Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.12

Walter Burkert, Kleine Schriften I. Homerica. Edited by Christoph Riedweg.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001.  Pp. ix, 281.  ISBN 3-525-25235-8.  EUR 49.00.  

Reviewed by Barry B. Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison (
Word count: 4527 words

Walter Burkert turned 70 on February 2, 2001, and this first volume in a series presents a collection of his essays on topics related to Homer. Future volumes, to appear one each year, will consider Orientalia, Mystica, Mythica (two volumes), Tragica et Historica, and Philosophica. Given B.'s influence, and the out-of-the way venue of many of his short publications, these volumes will be highly welcome to classical scholarship.

In the first essay, "Typen griechischer Mythen auf dem Hintergrund mykenischer und orientalischer Tradition," which appeared in 1991, he cautions against such efforts as M. Nilsson's to find a single origin for Greek myth. Greek myth is too complex and diverse to be traced to a single source. We assume that strands of Greek myth go back to the Mycenaean period, but direct evidence scarcely exists. Debts to the East are now known to all, but B. suggests we approach the topic typologically first, and historically second.

Some myths are local, whereas others are universal. Local myths will include foundation myths, often little known, a type of story that B. considers to be a "real myth" in the sense that they are based in an oral tradition, revolve around certain families, and function as charters for historical conditions in various places. There can be no doubt that these foundation myths arose in the archaic period. Although such local myths, often genealogical, attempt to attach their beginnings to the Trojan and Theban sagas, they do not reach back so far and the connection is artificial and secondary.

A second category we might also call Homeric, because it refers to the world of the Trojan and Theban wars, long reports of which come to us in the Homeric poems. Such stories are not local but embrace all the Greek world. This is a synthetic mythology, where the names are often "speaking-names", as Polynices = "much strife," therefore perhaps artificial, but local traditions creep in too, so that Aias is localized on Salamis. On the whole, however, the Homeric mythology is recent, poetical, and deeply influenced by Eastern models of story telling.

Another category of Greek myth is folktales, especially those about Heracles and Perseus. These are not local, but belong to all the Greeks, even as do stories of the Trojan and Theban wars. Such stories belong to the "mighty deeds" type of myth and revolve around themes of initiation and the culture-bearer. They are often transparently Eastern, for example the story about a hero who killed a sevenheaded serpent.

A plethora of other myths attested especially in Greek tragedy give the impression of being the original and "genuine" Greek myths, for example, stories about Erechtheus, born from semen-stained cloth, or about Arion sired by Poseidon on the goddess Erinys. Such stories are always local and tied to local explanations for the origins of various customs and religious practices. Of all Greek myths, curiously, those appearing in the tragic corpus appear the oldest, some even of Indo-European origin (the Dioscuri). Names in such stories are usually inexplicable, unlike the speaking names of "Homeric myth."

Finally, there is the category of cosmogony and theogony. Such stories are not of local origin or relevance, are cast in the epic dialect, and are transparent importations from the Orient, no doubt in the archaic period.

In "The Formation of Greek Religion at the Close of the Dark Ages," from 1992, B. emphasizes the oddity that Greek religion is intimately bound up with the polis. Ordinarily we find a priestly class, or shamans and wizards, who control religious sensibilities, but the Greeks lacked a professional priesthood and aoidoi preempted the wizards. Because Greek religion is polis-religion, Greek religion as such cannot be older than the 8th century B.C., when the polis began to take on shape. Just at this time appear the polis temple and hero-cult, two of the most prominent features of classical Greek religion.

Recent work on the emergence of the polis directly enhances our understanding of Greek religion. The agora, at first = "meeting place," becomes "market place" where the temples are built that ensure traders' oaths. Striking is the Greek rejection of monarchy, the predominant and by far most successful of political forms in the ancient world. The hero cult was a way of focusing the polis' sense of itself as a unity without a worldly monarch.

