Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.27

Bruno Currie, Homer's Allusive Art.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xiii, 343.  ISBN 9780198768821.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Catherine Rozier, Swansea University (


With this book, Currie makes use of a mostly neoanalytical methodology to examine various examples of Homeric allusion, giving heightened attention to individual uses of phrases and scenes in order to uncover the complex pathways of interaction which we can trace between both extant and hypothetical texts. Currie acknowledges in his preface that he expects this book to be controversial, and many readers will disagree with Currie’s position on questions such as what constitutes a text, how far we should privilege individual texts over the wider tradition, and what use there is in positing hypothetical poems (now lost) as intertextual partners with extant poems. However, it cannot be denied that this is a work of meticulous scholarship which contains many illuminating discussions of more and less well-known passages from early Greek hexameter poetry. Currie makes use of a very broad scope of reference while also showing the depth of his expertise in Greek and Near Eastern poetry, and for this reason the book will be of use to a wide range of readers for a considerable time to come. Apart from the methodological differences which some readers may have with Currie’s approach, I would register two more general reservations: first, that the discreteness of the chapters at times prevents the reader from finding a unifying rationale behind them; second, that for all his diligence and eye for detail, the author sometimes neglects to emphasise the literary or emotional pay-off of the allusion he has traced.

In his introduction, Currie provides a lucid and thorough survey of relevant scholarship, acknowledging the difficulties which arise with any intertextual study of oral-derived poetry, and in particular addressing questions about the difference between allusion and typology, varying levels of audience knowledge, and whether fixed texts are a necessary pre- condition of intertextuality. The author’s own methodology is explained as ‘an expanded neoanalysis’, focusing on allusive poetics rather than mythology, and unconcerned with questions of genesis or composition. Unlike many of the latest generation of interpreters whose approach is more a combination of oral theory and neoanalysis, Currie is not afraid to use such loaded terms as ‘source’, and argues that Homeric scholarship should learn from the study of allusion in later Greek and Roman poetry rather than treating Homer as a special case. We should, he urges, read ‘both up and down’ the tradition in order to find parallels with the allusiveness of Homer. This is partly borne out in what follows – Currie takes a broad frame of reference, in chapter 4 briefly including the 1998 film Run Lola Run – but there are fewer fruitful parallels drawn with Latin poetry than we might expect from the introduction.

In chapter 2 (‘The Homeric Epics and their Forerunners’), Currie treads ground which is largely familiar to neoanalytical study, and offers some valuable insights. This chapter is divided into three sections, and the focus in the first place is on how the Odyssey alludes to the Iliad. Unlike Pucci’s 1987 Odysseus Polutropos, 1 which argued for a mutual relationship of allusion between the two poems, resulting from their interaction in pre-textual tradition, Currie sees this allusion as based on fixed texts, and therefore travelling only in one direction, from the later to the earlier text. One example, the return of Odysseus to his family and the return of Hector’s body to Ithaca, is argued to demonstrate ‘quotation’, both on the level of narrative patterns, and verbatim on the level of phrase. In this way, Currie argues, the Odyssey is deliberately and repeatedly reminding its audience of the earlier poem, and therefore encouraging us to equate Odysseus’ journey home with ‘one of the most powerful scenes of the Iliad’ (43). Some readers may find it unnecessary to base such an interpretation on the fixed-text model; perhaps a similar level of meaningful allusion could result from a fluid-tradition model, in which both texts are drawing on a pre-existing body of tradition about the return of a lost family member. Further, Currie’s analysis does not take into account the way in which the Iliad scene draws on traditional scenes of catabasis,2 and whether this is relevant to the corresponding scene in the Odyssey (Odysseus’ arrival and supplication in Scherie). In the rest of this chapter Currie considers allusion in the Odyssey to lost Nostoi narratives and in the Iliad to a hypothetical *Memnonis, and it is here that some readers will find his arguments problematic. The discussion of the Aithiopis and this hypothetical *Memnonis seems to return to some of the founding concerns of neoanalytical study from the early 20th century, and Currie’s attempt to determine ‘the likely direction of influence’ (60), is a task which oral-traditionalists have warned against in favour of the multi-directional use of a shared oral tradition.

In chapter 3 (‘The Archaic Hymns to Demeter’) Currie again postulates allusion between an extant poem and other, now lost works, by focusing on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and an alternative hymn which is partly preserved in a papyrus (P. Berol. 13044). Currie argues that this other hymn, which differs from the Homeric Hymn in narrative but shares certain verses verbatim, is an illustrative example of how phrase-level allusion operates between poems; he concludes that the poem in the papyrus can be called a ‘source’ of the Homeric Hymn. This chapter contains some of the most detailed analysis in the book, and as such will be impressive even to readers who disagree with its conclusions.

