Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.23

Ruth Scodel, Listening to Homer: tradition, narrative, and audience.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. 235.  ISBN 0-472-11265-1.  $49.50.  

Reviewed by Maureen Alden, The Queen's University of Belfast (
Word count: 2478 words

Scodel focuses on the audience's reception of oral performances of the Homeric poems. Every oral performance is a re-creation of the poem, and may differ in details and nuances from earlier performances. The performer creates the illusion that his material is entirely traditional by the use of an inclusive rhetoric designed to appeal to an audience of all the Greeks and not allied to the interests of any particular group. The authority of the Muse guarantees that the poet is truthfully relating the famous deeds of heroes from the past: even as he implies that his material has long been entirely familiar, the poet provides sufficient information for it to be comprehensible even to audiences for whom much of it is new. The book is designed for professional scholars and advanced students of epic poetry, particularly epic narratives. The comparative material means it will also be useful to students of traditional epic outside the Greek tradition. Scodel makes appropriate and thorough use of the professional bibliography on her subject. Her style is clear and accessible, avoiding the excesses of 'professional' jargon.

The first chapter 'When We Talk about Tradition', looks at traditional oral narrative and its audience. The term 'tradition' as used by scholars embraces the history and process of transmission, how singers learn songs and teach them to others, the rules of the genre of epic poetry, the poetic dialect, formulae, metre, and the themes and narratives of epic poetry. The poet assumes familiarity with the poetic dialect, formulae, and metre, but the audience may not all be equally familiar with every narrative they hear, or equally capable of grasping all the nuances of the material presented to them. At times the poet relies on the audience not to make all the narrative associations available to them: he may also invite them to join him in suppressing certain details inconvenient to the purpose of the narrative in hand. For example, Orestes' murder of his mother is suppressed in the Odyssey, presumably to avoid giving Telemachus the wrong idea. The details of various paradigmatic narratives may be invented, but, like other innovative material, they must sound familiar and traditional to be acceptable to the audience. Audiences would not all be equally well acquainted with every aspect of the enormous repertoire of narrative material referred to, often by casual allusion, in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Devices such as repetition and prediction help the audience to compensate for any lack of familiarity with a particular narrative. Comparisons with the audiences of traditional narratives in other societies suggest that such devices also help to counteract inattention in the audience, which may be distracted by food, social demands, and tiredness.

The second chapter, on 'Textualisation and the Newest Song' asks how the poems came to be stable texts at the level of story. Scodel admits we do not know exactly how these epics were formed or how performance shifted from innovation to repetition. The linguistic evidence and that of their contents places the Iliad in the eighth century and the Odyssey at the end of the eighth century or the beginning of the seventh. The poems belong to a multi-story tradition but they are remarkably self-contained: most episodes could not stand outside their present context without modification. The Iliad is the work of a poet (or small group of poets) who had the idea of creating an expanded epic covering the whole tale of Troy: it was designed for transmission and this may have been why it was written down. The account of the Homeridae (FGrH 568F5) leads Scodel to speculate that the poet of the Iliad passed his text to his sons or students, among whom the Odyssey was composed. The poems became the intellectual property of a guild of poets unwilling to teach them to outsiders: gradually, however, this control was lost. Chapter 3 discusses the rhetorics of traditionality and disinterestedness favoured by the epics. The impression of traditionality is deliberately created because it counters any possible objection that the poems are misleading or unfair. Traditionality is conveyed by the artificial language, the hexameter, the introduction of direct speech (often innovative in content) with a traditional noun-epithet formula. The authority of the Muse guarantees that the poet remains within the tradition. It also promotes his independence: he is relating the famous deeds of people of former times and not reflecting the power of a particular patron. Since the poet may not know what is traditional for his audience, he points to the traditional nature of the whole epic. Innovation will not be advertised. Narratives by the poet's characters may derive from personal experience or from the oral tradition. The poems show epic performance among a contented populace at an abundant feast. The subject may be remote from the audience, as Demodocus' songs about Troy are remote from the Phaeacians.

