Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.54

Jonathan L. Ready, The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives: Oral Traditions from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiii, 315.  ISBN 9780198802556.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Miklós Péti, Károli Gáspár University (


Five years after his Character, Narrator, and Simile in the Iliad1 Jonathan L. Ready has published another book-length study of Homeric similes. The new volume entitled The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives, however, has a very different take on similes than Ready’s previous monograph: instead of meticulous close readings, readers find a series of detailed comparative studies which introduce new perspectives to the critical discussion of similes and provide fresh answers to some of the age-old problems (e.g. the function of the simile). Based on an impressive mustering of evidence of contemporary oral poetries as well as other verbal and non-verbal arts (such as blues and rap music and stone-carving), Ready argues for dispensing with ideas of tradition and innovation (which have significantly influenced the critical reception of Homeric similes). Instead of adopting such binding binary oppositions, Ready proposes to conceive of the oral poet as negotiating a “spectrum of distribution” between “shared” and “idiolectal” elements and thereby demonstrating his competence for the audience. The book is an extended demonstration of this proposition whose implications range far beyond the field of Homeric similes, indeed, beyond the realm of Homeric scholarship.

The ‘Introduction’ sets out the author’s goals, and, after clarifying the methods to be used, provides some essential definitions for the succeeding discussions. As a general objective Ready aims to “encourage Homerists to look into modern oral traditions and the scholarship of those who study them full time”; while on a more concrete level he proposes that such comparative enterprises will reveal more about “the ways [the] Homeric poets put together their similes and the ways their audiences thought about their similes” (4). The close focus on the similes, however, does not mean that Ready treats these elements of the Homeric epics in isolation from other aspects of oral poetics, since his comparative inquiries have important ramifications concerning how “the poet of the Iliad and the poet of the Odyssey succeeded in performance” (4). Such wide-ranging goals require a keen methodology, and Ready spares no time to elucidate and justify his use of modern material to shed new light on, or to hypothesize about, Homeric phenomena. The sheer volume of material to be used for comparison is essential for the accomplishment of Ready’s objectives: only by surveying and sampling a wide-range of modern sources can he provide representative data for the discussion of Homeric poetry. Accordingly, Ready uses evidence from five major modern traditions of oral poetry (in some cases inevitably in translation): Kyrgyz poems about the hero Manas, the epic of Pabuji from Rajasthan, South Sumatran epic, heroic songs from the former Yugoslavia, and the so-called Najdi poems (which are shorter oral poems) from Saudi Arabia.

The main body of Ready’s monograph falls into two major parts. Part 1 (Chapters 1–3), a slightly longer section entitled ‘The Modern Material’, gathers evidence from contemporary and relatively recent recordings of oral poetries to measure up against the Homeric poems as well as to introduce Ready’s main theoretical innovation, “the spectrum of distribution.” In the first chapter (“Formal Points of Contact with Homeric Similes”) Ready considers four important formal characteristics of Homeric similes: length, the “duration of the comparative moment” (36), arrangement (including the clustering of similes), and the positioning of the tenor and the vehicle. With the exception of positioning, a respect in which the Iliad and the Odyssey exhibit a playful flexibility not characteristic of other traditions, all of these features are common to both modern oral poetries and the Homeric poems. According to Ready, these data should challenge long-held critical views about the uniqueness of the Homeric simile, and they also prompt a revaluation of some of the critical commonplaces associated with these tropes.

This revaluation happens in the central theoretical-methodological chapter entitled “The Spectrum of Distribution.” Ready here takes a “geographic” approach, and uses the terms “idiolectal,” “dialectal,” and “pan-traditional” to classify the elements of orally-derived texts (56). The spectrum of distribution is defined by these three categories with the idiolectal representing features that are unique to a performer, and the dialectal and pan-traditional standing for characteristics that are to a larger or smaller extent shared with other performers. The oral poet demonstrates his competence by moving across this spectrum, deploying shared or idiolectal or individual elements in a variety of ways. Ready’s introduction of these concepts is especially useful in overcoming the age-old critical debate about the role of tradition vs. innovation in the Homeric poems. Ready provides a detailed critique of both positions, and his subchapter 2.2 (“Problems with the Terms “Tradition” and “Innovation””) could even stand alone as an excellent overview and appraisal of both older and most recent positions in this debate. He argues that “opposing the traditional to the creative and aligning the creative with the original are reductive moves” (68). Instead, he proposes to adopt a model from folkloristics, and to employ the terms “shared” and “individual” to describe how the creative and the traditional may interact and even coincide in the performance of oral poetry. In subchapter 2.3 (“The Spectrum of Distribution Defined”) he provides the necessary (interdisciplinary) theoretical underpinning for the use of these terms, while in subchapter 2.4 (“Ranging across the Spectrum of Distribution”) he marshals evidence form a vast array of oral traditions to highlight the oral poet’s use of shared and idiolectal material. In subchapter 2.5 (“The Importance of Shared Elements”), Ready seeks to highlight how the use of shared elements helps strengthen the sense of community for both the singer and his audience; subchapter 2.6 (“Similes and Competence”) argues, however, that similes are “marked sites of distinction and differentiation” (126), i.e., they present an excellent opportunity for the poet to introduce idiolectal material. For the oral poet and his audience both shared and idiolectal elements are important; in fact, “traversing the spectrum of distribution enables an oral performer’s display of skill” (127).

