Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.13

Steven Lowenstam, The Scepter and the Spear: Studies on Forms of Repetition in the Homeric Poems. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. Gregory Nagy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993. Pp. xvi + 287. ISBN 0-8476-7772-9 (hb). ISBN 0-8476-7790-7 (pb). $62.50 (hb). $27.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrew S. Becker, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Thoreau and Emerson, our early American bards, suggest that we take the tradition we have inherited, use it and work with it, but never believe that the tradition forces, coerces, or determines our choices. We are then free to trope it, to use Emerson's term, to turn it this way or that, to make it new and make it fit a new context. This is what Lowenstam sees in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In these poems the tradition gives form, meaning, and authority, but then the Homeric epics trope it, making their own particular sense of things. This is a fine book, that helps us to understand the implications of formulaic language, but also insists on the individual originality of Homer in using and adapting it.

I begin with the author's own intentional statement: "The thesis of the present book is that the Homeric poems investigate and elucidate important social questions by making analogies between contrasting situations and by revealing the differences between analogous material.... The Iliad and the Odyssey are based on repeated antitheses" (p. xiii).1 Lowenstam sees his book as a contribution to a debate about repetition in Homeric epic: "In criticism today, some authors pay little attention to repetition or parallelism because they believe, as Hainsworth says, that the Homeric audience was impervious to them, while others point out parallels between different passages and proceed to interpret the reasons for their appearance" (p. 3). Lowenstam is firmly in the second group, taking a hard look at formulaic composition, and concluding that repeated epithets and repeated motifs are not merely a reflex of oral composition, but are meaningful in each context in which they occur. He has worked through the implications of oral poetics; he then sees an aesthetic emerging that explains repetition as an integral mode of thought, as a way of exploring complex themes and values. In the course of this book, Lowenstam makes a convincing case for such a self-conscious production of the Homeric epics. He argues that the epithets and motifs are modified to fit a certain context, hence the individual troping of a given bard within the poetic tradition.

Lowenstam also sees a very self-conscious audience, one that is willing and able to reflect and evaluate what it is hearing. Lowenstam's analysis assumes an early Homeric audience that can see each epic as a whole; this aspect of his argument is similar to, e.g., Oliver Taplin's Homeric Soundings. Like Keith Stanley's The Shield of Homer, Lowenstam sees intricate relationships between parts of the Iliad.2 This is unlike the bard and audience for Homeric poetry envisioned by, say, George Walsh's Varieties of Enchantment or Andrew Ford's Homer: The Poetry of the Past.

The book is made up of three chapters; the first deals with verbal repetition in the Iliad, specifically epithets and their import; the second treats thematic repetition in the Iliad, specifically the series of disputes that shape and sharpen the conflict between natural ability and social authority; and the third with the Odyssey, specifically the contrast between the palace or the megaron and the agora -- he discusses what is appropriate to each, and how this contrast makes sense of much of the epic. Within each chapter there are discrete analyses of individual passages, and their relation to one another. His method is much like William Blake's assumption of total significance: one gets much further by assuming that each detail is meaningful than by assuming meaninglessness. This assumption of total significance is a stern taskmaster, requiring much more patience and thought than the alternative, and here, as often, the results are worth the effort.

Chapter 1, on the use of epithets, continues and refines recent arguments against a strict Parryism. He argues against Parry's belief in "irrational" epithets by showing that the epithets so classed by Parry are by no means irrational and in fact reflect very well the poetics of the Iliad and the themes and values articulated therein. Lowenstam takes aim at the meanings we have traditionally assigned to several epithets and reinterprets them in the context of the Homeric poems; he shows that we have been misled into thinking that the epithets are irrational by our own allegiance to common definitions. He does this with potnia, with pêkhus (accompanied by a good discussion of iphthimos), and with amumon. The method of the first chapter is to take a problematic epithet, analyse its uses throughout the Homeric poems, and to compare all other epithets used of that particular noun, to see if the problematic one can be explained. For example, at Odyssey 18.5, the beggar Iros is said to have a "noble" or "queenly" mother (potnia).3 Parry used this as an example of an "irrational" epithet, the presence of which he attributed to the formulaic nature of Homeric poetry: its appearance here in this context has nothing to do with the specific case, but is merely a reflex of oral composition, argued Parry. Lowenstam asks us to step back and take a closer look. His method is to compare other uses, to consider other related epithets, and to use etymology, although sparingly and judiciously. In this case, his shows, (a) that mothers are not described with reference to social position, and (b) that potnia refers to legitimacy not social rank. Hence calling the beggar's mother potnia is not "irrational." Lowenstam's method is an exercise in recovery, and this exercise forces us to abandon the traditional meaning of "queen" for potnia and to consider it more akin to "legitimate," "lawfully wedded." This is a bracing reminder to those who cut their teeth on Homeric dictionaries and internalized English equivalents for these epithets very early: the English held us captive. Similar is his discussion of "blameless Aegisthus," who of all characters should not be blameless (amumon). Lowenstam takes us on a tour of the uses and contexts of the epithet, concluding that it does not mean what we thought it meant, but rather that its sense is more akin to "crafty, clever."

