Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.43

Klaus Lange, Euripides und Homer. Untersuchungen zur Homer-Nachwirkung in Elektra, Iphigenie im Taurerland, Helena, Orestes, und Kyklops. Hermes Einzelschrift 85.   Stuttgart:  Steiner, 2003.  Pp. 302.  ISBN 3-515-07977-7.  EUR 68.00.  

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, University of Michigan (
Word count: 1134 words

This Freiburg dissertation is more enjoyable to read than to write about. It is a modest book, whose value lies in bringing together discussions of different plays within a framework large enough to demonstrate characteristics of Euripides' overall technique but not too large for easy management. It attempts, using mostly the plays listed in the subtitle, to demonstrate that Euripides was profoundly engaged with Homer, especially with the Odyssey. It does not aim at great originality of details, theoretical innovation, or large interpretive conclusions but looks to examine Euripides' technique in adapting and recombining motifs both from the two surviving Homeric epics and from the wider epic tradition. It did not leave me with the sense that I had learned something truly new or seen things I had never considered. For this reason, I have relatively little to say about it. My strong disagreements are few (I do not think the Stesichorean version of Helen's story was as unfamiliar as L. does). Sometimes Lange is more confident than I would be in seeing specifically Odyssean patterns rather than narrative schemes that first appear in Homer but may have appeared often in lyric and tragedy . But this all seems relatively minor, since the book itself is so honest. It is very clear and unpretentious, and it will be helpful for anyone studying the use of Homer in tragedy.

Lange argues that Elektra in particular is dependent on the Ithacan books of the Odyssey, not just for the detail of the recognition through the scar but more broadly. The book examines the general pattern of the nostos-plot, the opening situation, the disguised return, the recognition, the revenge, and the rural setting in relation to the Odyssey. It treats the unheroic characteristics of Orestes as they appear against this Homeric background and the mythological innovations of the choral songs. L. then shows how the Iphigenia and Helen reflect on the Iliad and use the pattern of the Return-story, with wise awareness that it is impossible to say at what point Euripides is no longer playing against Homer, but against earlier Euripides. In Orestes, he argues that Euripides was highly conscious of Orestes' function as paradigm for Orestes in the Odyssey, and that Helen is based directly on the character as portrayed in both Homeric epics. There is, however, no thorough-going use of Homeric foil in these plays as there is in Helen and Electra. In Cyclops, he shows how the traditional rescue-plot of satyr-play and the Odyssean materials are completely intertwined. He suggests that Odysseus comes more from the Iliad than from the direct source of the plot in the Odyssey, while Dionysus, who "comes home" to his followers in the form of wine, is the disguised and thus Odyssean hero. If the late dating of the play is correct, the nostos-schema may here be not just Homer-parody but self-parody (bibliography for the dating on 222-23, notes 707 and 708). An excursus looks at Homeric elements in the heroic qualities of both Alcestis and Medea.

Methodologically, L. wants to insist that we not rely too much on general similarities of narrative pattern in discussing the relations among texts; he wants a basis in verbal echoes, in order to avoid the danger of confusing myths with specific literary works. He is quite clear about the problem; I am not at all sure that confining oneself to verbal echoes, however, is a solution (and in practice the book discusses some verbal reminiscences but is not constrained by them). Where parallel motifs or narrative elements appear in a coherent pattern relative to another text and direct borrowing is inherently likely, we are surely justified in assuming it even without verbal echoes. The problem is that potential echoes in Euripides, as Lange points out in his discussion of an extensive quotation from Zeitlin, do not tend to fit tidy patterns.1

Unlike some German scholarship on archaic or classical poetry, this dissertation -- though there is nothing theoretically exciting about it -- is not walled-off from the cultural sphere that Germans (somewhat quaintly, in the view of this all-American Litvak) call "aengelsaechisch." It is not fully engaged with it either, however. This is not the kind of thesis that tries to cite everything, so it is perhaps unfair to catalogue what is missing. But it is revealing that the brief treatment of Medea's relation to Homeric heroism, for example, refers to Dihle's 1977 discussion but not to Knox's of the same year, let alone to Foley.2

A final section is almost an appendix. It begins with the outline of a typology for examining Euripides' use of Homer. 1.1.1., which is defined as "primary," is language; 1.1.2, labeled "secondary," includes comparisons and "Sagenelemente." 1.2 consists of epic influences, which are structurally important for a whole drama (Cyclops) or a section (the Teichoscopia in Phoenissae). 1.3 is borrowings of motifs, divided into those that are attached to the stories in which they belong in Homer (Aeolus and incest) and those that are borrowed apart from their original story (the scar in Electra, perhaps the blinding of Polymestor as borrowed from the Odyssey). This section is frustrating, both because it is not entirely clear why these distinctions matter rather than others or what determines the different levels (I assume "Sagenelemente" are distinguished by being only references to or uses of the story-material of Homer without structural effects, but this is a guess), and because it is not related to the actual discussions of the plays. Section 2 begins with a chart of Cyclic epics as the basis of Euripidean plays (based on Jouan).3 It then has a useful list of pre-and post-Iliadic events mentioned in Euripides (with the passages), and a less useful list of events mentioned in the Iliad that appear in Euripides (no passages cited) and of events for which Euripides prefers the Iliad-version and of those where he prefers the Cypria to the Iliad (again, no citations, and no differentiation between actual disagreements between the epics and events or details the Iliad does not know or suppresses. Throughout, the author follows his Doktorvater, W. Kullmann, on issues concerning Homer and the Cycle). Finally, there is a potentially very handy list of mythological references in the five plays studied, grouped by saga and mythical chronology.

This study seems mostly a foundation for other studies that would incorporate its results. These could be of various kinds. It could contribute to readings of these plays and the whole corpus of Euripides; that seems to be the direction the author imagines. It could be part of a richer discussion of Greek intertextuality that would ask what the Homeric background is for, which requires that the Homeric in Euripides be considered as part of a much bigger web, whether of other literary works or of ideology.


1.   F. Zeitlin, "The closet of masks: role-playing and mythmaking in the Orestes of Euripides," Ramus 9 (1980) 51-77.
2.   A. Dihle, "Euripides' Medea." SB Heidelberg 1977.5; B. Knox, "The Medea of Euripides" YCS 25 (1977) 193-225 (= Word and Action: Essays on Ancient Theater [Baltimore and London, 1979], 292-322); H. Foley, "Medea's Divided Self," CA 8 (1989), 61-85.
3.   F. Jouan, Euripide et les légendes des Chants cypriens, (Paris 1966).

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