BMCR 2007.09.54

Homeric Voices: Discourse, Memory, Gender

, Homeric voices : discourse, memory, gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (ix, 310 pages). ISBN 0191535613 $99.00.

Table of Contents

This book collects versions of six essays published elsewhere and four new pieces to create a coherent study of the character-text of the Iliad and Odyssey. In applying specific studies in discourse analysis to Homeric poetry, Elizabeth Minchin (hereafter M.) remains a pioneer in interdisciplinary research in the field. All Homerists and all scholars of oral epic will want to add this book to their personal libraries.

The Introduction presents the theoretical principles behind and the goals of M.’s investigation into the patterns in Homeric speeches. She explains her reliance on discourse and conversation analysis and, building on Bakhtin’s discussion of speech genres, proposes to examine first the iterable formatting of Homeric speeches. In many ways similar to the type scenes found for the most part in the narrator-text, Homeric “speech formats” (11) were based on the patterns of such speech acts “in everyday talk” (12). This use of formats held in memory aided the poet in generating a lengthy poem in performance. M. thus returns to the theme of her previous book, namely how our textual libretti of the Homeric poems reveal the guiding force of memory in the production of oral epic in performance.1 M. then notes how recent work on the different discourse strategies of men and women (in particular the varying use of certain speech acts) provides the template for the related second part of her project, an exploration of the speeches and verbal interactions of Homer’s characters through the prism of gender. She also prepares us for her occasional discussions of non-verbal communication in the epics and reminds us of her favored heuristic, comparing and contrasting the speech habits of modern-day middle-class English speakers with those of Homer’s speakers.

The programmatic Chapter 1, “Speech Acts in Homer: The Rebuke as a Case Study,” begins Part I, “Discourse and Memory,” by buttressing Richard Martin’s contention that Homeric speech acts are stylized renditions of the speech acts of everyday life in Homer’s world. M. demonstrates through close reading of several passages the specific sequence underlying the presentation of a rebuke and gives examples of the same format in the rebukes of modern-day speakers. Three larger points follow. First, the repetitions found in Homeric rebukes are not intended for aesthetic effect but rather reflect the speaker’s use of economical speech patterns as well as a desire for clarity. Such repetitions represent “the natural strategies of everyday rhetoric” (43). Second, M. uses findings from the field of cognitive psychology on “implicit” memory to suggest that the poet retained knowledge of the rebuke format in his memory. A helpful contrast is drawn here with the concept of “explicit” memory for the “scripts” and “schemas” that underlie Homer’s type scenes. Third, M. turns to the concept of performance. When performing before an audience a speaker relies on standardized versions of the patterns of speech found in less fraught scenarios while at the same time elaborating on each step of a particular format. In this way, one can account for the detail and length of Homeric rebukes. M. closes this chapter with a rehearsal of the idea that the poet learned the formulations (i.e., relevant formulae) of a particular speech act but not the format, because the basic pattern “was already part of his memory store” (50).

Chapter 2, “On Declining an Invitation: Context, Form, and Function,” turns to those moments in which a character refuses an invitation. As in our own world, rare is an outright one-word spurning of such an offer. A character feels obliged to provide an explanation for why he cannot enter someone’s lodging or stay very long (as happens in the Iliad) or for why he must be heading out (as happens in the Odyssey). M. demonstrates a three-part sequence in the relevant speech format (non-acceptance, words of appreciation, reporting (i.e., an explanation of the task in which one is currently engaged) and proposes that this pattern “reflects the way the Greeks of Homer’s own time performed the same speech act” (67). The poet learned the phrases associated with refusing an invitation, not the structural principles of a refusal. M. next explores how the poet’s use of such a format gives an authentic feel to his characters’ words and also aids him in characterization.

