Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.36

Casey Dué, Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis. In the series "Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches".   Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.  Pp. viii + 140.  ISBN 0-7425-2219-9.  $26.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stephen Evans, Turku University (
Word count: 3051 words

(Casey Dué has been my tutor on Harvard University's internet courses on the Iliad and the Odyssey.)

This book challenges the reader to face up to the importance of Briseis in the Iliad. Dué (henceforth D.) convincingly argues for parallel stories revolving around Briseis. Because of extensive quotation and repetition the book is easy and even exciting to read, which makes it very suitable for freshman courses. The book has a preface by the general editor of the series, Professor Greg Nagy, and contains an introduction entitled Variations on Briseis, then has five chapters on Briseis and the multiformity of the Iliad, Briseis as prize, as girl, as wife and rounds off with a conclusion on tradition and innovation. There is an enlightening afterword (Elegizing Briseis in Augustan Rome) that contains the seeds of a new book in my opinion. There is a useful appendix on selected ancient literary references to Briseis, a bibliography and an index. Two paragraphs summarising the book can be found at the website together with mentions and summaries of books in the same series which throw further comparative light on Briseis, the bound woman.

D.'s Introductory Chapter entitled Variations on Briseis parades dogmatic fundamentalism of the Parry-Lord orthodoxy modernised with frequent allusions to Nagy and Martin. Just as Laura Slatkin has uncovered alternative traditions about the power of Thetis in the Iliad, so D. intends to explore the character of Briseis, whose role as captive, prize, girl, daughter and wife links her to both Helen and Andromache. Prompted by the bT scholia, D. finds in Briseis' laments (Il. 19, 282-300) links to Chryseis, Helen, Hecuba and Andromache. D. stresses the paradigmatic (or timeless) aspects of the figure of Briseis that are connected to the experiences, especially in songs of laments, to those of other women in the Iliad and Odyssey and to women in general. These are to be distinguished from the syntagmatic (or personal) aspect of Briseis' character, that is, the extent to which she has her own narrative independent of other women and the way they are portrayed in epic. D. suggests that the allusions to raids on Lyrnessus, Pedasus and Thebe come from other, possibly earlier, epic traditions: this is an interpretation overlooked by many scholars. (Since D. always refers to Burgess 1996, one can assume that Burgess' book The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle, 2001, reviewed by Margaret Finkelberg in BMCR 2002.09.04 had not appeared at the time D. went to press.)

Chapter One deals with Briseis and the multiformity of the Iliad. At times the Iliad points to a foundation saga of Aeolic/Lesbian origin whereby the conqueror falls in love with a local girl or princess, an unmarried beauty queen. Primarily, however, the Iliad asserts a version by which Briseis is the wife of a local king whom Achilles kills in one of his raids around Troy. These variations, according to D., are connected with local as opposed to Panhellenic epic traditions which screen out distinctly local features as well as romance and fantasy. D. harnesses archaic vase-painting to back up her arguments for the multiformity and the importance of the character of Briseis. Here there is a commendable balancing of views on the relationship of vase-painting to epic. (For a more cynical view, see F. G. Naerebout's Attractive Performances. Ancient Greek Dances: Three Preliminary Studies, Amsterdam, 1997. Lissarrague's new book on Greek Vases (2001) would have been too recent for D. to take into account.)

Chapter Two dwells on the prize-value of Briseis and of her status-value to the conqueror, "passing over the question of Briseis' actual or possible status as a legitimate wife of Achilles" (p.39, n.4)! D. shows how Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilles in order to outrank him. At Iliad 9,337-343 Achilles himself compares Briseis' situation and pivotal value to that of Helen herself. This is, D. comments, reminiscent of Patroclus' substitution for Achilles. Briseis is a prize just as Helen was a prize awarded by Aphrodite in the judgment of Paris. D. adds on p.42: "More work must be done, however, before we can determine to what extent Helen played a role in archaic literary and cult tradition about the afterlife of Achilles." Since Briseis was swapped for Chryseis there are clear parallels with her too. The dispute over Briseis between Agamenon and Achilles in Iliad 1 is already about life or death, about immortality after death, D. demonstrates, through cult. Briseis, along with Helen and Chryseis, is equated with cult honour. The superficial consequences of the loss of a prize within the poetic narrative are primarily material and social, but the consequences at the level of cult, D. asserts drawing on Nagy's familiar ideas, are acknowledged and emphasised by various characters.

