BMCR 2022.06.26

Repetition, communication, and meaning in the ancient world

, Repetition, communication, and meaning in the ancient world. Orality and literacy in the ancient world, 13. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, volume 442. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. x, 401. ISBN 9789004466623 €115.00 / $138.00.

This publication emerges from a homonymous conference organized by Deborah Beck in 2019. The volume treats the theme of repetition(s), a phenomenon that, as the editor states in the introduction, “takes many different forms, in different performance contexts, time periods, and literary genres” (p. 1), offering a privileged standpoint from which to study oral and literate practices. A substantial portion of the papers deals with Greek literature and, as is obvious, a privileged space is assigned to Homeric poetry. Nevertheless, the volume also includes papers on Cypro-Minoan objects, Latin narrative, epigraphic documentation, and Biblical literature, engaging the reader in a wide-ranging, thought-provoking parcours. Particularly effective is the ring compositional structure, with the last two papers (Duffy’s contribution on wrestling and Minchin’s essay on Alice’s Oswald’s Memorial) going back to Homer from a modern performance perspective.

In the first paper, Justin Arft addresses the problem of recurrent expressions in the frame of the (uncertain) performative conditions of Archaic Greek poetry, especially in Homeric poems. From the outset, the author distinguishes between “repetition” and “recurrence”, the former implying “a more literary phenomenon akin to allusion or quotation” while the latter refers to “an oral poetic phenomenon”, strongly linked to a traditional dimension (p. 8). Throughout the paper, Arft refines, nuances, and problematizes this opposition relying on a wide theorical background that goes from Milman Parry’s inquiries to recent studies.[1] His test case is the Homeric formula “X will be a care for man” (X δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει). Having analyzed the narrative framework in which the formula occurs, Arft argues that ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει is able to signal a discrepancy in perception between the speaker and the audience (both on an intra- and extra-narrative level). This emerges if one takes the formula as a “recurrence” rather than a “repetition” and locates it in a time when multiple performances of individual episodes still allowed “feedback loops between individual scenes” (p. 37), since the narrative of the poems known as Iliad and Odyssey was not yet fixed nor rigidly sequential.

Alexander Forte discusses triple and quadruple repeated action in Homeric epic relying on the observations of cognitive linguistics. Starting from the assumption that repetition is inherent in human physical and cognitive experience, and essential to our intellectual and linguistic development, Forte analyses instances of 3-4 repetitions especially in the Iliad, with a specific attention to movements of bodies. One well-known example is Achilles’ pursuit of Hector around the walls of Troy in Book 22.[2] In this and many other passages, the action implies a triple-repeated movement before the narrative encounters a resolution. In his conclusions, the author presents those triple and quadruple repetitions as both a mnemo-technical device for the poet and a marker of expectation for the audience.

In the third paper about Homeric poetry, Françoise Létoublon studies the repetition of a set of lines describing Odysseus’ scar and the narrative lying behind it (Od. XIX 393-394 and 464-466). The author links that repetition with a “rite of passage” context and, referring to Foley’s concept of “traditional referentiality”,[3] highlights the interaction between Odysseus’ personal memory and the collective memory shared by the audience of the Odyssey.

Cassandra M. Donnelly’s paper on repeated single signs (probably abbreviations) on Cypro-Minoan clay balls – most likely used for sortition to distribute priestly assignments – explores the subject of literacy and illiteracy in Late Bronze Age Cyprus. While the paper deals with some remarkable Bronze Age records, it is still to Homer that the author’s argument points at the end. As a conclusion, M. Donnelly goes back to the famous narration of Bellerophon’s story in Iliad 6 in which are mentioned mysterious σήματα λυγρά on a tablet. She argues that when we imagine Homeric characters to be illiterate, we create “unnecessary cognitive distance” between our cultural sensibility and the Homeric narrative (p. 115).

Thomas J. Nelson engages in a case-study survey of the use of Homeric hapax legomena – or rather lexical rarities, as the author defines them in his methodological opening section – in Archaic and Classical periods. The aim of the paper is to highlight the existence of a sensibility for this kind of allusive repetition long before the Hellenistic period, in opposition to the communis opinio that Hellenistic bookish taste is precisely what allows the exploitation of hapax legomena. Nelson provides examples from (in order) Old Comedy, Attic Tragedy, and Greek Lyric, showing pre-hellenistic repetitions “of the unrepeated”. Particularly useful is the discussion on the concept of hapax legomena in Archaic and Classical periods in relation to the uncertainty about the fixation of Homeric epics in those historical periods (p. 121-4).