Chapter 3 (“Similes in Five Modern Oral Poetries”) uses these conclusions to consider the use of similes by modern oral poets. Ready’s nuanced reading of similes prevents readers from assigning priority to idiolectal or individual instances; he convincingly demonstrates that it is sometimes the subtle combination of the shared with the idiolectal that can result in surprising effects proving the singer’s competence and satisfying the audience’s expectations. Armed with these conclusions, Ready proposes to examine the Homeric poems, the subject of Part 2 (Chapters 4–6; “Application to the Homeric Epics”).

In Chapter 4 (“Two Preliminary Points”) Ready first highlights the Homeric poems’ focus on poetic competence, then goes on to situate his idea of the spectrum of distribution against the background of previous scholarship. Drawing on the works of John Miles Foley, Richard Martin, and Deborah Beck, Ready points out that the concern with the shared and idiolectal has been present for some time in Homeric studies (under the guise of different terminology), but almost always at the expense of “prioritizing the apparently unique or valuing the typical only in so far as it helps the unprecedented stand out” (189). Ready aims to set the balance right by showing the value of shared elements in their own right.

In accordance with this aim, Chapter 5 (“Shared Similes in the Homeric Epics”) presents a longer discussion of similes than Chapter 6 (“Idiolectal Similes in the Homeric Epics”). Ready acknowledges that the scarcity of evidence from epic poetry contemporaneous with the Homeric epics makes it difficult in certain cases to determine to what extent a given simile is shared, therefore, he also consults other hexameter poems from the archaic period (Hesiod and the Homeric hymns), as well as early Greek lyric poetry. Obvious parallels in the available body of texts (such as e.g. the image of the falling leaves in the Iliad (6.146–149) and in Mimnermus (fr. 2.1–4 West)) allow Ready to hypothesize that they are shared from a common stock, and that the (for us obvious) differences between the images were not necessarily conspicuous to the original audience and the poets themselves. The model recommended to account for such images is one inspired by folkloristics: Ready proposes that the oral poet thought in “scenarios” when he created the vehicles of his similes. A scenario is “the irreducible component lying at the heart of the vehicle portion” (205) of a simile, it represents an activity the vehicle is engaged in. Thus, for example, the scenario shared by the similes in Iliad 5.87–92, 11.492–495, and 16.384–92 is the river flooding (216). These scenarios can be attended by distinct “features,” e.g. the river is full, or the river destroys. Ready proposes a more conservative and a more radical approach to account for the construction of such similes. According to the former, the Homeric poet chose to put shared elements into the vehicle portions, while according to the latter “the vehicle portions that came from the same scenario were considered the same” (227). However it may be, Ready argues (building on a theoretical model from frame semantics) that the scenarios with their distinct features made up “easy-to-learn templates” for the poet which allowed him to recycle “the same” image again and again (237).

In the brief treatment of idiolectal similes Ready differentiates between two possibilities depending on whether the tenor of the “unparalleled vehicle” is itself paralleled or not within the available corpus of texts. The idea of the spectrum of distribution once again allows us to see the question of tradition vs. innovation in a more nuanced light, since in presenting an unparalleled vehicle with a paralleled tenor the Homeric poets noticeably demonstrate their competence by aligning themselves with, but also differentiating themselves from, other oral poets’ practices (252).

Ready’s immensely erudite monograph (the bibliography contains around 700 items) caters for a wide audience including Homerists, folklorists, and comparatists. Accordingly, in the conclusion he steps beyond the narrow focus on the similes to show how his adopted method of comparison might be used in a completely different field, the study of the textual reproduction of the Homeric epics. Indeed, the intellectual rigor that characterizes the book from beginning to end makes it a model of comparative scholarship. Occasionally one might miss the exciting critical readings of Homeric similes that abounded in Ready’s previous book, but the wide-ranging focus of the discussion, the author’s deep familiarity with the state-of-the-art scholarship, his keen and insightful engagement with the critical traditions of several disciplines, and the abundance of new perspectives proposed amply compensate readers. The Homeric Simile in Comparative Perspectives will be a starting point and an indispensable source for anyone interested in ancient and modern oral poetries, the Homeric similes, comparative methods, or any combination of these.


1.   See my review in BMCR 2014.05.37.

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