Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.25

Lillian E. Doherty (ed.), Homer's Odyssey. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 360.  ISBN 9780199233335.  $59.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Cynthia King, Wright State University (
Word count: 1302 words

Table of Contents

The Oxford Readings in Classical Studies aim to provide a useful introduction to recent scholarship on a given author or topic by bringing together previously published articles which the editor of the collection deems important. It takes a person of truly heroic temperament to tackle Homeric scholarship, especially when the series has already published a collection for the Iliad (Douglas L. Cairns, editor) in 2001. Lillian Doherty notes that her collection of papers on the Odyssey complements Cairns's, but that she has chosen to highlight the importance of articles by women and about the women in the poem.

One of these is Helene Foley's delightful article on "'Reverse Similes' and Sex Roles in the Odyssey."1 Chris Emlyn-Jones ("The Reunion of Penelope and Odysseus"), Sheila Murnaghan ("Penelope's Agnoia"), and Doherty herself ("Gender and Internal Audiences in the Odyssey") study Penelope's delicate position. The question of when she recognizes Odysseus (Book 19 or Book 23) is tackled: Emlyn-Jones and Murnaghan opt for Book 23, but I belong to the Book 19 school.2 Penelope is the only person in the epic who outwits Odysseus (the trick of the bed), and I think the poet wants to show us that she could beat him at his own game!

Doherty's essay is primarily interested in "reception theory": using the epic's internal audiences to construct its likely "implied audience" of female listeners as well as men. She notes, however, that "a woman's identification with Arete and Penelope also reinforces the patriarchal norms for female behaviour to which these characters adhere" (p. 264). Ann Bergren's post-structural study of "Helen's 'Good Drug'" deals with the ambiguities involved in the Greek idea of polarities: two kinds of drugs, but not exclusively divided, rather mixed and moving towards good or "baneful"; i.e., marriage (Menelaus' bastard son) and funeral (lament for Agamemnon).

Norman Austin's "Name Magic in the Odyssey" and Erwin Cook's "'Active' and 'Passive' Heroics in the Odyssey" both elegantly work with the speaking names in the epic. Austin examines striking passages where loved ones refrain from using Odysseus' name: Telemachos, Penelope, Eumaios use circumlocutions. Cook focuses on the tension between trickster and epic hero: Odysseus owes his survival to suppression of his heroic identity, but he reclaims it in the slaughter of the suitors. Peter Walcot in "Odysseus and the Art of Lying" illuminates what Odysseus does in the poem by comparing the function of lying in peasant societies: "An inferior is vulnerable and must be taught to protect himself..." (p. 152); "Teasing as much as deliberate lying trains us to be on our guard, and the Greek peasant today, like the Homeric hero of the distant past, has a much greater need to remain vigilant than does the scholar safe in his study" (p. 153). Ouch.

Minna Skafte Jensen's essay, "In What Sense Can the Iliad and the Odyssey Be Considered Oral Texts?" shows how dictation to a scribe could have worked by drawing on much fieldwork studying oral epic. She finds the book divisions significant and suggests that they reflect breaks during the dictation. "Like epic singers in our day, the poet took care to bring his story to a natural pause at the end of each session." The scribe would read the last line of the previous day when the poet and he started again, and thus the structure of the poems develops "organically" from the process of recording (pp. 25-26).

Walter Burkert, "The Song of Ares and Aphrodite: On the Relationship between the Odyssey and the Iliad," uses Demodocus' song to show connections to specific scenes involving gods in the Iliad and thus considers the Odyssey later than the Iliad.

Here it is a great pity that R. B. Rutherford's "From the Iliad to the Odyssey which is in the Cairns Iliad volume could not have been included in Doherty's volume. Burkert is charming; Rutherford is thorough. Rutherford's paper in Doherty's collection, "The Philosophy of the Odyssey," is concerned with "the moral picture of Odysseus which is presented in the poem" (p. 159): he calls Odysseus "not a tragic hero." He thinks that Penelope does not recognize Odysseus in Book 19 (p. 178), but notes that his anger, his loss of control, in Book 23 is what makes Penelope believe him (p. 183).

Both Adolf Koehnken, "Odysseus' Scar: An Essay on Homeric Epic Narrative," and Irene de Jong, "Between Word and Deed: Hidden Thoughts in the Odyssey," deal with aspects of E. Auerbach's Mimesis. Koehnken argues against Auerbach's view that Homer knows no background: "The narrator introduces the scar where it is first significant for the plot... [and] interrupts the narrative at its most critical point: after the recognition, but before its effect." Auerbach was basing his view on the effect of the "digression" on a modern reader, but the narrator was using it to provide essential background information for a listening audience (pp. 53-54). For de Jong Auerbach is wrong in his view that Homeric characters have no unspoken thoughts. She uses the narratological theory of "embedded focalization" to show the widespread existence of unspoken thoughts in the Odyssey. "Embedded focalization is the narrative situation in which a primary narrator-focalizer represents in the narrator-text the perceptions, thoughts, emotions, or words (indirect speech) of characters...." (p. 65).

"The plot of the Odyssey is in its second half," as James M. Redfield rightly notes in "The Economic Man," (p. 278), and thus he considers it "a poem of economics" because Odysseus' return is necessary to restore proper order to his household. Redfield argues also that the poem shows the danger of "hyper-culture" (as with Helen and Menelaus and the Phaeacians) "because prosperity, not want, sets the most difficult ethical problems": koros leading to ate and hubris (p. 285). Peter Rose, "Class Ambivalence in the Odyssey," finds close parallels between the poet of the Odyssey and Hesiod. Hesiod is obviously self-conscious about what he is doing; the Odyssey shows similar concern with the status of poets (p. 306). Rose also believes that the poet identifies with Odysseus, the wandering disguised old king, who deserves better treatment than he receives from the suitors (the audience). This is a very interesting essay.

Doherty's introduction aims to persuade "students that this is in fact an exciting time to be a Homerist" (p. 1) and covers Composition, Transmission, Social and Historical Dimensions, and Literary Approaches. This thorough overview which covers much more than she is able to include in her collection is an excellent place for these students to start. Bibliography is provided here and in some of the essays in footnotes. Some of the essays have end bibliographies, and Doherty gives her own helpful Selected Bibliography at the end of the book. She has been very kind to her readers. She provides a useful glossary, including both singulars and plurals and even alternative spellings (caused by the usual problems of transliterating Greek), a thorough list of abbreviations (almost four full pages), and translations and explanations are inserted in square brackets into the various essays for all foreign phrases and quotations. To get an idea of what she has done, I checked the original publication of one essay (Norman Austin's "Name Magic"), and indeed her kind insertions make this wonderful piece even more accessible to today's students. I found only one term she probably should have glossed: "catachrestic" ("catachrestic conjunction") in Walter Burkert's essay (p. 35). Here we might fault the English translation of the original German article. Indeed, this essay reads more like German in English even with her helpful insertions. The other originally German article (Adolf Koehnken's) reads much more smoothly. The final essay, Piero Boitani's "The Shadow of Ulysses beyond 2001," is an elegant translation from Italian by Boitani himself and surveys how influential the motif of the wandering dislocated hero has been in recent literature.


1.   My students and I loved this paper whenever I assigned it in courses on epic and on women in antiquity.
2.   Helpful here would be a reference to John Miles Foley's discussion of "Penelope's Indeterminacy" in Homer's Traditional Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), pp. 142-157. For J. M. Foley, Penelope "delays because delay is functional" (p. 143). Besides, as I read somewhere long ago and used to say to my classes, "a good story resists coming to an end."

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