9. Ellipsis in Homeric Poetry*

9§1 This essay concentrates on four questions: (1) What is ellipsis? (2) How does ellipsis work in Homeric songmaking? (3) How does ellipsis typify Homeric songmaking? (4) How does Homeric songmaking use ellipsis to typify itself?

A Working Definition

9§2 In the dictionary of Liddell and Scott, the verb elleípō (ἐλλείπω) is defined as (1) leave in, leave behind; (2) leave out, leave undone; (3) fall short, fail. [1] The abstract noun élleipsis, derived from this verb, designates a ‘leaving out’ of something, as we see from the use of the word in a grammatical sense: in Athenaeus 644b, for example, the term élleipsis (ἔλλειψις) is applied to explain the word plakoûs ‘flatbread’ as consisting of an adjective ‘flat’ plus substantive ártos ‘bread’ understood. That is, the substantive can be inferred katà élleipsin ‘by ellipsis’. Where we would say “adjective with substantive understood,” Athenaeus is saying “adjective with substantive by way of ellipsis.” {157|158}
9§3 Let us pursue the idea of “understood” elements in a given combination by highlighting the principle of the elliptic plural in ancient Greek. Ordinarily, the plural of a given entity, let us say A, will designate A + A + A + …. On the other hand, the elliptic plural of an entity A will designate A + B + C + …. Here are two examples:
1. τόξον [tóxon] ‘bow’ (as in Iliad IV 124) vs. τόξα [tóxa] ‘bow and arrows’ (as in Iliad XXI 502) = ‘bow + arrow + arrow + arrow + …’ [2]
2. πατήρ [patḗr] ‘father’ vs. πατέρες [patéres] ‘ancestors’ = ‘father + his father + his father + his father +…’ [3]
9§4 Similarly, the elliptic dual will designate A + B, unlike the A + A of the “normal” dual. For example, Sanskrit singular pitā́ is ‘father’ but dual pitárau is not ‘two fathers’ but rather ‘father and mother’.
9§5 What is “left out” by way of ellipsis need not be left out “for good,” as it were. It may be a matter of shading over. What is shaded over in one place may be highlighted in another. In other words, the location of the ellipsis may vary: it can be at the ending, at the middle, or at the beginning of a sequence.
9§6 So far, we have seen examples of ellipsis at the beginning plus the middle or at the middle plus the ending. In the case of πατήρ [patḗr] ‘father’ vs. πατέρες [patéres] ‘ancestors’ = ‘father + his father + his father + his father + …’, for example, the father concludes a sequence of an unspecified number of ancestors, potentially starting with a first father. [4] Here I surmise that the beginning and middle are shaded over, while the ending—one’s own father—is highlighted as an instance of all preceding fathers. In the case of τόξον [tóxon] ‘bow’ vs. τόξα [tóxa] ‘bow and arrows’ = ‘bow + arrow + arrow + arrow + …’, on the other hand, the bow initiates a sequence of an unspecified number of arrows, potentially ending with a last arrow. Here I surmise that the middle and ending are shaded over, while the beginning is highlighted.
9§7 Ellipsis can even highlight what is being said at the very end of a given sequence for the purpose of referring to the very beginning. For example, the ending of the first sentence of Herodotus’ History signals the point of departure for the history: … τά τε ἄλλα καὶ δι᾿ ἣν αἰτίην ἐπολέμησαν ἀλλήλοισι ‘including all the other things [álla] but especially the cause for their entering into war with each other’. Each of the álla ‘other things’ is in {158|159} effect an állo ‘other thing’: thus we have a sequence of álla = állo + állo + állo +…, with the last element of the sequence referring back to the first element which had logically started the sequence of events—and which is yet to be stated by the History—that is, the original cause of the war about to be narrated. [5]
9§8 There is also ellipsis of the middle, the leaving out of the middle man or men, as it were. An example is the figure of the merism, in the sense of “a bipartite, commonly asyndetic noun phrase serving to designate globally an immediately higher taxon.” [6] That is, the combination of two words can express a totality that is merely framed rather than filled by the two individual referents that match these two individual words. Thus for example the Hittite expression ˙alkiß ZÍZ-tar, literally ‘barley (and) wheat’, designates all cereals, not just barley and wheat. [7] It is as if Hittite ‘barley and wheat’ were barley and wheat and every other kind of grain in between.

