BMCR 2010.02.21

Fare gli eroi. Le storie, le emprese, le virtù: composizione e racconto nell’epica greca arcaica. Ricerche / Facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell’Università di Venezia; 54

, Fare gli eroi. Le storie, le emprese, le virtù: composizione e racconto nell'epica greca arcaica. Ricerche / Facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell'Università di Venezia; 54. Padova: Il Poligrafo, 2009. 260. ISBN 9788871156378. €23.00 (pb).

Alberto Camerotto’s book, Fare gli eroi, is a welcome contribution to Homeric studies. As the title points out, by means of a reference contained in the Italian expression “fare gli eroi” (“to play the heroes, or to make the heroes”) to Milman Parry’s The making of Homeric verse (1971), Camerotto wants to reassess the traditional instruments responsible for the constitution of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The result is a detailed and extremely helpful exposition of some aspects concerning the composition and performance of both poems, although Camerotto tends to refrain from taking many of his conclusions further—especially when the meaning of the oral phraseology is involved.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first three constitute the bulk of the work. Chapter 1, “La tradizione delle storie e i canti”, is introductory and proceeds to a classification of the instruments tradition provides the singer with: a. those related to content ( klea andron and oimai), and to performance or singing ( aoide) — as they are indicated by the poems themselves; b. those related to thematic composition, which are called “themes” and “motives”; and finally, c. those related to formulaic epic diction. This first chapter concentrates on the relation between heroic legend, specific narrative “paths” and their execution, leaving topics b. and c. to the following chapters (2 and 3).

Camerotto begins by observing that “premeditation” (“premeditazione”), through which the singer prepares himself to sing but at the same time rethinks his performance, could have resulted, by means of a process of progressive perfectioning, in a fixing of the poems, giving birth to a latent and passive memorization. This process, Camerotto argues, could explain the creation of such long and elaborated epics as the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the formation of texts. This hypothesis, unfortunately, remains a brief speculation, not developed by the author, who discusses in sequence the distinction between saga in general ( klea andron) and the specific arguments chosen to be sung ( oimai). The first one, he explains, is a large repository that can comprehend all poetic (or even non poetic) stories figuring heroic deeds, and it is from this repository that an articulated narrative must be selected. Camerotto gives two examples taken from within the Homeric poetry: Il. 9.524s., where the klea andron mentioned by Phoenix are narrowed towards the cholos of Meleager, and Od. 8.72s., where the narrator, after saying that the Muse compelled Demodocus to sing klea andron, tells us that he proceeded to present the neikos between Odysseus and Achilles. It is precisely this specific articulated narrative that is called oime, whose choice, as Camerotto points out (supported by examples from the Odyssey), depends on the occasion of performance and its audience, and is seen as divinely inspired. The traditional and conventional aspects of these oimai are revealed by their repetitive central topics, which Camerotto indicates as basically four: wrath ( menis/cholos); strife ( neikos/eris); capture, destruction ( halosis/persis); and return ( nostos). Finally, the aoide is, as the author puts it, “la realizzazione concreta di una oime nell’ambito di una singola esecuzione” (p. 31), and changes from performance to performance, with the possibility of having a relevant influence over the oime and transforming it.

In Chapter 2, “La composizione per temi. L’ Aristeia“, Camerotto remarks that themes and motives are structural instruments that helped the traditional singer to compose his song. He suggests the following distinction between theme and motif, acknowledging that it is in part arbitrary: “il tema è una unità di significato che introduce nel racconto un’azione fondamentale, determinando la progressione della vicenda e del racconto… Il tema è una unità articolata, cioè constituita di più motivi o unità di significato minori. La dimensione è variabile in base all’articulazione dei motivi e alla ricchezza dell’ornamentazione” (p. 40); “Il motivo è l’unità significativa minore ed è componente del tema, ovvero i motivi rappresentano la sequenza degli elementi narrativi minimi, che vanno a costituire lo sviluppo della più ampia struttura tematica” (p. 41 ). As examples of the first, he mentions scenes where we find assemblies, battles, divine interventions or sacrifices, and of the second, descriptions of arriving, leaving, arming and banqueting. He proceeds then to the study of the aristeia as “a complex narrative theme”, which he divides into three moments [[sections?]]: I. Preparation of the aristeuon; II. Action during the battle ( mache); and III. The duel ( monomachia) — all of them subdivided into specific motives. This scheme is then employed in the analysis of the Diomedes aristeia (Books 5 and 6 of the Iliad) and the interrupted narration of Agamemnon’s excellence in Book 11.

