BMCR 2008.01.25

A Referential Commentary and Lexicon to Homer, Iliad VIII

, A referential commentary and lexicon to Iliad VIII. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (viii, 515 pages).. ISBN 9780191568664 £80.00.

The Great Divide between the oralists and scripsists is becoming increasingly outmoded, since both approaches to the riddling conundrum of Homeric poetry have started being more tolerant to the other side of Homeric criticism. This is not to say, that there is a general consensus regarding the question of oral traditional poetry versus the poetic genius of a monumental composer, but it is fair to say that, with the exception of a few extremist aficionados, hard-core oralists or scripsists are happily dwindling in number. Such a sense of promise lies beneath this referential commentary in which the author “seeks to show that traditional referentiality may fruitfully be applied to Homeric narrative as an aid to both higher and textual criticism” (17).

The book is divided into four chapters. It also includes two appendixes, bibliography, and four indexes (two of elements in English and Greek, one of qualities, and one of passages).

The first chapter (“Text and Referential Apparatus”, 18-43) includes the text of Iliad 8 and, in the facing pages, a referential apparatus. The apparatus is constructed on the basis not of textual variants but of narrative units, which are given by name and significance. Both text and referential apparatus function as the first part of a four-fold commentary and should be read in parallel to the equivalent narrative units exposed in chapter two, the narrative lexicon in chapter three, and (in certain cases) the textual discussions in chapter four. The advantage of this approach is significant: by studying the Homeric text in the light of a referential apparatus, the reader is able to have access both to the immediate nexus of associations created by the narrative unraveling within Iliad 8 and also to the wider, traditional spectrum of references triggered by the knowledge of the function of a given narrative unit within Homeric epic at large.

In chapter two (“Commentary”, 44-66), K. describes the unfolding of the plot in Iliad 8 by following the sequential display of narrative units along a referential line. K. deliberately avoids the traditional, oral dichotomy between formulas and themes, and incorporates both terms in what he calls narrative units. Although at first sight this chapter may seem like a detailed summary of Book 8, it is much more than that. By almost reenacting for the modern reader what a member of an archaic audience would have brought to a performance of Homeric epic, K. offers, through a detailed but also reader-friendly referential system, a panorama of associations. In this way, chapter two tries to reproduce for the modern readers the vast range of interconnections and correlations of any given narrative chunk as they are revealed while the plot is being unfolded. This is an important advantage over traditional commentaries, where the reader focussing on details runs the risk of loosing an overall perspective.

Chapter three (“Lexicon”, 67-377) forms the core of the book. K. tries to map out for the modern reader the entire thematic landscape created by the traditional referentiality of Homeric narrative units. He organizes his material in 221 entries and studies each attestation of the same narrative unit in the entire Iliad. A couple of examples will make evident the sheer advantages of this approach. Item 53 (p. 152) of the Lexicon refers to the narrative unit “deviser[s] of rout [ μέστωρε φόβοιο ]”. By studying all the attestations of this expression in the Iliad, K. is able to identify its deep structure from the point of view of the narrative, i.e. that “the expression…denotes another character or thing who or which will be prominent in the immediately ensuing narrative” (152) and that in the context of Iliad 8 “the point is to foreshadow the reactivated chariot attack and remind the audience of Diomedes’ overriding concern in this passage of fighting” (152). In Kirk’s commentary this point is completely missed.1

Chapter four (“Textual Discussion”, 378-409) is devoted to the discussion of textual problems. K. sets out by explaining how traditional referentiality may be used to solve textual problems. He critically reviews the basic theories concerning Homeric textual criticism and argues that variation in the paradosis cannot be the result only of oral transmission. At the same time, K. states that, methodologically, the assumption of an Urtext by means of either Janko’s dictation theory or West’s autograph does not escape the circular reasoning characterizing Nagy’s performance multiformity (383). K. attempts to by-pass the problem of endorsing any given genetic model and attempts to establish the “the potential authenticity of any given reading, that is, its compatibility” (384). I am afraid that I cannot see the real difference between his approach and Nagy’s Despite his constant disclaimers, the very idea of “the potential authenticity of any given reading” seems to me to eliminate the very concept of textual transmission, which is, after all, about authenticity, and authenticity (at least in my mind) cannot be potential. In other words, I cannot see the purpose of searching whether a given reading would be the sort of thing a traditional poet would have produced, especially since K. has previously argued that “variation cannot be a priori a matter only of oral transmission”. Nagy has not argued that every single varia lectio is the result of oral transmission. Since post-Aristarchean variae lectiones belong to the last phase in Nagy’s evolutionary model towards the crystallization of Homeric epic,2 they do not stem from oral transmission. In this light, K.’s “potential authenticity” of any varia lectio seems to be a different version (or even formulation) of Nagy’s view that all textual variants have at some point been heard during a performance of Homeric poetry and so are (in this sense) all authentic.