Elliptic Constructions in Homer

9§9 We turn to actual cases of ellipsis in Homeric composition. It is important to concede, from the start, that all discourse is to some extent elliptic. Still, keeping the focus on the formal mechanisms that make ellipsis possible, even explicit, I propose to offer a sample of some specific mechanisms, as attested in the Iliad and Odyssey.
9§10 It is instructive to begin with a striking example of a singular of a given noun where we might have expected the plural:
Text 1a
|78 ὣς ἄρα φωνήσασ' ἀπέβη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη |79 πόντον ἐπ' ἀτρύγετον, λίπε δὲ Σχερίην ἐρατεινήν, |80 ἵκετο δ’ ἐς Μαραθῶνα καὶ εὐρυάγυιαν Ἀθήνην, |81 δῦνε δ' Ἐρεχθῆος πυκινὸν δόμον. αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς |82 Ἀλκινόου πρὸς δώματ’ ἴε κλυτά·
|78 Speaking thus, Athena [Athḗnē], with the looks of an owl, went off |79 over the barren sea, leaving behind lovely Skheria. |80 She came to Marathon and to Athens [Athḗnē], with its wide causeways, |81 and she entered the well-built house of Erekhtheus. As for Odysseus, |82 he headed for the renowned palace of Alkinoos.
Odyssey vii 78–81{159|160}
We see here at verse 80 an exceptional attestation of the word for ‘Athens’ in the singular, Athḗnē. Elsewhere, ‘Athens’ is Athênai, in the plural. We see the plural form as we look ahead at Text 1d below, verse 546, and we see it in general everywhere in ancient Greek literature.
9§11 As we look back at verse 80 of Text 1a, we notice that this form Athḗnē, meaning ‘Athens’, is identical with the form that means ‘the goddess Athene’—or Athena, in the Latinized spelling—as attested at verse 78 of Text 1a and at verse 547 of Text 1d. Why, then, is ‘Athens’ in the singular at verse 80 of Text 1a? Second, can we even say that this is the same Athens that we know from later sources? Third, can we say that the plural Athênai in the sense of ‘Athens’ is a functionally elliptic construction?
9§12 Let us start with the first question, why is Athens in the singular here? On the level of surface metrical structure, we can justify the combination of singular substantive and singular epithet on the grounds that it scans, that is, on the grounds that it fits the metrical requirements of the dactylic hexameter, whereas the plural of this combination would clash with these requirements. If we look at Text 1b, we can see what would happen if the plural of ‘Athens’ were slotted into the same metrical position within the dactylic hexameter and if it kept the same epithet assigned to the singular form as attested at verse 80 of Text 1a:
Text 1b
*…εὐρυαγυίας Ἀθήνας [option canceled]
This combination is purely hypothetical (hence the prefixed asterisk) and in fact untenable for three mechanical reasons: (1) we expect the last syllable of the epithet εὐρυαγυίας to be long; [8] (2) the first syllable of the word for ‘Athens’ in this position has to be short; (3) the second syllable of the word for ‘Athens’ has to be long. These three specific reasons add up to one overriding general reason: such a hypothetical combination of words would produce a rhythmical sequence of long + short + long (the criterion of measure is syllabic length), and this sequence is systematically shunned in Homeric diction. [9] I should add that the same idea, as expressed by this hypothetical epithet + noun combination, could indeed be expressed, within the same metrical framework, by another epithet + noun combination: {160|161}
Text 1c
… εὐρυχόρους ἐς Ἀθήνας

‘… to Athens, with its spacious area for song and dance’
Herodotean Life of Homer, par. 28
9§13 Moving to the second question, we may ask: can we even say that this ‘Athens’ in Odyssey vii 80 is the same ‘Athens’ that we know from the historical period? The answer emerges from the next major relevant passage:
Text 1d
|546 Οἳ δ' ἄρ’ Ἀθήνας εἶχον ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον |547 δῆμον Ἐρεχθῆος μεγαλήτορος, ὅν ποτ’ Ἀθήνη |548 θρέψε Διὸς θυγάτηρ, τέκε δὲ ζείδωρος ἄρουρα, |549 κὰδ δ’ ἐν Ἀθήνῃς εἷσεν ἑῷ ἐν πίονι νηῷ· |550 ἔνθα δέ μιν ταύροισι καὶ ἀρνειοῖς ἱλάονται |551 κοῦροι Ἀθηναίων περιτελλομένων ἐνιαυτῶν· |552 τῶν αὖθ’ ἡγεμόνευ’ υἱὸς Πετεῶο Μενεσθεύς.
