BMCR 2008.10.06

“… et recouvre d’une montagne leur cité!” La fin du monde des héros dans les épopées homériques. Hypomnemata, 169

, "--et recouvre d'une montagne leur cité!" : la fin du monde des héros dans les épopées homériques. Hypomnemata, Bd. 169. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. 295 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9783525252802. €78.90.

For all their unity of plot—the kind so exuberantly praised by Aristotle—the Homeric epics nonetheless allude to (and sometimes suppress) a wider mythological tradition. As its title indicates, R.’s monograph examines a particular aspect of this tradition, and in doing so expands upon arguments previously laid down by Scodel and Slatkin (amongst others).1 R. is particularly interested in the interactions of mortals and gods, and the monograph, which is a revision of the dissertation she wrote at the Université de Genève, proposes that there occurs over the course of the two epics an evolution resulting both in the gods’ withdrawal from personal associations with mortals and in human beings’ understanding of their limited position—in other words, an ‘ancient’ regime is replaced by a ‘new’ one and the world of heroes is brought to an end. This crude sketch does not do justice to the depth of her literary analyses, which offer many intriguing interpretations of Homeric heroism, society, and religion, but despite the valuable insights contained in its arguments, the work as a whole struggles to uphold its lofty schematization.

In the first chapter, which comprises an extended discussion of the quarrel in Iliad 1 and 9, R. argues that Achilles’ withdrawal reflects a belief that, as a demigod, he is equal to Agamemnon and that he is entitled to a unique honor. By distinguishing between the timê of a warrior and that of a basileus, R.’s terminology neatly encapsulates the essence of the quarrel, but she goes further in positing a third, divine timê, which Agamemnon enjoys by virtue of his position and which Achilles equally seeks to attain in his request (via Thetis) to Zeus. For R., Achilles’ relationship with Zeus is ‘personal’, as opposed to, for example, the ‘ritual’ relationship with Apollo that Chryses enjoys, but there are crucial differences: unlike Apollo, Achilles’ anger cannot be ritually appeased until the timê he yearns to enjoy as a preeminent warrior is recognized. The need for recognition explains the failure of the embassy in Book 9: for R., Achilles interprets the presence of his friends in Agamemnon’s service, not to mention the basileus’ generosity, as a mark that there has been no change in regard and that Agamemnon persists in treating him as an inferior (80). Thus, Achilles persists in his withdrawal. The failure of ‘ritual’ means to appease this anger, Achilles’ relationship to Zeus, as well as his attachment to a kind of timê that is not widely recognized, all suggest to R. his attachment to an ‘ancient’ world order that either does not exist or only existed in the past.

The second chapter contains the heart of the book’s argument. Taking up the work of Slatkin on Thetis, R. argues that Zeus’ nostalgia for their personal history reflects an early, unstable mythological stage of his cosmic regime. For not only was Zeus subject to threats from the other Olympians, but Thetis herself also represented a threat to his rule, inasmuch as an Achilles fathered by Zeus (according to Isthmian 8 and Prometheus Bound, at least) was fated to overthrow him. The threat of further succession links the Olympians’ insubordination and the danger that Zeus’ liaisons present for his regime in the Iliad : for R., it is Hera’s anger at her husband’s philandering (specifically, the favor he grants Thetis) that clashes with her personal hatred of Troy and underlies her resistance.

Here we come to the centerpiece of R.’s argument, which consists of an analysis of the Dios apatê. R. argues that the episode constitutes a gateway to a new cosmic order. The state of Hera and Zeus’ marriage becomes an image of the state of the cosmos: all of Hera’s complaints, the threat of rebellion they pose, as well as the punishments that she and her supporters endure all revolve around what she feels are her rights both as spouse and as a daughter of Cronus. R.’s thesis is that this ‘ancient’ regime (which is defined by philandering, divine involvement in mortal affairs, and the threat of succession) is drawn to a close by the Dios apatê, an argument she bases largely on the catalogue of past liaisons offered by Zeus (14.315-28). For R., the list is a priamel comprising a vow of future fidelity (112ff.), and the union that follows appears as a hieros gamos resulting in a new world order. So while Zeus is angry with his wife upon waking (15.16ff.), in return for fidelity he gains her obedience (or at least her acceptance of his will). The ‘new’ regime appears in Zeus’ subsequent plan (15.59-77), which unites the promise made to Thetis in Book 1 with Hera’s desire for the destruction of Troy, and reveals as well Zeus’ own desire to destroy the race of heroes: Achilles’ withdrawal, Patroclus’ death, and the slaughter of Hector coalesce to bring about Achilles’ honor as well as pave the way for the destruction of Troy and the end of the demigods.

