BMCR 2001.10.11

The Raft of Odysseus: the ethnographic imagination of Homer’s Odyssey

, The raft of Odysseus : the ethnographic imagination of Homer's Odyssey. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (viii, 243 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780195351453 $49.95.

This is a sparkling study of the Odyssey. It offers insightful interpretations of a series of passages from the poem (embracing at times also Hesiod, Ibycus and more), while presenting also a much larger argument about the interplay of poetic discourse and archaic notions of the world around, including especially travel by sea and the encounters with other cultures which may follow. As D. is at pains to explain, her approach is not “historical”, but “historicizing”: she means that she is not concerned to use the Odyssey to find realities but seeks rather to explore the poem as a product of a particular milieu (for her, the later eighth century BC; too early and too definite for me). She is not deterred by the consequent need to cross the boundaries which have developed in “Classics” between the literary, the historical and the archaeological. It is to be hoped that the success of her explorations in this book may encourage others to follow that totalizing path. That the voyage is a risky one is to be expected. Its stimulus may be towards constructive disagreement as much as simple acceptance.

Framed by a valuable Introduction and Conclusion, the meat of the book is divided into three unequal parts: the first primarily of a literary nature (Chs.1-3), the second (Chs. 4-7) more overtly “historicizing”, and the third (Ch.8) pulling it all together as the poem comes to an end.

The Introduction shows the breadth of D.’s argument, which itself traverses an extensive terrain for a book of a size that encourages the reader. It begins by stressing the link in Greek (and other) texts and ideas between travel and wisdom. Worth a book on its own, that link is a running theme of this study. Travel here is especially long-distance and therefore sea-travel. The problems of ethnography are broached, with a particular emphasis on description of the other as a definition of the self. That too is worth at least a book, perhaps one more critical of the structuralism which tends to accompany this kind of existentialist analysis in classical scholarship. As D.’s analysis later shows, the engagement of Odysseus with the other is a many-sided series of relationships not a binary opposition between Greek and non-Greek (or even Greek and Phoenician, for example, though she seems drawn in that direction). Meanwhile, the prior question of the meaningfulness of “Greek(s)” in this period (and at least its relative unimportance when set beside matters of status and more local identity) demands to be addressed. So too do other ethnographies of the period: what of early Argonautic poetry? It and the Argo, even as treated in the Odyssey, nowhere feature here. The omission casts a cloud over claims that the Odyssey is doing something new: on this approach everything in the poem is arguably new. Meanwhile, the historical view here taken of the eighth century sees it as a great time of innovation. That view is defensible and is maintained through the book (“amazing new developments”, “this brave new world” (p.37)), but for me at least it creates too much of a big bang from an extended historical process.

Chapter One explores the overlap between the language of ships (esp. ship-making) and that of poetry(-making) in an archaic context. Its significance is demonstrated as a general proposition, even if one might quarrel with particular parts of the analysis (e.g. that the collapse of Odysseus’ raft “captures the contingent nature of oral poetry” (p.35, with p.82 for more)). And D. makes her central point, that Odysseus’ raft is metapoetic, however much one might prefer to qualify, limit or add to that view.

Chapter Two pursues another line of metaphor, starting from the explicit comparison between the great size of the broad raft and the hull of a broad cargo-vessel at Od. 5.249-51. (The introduction of the chapter through Aelian obfuscates, introducing the vibrant images of Odysseus current under the Principate, pace p.60.) D. takes the comparison as her cue for consideration of traffic in goods and song in the poem. The theme is a strong one, even if the cue is oblique (the metaphor is more about size than trade), and is well traced through Hesiod and (fifth-century) Pindar. D. proceeds to a brief treatment of reciprocity/exchange in the Odyssey, using the influential (and very formalistic) model of Sahlins, whence back in rather Pindaric fashion to the metaphor and “the raft’s potential for big profits” (p.50). Next, she tackles the poet and his use of poetry as a commodity, including Odysseus’ singing for his Phaeacian supper. Both sailor-shipwright and poet can cut a deal. And deals are about interpersonal, and here cross-cultural, relations.

Chapter Three moves on to the travelling word, especially the role of poetry as a vessel to transport people (or at least their names) across great distances, including the sea. While the raft is poetry and especially Odysseus’ poetry, both raft and poetry enable the hero to travel. But what kind of truth can be expected to result from such travel? Wisdom, but also the mendacity that Eumaeus expects ( Od. 14.122-7): Odysseus offers both, as D. demonstrates in a rich discussion.