|546 And there were those who held Athens [Athênai], well-founded city |547 which was the district [dêmos] of Erekhtheus, the one with the mighty heart, whom once upon a time Athena [Athḗnē] |548 nourished, [10] daughter of Zeus, but the grain-giving earth gave birth to him. |549 And she [= Athena] established him in Athens [Athênai], in her own rich temple. |550 There he is supplicated, with sacrifices of bulls and rams, |551 by the young men of Athens, each time the seasonal moment comes round. [11] |542 And their [= the Athenians’] leader was Menestheus, son of Peteoos.
Iliad II 546–552
The ‘Athens’ of text Text 1d must surely be the same place as the ‘Athens’ of Text 1a, as we see from the reference at verse 549 to the temple of Athena as the home of the goddess. At verse 547, we see that the temple is also home for the hero Erekhtheus, whom Athena establishes inside her temple, much as {161|162} the goddess Aphrodite establishes the hero Phaethon inside her own temple in Hesiod Theogony 990–991. [12] Similarly in Text 1a, the singular ‘Athens’ is the home of the hero Erekhtheus at verse 81, and it seems to be the home of the goddess Athena, who is described as going to the palace of Erekhtheus, situated in a place that has a name identical to the name of the goddess. While Odysseus proceeds to the palace of Alkinoos, Athena flies off to the palace of Erekhtheus. So Athena’s city par excellence is presumably Athens.
9§14 It remains to determine, to be sure, how far back in time we may apply this formulation. Already in the era of the Linear B tablets, we find a distinct goddess named Athā́nā (spelled a-ta-na- in the syllabary), equivalent of Homeric Athḗnē:
Text 1e
a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja = Athā́nāi potníāi (dative) ‘to the Lady [potnia] Athena’
Linear B tablet V 52 from Knossos
πότνι᾿ Ἀθηναίη ‘lady [potnia] Athena’
Iliad VI 305
9§15 The Linear B tablets provide no direct information, however, about the name for the city of Athens. We need not assume that the goddess worshipped at Knossos in the second millennium BCE was known as the goddess of Athens. Still, the city of Athens was perhaps already then understood as belonging to the goddess. (Addendum, dated 2017.08.05... For an alternative interpretation of a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja, ‘for the lady [potnia] of Athens’, contradicting the interpretation given here, ‘for the lady [potnia] Athena’, see Nagy, G. 2015.09.10. Classical Inquiries. http://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/from-athens-to-crete-and-back/, especially §4.)
9§16 Putting such questions aside, let us return to what seems more certain: that Athḗnē the goddess and Athḗnē the city in Text 1a are the same as Athḗnē the goddess and Athḗnai the city in Text 1d. True, Athḗnē and Athênai may be the appropriate designations of the same place at different times. The exceptional instance of singular Athḗnē in Text 1a may reflect a relatively earlier context. According to Martin P. Nilsson, the relationship between goddess (Athene) and king (Erekhtheus) is here still in a “Mycenaean” stage in their relationship. [13] We see here the goddess as a patroness of the king in power and as a resident in his palace. She is his ultimate tenant, Mycenaean style, occupying as her abode a shrine-room within the palace. By contrast, the instances of plural Athênai as in Text 1d reflect a later stage in the relationship of Athena and Erekhtheus, when the palace of the king has been transformed into the temple of the goddess. What we now see, from the perspective of a palace-turned-temple, is a hero who is worshipped within the sacred precinct of a goddess. From the viewpoint of the there-and-then identified with heroic times, Erekhtheus is a king empowered by Athena. {162|163} From the viewpoint of the narrator’s here-and-now, by contrast, he is the protégé of the goddess, a cult-figure sharing in her overall cult.
9§17 In sum, the perspective of the distant past allows a residual situation, where Athens is in the singular, whereas the narrator’s perspective of his own here-and-now requires Athens to be in the plural. We have yet to refine, to be sure, what it means to say “the narrator’s perspective of his own here-and-now.”
