BMCR 2012.02.03

Homer and the Odyssey (originally published 1998)

, , Homer and the Odyssey (originally published 1998). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. vi, 420. ISBN 9780199542857. $45.00 (pb).

A book with so broad a title may give the impression that it is simply an introduction to the Odyssey aimed at the general reader. This is only part of the truth. Suzanne Saïd gives us a sophisticated presentation of the entire panorama of Odyssean studies and admirably succeeds in exploring multiple aspects of this truly multilayered epic.

The book consists of eleven chapters, the first three devoted to the notion of Homer and the other eight to various themes permeating the Odyssey. The material is presented in a lucid and straightforward manner. Τhe author divides each chapter into smaller, thematically organized, sections that help the reader follow the arguments presented. Clarity of thought and effective presentation of material are two of the merits of this long book.

In chapter one (“From ‘Homer’ to the Homeric Poems”, pp. 7-45), Saïd examines the history of the controversy concerning the existence and biography of the poet Homer and shifting notions concerning his authorship of the Homeric poems. The chapter is further divided into six sections: in the first section (pp. 7-20), the author studies the various etymologies given to the name Homēros in ancient sources and by modern scholars, his family, place of origin, date, the corpus of poems ascribed to him, and the obsession of antiquity with his life, on the basis of the various Lives of Homer and other ancient evidence. Throughout this entire section and without pressing her point too much, Saïd carefully reminds the reader that shifting notions of Homer reflect shifting views about authorship and changing contexts in the course of time. In the next three sections (pp. 20-39), Saïd offers a concise presentation of the Homeric Question from antiquity to modern times. She rightly draws attention to the groundbreaking observations of Wolf and then explores the ‘four seasons’ of scholarly debate about this thorny issue: the ‘great divide’ between Analysts and Unitarians that was centered on the authorship of the Homeric poems, with special emphasis on the Odyssey (pp. 24-28), the rise of Neoanalysis focusing on Motiv- and Quellenforschung (pp. 28-31), the emergence of a theory studying Homer as oral poetry that marked a shift of interest from authorship to song-culture and from writing to performance (pp. 31-39), and last the gradual surfacing of a more sober approach to both Neoanalysis and Oral Poetry by critics endorsing the notion of an “oral-derived poet” or a “transitional text” or even varying degrees of orality.

Despite its title (“The Art of Homer: Between Tradition and Innovation”, pp. 46-74), chapter two is devoted only to topics falling within the range of interests of oral poetry: definition of formulas, formulaic modification, dating of formulas, type-scenes. Only the similes do not conform to the abovementioned statement. I would like to have seen some examples of Homer’s artistic manipulation of traditional material with respect to certain motifs, which are also traditional but are partly recast by Homer so as to promote his own view of the heroic world. That said, Saïd’s analysis of the similes and the type-scenes is exemplary, as well as the clarity with which she examines the limitations and problems concerning the definition of what is formulaic and what is not.

Chapter three (“Homer and History”, pp. 75-94) is dedicated to the historical background of the Homeric epics. The author takes us on a fascinating journey stretching from second-millennium Asia Minor and Greece, through the Dark Ages to the Geometric Period and beyond. Saïd beautifully combines the balanced presentation of the opposing views of scholars concerning various matters (e.g. the historicity of the Trojan War) with her own interpretive take. Of particular interest is the last section of this chapter devoted to the crucial role Homeric poetry had in the invention and development of ancient historiography. In particular, her observations about Herodotus and Thucydides are illuminating.1

Chapter four (“The Odyssey: Narrations, Narrators and Poets”, pp. 95-131) is one of the landmarks of this book. Saïd argues extensively on the unity of the Odyssey and offers illuminating insights on the use of place and time in the development of the plot. Her section on space is a welcome contribution, the more so since she highlights various Odyssean techniques employed for spatial transition, i.e. from passing from one place to another: next to simple devices (the conjunction , the sequential presentation of actions occurring in different places), Homer makes ample use of complex techniques (sound, the movement of a character or the respective movements of two characters, a shared element). The last two sections present with clarity and precision the sophisticated narrative devices employed in the Odyssey and the epic’s stress on matters of poetics.

