BMCR 2003.03.09

Epea and Grammata: Oral and Written Communication in Ancient Greece. Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece, vol. 4. Mnemosyne Supplement 230

, , Epea and Grammata : oral and written communication in ancient Greece. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum, 230. Leiden: Brill, 2002. viii, 206 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004124551 $82.00/EUR 70.00.

This volume collects papers delivered at a conference organized by the editors and held at the University of Missouri in June 2000. It is divided into three parts. Part One, “Literature, Art, and Drama,” comprises six of the book’s nine chapters. In the first, “Editing and Translating Traditional Oral Epic: The South Slavic Songs and Homer” (3-27), John Foley addresses fundamental problems of translation and publication of oral literature. In the process he describes techniques that he will adopt in editing specific items in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard. The difficulties he hopes to mitigate are essentially twofold: those associated with the shift in ontological status of material from oral to written, and those associated with translation into English (Foley advises strict observance of formulaic repetitions). In clipping the wings of the words of an oral composition-performance and setting it down in print, we lose an original experience along with the context in which it took place. Besides the obvious differences between auditory and visual consumption of the poem, there is the whole matter of context. How, for example, do we recapture the original audience’s sense of the tradition, with such distinctive characteristics as formulaic resonance on the levels of phrase, type scene, and story pattern? Foley sees answers to this question in modifications of editorial practices and in the adoption of new technologies of publication. In the area of printed publication, he proposes the inclusion of more than one multiform of a given poem, the use of marginal theme-labels (keyed to a glossary of “traditional units”), and the provision of an apparatus fabulosus to explicate the non-literal signification of words, themes, and patterns by reference to the poetic tradition. In an appendix to the article, a fifty-two-line text of a wedding song from the Stolac region of Hercegovina is equipped with such ancillary devices by way of illustration. These innovations seem merely to be (granted, helpful) variations on conventional texts-with-commentary. More exciting and truly innovative is Foley’s envisaged compact disc and, ultimately, online recensions of traditional texts. These would facilitate an imitation of “the original dynamics of oral tradition by networking all available performances together” and enable the linking of the electronic performance “pages” to all sorts of contextual information (10). Might one also hope that such electronic editions could accelerate the glacial pace of publication of the Parry repository, so that more than a small percentage of those materials may see light (or pixels) before, say, the centenary of their collection?

In Chapter 2, “Ritual Speech in Early Greek Song” (29-53), John García seeks to build on fundamental insights in the epochal work of Parry and Lord, who “took a crucial step in the right direction by introducing the all-important factor of oral performance into the study of the textual artifacts we call Homer” (29). He contends that this achievement, being “fundamentally ethnographic,” provides a point of departure for the investigation of ritual speech in Homer. Such an investigation would broaden our understanding of the context of oral composition-performance by taking into account other forms of social behavior. Just as “Kretschmer’s law” regarding the use of dialect in verse inscriptions is invalidated by the extent to which epic forms are present even when local forms would have served both metrically and semantically, so, too, in Homer the peculiar make-up of formulaic language cannot be accounted for adequately by Parry’s assertion that metrical exigency was the overriding determiner of word-choice. If metrical constraints alone did not motivate the choice of archaisms, loan-words, etc., then what did? García maintains that the beginning (but only the beginning) of an answer lies in Aristotle’s theory of poetic lexis. For here we find a clear discrimination between “metrical-mimetic lexis” and prevailing usage. But Aristotle also rigorously desacralizes poetic performance, privileging its rhetorical over its ritual character. García makes good this deficiency by adducing the results of linguistic anthropology. These serve to remind us that “religion was not the differentiated compartment of social life that it is … in modern industrial societies” (45). García goes on to discuss certain controversies regarding the source of the authority of ritual speech and concludes by showing how and where “a contemporary aetiology of ritual speech is vestigially present in Homer” (50). The essay sketches theoretical propositions to be more fully supported by textual analyses in a foreseen (see esp. 47) larger study.

In Chapter 3, “The Evocation of Emotional Response in Early Greek Poetry and Painting” (55-69), E.A. Mackay presents a concise and well-argued revelation of parallels in the techniques of Homer and black-figure vase painters. Her intent here is to refine Jasper Griffin’s observations on the employment of “significant objects” in Homeric narrative and to detect and explicate their presence in painted pottery. The author finds that in both the literary and the artistic traditions “significatory objects … direct our responses by means of a contrast between the current narrative context and another, causally or thematically related, one” (68). After a brief survey of Homeric examples (Andromache’s discarded headdress in Il. 22, Agamemnon’s staff in Il. 2, the dog Argos in Od. 17, Achilleus’ lyre in Il. 9, Hekabe’s robe-offering to Athena in Il. 6), Mackay concentrates on allusive (or “indexically referential,” in the author’s jargon) objects in four (illustrated) vase paintings: the wine-cup on a proto-Attic amphora by the Polyphemus Painter in the Eleusis Museum showing the blinding of the Cyclops, the himation of Helen on an amphora by the Painter of the Vatican Mourner in the Vatican Museum showing the reunion of Menelaus and Helen, the infant Astyanax on a (Group E) amphora in the British Museum showing Neoptolemus’ slaying of Priam, and a palm tree and armor on an amphora attributed to Exekias at Boulogne showing the suicide of Aias.