Because Greek religion is polis-religion, the question of continuity from the Mycenaean period is placed in an awkward position. There is scant evidence of continuity of any kind, save for a few divine names in the Linear B tablets. Greek calendars, with names based on religious festivals, are demonstrably of Iron Age origin. Some forms of this polis-religion seem taken directly from the East after the collapse of the Mycenaean world, for example the building of temples and the female prophetess at Delphi.

The role of aoidoi in defining popular notions of what the gods looked like and how they acted, as Herodotus observed, is without parallel in the East. The influence of aoidoi on religion is easily seen in how the word hêros changed from "champion" in Homer to "a dead person with honor" in classical religion. The heroes of Homer became the powerful dead who resided in ancient tombs and protected the interests of the living. Through its gods the polis established nomos, the law that ruled Greek society and set them apart from earlier and foreign societies.

In "Homerstudien und Orient"(1991) B. reviews questions of Near Eastern influence on the Homeric poems. Oddly, commentators of the 17th and 18th centuries were alert to the importance of the Near Eastern traditions, about which almost nothing was then known, whereas in the 19th century, when real information about the East emerged, classical scholars showed little interest in the topic. Such impolite behavior no doubt grew from European cultural arrogance and frank anti-Semitism, yet Altertumswissenschaft was trying to break away from its earlier associations with theology. B. presents an interesting review of the scholarly views of important 19th century classicists about Near Eastern influence. He discusses the early noticed parallels between Gilgamesh and Homeric epic, and in the twentieth century the landmark publication of Hittite, Babylonian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian myths.

Archaeological finds more and more reveal the close relations Greeks had with the Orient after the 8th century. B. himself, with Martin West, articulated the thesis that Greek culture was a spin-off from the Near East, a thesis richly argued in Martin West's immensely important The East Side of Helicon, which appeared ten years after this article. B. does not here mention the sensational finds on Euboea, just being published, which have altered our understanding of Greek/East relations during the Iron Age, for Euboea seems never to have broken direct contact with the East.

The next article, the oft-quoted "Das hunderttorige Theben und die Datierung der Ilias," published in 1976, before the Euboean discoveries, attempts to establish a terminus post quem for the Iliad on the basis of the reference in Iliad 9.381-384 to "Egyptian Thebes, where the most wealth of all is stored in houses, which have one hundred gates, through each of which two hundred men course in their horse-drawn cars." B. resists the old analytic preference, still strong in German Homerforschung, to view these lines as an interpolation. Nor can the reference descend from the Bronze Age 18th Dynasty, he thinks, when Egyptian Thebes was at the peak of its glory, because the formulaic language is "recent." B. is at his most sketchy when he reasons that Greek knowledge of the ancient world's greatest temple complex, even today without parallel, must have perished after the Bronze Age and been unknown in the West until 663 B.C. when Assurbanipal sacked Thebes and paraded its wealth across Asia. On this argument he takes 663 B.C. as a terminus post quem for the Iliad.

Perhaps embarrassed by his own argument, which places the Iliad far too late according to the communis opinio, B. cites the wealth of Delphi and the Gorgoneion on the shield of Menelaus as other possibly 7th century details. Delphi and the Gorgoneion aside, the glory and greatness of Egyptian Thebes, even in decline, did not require an Assyrian sack to become a paradigm for Greek epic. Greek epic inherited confused traditions about Egypt that recur in Odysseus' lying tales and elsewhere. Consonant with such confusion, typical of oral tradition, is Achilles' notion that the temple pylons at Karnak and Luxor were city gates through which enemy chariots passed. Why would a city's destruction generate its reputation for greatness and wealth? One could use the same argument to establish a terminus ante quem for the Iliad, according to preference.

In the still earlier next article (1971), "Von Amenophis II. zur Bogenprobe des Odysseus," B. attempts to solve the mystery of Homer's description of Odysseus' victory at the suitor contest by comparative evidence from Egyptian celebratory inscriptions and iconography. The maids have set up twelve axes in a trench in the dirt floor. The Loeb's A. T. Murray desparately translates Od. 21.421-423: "and he did not miss the handle hole of any of the axe blades from first to last," for πελέκεων ... πάντων πρώτης στειλειῆς, "but clean through and out at the end [διὰ ἀμπερὲς ἦλθε θύραζε.] passed the arrow weighted with bronze"(21.421). B. translates: "sämtliche Äxte verfehlte er nicht, oben am Stiel, durch und durch drang der Pfeil hinaus," which seems to mean "he didn't miss any of the axes, high up on the axe handle, and the arrow shot straight through."

