Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.17

Susan Sherratt, John Bennet (ed.), Archaeology and Homeric Epic. Sheffield studies in Aegean archaeology, 11.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow Books, 2016.  Pp. xvi, 165.  ISBN 9781785702952.  $49.99 (pb).  


Reviewed by Rebecca Worsham, Smith College (rworsham@smith.edu)

Table of Contents
[Authors and chapter titles are also listed at the end of this review.]

The symbiosis between literary fictions, history, and archaeology that is characteristic of Homeric scholarship is at the heart of this multidisciplinary collection. In the introduction to the volume, the editors, Susan Sherratt and John Bennet, set out an ambitious plan to avoid the snares of dichotomous thinking—i.e., simple questions of Homer’s historical “truth” or lack thereof—in favor of “exploring a variety of other, perhaps sometimes more oblique, ways in which we can use archaeology, and also philology, anthropology and social history, to help offer insights into the epics” (viii) and their ancient and modern contexts. This approach is appealing, and the volume for the most part succeeds in this goal. Such breadth is likewise a demonstration of the editors’ characterization of epic as “all things to all people” (xv), and the ten articles are from leading scholars in fields ranging from archaeology to Slavic literature to modern Greek history. On the other hand, as a result of the editors’ commitment to a variety of perspectives (for an already rather broad topic), the collection can come across as somewhat unfocused. Several of the contributions deal with archaeology or epic rather than the interface between them, while the closing chapters are concerned with epic outside of the strictly Homeric tradition; much of these chapters focus on modern issues. While this range may come as a surprise to some readers based on the title alone, nonetheless, it will also be a welcome one. The inclusion of more recent material, including, for example, contemporary reception of archaeological work at Troy and the active creation of an epic tradition in the Balkans, is particularly engaging. A brief survey of the contents follows.

The text opens with a brief introduction by the editors, helpfully summarizing and contextualizing the methodologies and approaches of the following chapters. It continues with a contribution from Anthony Snodgrass (“Homer, the Moving Target”), which grapples with the challenges presented by Gregory Nagy’s “evolutionist model” for finding “matches” between archaeological objects or iconography and the Homeric texts. He goes on to suggest that because the crystallization of specific Homeric scenes could have taken place at any point between the 8th and the 6th centuries, Homer becomes a “moving target” for archaeologists and art historians seeking comparative material. In the second chapter, “The Will to Believe: Why Homer Cannot be ‘True’ in any Meaningful Sense,” Oliver Dickinson takes a somewhat more pessimistic view of many of these same themes. Here, Dickinson (11) contends that, because Homeric epic is an “amalgam of features of different periods” (or “a thorough mess” in the case of the Catalogue of Ships), legitimate correlations between Homeric events and historic or prehistoric reality cannot reasonably be made—that is, the epic world is fully constructed. It perhaps speaks to the ongoing nature and importance of this debate that this volume contains chapters arguing both for and against the correlation between archaeological material and the world presented in the epics.

At this point the volume makes its first welcome foray into more “oblique” territory, with Johannes Haubold’s fascinating contribution on “Dream and Reality in the Work of Heinrich Schliemann and Manfred Korfmann.” In this chapter, Haubold discusses Korfmann’s efforts to define for the public an archaeological “reality” at the site of Hisarlık, famously identified by the time of Schliemann’s excavations with the Homeric city of Troy, and the particular circumstances of German reunification that may have colored his interpretations. Haubold problematizes the idea that archaeology at any site produces an objective “reality,” highlighting the clash between fiction and historical truth that has come to dominate archaeological discussions of Priam’s city.

Chapter 4, “Homeric Epic and Contexts of Bardic Creation” is from Susan Sherratt, who uses Phemios and Demodokos, the two aoidoi from the Odyssey, to create a model of two different historical modes of bardic performance with different aims—one more focused on creative legitimation of status (as Phemios among the suitors), and the other on the transmission of corporate identity and memory (as Demodokos among the Phaeacians). Sherratt’s contribution is at the head of several subsequent chapters dealing with the idea of memory, both as it may have been formative for the epic cycle and as it was itself transformed by the prevalence of this tradition. A good example is the piece from Jack Davis and Kathleen Lynch, entitled “Remembering and Forgetting Nestor: Pylian Pasts Pluperfect.” Here, the authors argue that while several other Mycenaean sites ultimately attracted cults associated with the Homeric heroes, the so-called “Palace of Nestor” at Pylos seems to have been forgotten (or misplaced), with very little later activity attested at the site. To support this conclusion, two additional appendices by Lynch and Susanne Hofstra on post-Bronze Age finds from the palace are offered.