In Chapter Three, entitled Girl, D. looks into the meaning of the word kourê and investigates the Lesbian version of the Briseis story. Briseis like Chryseis is a patronymic, thus connecting them to their fathers. Penelope too is referred to by the suitors as the kourê of Icarius, wise Penelope (Od. 16,435; Od. 18,245 and 285; Od. 21,321). If Odysseus is in fact dead, and the suitors assume this to be the case, Penelope then becomes a war widow and thus reverts to girlhood under her father's control. (I refer to Atchity and Barber's opposing views below.) When the word kourê is applied to Chryseis and Briseis, D. reminds us, the status of being a daughter is being emphasised. Indeed, Greek virginity was not apparently understood in gynaecological terms but rather as a stage of life. D. sees connections between the ransoming of Chryseis and the ransom of Hector by Achilles in Iliad 24. D. then goes on to consider a Lesbian origin for Briseis to accord with an Aeolic phase of transmission of the Iliad before reaching its final Ionian phase in which we now have it.1 Thus, D. maintains, building on Iliad 9,128-130 and the A scholium for line 129, beautiful-cheeked Briseis could be one of the beauty queens in a Lesbian epic tradition. This I believe is D.'s finest insight. There are also hints of erotic narrative in the word ἀέκουσα (Il. 1,348) and when Achilles in Iliad 9 proclaims that he loves her as a man loves his wife even though he won her in war. Briseis' lament in Iliad 19 exposes her hope of becoming Achilles' wife in Phthia.

The Fourth Chapter, entitled Wife, concentrates on passages that emphasise Briseis' wifely role, mainly associating it to her lamenting. Here D. relies on Holst-Warhaft and Alexiou's work on ancient and modern Greek lament in analysing the structure and use of lament. This feature is well documented. D. speculates on Patroclus' and Achilles' possible homosexual relation but concludes that in any case Briseis laments Patroclus to some extent as a father figure. Briseis seeks to legitimise her position through lament, in the same way that Tecmessa ensures herself a certain status in the community through lament in Sophocles' Ajax. D. following Nagy sees lament as the most pervasive song and speech tradition in Homeric poetry. This chapter therefore concentrates uniquely on lament as justifying Briseis' hopes for marriage and conjugal status. A side-glance at the Kalevala and the Finnish "itkuvirsi" would not have been out of place here, though Persian lament (p.19, n.54, Davidson 2000) gets a mention.

In her Conclusion, called Tradition and Innovation, D. stresses how the Briseis narrative interacts with other traditional narratives such as love stories of maidens and foreign enemies, the capture and destruction of cities, the carrying off of daughters, the loss of husbands, the enslavement of royal women. D. rejects concepts of Homeric invention in favour of earlier multiple and fluid epochs of reception whereby Briseis had a variety of histories. D. then appends an afterword in which she argues that Propertius deliberately inserts himself into the history of Greek and Latin literature by reinterpreting his models from the point of view of the lover and recasting them as elegy. D. nicely lifts the term "elegizing" from the coinage of Barchiesi. In connection with book two of Propertius' elegies, D. is more ready to concede textual problems than she is willing to confront the consequences of the ancient and medieval textual transmission of the Homeric poems. This chapter has scope for an entirely new book as it usefully highlights how Propertius and later Ovid seize on the figure of Briseis and the tragic aspects of her relationship with Achilles as the perfect nexus of epic and elegiac agenda.2 Extensive Latin quotations save the reader reaching for his Propertius but the full original text with translation of Iliad 24, 601-620 is not so necessary.

D.'s arguments are well supported with plentiful references to scholia, modern commentaries, literature on oral theory, on Briseis and on women in the Iliad. Beauty competitions create global tensions, then as now when Europe is expanding whilst our world is shrinking. Two hundred people were killed in rioting in Nigeria in connection with the recent Miss World Contest, as may be read in J. Coderch's Ancient Greek News. A recent example of royal abduction would be Al Qaida's thwarted plan to kidnap Princess Madeleine of Sweden.