Chapter 4, “Speech Acts in the Everyday World and in Homer: The Rebuke as a Case Study” (71-97), by Elizabeth Minchin is an effort to explain certain regularities in Homer’s rendering of rebukes in five passages of the Iliad and two of the Odyssey. Now repetitions of all sorts, from formulaic word combinations to type scenes to larger narrative structures, have been studied by Homerists with unremitting intensity for the past century or so. Minchin here attempts to say something new and true about repeated patterns in rebukes by applying the methods of the “new discipline” of “discourse analysis.” In general, she elaborates on Richard Martin’s contention (in his Language of Heroes) that in Homer rebukes and other sorts of speech (or “speech acts,” to use discourse-analytical terminology) are “stylized and complete versions of everyday talk” (74). In her view, the detection of artistic or aesthetic motivations for evident patterns in Homeric speech acts is wrongheaded: Dieter Lohmann ( Die Komposition der Reden in der Ilias) serves as whipping boy. This is nothing new, since hard-line proponents of oral poetry theory have often found fault with traditional literary critiques of Homer’s poetry.1 But, Minchin takes the hardest liner of all — Albert Lord — to task for his notion that singers acquired their ability to recount routine behaviors or typical scenes as a part of a long professional apprenticeship. Minchin counters “no such thing” — they simply drew on common human experience. Relevant specimens of the latter are incorporated in the form of rebuke acts aimed by the author’s friend Ann at her two-year-old daughter, Aislinn. And, lo, sometimes the same patterns as those in Homeric rebuke acts are vestigially or mostly present therein. So far as Minchin lets on, however, her speech-act guinea pigs did not emit dactylic hexameters or any other verse acts.

Chapter 5, “Homeric Signs and Flashbulb Memory” (99-116), by Ruth Scodel is an examination of the dynamics of meaning in Homeric signs ( semata). After a fairly lengthy typological survey of sign categories: inferential vs. semiotic, temporary vs. durable, situational vs. monumental, etc., Scodel analyzes recognition signs in the Odyssey, specifically, between Odysseus and Penelope (Bks. 19 and 23), Eurycleia (Bk. 19), Laertes (Bk. 24), Eumaeus and Philoetius (Bk. 21), and Telemachus (Bk. 16). A particular concern is the disclosure of emotive resonances: the charge carried by the recognized sign often derives from its function as a memory cue. Scodel suggests that the intensity of feeling evoked by the signs is well captured by the modern concept of “flashbulb memories,” which, “in the language of contemporary psychology, are the peculiarly vivid and strongly visual (but not always reliable) memories individuals carry of particular events” (105). Especially perceptive is the discussion of discrete but linked memories in the scar-recognition scene. For the old nurse, the sight of Odysseus’s scar, as Homer presents it, triggers the memory of the day of his naming, when Eurycleia placed the newborn infant in his grandfather’s lap. For Odysseus himself, of course, the scar evokes powerful memories of the events of the boar hunt during which he sustained the wound. “Each remembers as a story what the other remembers as a powerful moment of lived experience, and their memories thus overlap” (111). Scodel concludes by speculating whether the Homeric sema may not “serve as a figure for the written text and help explain why such a text might have been created” (116). That is, the song in its written form may have been a monumental verbal memory cue calling to mind earlier oral performances.

In Chapter 6, “Dancing the Alphabet: Performative Literacy on the Attic Stage” (117-29), Niall W. Slater analyzes evidence “suggestive of a broadening of literacy over time” (117) in late fifth-century Athens. Working from allusions and quotations in Athenaeus’ ultra-eclectic Deipnosophistai, he offers convincing interpretations of three dramatic loci similes : in chronological order, Euripides’ Theseus (fr. 382 N 2), Agathon’s Telephus (fr. 4 Snell), and an unknown play by Theodectas (fr. 6 Snell). In each passage, an illiterate character describes the shapes of letters that spell out the name “Theseus.” Slater, who makes attractive guesses about context in each case, argues plausibly for the influence of the wit and language of earlier scenes on later. Finally, he discusses the (problematic) significance of Callias’ Alphabet Tragedy, which he believes (following Ralph Rosen and pace C.J. Ruijgh) to be subsequent to the other three passages and to the introduction of the new Ionic alphabet in 403 B.C. In particular, he detects a risqué allusion (to ψωλή) in the dance of the two chorus members representing the last two letters of the new alphabet. “Athenaeus’ collection of ‘performances’ of the alphabet implies widespread minimal alphabetic literacy in the audience by the last quarter of the fifth century. More than that, Callias’ chorus demands at least some public recognition of syllabic units for the analysis of words — even if they turn out to be four-letter words” (128). A compelling clever extrapolation from slender but intriguing evidence.

