BMCR 2005.02.10

Homeric Megathemes: War – Homilia – Homecoming. Originally published as Homêrika megathemata: polemos – homilia – nostos (Athens 1999). Translated by David Connolly

, , Homeric megathemes : war-homilia-homecoming. Greek studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004. 186 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0739108832. $70.00.

This volume collects ten essays, spanning the period 1978-1998, by the distinguished Hellenist Dimitris N. Maronitis [M.], emeritus professor at the University of Thessaloniki. Six dealing mainly with the Iliad form Part One, four dealing mostly with the Odyssey form Part Two.

In his Introduction (1-7), M. prepares the ground by defining his critical vocabulary and offering brief précis of the ten essays with a (quite cogent) rationale for their arrangement. The term “megatheme” is coined “to highlight fundamental themes of major importance and compositional scope in the Homeric epics” by contrast to “formulaic themes or subthemes of a secondary order and extent used to compose the now established type-scenes.” M.’s overarching goal is to reveal the artistry of the poets of the Iliad and the Odyssey through a comparative study of the deployment and interrelations of his chosen megathemes in the epics.1

Chapter 1, “The Iliadic War” [1998] (11-28), begins with the observation that, despite the “Greeks-Barbarians” antithesis so familiar from later Greek literature, “the Homeric Iliad does not legitimize any form of evaluative distinction between Achaeans and Trojans.” In fact, M. finds that the poet “stresses the tragedy of war — its futility, sometimes even its absurdity.” He then illustrates this emphasis by a close reading of Il. 4.422-544, “the first collective battle” in the epic. M. broadens the relevance of his conclusions about the passage by arguing that it “foreshadows the outcome of the Iliadic war” as a whole. This is in line with M.’s position on the “reconciliatory conclusion” of the poem in Book 24.

Chapter 2, “The Space of Homilia and Its Signs in the Iliad and the Odyssey” (29-45; orig. in Ὁ Ὁμηρικὸς Οἶκος, ed. M. Païzi-Apostolopoulou [Ithaca 1990] 105-123), introduces the second of M.’s megathemes, that of homilia or social intercourse. M. is particularly concerned, first, to delineate and relate the nature of the interplay of the war and homilia themes in each epic. Next, he identifies and assesses the contributory significance of the spaces within which social interactions occur. M. proceeds by distinguishing, explicating, and comparing three types of homilia — conjugal, extra-conjugal, and companionate — focusing chiefly on Hector-Andromache and Diomedes-Glaucus in Iliad 6 and Odysseus-Penelope in Odyssey 16, 19, and 23.

Chapter 3, “The Theme of Conjugal Homilia in the Odyssey” (47-62; orig. in EEThess 17 [1978] 191-212), examines several homiletic scenes between Odysseus and Penelope. M. demonstrates a threefold scale of organization: “indirect dialogue between the couple; their direct prerecognition dialogue; recognition dialogue – erotic union – accounts.” He reveals how this theme dovetails with and parallels “kindred themes” in the Mnêstêrophonia and the recognition of Odysseus. While the Iliadic conjugal homilia also evinces a progressive threefold configuration, in the Odyssey, the movement is toward reunion and joy rather than separation and ultimate death.

Chapter 4, “The Theme of Homecoming in the Iliad : Signification — Variations — Function” [1988] (63-76), asks whether the earlier epic’s “manifest warring or, more precisely, intra-warring content allow[s] for the presentation of the theme of homecoming [so crucial in the Odyssey ], albeit on the fringes of its own framework, or … exclude[s] it as being a competing theme.” M. proves that the theme of homecoming is in fact operative in both positive (that is, realized) and negative (unrealized) forms in the Iliad. Negatively, the poet plays on the cherished but elusive prospect of a safe return from the war in the thoughts of combatants. Positively, he fuses return and death in a “funeral homecoming” in the two exceptional cases of Sarpedon in Book 16 and Hector in Book 24.

In Chapter 5, “The Heroic Myth and Its Lyrical Reconstruction” (77-88; first in Διαβάζω 107 [1984] 20-26), M. explicates “a poetic contest between the epic and lyric worlds at the center of a mythological poem [Alcaeus 74 δ 42 π], with archaic lyricism achieving a clear victory.” In particular, he shows how Alcaeus inserts a kind of anti-epic evocation of conjugal homilia between Peleus and Thetis in contrast to the illicit love of Paris and Helen with its disastrous consequences. M. detects telling differences in content, imagery, and vocabulary that heighten our sense of the collision of convention and innovation in this poem.

