BMCR 2004.06.48

Homeric Responses

, Homeric responses. 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.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xii, 100 pages). ISBN 0292796366 $16.95.

Homeric scholarship in general owes a debt to Nagy [N.] for pioneering the aesthetic interpretation of the Iliad and Odyssey based on the implications of Parry’s and Lord’s work on the oral-traditional nature of Homeric composition, whereby the interpretation of these poems depends on analyzing them from a diachronic perspective in accordance with the nature of an oral tradition and not as self-contained works of literature. In the present book N. interprets several passages in Homer in terms of the diachronic nature of the tradition behind these poems, arguing that the passages cannot be fully understood, and are often misunderstood, by viewing the poems from an exclusively synchronic position. The book contains an introduction and four chapters, largely self-contained and heavily dependent on the author’s previous work. Although in the preface N. suggests that the book may be used as an introduction to his earlier work, the uninitiated will struggle with this book. The brevity of the arguments often leads to obscurity, and essentially the chapters develop the implications of N.’s far more clearly presented arguments in Homeric Questions and Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond.

The introduction falls into four parts, the first three containing brief restatements of positions developed in earlier works: the need for a diachronic as well as a synchronic perspective when interpreting Homeric poetry; a brief summary of N.’s evolutionary model of the textual fixation of the Iliad and Odyssey; and a brief summary of N.’s views about dictation theories, followed up in Chapter three. The fourth, longer section discusses the idea of cross-referencing in Homer, a phenomenon N. believes need not be based on a written text, but may be explained in terms of the diachronic nature of oral-traditional poetics.

N.’s central point in the first chapter is that the rhapsodic performance of Homeric poetry is a performance medium that requires a responsive mentality: that the relation of rhapsode to poem is not passive but interactive. What N. is essentially trying to do is to connect the idea of acting denoted by ὑποκρίνεσθαι with the performance of the poems by rhapsodes, whereby each rhapsode re-enacts the narrator of the poems as well as the characters. In this way Homeric poetry is viewed as a performance medium, not a textual medium. This in turn is crucial for the issue of textual fixity. The argument is based on the observation made by A.B. Lord that in an oral tradition a singer will insist that he has sung the same song as before, even though the wording of the latter version might be different from a previous one. The link used to connect the textually based performance of drama and the oral performance of the Homeric poems is the use of ὑποκρίνεθαι to denote the responses seers and oracles give to their enquirers. Just as oracular poetry matches exactly the events of the future, so Homeric poetry matches exactly the events of the past. It is the fact that rhapsodes perform the poetry — that they become, as it were, Diomedes, Helen and, in the end, Homer — that generates in themselves the need for, and in their audience the impression of, verbal fixity, even though by our literate standards this is not the case. In this way N. imaginatively situates the observation of Lord within a specifically Greek cultural context.

The second chapter introduces the idea of diachronic skewing in the rhapsodic transmission of the Homeric poems. N. uses this concept to describe references within the poems to practices that are synchronically invalid for certain periods in the transmission of the poems as conceived in his evolutionary model. He gives two examples: the description of Demodocus in the Odyssey, where the emphasis on musical accompaniment is belied by the synchronic reality of unaccompanied, unmelodic performance by rhapsodes. The second example, which works the other way, is the description of Achilles singing in his tent, while Patroklos sits in silence, waiting for him to stop singing. N. takes this as a reference to the Panathenaic practice of individual rhapsodes singing the poem in relay. This discussion in turn leads on to a response to Douglas Olson’s view that κλέος in Homer never refers to glory as conferred by poetry but retains its root sense of ‘hearsay’ or ‘oral report.’ N.’s point is certainly valid, since the tradition standing behind the Homeric poems would already have bestowed a self-referential ambivalence on the meaning of this word; however, N.’s response veers off into an inconclusive discussion of the formulaic status of κλέος ἄφθιτον, which is not crucial to an argument involving semantics, instead of more fully describing the relationship and interplay between the root sense of the word, available from a synchronic reading of the poems, and the meaning ‘poetic glory’ generated by the diachronic self-referentiality of rhapsodic performance.

