The Center for Hellenic Studies

The Literary Value of the Homeric Work of G. Nagy

Thomas R. Walsh
[The following remarks are meant as a contribution to a gift. I set aside much scholarly apparatus in the interest of presenting hypotheses that are worth exploring. In that spirit, I begin anecdotally, and then continue with a discussion of Greg Nagy’s solution to the problem of the duals in Iliad 9. I add some elaboration on why I think the solution is primarily an aesthetic or literary solution to what is ultimately the literary problem of epic unity. I begin to identify the theoretical implications of that solution by adding elements of a literary strategy that I there identify in other parts of the Homeric corpus, first, Iliad 1, then in the offer made to Achilles in Iliad 9. I proceed with haste to add examples of Homeric self-consciousness with respect to the unity of the two poems as a merism, first, with lines that seem to unify both epic-themes (call them “war” and “return”). Next, the most provocative gesture here is a suggestion regarding what may be called Homeric Homologies. I conclude with a gesture toward Douglas Frame’s suggestion of collaboration at the Panionia as a way of conceptualizing a real-world context for the grand epic merism.]
I remember vividly a Wednesday in 1974 at Ken’s Pub in Central Square, where I was getting to know “the Homer Group.” Greg Nagy was at Hopkins that year: as I look back on this, the hero of our ritual cult seemed archetypically to be visiting the Ethiopians, while we continued the assembly with messengers who delivered the articles that were soon to be the Best of the Achaeans. Our evenings were well spent over beer and λέσχη, thinking and talking about meter and formulas and theme, pushing the bounds of Homeric studies as far as we could.
Our dearly-missed colleague Steve Lowenstam pointed out to me (either that Wednesday, or another Wednesday) something I’ve kept close for a long time, thereby initiating me, brand new graduate student as I was then at Boston University, to something that made secure my lifetime relation to “the work.” Before I reveal what Steve told me, let me say that I did indeed need some clue as to what was going on, having, after all, just met the group: Lenny, Doug, Holly, Steve and a few others.
My introduction to all this had been a visit to Calvert Watkins’ “Homeric Language” course, the first session that I attended of which was taught by Doug Frame. So both Nagy and Watkins were the absent twin-heroes, whose presence was enacted by performers making their presence real in the complementary locations of a pub in Cambridge and a classroom in Sievers’ Hall. Doug’s work on Nestor and nostos I had already seen referred to in the “White Rock” paper the year before, where I had been a graduate student at Catholic University in Washington—yes,I admit a checkered past—at least it matches the present). My best friend of those days, Nathan Waxman, and I read that text together and I still remember Nate’s “Wow!” on realizing the door that was opening in Greg’s footnotes to Doug’s dissertation. Nate had been a philosophy graduate student at Chicago and had been drawn to mythology and the ancients through hearing Eliade lecture, as I remember. I was still learning the ropes as a graduate classicist and in the process of disentangling myself from an undergraduate fog—not an unwelcome fog, but a fog nonetheless; I needed Nate’s fresh eyes to point out that the opened door had brilliant light shining through it and that it was full of the voice of poetic artistry and the vibrancy of language’s infinite variety, historically and poetically.
But what Steve pointed out at Ken’s pub was the symbiosis of Greg’s work with Cedric Whitman’s work. I’ll just put it in this impressionistic way: Greg’s early work, among the many things that it does, puts muscle, sinew, and bone onto the brilliant readings in Homer and the Heroic Tradition. This was important for me, since I had just come from my undergraduate days and the teaching of Michael Nagler, whose debt to Whitman was deep and clear. [1] Indeed, I still number Whitman’s book as at the top of my list for Homeric books that keep an honest eye fixed on literary value however deeply the journey takes the scholar into the maelstroms of history and text.
After Doug gave his lecture, I was invited to join some members of the class for post-class coffee. I remember quite vividly the way that I was treated so openly and in such a friendly fashion. That vibrant group of Homerists and scholars was generous; they suffered the outsiders to come unto them—coming from Berkeley, well, this was a breath of spring air warming Cambridge’s October chill. Often, during those brief and fleeting meetings, at the table where the grad students sat, Cal Watkins joined us, others peeked in, and I even said a few things that made me feel awkward but not humiliated.
Yes, I miss those days. Or is it really that one day, when the connection between literature and the kind of Homeric work that I like put its roots deeply in the ground.
So, when Best of the Achaeans emerged soon thereafter, the sections about wind and fire, the overall plan of the poem, everything took on an aggressive luminosity for me: the literary genius of Homer and the Heroic Tradition joined the linguistic and Homeric energy, stamina, and vigorous intellect of The Best of the Achaeans.
All that I’m trying to say is that my attention, sometimes hard to get, was now fully engaged.
I mention all this, at too great a length no doubt, to establish a setting for my topic. Since I never saw Nagy’s work as anything but a hybrid of literary and linguistic thinking with a powerful master guiding the ship on the stormy seas of classical scholarship, ancient history, historical linguistics, comparative epic, I never saw or felt conflict between the aesthetic power of Homeric texts and the kind of analytic work associated with the “Harvard School” of Homeric studies.
Others felt—feel—differently. Just recently in the stacks at Doe Library at Berkeley I ran into a well-known poet who works with Greek poetry. When I followed up with an e-mail that mentioned Greg’s discussion about a point we had covered, I never got a reply—no big deal, but later a mutual acquaintance told me that the poet in question “doesn’t like” Nagy’s approach. In a way the remainder of the remarks below are a welcoming open-hand to my fellow-aesthetes: come in the water’s fine, and it is quite welcoming to those who believe in the beauty of Homer.