Chapter Four opens Part Two, wherein the focus is particularly on ethnography and colonization. This Part contains some very good discussion, particularly of the relationships between issues of colonization and poetic imagination, but I find D.’s extended treatment of Shakespeare and other works around his time muddling. These comparisons may be “good to think with”, or pedagogically useful, but they introduce the sixteenth century into the archaic world in such a way as to produce no particular benefit beyond the comparison itself, while leaving the reader to worry about the depth, extent and point of the juxtaposition. In a book where so much is touched lightly, the space might have been better used, however much Shakespeare and Co. may have encouraged the author’s thoughts.

Chapters 5-7 discuss the Phaeacians in counterpoint, in turn, to Phoenicians, Cyclopes and Euboeans (the latter contentiously, perhaps, but maybe better than “Greeks”). Phoenicians permit discussion of trade again; Cyclopes of savagery and the dangers of settlement; the Euboeans serve to link the poem and the “real” world (here properly extended over centuries). A series of important issues are treated in passing, especially the functions of marriage. The Phaeacians are handled very subtly, and are rendered all the more interesting in consequence. And yet there is still much that might be contested. For example, Alcinous’ garden is indeed reminiscent of Golden Age abundance, but not so closely as to permit a consequent linkage with Hesiod (with metals also somehow to the fore): there may be only two verbs of labour in this garden (p.88), but that is two more than a Golden Age might need (and what of the Cyclopes’ truer “Golden Age” in this regard?). Later, D.’s “atypical” honest Phoenicians seem to threaten her quest for polarities, despite a clever attempt to include them in her project (p.120). Problematic also is some of D.’s terminology: colonization was neither a “movement” nor an “institution”, while “primitive” need not be a negative description, of course. Instead of Shakespeare, D. might have considered the construction of colonial histories in antiquity, through and beyond the archaic period: it is not enough to refer to Strabo, for example, as evidence of early colonial realities (however many may still do so).

Chapter 8 opens Part Three and provides an excellent discussion of Odysseus’ arrival on Ithaca in terms of his previous arrivals in strange lands, so that his activities thereafter resemble a colonial (re-) settlement. One can argue about the extent to which this is true (D. goes too far, I think), but her reading of these books brings a freshness to them. And this discussion flows on into the Conclusion, which is almost a further chapter, noting the similarities of bed and boat (or raft) and Odysseus’ role in the construction thereof while pulling the book to an end. Odysseus’ journey there and back again has restored Ithaca, but as a new Ithaca. The metapoetic raft (albeit long since shattered) is now a metapoetic bed, built around a tree: the marriage is solid and the poem is going nowhere. D. concludes “…Odysseus the wanderer is domesticated, and the ethnographic imagination of archaic Greece takes root in the New World” (p.183). Not for the first time the reader tries simultaneously to cheer and query. Is Odysseus domesticated ? His slaughter of the suitors etc. has at least just shown his dark side, as D. notes. Does he not have the potential for further exploits at some future date? And what is the poem’s audience left to think about the world out there (“takes root”??)? Anything that it had not thought before (maybe inspired by Argonautic tales)? Perhaps, but perhaps not, if it matters much. At any rate, the Odyssey seems at the very least to show the overwhelming dangers of travel far across the sea. D. might have said still more about Odysseus’ specialness in this regard: his companions did not make it, dying horribly and without burial. Do we imagine an audience encouraged to put to sea or one convinced to stay at home? Or does it matter more that the vast majority would never set sail beyond their immediate homes, whatever a few (often self-aggrandizing) colonial narratives, and no doubt an abundance of lost travellers’ tales, might lead us to think? And, finally, are we absolutely sure that Odysseus has changed so very much as a result of his experiences? It may not be enough to think that he should have done so.

A great virtue of D.’s book is that it not only offers possible answers but also encourages a range of further questions. In that context it is perhaps rather churlish to draw attention to bibliographical omissions, but a few seem to me important. Travel as a religious metaphor is not really considered: e.g. J. Bremmer, “Heroes, ritual and the Trojan War”, Studi storico-religiosi, Roma 2 (1978) 5-38. Geography is curiously neglected too: what of J.S. Romm’s excellent The edges of the earth in ancient thought (Princeton, 1992), for instance, esp. pp.183-96 on Odysseus? R. Buxton, Imaginary Greece (Cambridge, 1994) is full of insights on Odysseus, geography and religion, while B.D. Shaw, “Eaters of flesh, drinkers of milk…”, Ancient Society 13-14 (1982-3), 5-31 is very good on the Cyclopes. Meanwhile, D. discusses reciprocity without reference either to R. Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual (Oxford, 1994) or to C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite and R. Seaford (eds.), Reciprocity in ancient Greece (Oxford, 1998), though sharing their publisher, who might also have recommended the inclusion in D.’s book of an index of passages discussed.