Several schools of interpretation of these lines have emerged in the last two thousand years, about how exactly Odysseus shot through the axes. B. reviews various theories, then accepts Wilamowitz's judgment that Homer himself did not understand the nature of the contest but reported a garbled inherited version. What, then, might the original coherent version have been?

B. notices that Pharaohs of the New Kingdom boast of shooting through copper targets, and that in art such targets, in the shape of large copper talents, have a rough resemblance to a double axe, and he wonders if such boastful archery is not the origin of the feat that Homer confusingly describes. True, Odysseus shoots through twelve of them, and they are made of iron not copper, but such corrections are understandable. Hard to accept, however, is that royal Egyptian iconography and propaganda from the Bronze Age can have found its way into the description of a Greek suitor contest, in a climactic narrative scene, six hundred years later. This fault of "the third man"--how do we get from here to there?--reappears in B.'s writing.

"Homer's Anthropomorphism: Narrative and Ritual" from 1991 makes telling general observations about the relationship between Homer's poetic religion and the "real" religion exemplified by sacrifice. B. makes three principal points: (1) Homeric anthropomorphism does not derive directly from Homeric religion but is a narrative device based on Eastern models. (2) The gods' all-too-human behavior, which excites humor in the audience, does not call into question the seriousness of real religion, which is grounded in ritual. Such a religion of ritual, barely connected to the anthropomorphic gods, is a recurrent topic in epic, for example when a commander kills an animal to assure an oath, or when the Achaeans sacrifice to Apollo in thanks for an end to plague. (3) Homeric anthropomorphism does not derive from the spreading use of anthropomorphic images in Greek cult during the 8th century B.C.; if anything, the full anthropomorphism of classical Greek religious art depends on Homer's descriptions. B. argues each point with rich examples and illuminates that basic problem in reading Homer: Where do the gods fit and what do they have to do with the religion that Greeks of the archaic age experienced in their everyday lives?

In "ΘΕΩΝ ΟΠΙΝ ΟΥΚ ΑΛΕΓΟΝΤΕΣ Götterfurcht und Leumannsches Missverständnis" (1981), B. tackles the problem of the meaning of ὄπις, the pièce de resistance of "perhaps the most difficult phrase in Pindar" (Farnell), namely ἐλπίδων ἔκνιχ' ὄπιν (Isth. 5.58). B. traces a subtle development from an initial adverbial form to a noun of sometimes puzzling meaning.

The early (1960) "Das Lied von Ares und Aphrodite, Zum Verhältnis von Odyssee und Iliad" begins from the one fact on which all (almost) Homerists agree: the Iliad comes before the Odyssey. Can we find clear examples of indebtedness? Surely in Demodocus' song of Ares and Aphrodite in Odyssey 8 we can, B. suggests. Analysts have considered the song extraneous, but as usual their positions rest on shaky ground. B. draws astute parallels between the song of Ares and Aphrodite and the scene in Iliad 1 where Hephaestus excites laughter after a scene of strife. The "Deception of Zeus" in Iliad 14 also shares language and structural elements with the song, as does the battle of the gods in Iliad 20/21.

In this early article B. seems to be unaware of Parry's work, and so he explains the similarities that he identifies as conscious imitation by the "Odyssey poet" of features admired in the "Iliad poet." In his heart B. inclines toward German Analysis, though his reason keeps steering him in the other direction. Because the Iliad and Odyssey are different in important ways, Homer of the Iliad and Homer of the Odyssey cannot be the same man, he thinks. It's as if when you regarded two oceans you found separate coastlines and concluded that oceans are formed in different ways.