9§18 In fact, many questions remain about the semantics of any contrast between singular Athḗnē and plural Athênai. Even when the singular is used to designate the whole city, is that usage not in itself an implicit ellipsis, as distinct from the explicit ellipsis of the plural? Does the identification of the name of the goddess with the name of the city imply that the concept of the goddess subsumes the concept of the city? Or, to put it another way, does the essence of the goddess lead into the essence of her population? Here is a list of some possible parallels:
Text 1f
Θήβη [Thḗbē] = Thebe the Nymph, vs. Θῆβαι [Thêbai] = Thebes [14]
Text 1g
Μυκήνη [Mukḗnē] = Mycene the Nymph, vs. Μυκῆναι [Mukênai] = Mycenae [15]
Text 1h
Μεσσήνη [Messḗnē] = Messene the heroine; [16] cf. Linear B me-za-na [17]
Text 1i
Φίλιππος [Phílippos] = Philip, vs. Φίλιπποι [Phílippoi] = Philippi [18]
Text 1j
Modern Greek example, from the Island of Ikaria, where the town-name in the plural designates the town and its environs [19]
9§19 Of all available traces of residual ellipsis, the most striking example is this one:
Text 2a
ἐκ μὲν Κρητάων γένος εὔχομαι εὐρειάων,
ἀνέρος ἀφνειοῖο πάις· …

I proclaim that I am by birth from Crete [plural], the far-and-wide,
the son of a rich man…
Odyssey xiv 199–200 {163|164}
Text 2b
ἐκ μὲν Κρητάων γένος εὔχεται εὐρειάων,
φησὶ δὲ πολλὰ βροτῶν ἐπὶ ἄστεα δινηθῆναι

He proclaims that he is by birth from Crete [plural], the far-and-wide,
and he says that he has wandered around over many cities of mortals,
veering from his path. [20]
Odyssey xvi 62–64
There is of course only one island of Crete, and we may readily conclude that the plural usage reflects the idea of “Crete and everything that belongs to it.” Such an idea corresponds to the historical construct of a “Minoan thalassocracy,” as already intuited by Thucydides (1.4), who speaks of King Minos of Crete as the founder of a prototypical naval empire extending throughout the Cyclades Islands and beyond. [21]
9§20 So far, we have looked at elliptic constructions in Homer from a diachronic viewpoint. But what are the implications of ellipsis from the synchronic viewpoint of composition-in-performance? A case in point is the problem of the dual of the heroic name Aíās ‘Ajax’, that is, Aíante. I will summarize the key Homeric contexts of the dual Ajax, which I henceforth write simply as Aiante, by quoting from a 1959 book on the Iliad by Denys Page, representing what he himself calls an “analyst” as opposed to “unitarian” interpretation of the epic. [22] At key moments, I will interrupt Page’s words by noting salient opportunities for alternative explanations. [23]
9§21 Page’s central argument is that the “original” meaning of Aiante is not Ajax Major (son of Telamon) and Ajax Minor (son of Oileus) but Ajax and his half-brother Teucer. He speaks of a place “where the original meaning of Aiante, ‘Ajax and his brother’, is deeply embedded in the Iliad.” [24] The passage is Iliad XIII 177 and following, and here is what Page says about it (wording emphasized by Page is formatted in italics, while wording emphasized by me is formatted in yellow highlights):
Ajax and his brother Teucer are fighting side by side. Teucer kills Imbrios: he therefore has the right to strip the body of its armour; and he sets out to do so. Hector intervenes, but is repelled by Ajax; and the Aiante proceed to drag and despoil the body of Imbrios. Here it is very obvious that Aiante means “Ajax and Teucer”; nobody else took part in the killing of Imbrios; {164|165} nobody else has any interest in, or claim to, the spoils. It is indeed so obvious, that the later poets were inspired to correct what they thought to be a mistake. If the term Aiante was used, the smaller Ajax must have been engaged in the action; let us proceed at once to say “that the head of Imbrios was now cut off by Ajax the son of Oileus.” [Iliad XIII 203]. This we shall certainly not tolerate: what, we shall ask this bounding intruder, are you doing with a head which belongs to us? Imbrios was our victim, not yours: Teucer killed him, Ajax helped to secure the body; you had nothing whatever to do with him. The smaller Ajax pops into the scene suddenly, and out of it again immediately, having done his simple duty; which was, to bring the term Aiante into line with modern opinion. [25]
In the case of a similar problem, the use of the duals where we expect plurals in the “Embassy” passage of Iliad IX, Page again resorts to the rhetorical device of an apostrophe addressed to a Homeric character: “Unhappy Phoenix, Achilles’ oldest friend, not one single word of you; and if that were not enough, your leadership is instantly and silently taken from you.” [26] In this case, Page thinks that Phoenix is the odd man out in the dual references to what seems to be a trio comprised of Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus. [27]