Repetition of words and ideas (expressed in similar language) are at the heart of Peter A. O’Connell’s essay on Sappho’s poetry that aims at clarifying how verbal repetitions create a sense that the songs “are the work of a single author speaking about herself” (p. 160). In his analysis, O’Connell has recourse to the concept of “mentalizing”, from cognitive science (the ability of perceiving specific mental states in ourselves and others), and “idiolect”, from linguistics (the linguistic system specific to one person, as applied to Sappho’s poetry). One may object that O’Connell’s argument turns to the performative context of Sappho’s songs only at the end, in the concluding section, whereas it would have been helpful to exploit it earlier in the discussion, and thus to adopt a more audience-oriented rather than a reader-oriented perspective.

Repetition takes the form of ring composition in Xavier Gheerbrant’s paper, a quite complex analysis—on the lexical, metrical, and narrative level—of two Hesiodic sequences: the liberation of the Cyclops and the Hundred-Handers by Zeus on the one hand, and the liberation of Prometheus by Heracles (allowed by Zeus) on the other. The observation of circular micro-composition as well as of what the author calls “disanalogies” allows Gheerbrant to highlight the importance of this special type of “repetition” in Hesiod’s “signifying” practice.

The issue of reperformance and its relationship with the preservation of texts and literacy in Archaic and Classical Greece is the focus of Ruth Scodel’s chapter. In her argument, reperformance—ritual, commemorative, symposiastic, or informal—does not necessarily imply exact repetition of a text. According to Scodel, reperformance has an important role in transmitting texts but cannot be considered the sole factor: in many cases, the existence of written versions needs to be postulated. But, even so, as the author puts it, “written texts could not ensure fidelity to an earlier version or precise attributions of authorship” (p. 255).

Rodrigo Verano’s contribution applies conversational analysis to Plato’s dialogues, with interesting results. His study, focused on other-initiated repetitions, is based on a selected stock of repetition values in Plato’s fictional-constructed conversations between characters. The author shows that those are used to achieve conversational similitude, which is essential to enhance persuasive effect.

In Niall W. Slater’s analysis of the portion of Petronious’ Satyrica known as Troiae Halosis, the massive use of repetition by the (bad) poet Eumolpus—specifically the acceleration of it towards the end of that sequence—points to orally improvised art. Linking the Troiae Halosis with a previous anecdote told by Eumolpus in which repetition of actions and utterances are central to the construction of the narrative, Slater suggests that the significant proportion of repeated line endings in the last part of the Troiae Halosis is a stylistic tool that Petronious employs to portray Eumolpus improvising on a well-known mythical theme: the sack of Troy. As Slater argues, repetition and orality are strictly linked by poetic improvisation.

Hanna Golab’s paper takes repetitions to the sphere of Asklepios’ cult. A survey of epigraphic and iconographic sources throughout many centuries and different geographical areas, as well as the comparison with some literary sources such as Herodas’ Mimiamb 4 and Aelius Aristides’Asklepiadai, allows the author to re-habilitate the role, at least in the cult, of the feminine members of Asklepios’ family: his daughters Akeso, Iaso, Panakeia, occasionally Aigle, as well as their mother Epione. Golab contends that the repeated and relatively fixed listing of these feminine divinities corresponds to a widespread prayer pattern used “by pilgrims who visited sacred healing centers across the ancient Mediterranean” (p. 309), a proposal that a reader will find very persuasive.

Raymond F. Person (Jr.) deals with a specific problem of Biblical text transmission, called “harmonization”, analyzed in selected passages of Pentateuch and Synoptic Gospels. By “harmonization”, Biblical studies mean the process by which a scribe comes to produce verbal agreement, on different levels, between the text that he is copying and versions of the same narrative that are part of his memory of the tradition. Relying on the idea of “scribal performance” and “scribal memory” and exploiting the concept of word-selection as described in conversational analysis, Person proposes a thorough reconsideration of the process lying behind the phenomenon of harmonization as described in previous studies. From his specific perspective, the author shows once more how problematic is the idea of “original text” when applied to ancient texts.