The third chapter argues against Richard Janko’s dictation theory by taking the two examples adduced by Janko to indicate irreversible mistakes made in the process of dictation: the duals in the embassy scene of Iliad 9 and the double omen in Odyssey 20. Rather than seeing these as mistakes, Nagy argues that both passages are examples of poetic virtuosity whereby a later stage of the tradition alters an earlier stage but intentionally leaves traces of that earlier stage. The duals, used in an earlier version to refer to Odysseus and Ajax, are used in this later version, where Phoinix is added, to snub Odysseus. The implicit relationship hinted at here is brought out more fully by Achilles’ reaction to Odysseus’ speech. The second example is the inconsistency in Odyssey 20, where the grinding woman describes Zeus’ thunder coming from a clear sky whereas when first mentioned it was described as coming from a cloudy sky. N. argues that the passage plays on the originally metonymic sense of Indo-European *nephos, so that the omen given by Zeus is at first still doubtful, but then made clear by the woman’s prophetic words, who herself describes the thunder coming from a clear sky. Odysseus’ and the audience’s understanding of the double omen correspondingly shifts from uncertainty to clarity. The remainder of the chapter is taken up with a rather incomplete rejection of modern dictation theories, which simply denies their claim to be following on from the work of Parry and Lord instead of confronting them directly.

The general idea of the fourth chapter is that the litigation scene represented on the shield of Achilles, in which the plaintiff refuses to accept compensation, informs the overall interpretation of the idea of compensation in the poem, so that, just as the litigants cannot find a limit, πεῖραρ, so too the poet can surpass the limits of his poem by leaving an apparently closed ending indeterminate. The basis of the comparison is that the ekphrasis may inform the poem as a whole in the same way that a simile may inform its narrative context. N. equates the litigation scene on Achilles’ shield with the end of the Iliad as a whole, whereby Achilles remains unrelenting in his refusal to accept compensation, since the point at which the Iliad stands still — its end — is prefigured in the motionless picture of the shield, in which the plaintiff refuses compensation. This connects the audience of the poem with the outer circle of people who are to decide who of the inner circle of elders proposes the best judgment. Just as the outer circle of people is to decide which judgement is best, so the readers of the Iliad are to decide who is ultimately responsible in the Iliad. In this way the Iliad can be seen as relative, with different responses coming from different audiences as the poem passes through time. This is a daring and provocative interpretation, but many will find that it places a burden on the passage that it cannot support, and is not helped by the opaque analogy of circles of logic looping back into one another in order to unite different elements of the shield, the plot of the Iliad, and its audience.

nescit vox missa reverti : not necessarily. There is an excessive degree of verbatim quotation from earlier works, with whole paragraphs wrenched from their original context and called up for a second tour of duty. Most of them contain quite sweeping assertions which, interesting though they be, could have been reformulated and amplified in order to persuade the reader more effectively. This is especially the case with the fourth chapter, wholly reprinted, in which the various analogies made between shield, poem and audience, and the conclusions drawn from them, strain one’s credulity.1 N. is admirably steeped in the method of both comparative philology and comparative literature, but in this book in particular much of the argument is based on questionable analogies which need to be explained at more length but are instead compounded one upon the other, leading to conclusions that seem built on shaky foundations. The brevity of the work entails a lot of work for the reader in justifying to him- or herself the comparisons made before proceeding to further comparisons and the conclusions drawn from them. The danger is that many will fail to do so, even if they are sympathetic to N.’s work in general.


1. I give the following example: “In the longer run, then, Achilles can be a defendant as well as a plaintiff in litigation over the death of Patroklos. In the longest run, though, Achilles can even be seen as the victim himself, since the Iliad makes his own death a direct consequence of the death of Patroklos. No wonder the plaintiff of the Shield scene will not accept compensation in the form of ποινή : potentially, he is also the defendant, and even the victim!” (p. 84). A notable example of excessively compressed phraseology due to N.’s general privileging of the oral over the written is afforded by his analysis of the dedicatory inscription CEG 286 [= IG I 3 533]: “I concede that the mentality of unchangeability is reinforced by the writing down of these words. Still, ideologically, these words of response would stay the same even without writing, since they are predicated on the overall vision of the statue” (p.31).