Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.21

Franco Montanari, Antonios Rengakos, Christos Tsagalis (ed.), Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 12.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. ix, 698.  ISBN 9783110271959.  $182.00.  

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (


For the second half of the 20th century, Thessaloniki was a major center of Homer studies, known for the work of Ioannis Kakridis and his student Dimitrios Maronitis, so the Aristotle University made an appropriate venue for the conference in May 2010 on "Homer in the 21st century" from which this hefty and nicely indexed volume issued.

So-called "Neoanalysis," to which Kakridis made distinctive contributions starting in the 1930s, revolves around a single hypothesis: that incidents narrated in Homeric epic often allude to earlier poems (a prime example being the death of Patroklos and the Aithiopis). In its first-wave formulations, such earlier versions were written texts, usually proto-versions of later-attested Cyclic poems. In the softer approach promoted since the early 1980s by the theory's main expositor Kullmann, the "texts" may be thought of as oral poems. The relative usefulness of this idea in relation to the much wider field of oral poetry and poetics is problematized by the more interesting analyses in this volume. Split fairly evenly between older and younger practitioners from eleven nations, the 24 contributions provide a prospect of contemporary Homerology. Instead of the usual everybody-gets-one-sentence list, it would perhaps be more useful to highlight those exhibiting methodological advances or retrogressions.

Montanari centers his introduction on a rhetorical trope that surfaces in several subsequent contributions, urging an elusive "unitary vision" that is to blend Neoanalysis with Oral Theory. (Reifying the latter through capitals papers it over with false unity; some would also object to the label "theory" stuck onto a practical approach based on fieldwork). At stake is the possibility of "intertextuality": can we speak of pre-Homeric oral versions that are nevertheless "fixed by virtue of memorization" and therefore supposedly carry the imprint of previous narrative contexts when re-cycled? He cites with approval Kullmann's Faktenkanon—a constraint placed on deviation from a standard sequence of Troy materials—but concedes that even this was less than rigid. One might object that the Kanon itself is simply abstracted from pitifully scrappy relics: we don't know what we don't have. The larger objection is that Montanari's imaginary near-texts lack parallels and motivations. What would make an oral poet resort to such pre-packaged surrender of the art of variation?

The project of grand unification seems not to concern Kullmann or Finkelberg. The former curiously states that his suggestion fifty-three years ago in Die Quellen der Ilias concerning the Iliad's awareness of the Teuthranian expedition is now vindicated by the discovery of Archilochus' Telephos elegy (P.Oxy. 4708). Even if Arktinos (alleged author of the Cyclic Cypria) had been dated much later than the 7th century surely no one claimed that the episode was unknown to any other archaic poet. Kullmann's further observations (e.g. that 15 leaders in the Catalogue of Ships have Argonautic connections) while interesting do not require a Neoanalyst perspective at all; tellingly he now refers to origins in "myth,” not in early texts. Finkelberg, while also acknowledging the good of oral poetics, undertakes an oddly anachronistic objection to alleged "uncritical acceptance" by some scholars of Milman Parry's findings on formulaic composition. She proffers as examples of the "systemic tension" between epic tradition and the "individual poet" some slightly non-formulaic expressions in Il.18.104 and Od. 4.239, claiming they show the poet is not a "passive medium of his tradition"—as if anyone nowadays asserts that. Nagy’s careful discussion of langue and parole later in the volume (28-30) should alleviate this sort of discomfort.

In contrast to this pair of under-theorized pieces, a few contributions tackle the methodological problems head-on. Kelly (to my mind the best) shows that the mourning of Thetis in Iliad 18, rather than requiring a Neoanalytical reference to extra-Iliadic prototypes, fits "prospective lamentation," a widespread typical sequence that he meticulously analyzes (in the process thus undercutting the mainstay of Hirschberger's summary article on Achilles' fate.) A similar defense of organic intratextuality, Bierl's capacious demonstration of the oral-traditional character of the Doloneia uncovers through myth, ritual, and folktale its thematic rather than compositional "diachronic regression." He thus complements the findings of the essential monograph by Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott, which is summarized and extended here by Dué with added dictional evidence (on the variant nukta di' orphnaiên at Il.10.142).

On the other side of the debate, Currie undertakes a long defense of Neoanalysis against what he views as over-confident extensions of "typological" oralism. He shores up the old hypothesis of a pre-Iliadic "Memnonis" (supposed model for Patroklos' death) with a novel argument (ironically itself typological): that the Sumerian Death of Bilgames served as source of Enkidu's death as depicted in the later Babylonian Gilgamesh, and therefore it is possible that "the Iliad not only engages in imitatio of Gilgamesh but also imitates the way Gilgamesh itself engages in imitatio" (554). The "quasi-neoanalytical" reading thus imagined as practiced by "Homer himself" is further extended to a hypothetical "Aphrodite and Anchises" (source of the Deception of Zeus in Iliad 14), with yet more Near Eastern parallels. I would question whether just because Assyriologists resort to Neoanalysis Homerists should too. Currie's final section, on notions of textual fixity, while a somewhat stronger challenge to oral- traditionalists, throws together recording practices that seem quite incommensurable.

Five excellent contributions gesture toward Neoanalysis without plumping for it. Petropoulos fruitfully reads the Telemachy through the lens of nostos-traditions, with rewarding results especially for Odyssey 3. Tsagalis, in a complicated piece, doggedly uncovers "alternative" Odysseys, especially in the hero's lies. Methodologically more dubious is his attempt to differentiate episodes depending on whether they have Near Eastern congeners (e.g. Calypso is like Ishtar, thus can't be "primary"). Burgess artfully connects the poem's frequent signs of "belatedness" to the peculiarities of the Odyssean narrator-as-voyager; this should become canonical in courses on travel writing. Similarly attentive to the precise details of narrative and intratext are the contributions of Marks and Alden, the former convincingly showing how the 29 Greek contingents in the Catalogue of Ships boil down to four main clusters, whose members regularly interact in the poem's extended narrative, while the latter explores the intricate inter-relationships among the Iliad's biographies of displaced persons (Phoenix, Patroklos, Bellerophon, Peleus et al).