Twenty-five years after publishing his article on Ares and Aphrodite, B. has fully absorbed the meaning of Parry's research and in "'Irrevocabile verbum': Spuren mündlichen Erzählens in der Odyssee" (1995) he makes an important contribution to the theory of Parry/Lord. B. argues that the Homeric texts can only have come into existence through dictation, just as Parry and Lord thought (although B.'s ill-considered date for Homer in the 7th century B.C. vitiates his argument constantly). Because the Iliad and the Odyssey were dictated texts, they were never corrected. Homer did not go back over his text and fix things up. We should be able to detect occasional confusions of the poet in the received text, then, and B. gives some very interesting examples.

In the funeral games for Patroclus, for example, Achilles announces in advance a prize for shooting the string that holds the dove, although in the event the shearing of the string is accidental; he must be looking forward to the conclusion in his mind's eye. Oddly, Homer never tells us that the Cyclops has only one eye; well, he shares this knowledge with his intimate audience. Helen recognizes Telemachus because he looks just like the son of Odysseus, but she can never have seen him; she meant to say, "he looks like Odysseus," but Homer's knowledge about how he is going to handle his story has interfered with his narrative logic. Agamemnon first lands near "the house of Thyestes, where Aegisthus dwells" (but of course Aegisthus now dwells in Mycenae)--Homer is mixing up two narrative lines. On Scheria, the Phaeacians feast and Odysseus cries at the singer's song, then after exercise they feast again and again Odysseus cries (Homer has changed his mind in midstream about how he's going to set up the recognition). Odysseus instructs Telemachus to sequester three sets of armor, but further in the narrative, after Philoetius joins the conspirators, Homer pretends that the plan did not exist and makes up a new one. Hellenistic texts of the Odyssey seem to have Athena saying she will send Telemachus to Crete, a lectio difficilior, hence probably original: when Homer dictated the song, he was thinking of the many Cretan tales that Odysseus is going to tell. In old Analysis, such disjoinings were explained as the work of redactors, but B. shows with elegance how they support the thesis that the Ur-text of Homer was a dictated text.

In the recent (1999) "Der Odyssee-Dichter und Kreta," B. returns to earlier arguments that the Odyssey and the Iliad have different composers. For the Odyssee-Dichter had a keener interest in Crete, which figures importantly in the false tales, than did the Ilias-Dichter, whose accounts do not in any event always agree with the Odyssey. The Cretan stories have the ring of the contemporary about them all right and seem to speak to us directly about Homer's world, for example in the observation that five peoples lived on Crete. The probably Aristarchean version of Athena planning to send Telemachus to Crete, not Sparta, must precede the preeminence of Sparta in the early 7th century B.C., where B. wants to place Homer. B. plays with the slightest wisps of evidence here and teases out possibilities, but we are never sure if we are running in a circle when we use the text of Homer, whom we are trying to define, as evidence for "what was happening" in his age.

B. denies the authorship of the Odyssey to "Homer." He seems to accept "Homer"'s authorship of the Iliad, but hedges when he speaks of the Ilias-Dichter, as if that were something else. In the early (1972) "Die Leistung eines Kreophylos: Kreophyler, Homeriden und die archaische Heraklesepik" B. proposes that a lost epic, the "Oichalias Halosis" of which one line survives, presumed basis for Sophocles "Trachiniae", was in fact composed by Homer, at least the "Homer" who composed the Iliad. B.'s appealing argument takes off from the legend that Homer had given the "Oichalias Halosis" to a certain Kreophylos, who entertained him. We must be talking about texts here. A silly story, yes, but we must admit that the plot of the "Sack of Oichalia" is consistently unlike other stories told about Heracles and strikingly similar in theme and treatment to the Iliad. "Homer," then, may well and in fact have composed this poem. In that case, we will need to associate Homer with the existence of texts and conclude that the texts of Homer's poems are contemporary with "Homer."

