BMCR 2001.12.09

Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey

, Homer and the resources of memory : some applications of cognitive theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. viii, 247 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198152574 $85.00.

I remember my singing, Dragging soft memories From children’s children.

I remember remembering. I remember remembering. Singing.

I am Orpheus.

In his opera The Mask of Orpheus Harrison Birtwistle presents speech, poetry, and music as gifts of Apollo channeled to mankind through the workings of human memory. Birtwistle’s operatic Orpheus is born during the sunrise that accompanies the opening of the opera, and he somehow immediately is able to use memory to transform the story of Jason and the Argonauts into song. Previous scholarship on Homer has established that memory also played a significant role in the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey, though in the case of Homer memory is (generally and more realistically) believed to have arisen from the prior experience of the bard himself. But what sort of experience? How does Homer use memory in the composition of his verse? Milman Parry and Albert Lord saw the poet relying upon his memory of formulae and type-scenes, prefabricated verbal units capable of being slotted into place to meet the stringent demands of composition during performance. Elizabeth Minchin (hereafter M.) shares their view that the art of oral poetic performance is essentially an art of memory (78). However, she claims that Homer’s discourse and his narrative strategies are poetic refinements of the kinds of discourse and narrative strategies used every day in ordinary speech (1, 7, 23, 78, 203, 223). She claims priority in the creative process for the resources of memory regularly drawn upon in the living of life and the telling of stories both in the ancient and the modern world: what she and others call episodic, auditory, visual, and spatial memory. These functions of memory, she thinks, take precedence over verbal memory, which was seen by Parry and Lord as the primary form of memory involved in the process of creating oral poetry. M.’s approach to Homer most closely resembles that of Michael Nagler, who argued that Homeric type-scenes are generated by a preverbal mental Gestalt, which M. identifies with what modern psychologists have called the cognitive script (40).

M.’s working hypotheses and methods are well explained in the Introduction. Homer’s poems were composed and performed without the aid of writing and only written down later (1). Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are the works of a single poet, and they illustrate the workings of memory in more or less similar fashion (23). M. expresses her indebtedness to Parry’s work despite their significant areas of disagreement (3). Her method somewhat resembles Parry’s “historical method in literary criticism,” provided that the word “historical” is dropped from the description of the method for like Parry she seeks to gain access to the mind of the poet who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. “So gradually we learn,” Parry wrote, “to keep ourselves out of the past, or rather we learn to go into it, becoming not merely a man who lived at another time than our own, but we must even become the man himself, even more, we must become the man at the very moment at which he writes a certain poem.”1 M. takes a rather similar approach, though she thinks that the mind of the poet can be entered with profit by taking a psychological rather than historical approach. “[W]e should begin,” she says, “with the mind which generates the whole. Storytelling is a ‘mind-based’ activity” (11). M. illustrates the mind- or memory-based nature of storytelling by drawing upon an impressive array of resources: Homeric scholarship, cognitive psychology, and linguistics are all harnessed in the interest of entering the mind of a poet who is seen to use memory in much the same way as it is used in everyday life.

Rather than considering the Iliad and Odyssey as texts of oral poems in the manner of Parry and Lord, M. sees them, like Egbert Bakker and Richard Martin, as records of oral communications or performances before audiences. Hence her book ranges far beyond the field of Homeric scholarship and draws upon recent work in cognitive psychology concerned with the nature of oral communication. In particular, M. uses current research following upon the work of Frederick Bartlett, who argued that when people remember new material they do so in terms of memory structures already in place. Bartlett referred to these mental models containing sequential information about events in the everyday world as “schemas.” Others have called them “scripts” (12). In addition, M. claims a special interest in linguistics. In particular, she claims to be drawing upon the theory of speech-acts arising from the work of J. L. Austin, who treated language as a vehicle through which agents carry out a variety of social interactions, such as the telling of stories and the giving of commands. “It was Austin’s observation,” she says, “that a speech act may have a perlocutionary force (that is, that it may be intended to achieve a certain effect through its utterance) that has perhaps been most important of all” (17-18). M. is perhaps not accurately reporting Austin’s position here. If I understand him correctly, Austin was little concerned with the intentions underlying speech-acts but only with their force and effects. If I promise Richard Hamilton to submit my reviews to BMCR in a timely fashion, I am not, according to Austin, providing information about my intentions. Rather, I am making a promise, performing an action. Whether I intend to keep the promise or not is irrelevant to its nature as a speech-act, just as, it seems to me, speech-act theory is irrelevant when M. applies it to the understanding of the intentions and purposes of storytellers (18, 160). M.’s overall thesis, however, is little damaged by this possible misunderstanding of Austin, since her book is not concerned with providing an accurate account of the nature of speech-acts but rather is squarely and impressively focused on the application of modern cognitive psychology to the Homeric epics.