Chapter 4 (‘Pregnant Tears and Poetic Memory’) focuses on ‘self-conscious’ allusion, and argues that the shedding of tears acts as a signpost in symbolic scenes. For example, the tears shed by Andromache in her meeting with Hector in Iliad 6 are a marker of the allusiveness of the scene, which reminds its audience of Hector’s imminent death and the violent end of Astyanax. The notion that Andromache’s tears in this scene are ‘pregnant’, and therefore connotative of other scenes, is based upon Currie’s assertion that in this and the other examples he gives, the tears shed exceed ‘what the situation seems immediately to warrant’ (107). For one example, Currie returns again to a well-known focus of neoanalysis, the death and mourning of Patroclus. I found this chapter the least convincing of the book, largely because of its basis in the argument that the tears in these scenes are insufficiently motivated. As Kelly (2012) 3 has argued in the case of the Thetis scene, and as many readers will attest for the ever-popular meeting between Andromache and Hector, these women’s emotional responses are entirely in keeping with their characterisation throughout the poem. As for the other examples given by Currie, Antilochos’ tears at the news of Patroclus’ death make enough sense as a sympathetic expression of the grief which Achilles will feel at hearing of it; as the man charged with passing on the bad news, Antilochos anticipates his friend’s grief in his own tears. The cases from the Odyssey will not seem unmotivated to a sensitive reader either: Eurycleia’s and Eumaeus’ tears at the return of Odysseus and Telemachus respectively make emotional sense as the outpouring of pent-up concern and affection. These scenes may indeed be allusive and symbolic, but it does not seem justified to mark out these tears chiefly as a semantic signpost when they also contribute to the characterisation and emotional potency of the relevant scenes.

By some way the longest of the chapters, chapter 5 (‘Allusion in Greek and Near Eastern Poetry’) presents a detailed and methodical examination of correspondences between ‘toilette-and-seduction’ scenes in the Iliad, Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Gilgamesh and Sumerian songs. Throughout, Currie’s arguments rely on a high level on textual fixity in transmission, without supposing written texts. Importantly, this chapter argues that interaction of Greek epic with non-Greek material is markedly different from other Greek material. This suggests that the audience (or at least an ‘ideal’ audience) would be aware of when allusions were being made to non-Greek material, although they would most likely think of it as generally ‘foreign’ rather than being aware of its specific provenance.

Chapter 6 – an epilogue rather than a conclusion – returns to methodological issues and offers a single case study as an illustrative example. Currie argues that Hector’s utterance to Andromache, that ‘war is the concern of men’ (πόλεμος δ᾽ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει Il.6.642), is being deliberately and specifically referred to when the same phrase appears, with a different subject, in the Odyssey. In the decades since Foley’s arguments about ‘traditional referentiality’ became widespread, Currie believes that Homeric scholarship has gone too far in privileging the tradition over individual poetic usage, preventing us from noticing and appreciating the complex lines of allusion which the Homeric poems are capable of revealing to us. Individual usage, he concludes, ‘are not merely jetsam discarded to keep the ship of Tradition afloat’ (228).

Following the Epilogue are six appendices totalling 30 pages. Appendix A, a survey of the difficulties and benefits of Proclus as a source for the Epic Cycle, and B, a translation of the Berlin Papyrus to complement chapter 3, are both very useful and clearly serve the larger purpose of the book. The other four appendices, all containing specific textual arguments, are less obviously useful, and readers may wonder why they were not either incorporated into the main chapters or left out altogether.

The book is generally very well-presented, although a few typographical errors (including ‘early Geek epic’, 31) are sometimes distracting. The general index and index of passages mean that this book will be useful to large numbers of students and researchers in early Greek poetry. As pointed out in the ‘How to Use This Book’ note which precedes the first chapter (xiv), the chapters are very distinct from one another and resemble more a collection of essays than a coherent whole; Currie has not taken the opportunity to include a concluding chapter which makes links between his case studies and presents a unified argument for re-assessing our privileging of tradition.

In sum, this book is clearly the result of a very high level of detailed analysis; despite the problems it will present for interpreters of a more oral-traditionalist bent, it is undoubtedly a very useful addition to Homeric scholarship.


1.   Pucci, P. (1987), Odysseus Polutropos. Cornell.
2.   See Herrero de Jáuregui, M. (2011), “Priam's Catabasis: Traces of the Epic Journey to Hades in Iliad 24”, Transactions of the American Philological Association 141, 37–68 for a detailed examination of this type of allusion, with bibliography.
3.   Kelly, A. (2012), “The mourning of Thetis: ‘Allusion’ and the future in the Iliad”, in F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, Chr. Tsagalis (eds.), Homeric Contexts: Neo-analysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry (Berlin), 318–43. Currie presents a detailed counter-argument to Kelly in Appendix E.

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