Chapter 3, “Epiteti eroici: i significati e le azione”, deals with the relations between the fixed adjective and the context in which it appears. Camerotto briefly explains Parry’s theory and his definitions of ornamental, particular, generic and distinctive epithet, and shows the difficulties of considering these adjectives as having an aesthetical meaning. For him, we should not look for contextual meanings, but “macrotextual” ones, as if the epithet were a “reduced motif” or a “reduced theme”. He gives as an example the epithet boen agathos, “good at war cry”: as Camerotto argues, it represents a hero in his “quintessential identity”, no matter the context or the circumstances where it appears, and is meaningful as long as it is connected to the traditional motif of the “war cry” within a thematic and larger narrative. From this “metonymical perspective” (“prospettiva metonimica”), and making use of John M. Foley’s concept of “traditional referentiality”, Camerotto discusses Hector’s epithets, to reach the conclusion that adjectives like androphonos, koruthaiolos, obrimos and pelorios bring “una serie di significati riconducibili alla costruzione tematica dell’ Aristeia” (p. 129).

The last three chapters, dealing with the traditional representation of the boar in relation to heroes (Chapter 4), with the narrative possibilities for a nostos -story (Chapter 5), and with the presence of semata (like Zeus’ teras, Odysseus’ scar, the heroic grave, and writing) within the poems (Chapter 6), seem loosely connected to the rest of the book, inasmuch as they do not concentrate on the technical aspects of composition, and contain only brief discussions (this is specially true of 5 and 6) of these complex topics.

One can easily see, going through Camerotto’s work, the enormous amount of research that is involved in each of his discussions. His bibliography is quite thorough, and all the passages of the Iliad and the Odyssey related to the topics he deals with are mentioned. His exposition is neat and clear, revealing a great gift for didactic writing, and, given this ability, it is a pity that Camerotto’s book is written for the scholar or advanced student. If all his Greek quotations were translated (only a few are), and the footnotes reduced, it could be an excellent introduction—with very good examples—to Homeric oral compositional dynamics.

At the same time, his inclination for collecting and organizing information seems to indicate a kind of discomfort regarding interpretation, as if Camerotto sided with old “Parryism” when he has to deal with the meaning oral instruments can acquire in each text and context. His idea that the epithet is a metonymical presentation of themes or motives is an interesting one, but it seems to me just a reworking of Parry’s theory, not enough to account for specific meanings that are created within the poems when viewed as dramatic unities. Furthermore, Camerotto inexplicably leaves aside the discussion of the aesthetical function that can be ascribed also to themes and motives, restricting himself to a brief footnote (p. 42, n. 17).

Another problem is the lack of a real dialogue with the modern authors he mentions in the footnotes. They show up most of the time only as references, and very seldom are brought to the main text to enlarge and enrich the topic that is being discussed. An example of this is the way Bernard Fenik’s book Typical Battle Scenes (1968), although mentioned several times, is scarcely discussed (in Chapter 2), something unexpected from a work that deals with the aristeia theme and Diomedes’ excellence and wants to explore the oral composition mode. One knows that Fenik’s book, along with his Studies in the Odyssey (1974), is full of clarifying approaches, from which Camerotto would have profited if he had effectively brought them to his analysis. The same can be said, for example, about those works which try to read the epithet in another way (as R. Sacks’ book, mentioned in p. 108, n. 84, and in p. 111, n. 92): they are relegated to footnotes, instead of figuring in the main text, where, if fully discussed, they could even make Camerotto’s point of view stronger.

To sum up, this is an excellent book, which reassesses the old discussion between tradition and invention in Homeric poetry. Camerotto proves to be an attentive and competent reader of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is capable of making a very good exposition of important topics concerning the instruments of oral narrative.