BMCR 2009.06.36

Homer’s Cosmic Fabrication: Choice and Design in the Iliad. American Philological Association, American Classical Studies 52

, Homer's Cosmic Fabrication: Choice and Design in the Iliad. American Philological Association, American Classical Studies 52. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xvi, 254. ISBN 9780195341072. $74.00.

In this study Heiden offers a sophisticated and competent analysis of the Iliad. Building on observations he published in previous articles, he develops his ideas step by step until he reaches a comprehensive description of the narrative structure of the poem. Not all readers will follow him all way through (the present reader for instance not), but most will have to admit that his procedure is systematic and as such intellectually challenging.

In critical dialogue with Oliver Taplin and Keith Stanley, Heiden first returns to his argument from 19961 for an Iliad in three ‘movements’ (here called ‘cycles’) — books 1-8, 9-15, and 16-24. Since the beginning and end of the poem, books 1 and 24, are characterized by Achilles and Zeus respectively making important decisions, he looks for similar beginnings and ends in the course of the poem and finds them in book 8 (Zeus making a decision), 9 (Achilles), 15 (Zeus), and 16 (Achilles). This leads to a reading of the poem as a story in which the plot, as Heiden states with a reference to Thomas Pavel, is developed by characters making choices followed by actions; but often characters do not achieve their intended goal, and, whereas some scenes are of high consequence for further action, others are not. In the ‘overarching event trajectory’, the junctions of low-consequence and high-consequence scenes occur exactly at the pauses between books, and Heiden considers the division into books just as reliable as the one into lines.

The three cycles are of unequal length, counted in books. However, the last book in each cycle refers to the corresponding first book (book 8 to 1, 15 to 9, and 24 to 16), and with the exception of the middle cycle the next to last book refers to the second (book 7 to 2 and book 23 to 17) and the third to last to the third (book 6 to 3 and book 22 to 18). This ‘synairesis’ may consist of parallels between events as well as between themes, and, from the first occurrence to the next, transformations take place. Furthermore, books that occupy parallel positions in the three cycles (books 1, 9, and 16, 2, 10, and 17, etc.) are linked by the same kind of synairesis. In this way the later books are connected to former ones by an ever increasing system of references backwards. Book 24 refers back to book 16 because they are last and first in cycle III, but it also refers back to the last books of the two preceding cycles (book 15 and 8), and of course to book 1, since 24 and 1 are last and first books of the whole poem.

Each book is normally characterized by an ‘event trajectory’ consisting in a problem, leading to a decision and an action, followed by an aftermath (abbreviated P/D-A-A). (Since the problem and the decision to deal with it are frequently narrated together the two elements are treated as one.) To show this all 24 books are briefly summarized, after which the organizing system is demonstrated with regard to selected examples: in cycle I the relationship between books 3 and 6, 2 and 7, and 1 and 8, and across the cycles between books 1 and 9, as well as between books 8 and 15. In addition, ‘thematic trajectories’ are identified, and the analysis moves back and forth between ‘aerial surveys’ and interpretations. Towards the end, book 24 and the shield of Achilles in book 18 receive closer attention.

Three reasons for taking the division into books as an integral part of the poem are offered: unity of action in the single books, a consistent principle of how the intermissions between them are made, and the orientation provided by the long narrative being divided into smaller segments. Both this and the demonstration of the tripartite structure of the poem is clearer and more consistently argued than in any previous study and as close to being proved as such things can be.

Heiden’s monograph is intelligent and well-argued, which is not to say that it raises no objections. As is often the case with such very principled analyses the argument is not quite as unambiguous as the author’s presentation implies. First, in order to make the action of all 24 books follow one and the same P/D-A-A trajectory Heiden has to accept so many variations of this pattern that it is sometimes hard to recognize. For instance, in book 5 it occurs five times, with Athena as the agent of the event trajectory in the three first ‘moves’, Apollo in the fourth, and Athena again in the fifth; besides, Athena’s third move (vv. 95-454) is so complicated that it must be schematized in a figure.