The next three chapters explore the Odyssean plot by using a tripartite schema: chapter five (“The Adventures of Telemachus”, pp. 132-149) aims at drawing attention to various threads linking the different parts of the so-called Telemachy together and creating associations between the beginning and end of the poem. The retelling of the plot by the author is carried out in such a way so as to show to the reader how well integrated are the first four books to the whole epic. To use a representative example: the episode of Helen is presented in such a way so as to create a link with the episode of Eurycleia and Odysseus that will be dealt with much later in the plot. Helen’s analeptic narrative about Odysseus’ secret entrance to Troy bears striking similarities with his secret entrance in his palace in the second half of the poem. Chapter six (“Odysseus Travels”, pp. 150-188) gives a rounded presentation of the Apologoi. Saïd examines the complex picture created by the mixture of narrative and temporal order and rightly emphasizes the gain from having the epic’s principal hero become the main storyteller of most of his adventures to an ideal internal audience, the Phaeacians. The author gives the outline of each story, focusing her attention on the main motifs and themes which characterize Odysseus’ various travels and argues convincingly that the poem embeds in its plot a number of alternative and often rival versions of the hero’s return from Troy, in the guise of the false tales. What I missed in this chapter were references to the Near-Eastern and Argonautic background of some of Odysseus’ adventures, a deficiency which is partly remedied later in the book: Near Eastern associations are left to later chapters dealing with specific figures of the plot (as is the case with Calypso and Circe, see pp. 259-262). Chapter seven (“Odysseus on Ithaca”, pp. 189-222) is devoted to Odysseus’ arrival at Ithaca, his planning of the killing of the suitors, and his reunification with his family (Penelope and Laertes). Saïd follows the unraveling of the epic’s plot by highlighting for her readers topics that create links between different parts of the poem. The greatest advantage of this part of her book is precisely her ability to show the process of cross-fertilization of each and every bit of the plot by certain themes that give the Odyssey its cohesion and unity.

Chapters eight (“The Human World”, pp. 223-257), nine (“Women in the Odyssey”, 258-314), and ten (“The World of the Gods”, 315-354) explore the function of human and divine agents in the plot. Human agents are further divided between men (Odysseus and his companions, Telemachus, Laertes, the servants, the suitors and their supporters) and women, each given a separate chapter. This classification of mortals works well methodologically, the more so since the Odyssey is heavily preoccupied with women figures who function as filters through which the audience is invited to reevaluate Odysseus’ personality. Such female pairs as Calypso and Circe, Nausicaa and Arete, Helen and Clytemnestra, constitute the backdrop against which Penelope, the preeminent female figure of the epic standing on a par with Odysseus, is portrayed. The chapter on gods is especially informative. The author organizes her material into two sections of unequal length: the former is devoted to the relations between the immortals themselves, while the latter explores all varieties of divine intervention (epiphanies, transformations, miracles, the interaction between divine activity and the natural world, divine commands and signs), as well as their motivation.

Chapter eleven (“The Ideology of the Odyssey”, pp. 355-372) together with the conclusion (“The Odyssey: An Epilogue to the Iliad?”, pp. 373-379) round out this book with a sensitive presentation of the ideology of the epic. Saïd gives the reader a detailed and clear idea of how this poem allows us to glimpse into social stratification, both external (household-city) and internal (masters and servants, elite and simple folk) and a world in flux (as the age of heroes approaches its end). In the epilogue, the author briefly dwells on the relation between the two Homeric epics. Building on an expression used by the author of On the Sublime (9.12) that she puts in her title, Saïd summarizes some of the findings of Homeric research with respect to the palimpsestic nature of the Odyssey and its intertextual cross-fertilization with its Iliadic rival. This is perhaps the best way to conclude this book, i.e. by reminding the reader that this great epic of return should always be read next to the other great epic of war.2

Saïd should be praised for writing an admirably balanced, informative, and thought-provoking introduction to the Odyssey. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that this book marks a step ahead from other relevant attempts, since it masterfully avoids extreme positions that would trouble the inexperienced reader, without at the same time becoming simplistic and unsophisticated. All in all, I highly recommend it to all those who are now sailing out on the high seas of Homeric epic.3


1. I missed a reference to the work of Antonios Rengakos on the very same topic (“Epic Narrative Technique in Herodotus’ Histories”, Seminari Romani di Cultura Greca 4, 2001, 253-270, and “Homer and the Historians: The Influence of Epic Narrative Technique on Herodotus and Thucydides”, in: F. Montanari and A. Rengakos (eds.), La poésie épique grecque: métamorphoses d’un genre littéraire, Fondation Hardt, Entretiens, vol. 52, Vandoeuvres-Genève 2006, 183-214).

2. Given that the author gives a list of some studies concerned with the intertextual reading of the two Homeric epics and claims that “the Odyssey could be called the first palimpsest text in Western literature” (p. 375), I missed a reference to my own book ( The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics, HUP, Washington DC – Cambridge MA, 2008) that builds exactly on the very notion of a palimpsest without recourse to composition by writing (a view with which Saïd seems to concur; see p. 375) and is specifically devoted to Homeric intertextuality.

3. I have noticed some errors, which in no way diminish the overall high quality of the book. Most of them concern typos in the Greek. I give a selection: p. 11: Thamyras should be changed to Thamyris, who is not mentioned in Book 2 of the Odyssey (as the author claims) but of the Iliad; p. 49: instead of χεῖρας ἀαπτους, read χεῖρας ἀάπτους; p. 51: instead of ἄφθίτον, read ἄφθιτον; p. 54: instead of ἤλθέν and ἦλθέν, read ἦλθεν (twice); p. 54: instead of φαέ, read φάε; p. 148: instead of θέος, θέοι, read θεός, θεοί.