Chapter 4, on 'Homeric Exposition', asks how much knowledge the poet assumes in his audience and what are his strategies for giving information. The audience of the Iliad is expected to have basic information about the Trojan war, the identity of Priam, Agamemnon's role in the expedition, and the identities and functions of Menelaus, Helen, and Paris. Intriguingly, the audience is not expected to know the story of Achilles and Patroclus: the narrative of the first book tells us everything we need to know about Achilles to follow the subsequent narrative. The career of Patroclus, the friend who dies and is revenged at the cost of the hero's life, is a traditional pattern which the poet probably expects his audience to recognise, even if Patroclus himself, whose death prefigures that of Achilles (the vengeance is modelled on the vengeance for Antilochus) might be an invention of the poet's.

The audience of the Odyssey is expected to know that Troy has fallen and to be aware that the returns of many heroes, including Odysseus, involved dangers and delays. The poet assumes that stories resembling those told by Odysseus in his Apologia are familiar to the audience, perhaps from the context of legends about the Argo. The Phaeacian audience knows about the Cyclopes and so the crucial detail that the Cyclopes are one-eyed is not mentioned: the poet is relying on his own audience to know as much as the internal audience.

Strategies for giving information include 'character narrators' who introduce unfamiliar material with topographical settings and 'remind' each other of stories they already know. The audience will always receive adequate information to allow it to follow the story. Chapter 5, on 'Abbreviated Narrative' explains that the poet has a repertoire of traditional cycles of stories which he can vary to meet his own and his characters' needs. The most expanded form of narrative is full dramatisation. At the other extreme, narrative can be compressed into a minimal summary, which in the case of the epics, demands general familiarity with important traditional figures such as Niobe and Heracles. Abbreviated narratives are often characterised by the absence of direct speech. They are mainly told by character narrators and tend to be overtly removed from the business in hand, for example, as when Achilles and Patroclus are reminded of departure scenes in which each man's father said whatever it is now convenient to the speaker for him to have said. Character narrators convey their information on a need-to-know basis: the audience will not always try to fill the gaps, but will concentrate on the point. Character narratives are often vague about details of the story, whether because these are well known to the audience, unimportant, or simply inconvenient for the present purpose. Because the audience is prepared for a didactic message in subordinate narratives, the poet can reduce sequences in stories to their narrative function: e.g. mistake -- quarrel -- divine helper. The audience needs only to register the signals it is receiving: θεῶν τεραέσσι πιθήσας conveys a proper attitude to the divine, and the audience does not need to know what the portents were or how they were manifested. The audience of the Odyssey does not need to know how Locrian Ajax angered Athene, but it does need to know that the Greeks suffered as a result of his wrongdoing and that he might have escaped if he had not boasted. Sometimes the narrative is enriched by what is not told: the wrongs committed by Eurytion in the house of Perithous (Od. 21. 295-304) are not specified, but an audience familiar with his attempt to abduct the bride at a wedding imagines a parallel with the behaviour of the suitors in Odysseus' palace. On the other hand, the audience must not bring to bear everything it knows or its appreciation of the functions of these narratives may be affected.

The most interesting part of the book is chapter 6, 'Narrative Teases', which falls into two sections. The first concerns the swineherd, who is first mentioned at Od. 4. 640: the suitors are surprised that Telemachus has gone to Pylos because they thought he was in Ithaca, either with the sheep or with the swineherd. Later on Athene tells Odysseus to go to the swineherd (Od. 13. 404-6) but Eumaeus is not named until Od. 14. 55. Penelope approves of him, calling him δῖος (Od. 17. 508), an epithet later justified by his support of Odysseus in battle. His lowly social position contrasts with his moral status and his royal birth. Odysseus's mother brought him up, which helps to explain his loyalty and closeness to Odysseus. Scodel conveys the impression that Eumaeus is a reliable helper and a force for good on the island. These things are in the text for anyone to see, but Scodel notices them, and most people don't.

