BMCR 2001.10.01

The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the Iliad

, The pity of Achilles : oral style and the unity of the Iliad. Greek studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. x, 203 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0847686205 $22.95.

The research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord into oral-traditional poetry has been slowly transforming the study of the Homeric texts for over half a century. While Parry and Lord’s ideas have always had their detractors, a growing body of research has developed which integrates conventional understandings of the Homeric texts with an awareness of their roots in oral-performative traditions. One of the central tasks facing such research has been the question of how to understand the unity and interconnectedness of the Iliad and the Odyssey in an oral context. Kim’s book, The Pity of Achilles: Oral Style and the Unity of the Iliad, is a valuable new contribution to this project.

After a brief Introduction devoted to a discussion of the scholarly debate on questions of the orality and unity of the Homeric corpus and of the Iliad in particular, Kim’s book is divided into four chapters. The first, “Achilles’ Pity”, explores the pity of Achilles as the constitutive thematic element of the epic. The second, “The Meaning of Pity”, explores the formulaic use of phrases associated with pity—specifically, with the formulaic uses of ἐλεεῖν, ἐλεαίρειν, οἰκτίρειν and κήδεσθαι. In the third chapter, “The Tripartite Structure”, Kim argues for logical dividing-points at the ends of Books 8 and 16 in terms of the development of her theme of Achilles’ pity and pitilessness. The fourth chapter, “Achilles’ Mênis“, addresses the obvious and important question of how to reconcile her own emphasis on Achilles’ pity as the central theme of the Iliad with its explicit and emphatically-stated theme of the wrath of Achilles. Following is the Conclusion, which recapitulates the arguments made earlier and synthesizes from them a claim about Achilles’ transition from a heroic to a tragic conception of life and death. At the end there is a brief Appendix, “Three Notes Relating to the Duals in Book 9”, which serves as a series of extended footnotes to Chapter Three and which re-examines that renowned battlefield of rival factions of Homeric scholarship, proposing an answer that, as we shall see below, may provide an easier way out for those not eager for the fray. The book should be of interest to anyone who studies Homer, though their interest in Kim’s conclusions will largely depend on the stand they take on larger oral-performative questions. It will also prove of interest to the Greekless reader who is interested in the practice of literary interpretation on an oral text, and on how the study of oral traditions has transformed, and continues to transform, the study of Homer.

The sections of Kim’s book dealing with the analysis of formulaic language relating to pity are of considerable interest. Particularly striking are her observations on the adverbial use of ἐλεεινά (p.138). As Kim observes, this usage is found only three times in the Iliad, and indeed only three times in the Homeric corpus. Two of them, at 22.37 and at 22.408, are used to describe, respectively, Priam’s piteous supplication of Hector and his equally piteous cries shortly thereafter on the death of Hector. The only remaining use, at 2.314, is found in the famous prophetic image of the mother sparrow with her eight offspring, all devoured by a serpent held to represent the destruction of Troy in the ninth year by the Achaeans. All three instances, then, concern the destruction of Troy, and the sorrow of a parent, soon himself or herself to die, witnessing the death of his or her children, and the appreciation of any one passage is contingent on being aware of the other passages in which the word occurs. (As a matter of interest, which Kim does not point out, the phrases in which these three uses of ἐλεεινά occur are all found in the same metrical position within the line, hinting at a formulaic expression whose precise contours can no longer be recovered.)

One aspect of the system of formulaic phrases pertaining to pity examined by Kim that may prove contentious for some readers is the assimilation of κήδεσθαι into that system. Part of Kim’s argument rests upon the formulaic phrases μέγα κήδεται ἠδ’ ἐλεαίρει and its opposite οὐ κήδεται οὐδ’ ἐλεαίρει, found at e.g. 2.27 and at 11.665, respectively. To a great extent, however, Kim draws on an examination of other uses of the verb. In particular, she argues that the narrator’s ἐλέησε at 8.350 as used of Hera is functionally equivalent to the κεκαδησόμεθ’ used by Hera herself just a few lines later at 8.353 (both used of Hera and Athena as they watch the Achaeans suffer defeat). Kim argues as well for the formulaic equivalence of 1.56 ( κήδετο γὰρ Δαναῶν, ὅτι ῤα θνῄσκοντας ὁρᾶτο) and phrases such as TON DE PESO/NT’ ἐλέησε. This sort of argumentation will not be convincing to all readers, but Kim does make a compelling case for the overlap in meaning between κήδεσθαι and verbs more explicitly connoting pity, such as ἐλεεῖν. In addition, she argues that both are closely linked to the verb φιλεῖν through the notion that pity is something shown to one’s φίλοι, while pitilessness is shown to one’s enemies. This is a notion to which we shall return in our examination of Chapter Four.

These formulaic analyses aside, the core of Kim’s argument lies in Chapters Three and Four, in her tripartite structure for the Iliad and in her connections between pity and μῆνις, and it is on the basis of these issues that the reader is most likely to form his or her opinion of the book. It is to these chapters, then, that we now turn.