Most interesting is the reevaluation of Penelope's "thick" hand (Odyssey 21.6). The epithet pekhus here does indeed mean "thick," according to Lowenstam, but we have called it an irrational epithet because of our own misleading assumptions. Lowenstam first takes us into the history of the displeasure readers have expressed when faced with this epithet, then, through parallels and contrasts, shows that it was an admirable quality, for women as well as for men: thickness, strength, and size are perfectly appropriate to feminine beauty in the Homeric poems, and the need to explain away Penelope's thick hand stems from a modern aesthetic, not a Homeric one.4 Here it is not that we have translated the epithet in a misleading way, but that assumptions about female beauty have not allowed us to accept it as it stands. This is an excellent chapter, forcing us to rethink many passages that, by their very familiarity, have become too long encrusted with unhelpful glosses and interpretations.

While Chapter 1 concludes "that metrical convenience did not lead to the improper use of epithets or formulas" (p. 59), Chapter 2 extends this analysis to type-scenes or repeated narrative patterns. The method is similar, to examine the relationships between scenes and to look at both the similarities and contrasts between repeated themes. Although some may see the approach as a bit old fashioned, with a New Critical fixation on the text "itself," Lowenstam handles his material deftly and with enough sophistication to belie such a charge. He hopes to show that "Homer constructs poems like the composer of a fugue: variations of a theme recur, and only at the completion of the work can one recognize the full range and meaning of that theme." (p. 60). As I mentioned above, this requires a bard who carefully composed the Iliad as a whole, and implies an audience willing and able to consider it as such.

The focus of this chapter is the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in the first book of the Iliad. This theme is varied throughout the epic: the opposition of socially sanctioned power (based on tradition, convention, and social norms), and the power of the warrior (based on ability and prowess). The scepter and the spear of Lowenstam's title refer to the honor attained by social position and the honor attained by natural excellence, i.e., Agamemnon and Achilles, respectively: "From the very beginning of the poem, then, the conflict is seen as that between the administrators and the warriors, ... or more abstractly, between authority and battle prowess.... The Homeric concept is first introduced in the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilleus, and the numerous transformations of this quarrel complete the characterizations" (pp. 136-37). Lowenstam argues that Agamemnon's position is untenable. Agamemnon has overstepped his bounds by saying that, just as a god can take whatever he wants from a mortal, so a king can take whatever he wants from his subordinates. Lowenstam argues that he is wrong. The character Lowenstam gives to this dispute comes not only from his reading of this scene, but also from the series of variations that come throughout the Iliad.

His first variation is the quarrel between Zeus and Hera. Zeus and Agamemnon are likened by the language used in these scenes, but the significant difference is that Zeus has the ultimate power that Agamemnon lacks and that Zeus's actions are said to be "irrevocable and honest" (1.526), in contrast to Agamemnon's grasping transgressions. The theme is played again in the fifth book when Ares comes to Zeus. Both this scene and the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles show a figure in authority who reproves a warrior for violence and aggressiveness. But, whereas the divine dispute shows a clear division between great authority and excessive violence, the human dispute is muddied and not so clear as either party, especially Agamemnon, wishes to make it. In the second half of the poem (specifically 13.345-60 and 15.157-219) the dispute is refigured again with Zeus and Poseidon. There the question is whether Zeus has overstepped his powers or Poseidon is "putting on airs" in assuming to be Zeus's equal. Specific verbal reminiscences are used to establish the similarity between Poseidon and Achilles in their feeling that they are wronged. By the end of the epic it becomes clear that Agamemnon has overstepped his powers, as even he admits.