The most eccentric (in a good sense) contribution in the volume is William Duffy’s study on professional wrestlers’ maneuvers as possible parallels of Homeric traditional oral formulae. Observing that “wrestlers and oral poets are engaged in an analogous mode of narrative” (p. 362), Duffy undertakes an emblematic case study: the rise and evolution of the DDT move, popularized by the wrestler Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Through his comparative analysis, Duffy aims at providing insights into the alleged life cycle of Homeric formulae. The comparison is clearly argued and drawn with the caution that the issue requires, although that will not prevent the reader from noting some (important) discrepancies between oral poetry and professional wrestlers’ performances. Duffy does not say much about the fact that wrestling matches (not choreographed in advance) are the sum of two individual performances, each one responding to the other, which is not the case for the oral poet. Moreover, Duffy detects a strong bond between wrestling moves, specifically the DDT, and their initial performer, and transposes it to the context of oral poetic performance. This operation implies a sense of authorship for oral formulae which has not been documented nor demonstrated by Parry and Lord’s studies.[4] In my view, Duffy’s paper demonstrates that oral theory is more useful for the study of professional wrestlers’ performances than the reverse. Nevertheless, any attempt to employ non-conventional approaches to better understand Homeric composition in performance is welcome, and Duffy’s analysis is certainly valuable from that point of view.

Elizabeth Minchin closes the volume with an essay on repeated similes in Memorial, a poem composed by British contemporary poet Alice Oswald. Memorial consists in a catalogue of the death on the battlefield in the Iliad combined with Homeric similes, almost always repeated twice in a row, and is intended for both bookish and oral reception. Minchin examines narrative, cognitive, and aesthetic implications of repetitions and concludes that, far from being tedious and redundant, as suggested by some commentators, those are essential to the construction of a “storyrealm”. Besides, repeated similes provide each death with the “solemnity of ceremony” (p. 389) it deserves.

All in all, the volume offers interesting and mind-broadening prompts. Homeric scholars will take advantage of the problematization of the category of “repetition” in an oral context, especially in the opening papers, and will be pleased to re-encounter Homer at the end, re-discussed in the light of modern (and unusual) performances thanks to Duffy’s and Minchin’s contributions. Each paper is clearly structured and completed by copious and recent bibliography. An index locorum and a thematic index close the volume.

Authors and Titles

Introduction / Deborah Beck
Chapter 1. Repetition or Recurrence? A Traditional Use for ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει in Archaic Greek Poetry / Justin Arft
Chapter 2. Enumeration and Embodiment in Homeric Repetition / Alexander Forte
Chapter 3. Odysseus’ Scar Once More: Repetition, Tradition, and Fiction in the Story of Odysseus’ Hunting in the Mountains of Parnassus / Françoise Létoublon
Chapter 4. Repetition, Sortition, and Abbreviations in the Cypro-Minoan Script / Cassandra M. Donnelly
Chapter 5. Repeating the Unrepeated: Allusions to Homeric Hapax Legomena in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry / Thomas J. Nelson
Chapter 6. Repetition and the Creation of “Sappho” / Peter A. O’Connell
Chapter 7. Repetition, Disanalogy, and Reflexivity in Hesiod’s Theogony: About the Fate of the Cyclopes, of the Hundred-Handers, and of the Children of Iapetus / Xavier Gheerbrant
Chapter 8. Reperformance, Writing, and the Boundaries of Literature / Ruth Scodel
Chapter 9. Other-Initiated Repetition and Fictive Orality in the Dialogues of Plato / Rodrigo Verano
Chapter 10. Repetition, Improvisation, and Parody: Eumolpus Re-takes Troy in Petronius’s Satyrica 83–90 / Niall W. Slater
Chapter 11. Oral Prayer Patterns in Epigraphic Songs to Asklepios / Hanna Golab
Chapter 12. Harmonization in the Pentateuch and Synoptic Gospels: Repetition and Category-Triggering within Scribal Memory / Raymond F. Person Jr.
Chapter 13. “Godlike” Grappling: Professional Wrestling as a Model for the Shifting of Epithet Significance in Oral Poetry / William Duffy
Chapter 14. The Creation of a Storyrealm: The Role of Repetition in Homeric Epic and Alice Oswald’s Memorial / Elizabeth Minchin


[1] Especially E.J. Bakker, The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey, Cambridge 2013, B. Currie, Homer’s Allusive Art, Oxford 2016, and Gregory Nagy’s evolutionary model.

[2] Il. 22, 136-253.

[3] J.M. Foley, Immanent Art. From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic, Bloomington-Indianapolis 1991.

[4] The reference to Dué’s analysis of the narrative theme of ambush and the figure of Odysseus (C. Dué, “Maneuvers in the dark of night: Iliad 10 in the twenty-first century” in: Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry, edited by F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and C.C. Tsagalis, Berlin-Boston 2012, p. 175–183) is not decisive enough to support such an argument.