From the academic side of things, as a student of comparative literature, I sometimes hear from my literary colleagues that Greg Nagy’s work really isn’t “literary.” “Technical,” “rigorous,” “overwhelming in its scholarship”—certainly. But not literary. I resist batting this ball back over the net, because to some extent: “Who cares?” I mean who cares whether it is or it isn’t considered literary? Or “who cares” about what someone might mean by “literary”? Or with respect to those daunted by a few asterisks and provisionally historical claims—who really cares what the indolent think?
I have thought such things.
I’m younger than that now. I now think that the answer to this question has come to matter, and matter a great deal because the sense of “the literary” has changed so drastically since the 70s. (I could do worse than cite Emily Apter’s accounting of the history of comparative literature as an emblem of what’s happened. [2] ) I can also point to the obvious, Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales was published as in a comparative literature series: oral studies have always been literary, despite those who claim the literary for hidebound (or is it leatherbound) belletristics. I am not sure it’s worthwhile to go over the rise of “theorisms” in our period, not merely deconstruction and post-structuralism but also new historicism and the rest. Perhaps it is enough in the pleasant context of these gift-offerings, to say that what the literary is remains an intellectually deep-challenge cand a dangerous one as we all go spelunking in some very complex and dark caverns. I mean to say that no one now thinks that the term “literary” is at all easy to handle in a “commonsense” manner.
I suspect that what the criticisms that I refer to mean to invoke is a kind of belletristic, sense of the “literary”—patches on the elbows of tweed coats, clubby rooms, and learned-pipe smoke, with the names of Dante and Stendahl floating about. The literary as a kind of patristics with biblical quatations substituted for by quotations from the usual suspects. Shakespeare. Milton. Hardy. Whoever.
But “the literary” seems to meto be something else entirely.
So how does one really come to terms, then, with whether or not Nagy’s work should matter to the literary reader of Homer?
The problem is exacerbated in the following manner: Homerists of a certain kind are different from literary readers of a certain kind. In a review of Michael Nagler’s Spontaneity and Tradition a “literary reader” of Homer, in the most emblematic of the literary classics journals of the last quarter of the 20th century, Arion, Norman Austin, a “literary homerist” if ever there was one, provides me with an example of the kind of thing I’m trying to say. Generally positive about Nagler’s opening up of Parryist thought to more generous readings of how formulas and type-scenes work, Austin turns to the parade of the “civilized” reader’s repertoire: Dante, Goethe, the Cathedral at Chartes. What? No B minor mass? He of course has to take a swipe at the big question: how did these poems come to be. He instructs us that in having the oral Homer we still do not have the real Homer. It’s as if the belletristic valence of Homer can’t take a backseat—ever. Austin himself was the victim of a similar snarky snideness when M. L. West’s review of his book Archery at the Dark of the Moon included a remark about Homer in Malibu. In this kind of pie-throwing contest no one really wins: it’s just the sheer joy of a scholar, with his or her acolytes and colleagues, having good fun at someone with whom they disagree. (One thing I always liked about “the group” is that this kind of carping is frowned upon as part of the habitus of Homeric studies.)
I’m trying here to set up the falseness of the dichotomy: the rigorous study of Homeric diction is not antithetical to the literary qualities of Homer. It should be, once again, obvious that if one attends to diction, one attends to literature; if one attends to narrative, one attends to literature; if one attends to performance, one attends to literature. At least the literary person thinks so! After all, wouldn’t this proposition would be true for Shakespeare: comparative performance studies, for example, do not diminish, at all, the literary power of the texts, and who would disagree? Or rather should anyone disagree?
But for Homer the problem is different: the different “phases” of Homeric diction (I don’t say layers) make for a historical event that lasts over centuries. The evidence for this is in the language and the counterargument is simply that such an event doesn’t correspond to other kinds of literary “events,” such as the publication of a novel, even the performance of a play, or the writing of a lyric.
But for Homerists the problem of “uniqueness” is always with us. To say that something is “unlikely” is irrelevant for a singularity. Moreover the presence of the Homeric singularity is made thickly problematic because Homer seems to partake in our minds of a kind of “universality”—I will quote from something Doug Frame once said to me: “There is something in Homer for everyone.” This tension between the singular and the universal (and I strongly urge looking at Emily Apter’s work once again on this seeming paradox or tension) is precisely what the Homerist works with, day to day, moment to moment—year by year. I, therefore, read this tension between the “literary” and the Nagy-ian as an instance of this false dichotomy with the literary co-opted by a kind of clubby belletristic reader who feels—or pretends to feel—threatened to the core by making Homer anything but his or her own, private version of the Shakespeare of antiquity.
Can we get beyond this? Probably, but not easily, since the divide is ideological as much as anything—somehow historical linguistics and comparative literature seem to bring on for many classicists and armchair readers readjustments of one’s (now uncomfortable) sitting position; but it is possible to come to terms with the simple question, namely, what is the value of the work of Gregory Nagy for the literary reader of Homer? The trained linguist, the student of archaic culture, and others do not need me to tell him or her what the value of the work is.
One thing that I don’t want to do is to scour reviews since Best to extract silly comments and bat them down: this is all great scholarly fun, of course, there is a more valuable thing at stake: we are trying to determine if one of the greatest Homerist of our time speaks to those of us who value literature.
So what I want to do is to take some of the literary events in Homer that Greg Nagy has helped me understand better, better for my own literary purposes. I sense that this is more personal than business, but I hope the remarks are of some use to those who navigate the seas of Homer studies.