Chapter 3, “Questions in the Odyssey : Rhythm and Regularity,” is the first of three on questions. In an ideal conversation, every question receives an immediate response. On the one hand, in the Homeric poems, most question/answer sequences are of this type. On the other hand, the poet both replicates the realities of everyday conversation in having an interlocutor delay a response to a question or not answer at all and explores the ways in which “suspicion, defensiveness, and anxiety” (84) affect conversation when, for instance, a character answers a question with what M. terms a “protest question.” M. also notes the frequency with which Homeric speakers explain their reasons for asking a question. Such explanatory material appears more often in Homeric questions than in questions in either modern-day conversation or in Plato’s early works, and M. sees such amplification as contributing “to the predictable structure—the rhythm—of question-asking in the epic tradition that we associate with Homer” (86). Further, by having his actors explain themselves, the poet keeps the audience focused on and involved with his characters and their actions. M. moves on to observe that most Homeric questions come either in pairs and as “alternate questions” (others would say “double-direct” questions) or in series of more than two, and she points to similarities and differences with our own interrogative practices. Modern-day speakers tend not to ask questions in uninterrupted runs, but M. notes how a Homeric speaker might begin with a general question and then zero in on more specific concerns and how a series of questions can adhere to “internal patterns of repetition” (95) that aid the poet in performing. Both phenomena are discernable among today’s speakers. Finally, M. points to the repetition in an answer of a component of the question. As with repetitions within successive questions, such economical reuse, commonplace among modern-day speakers, enables composition in performance.

Chapter 4, ” Hysteron Proteron in Questions and Answers,” builds on the work of Samuel Bassett in discussing the fact that Homeric speakers tend to answer a series of questions in the reverse order of their initial presentation. Finding intersections with the practice of modern-day speakers, M. attributes such reversal to “cognitive … and social factors” (115), that is, to desires for efficiency and cooperation in conversation. M. also looks at passages in which rhetorical or thematic factors affect both the asking and answering of questions in a particular order. Again, the larger point is that Homer deployed a recognizable feature of everyday talk in his composition.

Chapter 5, “Verbal Behaviour in its Social Context: Three Question Strategies in the Odyssey,” examines from a sociolinguistic perspective how questions function “as social acts which may reflect, reinforce, or, indeed, revise the social relationship of the speakers” (117). Deference-questions allow a subordinate to make a query of a superior that urges a particular course of action. Control-questions, “an exercise in power” (125), allow a superior to test a subordinate’s knowledge or performance of that knowledge with a query that must be answered. By responding to a question with a counter-question, a speaker can attempt to withhold information from his social equal or one who is of only slightly higher social status. Such answers allow for various degrees of obfuscation on the part of the respondent but can also signal a more direct challenge. M. illustrates the workings of these three question types with examples from the Odyssey. This sociolinguistic analysis prepares the reader for the topics considered in Part II, “Discourse and Gender.”

Chapter 6, “Linguistic Choices in Homer: Rebukes and Protests,” inaugurates Part II with a discussion of how gender affects the use of rebukes and protests. In contrast to one who issues a rebuke, the speaker of a protest understands his or her inability to affect the actions of the addressee. We again find striking intersections between the distribution of speech acts in our world and in that of Homeric epic. In the Iliad the distribution of rebukes and protests adheres to expected patterns. Elders rebuke those younger; superiors rebuke subordinates; men rebuke women. Athena and Hera protest to Zeus; lesser heroes protest to their betters. The poet deviates from these patterns to emphasize the oddity or urgency of a particular situation. Artemis rebukes Apollo during the theomachia in book 21; Andromache rebukes Hektor when she realizes the danger facing him and by extension all of Troy. Matters are a bit different in the Odyssey. Iliadic patterns of rebuke and protest appear in scenes outside of Ithaka, but, given the domestic settings of so much of the poem, moments in which women issue rebukes are more prominent. M. takes particular note of the rebukes by Penelope of Melantho and of Antinoos and by Telemachos of his mother, and she closes the chapter with an analysis of the exchange between Odysseus and Penelope in book 23. This last exchange — Odysseus rebukes, Penelope protests — reinscribes the usual patterns of gendered speech.

The next three chapters investigate the applicability to the Homeric poems of contemporary research into the competitive strategies of “English-speaking middle class males” (175) and the cooperative strategies of their female peers. Chapter 7, “Competitive and Co-operative Strategies I: Information-Questions,” explores such questions in the Iliad. Ostensibly about getting the facts, information-questions are used frequently by the poem’s men in some coercive fashion to establish or reaffirm their own authority, power, and/or status. By contrast, when Thetis in book 1 and Hekabe in book 6 ask questions of their sons, when Hermes and Priam exchange questions in book 24, when Achilles questions Patroklos in book 16, and when Priam questions Helen about the Achaian warriors in book 3, they do so out of a desire to establish rapport.

