BMCR 2008.01.21

The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning

, The Iliad : structure, myth, and meaning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 337 pages). ISBN 9780801889189. $55.00.

This book has a dual purpose. Louden (L.) attempts not only to defend the integrity of the existing overall structure of the Iliad, if not every line or passage, but also to interpret this structure with parallels from Near Eastern texts, including the Old Testament. In addition, there are also a number of parerga on which L. sheds light on notoriously thorny passages. The book should be useful to any scholar interested in issues of Homeric structure and unity, as well as comparatists interested in a Near Eastern context for Greek literature.

L. supports a three-part structure, as has become common, and specifically the division into books 1-7, 8-17 and 18-24, which has recently been defended by Stanley and Schein. Stanley relied on intricate ring composition, while Schein, on the other hand, argued for an increasing “dislocation” in which each of the three parts is “even more dislocated and untraditional,” marking “progressive stages leading towards this death and destruction,” and runs counter to any ring composition.1 L. occasionally uses ring composition in his own arguments— noting for example, that book 17 rings book 8 to frame the middle section (p. 111)—but sees three parallel and detailed thematic developments, with the pattern reversed (“inverted,” or “parodied”) in the middle section. The overall pattern, to L., is compatible with the working methodology of an oral poet. L.’s argument is bolstered throughout by verbal parallels that reinforce the corresponding themes.

An opening chapter discusses the motifs as they appear in books 18-24. The same pattern occurs in the earlier two sections with direct verbal parallels. Chapter 2 analyzes book 3, which serves as an “overture” in that it puts into play the themes (or “motifs,” in L.’s terminology) in books 4-7 as well as 20-24. The themes are “parodic” in book 3; Paris’ behavior is juxtaposed to the later aristeia of Achilles. Chapter 3 examines books 8-17, which employ the same motifs as 1-7 and 18-24, but “in inverted form,” also serving as “parody” of the first and third sections because here the Trojans have the upper hand. Chapter 4 shows parallels between the three pairs of books (1-2, 9-10 and 18-19) that introduce each section (book 8, an “overture” like book 3, belongs with 11-17 as part of the “inversion”). All three pairs contain thirteen themes, with the themes reversed in 9-10.

Chapter 5 compares the Iliad and the Old Testament in the use of more than twenty themes. Some of these themes are rather general (e.g. “The hero easily defeats the enemy champion, knocking him to the ground with a stone,” page 176, or “The victorious hero commits an atrocity,” page 177), but the overall number of comparisons is impressive, and L. is able to illuminate many Homeric passages as a result. Chapter 6 expands the discussion to themes pertaining to the Trojans, who in L’s analysis become responsible for their own destruction. For example, Dolon is presented as an important illuminator of Hector’s shortcomings. Chapter 7 describes the triangulation of Achilles and other heroes by Zeus, Athena and Apollo in the context of Ugaritic myths. In L.’s analysis, the Iliad becomes an apocalyptic vision of Troy’s destruction at the hands of the Greeks, with Aeneas serving as a Noah/Lot figure. L. makes extended comparison of Athena and Anat and sees substantial contacts between the Greeks and peoples to the East. A conclusion sums up L.’s analyses and arguments.

The strongest contribution of the book, in my opinion, is the light shed on scenes traditionally considered problematic. Examples are the teichoskopia of book 3, analyzed in chapter 2, and the attack on the wall around the Greek camp in book 12, analyzed in chapter 3. Both are odd scenes to appear towards the end of a war of this duration. In the former case, L. argues that Helen is made to foreshadow Andromache in book 22 through the use of repeated vocabulary to call attention to the similarity (pages 53, 55, 60-63 and notes). In the latter example, the wall becomes both symbolic of the apocalyptic vision of Troy’s fall, which L. sees as central to the Iliad, and a mini-version of the tripartite structure which L. argues for the poem as a whole (pages 92-94 and notes).

But most striking analyses are probably the arguments in chapter 4 regarding the duals in book 9 and the Lay of Dolon in book 10. In the first, L. argues that books 1, 9, and 19 all contain the theme of “Agamemnon dispatches Odysseus to lead a delegation that includes two heralds to return a companion dear to Achilleus.” The two embassies in book 1 resemble the embassy in 9, and the formulae, laden with duals, influence the language in book 9. To make this analysis work, L. argues that Talthybios in book 1 and Talthybios in book 9 are not different people and, somewhat oddly, that the real purpose of the embassy in book 9 is to deliver Phoenix to Achilles, as the embassies in book 1 had been to deliver Chryseis (pages 120-27 and notes). In his discussion of Dolon, L. argues that the themes, if not the language, in the passage are integral to the structure of the Iliad as parodic parallels to books 2 and 18: both contain Trojan assemblies, Thersites and Dolon parody Achilles, Odysseus exhorts the Greeks in each book, etc. (pages 138-46 and notes).

The cumulative effect of L.’s thematic analyses helps him make the persuasive argument for a unified structure of the Iliad. In the second half of the book, the same cumulative effect makes the Near Eastern comparisons well worth consideration.


1. Keith Stanley, The Shield of Homer: Narrative Structure in the Iliad (Princeton 1993); Seth L. Schein, “The Iliad : Structure and Interpretation,” in Ian Morris and Barry Powell, edd., A New Companion to Homer (Leiden 1997) 345-59, quotations from 350-51.