Dueling Homer: Duals at Twenty Paces

As a literary problem, take the question of the duals in Book 9. [3] It would be tedious to review the literature on this topic and readers of my account will recall the discussion in Chapter 3 of Best of the Achaeans. My main concern for this discussion is to highlight the following point: the problem is not so much textual as literary: the issue of the unity of Iliad 9 is what’s at stake, and I take this not as a problem of “the text” but as a literary issue.
What Nagy does is different from others’ attempts to “solve” the problem. Where others try to figure out how an embassy “without” Phoenix, or Odysseus, or even Ajax gets soldered onto yet another embassy so as to accumulate three ambassadors, Nagy shows that “the Embassy Scene as we have it is not a clumsy patchwork of mutually irreconcilable texts but rather an artistic orchestration of variant narrative traditions.” [4] Before continuing, let me say that there is a prima facie case for the unity of the three person embassy in the parallel between the embassy scene itself and the council scene earlier in the book, where we in fact had three principle characters setting up the action to follow. Earlier in the book Diomedes, Nestor, and Agamemnon were deployed by Homer to set up the ambassadors. This three character parallel lines up nicely in chiastic order
Council of the Achaeans
a) Diomedes
b) Nestor
c) Agamemnon
Embassy in Achilles’ Tent
C) Odysseus
B) Phoenix
A) Ajax
It is probably a matter of taste—it is to my taste—to see part of the unity here as Dumezilian with Agamemnon/Odysseus being, first function, Diomedes/Ajax being second, both enclosing the third function Phoenix/Nestor. But Dumezilians might be unhappy with placing Nestor in the second function. And many others would wonder if this kind of analysis is necessary. Maybe not, but isn’t it neat? In any case, the text as it stands works, even with the duals, and were it not for the duals the structure of Iliad 9 would hardly be in question.
What Greg Nagy does is to take the duals (to speak “literary”) as meaningful, [5] making unnecessary the various strategies that see a “mistake” in the text. Because the duals function to highlight the traditional quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles, there is less a need to worry about the grammar than to admire the artistry of the poet in making this work.

The Literary Coherence of the Ambassador Sequence

But if the embassy scene is saved as a coherent narrative text, with this “allusion” to a quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles called to mind through a virtuoso use of the dual form, it remains fair to ask, “What kind of literary theory accounts for this kind of reference?" I suggested above that what is at stake in the solution to the problem of the duals in Iliad 9 is the literary unity of the ambassador sequence. But it must be admitted that no one in the embassy scene notices the “slight”: in an agonistic culture, where flyting, invective, boasting are the tools of the trade, is it not odd that someone doesn’t react to the omission of Odysseus from the list of Achilles’ philoi? I mean to be asking can we go beyond the notion of an “artistic masterstroke” to engage theoretically with what kind of literary activity makes such an example of literary virtuosity possible?
I see the problem that remains as the identification of the rhetorical force of the address that excludes Odysseus. Now that Nagy locates the artistic coherence of this exclusion in a traditional rivalry between Achilles and Odysseus, the question of the propriety of that reference interposes itself, since the actors in the narrative seem not to notice it. Even Ajax, who is eager to criticize Achilles’ treatment of the ambassadors (Il. 9.624-642), does not bother to mention Achilles’ attitude to Odysseus.
That is to say, if we ask, “To whom is the exclusion of Odysseus by Achilles and the narrator addressed?” what kind of answer do we get. [6] (We certainly would not feel comfortable with the kind of arch irony expected in a novel of manners. Nor do we need such an explanation.)
My answer is to acknowledge a rhetorical trope available to Homer. In this trope the narrator addresses not the audience of the performance but a different audience, which I will, with some misgivings, call “the implied traditional addressee.” In other words the rhetorical relationship between narrator and addressee is changed from:
*narrator (performer) <————> addressee (audience)
*implied traditional narrator (performer) <————> implied traditional addressee (audience)
To put it in nar ratalogical terms, when the text of Iliad 9 presents a narrator introducing a reference to the “quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles,” most strikingly through the use of those duals, the narratee here is the audience of the Iliad but not as the receiver of the plot of the Iliad’s narrative; the relationship between narrator and addressee occurs in what I am now calling a kind of 4th person address: there is an implied traditional audience, one, that, by definition, always has the same tradition-horde as that of the implied traditional narrator. Thus, at moments like the use of the dual in Achilles’ address to the members of the embassy, the communication introduces into the plotted narrative a higher-order bit of narrative, from the tradition-hoard that competent singers and hearers have as part of their working knowledge. Compare this way of looking at the phenomenon from Best of the Achaeans (Chapter 3 §19 [emphasis mine]):
The composition integrates another traditional element. If, in turn, the insertion of Odysseus into the Embassy story carries with it the traditional theme of an enmity between him and Achilles, then the narrative of Iliad IX may allow the retention of duals referring to the pair of Ajax and Phoinix when the time comes for Achilles to greet the Embassy. For an audience familiar with another version of the story where Achilles had only two emissaries to greet, the retention of the dual greeting when Odysseus is included in the Embassy surely amounts to an artistic masterstroke in the narrative. The exclusion of Odysseus in the dual greeting would serve to remind the audience of the enmity between him and Achilles.
Is this kind of explanation purely ad hoc, or are there other such narratival gestures that make this a common feature of Homeric poetics? Are there other places that “serve to remind the audience” in this way. In other words, can we at least give other examples where the narrator makes a reference, not plot-bound, to the tradition, to something outside the plotted discourse of the present epic that brings into the narrative mix a part of the tradition not immediately relevant?
Yes, there are indeed a number of such examples of this phenomenon, so seemlessly woven into our epic that there is no need for an ad hoc explanation to justify them.

