HOMER’S DIVINE AUDIENCE: The Iliad’s Reception on Mount Olympus

Tobias Myers

OUP (2019) h/b 230pp £60 (ISBN 9780198842354)

Homer’s intrusive gods disturb listeners and readers, ancient and current. They interfere on the ground and they counsel their favorites, although they mostly watch the heroes, male and female, at a bloody recreational spectacle. The gods, Tobias Myers’s thesis contends, ‘perform’ the original reception of the Iliad by their rational and emotional responses, and by their interventions. They provide an internal audience that models responses for Homer’s original listeners and all later consumers of epic. Myers calls this divine layer of the poem ‘metaperformative,’ a kind of reflexive ‘metapoetics’ (2). Thus, these privileged observers complicate the poet’s in-person and textual performances. Myers identifies textual cues that simultaneously refer to what is happening in the narrative at Troy and what is happening to audiences (83). The effects of these intermediaries, however, are subtler than a television laugh-track or cinema’s musical hints at lurking dangers. His second, less persuasive, thesis argues that Zeus functions as a kind of poet, and/or the poet was Zeus. Both powers face the constraints imposed by an established tale. Myers enriches our awareness of reception but drains away divine participation in the action. The gods are not dead, yet, for Homer, but some readers have found them superfluous.

Homer’s Olympians enjoy a superior perspective on human achievement, error, and emotion, although they do not exhibit a different moral calculus. Zeus and Company spectate a live event, a mutual slaughter whose action they can influence psychically or step into, intervene decisively in the dust. Some super-naturals behave like sports fans and quarrel–in the grandstands, on Mount Ida (8.51), and further away on Olympus. Myers describes this role as ‘meta-performative,’ that is, they model for and so manipulate the poet’s own human audiences (2). Thus, ‘a parallel [arises] between Zeus and the poet’ (28), they produce a ‘play.’ I doubt whether the dramaturgical metaphors advance our understanding of epic words and deeds. Has the singing Muse been squeezed out of her epic?

Every reader has puzzled over the limits that the gods impose on Homeric humans’ choices. Instructors cannot entirely satisfy first-time student bewilderment as Apollo and Athena’s divine thumbs press on the scales for ethically objectionable deceits. The divinities can make and break a truce (14). Explicit god gazing comprehends mortals’ struggles, elaborate burials, and mourning (19, appended chart: 212-13). Divine deliberation and quarrels enhance suspense, although the outcome is known. Zeus or the poet delay the inescapable telos, the city-obliteration of the compromised Trojans (45). The super-couple Hera and Zeus measure divine (un-)concern for mortals when these immortal partisans establish a merciless quid pro quo of city destructions. Hera concedes demolition of any Achaean city hereafter traded for hic et nunc destruction of Zeus’s beloved Troy: 4.34-54. 

Divine proxemics (intended, expressive, and emotive human uses of space) receive little attention. This unruly deathless audience exhibits impatience and decisively interrupts the earthly action, as Athena does in book one, two, five, fourteen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-two, and twenty-three. Apollo and Athena descend to direct action early in book seven (124), and Poseidon complains to Zeus about insufficient sacrifices for the Achaean wall as the book closes. As the odds change, the gambling gods express anguish, joy, and wish to interfere. The poet and Zeus the internal Arbiter threaten but never violate the slippery idea that moira (Lot, Destiny, Fate) controls action and success. Zeus can hypothetically turn the narrative upside down (16.435-49, 22.178-85), or he can passively enjoy his nectar and battle scenes while jeering provokingly at wife and daughter. Meanwhile, mortals continue combat to their expected death (4.1-4). A shocking pleasure for the gods—as if viewing a drama (63)—mortal warfare provides lively pleasures for partisan immortal banqueters (66: daïs). As Myers notes (70), both the formal duels and Achilles’ aborted assault on his awkward commander Agamemnon end with divine disruption, ex machina, i.e. here, visible ‘audience participation.’ Hector and Aias’ duel echoing Menelaus and Paris’ also begins with unnecessary god arrangements devised by opposing fans Apollo and Athena. The heroic contenders furnish a spot-lit drama staged in an arena; the sitting armies provide the first tier, above them the banqueting gods in the bleachers, beyond them Homer’s listening audiences (Hellenes), and finally us readers. 

Not only gods anticipate future developments. Listeners too hear of men ‘to come’ (e.g., 2.119, 3.287, 7.87), extra-textual mortals who will learn and envision sequelae of warfare, such as grave mounds and rape. We specified audiences of Troy’s future (12.9-34, cf. 383) cannot see the long-ago, divinely demolished Achaean wall or the obliteration of Troy’s bustling citadel. Myers refers to ‘the figure pulling the strings’ (141), but he elsewhere demonstrates that the Iliad provides no marionette show. The poem’s spectacular blood-fest invite all gods to view (20.4-12). They demonstrate for Homer’s audiences both pity and powerlessness to alter the end. While Zeus pities the spectacle of both wretched Achaean and Trojan warriors (173n.68), and hypothetically can alter the outcome, he never does.

The last chapter is arguably the best. Myers’ close readings discover parallels between the lonely death of Hector and surreal pre-climactic scenes, where the nation turns its gaze upon the doomed Trojan champion. Myers acutely analyzes the simile in which Achilles runs down Hector in three laps around Troy ‘as when men [in peacetime] compete for a great prize, a tripod or a woman’ in a chariot race (22.157-66). The discrepancies between the wartime reality and the repeating peacetime fantasy produce ‘multiple present moments at once.’ 

Homer exploits spectacular confrontations rather than tries to ‘problematize the act of viewing’ (182). The gods indeed provide mortal audiences with a contrasting perspective. The Olympian deities’ levity, their antic and seriocomic behaviors and reactions, and their reported social habits (rise, bristle, toast, groan, weep) remain regrettably peripheral to Myers’ analysis. However, these goading interactions and emotional reactions arouse Homeric audiences’ pleasure. Amidst good observations, e.g., on identifiable Homeric techniques (37-8) and on echoing scenes, Myer’s ‘metaperformative’ analysis loses the Ionian gods’ amusing, cheating, and invasive roles that transcend mere viewership. Myers remarks a paradox, but does not unpack the perplexing idea that Homer’s gods appear ‘both crucial and superfluous’ (16).

Donald Lateiner

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