BMCR 2011.08.25

Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East

, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. vii, 356. ISBN 9780521768207. $99.00.


We do not possess much additional Greek material that in terms of date and/or narrative scope can be compared with the Iliad and Odyssey. To shed light on these otherwise singular texts, the comparatist can attend to the literatures of neighboring ancient Near Eastern cultures. Happily, this interpretative move is one that Homerists make regardless of their stance on Homeric poetry’s place on the orality/literacy spectrum. Bruce Louden’s proposal to investigate the (sub)genres of myth in the Odyssey by looking to their manifestations in ancient Near Eastern texts is, then, a sensible one. The result is an engaging book that furthers our understanding of the interactions between the Homeric and ancient Near Eastern traditions and teaches us a great deal about the Odyssey. It will be of use to all Homerists, especially those already involved in this comparative effort, and should encourage those who have yet to enter the comparative fray to do so. In the second half of his 2006 book, The Iliad: Structure, Myth, and Meaning (The Johns Hopkins UP), Louden reads the Iliad against the Hebrew Bible and Ugaritic myth. He now turns his comparatist’s eye to the Odyssey. The majority of the book’s thirteen chapters direct us to certain passages in the Hebrew Bible, and the following summary starts with those chapters. In the theoxenies of Genesis 18 and 19, Chapter 2 finds a partner for the theoxenic motif so prevalent in the Odyssey. Reading the Odyssey as a romance, Chapter 3 detects elucidating parallels in Genesis’s account of Joseph. Chapter 4 aligns Helen’s entertaining a disguised Odysseus in Troy during the war with Rahab’s housing Joshua’s spies. The chapter then goes on to assert that Jacob’s wrestling with a god provides the most apt parallel for Menelaos’ tussling with Proteus. Chapter 6 turns to Jacob’s marriage to Rachel in considering the Odyssey ’s relationship to Argonautic myth. Chapter 7 usefully compares and contrasts Odysseus’ travels and Jonah’s travails. Chapter 10 argues that the episode on Thrinakia—their leader absent, Odysseus’ men disobey his order not to eat Helios’ cattle—should be compared with what unfolds at the foot of Mount Sinai—Moses absent, the Israelites construct an idol in violation of the second commandment. In Chapter 11, we learn that some of the negative characteristics assigned to the suitors appear in descriptions of impious men in, for example, 2 Kings, Psalms, and Proverbs. Louden makes uses of other ancient Near Eastern texts as well, above all Gilgamesh. Chapter 5 shows how Kalypso and Ishtar can be profitably juxtaposed, and Chapter 8 does the same for Polyphemos and Humbaba. Louden also discusses the New Testament. The title of Chapter 12, for instance, offers the following equation: “Odysseus and Jesus: The king returns, unrecognized and abused in his kingdom.” I do not mean to give the impression that Louden didactically segregates the comparative material. Chapter 1 surveys divine councils in the Odyssey, the Ugaritic Aqhat and Kirta, Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, the Iliad, and the Babylonian Atrahasis. The first section of Chapter 5 brings together Odysseus, Genesis’s Adam, and Gilgamesh ’s Enkidu to argue that motifs associated with creation myths figure in the depiction of Odysseus on Kalypso’s Ogygia. In exploring Odysseus’ trip to the underworld, Chapter 9 ranges far and wide and showcases Louden’s willingness to call on much later texts where appropriate: 1 Samuel, Aeneid 6, Plato’s Republic (the allegory of the cave), Cicero’s de Republica (“Scipio’s Dream”), the Book of Revelation, and still others make an appearance. Chapter 13’s comparative analysis of the deaths of Odysseus’ crew, the Phaiakian sailors, and the suitors examines other episodes in which a divinity punishes or threatens to punish mortals’ transgressions with death: the discussion draws on the Hebrew Bible (especially Exodus 32 and Genesis 18-19) but also looks at the Ugaritic Baal Cycle and the New Testament. Louden’s comparative project thus tackles the major characters, episodes, and themes of the Odyssey. Throughout, Louden is solicitous of his readers, ensuring that we know the who, what, when, where, and why of the compared stories. Most Homerists will appreciate being told these basic facts about the ancient Near Eastern episodes, and such review aids Louden in presenting clearly the connections between the stories and their characters.

The web of connections that Louden weaves, or seeks to untangle, can be quite dense, and readers will have a greater appreciation for Louden’s efforts if they are aware beforehand of two interpretative strategies that he often adopts. First, Louden routinely explores the different ways that a traditional episode can unfold. For instance, in addressing scenes of recognition in the Odyssey and in the story of Joseph, we need to be aware of the various shapes such scenes can take: “Are both parties ignorant of each other’s identities, or just one? How long does it take before the other member learns the protagonist’s identity? Does the scene take place before the protagonist has regained his identity, or after? Which family member takes part in the recognition scene?” (73; cf. 203). With these questions in mind, we can make precise, calibrated comparisons as we detect how specific scenes of recognition overlap and differ from one another. Second, Louden regularly details intersections at the level of individual motifs and/or at the level of the narratologist’s story—the events of the tale extracted from their arrangement in the presentation of the tale and listed in chronological order.1 For instance, the discussion of Polyphemos and Humbaba finds thirteen points of contact, including “3. The monster’s face is distinguished by some unusual physical feature. … 7. The hero wounds or slays the monster by stabbing it. 8. The hero despoils the monster of the item with which he is most closely identified (flocks, cedars). 9. The hero’s defeat of the monster brings him fame” (184). This meticulous collating reveals the marked extent of the parallelism and at the same time allows for a nuanced comparison.