The second half of the chapter’s argument describes the new regime created out of the Dios apatê. R. demonstrates how Zeus’ new bond with Hera results in an increasing distance from mortals and other divinities, divine sympathy for humans, and Achilles’ ultimate acceptance of his mortality. The privileged, ‘personal’ connection by means of which Achilles gained his request for timê disappears in his prayer for Patroclus (16.236ff.), as does the influence of Thetis, who reappears later in the epic only as a grieving mother. Zeus’ disaffection further manifests itself as he leaves Sarpedon—at Hera’s urging—to his mortal fate, and Achilles himself comes to recognize his mortal station and the sufferings proper to it though his interaction with Priam (though he first quests for glory, nearly dying at the river-god’s hands and descending to unspeakable savagery). This new order is characterized by the separation of mortals and immortals—the latter recognizing their limits, the former no longer personally involved. Achilles’ recognition of his mortal limitations symbolizes one end of the race of heroes.

In the third chapter, R. turns to the Odyssey and contrasts the relenting of divine anger against Odysseus with the situation of the Iliad. By means of a binary of good (e.g. αἴσιμος, δίκαιος, θέμις, νόος, θεουδής) and bad qualities (e.g. ἀτάσθαλος, ὑβριστής, ἄγριος, ἀθέμιστος), R. distinguishes Odysseus from Hector, Achilles, and the various ‘reckless’ figures in the Odyssey. Odysseus’ mental capacities and his understanding of his mortal station allow him to survive while the others suffer death. The most interesting aspect of the argument is the use of near-eastern parallels: taking up the argument of Scodel, R. finds parallels for the divine anger against Odysseus in near-eastern deluge-myths, but points out that Odysseus, unlike Gilgamesh or Utnapishtim, rejects immortality outright. For R., the flood-motif brings the heroic world (or ‘ancient’ regime) to an end and brings Odysseus to a new, mortal existence with which he is at peace, where the gods’ involvement in human matters is limited by ritual and the anger which characterized the ‘ancient’ regime ceases.

The arguments contained in the book are many and complex, and this reviewer regrets that the preceding summary, despite its length, unavoidably compresses them. This limitation is all the more regrettable since these provocative analyses are the book’s real strength. R.’s readings of the quarrel and of Achilles’ desire for recognition as an equal are both carefully developed and so well in tune with the text that they almost seem self-evident. In particular, the argument about Achilles as a staunch defender of the heroic code (75-85) deserves the attention of all who would argue for the hero’s disillusionment.2 R.’s literary analysis is at its best when tracing parallels and parsing their significance. So she compares Chryses’ prayer to Apollo and Achilles’ request to Zeus at great length (49ff.), demonstrating the two mortals’ contrasting relationships to the divine and the timê each receives in return. The third chapter’s discussions of Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus’ respective responses to divine favor (or the lack thereof) also tidily encapsulate their attitudes toward the gods, especially as productive of the ends they respectively meet; and so too is its analysis of the near-eastern deluge-motif, while grounded in established scholarship, similarly insightful in pointing out important differences in how the Odyssey handles the end of the race of heroes. The questions raised by her analyses regularly deserve further attention.

