Bruno Currie

OUP (2016) h/b 343pp £67.50 (ISBN 9780198768821)

Two centuries after Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795 the Homeric questions just keep on coming. This latest book shows that there is plenty still to say in the areas he opened up and that our understanding of the literature of the past only opens up new areas of inquiry rather than closing any of them down.

Most of us were taught that Homer was the first and the best of poets. Homer, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, began and created the tradition which all later poets tapped into. He himself was not alluding to anybody earlier because there was nobody earlier, and neither was there anybody contemporary to borrow from. C., who is of course well-acquainted with neo-analysis and fully acknowledges the work of Kakridis, Kullmann et al., rightly challenges this assumption. The mythographical and literary background is obviously there behind the text, in allusive references such as the quip about the ‘randiness of Paris’ in Iliad 24.30 or the obvious drawing on other sources in passages like the catalogue of women in Odyssey 11 and the Argonautic material in Odyssey 12. ‘Homer’ was ‘composing’ in a world full of stories, and his audience must have known many of them to pick up the references, although we are far from knowing whether Homer’s audience was anything like Shaw’s intelligent woman. This ‘traditional referentiality’ is not of course the same as full-blooded intertextuality which is what we find when (say) Virgil and Lucretius use Homer’s ipsissima verba in Latin—and the degree to which the Homeric question ties in with the question of when literacy came into archaic Greece is vital and still uncertain. Even if the audience were illiterate, however, the poet was probably not, if the literary subtlety of the text is to be accounted for.

The book divides up neatly into distinct chapters. After a full introduction to the thesis, chapter 2 looks at the evidence of allusion in Homer between the Iliad and Odyssey and between the Iliad and the Memnonis, the putative precursor of the fragmentary Aethiopis. There is enough to suggest that the poet of the Odyssey knew the Iliad, but when C. takes us into the Memnonis, where the storyline (Memnon kills Antilochus and is then killed by Achilles in vengeance) is a similar story to that of the Iliad, we are on less firm ground. The Memnonis may have been influenced by Homer rather than the other way round, especially as the dating is not secure, and the links are more suggestive than abundantly compelling.

Chapter three looks at the possible links between the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the ‘Orphic’ Hymn to Demeter (and C. helpfully gives us a translation of the Berlin Papyrus of what we possess of this lost text at the end of the book). Here, as in chapter 2, C. draws on the meagre evidence for the Orphic hymn to see if there is any sign of literary contact with the Homeric Hymn, and finds enough to make an argument. The argument is (he acknowledges) bedevilled by the poor state of our knowledge of the Orphic hymn, but he closes the chapter with some lucid discussion of the state of our knowledge and the scholarly debate surrounding it.

Chapter four looks at what C. calls ‘pregnant tears’ as a form of allusion. The weeping of a character can summon up emotional empathy from the audience who will link the tears with those of other situations, both intratextually and intertextually. C.’s use of the film Lola rennt to parallel and explain this sort of metalepsis does not carry total conviction as the film’s highly self-referential irony distances the audience in a way which the Iliad does not—but it is certainly borne out by later poets such as Ovid, whose Dido in the Heroides has clearly read her Virgil. Homer has his Andromache weep both in anticipation of Hector’s death (in book 6) and also when it has happened (in books 22 and 24) and the later passages strongly recall the earlier ones. C.’s claim that Ovid’s Ariadne is recalling Catullus 64 is interesting—but she is also of course recalling her earlier incarnation in Ovid’s own Heroides 10, which gives memini (Fasti 3.473) far more bite; and his take on the tears of Antilochus (Iliad 17.695-6, at being told by Menelaus that he has to tell Achilles the grim news of Patroclus’ death) as being signs of interplay with the Memnon saga seems over-fanciful. Weeping at the prospect of breaking awful news to a highly emotional man needs no ‘literary’ explanation and Homer rightly does not offer any.

Chapter five focuses on the motif of seduction by the goddess of love in the Iliad, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and in Sumerian and Babylonian poetry. Here again the argument is coherent and does discuss the obvious objections—what is the difference between typology and allusion? When is a phrase a topos and when it is a quotation? We have here prime examples of what are usually called ‘type-scenes’, so that a goddess dressing for seduction always seems to do and sound the same (‘an arming scene in drag’, as S.P. Morris called it). C. argues that the verbal overlap goes beyond what one expects of type-scenes, and finds linguistic borrowings to support the idea that poets – like composers – listen to each other and borrow ideas consciously or unconsciously. ‘Homer’ could probably not understand Akkadian but good stories (such as the Flood) travel from place to place and language to language, especially in the ancient Near East—and this sort of material is after all perfect for the rising epic tradition. The marked similarities between Homeric poetry and Gilgamesh have long been noted, and C. explores the extent to which these are evidence of direct rather than indirect influence. What C. demonstrates very well (pp. 208-213) is the way in which shared material is both ‘foreignized’ and also domesticated when it is absorbed into the host language of Greek.

The book concludes with an epilogue drawing together the themes and arguing forcefully for a recognition that borrowing occurs and that it is not always reciprocal, and that one can conjecture a stemma of influences between Iliad and Odyssey, Hymns and Hesiod, Greeks and Babylonians, and so on. The book is not merely a detective story with language: and C. always roots his argument with a good eye for the literary uses of allusion. Phrases such as …δ’ ἄνδρεσσι μελήσει, for instance, in Homer recur with different intent and different contexts, and C. argues (224-227) that when the young Telemachus says it to his mother he is aspiring to be the Hector who said it first. This concept of ‘opposition in imitation’ reminded me of another famous inconcinnity between Catullus 66.39 and Virgil Aeneid 6.460, and the final pages pointing to concept of the Saussurian langue/parole as a way of looking at the interplay between tradition and the poet are illuminating.

The book is beautifully printed and presented, with footnotes on the page rather than end-notes, few errors (Ovid Fasti 3.475 should read nulla rather than nullo on p. 138) and most of the Greek, Latin and other ancient languages (but not the French and German cited in footnotes) is translated into good English. This is a book to be enjoyed slowly and thoughtfully—it is unusually user-friendly in its system of cross-referencing and in its overall readability, packed full of information and full supporting secondary and primary sources but always keeping the wood visible above the trees. The death of Martin West had left a gaping hole in this area of study—I think that MLW now has a worthy successor to his crown.


John Godwin

Back to Reading Room