Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.15

Carla Bocchetti, El espejo de las Musas: El arte de la descripción en la Ilíada y Odisea.   Santiago:  Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades. Universidad de Chile, 2006.  Pp. 150; fig. 1.  ISBN 956-19-0506-X.  [Contact for price].  

Reviewed by Christian Høgel, University of Southern Denmark (
Word count: 1774 words

The subject of this book, which is an amplified version of the author's MA thesis, is the art of description in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The art of description, or ekphrasis, is studied initially in general, seen in conjunction with such basic Homeric issues as formulaic language and similes, but via discussions on Homeric descriptions of nature and agriculture, the book ends up studying Homeric descriptions of arts and crafts. The book thus covers a large selection of what constitutes Homeric ekphrasis. The main arguments are to point out the importance of descriptions for the overall interpretation of passages and Carla Bocchetti (hereafter B.) makes some fine contributions. Her treatment of ekphrasis within the larger question of Homeric formulas and traditional language is well-founded and raises valuable issues.

In her introduction, B. insists that detailed descriptions in the Homeric epics need not be taken as directly corresponding to actual objects, but are rather like the narrative elements part of the rich material that was at the poet's disposal. Described objects must primarily be viewed in their narrative context; their possible fictitiousness is only secondary, though B. does take up this question later in the book.

In ch. 1 ("Las características de la poesía épica"), B. gives a general discussion of epic language. She insists that the recurrent epithets and the general linguistic repetitiveness in Homer create "images that are void of a single and specific meaning that may be used identically in different scenes" (p. 21). This notion is taken up again later in the book. The following discussion seems, however, less connected with the aim of the book. Taking up similarities with the novel and prose in general, as exemplified and discussed by writers such as Joyce and Calvino, B. concludes that epic may be seen as both poetic (use of imagery, descriptions) and novelistic (actions building up to a final point). These perspectives are not taken any further.

In ch. 2 ("Memoria y Repetición") B. offers what seems to be the central thesis of the book: Homeric ekphrasis is tied to non-formulaic language, but its effects may nevertheless only be properly understood in the formulaic context (p. 29). B. thus directs our attention in interpreting the Homeric descriptions to the expectations of the Homeric audience. The first part of the chapter then presents poetics as formulated in the early Greek literary tradition, including discussions on inspiration and the role of the Muses. This section seems somewhat disconnected from the main argument, and its final statement (p. 40) on three steps in the composition process of an epic bard (mental presentation, adaptation and combination of images, use of words as means of external communication) is not really based on the foregoing discussion or on any literature referred to. More productive is the following assertion that descriptions tend, due to the formulaic language, to become dull to modern readers, who miss the point of understanding their non-formulaic nature. This is shown through two examples of Homeric ekphrasis: the raft of Odysseus and the crest of Hektor. Presenting the various explanations that have been given as to what kind of vessel Odysseus has built in Od. 5.246-261, B. concludes from the lack of the traditional Homeric epithets for ships that the poet, in reducing the traditional description of ship building, is describing the construction of a raft. This -- according to B. -- less attractive deviation from the formulaic language is contrasted with the more successful (and equally non-formulaic) use of Hektor's helmet in the scene with Andromache and Astyanax in Iliad 6. Here Hektor is not described with his usual epithet korythaíolos (traditionally translated as "of the flashing helmet"), and -- that seems to be the argument of B. -- this shows how a traditional epithet is given sense in non-formulaic language; the helmet known from the traditional epithet that is not used in this passage is given central importance in the dramatic scene. B. concludes that non-formulaic descriptions thus seem to reflect reinterpretation of formulaic language. As a last example B. looks at how Skamandros is described in the final clash between Hektor and Achilleus in Iliad 22. The details of daily life that become part of the river's nature according to B. prove how ekphrasis -- as non-formulaic passages built upon the formulaic -- makes it possible for the poet to step out of e.g. the military world of the Iliad and include images from daily life.

The interest of the previous chapter in questions of daily life leads B. on to the issue of similes. These are in general treated on a par with ekphrasis in general, though a short presentation of scholarly discussion of similes is given first. After this, the famous simile told by Glaukos in Iliad 6 on how the generations of man are like leaves announces the theme that B. takes up: similes are meant to make what is being told relevant to everybody. Among long similes, B. opts for discussing those that deal with animals. Here she stresses that these long similes never include fantastical animals, but rather animals that behave naturally and/or share characteristics with human beings. In this B. sees a development, from traditional and mythological descriptions of hunting, to hunting as an innovative manner of presenting war (p. 66).