Lowenstam then discusses the Thersites scene and parallels between Paris and Achilles; he continues with a good treatment of the ninth book. In this chapter one must again accept a Homeric audience that will reflect, evaluate, see irony, and even see that Phoenix's speech in book 9 subverts itself in the telling. This is not only acceptable, but probable, to my mind, but some Homerists will not like it. Lowenstam sees this compositional subtlety, the complex repetitions with variation, as a mark of a "great creative intelligence" (p. 140), orchestrating the diverse variations in counterpoint with one another.

Lowenstam ends this chapter with a tragic aspect of the Iliad. In an argument focusing on the urns of Zeus, he argues that natural ability and conventional authority can never be possessed by one person. As Achilles chooses the life of meteoric martial glory over that of conventional authority at home, so the urns of Zeus show us that all human beings, no matter how great their excellence, must choose: "Repeatedly the Iliad bears out Poulydamas' observation that one person cannot possess all skills.... Natural ability is permanently divorced from authority" (p. 135). This is a tragic aspect of the Iliad, that there can be no human being corresponding to Zeus, who possesses both the highest natural and conventional power. Hence conflicts between a future Achilles and a future Agamemnon will necessarily continue to happen. The Iliad is characterized as a prolonged meditation on this tragic situation, exploring the theme from the outset and returning to it again and again through repetition and variation. Only by the end of the epic is the theme fully filled out: "At the beginning of the Iliad the quarrel raises the question of what it means to be 'the best of the Achaians.' At first, the issue seems to be whether excellence is determined by political position or natural talent; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that to speak of nature or authority without the other is idle. Each has its role; each needs the other (11.762-63). And finally, we are told that, despite their dependence on each other, the two cannot be joined in one person. The greatest human fortune is to obtain excellence in either nature or authority" (p. 139).

The third chapter, on the Odyssey, begins with another clearly stated dichotomy. Recalling Odyssey 20.264-67, Lowenstam says that Telemachus's distinction between public and private places "is basic to the whole poem." (p. 145) The Odyssey affirms, says Lowenstam, that a prerequisite of wisdom "is the proper understanding of the different requirements of the agora and the megaron." (p. 147) The agora is the place of public decision-making and conflict, while the megaron is the place of escape, leisure, feasting, and rewards. This theme is discussed in the same way as the conflicts in the Iliad: Lowenstam takes us through a series of variations that similarly comment upon and revise the central question.

He begins with book 8, with Odysseus's experiences with the Phaeacians in Scheria. There the dominant motif is a contrast between force, deeds, and violence, on the one hand, and craft, words, and peaceful resolution, on the other. Book 8 turns out to be a focal point for the Odyssey's exploration of these contrasting spheres of force and craft that are elaborated in the second half of the poem. The Phaeacians show an ideal separation between the agora and the megaron. Also in this book, the songs of Demodocus, which do not necessarily comment upon the issues of book 8, serve to prefigure questions that are important in the second half of the poem.

The first half of the Odyssey (not just book 8, but also books 3, 4, and 6), says Lowenstam, sets standards of hospitality and the proper separation of agora and megaron that are then used as a foil for the Ithacan books. His method remains constant: "it is important first to discern the common narrative pattern, which not only reveals the motifs involved but also establishes a standard of judgment, and then to discover the deviations from the pattern. For it is the differences that are the most telling" (pp. 184-85). This is salutary: the ability to see beyond the mere fact of repetition, and to look to the particular use of repetition shows a kind of engagement and attention to detail that helps us to better appreciate Homeric poetics. Although Lowenstam's binary oppositions may remind us of the too clear polarities of some structuralist criticism, his attention to particular differences help him to avoid the pitfalls of excessive abstraction.

