Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.06

Nancy Sultan, Exile and the poetics of loss in Greek tradition.   Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.  Pp. xiii + 136.  ISBN 0-84768-751-X (hb).  ISBN 0-84768-752-X (pb).  

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, St. John's College, Cambridge
Word count: 1128 words

In Exile and the poetics of loss, Nancy Sultan (S.) discusses ancient narrative (primarily Homeric epic, but also lyric and tragedy) side by side with modern Greek folksong (in particular the so-called 'Akritic' cycle), focusing upon the themes of heroic travel and return. Most classicists will approach this book obliquely, wanting to know primarily what this cross-temporal syncrisis tells us about the ancient texts. This review is written with that audience in mind; and it would be disingenuous, anyway, to claim that I am anything but an autodidact in the world of Greek folk-music. The fact that S.'s prior publications are published in musicological and folkloric journals suggests that she envisages a rather different target audience; it may be that the book would make better sense in an alternative intellectual context.

S.'s central argument is that criticism has underappreciated the role played by women in the transmission of masculine heroic identity. The hero, she argues, is pulled contrariwise by two narrative impulses: the need to travel abroad, so as to avoid domesticity and stasis, and the need to return home, so as to avoid anonymity in perpetual exile. The family, then, plays a fundamental role in anchoring and preserving heroic identity. Building upon Alexiou's ground-breaking study of lamentation,1 she asserts that the hero's relationship with his wife -- and thence with the communities of women who will 'witness' his death (pp. 74-83) -- constitutes a fundamental motivation in his desire for nñstow . Chains of imagery metaphorise exile as sterility and the house as the telos of wandering.

In emphasising the role of female traditions, S. offers a new interpretation. Homeric studies have (in general) conventionally assumed that κλέος operates primarily or solely through a male poet (a Demodocus or a Phemius). S.'s discussion of Homer's emphasis upon the need for Odysseus to tell his story to Penelope (pp. 91-2 on Od. 11. 223-4; 23. 300-1) provides an important corrective to this view. There is, however, no suggestion in Homer that Penelope will reperform this story, that 'she will be in charge of its transmission once he is dead' (p. 92). To assert, moreover, that 'the hero's telos is dependent upon his permanent reintegration into the woman's world in general, and woman's song in particular' (p. 54, my emphasis) is a leap too far. The claim that scholars have underrated the commemorative role of female tradition upon heroic return is one thing, but it does not follow from that that it is the solitary (or primary? or necessary?) cause of remembrance. That would mean no κλέος for Achilles: though it is true that his mother laments him (Od. 24. 54-62; 93-4; p. 80), he does not, of course, return to his family and wife. S.'s interpretation of the 'tragedy of Hector' in terms of Andromache's memory also raises doubts. On p. 92, she claims that Andromache at Iliad 24.743-5, bewailing the fact that Hector did not die in bed speaking a πυκινὸν ἔπος that she might remember, is frustrated by her inability to communicate his deeds to posterity. But if S.'s interpretation is right, is it unclear what, in fact, prevents Andromache from commemorating him. In any case, ἔπος here does not necessarily mean 'epic' (i.e. the aggregate of heroic deeds), and indeed the epithet might seem to disqualify that interpretation. It is, I think, preferable to take Andromache as recalling with sadness Hector's intimate pillow-talk.

There is, in fact, scant evidence that the Homeric texts envisage heroic commemoration as dependent upon female narrative traditions. S.'s proposition, moreover, does not obviously explain whether female commemoration is viewed as compatible or competing with masculine. This problem might have been addressed by means of consideration of points of tension in the narratives: for example, the important and well-known passage at Odyssey 1. 358-9, where Telemachus tells his mother to go upstairs, for μῦθος is (like so many aspects of Homeric life) a man's business. It may well be that this passage could be interpreted in such a way that it accorded with S.'s thesis (Telemachus' imperative tone represents a strategic attempt to wrest commemorative control from the female sphere, vel sim.); but passages like this need addressing, not neglecting.

The primary problem with this project, however, lies with the comparative approach, which lacks sufficient attention or nuance. S. never really explains what is to be gained by linking Akritic folk song and Homeric epic; and, perhaps more importantly, she never acknowledges any of the critical problems raised by such a method. We are told that 'a cross-cultural comparison ... reveals much about the traditional Greek attitude towards the phenomenon of exile ... [and] we gain a new view of how the notion of exile functions within the poetic narratives and in the lives of heroes such as Odysseus, Herakles, and in modern song, the "Akritic" hero figure who shares so much in common with his ancient counterpart' (p. 3). But this assertion fudges the matter: by overselling a narrative of continuity, S. occludes difference. 'Comparison' properly implies a process of critical discrimination, a dynamic negotiation between two poles that repel as much as they attract. But there is no scope in S.'s project for change, even over the best part of three millennia. Odysseus and Herakles are folded unproblematically into their 'counterparts' in the modern world, and vice versa. The word 'tradition' echoes throughout the book, always in the singular, as though it were the invariant constant obscured only by the surface 'noise' of cultural change.

This refusal to negotiate the coordinates of cultural difference vitiates many of her comparisons. For example, her discussion of the folkloric pallikari or young man: 'although pallikari is not a Homeric term, the heroes of fighting age in archaic Greece embody this same characteristic ideal' (p. 24). The same? Surely not: comparable in certain respects, perhaps, but Homeric constructions of manhood differ in crucial ways from modern Greek. In particular, the idea of the family has become Christianised, a factor that S. ignores, happily conflating God and the gods (esp. p. 29). Even the phenomenon of exile from one's homeland itself is a cultural construction that changed from period to period and from place to place in the ancient world: for Socrates it was an unthinkable evil, for the Stoics and Cynics an opportunity to exercise one's manhood, and for Christian ascetics the chance to get closer to God.2

S. is a thoughtful reader whose arguments are often provocative and interesting and whose writing conveys eloquently the lyrical beauty of her subject-matter. A shame, then, that the intellectual substratum of the book is not sufficiently worked out. Although Classicist readers will gain new insights, many will feel that the critical implications are not explored with enough depth or subtlety to produce a compelling argument.


1.   Margaret Alexiou, The ritual lament in Greek tradition (Cambridge, 1974).
2.   For the tradition, see E. Doblhofer, Exil und Emigration: zum Erlebnis der Heimatferne in der römischen Literatur (Darmstadt, 1987), which still rather reifies the 'phenomenology' of exile. For the Latin tradition, see J.M. Claassen, Displaced persons: the literature of exile from Cicero to Boethius (London, 1999); and for Roman Greece. Whitmarsh, 'Greece is the world: exile and identity in the Second Sophistic', in S.D. Goldhill ed. Being Greek under Rome: the Second Sophistic, cultural conflict and the development of the Roman empire (Cambridge, forthcoming 2000).

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