The second section offers original ideas concerning the duals of the embassy to Achilles, which cannot be a slip because they are used repeatedly, by Achilles as well as the narrator. The embassy of book 9 evokes an earlier embassy when Odysseus and Nestor visited Phthia to recruit Achilles. Odysseus mentions Peleus' advice to Achilles on that occasion (Il. 9. 252-9), advice which Nestor also mentions (Il. 11. 765-90). In the embassy's replay of the recruiting visit, Phoenix does duty for Peleus, and Odysseus represents himself again. Phoenix is under an obligation to Peleus and is afraid of failing him as a substitute father to Achilles. Nestor chose him to get the embassy through the door and win them a fair hearing. Phoenix expects only to persuade Achilles to listen to the ambassadors, Odysseus and Ajax: he does not expect to have to persuade Achilles to lay aside his quarrel, and that is why he does not pray on his way to Achilles' tent. The duals of Achilles' greeting are addressed to Odysseus and Ajax: Phoenix's arrival is no occasion for surprise and he is excluded from the duals because he needs no special greeting. The distinction between Phoenix and the ambassadors becomes clear only after the speeches of book 9: the duals are used to indicate Phoenix's ambiguous role in the embassy. Scodel does not say why plurals, not duals, are used for the return of Odysseus and Ajax to the Greek camp.

Chapter 7, 'The Social Audience' examines how the epics manage to create a unified audience from different communities and status groups. The artificial dialect, which transcends boundaries, and the avoidance of local references help to appeal to an imagined audience inclusive of all Greeks. The poems offer a unified, public understanding of the past, depicting a vanished material world more splendid than any present reality and whose heroes are always greater than those of the present. Although the dominance of the elite is accepted, representative comments, real and imaginary (what τις may say), from the community place the kings in a world of critical inferiors who participate vicariously in the kings' competition for glory and blame their failures. Those who disapprove of the social hierarchy which produces kings will nevertheless find themselves disarmed by Penelope's presentation of Odysseus as a king about whom there could be no legitimate complaint and whose goodness contrasts with the pointless consumption of the suitors. The latter do not defend the community and, far from resolving disputes, actually promote a fight between Iros and the disguised Odysseus. Both epics vary their narrative point of view and invite the audience to feel and act along with the hero. Shared moral values are assumed: the audience is made to blame those who violate social norms and established status; Thersites becomes the victim of the mocking laughter of the community. The Odyssey blames the suitors, Odysseus' companions, and disloyal slaves. The humanity and wide social appeal of these epics made them as acceptable to the Athenian democracy as to the aristocrats of Ionia.

There is no introductory chapter explaining the aims and methods of the book. Scodel thus avoids being accused of repeating herself, but such an explanation, however brief, would help the reader to get his bearings. A general index and index of passages cited are provided: in my view an index nominum would also have been useful. We are not told what texts of the poems Scodel is using and why. Is the poet assuming that the audience is familiar with the material of his narrative when he provides only scant information, or is it simply unimportant for them to bother much with points of detail? It is not clear what criteria Scodel uses to decide this question. We are informed that the audience is expected to know that Diomedes is the son of Tydeus (because he is first referred to only by his patronymic: Il. 2. 406) and to take references to the Seven Against Thebes and the Epigonoi without much explanation, the inference being that it is expected to be well acquainted with these matters, but might one not as easily assume that the exact details are unimportant? The main point about Diomedes in this context, as Scodel herself indicates, is the divine support he receives, and that is apparent without background information. More explanation would be helpful on the matter of divine lies. Calypso apparently cannot invent what she tells Hermes about the jealousy of the male gods when goddesses take mortal lovers: why lie to another god (p. 146)? Yet Hera can lie to Aphrodite to provide a basis for her alleged interest in Tethys and Oceanus (p. 145 n.2). Misprints occur mainly in Greek: zeta for final sigma is particularly frequent (p. 135, 143, 156, 187, 206). There is an intrusive 'his' on p. 62. These are hardly major flaws and do not detract from the (considerable) overall value of the book.

The work contains much of value on individual narratives in both poems, and also on the signals transmitted to the audience by narrative patterns. All students of Homeric narratives and their reception will need to use it.

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