D. fails, however, to note the significance of the power of the goddess Athena in the Iliad and Odyssey as an important local Aegean deity. Women and goddesses in the Odyssey, such as Arete, Nausicaa, Calypso, Circe, the Sirens, Clytaemnestra, Odysseus' mother in the Nekyia are mainly passed over, although Penelope does receive attention. From Odyssey 11,227 ff. we could add Tyro, Antiope, Alcmene, Epicaste, Chloris, Leda, Iphimedeia, Phaedra, Procris, Ariadne, Maera and Clymene and finally Eriphyle "who accepted precious gold for the life of her own dear husband". These are "the wives and daughters of princes". Women weave their way through Homer, telling the history of their dynasty with textiles that are suitable for export via their trader-husbands.

D. sometimes spends a lot of ink in shadow-boxing, confuting arguments proposed by Murray in 1911 or refuting any suggestion of a master-poet, but she finds meaningful connections in the work of Taplin or Suzuki, although their approaches are different (p.5, n. 16). On p.62 D. accepts Leaf's reconstruction of the "Tale of the Great Foray" by substituting the phrase "epic tradition" for "epic poem". Similarly, I believe that Latacz, West or Hainsworth could in the same way find much value in D.'s work even though they would differ on methodology.3

D. succeeds in whetting the appetite and could have gone a lot further on oral theory. Variation as a creative device or as a means of adapting tradition was the topic of an international congress for experts in folk narrative held in Paris in 1987 (Görög-Karady 1990). Earlier, it is true, research had concentrated on the concept of monogenesis or of a protoform so that variation was then regarded as something negative and as signifying a violation of the protoform (Aarne 1913). D. sticks to being a Parry-Lord blue-stocking while only pointing the reader to bibliographies in Martin for further discussion of oral theory. I was expecting some discussion on cognitive lines of the script, story grammar or associative network of the abducted beauty queen by which Briseis and Tecmessa would have a shared schema. The phrase "torn by the sharp bronze" would then trigger a memory cue provided by imagery and sound, especially rhythm (Ruben 1997). Nowadays oralists speak of "thick corpus" and "organic variation" (see Honko, L., (ed.), Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition, Helsinki 2000), though D. alludes to "corpus" in a similar sense on p.17, n.46 quoting Leach, and on p. 27.

D. could also have written a separate chapter on the varying role of the captured queen or princess from Minoan times onwards instead of "passing over this question" (p.39, n.4). What is Briseis' conjugal status as a prize won by the spear? Atchity and Barber explain the Greeks' fierce attachment to their "shield-wives" as a vestige of the pattern whereby Indo-European nomadic outriders took their women with them (Atchity, K. and Barber, E.J.W, "On Homer" in Critical Essays on Homer, ed. Atchity, K., Hogart, R. and Price, D. Boston, Mass. 1987). This could be connected to the conflicting evidence for brideprice, dowry or indirect dowry. On the one hand, a daughter might bring in a handsome dowry and so for girls we find the adjective "alphesiboea", bringing in oxen, and for wives "polydoros", of rich gifts (Il. 18,593; Il. 6,394: cf. girls' names such as Eriboea, Polyboea and Polymele). The second prize in the wrestling at the Funeral Games of Patroclus is a woman, skilled in handiwork, valued at four oxen (Il. 23,705). The old housekeeper Eurycleia originally cost Odysseus' father no less than twenty oxen (Od.1, 431). At Iliad 11,241 a wife was first worth a hundred oxen, with a thousand to follow. Homer is careful never to obtrude this into the foreground when dealing with prominent female characters. At Iliad 9, 146-148 Agamemnon remits the brideprice and will throw in a dowry to boot, thus conflating both dowry systems. The cultural world of Homer, like his material world, reflects a diversity of historical sources. The fact that two entirely different types of marriage-settlement and marriage-customs are at work here would not have prevented D. from discussing them.

The fact is that Clytaemnestra ruled her country for ten years and Penelope hers for twenty. Three cousins -- Clytaemnestra, Penelope and Helen -- provide the full spectrum of Homeric female types: the unfaithful queen (matrilineal), the faithful queen (patrilineal) and the anomalous heroine (Od. 11,395 f.). In the Odyssey Odysseus turns down a matrilineal offer of marriage three times -- from Nausicaa, Circe and Calypso. On pp. 40 and 41 D. several times quotes and discusses Iliad 3, 69-70 where Paris and Menelaus agree to fight in single combat, the winner to take "Helen and all her possessions", but D. fails to realise that the passage makes real sense only if she is the inalienable heiress of Sparta. A teichoscopia of Wall Street, Sparta, would reveal that Helen owned masses of real estate including stocks and shares there. In the Homeric poems we can see not only a pattern of marriage and inheritance suggesting the presence of matriliny in the Aegean but also signs of a two-sided economy based on a male-dominated Minoan thalassocracy, including piracy and cattle-rustling (alluded to, certainly, on pp.61-63), and a massive women's industry of textiles and weaving (best documented by Killen 1964 and Halstead 1999). Of two recent works on women in the ancient world Nancy Rabinowitz' edition Among Women (2002, reviewed by Barbara Goff in BMCR 2002.09.14) would probably have been more relevant than Dillon's Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion (2002, reviewed by Kathy Gaca BMCR 2002.11.06).