The lengthy Chapter 8, “Competitive and Co-operative Strategies II: Directives,” begins with a survey of research on the different uses and forms of directives among modern-day men and women. M. breaks down directives in each epic into Imperatives, Mitigated Forms (e.g., the use of the optative or a question), or Oblique Directives and Hints. Numerous examples illustrate how a range of contextual factors—such as a speaker’s goal or his or her relationship (or desired relationship) to the addressee—determine the form used. Of special interest is the interaction between the species of directive and the vocative formulation that often accompanies such a speech act. M. makes clear that the use of directives by Homeric speakers does not conform in all respects to that of modern-day speakers. Homeric women, for example, use imperatives at a higher rate than appears to be the case among women today.

Chapter 9, “Competitive and Co-operative Strategies III: Interruptions,” starts by noting the different functions of interruptions. M. then turns to three passages in the Iliad that, given the propensity of characters to hear out their peers, stand out. In claiming that interrupting is rude (19.79-82), Agamemnon reveals his own lack of tact. Achilles’ interruption at 1.292 shows his desire “to dominate the quarrel, to force Agamemnon into submission” (233). In having Odysseus preempt Phoinix in book 9, “Homer, with extraordinary economy, displays Odysseus’ characteristic opportunism” (234). M. concludes that interruption in the Iliad is “power play” (244). Interruptions in the Odyssey serve sympathetic or less explicitly competitive ends and all have to do with singers of tales. Two of these scenes demonstrate the importance of hospitality. Alkinoos interrupts Demodocus when he sees his guest crying. By contrast, Telemachos insists that Phemios be allowed to entertain his guests, the suitors, even if the subject matter of his song upsets Penelope. In examining a third scene, M. contends that when Odysseus interrupts his own performance (11.330-31), he actually hopes that the Phaiakians will ask him to keep going, “a characteristically Odyssean move” (243).

In Chapter 10, “Storytelling and Gender,” a survey of recent work on differences in form and content between the stories told by men and women allows for reconsiderations of the tales of Homer’s characters. Men’s stories are, for instance, full of details, set in the outside world, and focused on the teller’s success in a particular endeavor. At the same time, in mixed company men “may orientate their tales to female expectations by including details of emotional response” (250). Among the features of women’s stories that M. points out are the following: the centrality of troubling difficulties, a focus on characterization, a displacement of the teller as the main protagonist, and a tendency to build on the themes of stories told previously by others when in an all-female group setting. For the most part, work in the Homeric laboratory replicates these and other findings. Nestor tells boastful tales. Antenor crafts his story so as to engage Helen. Thetis focuses on Achilles. Odysseus fills his narratives with specifics related to time and place and structures his tales based on the perceived competence and interests of his audience. To the beggar, Penelope talks of “her sense of failure and frustration within the domestic sphere” (274) and expects him to reciprocate with a story of a similar nature. By contrast, Helen herself co-stars in her recollection of the time when Odysseus snuck into Troy. M. ends this section of close readings by revising the usual interpretation of Menelaos’s story about Helen’s attempt to sabotage the trick of the wooden horse. Far from criticizing Helen, Menelaos’s tale “acknowledges and corresponds to her [Helen’s] own and. . . celebrates her mysteriously seductive powers” (279). M. attributes the differences in the stories of male and female narrators to the Homeric poets’ desire to replicate the various narrative strategies found “in the real world in which they lived” in the interest of “authenticity” (281).

The Conclusion helpfully summarizes M.’s findings: “Homer’s Models” include not only the poets he learned from but also “the speech of the people around him” (287). Such replication, stylized to be sure, eases not only performance but also comprehension by the audience. The Index Locorum and the General Index are exemplary.

An additional instructive component of this book is the close fit between theory and practice. The various models from contemporary discourse analysis that M. deploys enhance our understanding of particular Homeric passages as well as the poems’ larger thematic concerns. I found myself in mild disagreement with M.’s close readings only once. Nestor’s and Laertes’ vicarious enjoyment of competition (see Iliad 23.313-14 and 23.629 and Odyssey 24.514-15, respectively) suggests amending the categorical assertion that Priam “is of an age where dominance and concern for status have faded. As an old man, he has moved beyond the competitive generation” (186). The consistently good results that M. obtains from her method of analysis should assuage any anxieties about her comparative approach, anxieties that M. repeatedly and explicitly confronts (see, e.g., 19 n. 62, 75 n. 3, 148 n. 14, 189, 282). Such an approach serves above all as a demystifying heuristic that helps us address the seemingly strange world of Homeric epic. M. never forces the data culled from the poems to fit the expectations generated by research into modern-day discourse practices. Rather, her method allows her to ask a range of new questions and to give impressive answers.


1. E. Minchin, Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey, Oxford, 2001.