BMCR 2006.06.29

Response: Kitts on Ready on Margo Kitts, Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society: Oath-Making Rituals and Narratives in the Iliad

Response to 2006.06.09

1 Responses

Response by

In reviewing my book for BMCR, Jonathan Ready made a number of factual errors about its contents and apparently failed to grasp the theoretical basis for the book. In fact, I could barely recognize some of my arguments in his critique of them. I trust that readers who are interested in Homeric and ritual studies will come to their own conclusions, but some of Mr. Ready’s criticisms are too egregious to stand. Hence I offer five points in rebuttal.

First, in his opening sentence, Mr. Ready states that the book focuses primarily on the two scenes of oath-sacrifice in Iliad 3 and 19. His own description belies this. Those two typical scenes instead are treated in the first half of the third chapter. The first chapter (pp. 11-49) lays out a theory toward understanding the composition of ritual scenes in an oral traditional poem, and the second (pp. 50-124) examines the more than two dozen references to oaths in the Iliad outside of the two aforementioned ritual scenes. The third chapter (pp. 125-187) begins by examining those two scenes in terms of the relatively fixed — never “rigid” as per Mr. Ready — nature of their verses within typical scenes and argues for a tension, based on ritual performance, that might be behind the fixed order and precise phrasing of the verses (hence the discussion of Rappaport’s “liturgical orders”). Then it moves on, in the second half, to offer a theory of metaphorical transformation of the ritual actors as perceived by the audiences both to the rituals and to the oral performance of the poem, however differently configured may be those audiences at different times and places. This second half of Chapter 3 is the crux of the whole book. Most essentially, it offers an analysis of the ritual performance as communication and treats an audience’s perception of metaphorical transformation for actors as “ritual fictions,” a notion I reshaped from a short piece on metaphor by Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur’s thinking relies in part on the phenomenological school of philosophy. This section thus requires careful reading by scholars in fields unfamiliar with it. Indeed, I fear that Mr. Ready did not read carefully at all. He seems rather to throw around the names Tambiah, Ricoeur, Rappaport (omitting many other ritual and poetic theorists) without showing what their theories have to do with my argument.

However, Mr. Ready was correct in pointing out that the last chapter (pp. 188-215) is peripheral to the basic argument about ritualization and poetic composition. Instead it lays out the Near Eastern background for the penetration of sacrificial motifs into battlefield narratives and also for the spectacle of gods marching in battles.

Second, Mr. Ready’s greatest obstacle was in understanding Chapter 1. He seems to miss completely the arguments about the difference between ordinary speech and ritual communication, the latter based on paradigmatic performances perceived to be rooted primordially and enjoying the communicational reach of poetry. This argument is based in part on the ritual theory of Valerio Valeri, who relied in turn on Roman Jakobson in suggesting that ritual performances stress equivalence over difference, enjoying a poetic property resulting from the projection of the paradigmatic over the syntagmatic axis.1 I have argued that a ritual’s poetic property, based on the projection of the paradigmatic over the syntagmatic, may be said to generate a poetic “text” which, especially in the Iliad’s ritual scenes but also in some of its killing scenes, may be exploited by the poet of the epic, who weaves the poetic text produced by the ritual performance into the larger poetic text of the Iliad (see pages 20-21 and also my analysis of poinê as a ritual leitmotif at pp. 63-74). Because he misses this intertextual argument, Mr. Ready misconceives my further application in Chapter 3, when I use Ricoeur’s analysis of metaphor to probe the suggestive power behind poetic phrasing ascribing similar features to dying lambs in oath-sacrifice and to dying men in battlefield narratives.

I also point out that ritual narratives are composed with different constraints than are battlefield narratives, which enjoy a greater flexibility to tell a story. My take on battlefield narratives is based somewhat on the arguments of Visser, Bakker, and others who stress meaningful composition by single words in killing scenes. This level of analysis eludes Mr. Ready’s reading of my book.

Third, Mr. Ready claims that my discussion of the Mediterranean custom of exchanging armor, which falls within my discussion of the gesture of “taking [by] the hand” in Homer and Near Eastern literature, misses the point of subservience between one member of the Achilles-Patroklos and David-Jonathan pairs, a subservience which does not apply to Glaukos and Diomedes, who also exchange armor. I respond as follows:

(1) My argument is about the common Near Eastern background for certain ritual gestures in the Iliad, gestures whose cultural significance may be implicit but not conspicuous within the Homeric text. Hence I analyze the many Homeric scenes of taking by the hand against the same gesture of solidarity presented in many Near Eastern treaty rituals — Hittite, Biblical, and further east. Indeed, many of those treaty conventions do establish an inequality in status, which is well supported by existing literature 2 and is covered by me in text and in notes between pages 79 to 84.

As a supplemental point I show a common composite of motifs — taking by the hand, exchanging clothing, declaring binding friendship and even love of the other as himself, plus swearing oaths of solidarity at the sanction of a significant parent — in the stories of friendship between Hittite king Tudhaliya IV and Kurunta, Biblical David and Jonathan, and Homeric Achilles and Patroklos. All of this may be envisioned against a similar set of motifs for illustrating the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Babylonian version of the epic of Gilgamesh. The point is not the absolute equation of all these pairs but rather the common ritual gestures which denote a bond of solidarity.