In the collection's best-known essay, "Seven against Thebes: An oral tradition between Babylonian magic and Greek Literature" from 1981, B. attempts to tie the saga of the Seven against Thebes to a Babylonian magical medical ritual. He shows how the story of the saga is fixed already in Homer. Although most scholars accept an historical origin to the saga in a real war at Thebes in the generation before the Trojan War, à la Heinrich Schliemann, its plot line simply cannot come from history. There is no such thing as a Mycenaean citadel with seven gates. Seven is a special number in the East. In Babylon magicians drove away disease by making images of seven attacking demons and seven defending demons. Brothers stood on either side, whose images were ritually burned at the end of the ceremony, recalling the funeral pyres on the plains of Thebes.

Such extraordinary parallels cry out for explanation, but we have a hard time imagining how a strictly magical ritual can have been translated into heroic saga. Whatever the relation between ritual and saga, B. has revealed oriental patterns in the story of the Theban War and called into question the historical basis for this legend.

Having written in German and English, the many-minded B. now slips into French with "La cité d'Argos entre la tradition mycénienne, dorienne et homérique" from 1998. We have almost no direct information about Argos in the archaic period, but B. sets out conclusions established from hint and inference. There can be no doubt that Argos was Dorian in classical times, but also prominent in the Bronze Age. Hence there was a change of population, or in the power elite, remembered in the legend of the return of the Heraclids. B. explores Mycenaean remnants, including the name Danaoi attested on a New Kingdom Egyptian inscription. In cult, Poseidon is Bronze Age, but Apollo could well have come in with the Dorians. The odd attribution of Argos to Diomedes, and Mycenae to Agamemnon in the Catalogue of Ships reflects the superimposition of Dorian power in the Iron Age over the old Mycenaean regime: Diomedes is from northwest Greece, land of the Dorians. Strikingly, the sanctuary of the Heraion dates from the 8th century so Hera may come in with the Dorians and not be Bronze Age at all. Homer's Argive Hera must postdate the 8th century! Anyway, why did the Dorians choose Heracles, a master of animals, as their legendary ancestor? Because of their claim, "We are not Mycenaean." In the legend, the Mycenaean king persecuted and oppressed Heracles, but the kingdom fell to the Heraclids.

Homer seems to know directly some things about archaic Argos. Sarpedon's killing of king Tlepolemos, a son of Heracles from Rhodes, reflects knowledge of the Dorian migration to Rhodes. Certainly epic poetry flourished at Argos, as proven by a reference in Herodotus, and the lost Thebaid, though in standard epic dialect, may have roots in Argos, whence the expedition set forth.

"Sacrificio-Sacrilegio: Il 'trickster' fondatore" from 1984, in Italian, presents similarities between the myth of the trickster Prometheus, bringer of fire and inventor of sacrifice, to the trickster Hermes in the Homeric Hymn, who makes fire by rubbing wood together and sacrifices twelve oxen. B. ties the background to Olympia, against N. O. Brown's old argument that the hymn is an Athenian poem. Rather, the poem reflects a local Arcadian ritual, B. thinks. The theme of cattle sacrifice also has ancient roots in religion, for example the cult of Mithras.

In "Kynaithos, Polycrates, and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo" (1979) B. approaches the ancient problem of the authorship to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, with its clear bifurcation into hymns to the Delphic and the Delian Apollo and its famous claim to be by "the blind man of Chios." Appealing to a scholiast on Pindar's Nemean 2 who attributes the poem to one Kynaithos, B. ties the present form of the hymn to a redaction, or composition, by just that man under the sponsorship of Polycrates of Samos, who celebrated a festival to Apollo on Delos in 522 B.C. B.'s explanation fits the facts: separate dictated oral texts melded together by a rhapsode serving a political purpose, with a pseudepigraphic attribution to increase the new poem's stature--in this way the Hymn to Apollo came into being.

