BMCR 2006.09.30

Geschichte und Fiktion in der homerischen Odyssee

, Geschichte und Fiktion in der homerischen Odyssee. Zetemata ; Heft 125. München: C.H. Beck, 2006. 248 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3406541925 €58.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In October 2003 an interdisciplinary conference was held at the Freie Universität Berlin with the topic of “The worlds of Odysseus — History and fiction in the Homeric Odyssey”. The participants represented the fields of ancient history, classical philology, Egyptology, Indoeuropean linguistics, Indology, and history of religion. The present volume is the second publication of acta from this conference; the papers that had to do with reception were published last year.1

The reader who expects an overall discussion of how history and fiction interact in the Odyssey, will be frustrated, since most of the contributions treat either history or fiction, and some of them neither. Only some of the authors concentrate on the Odyssey, while others take the Iliad into consideration as well. The articles are of uneven quality and length, some of them keep narrowly within German research traditions, and there is little connection between them. But since some of the contributions are brilliant, the book is nevertheless important.

Already the opening phrase is frustrating: the editor states that the Iliad and the Odyssey are literary texts and have not been recorded in writing with the purpose of transmitting historical facts. Not only is it doubtful whether a distinction between literature and history makes sense in connection with the Homeric poems, but it is in itself a vexed problem why the two epics were written at all.

The first contribution, by Pedro Barceló, is a brief and superficial discussion of Homeric society, revealing no interest in the scholarly discussions of this theme that have been taking place in recent decades, and not even mentioning Mogens Herman Hansen’s international research centre.2

Norbert Blössner’s article is only distantly relevant to the common theme, but competent and interesting. Blössner describes a team effort initiated by Ernst Heitsch in Regensburg about Homeric iterata (the term ‘formula’ was avoided on purpose), and already described by F.X. Strasser in a publication from 1984.3 A computer-generated analysis of all repeated phrases in early Greek epic has, among other things, shown that the great majority of them occur only twice. That seems problematic for the hypothesis of the oral theory that repetitions are formulas. Blössner builds on this research in his present study of internal relations among the epics. He posits four possible ways of understanding the iterata, underlining that they are not mutually exclusive: 1, they represent a generative principle in oral poetry; 2, they are formulas; 3a, they quote a common source; 3b, one text quotes another. As part of the argumentation for a complicated relative chronology, he discusses a case in which he asserts that the Iliad quotes the Hesiodic Works and Days. Even though not every detail of Blössner’s interpretation is convincing, he is certainly right that the Regensburg data ought to be discussed carefully in connection with any hypothesis of the origin of Greek epic.

Martin Dreher is concerned with the origins of supplication and argues that the practice of finding asylum in a sacred precinct developed only from c. 700 B.C. onwards, after the composition of the Odyssey. His method is an analysis of the supplication scenes in the poem and a study of the terminology involved, and his readings are careful enough. Whether his conclusions equating examples from the poem to reality are permissible is more questionable.

The Egyptologist Alexandra von Lieven offers her comments on the image of Egypt conveyed by the poem, and they are straightforward and exciting. She refers in particular to various Egyptian texts that offer more or less close parallels to the story of Helen’s drug and that of Proteus, and she concludes that Homer may have had Egyptian sources for these parts of his narrative.

Andreas Luther first considers the role of the Phaeacian episode in the narrative, and next wonders whether the text reveals special appeals to special audiences in the real world. He describes the narrative function of the passage as being a link between the world of fiction in which Odysseus has travelled and the real one of Ithaca, and takes the famous mentions of Athens and Euboea as indications that audiences in these areas were especially invited to identify with the story. Luther seems unconcerned by the fact that in this way he handles two different kinds of reality, one inside the poem and another outside it. The argumentation is somewhat vague and the points of view not strikingly new, but Luther is well-informed and conscientious in listing his predecessors.

Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen’s contribution is purely concerned with literary matters. He analyses how two figures, Aias and Palamedes, are handled in the Odyssey, and argues that the poet goes out of his way to defend his Odysseus by passing over some elements of the stories in silence while referring others to the decision of the gods. A weak point in the argument is that assertions made by characters in the poem are taken to express the poet’s view. In addition, it seems strange to read the Odyssey as a defence of the protagonist without mentioning Jenny Strauss Clay, and to discuss the epic cycle without a reference to Jonathan Burgess.4

Renate Schlesier’s elegant essay on Odysseus as the archetypal traveller in European literature underlines that alone among the mythic heroes Odysseus does not have to die in order to achieve his status as a hero, and that the fact that he is his own narrator establishes a special and subtle relationship between character and poet.

