Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.03.18 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.03.18

Jonathan Ready, Christos Tsagalis (ed.), Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic, Volume 2. Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic, 2.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. 220.  ISBN 9789004376908.  €116.00.  


Reviewed by Fabian Horn, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (fabian.horn@klassphil.uni-muenchen.de)

After the inaugural volume of the Yearbook of Ancient Greek Epic (YAGE 1, 2017: BMCR 2017.05.47), the second instalment continues the study of Ancient Greek epic poetry with a range of different approaches and topics. However, the volume is not focused solely on “Ancient Greek Epic and Ancient Greek Tragedy” (as had been announced), and the relationship between epic and tragedy is just one of the many aspects explored in this collection. As the editors state in their foreword, “Homer also features here in YAGE 2, but contributors look elsewhere as well: to Hesiod, to Empedocles, to Greek tragedians, and to ancient mythographers.”

In the absence of an overarching theme holding the seven articles of the volume together, it is probably best to give brief summaries of the individual contributions:

Joel P. Christensen’s “Eris and Epos. Composition, Competition, and the Domestication of Strife” (pp. 1–39) opens the volume with a study of the theme of ἔρις in the poems of Hesiod and Homer. Drawing on the terminology of game theory, he argues that the two forms of strife described by Hesiod (Hes. Op. 11–24) can be considered as representing the principles of zero and positive sum games, and discusses the cultural and compositional force of ἔρις as cooperative competition resulting in mutual benefit. Without positing any direct influences, and simply comparing the traditions behind the respective poems, Christensen proceeds to trace a progression from the zero-sum game of the destructive ἔρις of the Theogony and the Iliad, which already shows impulses towards the resolution of conflicts through institutionalization and cooperation, to the Odyssey and the Works and Days, in whose worlds violent conflict is still present but human communities strive to ‘domesticate’ negative ἔρις and realize the value of cooperative, positive-sum competition.

Xavier Gheerbrant’s “Ritornell and Episodic Composition in Empedocles” (pp. 40–77) focuses on a structural feature in the extant fragments of Empedocles’ didactic poetry. In a minute reading of selected fragments, Gheerbrant argues that Empedocles organized the episodes in the first book of his poem On Nature through repetition of lines and phrases in non-linear and non-circular patterns, which can best be described and analyzed as instances of ‘Ritornellkomposition’, and shows the argumentative force and didactic value of this poetic technique.

Ahuvia Kahane’ contribution, “The Complexity of Epic Diction” (pp. 78–117), addresses a substantial topic, the relationships between form and meaning and tradition and innovations in Greek epic diction, and the resulting difficulties of its interpretation. Basing his own approach on the methodology of usage-based grammar and cognitive functional linguistics, Kahane argues that epic diction is a complex adaptive system: he proposes a reinterpretation of Homer’s systematic diction by building on Parry’s notion of the importance of analogy as a generative mechanism, illustrating his argument with a study of the semantic and poetic functions of the prevalent speech introduction formula τὸν/τὴν/τοὺς δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη + name-epithet combination. He offers a theoretical framework for evaluating the language of epic, describing the epic diction and its patterns as emergent, interactive and inherently complex. Kahane concludes that the processes of analogy and reanalysis of formulae and formulaic patterns have the potential to lead to the emergence of innovative semantic value within the tradition along a linguistic continuum of the usage of the individual poet (idiolect) and communal language, even though it is difficult to evaluate individual patterns in the absence of external evidence.

In her study “Searching for Homeric Fandom in Greek Tragedy” (pp. 118–150), Lynn Kozak draws on the comparatively recent field of ‘fan studies’, the field of scholarly research focused on media fans and fan cultures, as a framework for reconsidering the creative responses of tragedy to the Homeric poems and for studying reception in antiquity. After extensive remarks on fan studies and particularly the model of the ‘fanboy auteur’ (illustrated with the contemporary examples of J. J. Abrams and Bryan Fuller), the final third of the piece is dedicated to the application of a refined version of the model to the parodos of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, arguing that the chorus of Chalcidian women functions as an affirmational fan avatar community but also contains a transformational element in the women’s affective response, thus challenging, expanding and contributing to the Iliad’s storyworld.

In the shortest contribution of the volume, “Iliad 11: Healing, Healers, Nestor, and Medea” (pp. 151–164), Bruce Louden argues that the Iliad demonstrates awareness of the myth of the Argonauts and draws on the figure of Medea as a template for two minor female characters, Hekamede and Agamede, both servants of Nestor: their names are compounds from the same root as hers and they exhibit a similar knowledge of herbs, concoctions and restoration (cf. Il. 11.624–41, 740–1; 14.5–7), like Kirke in the Odyssey. On the basis of these thematic associations with Medea, who is known for her abilities of rejuvenation, Louden suggests speculatively that their service and skill with restorative cures may also be the cause and explanation for Nestor’s extraordinary, preternatural longevity, which the Iliad’s tendency to minimize all supernatural and incredible elements of the myth does not make explicit.

Sheila Murnaghan’s “Penelope as a Tragic Heroine. Choral Dynamics in Homeric Epic” (pp. 165–189) investigates an aspect of how Homeric epic is shaped by its engagement with choral lyric; this reveals another continuity between epic and tragedy beyond their common mythological subject matter and the characteristics of dialogic form. Murnaghan focuses on the representation of choral demographics in the epics, i.e. a central individual leader surrounded by a collective of subordinates. She places particular emphasis on the depiction of Penelope in the Odyssey as a displaced chorus leader at odds with the chorus of her twelve disloyal maidservants who, as a result of their transgressions, are hanged and thereby made to perform a travesty of a choral dance.

In the final contribution, “Variations on the Myth of the Abduction of Ganymede. Intertextuality and Narratology” (pp. 190–217), Polyxeni Strolonga identifies two main themes in the traditional story of Ganymede, his transference to Olympus and the compensatory gift of Zeus to his father. She argues that despite being employed for different narrative purposes in their respective contexts in early Greek epic, the narratological function of the references to Ganymede is consistent: mentions of Ganymede might be shaped and adapted by exaggeration or suppression of certain elements of the myth, but they always serve a celebratory function as a hortatory external analepsis, either praising the descendants of Ganymede’s siblings, the royal house of Troy, or the descendants of the compensation his father received.

As these summaries show, the volume, like YAGE 1 (2017), shows clear interpretive focus on the Homeric epics, but individual contributions pursue innovative and ingenious approaches to the poems, often drawing on theoretical frameworks from other fields of scholarly research. The result is an anthology of current scholarship with an impressive breadth of topics ranging from minor interpretive problems to questions addressing the development and tradition of the genre as a whole.

The next volume, YAGE 3 (2019), is announced as addressing the interactions between the Homeric epics and the Epic Cycle. It is to be hoped that it will be able to retain this thematic focus.

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