The interest in nature and rivers spills over into the following chapter (ch. 4: La descripción de los ríos y la naturaleza troyana). Trojan nature is seen as a world subjected to destruction, in correlation with the destruction of the Trojans. A first example, the rivers of the Iliad, does not add much to this, except that its close connection to Hektor is pointed out, which is apparent in his calling his son Astyanax also Skamandrios (after the river Skamandros). The point about Trojan nature under destruction is then elaborated in a passage that looks at botanical and agricultural imagery. As indicated by B., the image of soldiers falling like trunks is only used of Trojans, in stark contrast to the generally peaceful use of the botanical world in the similes. The link between Troy's nature and civic bodies -- the Trojan soldiers -- thus comes out clear. This is further exemplified through an interpretation of the garden of Oineus (Iliad 9.532-44) and the kidnapping of Lykaon (Iliad 21.34-44).

The following chapter (ch. 5: El contexto agrario de la Ilíada) looks at agriculture in the Iliad. The main argument is that agriculture (including fields, crops etc.) must in a Homeric context be viewed with regard to the general presentation of homelands (patriai) that are the goal of the nostos, the homeward journey. B. first takes up the notion of temenos, which in pre-Classical Greek means not only an area assigned to a god or hero, but also just a field or land. The reason for bringing up temenos is not only to discuss its role as a symbol for what is awaiting at home, but also the way it ties up with father-son relationships. Furthermore, B. through discussions of contributions by Griffin and Loraux points to the way that fathers enter the scene when a hero's possible death and final exclusion from return is presented in Homer. This thematic field is exemplified through fine analyses of Phthia, the homeland of Achilleus that could offer him its riches if he opted for return, and the temenos promised to Sarpedon in Lycia.

The close connection between fathers and (hereditary?) land awaiting the heroes in their homeland becomes the theme of the following chapter on agriculture in the Odyssey (ch. 6: El contexto agrario de la Odisea). Here the repeated image of a rocky Ithaca is contrasted with the fertility that the island displays on Odyssey's return. The mountainous nature of the isle, and not least the Neritos-mountain on it, in B.'s interpretation become a symbol of the enduring and many-faceted personality of Odysseus, as she takes the miraculous fertility of the island to be the reflection of how Odysseus is used to construct a Greek identity. This very interesting theme is thus used to show how imagery is adjusted to, or depends on, narrative aims. That Odysseus' human nature may be reflected in the description of Ithaca, and that the often criticized meeting with his father Laertes in the garden thus finds a traditional setting in the world of nostos and the awaiting temenos, is a splendid analysis. Less convincing, however, is the idea of Odysseus as representing a Greek identity. It is difficult to see how this can be gathered from the text, which would not even offer a name for such a notion.

Ch. 7 (La écfrasis homérica) reads a bit like a fresh start. First comes a discussion on ancient theories on art, then a passage on the relation between Homer and archaeology, followed by a general discussion of Homeric descriptions. Coming after the previous chapters these passages seem somewhat redundant, and what is new does not offer an explanation for the generalities being presented so late in the book. A final section of the chapter deals with the brooch of Odysseus (Od. 19.225-31). The main point concerning this is that whereas the animal that is normally and repeatedly put in connection with the heroes of the Iliad is the lion, the Odyssey (and especially the latter part of it) will, since it treats a hero in a more domestic setting, include a dog in the main character's brooch (?). Such symbols are here, as elsewhere, set in connection with hero cult, but only through loose reference to archaeological evidence.

The final chapter (ch. 8: La ecfrasis general, joyas y textiles) treats jewellery and textiles as described in Homer. The chapter offers much information on these, including what epithets and imagery were used in descriptions. But the chapter does not have much of an argument and ends rather abruptly.

This short book offers much interesting information on Homeric imagery and similes and some fine analyses, especially those connected to geography, on which the author has written more (cf. the author's homepage). However, a more consistent use of references to secondary sources would have made some passages easier for future users, just as the final two chapters should have been connected better to the main lines of argument. Misprints are few, though one puzzling one persists; the name of the author is Bochetti on the front and title page, but Bocchetti (with two c's) in the rest of the book and elsewhere. I hope libraries will include the book under the second, and I presume correct, spelling. But chances are that this fine Mirror of the Muses must be found under Bochetti.

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