The major criticism of the book lies in a single interpretive objection: R.’s analysis regularly crosses the line from explicating the poems’ allusions to a mythological tradition of ‘ancient regime gives way to new’ or ‘end of the world of heroes’ and goes so far as to have them actually inform the poems. By the end of the book, for example, she proposes that the Iliad and Odyssey are the two parts of a cosmogonic poem (276ff.). But despite the insights of the book’s individual analyses, this larger, schematizing argument remains unconvincing. The case of the apatê Dios is most striking: since this episode is the hinge upon which R.’s thesis concerning the end of an ‘ancient’ regime depends, its success is critical to the work as a whole. Initially, R. outlines well the source of Hera’s dissent in Zeus’ philandering and failure to respect her rights as spouse, and also how the tradition of succession and the previous punishments doled out by Zeus lend cosmic weight to the situation. The aftermath, which R. interprets as invoking the hieros gamos of Heaven and Earth, is also well argued. But Homer is not Vergil, and the problem rears its head with respect to the significance of the Dios apatê in the epic itself. For even if one accepts R.’s argument that Zeus’ catalogue of mistresses (14.315-28) constitutes an oath that Hera will be the sole object of his affections in the future, one is hard pressed to see how this constitutes a transition away from the ‘ancient’ regime within the narrative. For one thing, Zeus is motivated only inasmuch as he is overwhelmed by Hera’s appropriation of Aphrodite’s charms. The poet may very well be anticipating or outlining a ‘new’ relationship between the two, but there is no indication that Zeus has anything other than fulfilling his desire in mind. For a change of such cosmic significance, it lacks motivation and is only allusively marked in the narrative. Furthermore, the suggestion that the scene marks a transition away from the ‘ancient’ regime strikes me as unlikely since Hera’s intentions are to undermine Zeus’ will—in precisely the fashion of that ‘ancient’ regime! Even R. admits that ” [l’union] est le résultat d’une ruse d’Héra et dissimule mal l’hostilité de celle-ci envers Zeus” (115). Others who are more accepting of subtlety in Homer may disagree, but the transition on which R. focuses appears unmarked for the kind of prominence her schematizing thesis demands, and moreover, is actually inconsistent with the thrust of the scene.

The need to demonstrate how divine anger is characteristic of the ‘ancient’ regime also complicates the larger argument: R. refers to the colère de Zeus in the Iliad (52ff.), but this is a bit of a misnomer: the anger of which she writes is actually the wrath of Achilles, into which she has collapsed an anger of Zeus. But Zeus’ willingness to agree to Achilles’ request does not imply that he is angry or that his anger ” évolue parallèlement à celle d’Achille” (55). What is more, by R.’s own admission, the anger and appeasement of Apollo in Book 1 is more characteristic of the ‘new’ regime, where ritual means provide the basis for mortal interaction with the divine. The third chapter capably treats the relenting of divine anger as characteristic of the ‘new’ regime in the Odyssey, but the discussion of an earlier stage in the Iliad is vexed and would be better limited to Hera’s yearning for the destruction of Troy. R.’s schema for the transition from old to new falters: while the individual analyses succeed in tracing the poet’s numerous allusions to a larger mythological tradition, they fail to demonstrate that the allusions rigorously inform the structure of the poems at a larger level. The Iliad is simply too complex.

Further criticisms are less pressing. For one thing, the work is disproportionately concerned with the Iliad; less than a quarter of the volume pertains to the Odyssey, and even then much of the discussion is comparative. The impact of this imbalance on the argument as a whole is cause for concern. So too could individual arguments be adjusted for length: the importance of the second chapter, for example, is belied by the comparable length of the first and third chapters, which comprise the buildup and denouement to the central argument. Similarly, while R. has meticulously organized the work, the abundance of sections and subsections is at times distracting.

The above criticisms do not detract from the overall strength of the volume, which both addresses and raises many questions into particular aspects of Homeric heroism, society, and religion. The book will be of obvious value to scholars interested in the epics’ tendency towards allusion (and suppression) of a wider sphere of mythological material. Its analyses are literary and based firmly in the epics and mythological tradition, and even if the larger argument falls short of its mark, the work nonetheless provides a rich investigation of how the epics invoke the tradition of the disappearance of the heroes, and will be most useful for subsequent studies.


1. Scodel, Ruth, “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction.” HSCP 86 (1982): 33-50; Slatkin, Laura, The Power of Thetis: Allusion and Interpretation in the Iliad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

2. Given the mass of bibliography on Homer, it is unfair to complain about minor shortcomings in this respect, but R.’s argument on timê treads on such familiar ground that it would benefit from references to Wilson, Donna F., Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad. Cambridge: CUP, 2002 (37ff.), and as against Achilles’ disillusionment, from reference to Gill, Christopher, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy, and Philosophy: The Self in Dialogue. Oxford: OUP, 1996 (125ff.).