In "The Making of Homer in the Sixth Century B.C.: Rhapsodes versus Stesichoros," B. traces backward in the literary tradition direct evidence for knowledge of the poet "Homer." Xenophanes and Herakleitos take us firmly into the 6th century B.C., after which it's anybody's guess. Semonides, who may be 7th century B.C., mentions "the man of Chios," but the fragment could belong to Simonides from the 6th century B.C. Kallinos is the earliest certain reference, apparently, in the first half of the 7th century B.C., who refers to Homer's lost Thebais. What about rhapsodes? Herodotus first mentions them in connection with Sikyon of about 570 B.C. Homer must be earlier than that, because rhapsodic performance presupposes a written, fixed text.

Greek art is a promising source for information about Homer's date (and these days much exercised). The Mykonos Trojan Horse takes us into the 7th century, surely, but not until the 6th century B.C. are Iliadic themes firmly attested. Numerous signs show that at this time rhapsodes were already replacing the old aoidoi. Why? Because they had access to texts by earlier singers of genius, and being freed from old-fashioned improvisation they could refine and exhibit modern histrionic skills parallel to those that now appear in choral poetry. The Homerids, really just a name, were probably a family of rhapsodes who possessed complete texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the 6th century B.C. Hipparchus had complete copies of these texts, perhaps from the Homerids, and set up public performance at the Panathenaia--certainly not of the whole poems, which are far too long, but of portions performed in the same sequence as they appear in the complete text, according to the famous testimony in [pseudo]Plato's "Hipparchus."

An important clue, overlooked, in this maelstrom comes from recently recovered fragments of Stesichoros. Remarkably, these fragments preserve nearly word for word passages from the Odyssey. Apparently Stesichoros' innovations were both metrical and, unless Stesichorean performance was kitharodic, in the dance and display that now accompanied contemporary choral performance. B. doesn't say so, but implies that the genus of choral song therefore postdates the introduction of the Greek alphabet; of course you would need a script for twelve people to memorize it. Stesichorean poetry is never local but tells the same stories as does epic, as if groups of choral singers traveled through the Greek lands. The traditional aoidoi had performed in intimate and aristocratic surroundings, whereas Stesichorean choral song told old stories in a public setting. The conditions for the experience of Greek literature have changed.

The rhapsodes, just as dependent on written texts as choristers, successfully competed with this new form of entertainment (and drove out the aoidoi). Again, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo seems to show us rhapsodes reworking older aoidic material into a fresh creation, performed in 522 B.C. on Delos. The poem's pseudepigraphical claim that its author is the "blind man of Chios" proves that Homer by then was a classic.

But why "Homer" and not somebody else, exactly? Why did "Homer" become a classic? Because the reading of Homer was the basis of Greek education. But why? "The choice of Homer as a schoolbook is strange," B. concedes, but does not see the relation between Homer as the basis for Greek education and the origins of alphabetic technology (I would complain) or ask, "What was the basis for Greek education in 750 B.C.?" or, "Just when did Homer become the basis for Greek education?"

In "Lydia between East and West or How to Date the Trojan War: A Study in Herodotus" (1995), B. decisively debunks the popular notion that, somehow, the Greeks knew that Troy fell around 1200 B.C., very close in time to the destruction of Troy VIIa (unless Troy VI was Homer's Troy). In fact the Greeks knew nothing about real chronology of the Bronze Age and gave variously, for the Trojan War, the dates 910, 966, 1082, 1150, 1184, 1208, 1296, 1300, and 1334 B.C., all guesses. Any correspondence with archaeological data is entirely coincidental.

The book closes with a summary of important dates in B.'s career, a bibliography by year, and a list of dissertations that he directed.

Every word in B.'s book is interesting. Walter Burkert truly is one of the great modern classical scholars. His inexhaustible learning and lucid style in four languages deserve the highest respect, even awe. He takes the smallest pieces from diverse places to make a fresh model of the general picture. His love for small pieces can mislead him into rash conclusions, for example that Achilles' reference to Egyptian Thebes gives a terminus post quem of 663 B.C. for Homer's Iliad. But even when wrong, the questions are right. What is the relationship between Homer and traditions about Egypt, exactly?

Every classicist will read this book with pleasure, and we look forward to publication of the remaining volumes of B.'s Kleine Schriften.

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