Louden’s comparisons prove their worth in two ways. First, Louden reveals the Odyssey ’s connections with the literary artifacts of the ancient Near East when it comes to embedded and often quite extensive narrative structures. Second, that which the Homerist will perhaps most appreciate: Louden’s analyses enhance our understanding of the Odyssey. Suppose we have an apparently peculiar detail in a given episode. If we find another or a similar version of that episode elsewhere, and if we find the same detail in this other account, then we have taken a significant step in explaining that detail’s role in our original scene: it is a traditional and expected part of this sort of episode. Accordingly, Louden observes that Odysseus’ kertomia directed at his father in Odyssey 24 “is closely paralleled in Joseph’s treatment of his brothers in their recognition scene” (90). Alkinoos’ seemingly abrupt and hasty offer of Nausikaa’s hand in marriage to Odysseus “is just what happens…in the OT [Old Testament] betrothal type-scenes” (142). In prompting the suitors to abuse Odysseus, Athena resembles Exodus’s Yahweh who increases Pharaoh’s stubbornness in the face of the plagues (see 251-52). We ought not be perplexed when in Odyssey 20 Theoklymenos sees, among other disturbing signs, an eclipse and then predicts the suitors’ deaths: “An eclipse is a standard feature in OT prophecies of the apocalyptic destruction of the Day of Judgment” (291-92). Such insights abound in this study.

What is more, Louden’s book continues to refine the Homeric comparative project as a whole in three ways. First, the relationship Louden detects between the Hebrew Bible and the Odyssey is for the most part genealogical, not historical.2 He imagines some sort of common source used by, not direct, purposeful contact between, Greek and Israelite cultures (see, e.g., 11 and 121). But finding numerous and close connections between the Odyssey and Genesis, Louden hypothesizes “that the Odyssey, in some form, served as a model for individual parts of Genesis (particularly the myth of Joseph)” (324). Indeed—and this is the point I wish to stress—Louden reminds us that the transmission of motifs and tales was not solely westward: “Greek myth should be seen in a dialogic relation with Near Eastern myth, with influence running in both directions, during several different eras” (12). As another example of how Louden notes the possibility of movement eastward from Greece, I cite his speculation on a Greek origin for stories about a man wrestling a god (see 121). I hasten to add, however, that, although he ponders the matter in the book’s Conclusion, Louden is not really concerned with the actual mechanisms of transmission. His exercise is a heuristic one: “the main reason I adduce OT myths is because their parallels provide a tool for our understanding and interpretation of Homeric epic” (11). Second, Louden reaffirms the value of comparing Homeric epic with non-epic literature from the ancient Near East. After all, the Hebrew Bible may contain elements associated with epic or even epic material but is not itself epic. Nonetheless, comparatists need not fear connecting the text with Homeric epic. If we insist on comparing Homeric poetry only with that which we precariously define as epic, we shall deny ourselves access to a wealth of useful data. Third, I return to a point mentioned above. Louden consistently notes when different versions of the same episode, myth, or story pattern do different things (see, e.g., 176). This flexibility in his analytical program is most welcome, for the comparatist should delve into the discrepancies along with the convergences.

In a work of such scope, one will inevitably find a few things with which to quibble. Not every proposed parallel will command assent. For instance, I cannot see my way to connecting Jacob’s sons’ “use of deception, having the Hivites circumcised to incapacitate them” with “the Greeks sacking Troy by deception and trickery with the Trojan Horse” (103). Granted, Louden labels it “a rough parallel” and in the next sentence writes, “Jacob’s sons not only have the element of surprise, as do the Greeks, but the Hivites are already incapacitated, unlike the Trojan warriors.” In other words, Louden is aware of the differences between the scenes. In this case, however, the “roughness” of the parallel may render it too tenuous a match. I felt only once that the argument suffered from a lack of engagement with previous scholarship. Louden contends, “The destruction of the suitors is required as a form of societal justice” (315; cf. 300). I would have enjoyed seeing Louden explicitly address here the idea found elsewhere in Homeric scholarship that the Odyssey feels compelled to work vigorously to depict the suitors as deserving of death.3 These are minor bumps along an otherwise exceptionally pleasant journey. Louden has performed a great service with his thorough comparative undertaking.


1. Louden’s use of this reading procedure will be familiar to fans of his two previous books on Homeric epic. In addition to the 2006 book mentioned above, Hopkins UP also published Louden’s The Odyssey: Structure, Narration, and Meaning in 1999.

2. On genealogical versus historical comparative methods, see Gregory Nagy, “The Epic Hero,” in John Miles Foley, ed., A Companion to Ancient Epic (Blackwell Publishing 2005), 71-89 at 72.

3. See esp. William G. Thalmann, The Swineherd and the Bow: Representations of Class in the “Odyssey” (Cornell UP 1998): see, e.g., 127-28, 177, and 179. To be sure, Thalmann’s book is noted in Louden’s bibliography.