Followers of BMCR reviews have in recent years had the opportunity ad nauseam to read of differing views on the evolution of Homeric epic. I mention Latacz, West, Nardelli, Nagy and Burgess. Particularly on the field of Aeolic traditions, I feel D.'s bibliography is selective. More lamenting parallels between the Iliad and Odyssey could have been pointed out. Hecabe's and Helen's laments, with their restrained pathos, seem to be echoed together in the touching speech of Odysseus' mother's ghost to him in the Nekyia, when she describes how she died of longing for him and for his gentleness (Od.11,197-203; 757-9, 768.772). Above all the work of the recently deceased Finnish Grand Old Man of oral poetry, Professor Lauri Honko, would have deserved mention as he has fully documented and videoed the Indian Siri epic.4 It would be foolish to ignore the relevance of this achievement to Homeric studies. Through other American scholars such as Dell Hyman the trail leads to Denmark and to Finland. I feel it is a shame to stay on the Parry-Lord bandwagon for eight decades.

In future editions, minor spelling errors could be corrected such as the glaring "Foreward" for "Foreword" in the contents. On p.15 two lines of English translation are missing. On p.26 n.18 "cysallization" for "crystallization". On p.31 n.41 "themis" for "them is". There are double word gaps on p.88 2nd paragraph, 5th line before vase-painters and on p.51 n.10 4th line between "on" and "to". There is a lack of consistency in the way scholars' Christian names are used, as women tend to have their first names mentioned but men not. D. tends to refer to scholars by surname only when she disagrees with them (e.g. Suzuki p.44, n.28 but cp. p.42, n.17 where D. agrees with Suzuki). Indeed, the impressively vast array of women scholars quoted by D. prompts me to submit that, as the proportion of women scholars increases, there should be equality in the inclusion or omission of Christian names for both men and women.

This learned, stimulating and gripping book is difficult to put down. D. has collated an impressive array of evidence for boosting Briseis' central role in the Iliad, whetting the reader's appetite for more discussion of Marilyn Monroes in Aegean society and of the variations of their roles at different historical epochs. Oral theory, far from being "a red herring" as West calls it, is both deeper and wider than Lord and Parry, but need not blind us to archaeological, historical and sociological insights into the position of shield-wives in the tent and in society. If Agamemnon deems it important to stress that he returns Briseis intact, then what is the role of purity, of asexuality, of self-restraint in Homeric society, especially if virginity is not seen in gynaecological terms? We also look forward to D.'s forthcoming work on Cretan traditions mentioned in n.17.and to that of Gloria Ferrari (p.54, n.19). I particularly appreciate D.'s balanced views on the inventiveness of vase-painting, as this is one source that can always shed new light on well trodden epic paths. The chapter on Propertius demonstrates how D. can write without dogmatism though I would recommend trimming the lengths of quotations throughout the book. D. for ever refutes the idea that Briseis is just a figment of Homer's imagination and argues well for compression of Briseis' role in the Iliad and the epic cycle to which both Greek tragedians and Roman elegists had better access than we do.


1.   Typically D. confines her sources on p.59, n.33 to Palmer, Hoekstra and Janko. Important corroboration could be found in Wathelet (1970) and M.L. West (1988). Admittedly West bluntly states that "the abduction of Helen does nothing in particular for the mechanism of the story" (1988,162).
2.   I believe I was the first to spot Odyssean echoes in Propertius IV.8 that echo the Iliadic echoes in IV,7. See Evans, S., Odyssean echoes in Propertius IV,8, Greece and Rome, vol 18, no.1, 1971.
3.   On the one hand, D. is fundamentalist over oral theory but at the same time, D. is strangely tolerant of conflicting opinions over Achilles' potential (or alleged) bisexuality.
4.   Honko, L., Textualising the Siri Epic. (FF Communications 264.) Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1998.

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