The Literary Use of Tradition’s Boor

Here’s an easy and straightforward instance of the Homeric text using a narrative strategy to bring in a narratival element from outside the immediate plot but as traditional as can be (Il. 1.109-115):
Καὶ νῦν ἐν Δαναοῖσι θεοπροπέων ἀγορεύεις,
ὡς δὴ τοῦδ’ ἕνεκά σφιν ἑκηβόλος ἄλγεα τεύχει,
οὕνεκ’ ἐγὼ κούρης Χρυσηίδος ἀγλά’ ἄποινα
οὐκ ἔθελον δέξασθαι, ἐπεί πολὺ βούλομαι αὐτὴν
οἴκοι ἔχειν. καὶ γάρ ῥα Κλυταιμνήστρης προβέβουλα
κουριδίης ἀλόχου, ἐπεὶ οὔ ἑθέν ἐστι χερείων,
οὐ δέμας οὐδὲ φυήν, οὔτ’ ἄρ φρένας οὔτε τι ἔργα.
In this passage, everyone notices Agamemnon’s gratuitous slap at his wife as he over-praises Chryseis. Α psychological reading is, of course, readily available, one that exploits Agamemnon’s boorishness towards Clytemnestra: Agamemnon seems to be acting true to form here. But while one can note psychological acuity of the narrative, I point in this context to the fact that the narrator has also introduced a major part of the tradition of the Trojan War, namely the traditionally deep problems with the House Atreus, usually abbreviated to the term “the curse of the house of Atreus.” The important point for my discussion is that Agamemnon’s slight points to the array of narratival material regarding the curse of the House of Atreus, which has nothing to do with the quarrel as it is developing between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book 1. Yet readers “feel” the slight as having an ironic tinge: I certainly wince when I think of Clytemestra “hearing” within the resonance of tradition this slight at a distance; certainly anyone familiar with the tradition in any sense of the term, “hears” the allusion. And I would believe it to be a very peculiar reader of Homer who can resist reading here the irony that awaits Agamemnon in his homecoming bath. I mean to say that though this allusion presents no “textual” problems (as does the use of the duals in Il. 9), the same theoretical problem exists, as existed for the duals in Iliad 9. To put the matter directly, I suggest that the passage in Iliad 1 where the narrator introduces the curse of the house of Atreus is strikingly similar to the way the narrator introduces the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus in Iliad 9 because the immediate narrative is opened up for a reference to the tradition at large.
To reinforce my point, let me summarize: The addressee of Agamemnon’s rude slap-in-the-face to Clytemnestra is neither Chryses, nor the Achaeans, not anyone in the “real-world” of the plot; rather, the addressee is the audience consisting of competent hearers of the tradition. I’m calling this kind of relationship between narrator and narratee (between implied narrator and implied narratee, between implied performer and implied audience, etc.) “4th person narration.” For the one who hears (I think of Pindar’s συνετοί here, O. 2.91–97) with Bundy, Stud. Pind. II, p.71 and note 91.), Agamemnon’s insult resonates loud and clear—the sense of terror that it inspires at the entry point of our epic is not to be understated: Agamemnon, in these words, draws on the deep horrors of the house of Atreus—his doom is composed in Homeric hexameters for the tradition to speak and hear, a resonance that startles the opening of the immediate plot as it develops the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. [7]