Many a motif is further discussed, including that of undergoing trials, of ambush, and the likening of Odysseus and Hermes. There is much on the adventurous books 9-12 as they play out the theme of agora (where human worth is determined," p. 198) vs. megaron ("where human values are honored," p. 198). Then, when it brings us to Ithaca, the Odyssey shows us an Antinoos who treats Odysseus's megaron as his own arena for conflict and violence, that is, as an agora. The best section of this third chapter follows, in which Lowenstam shows that the most inexplicable aspects of Odysseus's visit to Scheria, introduced in the discussion of book 8, are explicable when that visit is seen as a precursor of his arrival on Ithaca: Odysseus's disguise, the odd description of the Phaeacians as boorish and insulting, Arete's prominence in the court, the ways in which the description of Nausicaa prefigures that of Penelope. All make sense when they are repeated in Ithaca. Even such details as the emphasis on archery, the process of proving worth and identity, the three songs all dealing with force and violence vs. craft and trickery, all gain a fuller meaning in their recurrences in Ithaca. Lowenstam says: "Much evidence, then, has been presented to demonstrate that the details of the books pertaining to Scheria provide an extended parallel to the details of the Ithakan adventure" (p. 226). The upshot is that details that may seem merely ornamental, even out of place, in the earlier books, make good sense when we come to the later books. This requires, as Lowenstam said in the second chapter, a controlling intelligence guiding the composition and the diction. Here the consistent point is that an early audience of the Homeric epics would be capable of and expected to form expectations as the poem unfolds, and to adjust those expectations in retrospect at a later point.

The book ends with Penelope. Lowenstam has a fascinating analysis of Penelope's annoyance, disbelief, and disappointment at the way events are unfolding, especially in relation to the dream of the eagle and the geese: she weeps for the loss of freedom that will come with the arrival of the stranger, and the fear she has of being deceived by an impostor: "both in her dream and in her own life, she has come to control her situation, only to have the stalemate destroyed first by the eagle and then by the stranger" (p. 237).

There are aspects of this book that are troubling, though these are relatively minor. Lowenstam is too confident that he gives us the "true value and meaning" (p. 11) of Homeric passages. Also his confidence both in the use of authorial intent as a hermeneutic principle and in our ability to know it needs to be better defended. The book, however, is very good. It has insightful reading of specific phrases and passages. It leads us to questions many widely accepted assumptions. It is also provides good arguments for other widely held beliefs, which benefit from the bolstering supplied by Lowenstam. One of the strengths of Lowenstam's book is that it uses the tools of traditional classical philology to reach conclusions about Homeric poetry that are often very similar to those reached in more explicitly theoretical studies. This will make his book more convincing to many classicists. Finally, on a more abstract level, the book is a good antidote to an approach that may be characterized as "totalizing" or "universalizing." Such an approach notes a similarity between some x and some y, then assumes that x and y are the same, or at least functioning in the same way. Lowenstam keeps us from such an easy acquiescence, insisting on particularity, emphasizing the importance of the differences (see, e.g., pp.184-185). This is a book that has changed the way I read the Iliad, has changed my scholarly work on the Iliad, and has changed the way I teach the Iliad.


  • [1] Lowenstam cites, in his introduction, the common study of mythic exemplars, similes, and digressions in the Homeric poems, as precursors to his own work: these areas of enquiry assume that repetition with variation is part and parcel of Homeric poetics, and that both the repetition and the variation are significant. and "as likely to present a contrast as a similar situation." (pp. 4-5).
  • [2] Stanley and Taplin make much more surprising claims and are much more speculative than Lowenstam. Lowenstam's book is very much committed to textual evidence, a traditional philological approach, and an original context of production and reception as the privileged arbiter of meaning.
  • [3] All Greek is translated, with the exception of two words on p. 150 note 17 (andreia and sunesis). Curiously, p. 33, including note 53, as well as p.36 have references to metrical positions that use technical terminology; this is contrary to the author's efforts elsewhere to make this book appeal to an audience beyond scholars of Greek, and to the assumed audience of the series. Other minutiae: pp. 112 and 118 are anomalous in that they give translations of lines without giving the Greek, and p. 103 note 111 tells us of fifteen instances of a certain metaphor in the Iliad, without telling us where they occur.
  • [4] For other views of Penelope's thick hand, see now M. Nagler in Colby Quarterly 29 (1993) 241-57, and D. and L. Roller in Classical Journal 90 (1994) 9-19.