(2) In any case, at note 148 of Chapter 2 I explicitly reject the prevailing assumption of a status distinction as inherent in the therapon/ tarpanalli relationship (a related theme to this discussion). I rely on Andrew George’s recent discussion of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, wherein he denies that this status distinction is essential to the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, a pair whose story is well-known to share so many features with that of Achilles and Patroklos, such as binding love, an adoption motif, and even the substitution in death and the grieving lioness simile.3 I also rely on Dale Sinos, both in text and in notes, to show the intimacy between the two members of the Achilles-Patroklos pair.4 I do not equate the relationship between Glaukos and Diomedes in terms of its love but rather in terms of the conventional implication which may be behind the exchange of armor and taking the hand, an implication which the Homeric poet(s) may not even remember.

(3) Finally, there is abundant evidence for the gesture of clasping hands — granted nuances may vary — in Near Eastern treaty literature, which is the basic context in which I discuss Glaukos and Diomedes. For instance, I compare their exchange of armor and grasping of hands in Book 6 to the risk in the commissive gesture depicted on the monument at Nimrud memorializing the handshake between Shamaneser III and a king from Babylon. Gabriel Herman has discussed this scene, which shows weapons transferred to left hands while the right hands are clasped.5 I am hardly the first one to observe this background,6 although I do hope to be one of the first to apply a theory of liturgical orders to it.

Fourth, Mr. Ready also criticizes my claim that oath-sacrificing scenes are the most fixed — but alas he claims that I say “rigid”— of typical scenes, offering commensal scenes and arming scenes as equally if not more “rigid.” Let me protest that I do compare oath-sacrifice with commensal sacrifice summarily in Chapter 1, at page 18, and I make references in my notes to another article in which I have argued this difference in fixity and formality. Perhaps more concise than my “Sacrificial Violence in the Iliad” (Journal of Ritual Studies 16:1 (2002) 19-39), to which I refer in the book, is my forthcoming article in Kernos 2007, “‘Bulls Cut Down Bellowing’: Ritual leitmotifs and poetic pressures in Iliad 23,” to which I refer anyone interested in ritual scenes as liturgical orders in Homer. In any case, his claim here too shows that he missed significant aspects of my argument about the tension behind oath-making rituals, an argument based in part on speech act theory and in part on Roy Rappaport’s observation that violating oaths is the single common proscription in world cultures. This is to be viewed in contrast to proscriptions against rape, murder, and mayhem, which vary considerably. The argument is anthropological as much as it is philological.

As for the particular comparison of the two oath-sacrificing scenes of Books 3 and 19, he uses my own, exact, evidence against me in stating that I ignore the differences between the two scenes! I state very clearly at the outset of Chapter 3 that I intend to outline common ritual features, and it is I who explore also the differences between those scenes paragraph by paragraph just after I outline the similarities! Despite the differences, it is unmistakable that there is a great deal of formular likeness and even identical versification between the two scenes. Unfortunately, Mr. Ready does not explain what I try to do with these fixed verses. I would direct his attention to my treatment of the single figurative expression in the entire ritual scene, “the pitiless bronze” (pp.151-156) which stands out against the concrete precision of the active verbs and minute detail characteristic of those ritual scenes otherwise.7

Fifth, let me point out that Mr. Ready criticizes my treatment of the Triptolemos stamnos discussed by Alan Griffiths. I know that I have ventured afar from the prevailing view of this stamnos, but Mr. Ready does not even point out that I base my analysis of Achilles’ grief and the substitution of the ram for Patroklos as deriving ultimately from the oath of separation in Book 1 and see the ram as an oath-victim (and Patroklos too), rams being common enough oath-victims. This is an egregious omission.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the original contribution of the book is my marriage of ritual and oral poetic theory in Chapters 1 and 3. To grasp this, one must read carefully my analysis of ritual communication as potentially occurring in an amplified register (some of this argument is based on Stanley Tambiah and Maurice Bloch), my analysis of the metaphorical transformation theory of ritual performance (a theory associated with James Fernandez), and my use of Paul Ricoeur to examine the ritual fictions that are communicated by such performances. My argument about poinê as a ritual leitmotif (pp. 65-73) and my analysis of the different constraints on ritual scene composition as opposed to battle scene composition (pp. 151-56) are also important. I do not believe that Mr. Ready took sufficient notice.

[For a response to this response by Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, please see BMCR 2006.07.01.]


1. See the conclusion of Valerio Valeri’s Kingship and Sacrifice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1985) 340-48.

2. See, for instance, Moshe, Weinfeld, “The Common Heritage of Covenantal Traditions in the Ancient World,” in I Trattai nel mondo antico, forma, ideologica, funzione, edd. Luciano Canfora, Mario Liverani, Carlo Zaccagnini (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider 1990) 175-191.

3. Andrew R. George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, Vols. I and II (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2003, and see also his The Epic of Gilgamesh, A New Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999).

4. Dale Sinos, Achilles, Patroklos and the Meaning of Philos (Innsbruck: Innsburcker Beitrage zur Sprachwissenschaft 1980).

5. See the discussion by Gabriel Herman, Ritualized Friendship and the Greek City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 51.

6. See, in addition to the article by Moshe Weinfeld cited above, his “Covenant Making in Anatolia and Mesopotamia,” JANES 22 (1993):135-139 and “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East,” JOAS 90 (1970) 184-203. The same gesture is discussed by E.J. Bickerman, “Couper une alliance,” Studies in Jewish and Christian History, Vol. I (Leiden: E.J. Brill: 1976) 1-32.

7. I base some of this analysis on Leonard Muellner, The Meaning of Homeric [Euchomai] Through Its Formulas.(Innsbruck: Institut fur Sprachwissenschaft der Universitat Innsbruck 1976).