Part Two, “Rhetoric and Society,” consists of two articles. In Chapter 7, “Entertainment and Democratic Distrust: The Audience’s Attitude toward Oral and Written Oratory in Classical Athens” (133-46), Johan Schloemann explores a curious paradox. On the one hand, audiences desire the appearance of personal involvement and spontaneity in an orator’s presentation of a given speech. Schloemann adduces the use of teleprompters to facilitate such an illusion in our own day. On the other hand, those same audiences appreciate the display of rhetorical skill that goes along with meticulous prior composition of a speech in writing. This paradox became especially striking in later fifth-century Athens, when the writing of speeches (often by professionals) to be gotten up by heart for later performance became routine. This was a specialty of the Sophists (witness Gorgias) and so carried a sophistic stigma in the minds of such democratic entities as juries and the ekklesia. To avail oneself of the refined instruments of rhetoric was to risk alienation of the very audience whose sympathies one was soliciting. Yet that same audience expected verbal niceties unlike those of a purely improvised oral presentation. Schloemann shows convincingly that ancient Athenian listeners were quite finely attuned to the differences between impromptu and studied speech. “The oral mode … was the more traditional one. The critical attitude toward rhetoric was … a fairly new feeling … caused by the emerging democratic consciousness and by the perceptible increase of rhetorical professionalism … in the late fifth century” (144).

In Chapter 8, “Literacy, Orality, and Legislative Procedure in Classical Athens” (147-69), James P. Sickinger, author of Public Records and Archives in Classical Athens, seeks to correct certain misconceptions about the place of written documentation in the making of laws and decrees in Athens. Specifically, he shows that the citation of relevant written records (e.g., inscriptions recording laws or detailing treaty arrangements) played a part in Council and Assembly proceedings. The bulk of the article is a survey of the ancient evidence for the appeal to written materials in such venues. Sickinger’s principal thesis is that “the citation of older texts illustrates not the suspicion so frequently associated with Greek attitudes toward writing, but a deep respect for the authority of the written word in a central area of Athenian democracy” (148). Moreover, the appeal to such authority was common, if not exactly routine, already in the fifth century, and not only in the fourth, as many scholars have contended — “we should not exaggerate the differences, or assume a sudden change in the use of documents by speakers in the Assembly during the fourth century” (167). The tendency of modern scholarship, Sickinger argues, has been to stress unduly the oral character of legislative debate, particularly prior to the fourth century, and to assume writing held only symbolic, rather than direct, practical significance. This fails to do justice to the complexity of Athenian attitudes toward writing.

Part III, “Philosophy” comprises the volume’s last article — Chapter 9, “Philology or Philosophy? Simplicius on the Use of Quotations,” by Han Baltussen. Of all people, Simplicius would seem the least likely to have anything whatever to do with the question of oral vs. literate composition. Yet, within a very narrowly circumscribed set of data — quotation introductions — Baltussen succeeds in making a case for the (granted, highly attenuated) influence of oral communication (or, rather, the idea of it) on the sixth-century philosophical commentator. He first shows that Simplicius is quite self-conscious in his use of directly quoted material as an integral aspect of his method of explication. Special attention is given to his manner of introducing such quotations, in particular, the use of the verb ἀκούειν to mean either “listen” or “read.” The point is that Simplicius chose this word to signal the priority of his authorities’ ipsissima verba in any philosophical investigation. “The evidence may be used to connect this attitude and the view, held by Plato [ Phaedrus 275-78], Plotinus, and other Neoplatonists as well, that speaking is extremely important in philosophy, and more important to do philosophy and reach an understanding of reality” (185).

These collected papers offer uniformly acute and interesting discussions, varying from closely (Foley, García, Minchin, Schloemann, Sickinger) to tenuously (Mackay, Scodel, Slater, Baltussen) related to the theme announced by the title of the volume.


1. Beginning with Milman Parry’s critique of, in his view, misguided interpretations by his onetime teacher at Berkeley: see M. Parry, “About Winged Words,” CP 32 (1937) 59-63, rpt. in A. Parry, ed., The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry (Oxford 1971), 414-18 vs. G.M. Calhoun, “The Art of the Formula in Homer – ἔπεα πτερόεντα,” CP 30 (1935) 215-27. Similarly, Anne A. Parry, “Homer as Artist,” CQ 21 (1971) 1-15 vs. A.B. Lord, “Homer as Oral Poet,” HSCP 72 (1968) 1-46 vs. Anne Amory, “The Gates of Horn and Ivory,” YCS 20 (1966) 3-57.