Another relevant problem concerns the fact that K. fails to combine traditional referentiality with immediate referentiality, which is determined by context-specific parameters. For example, in p. 393, with respect to verse 8.198, K. discusses ὃς φάτ’ ἐπευχόμενος, which is not attested in 8.198 by the paradosis but is partly attested in Iliad 5.106 and 20.393 (and also in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo 370). He then criticizes Muellner, who reads (in 5.106 and 20.393) ὃς φάτ’ ἐπευχόμενος instead of ὃς ἔφατο εὐχόμενος, which is adopted in every single edition of the Iliad. But K. fails to observe and note that “immediate referentiality” favors Muellner’s reading in both 5.106 and 20.393, since in 5.119 Diomedes, in his prayer to Athena, describes Pandaros’ previous speech with the verb ἐπεύξεται, and likewise in 20.388 the narrator refers to Achilles’ ensuing speech with the verb ἐπηύξατο. The same contextual parameters are at work in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, where Apollo’s speech is introduced by ἐπηύξατο (362) and capped by ὃς φάτ’ ἐπευχόμενος (370), i.e. just as it is the case with Iliad 20.388 and 20.393 respectively.

The book can hardly be read from beginning to end, since it is truly multileveled. For example, in order to see what K. has to say about a given verse or group of verses, readers need (a) to have a good look at the way the text is type-faced (chapter one), (b) to read the equivalent part of the Commentary (chapter 2), (c) to plunge into the systematic and thorough analysis offered in the Lexicon (chapter 3), and last (d) to look for textual problems in the last chapter (4). There is a constant and well-organized effort to facilitate this process by using a whole system of internal references, which guide the reader from chapter one to the relevant parts of the other chapters. The reader needs to spend some time familiarizing himself with the structure of this work and the various symbols employed to lead him through the paths of this commentary. But once he has done that, the benefit is worth the effort. A whole thesaurus of motifs and narrative patterns are at his disposal, as if he was able to watch not just the end product but also the very process of Homeric composition. In a nutshell, he is virtually plunged into a universe of narrative associations, into the variegated tapestry of Homeric song.

The whole enterprise concludes with two appendixes, (A) on some speech introductory formulae, and (B) on Athene, Here, and divine stasis in Iliad VIII. Both appendixes are very useful. In the first K. shows that “metrical or structural interchangeability demonstrates neither semantic equivalence nor vacuity” (421) and so the truth lies somewhere between the scripsists, who have argued that speech introductory formulas are anything but deprived of meaning, and the oralists, who have shown that “it is only because of the oral tradition that these expressions have the meaning they do, and afford both the poet and audience the possibilities they do” (421). In the second, K. rejects the theory of divine comedy as valid for the interpretation of the divine stasis in Iliad VIII, rightly arguing that, since Athene is a source of tension between Zeus and Hera, the Trojan War, “this particular instantiation of the ever-present Dios boule, was just as loaded with implications for the kosmos as any other” (425).

The book is nicely printed and basically free of errors. It is a fruitful project and no doubt some of the insights of K. will be used and discussed in other works of Homeric scholarship. It is a step forward from previous commentaries on Iliad 8, and Homeric scholars will definitely need to consult it, even if they are not working on book 8. The Lexicon (chapter three) is the best feature of this commentary, while I feel somehow frustrated about the textual transmission principles adopted by the author in chapter four. The overall impression is clearly positive and the author has to be praised for the wealth of information he has put at our disposal, even if I have a few quibbles about the textual discussion in chapter four, where more philological engagement would have benefited the whole undertaking.


1. G.S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. II (Books 5-8). Cambridge 1990, pp. 87-88 ad loc.

2. G. Nagy, Poetry as performance: Homer and beyond. Cambridge 1996, p. 110.