The workings of auditory, visual, and spatial memory, which is perhaps a species of visual memory, are explained in a few easily comprehensible pages (24-31). Auditory memory encompasses memory for sounds, music, and language. The exercise of auditory memory by the bard helps explain his success in the performance of lists and catalogues (24). Visual memory also plays a significant role in both the generation and comprehension of narrative, since epic song is best conceived as “a movie which runs in the cinema of the mind: the mind of the poet and of the audience” (25). M. makes frequent reference to the visual power of memory or to “the mind’s eye” (25-28, 62-63, 106, 109, 136-37, 141, 151, 154, 156, 160, etc.). That the mind in some metaphorical sense “sees” is obviously true, but simply to describe visual memory as a movie running in the mind is perhaps a more controversial proposition in modern psychology than M. makes it out to be. We will return later to the question of the nature of visual memory and “the mind’s eye.”

M.’s explanation of the workings of episodic or semantic memory (11-23) will likely prove challenging (though rewarding) to readers untrained in current theories of memory. All humans acquire certain basic schemas or scripts of memory in the course of living their lives. Schemas are stored information about common experiences such as those involved in visiting a restaurant (12). Such scripts are said to be mirrored in Homeric type-scenes like dressing or preparing a meal, which, contra Lord, are not chunks of discourse committed to memory but rather records of routine activities that the singer, like everyone else, will have learned early in life (14-15). Only later does the bard learn the metrical language that gives expression to the schemas or scripts (14-15). Schemas do not of themselves constitute stories, since they deal with predictable actions, whereas stories—if they are to be at all interesting—must report and explain the unexpected (15). The schema of particular interest to M. is the generalized schema for storytelling, which M. terms a kind of “implicit knowledge.” The knowledge of how to tell a story is implicit in that it is not easily communicable in language. That is, “we cannot readily find the words to describe the steps of the procedure in question, even though we are able to perform it” (21). On the other hand, the “explicit knowledge” involved in such scripts as visiting a restaurant, preparing a meal, or dressing is stored in what M. calls “declarative” or “situational” scripts, which can be more readily put into words (21). The script for storytelling, however, is more abstract than situational or declarative scripts and merely prescribes steps to be followed in telling a story without suggesting the words to be used: “introduce the tale; orient your listeners; set out the complicating action; tell how things turned out; give an overview” (21). M. refers to such abstract forms of script as “formats” (21-22). When Homer tells a story, he uses a format much like our own in telling a story (23). The technical vocabulary here is a little daunting, since the book speaks variously of formats, declarative and situational scripts, instrumental scripts, interpersonal scripts, verbal scripts, and more specific content-based scripts like the journey script and the pursuit script.

Chapter 1, “Homer’s Typical Scenes: Homeric Theme and Cognitive Script,” argues that the typical scenes of Homeric epic, which portray common activities of everyday life, are expressions of various scripts laid down in the memory of both audience and poet before any song is actually sung. M. pays special attention in this chapter to the manner in which various scripts interact in order to produce the type-scene of the formal contest. Homer’s basic contest script contains the following elements: prizes are set up; a challenge is announced; competitors come forward; preparations for the contest are made; the contest takes place; prizes are collected (43-44). M. describes in convincing detail how the basic contest script is recycled seven times during the funeral games for Patroclus in book 23 of the Iliad, with each contest individualized and made vivid as the basic contest script interacts with various other formats like speech-act scripts and other forms of scripted material like the previously mentioned journey script and pursuit script (48-72).

Chapter 2, “On Working Under Pressure: The Performance of Lists and Catalogues,” provides a fascinating account of why oral bards like Homer included lists and catalogues in their compositions, how they prepared such material for performance, and why lists and catalogues had special appeal to their audiences. By their very nature, lists and catalogues differ from narrative. The sequential form of narrative lends itself readily to the use of the kind of cognitive scripted material described in Chapter 1’s account of typical scenes. Lists and catalogues, however, make greater demands upon memory: they cannot be composed in performance but must be prepared in advance (79). In the production of lists and catalogues, the oral poet makes greater use of word-for-word memorization (79). He employs various “associative cues and semantic stratagems” (83), as when he composes the list of Nereids in book 18 of the Iliad by using names that remind him (and the audience) of their divinity and connection with the sea. He also draws upon the resources of visual, spatial, and auditory memory (84-90) to a greater degree than in the composition of narrative, which depends more on the activation of cognitive scripts. M. shows the special difficulties inherent in the production of lists and catalogues: the performance must be flawless, the pace is faster, and the audience tends to become more attentive (91-92). Moreover, lists and catalogues—like the descriptive passages discussed in the next chapter—tend to presage events on a grand scale (97).

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Descriptive Segments: Their Composition and their Role in the Narrative,” notes a major difference between narrative and description: the latter is relatively unconstrained by rules or guiding principles of interconnectivity or causality. Nonetheless, M. shows, we can isolate a special kind of implicit knowledge or format (112, 131) at work in Homer’s descriptive scenes. This format, like the storytelling format explained in chapter 1, is acquired over time and does not directly suggest the words to be used in the descriptive scenes themselves. The description format takes the following form: summary description, material or workmanship, remarkable feature, remarkable size, weight, capacity, value, history (109-112). This loose format works in conjunction with the bard’s use of visual (103) and spatial (118) memory to produce descriptions like that of the shield of Achilles in book 18 of the Iliad.