A Second Example

A second example, more complex but exhibiting the same kind of 4th person narration emerges in Book 9 itself, when Agamemnon and Odysseus enumerate the gifts that are meant to tempt Achilles back into the fold. We know now that the temptation is tainted. Lenny Muellner refers the offer to the institution of potlach: “His list of prizes is not a sign of friendship or a tangible recognition of Achilles’ value, but a potlatch, the emulous offer of gifts as an assertion of the giver’s prestige.” [8] One further element of taint occurs in this potlatch, and with it we move out of the plot and into the extra-narratival narrative tradition: I refer to Agamemnon’s offer of one of his daughters to Achilles.
Not unlike the duals, this is an old saw: Up until recently it was conventional to note that Agamemnon’s offer of his daughter did not include the famous Iphigeneia, and so, it was conventionally concluded, Homer’s text predates the development of the Iphigeneia narrative. This conclusion gives that most precious of things for certain kinds of scholars, a terminus post quem: before Homer, no Iphigeneia; after Homer, at some point, perhaps with Stesichorus, perhaps with the dramatists, perhaps on some archaic vase, Iphigeneia’s sacrifice enters the picture.
But let us look at the passage where the daughter’s names are mentioned (Il. 9.286-287):
τρεῖς δέ ἵ εἰσι θύγατρες ἐνὶ μεγάρῳ εὐπήκτῳ,
Χρυσόθεμισ καὶ Λαοδίκη καὶ Ἰφιάνασσα.
In this catalogue of daughters, the girl who receives the important attention is the last, Iphianassa. As noted above, commentators have in the past liked to declare this list of daughters as proof-positive that Homer “does not know” the story of Iphigeneia. That is to say, the difference in name is, with a scholarly commonsense gesture, equated with an absolute difference in character. It may be, however, that the poetics of Homeric naming is different than that for which such a calculus calls. For example, would one say that Homer didn’t know the story of Jocasta and Oedipus because in Od. xi, Oedipus’s wife is called Epikasta? Probably not—I hope.
But perhaps the following is the case: What guarantees the identity of the narrative is not the names of the characters but the narratival function of the narrative that uses those names.
My suggestion is that the name Iphianassa points to the narrative of the deception that leads to the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter at Aulis. It’s far easier to maintain that Homeric poetry is flexible regarding names (as in the case of Iokasta and Epikasta, see Od. 11.271) than to maintain that the following correspondences are beside the point, not to be considered, to be ignored in the interest of common sense.
Story of Iphigeneia
The Achaeans are unable to leave from Aulis to make an onslaught on Troy.
In order to appease the gods, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia is arranged.
Ruse = a deceptive marriage: Iphigeneia will be sacrificed and so not survive to become Achilles’ wife.
Story of Iphianassa
The Achaeans are held back in their onslaught against Troy
There is a need to appease Achilles, whose withdrawal precipitated the stasis.
The offer of Agamemnon, gifts and all, includes the offer of his daughter Iphianassa in marriage to Achilles.
Deceptive marriage: Achilles will not survive to become Iphianassa’ husband
There are other ways to set out the parallels, but this gives you the general idea. These stories are doublets of one another. There are, it seems to me, sufficient similarities between the stories to shift the burden of proof from readers like me who want to say that the offer is an allusion to the story of Iphigeneia to those who claim that Agamemnon’s ruse of a marriage between Achilles and a daughter of Agamemnon (named Iphi-anassa) is not related to the ruse of a marriage between Achilles and a daughter of Agamemnon (named Iphi-geneia), where both ruses are designed to move the Achaeans from a position of stasis incurred by Agamemnon’s slighting of an important figure (in the one case the gods (specifically, Artemis) and in the other case the son of a god (Achilles).
But isn’t there a crippling objection to this allusion? The objection to my hypothesis that Agememnon’s offer in Iliad 9 alludes to the narrative of Iphigeneia as we know if from later sources (and thus that the story of Iphigeneia is part of the tradition from an early period) is the following. If Agamemnon is offering his daughter to Achilles, and if it is an allusion to the Iphigeneia story, this offer within his overall promise to Achilles, is an extremely weak form of an offer. No, not just weak, but laughable. I mean to say, that the earlier experience at Aulis should close off that particular avenue of persuasion: Achilles is not likely to fall for the ol’ “marry-my-daughter trick” twice in the same epic.
The answer to this problem will shed light on the above discussion of narrative strategies and the tradition. For the Iphigeneia problem is a riddle: how can the obvious allusion to the story of Iphigeneia with the name of Iphianassa and the offer of a daughter to Achilles even be an “allusion,” since the event to which it is to allude is not only absent from the elements of the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey but if it were present would destroy the rhetorical force of Agamemnon’s offer itself? In other words, in the ordinary sense of an allusion to a text, these stories, as similar as they are, cannot be allusions to one another. Yet the parallel, once pointed out, is inescapable. The allusion, to put it starkly, is as palpable as it is out of the question.
The solution to this puzzle is the traditional strategy that I have been arguing for, namely the strategy of 4th person narration: as I suggested above the narratival elements used in 4th person narration are not necessarily—in point of fact, not usually—engaged as part of the main narrative. The quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles is not part of the embassy’s narrative; it is instead used as part of the meaning of the scene through 4th person narration. So, too, the story of Clytemnestra’s grudge against Agamemnon is not part of the first book of the Iliad but it is alluded to implicitly through the insult of Agamemnon, by means of 4th person narration. And to the current point, the story of Iphigeneia is not only not part of the Iliad’s narrative, it must not be part of the Iliad’s narrative for Agamemnon’s offer to have any coherence at all.
So the elements of 4th person narration include the following:
Elements that are outside of the plot of the epic but part of the tradition.
An address from implied narrator is to an implied audience.
It is my contention that the narrative of the Iphigeneia story is used in the manner of 4th person narration to introduce an element of the tradition in an artful way that supports the notion that Agamemnon’s offer is faulty, tainted, unacceptable by Achilles. The deception, explicit in the Iphigeneia narrative, is implicit in Agamemnon’s offer. I summarize and review by saying that it could not under the circumstances be explicit for two reasons. First, the rhetorical purpose of the scene would be threatened by such an allusion: it is not likely that Achilles, or anyone else, would miss the problematic nature of such an offer. Second, the narrative is not a part of the narrative selection that comprises our Iliad. [9]
Let me summarize thus far: From Nagy’s work, I accept that the problem of the duals in Iliad 9 is erased, if, as Nagy does, one sees the duals as excluding Odysseus; with that conclusion the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles is engaged from the tradional story that in the song of Demodocus, as explicated by Nagy in Odyssey 8. [10] It is not selected as part of the narratival elements that make up either of our two big epics, but it is introduced into the embassy scene. The theoretical basis of such an allusion needs to account for a non-plot element intruding into the plot of the current work.
Thus far the theory that makes aesthetically acceptable the allusion in Iliad 9 to the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles, is the same as the theory that makes aesthetically acceptable the allusion to Iphigeneia in Agamemnon’s offer to Achilles in Iliad 9; other such passages, such as Agamemnon’s slight at Clytemnestra can be found. Furthermore examples of such a kind of allusion to elements that, while part of the tradition-horde of Homeric narrative, are not engaged in the process of selection of the epic that we are currently experiencing—examples of this kind of thing are not hard to find. To put it differently, this theoretical construct accounts for something that is part of the competence or both audience and performer in Homeric narrative. To summarize, an epic narrative within the Homeric tradition selects certain elements from the tradition for its narrative skeleton. The selection process is exemplified in the prooimial material that we know, and we are, years after Parry, quite familiar with the process of having different versions of any given narrative. It is from the left over material, after the selection process is enacted, that 4th person narration comes into play. The effect of this narrative strategy, as with all narrative strategies, is to deepen the effect of the narrative-fiction being presented.
I can only be very brief here, but let me try to say how this deepening of the narratival material affects the meaning of the text. As Nagy says, the allusion to the traditional element called the “quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles” has artistic purpose. [11] I add two points. First, that that artistic purpose is consistent with the immediate rhetorical purpose of Iliad 9, namely to have Agamemnon’s offer be rejected by Achilles. The offer itself is problematic in many ways but this impropriety is emphasized in a dramatic way by placing it in the context of the signature opposition in the Homeric poems, that between Achilles, the hero of biē and Odysseus, the hero of mētis. Second, the new material brings the macro-tradition (as opposed to the micro-tradition of the current plot) into the picture.
That is to say, the use of 4th person narration where the traditional-narrator communicates with the traditional audience using material within the tradition-horde of Homeric narration but outside the selection from the horde made by the current narrative—this kind of narration expands and deepens the meaning of the text that we have. Not only is the text of the Iliad a coherently plotted meaningful work, but it reaches out to the macro-tradition in a way that is also meaningful. [12] But what kind of meaning is this?