The notion of a tripartite division of the Iliad is of course not new to Kim, who provides an extensive account of other such divisions, including, most recently, Richardson and Taplin.1 While the general structure of Kim’s division resembles those of Richardson and Taplin in positing a first section concerning the Wrath of Achilles, a second concerning the devastating consequences of that Wrath, including the death of Patroklos, and a third section of Achilles’ vengeance, Hector’s death and the final reconciliation, it differs in two major respects. Unlike others, Kim includes Book 9 as part of her second division rather than including it in the first, and in addition Kim takes the book-divisions we have more seriously than do most scholars in that she accepts them as more-or-less exact boundaries for her sections. Although the general consensus seems to be to disregard the book-divisions as Alexandrian innovations, the evidence either way is unclear, and Kim’s book would be the stronger for engaging more fully with the question of the possible significance of the book-divisions, rather than relegating the question to a brief discussion in a footnote (69.n2). As for the question of where Book 9 belongs in this structure, Kim makes a strong case for reading it more closely with what follows it than with what precedes it. By the latter view, of course, Achilles’ rejection of the offer Agamemnon transmits through his ambassadors serves principally to reinforce the intransigence of his μῆνις. In contrast, Kim argues that, by emphasizing the pity of Achilles as a major theme, we can see the beginnings of Achilles’ softening stance more clearly emerging in Book 9.2 For Kim, as we have already seen above, an important structural opposition exists in the Homeric world between pity (identified with the giving/saving of life) towards one’s φίλοι and pitilessness towards one’s enemies. On this basis, she identifies the dilemma facing Achilles in Iliad 9 as being at heart one of deciding who is φίλος to him and who is not. For Kim, Achilles is moved particularly by Phoinix’s claims of φιλότης and is led to begin a re-evaluation of the claims of association made by others towards him, a re-evaluation that will culminate at the closing of the epic with the realization that the Trojans, too, are his φίλοι. While not all will agree with Kim’s tripartite structure (and inevitably all such structures suffer the defects of their virtues), the connections she draws between Achilles’ position in Book 9 and his position in Book 24 are valuable and will usefully inform further study on the pivotal episode of the embassy to Achilles.

The following chapter explores the interconnections between the explicit theme of the Iliad, namely the Wrath of Achilles, and Kim’s overarching theme of the Pity of Achilles. This is obviously the crux of her argument and involves a depth and detail of argument that it is not possible to discuss in this format. The key to her analysis lies in her interpretation of Achilles’ response to Priam’s supplication in Book 24. As she argues, Achilles’ μῆνις is conditioned in the first place by his sense of his own mortality, by the sense that his μοῖρα is unjust. Through recognizing in Priam a shared sense of loss, Achilles broadens his sense of who his φίλοι are and is able to extend his pity (already, after the death of Patroklos, extended to the Achaeans) to the Trojans as well. It might thus be said that, in the conclusion of the Iliad, Achilles once again “gets it wrong” with respect to the heroic code of ethics proposed by Kim. Having for the first two-thirds of the poem failed to feel pity for his friends (and to save them), Achilles now fails to feel pitilessness for his enemies (and to kill them), but this failure is of course radically different from the earlier one.

After the Conclusion, there follows a brief Appendix on the vexed question of the duals in the Embassy Scene in Book 9. This is familiar territory for the Homerist, and Kim situates her views on the question in relation to those of Richard Janko and Gregory Nagy.3 Rather than take a position on the issue of whether these duals represent what might be called “transcription errors” or instead are indicative of the artistry of an oral tradition, Kim offers instead a simpler solution, arguing that Phoinix’s status as a Myrmidon precludes his presence at the assembly called by Agamemnon in Achilles’ absence and implies that he only joins Odysseus and Ajax on their arrival at Achilles’ camp. This solution, while not inconsistent with the text, also lacks direct support in it. However inconvenient it may be, the text we have is hard to read as saying anything other than that Phoinix has come as part of the embassy. In particular, 9.168 Φοῖνιξ μὲν πρώτιστα Διὶ φίλος ἡγησάσθο seems clear enough—even if, as Kim (following Hainsworth) wants ἡγησάσθο to be metaphorical rather than literal, the natural assumption remains that Phoinix is in fact present at the assembly, and thus any explanation of the duals which immediately follow will have to take this into account.

In general, the book is well-presented and clearly organized. I find only a few minor typographical errors, such as the lack of an apostrophe after Achilles in the last line of English text on p. 28 and a pervasive tendency to write the possessive of Phoinix as Phoinix’ rather than the more natural Phoinix’s, neither of which errors of course interferes in any meaningful way with the understanding of the text. The publishers are to be commended for the clarity of the Index of Passages from the Iliad; the use of boldface for line numbers and regular type for page references greatly increases the usefulness of this index. One minor suggestion for an improvement in format does come to mind. In many cases, quotations from Homer are given with key words underlined in the Greek text. This is obviously a helpful practice, but the book might be of greater use to a wider market (including undergraduates and scholars in other fields) if the corresponding English word were underlined as well.

Despite the reservations expressed about certain details of argument, Kim’s book is a useful contribution to the study of formulaic language and themes in the Iliad, and may be read with profit by anyone interested in these questions.


1. Richardson, N. The Iliad: A Commentary Volume VI: Books 21-24 (Cambridge 1993) and Taplin, Oliver. Homeric Soundings: The Shaping of the Iliad. (Oxford, 1992).

2. Kim’s argument is also based on structural similarities, such as the fact that both Books 1 and 9 open with the calling of an assembly of the Achaeans (p.78), and by the “ring-composition” nature of Hera’s pity for the Achaeans at 1.56 and 8.352-3 (p.178).

3. Janko, Richard. “The Homeric Poems as Oral Dictated Texts,” CQ 48:1-13 (1998), and Nagy, Gregory. “Irreversible Mistakes and Homeric Poetry” in Euphrosyne: Studies in Ancient Epic and Its Legacy in Honor of Dimitris N. Maronitis, ed. by John Kazazis and A. Rengakos (Stuttgart, 1999).