Neoanalysis fades even further from view as one moves from writing about inter- and intra-texts to excavating cultural contexts (material, cognitive, historical), as another cluster of five pieces shows. Nagy's detailed restatement and expansion of his findings on Panhellenism and epic's relationship to hero-cult comprises a friendly rebuttal to a critique by Currie inPindar and the Cult of Heroes (Oxford 2005). Adducing three distinct sets of implicit Homeric references, Nagy stresses that the shading-over of cult is a long-term diachronic feature (as confirmed by the formulaic system), rather than the innovation of some lone personalized author. The demonstration makes an effective counterweight to Currie's insistence on narrower "literary" notions (like imitatio) later in the volume, and provides an instructively stark contrast between respective positions. Levaniouk makes fine use of Nagy's work on evolving Panhellenism while examining the resolutely local Cretan angle in (and on) Homeric poetry. Instead of a reductive Neoanalytic "alternative" pre-Odyssey, she imagines diverse interactions between indigenous Cretan compositions and Ionic epic (with Sparta as the likeliest site of confluence), ending with exciting speculation about the Odyssey and archaic initiation cult in Kato Symi, Crete. Muellner offers a precise and persuasive demonstration that fifth-century Attic vase paintings of Achilles cloaking himself in a himation represent a traditional multiform of Achilles not as angry but as grieving (with the akhos that underlies his very name). His key finding is that this particular multiform, with its head-veiling gesture, is never selected by Homeric epic to depict Achilles' reaction to the taking of Briseis or death of Patroklos, yet the Iliad seems obliquely aware of it. Once again, the horizon of possibilities is vastly expanded when we take account of multiple co-existing media rather than dwell as Neoanalysts on "texts." Torres ingeniously aligns visual evidence with an alleged fixation of the Thebaid around 573 BC, arguing from scenes that may (or may not) depict the Seven Against Thebes at Nemea that the lost epic might have mentioned the aition of the Games (the funeral for Opheltes/ Arkehmoros). He further endorses Cingano's idea that it was the Thebaid (not the Iliad or Odyssey) that Cleisthenes famously banned for its celebration of Argos (Hdt. 5.67). A paradigmatic employment of cognitive sociology structures Minchin's reading of two key scenes (Hector with Andromache in Iliad 6, Odysseus on Scheria, Odyssey 8) in terms of their brilliant mixtures of personal and cultural memories. Her discovery that the two epics maneuver differently between these modes opens up fascinating new pathways for further study.

Another clutch of contributions is rather less explicit in terms of its methods, though provocative in ideas. Some illustrate how difficult it is to avoid the old-fashioned vocabulary of models and copies. Said in her essay, among several helpful points concerning animal similes, says (354) that an Odyssean simile (Athena as swallow, 22.239-40) "is an adaptation of the Iliadic simile likening gods sitting on an oak to vultures," while Pucci, speaking of the "iterative unit" of a prayer gesture reverses himself in the space of a page, suggesting (435) that Od. 5.299-312 can be viewed as "a specific adaptation" of Il. 21.272-83, but then (436) conceding that the thematic sequence involved in each passage may be typical of lament. Allusion or convention? The point of contention that leads Currie to an impassioned defense elicits from Pucci a genial shrug.

Cassio considers the oddly delimited usage of "Kupris" for Aphrodite in Iliad 5, and its mythic reflexes, to reflect an independent compositional basis for the book (but by someone "close to the so-called monumental poet") (424). In a similar lexically-driven attempt, Debiasi builds on Durante's etymology for Homeros (related to words for assembly) to argue that the name can designate a Homerid agonistês. Circumstantial evidence leads to his conclusion that the Certamen set in Euboea represents Lelantine War era affinities, with Hesiod as heroic proponent of Chalkis—a peculiar blend of historicism and allegoresis. Scodel, on the other hand, complains that scholars have focused too much on the metapoetic and competitive aspects of Hesiod. She persuasively adduces ways in which the Works and Days neither contradicts nor hews to the Homeric version of the heroic age. Yamagata does a careful survey basically reaffirming Whallon's work from 44 years ago, on the complementarity of epithets, character, and plot. Does their tight association mean that a given action sequence (e.g. Achilles racing around Troy) is also hard-wired? She does not choose to tackle the bigger questions.

Having digested the diverse interpretations here, one is less likely to accept the premise that current Homeric studies are equally divided between two superpower approaches (like geopolitics pre-1989). If anything, the volume memorializes the melting away of Neoanalysis into the deeper mainstream. This might have been predicted: Neoanalysis was simply a belated (often resistant) recognition that Homeric poetry is in fact folk literature. The messier realities of how traditional narratives get formed and performed (as Parry, Lord and scores of others attest) reveal that 1) there is never just one Poet, 2) there are always dozens of alternate versions, crowding around a performance like ghosts in the Nekuia and 3) these are always in flux. It is hardly accidental that Kakridis' best insights came from Modern Greek folkloric analogues. Kakridis died in 1992, some months after Albert Lord. Two decades on, we still need to apply to Greek poems the full array of the ethnographic work they pioneered. Stephanie West's rousing endorsement of comparative oral poetics toward the end of this volume (and her plea for more recognition specifically of the highly relevant Uzbek epic Alpamysh) speaks emphatically to this point. Neoanalysis, useful in locating but insufficient for explaining textual resemblances, could never be more than a subset within a more expansively conceived field.

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