Diamantis Panagiotopoulos contributes the sixth chapter, “In the Grip of their Past? Tracing Mycenaean Memoria,” in which he considers what can be said of the collective memory and conceptualization of the mytho-historic past by the Mycenaeans themselves, first treating the evidence for commemorative action in the Mycenaean world broadly, and then moving to a case study at the citadel of Mycenae. Here, he speculates on the attempts of the city’s ruling class to capitalize on collective memory (in the treatment of Grave Circle A, for example) in order to reinforce their own hegemony. Panagiotopoulos’ argument is attractive, if tricky to apply outside of the rather pliant example of Mycenae, and he himself notes this difficulty (92). Chapter 7, “Heroes in Early Iron Age Greece and the Homeric Epics” by Alexander Mazarakis Ainian, returns to more familiar territory, questioning if, how, and to what extent the diffusion of Homeric epic may have impacted hero and tomb cults of the 8th-century BCE. After reviewing some of the evidence for 8th-century tomb cult, Mazarakis Ainian explores the relationship between the interest in the past exhibited in such cults and other related phenomena, including the revival of figural art and the rise of a new social class that challenged the dominance of the established elite and shifted religious control from these families to the coalescing poleis.

With the next chapter, “Gilgamesh and Heroes at Troy: Myth, History, and Education in the Invention of Tradition” by Stephanie Dalley, the volume moves away from archaeology to focus on epic, broadly defined. Dalley’s aim is to explore points of contact between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Greece, and how these were established. She argues for the diffusion of the Gilgamesh epic during the Middle and Late Bronze Age via educational exercises and teachers intended to instruct scribes in writing. She suggests that Gilgamesh—like so much else—may have reached Greek shores somewhat later by way of the Phoenicians, who themselves may have received it as a mix of oral and written traditions. Margaret Beissinger contributes the next chapter, “History and the Making of South Slavic Epic,” in which she outlines the creation and subsequent historicist interpretation of a South Slavic cannon focusing on the Battle of Kosovo and other conflicts with the Ottomans. Although Beissinger does not discuss Homer in her text (she does not mention him except in reference to the work of Albert Lord), several of her ideas correspond well with the overall themes of the volume. By way of example, her discussion of the Serbian manipulation of oral tradition in order to create a national text and increase legitimacy on an international platform offers an interesting parallel with the Greek situation. The final chapter, “‘The National Epic of the Modern Greeks’?—Digenis Akritis, the Homeric Question, and the Making of a Modern Myth” by Roderick Beaton, continues in the same vein. Here, Beaton considers the modern Greek reception of several Byzantine-era manuscripts discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries featuring a hero known as Digenis Akritis (Διγενής Ακρίτης), and the perhaps dubious identification of this hero with a character of Greek folksong—Akritas (Ακρίτας). Beaton details how this identification was used in reference to the “Analyst” approach to Homer to create a narrative linking the modern Greek community to that of the ancient Greeks, furthering a climate of Greek exceptionalism in the early 1900s. These final contributions are among the most interesting and successful of the entire work, in spite of the difficulty in relating the subject matter back to Homeric epic and/or archaeology, many times explicitly acknowledged by the authors. Finally, the text closes on a humorous note with a poem by Paul Halstead (in English and modern Greek), playing with the possible ties between various epic traditions.

The editors’ promise of a rich and multifaceted approach to the idea of “an inherited past (whether real or imaginary)” and its efficacy “in creating the identities of groups of people” (xv), on which especially the last several essays successfully deliver, is the most stimulating aspect of a strong volume. More might have done, however, to emphasize the exciting possibilities offered by this comparative material and the very real connections with more traditional Homeric scholarship—perhaps a closing summative section would have helped with this. As it stands, the ties are not always made explicit, and the seamless blend of archaeological, art historical, and literary studies that seems to be the aim of this book never really comes to fruition. Nevertheless, the papers are robust and represent a worthwhile and accessible contribution Homeric studies, with an up-to-date bibliography for a broad range of topics. The text of all chapters is well-written, engaging, and clean. The full manuscript is available not only in print but also in digital format through library databases, increasing accessibility especially for student researchers, for whom these contributions are likely to be more useful on a case-by-case basis than as a corpus. Those interested in the comparative treatment of epic texts and the legacy of Homer, not to mention the legacy of Homeric scholarship itself, will find the full volume indispensable.

Authors and titles

“Introduction” Susan Sherratt and John Bennet
Chapter 1: “Homer, the Moving Target” Anthony Snodgrass
Chapter 2: “The Will to Believe: Why Homer Cannot be ‘True’ in any Meaningful Sense” Oliver Dickinson
Chapter 3: “Dream and Reality in the Work of Heinrich Schliemann and Manfred Korfmann” Johannes Haubold
Chapter 4: “Homeric Epic and Contexts of Bardic Creation” Susan Sherratt
Chapter 5: “Remembering and Forgetting Nestor: Pylian Pasts Pluperfect?” Jack L. Davis and Kathleen M. Lynch, with a contribution by Susanne Hofstra
Chapter 6: “In the Grip of their Past? Tracing Mycenaean Memoria” Diamantis Panagiotopoulos
Chapter 7: “Heroes in Early Iron Age Greece and the Homeric Epics” Alexander Mazarakis Ainian
Chapter 8: “Gilgamesh and Heroes at Troy: Myth, History and Education in the Invention of Tradition” Stephanie Dalley
Chapter 9: “History and the Making of South Slavic Epic” Margaret Beissinger
Chapter 10: “‘The National Epic of the Modern Greeks’?—Digenis Akritis, the Homeric Question, and the Making of a Modern Myth” Roderick Beaton
“Ο Γκίλγαμες στην Τροία/Gilgamesh at Troy (a very short epic)” Paul Halstead
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