In Chapter 6, “Conjugal Homilia : From the Iliad to Sophocles’ Ajax” [1994] (89-97), M., noting that “so-called intertextuality, the subject of so much discussion by literary theorists, is an old, fundamental and decisive principle in poetry,” offers a comparison of a tragic conjugal triangle, Ajax — Tecmessa — Eurysaces, with a famous epic archetype, Hector — Andromache — Astyanax. Sophocles is shown to be masterfully controlling resonances and dissonances between his own and Iliadic characters: the tragedian “transcribed the theme of conjugal homilia, in its entirety and in its parts, and with all the basic attributes, including the motifs of discord, of burial, and of the funeral homecoming.”

Chapter 7, “Bard — Narrator — Poet: Internal Poetics in the Odyssey” (101-115; orig. in Ὁ Ὁμηρικά, ed. M. Païzi-Apostolopoulou [Ithaca 1998], 57-75), examines scenes of narrative performance in the epic for evidence of the poet’s conception of his own function and position, with particular attention to Demodocus, Nestor, Menelaus, and pre-eminently Odysseus himself. In his scrutiny of internal narratives, M. discerns telling commonalities in setting, occasion, structure, central themes, as well as audience make-up and reaction. “It is this internal narrator [Odysseus] who is chosen by the external narrator, the poet of the Odyssey, in order to reflect himself. Given that the prevailing conventions do not allow him to reveal his face, he expresses himself through the persona of the central character in his epic.”

In Chapter 8, “Problems of the Homeric Helen” (117-132; orig. in Εὐχὴν Ὀδυσσεῖ, ed. M. Païzi-Apostolopoulou [Ithaca 1995] 55-73), M. revisits a matter — the enigma of Helen’s culpability — to which his mentor, J.T. Kakridis, devoted an important article.2 Canvassing the testimony of witnesses other than herself (viz., the poet-narrator, the gods, and the Achaeans and Trojans themselves), he observes a remarkable absence of negative judgments of Helen in the epics. Insisting on the distinction between the Helen of the Homeric poems and the Helen of the larger Troy myth, he argues that “the issue of Helen’s guilt or innocence is presented in the Homeric epics more as a rhetorical device.” A device that makes the unfathomable ambiguity of Helen’s blameworthiness a function of her overawing beauty, which forestalls us (like the elders on the walls in Iliad 3) from applying such labels as “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.”

Chapter 9, “Latent References to the Iliad in the Odyssey” (133-146; orig. “Références latentes de l’ Odyssée à l’ Iliade,” in Mélanges Édouard Delebecque [Aix-en-Provence 1983] 279-291), attempts to prove a very precise referential linkage between elements in the lying story told by Odysseus to Penelope in Od. 19.221-248 and passages in the Iliad, specifically 2.183-184 (Eurybates and Odysseus’ mantle) and 3.156-158 (the remarks of the old men in the Teichoscopia). His principal conclusion is that “The imagination of the careful listener may be activated, in order to recognize in an apparent gap (the stranger only ‘appears’ not to answer Penelope’s question concerning Odysseus’ build and facial features) the reflection of an incomparable radiance, in which the Helen of the Iliad and the Odysseus of the Odyssey become akin.” If so, we are dealing with a very careful listener attuned to very latent references indeed.

Chapter 10, “Odysseus’ First False Account in the Odyssey : Model and Variations” (147-163; orig. “Die erste Trugrede des Odysseus in die Odyssee : Vorbild und Variationen,” in Gnomosyne: Festschrift für Walter Marg, ed. G. Kurg et al. [Munich 1981] 117-134), is actually two separate essays only exiguously related to each other. The first is devoted to a careful scrutiny of Odysseus’ lying story told to Athena in Od. 13.256-286. M. expands his focus to include the immediately preceding and succeeding passages, showing how they contribute to the paradigmatic quality of the false story in relation to its many subsequent variants. He then, in what amounts to a second essay tenuously connected to the topic of the False Account, compares the interlocked themes of homecoming and sleep in Book 13 and Book 5, when Odysseus arrives on Scheria, a sort of surrogate Ithaca for M.’s purposes. Though interesting points are made in both parts, the chapter lacks overall coherence and does not well reflect its title.

Taken together, the essays in this book are a thematically interrelated series of incisive and meticulous forays into the poetics of the Homeric epics. Since most of them were previously available only in modern Greek and in rather inaccessible publications, we should be very grateful for their collection and translation in this volume, which an Index Locorum renders still more useful. M. is a discerning and veteran Homeric scholar whose work deserves to be better known.


1. M. was a student of Walter Marg and Johannes Kakridis. His interpretive orientation to the Homeric epics reflects their tutelage in (a) a preoccupation with major themes as units of composition, (b) a generally “neoanalytical” concern to discriminate pre-existing elements of the Troy myth and to evaluate their use in the Homeric epics, (c) a belief in the unity of the epics, but (d) a conviction that they are the work of different authors (hence, the consistent designations “poet of the Iliad” and “poet of the Odyssey,” in place of “Homer”).

2. ” Προβλήματα τῆς ὁμηρικῆς Ἑλένης,” Hellenica 13 (1954) 205-220.