A Kind of Meaning

At the risk of straining my readers’ patience, I will move toward concluding this essay by suggesting the kind of meaning that we are dealing with. I return to the beginning and invoke the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. This quarrel is not merely an adventitious reference to a νεῖκος, any old νεῖκοσ. Rather it has a macro-meaning, referring to the tradition from which these poems emerge. That is to say, the self-referentiality of the “quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus” reminds the audience of the cultural value of the performances of the Iliad and the Odyssey. By cultural value I refer to the unitary project of performing and Iliad and an Odyssey as part of a single cultural gesture.
The evidence for the quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus is not merely the song of Demodocus; nor is it the accumulation of the song of Demodocus and the allusion in Iliad 9 through the Homeric use of the duals. The two epic poems themselves announce it by presenting a poem centered on Achilles and another centered on Odysseus. The basic principle involved in such an organization of the two 24-book-long works is also marked by Munro’s Law. For convenience, let me cite how I put this in an earlier article (Walsh 1999:161):
… Munro’s Law, named after the scholar D. B. Munro, who noticed that no event named in the Odyssey as having happend at Troy is mentioned in the Iliad, whose action takes place at Troy, and that no event mentioned in the Iliad is ever remembered in the Odyssey (Nagy 1979:20–21). This feature points to a genre-based avoidance of narrative elements covered by either poem, if such events are mentioned in the other poem; in a traditional culture this is quite a feat and, as has been convincingly argued, it must be deliberate (Nagy 1979:20–21). A corollary to Munro’s Law is that to produce an Iliad and an Odyssey, the poets in the tradition must have been conscious that the production of both these texts is part of a unitary project: that is to say, the tradition is not producing and Iliad, and then an Odyssey, but the combination Iliad + Odyssey.
Munro’s Law is consistent with the 4th person narration that I have argued for in the embassy passage. The narrative strategy called 4th person narration thus serves to bring the macro-tradition into the micro-narrative.
But the strongest supporting evidence is often the small gesture that indicates a unitary field behind the narratives as we read them.
Here are some passages that support the notion that the Iliad and the Odyssey are a unitary project.