9§22 Let us return to the problem of the meaning of Aiante, as Page sees it:
The trouble began in [Iliad XII] 343 ff.: Menestheus sent a herald [28] to fetch Ajax, “both, if possible, otherwise Telamonian Ajax alone.” In order that “both” might signify “both Ajaxes” instead of “Ajax and Teucer,” a line was added, 350, “and let Teucer come with him” (repeated 363); the addition was properly athetized by Aristarchus as wanting in MS authority. [29] When he hears the message, Telamonian Ajax tells Oilean Ajax to stay where he is; he himself and Teucer go to help Menestheus. Thus in [Iliad XII] 400 ff. Telamonian Ajax and Teucer fight side by side, having left Oilean Ajax in another quarter. And now Poseidon ([Iliad XIII] 46 ff.) speaks to the Aiante: who are they? Obviously Ajax and Teucer, for the poet has just gone out of his way to tell us that the two Ajaxes are not together. But once again the occurrence of the term Aiante leads to a jack-in-the-box intrusion by Oilean Ajax ([Iliad XIII] 66 ff.), just as it does in the later passage (197 ff.); in this {165|166} case the confusion is great and obvious, since we were told a moment ago in so much detail that the one Ajax had separated himself from the other. [30]
I suggest, however, that there is no “confusion,” and that it is inaccurate to speak of “intrusions.” Instead, if we adopt an evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry, there are simply different levels of recomposition-in-performance, which are traces of an evolving fixity or textualization—and I use this term without implying the presence of written texts. [31]

Elliptic Meaning in Homer

9§23 Here we reach the third question to be asked: how does ellipsis typify Homeric songmaking? A related question has just been raised as we contemplated the shift in the meaning of Aiante, from Ajax and Ajax to Ajax and Teucer: what are the implications of ellipsis from the synchronic viewpoint of composition-in-performance? Another related question is this: is it even possible to speak of a synchronic analysis of Homer? The evidence of ellipsis suggests that the answer has to be a complex one.
9§24 A case in point is the reference at Iliad XII 335–336 to Αἴαντε δύω … Τεῦκρόν τε ‘the two Aiante … and Teucer’. According to the commentaries, the explicit mention of Teucer here means that ‘the two Aiante’ must have been understood as Ajax Maior and Ajax Minor. [32] And yet, from a diachronic point of view, this kind of syntactic construction actually retains the elliptic function in the dual, thereafter highlighting what was initially shaded over by the ellipsis. That is, the implicit Teucer in the expression ‘the two Aiante’ is joined to an explicit naming of Teucer. We see parallels in other Indo-European languages, as for example in the Indic expression Mitrā́ … Váruṇo yáś-ca in Rig-Veda 8.25.2, meaning ‘dual-Mitra [= Mitra and Varuṇa] and he who is Varuṇa’ = ‘Mitra and Varuna’; similarly in French, nous deux Paul means ‘I and Paul’ = ‘the two of us, one of whom is Paul’, not ‘I and you (or he / she / it) and Paul’. [33] It is only if Paul gets stranded, as it were, from the two of us that the two of us—nous deux—could default to ‘I and you (or he / she / it)’.
9§25 It is an elusive task, then, to establish the synchrony of the elliptic dual Aíante in the Iliad, or of the singular Athḗnē as opposed to the elliptic plural {166|167} Athênai in the Odyssey. And yet, surely there are synchronic mechanisms in Homeric diction—and surely there must have been at any given historical time and place a synchronic system for generating the language of epic in general. But the question remains: is there a synchronic reality to the world of the epic? My own answer is that there is no such thing. We may perhaps agree that the pattern or system of epic discourse has been for the most part set by, say, the middle of the eighth century BCE, an era of general cultural consolidation in the Greek-speaking world. [34] And yet, this epic discourse may continue to communicate different levels of perspective, even different levels of meaning. We outsiders looking in, as it were, on this system can reconstruct a diachronic dimension in order to highlight some of these different levels of perspective, but there seems to be no level playing field for producing a single perspective. I once said that Homeric diction defies synchronic analysis. [35] This is not to advocate any abandonment of the search for synchronic—or let us say “working”—mechanisms. Rather, it is to emphasize that there are different levels of meaning that cannot be reduced to any one single synchrony.
