Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.19

Efstratios Sarischoulis, Schicksal, Götter und Handlungsfreiheit in den Epen Homers. Palingenesia, Bd. 92.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2008.  Pp. 312.  ISBN 9783515091688.  €64.00.  

Reviewed by Reyes Bertolín Cebrián, The University of Calgary (
Word count: 1376 words

Sarischoulis' monograph aims at explaining the concept of fate in the Homeric epics and its implications for human characters and gods. The monograph is a reworked version of the author's doctoral dissertation. Before the introduction and methodological clarifications, there is a prologue by the author dealing briefly with the value of Philology. It must be a sign of the times that even in Germany philologists need to justify themselves. At any rate, this prologue gives a flavor of defensiveness that could put someone off.

There are three logical parts to Sarischoulis's monograph, even if the author's own division corresponds to more formal criteria. The concrete philological analysis of the words expressing the notion of destiny constitutes the first part (II.1). The second part (II.2 and II.3) deals with the implications of the previous analysis in the sphere of gods and men. The third part (III) presents general conclusions for the actions in the Iliad and Odyssey. It also revisits the whole concept of fate in Homer. The book is completed by a short bibliography and an index of the Homeric passages. It comes as no surprise that the bibliography is short. This is a constant in works on semantic fields in Homer. Although numerous fields have been analyzed, not too many studies offer results that are transferable from one semantic field to the next.

The prose of the book is not always easy, and many concepts are expressed in long, dense sentences. This fact may detract from the appeal that a topic as interesting as this certainly has. Especially towards the end, the book becomes too repetitious, and it becomes difficult to realize when a new point is being made. The book is aimed at graduate students and scholars and a public familiar not only with the Iliad and Odyssey in the original language, but also with Homeric scholarship.

The introduction sets out two familiar approaches to the role of the gods and fate in the Homeric epics. The first one assumes that either the gods are subordinated to fate or fate to the gods. The second one presents both gods and fate as co-existing forces. While both explanations seem to conceive of Homeric man as someone who lacks complete independence of action and thought, Sarischoulis contends that even when the end result of an action has to be presented according to tradition, Homer, who is not a believer in fate, nevertheless manages to portray the action as freely chosen by the character. Some of the issues discussed in the introduction could have benefited from the insights of S. Richardson in The Homeric Narrator (1990), which seems unknown to the author.

The main part starts with the analysis of words usually translated as "fate". This is the more appealing part of S's book. It deals with concrete examples and uses of the words for "fate" in Homer. Sarischoulis starts by noticing the absence of the word τύχη in the Homeric poems. The words that he includes in his analysis are first the Indo-European root *smer- and then πέπρωται and πεπρωμένος. The rest of the words building the semantic field of "fate" are: μοῖρα, μόρος, αἶσα, κήρ, πότμος, and οἶτος. Although from two different etymological roots, the words μοῖρα, μόρος, αἶσα share their meaning "portion", "distribution." This is the meaning that Sarischoulis discovers in all testimonies of the word with different genitives: part of the night, the land, the wealth, the meat, the return. It is only when used in relation to "death" (θάνατος) that μοῖρα, μόρος or αἶσα are close to acquiring the meaning "destiny." The fact that death is apportioned to all human beings and this part of life is inescapable contributed to the shift of meaning of these words from "portion" to "fate." κήρ, πότμος and οἶτος are also associated with death. The first one designs the kind of death, the second one is metonymically used as death. οἶτος refers to the path of man towards death. It can refer to the path of life, the life including death or just death itself.

Sarischoulis carefully analyzes the contexts for each of these words and concludes that they do not refer to an abstract concept of fate, but rather to a concrete way of perceiving life as composed of different portions, which are given to the human beings by the gods. The portions correspond either to the nature of human beings or to their position within some cosmic or social order. Along the path of life there are no prescribed events, but choices that one has to make with their corresponding consequences. Even when the result of a situation is traditional, Homer presents the development of the action not as a preordained outcome, but as motives and decisions of the characters involved. If there is an absolute power in Homer it is not fate, but death.

The next major section of the book deals with the implications that the previous exposition has for gods and men. Sarischoulis reasons that if there is no such a thing as fate, then there must be freedom of choice and independent, personal motivations for an action. This is certainly an implication of the lack of a concept of fate. However, and considering that this section seems to be the potentially more consequential part of the book, I would have liked for Sarischoulis to explain in more detail the transition from the study of vocabulary to the study of Homeric psychology. This is where the role of philology as a solid basis for further study should have been emphasized.

Sarischoulis does not see much difference between the way gods and human beings act. They are all motivated by individual desires and goals. Similar to human beings, gods are part of an ordered system, but they are by and large independent actors. The section on the implications for the human beings builds a fourth of the whole monograph. Starting with Snell, much has been written on the concept of "Homeric man." Sarischoulis opposes this concept because he thinks that it implies that all characters in Homer are the same with regard to their thoughts, abilities and actions. Although Sarischoulis is always in tension with Snell and his concept of "Homeric man", nevertheless, he is indebted to Snell when he recognizes that the words translated as fate all have a concrete meaning in the Homeric epics, independently of whether the word is applied to the gods or to human beings.

Sarischoulis also opposes the concept of "double motivation" of human action introduced by Lesky. He considers that the gods are not able to limit the free decision making of men. Gods can persuade men towards one course of action with more or less legitimate motives, but the last decision ultimately lies in men's hands. Homeric characters can distinguish between their own motivation and the one that comes from outside. The responsibility of the action lies entirely with the person (or god) performing the action. He spends lots of energy defending the concept of freedom of action and responsibility, which has been questioned or not entirely accepted by many generations of Homeric scholars, especially in the German speaking area.

In the conclusion, Sarischoulis analyzes well-known scenes of the Iliad and the Odyssey from the point of view of the motivation for action and the self-consciousness of individual responsibility. Of course, he has to start with the wrath of Achilles and Διὸς βουλή. For being a conclusion, this section is very long. It goes for almost ninety pages and, yet, there is hardly anything new to add to his previous argument, which is now applied systematically to scenes of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The book revisits the theories about the concept of 'man' and human and divine decision-making and freedom of thought and action proposed mostly by German speaking scholars: Snell, Lesky and Arbogast Schmidt. Their theories have been very influential and have built on one another for the past eighty years. Sarischoulis's method to stand up to such a dominant tradition is simple: study first what the words really mean in context and then draw the consequences from the findings. This is the greatest merit of the book, which validates Philology as the basis of studies in Homeric psychology and religion.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:16, Friday, 03 April 2009