Helen’s Cup

I have argued elsewhere that Helen’s Cup passage in Odyssey 4 has the kind of 4th person allusion that I am arguing for here:
The lines (of the Helen’s Cup passage) correspond to the thematic concerns of the two major survivals of the Homeric tradition, namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
a.) Odyssey:
οὐδ’ εἴ οἱ κατατεθναίη μήτηρ τε πατήρ τε (Odyssey 4.224)
“Not even if his own mother died and his father.”
b.) Iliad:
οὐδ’ εἴ οἱπροπάροιθεν ἀδελφεὸν ἤ φίλον υἱὸν
χαλκῷ δηιόῳεν, ὅ δ’ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῷτο (Odyssey 4.225–226)
“Not if before his very eyes they cut down a brother or a beloved son.”
Thus one part of the Helen’s Cup passage refers to an Iliadic context, the other to an Odyssean context.
Such latent references, which I identify as part of the 4th person narrative strategy, are frequent in the poems.

Individual Lines that Assert the Merisim, Iliad + Odyssey

Consider the following set of lines:
Il. 9.20 [=5.716]: Ἴλιον ἐκπέρσαντ’ ἐυτείχεον ἀπονέεσθαι.
Od. 2.343: οἴκαδε νοστεήσειε καὶ ἄλγεα πολλὰ μογήσας
Il. 1.19: ἐκπέρσαι Πριάμοιο πόλιν, εὖ δ’ οἴκαδ’ ἱκέσθαι.
Il. 1.151: ἤ ὁδὸν ἐλθέμεναι ἤ ἀνδράσιν ἶφι μάχεσθαι.
Il. 2.453: τοῖσι δ’ ἄφαρ πόλεμοσ γλυκίων γένετ’ ἠὲ νέεσθαι.
Ιn each of the above examples, the highlighted part of the line refers to an Iliadic tradition and the other, printed in boldface, to an Odyssean tradition. There are other examples, but at this point it is time to ask: What we are to make of this? One way of looking at these examples is to say that the poem, without referring to performances, or texts, or any other kind of micro verbal artistry, is alluding to the very elements of the Homeric tradition that have survived to us as intact: namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey. [13]
Now I put that observation next to the numerous examples of a “quarrel between Achilles and Odysseus,” in order to hypothesize that part of the project of the Homeric poets was to present the tradition as a kind of merism. I use Calvert Watkins’ definition from How to Kill a Dragon: “a two-part figure which makes reference to the totality of a single concept.” [14] Looking at the Homeric poems in this way, as a merism, with the Iliad and the Odyssey each standing for a part of the tradition, and the pair, representing a “whole” of the tradition, leaves us with a rationale for the various indexical moments when the poet, by using 4th person narration or mimetic allusion, or even in just composing beautiful hexameters—I refer to the examples just quoted—reminds us that these narratives are part of a macro-strategy including and making cohere vast amounts of Homeric narrative into a whole that includes both plotted elements of the tradition and non-plotted, or “external” elements of the tradition. The result gives a sense of “completion” or “wholeness” that would be hard to achieve other than through these methods.
There are a number of theoretical issues here that must wait their turn to be taken up. For example, what is the relationship between the plot of either epic and the overall deployment of the other traditional elements as reflected in, for example, “the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus” or “the events at Aulis”? But I want to bring these comments to a close with a gesture towards one other feature of similar strategies in the poems that we have. I am happy to say these last observations are part of a works-in-progress, an open-handed and open-ended bow to Greg and what his work means for me.