9§26 These considerations can be brought to bear on the specific problem of duals that seem to be used in the place of plurals in Homeric diction. While some experts have dismissed even the possibility that the dual can be used for the plural, [36] we now know for a fact that the Alexandrian scholars and poets not only admitted the possibility in their Homeric exegesis but also used the device of dual-for-plural in their own poetry when they wished to make specific “citations” of Homer. [37] It can be argued in general that citation, not allusion, is a more accurate term for references to Homeric poetry in Alexandrian poetry: for the Alexandrians, Homer was the absolute source, not only the unsurpassable model. [38]
9§27 In the Alexandrian poetics of figures like Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus, citation is a matter of reusing: a given archaic usage, no longer current in the spoken language, becomes re-used as a mark of the poetic language. In the oral poetics of the Homeric tradition, by contrast, there is no reusing, only reactivation. A case in point is Egbert Bakker’s demonstration that Homeric diction can reactivate the use of verbs without {167|168} augment as a newly active mechanism in expressing “epic tense.” [39] Another case, I suggest, is the “Embassy Scene” of Iliad IX, where the use of the dual becomes reactivated to serve the special purpose of expressing an archaic situation where there should be only two ambassadors even though there are now three. [40] Thus the language of Achilles, in addressing two instead of three ambassadors, can develop the side-effect of effectively snubbing one of the three ambassadors in the context of a newer situation that is recreated out of an older one. [41] In both these cases, then, reactivation of older forms results in newer meanings.
9§28 If indeed there exist different levels of meaning that cannot be smoothed over as one single synchrony, then the elusiveness of a synchronic perspective in Homeric discourse may well be a mark of its essential fluidity. Here I return to the perceptive formulation of Albert Lord:
Our real difficulty arises from the fact that, unlike the oral poet, we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of fluidity. We find it difficult to grasp something that is multiform. It seems to us necessary to construct an ideal text or to seek an original, and we remain dissatisfied with an ever-changing phenomenon. I believe that once we know the facts of oral composition we must cease trying to find an original of any traditional song. From one point of view each performance is an original. [42]
I might add that we must cease trying to find an absolutely final version of any traditional song.
9§29 Arguing that we cannot speak of a single “world of Homer” or a single “age of Homer,” I return to my evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry. [43] Such an evolutionary model differs radically from some other explanations. Here I focus on two examples, formulated by Geoffrey Kirk (1985) and Richard Janko (1992), two of the contributors to The Iliad: A Commentary (produced under the general editorship of Kirk).
9§30 Kirk posits a “big bang” genesis of Homeric poetry. He argues for a one-time “oral” composition achieved by a so-called “monumental composer” sometime in the eighth century BCE, which then continues to be reperformed “orally” by rhapsodes for around two hundred years. [44] A second kind of “big {168|169} bang” theory is offered by Janko, who as we have seen thinks that the Iliad and Odyssey were dictated by Homer himself around the second half of the eighth century BCE [45]
9§31 So far, I have been testing my evolutionary model on the specific problem of dual-Ajax usages in the Iliad. Now let us test the “big bang” models of Kirk and Janko. [46] To start with Kirk, he says that the Aiante were understood as Ajax Major and Ajax Minor “by the monumental composer himself.” [47] But then he adds: “Despite that association, the Locrian Aias [= Ajax] was not greatly admired in the heroic tradition, a reflection perhaps of his light-armed, unheroic and provincial … side.” [48] He recounts the reprehensible or “stupid” things done by this Ajax; [49] later on, commenting on Iliad IV 272–3, he says that “there can be little doubt that here [the Aiante] are the greater Aias [= Ajax] and Teukros [=Teucer], since the Locrian Aias’ light-armed contingent … would hardly be described as ‘bristling with shields and spears’ as at 282 here.” [50]