With his title, “The world of Eumaeus”, Martin Schmidt alludes to Moses Finley’s world of Odysseus and describes how slavery is represented in the poem. First and foremost he offers a careful reading of the poem itself, stating the facts and discussing difficult points of interpretation as he moves along. Only towards the end of his article does he turn to the question how the picture given in the poem relates to social conditions in later periods as known from other sources, and he concludes that the kind of slavery described in the Odyssey basically resembles what is found in historical times, especially in the countryside. In detailed notes he refers to how other scholars have interpreted the same questions, and also gives information about the Iliad’s handling of slavery, concluding that there is no difference between the two poems in this sphere. The article is a model of learning and precision and will remain authoritative for any further discussion of this topic.

Like Schmidt, Monika Schuol respects the overall theme of history and fiction in the Odyssey. She discusses the singer-passages of the poem, but her relatively brief treatment does not really add to the understanding of these often-analysed passages. However, her account of archaeological evidence for stringed instruments before c. 700 is valuable.

Peter Spahn has written what amounts to almost a small monograph on Homeric friendship. His approach is to investigate the terminology of friendship and enmity as a way of understanding the ethical discourse of Homeric society. The precise relationship between this and historic reality is wisely left rather vague, and to all practical purposes his study remains inside the fiction, a description of how people communicate in the poems. The words in question are philos, hetairos and echthros in their relationship to oikos, hetairoi and xenie. Already his discussion of the difficult adjective philos is interesting and immediately useful for any reader of the poems. But the whole study is an important analysis of how Homeric characters relate to one another, often in ways remarkably different from modern Western forms of communication.

The last contribution, by Jan Stenger, is a literary study in the tradition of Wolfgang Iser’s theory of aesthetic response. Stenger considers the relationship between rhapsode and audience in terms of conventions: the two parties share a common code, and deviations from it work as signals to be decoded. Being concerned with the way episodes are connected, Stenger first underlines that the linking is normally explicit. He then lists five types of non-linking, for instance the seeming lack of connection between Demodocus’ song of Ares and Aphrodite and the overall plot of the poem, or the way in which the audience is prepared for the decisive importance of Arete who is then silent in the scene in which her power was expected to be demonstrated. Stenger interprets such cases as invitations to active cooperation by the audience. His article is interesting, perhaps more because of its methodical approach than the interpretative results achieved.

The book is concluded by an index of names. An index locorum would have added considerably to the usefulness of the volume.

As a whole, this collection of articles is a disappointment. It offers no theoretical discussion of how to handle the complicated question mentioned in its title, and the contributions are so different that they do not really shed light on each others. On the other hand, Martin Schmidt and Peter Spahn in particular have contributed clear, learned studies of central Homeric questions that any reader will profit from.


Andreas Luther: Vorwort

Pedro Barceló: Staatlichkeit bei Homer

Norbert Blössner: Relative Chronologie im frühgriechischen Epos: Eine empirische Methode und erste Ergebnisse

Martin Dreher: Die Hikesie-Szenen der Odyssee und der Ursprung des Asylgedankens

Alexandra von Lieven: Fiktionales und historisches Ägypten. Das Ägyptenbild der Odyssee aus ägyptologischer Perspektive

Andreas Luther: Die Phaiaken der Odyssee und die Insel Euboia

Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen: Echtra parphasis : Odysseus, Aias und Palamedes

Renate Schlesier: Transgressionen des Odysseus

Martin Schmidt: Die Welt des Eumaios

Monika Schuol: Sänger und Gesang in der Odyssee

Peter Spahn: ‘Freundschaft’ und ‘Gesellschaft’ bei Homer

Jan Stenger: Narrative Unbestimmtheit in der Odyssee. Ein Beitrag zu den Konventionen homerischer Epik.


1. Odyssee-Rezeptionen, Frankfurt 2005, reviewed in BMCR 2005.10.18 by Filippomaria Pontani.

2. A survey of the many publications from this project is to be found in Mogens Herman Hansen, “95 theses about the Greek polis in the archaic and classical periods: A report on the results obtained by the Copenhagen Polis Centre in the period 1993-2003”. (Historia 52, 2003, 257-82.)

3. Zu den Iterata der frühgriechischen Epik, Königstein/Ts 1984.

4. J.S. Clay, The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey, Princeton, N.J. 1983; J.S. Burgess, The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle, Baltimore 2001.