Homeric Homologies

It is possible to build a case not only that the Iliad and the Odyssey are built with each other in mind, with the evidence from the νεῖκος between Achilles and Odysseus, the meristic lines, the 4th person narrations and mimetic allusions. To those pieces of evidence, I add a list of what may be called Homeric Homologies, where the epics place similar narrative elements “across” from each other or in tandem. Here is a partial list from a growing dossier:
Iliad Odyssey
Il. 1. ff. Council of the Achaeans Od. 2.1 ff Council of the gods
Il. 9.189 ff.—Achilles’ song Od. 9.1 ff.—Odysseus’s song
Il. 10. Doloneia Od. 11. Nekuia
Il. 19.397 ff. Achilles’ horses Od. 17.291 ff. Odysseus’s dog, Argos [15]
Il. 24—Priams’s encounter with Achilles Od. 24—Laertes’ encounter with Odysseus
The Homeric Homologies link the poems in tandem. What could be the purpose of such a scheme? Acknowledging that this presentation is suggestive and not definitive, let me say a few things about how such a well-thought out scheme could be accounted for.
In Douglas Frame’s Hippota Nestor, in Chapter 11, “The Festival of Panionia and the Homeric Poems,” there is a welcome addition to our vision of the agonistic model of Greek cultural production:
I think that we must allow for the element of collaboration however un-Greek it may seem at first, in the creation of the Homeric poems …
The ellipses points will be filled in after I make my main point, namely, that cooperation, collaboration, or some sense of a collective project is necessary to understand the aesthetic unity of the poems. Frame argues for a creation of the poems as we have them at The Festival of the Panionia, and I find the argument he makes compelling. Needless to say, I cannot do justice right now to the analysis he deploys to support his hypothesis; what I really need for my purposes is the notion that the poems are a unity (Frame 2009:560):
Does it not seem strange that the arena in which these rhapsodes [at the Panathenaia] competed, namely the performance of the Homeric poems, in the end produced a highly collaborative effort? I think we must allow for the element of collaboration however un-Greek it may seem at first, in the creation of the Homeric poems at the Panionia.
It is this kind of “highly collaborative effort” that could emphasize aesthetic strategies for which we have to devise names like 4th person narration, mimetic allusion, Munro’s Law, or the Homeric Homologies. The result is a literary-cultural artefact like the Iliad-Odyssey, a merism of the highest order, one that encompasses as it points to the tradition as a whole, even as it constructs a narrative fiction, with plot, character, and incident of a singularly extraordinary aesthetic order.
August 20, 2012

Works Cited

Scott, John. 1921. The Unity of Homer. Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Apter, Emily. 2006. Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton.
Frame, Douglas. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 37. Washington, DC.
Martin, Richard. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad. Ithaca and London.
Muellner, Leonard. 1996. The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic. Ithaca and London.
Nagler, Michael N. 1974. Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer. Berkeley.
Nagy, Gregory. 1974. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature. Cambridge, MA.
———. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Society. 2nd ed. 1999. Baltimore.
Walsh, Thomas R. 2001. “Kuhn’s Paradigms and Dumézil’s Trifunctional Theory: The Case of Iliad 9.” Proceedings of the 12th Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference. Journal of Indo-European Monograph Series 40:205–222.
———. 1999. “Towards the Poetics of Potions: Helen’s Cup and Indo-European Comparanda.” Proceedings of the Tenth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference. Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph Series 32:147–163.
———. [unpublished] “The Father of the Bride: Agamemnon’s Daughter in Iliad 9.”
Watkins, Calvert. 1995. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York.
Whitman, Cedric. 1958. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge, MA.


[ back ] 1. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.
[ back ] 2. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
[ back ] 3. My discussion is linked to that in Best, Chapter 3§9ff.
[ back ] 4. Best, Chapter 3§19.
[ back ] 5. Note the literary approach in Nagy’s formulations: “the Embassy Scene as we have it is not a clumsy patchwork of mutually irreconcilable texts but rather an artistic orchestration of variant narrative traditions.” See also: “For an audience familiar with another version of the story where Achilles had only two emissaries to greet, the retention of the dual greeting when Odysseus is included in the Embassy surely amounts to an artistic masterstroke in the narrative” (Best, Chapter 3 §19). One more passage that highlights the artistic valence of the hypothesis: “On the level o[f] content, this interpretation is viable if an 'Embassy of Ajax and Phoinix to Achilles' had been a stock theme of Greek epic tradition and if the story of an enmity between Odysseus and Achilles had likewise been traditional. If we find evidence to support these two propositions, then we could also claim that the Embassy episode of Iliad IX has, from the standpoint of, say, an audience in the eighth century B.C., much higher artistic merit than what we can see in a text without attested precedents. Then we could confidently reject any superficial impression of ours that the Embassy is an imperfect story, marred by a clumsy deployment of misplaced duals,” (Best, Chapter 3§17).
[ back ] 6. I hasten to use as support for this connection between Achilles and the narrator Richard Martin’s The Language of Heroes.
[ back ] 7. I think it is significant that this allusion occurs at the beginning of the Iliad, but I will have to argue that point on another occasion.
[ back ] 8. L. Muellner, The Anger of Achilles : Mēnis in Greek Epic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
[ back ] 9. I have mentioned before the convincing argument that Agamemnon’s offer is a form of potlatch, asserting power through gifting, Muellner 1996:141. Agamemnon’s offer is faulty in so many ways that the question of whether Achilles “should” accept such an offer is one of the epic’s fundamental ethical problems.
[ back ] 10. Nagy 1979.
[ back ] 11. See note above.
[ back ] 12. I will want to link this idea with the “expansion aesthetic” that Richard Martin develops in Chapter 5 of The Language of Heroes.
[ back ] 13. I have elsewhere developed the notion of “mimetic allusion” to deepen the reading of the Iphianassa passage in Iliad 9. The terms “mimetic allusion” and “4th person narration” are complementary and depend on the questions being asked of the passage. I resist digressing on this matter now, and I hope to get a chance to develop this further. See bibliography, Walsh [unpublished].
[ back ] 14. Watkins 1995:45–46; and see Watkins’s examples in the text for a full sense of the power of this trope.
[ back ] 15. I thank E. J. W. Barber for pointing out this parallel to me, p.c. April 19, 1998.