Next, Heiden’s assertion that junctions of low-consequence and high-consequence scenes do not occur elsewhere in the poem is contradicted at least by 24.673-81, in which a low-consequence scene (Priam and Achilles going to bed) meets with a high-consequence one (Hermes not falling asleep, but speculating on how to help the old man away from the Greek camp). That the passage is also characterized by some of the other features that typically mark an intermission between books only adds to the problem. However, to a less principled reader, such as the reviewer, Heiden’s description of how the intermissions work is not invalidated if there are points at which a reader or listener is lead to believe that an intermission is approaching, only to realize that it did not occur after all.

The third reason, that the system of ‘marked segments’ (= books) offers helpful orientation for the reader, is evidently true.

To schematize a complex story demands constant decisions of detail. For instance, when is a character an agent and when only an auxiliary? I feel uneasy about some of Heiden’s choices. For instance, in figure 2.2 (p. 40) the event trajectory of book 1.8-348 is shown with first Chryses, next Agamemnon as agents. Here Achilles is made an auxiliary of Agamemnon’s since he is the one to call the assembly in vv. 53 ff. (An ‘auxiliary’ occurs when ” the agents who make a Move from a Problem to an Action make deliberate use of incidentally available characters”, p. 25.) But not only does Agamemnon not make deliberate use of Achilles, but Agamemnon is conspicuously passive in the situation. To readers who allow themselves to transgress the borders of the poem when looking for traditional patterns, it is obvious that in early Greece a commander who faced the problem that his soldiers were dying from plague would be expected to call a seer and find out which god was offended and why. This is what the king does at the beginning of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and in this he acts as a responsible leader would do. That Agamemnon does nothing in the beginning of the Iliad must to a contemporary audience have been a shocking omission, revealing that he was well aware that he might himself be the offender. In this way, an important element is added to the portrait the poem gives of Agamemnon.

Actually, the character who uses Achilles as an auxiliary in this situation is the goddess Hera, which leads to the next critical question: why does she not occur in the figure? Together with Athena, she is the main defender of the Greeks, and as such she is presented with the problem that the men are dying and therefore makes the decision that leads to the action that the assembly is convened. In other connections, Heiden is eager to point to the gods as agents and in fact, when later on this passage is discussed in more detail (pp. 109-10) Hera is given due attention.

Heiden, who is critical of his predecessors’ lack of consistency, draws careful attention to his own more methodical approach. He speaks of his study as an ‘experimental simulation’ in which he follows a ‘heuristic model’, and also more generally prefers terms borrowed from the sciences or newly coined. For instance, he describes his “method of speculation” as follows: “I would frame hypotheses about specific functions of intermissions, and then seek passages in the Iliad that might fulfill those functions, if intermissions occurred there” (p. 4). Presuming that they should cue attention to important themes, he expects intermissions to have three characteristics: they must be functional with respect to a broad spectrum of imaginable audience members, be easily recognizable to them, and considered important by them. Such functions are actually served by the consequential junctures in the epic’s plot as mentioned above.

In this way, the analysis approaches the poem from outside, as it were, with a thoughtful reader as its point of departure and the activity of reading described as a cooperation between reader and text. But in the course of interpretation Heiden grows more and more confident about having understood the poet’s purpose, culminating in the passage about the shield of Achilles (pp. 212-17). Here he underlines how Hephaestus’ work consists in a series of choices, and continues: “The narrator likewise describes the making as he chooses to describe it; and the poet composed the scene as he chose to compose it” (p. 213). Here, again, I feel uneasy. This is either a banality — what else could the poet have done? — or a rhetorical overstatement of how Hephaestus’ procedure is described. The verbs used are simple: the prefix en is combined with etithei (four times), poiese (three times), eteuxe once, and poikille once. In short: of the nine occurrences of a verb only one, poikille suggests anything elaborate, and none of them dwells upon the god’s deliberate choice.

Like Taplin and Stanley, Heiden sets out searching for performance segments, but soon the focus shifts towards a reading public, and Heiden points out how the demonstrated structure works as a useful tool for readers when ‘navigating the poem’. Throughout the rest of his book the question of performance is kept in the background, only to come forcefully back toward the end of the book when Heiden states that the Iliad is the gift of the Muses for which mortals express their thanks when performing the poem, for instance at the Panathenaea. The problem is only touched upon when at a few points Heiden states that the question of reading or listening is unimportant.

