition.


17

previous section
Introduction
next chapter