The role of so-called visual memory in the production and reception of oral poetry is perhaps most significant in the case of the simile, treated in chapter 4: “Similes in Homer: Image, Mind’s Eye, and Memory.” Here M. takes issue with the view that similes are memorized sequences of words. Rather, she argues, visual memory is an “essential” or “indispensable” asset both for the oral poet (157) and for the audience that processes the simile (135). In the production of the simile the poet accesses visual data and also relevant scripts from episodic memory, where his personal experience of events is recorded (144). The audience, on the other end of the chain of communication, processes the simile by bringing to “the mind’s eye” the appropriate picture and then accessing relevant information stored in episodic memory in the form of schemata or scripts (135-36).

Chapter 5, “Homer’s Script for Storytelling: The Evidence of the Invocations,” seems to me the least convincing chapter in the book. M.’s strategy of finding analogues in everyday conversation for the techniques of the oral poet leads her to cast the Muses in the role of audience to the poet. In addressing the Muses in invocations like “Tell me, Muse,” the poet, according to M., “models his behaviour on his everyday experiences of telling stories in the presence of someone who knows” (167). The Muse is said to perform the function of the “knowing recipient” or audience before whom the poet wants to get all the details right (165). Now commentators have taken various positions on the role of the Muses in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some have spoken of the Muses as a source of inspiration for the poet. Others claim that the invocations are merely traditional elements in the oral poet’s equipment. Still others have assigned a very active role to the Muses, claiming that in some way they may properly be considered narrators. But to say that the Muses are not the purveyors of inspiration or narrative but rather members of the poet’s audience is unsupported by the texts of the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, M. is certainly correct in observing that the Muses at Pindar, Paean 6.54-61 seem to furnish just the sort of attentive presence that she ascribes to Homer’s Muses (166, n. 14), so that some readers may find the argument of this chapter more convincing than it appears to me.

Chapter 6, “The Story Format and the Generation of ‘Rings’,” presents as fine an account of the nature of ring-composition as one is likely to find in print. Homer’s rings do not mark the poet as different from us (198-99). Rather, his use of rings provides evidence that he is telling his story in conformity with the story pattern or format that underpins all oral anecdotes in the Western tradition (195). As part of its format, the well-told story will normally have entrance talk, abstract, orientation, complicating action, resolution, coda, and exit talk (187). Entrance talk exit talk, abstract, and coda—the peripheral framing elements of the narrative proper—are devoted to ensuring that the speaker gets a hearing and that the audience has sufficient information to understand the narrative (188). Stories that do not conform to this pattern, like many stories told in the Odyssey, are often invited by other speakers and hence sometimes lack elements found in the format for oral anecdotes. Later writers, trying to imitate Homeric patterning in their content-based rings, lacked a proper understanding of the original pragmatic function of the ring (201). An epilogue to the book re-emphasizes the point that Homeric discourse is a stylization of ordinary discourse (203). M. adds the additional point that three factors seem to be crucial to the success of stories. They should either touch upon “life themes” like death, danger, power, or personal relationships, contain an element of the unexpected, or feature the audience of the story or people close to the audience as actors (207-8). (Any parent who has told bedtime stories to a young child can attest to the truth of these observations about what makes stories attractive.)

Of course, in a book that covers so much ground individual readers will likely find much with which to agree and disagree. My major reservation—apart from the identification of the Muses with the poet’s audience—concerns the critical role M. assigns to visual memory and the “mind’s eye” in the production and reception of narrative. Are visual codes and the operation of “the mind’s eye” really necessary for the production of verbal codes? The novelist Ved Mehta, blind since early childhood and with no memory of ever having seen, has learned to describe the world quite vividly through what he calls “the judicious assemblage of information gathered in bits and pieces at different times.”2 Mehta can function successfully as a literary artist without the use of his sight at least partly because, as Seymour Chatman has correctly pointed out, omniscient narrators do not literally see or need to see the events they recount. Narration is not an act of perception but of presentation or representation. Therefore, we can speak of the “narrator’s view of things” only with “stern quotation marks to indicate the exact nature of the metaphor.”3 M. seems not always clear that the phrases “visual memory” and “mind’s eye” need to be locked in such stern quotation marks. Indeed, Daniel L. Schacter of Harvard University, a leading researcher in the field of the psychology of memory, even warns against thinking that the mind records its experiences the way a camera records them. According to Schacter, the mind recreates or reconstructs its experiences; it does not retrieve copies of them.4 Perhaps a blind poet could have composed the Iliad and Odyssey after all, a possibility that seems rather remote if M. is correct about the importance of visual memory in oral composition. This is slight criticism in the case of an impressive book.

Homer and the Resources of Memory will be read with profit by all students of the Homeric epics. The book represents a ground-breaking exploration of some of the ways the social sciences can help us better understand the mind of the poet who produced the Iliad and Odyssey.


1. Milman Parry, The Collected Works of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford, 1971) 409-10.

2. Ved Mehta, All For Love (New York, 2001) 8.

3. Seymour Chatman, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Films (Ithaca and London, 1990) 142.

4. Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston and New York, 2001) 9.