The result is a somewhat flickering picture. Not only is the question whether the poem was composed orally or in writing still a current issue, and as such worthy of a more explicit stance, but the status of the text is important for understanding Heiden’s purpose. Are we supposed to read his demonstration of the structure as an abstract and ahistoric investigation or as an argument for how the poet once upon a time chose to make it? The former alternative is explicitly stated, for instance, on p. 4 where Heiden underlines that his investigation does not aim at answering “the historical question of whether the Iliad was actually performed with planned intermissions anywhere”. But in quite a few places the latter argument pops up, as when it is said of the arrangement in books that “its adoption represents a legitimate collaboration with the presumed author of the Iliad” (p. 17; for a similar statement about the three cycles see p. 83).

The main problem is the basic assumption that this way of reading the poem is the only acceptable one. For instance, when an analysis of the various characters’ moves in the overarching event trajectory shows how Zeus’ decisions lead to most of the other moves, Heiden concludes that Zeus is the main agent of the poem and regrets that few other readers have noticed this fact. But Pavel is not the only god in the literary universe, and other points of departure lead to other results, potentially just as methodical and consistent. For instance, if Heiden’s method leads to Zeus being the protagonist, an alternative analysis might instead point to Achilles, whose project, the vindication of his honour, constitutes the major thread of action, and who is the character that undergoes the most important transformations during the course of events. Both interpretations, it could be argued, are confirmed by the prologue of the poem.

Heiden has given his chapter on book 24 the title “Homeric sublimity” (pp. 187-210), and opens it with a reference to Longinus. Even though the ancient critic does not actually refer to this Homeric book, most readers would immediately agree that it would do well as an example of sublimity. However, that this characteristic should consist mainly in the density of subtle cues to antecedents in the preceding books is less immediately evident. For one thing, some of the analogies may seem far-fetched, such as the assertion that when Priam receives divine help to crossing the battlefield it recalls other examples of Zeus helping the Trojan army cross the battlefield in books 8 and 15, the two preceding books that like 24 end a cycle. The mere fact that no fighting takes place during Priam’s journey makes the situation too different to be felt as an analogy; this is of course my personal, subjective, reaction, just as Heiden’s opposite feeling is subjective. Furthermore, to continue along the subjective strain, his analysis with its detailed search for antecedents is astonishingly dry, considering the qualities of book 24.

The interest in analogies is, of course, closely related to the old question of how iterations work in Homeric poetry. If Heiden had chosen to restrict himself to the attentive reader’s observations, the status of his results would have been clear-cut, for other readers to take or leave. But as soon as his cooperation with the text leads to assertions about the poet’s purpose, we are up to our ears in problems about how to decide whether an iteration is marked or unmarked, and whether to restrict the analysis to the Iliad or include other archaic poetry as well. An example of the latter choice is to be found in another relatively recent interpretation, John Miles Foley’s.2 Just like Heiden Foley looks for trajectories (called ‘patterns’), but in order to reveal a traditional narrative structure as a tool for better understanding the Iliad. His point of departure, that the poem is close enough to oral tradition to exhibit the ‘traditional, metonymic referentiality’ characteristic of oral poetry, opens up a reading that to me, at least, is much more suggestive of Homeric sublimity than Heiden’s.

The index is not as helpful as it could have been. Often the information given is circumstantial, where simpler references might have served their purpose better (see, for instance, ‘reading’). Especially for the many unfamiliar technical terms, clear references to where definitions are given would have been useful. A special problem is the rationale behind the choice of the few scholars to appear in the index. It is easily understood why Pavel, Taplin, and Stanley are included, since Heiden acknowledges the inspiration he has had from them. But for most of the others the reference is to one single page, often a note, and often one in which Heiden states why he disagrees with the person mentioned. Thus the index is no guide to Heiden’s main predecessors; for instance, Walter Marg, whose interpretation of Achilles’ shield is an important forerunner for the final chapter and mentioned as such in a note, does not appear in the index.

Pedantry apart, Heiden has written an intelligent and well-argued book. To what degree his cosmic fabrication also reveals the poem’s, or even the poet’s, fabrication is a difficult question that I prefer to leave open. But to have published a thought-provoking and new interpretation of the Iliad is in itself no mean achievement.


1. Heiden, Bruce 1996: “The Three Movements of the Iliad.” ( GRBS 37, 5-22.)

2. Foley, John Miles 1991: Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. Pp. 135-89.