9§32 As for Janko, he says that the form of Aiante “was reinterpreted to mean two men called Aias [= Ajax], but Teukros [= Teucer] is always nearby; at [Iliad XIII] 202ff. the same hypothesis explains Oilean Aias’ unexpected intrusion in a killing by Teukros and his brother [177–178].” [51] He goes on to say: “This verse [Iliad XIII 46] originally denoted Teukros and Aias, who clearly derives from Mycenaean epic …, but the dual led Homer to insert Oilean Aias and then add Teukros (66f., 92).” [52] Commenting on Iliad XIII 177–178, Janko says that “the poet has momentarily confused Teukros with Aias ‘son of Telamon’, because he was unsure who was meant by ‘the two [Aiante]’ (46).” [53] In considering the mutually contradictory references to the positioning of the Aiante at the ships of the Achaeans, Janko says: “The contradiction over the [Aiante’s] position surely derives from Homer’s pervasive and creative misunderstanding of Aiante, originally ‘Aias and Teukros’ (46n).” [54] Commenting on Iliad XIV 460, Janko says: “The unusual sense of Aiante in earlier stages of the tradition caused confusion over the [Aiante] and Teukros (13.46n); all three are present in this battle.” [55] {169|170}
9§33 We may have expected both these representatives of “big bang” models of composition in the eighth century to devise a corresponding set of “big bang” explanations for the complexities of the dual-Ajax constructions. Instead, they seem to be resorting to explanations based on assumptions of mostly random misinterpretations on the part of the poet.
9§34 From an evolutionary perspective, on the other hand, it is a question of systematic reinterpretations instead of unsystematic misinterpretations, and I find that the views of an old-fashioned “analyst” like Page are more useful for analyzing the complexities of reinterpretation. [56] I should stress at the outset, however, that I distance myself from Page’s assumptions about older and newer poets, about original poets and later redactors, and, especially, about earlier texts and later texts. Still, his wording is replete with suggestive possibilities, as when he says:
Certainly the poet, if asked, would say that Aiante means “the two Ajaxes”; and would admit that he has made a mistake. But he has not made a mistake, except in his interpretation of Aiante; he has preserved an almost obliterated truth, the usage of Aiante in the sense “Ajax and his brother.” Tradition supplied him with a formula for addressing Ajax, Aíante Argeíōn hēgḗtore, in which Ajax’s brother was included; in the early Epic this formula had been employed correctly; and the force of immemorial tradition has preserved it in a few contexts up to the end. It is very natural that the later poet should fail to notice the occasional confusion which is caused by the difference between the old and the new meanings of a word or formula; but no poet would of his own free will, as a positive and creative act, describe the two Ajaxes as joint commanders of an army comprising the regular Salaminians and the highly irregular Locrians. [57]
9§35 The notion of systematic reinterpretation may be described as a process of mouvance. For Paul Zumthor, who pioneered the term, mouvance is a widespread phenomenon in medieval manuscript transmission. He defines it as a “quasi-abstraction” that becomes a reality in the interplay of variant readings in different manuscripts of a given work; he pictures mouvance as a kind of “incessant vibration,” a fundamental process of instability. [58] In another work, I have written extensively about this term, pointing out that {170|171} there has been a great deal of mouvance even in the concept of mouvance. [59] Moreover, I suggest that the association of mouvance with “instability” may be misleading if it implies unsystematic change. To the extent that mouvance is the oral poetic process of recomposition-in-performance, it is a stabilizing rather than destabilizing force.
9§36 It is pertinent here to consider the semantics of the word mīmēsis (henceforth spelled “mimesis”) in the older sense of ‘reenactment’. [60] A driving idea behind this word is the ideal of stability in the reenactment of the “same” thing by a succession of different performers. [61] It is as if the composition remained always the same, even though the performers kept changing. [62] It is as if there were no change in the process of recomposition-in-performance. [63]
9§37 There are numerous examples where the process of change through recomposition-in-performance is not recognized by a living oral tradition as change. A case in point is the following passage from Theognis:
|19 Κύρνε, σοφιζομένωι μὲν ἐμοὶ σφρηγὶς ἐπικείσθω |20 τοῖσδ’ ἔπεσιν, λήσει δ’ οὔποτε κλεπτόμενα, |21 οὐδέ τις ἀλλάξει κάκιον τοὐσθλοῦ παρεόντος· |22 ὧδε δὲ πᾶς τις ἐρεῖ· ‘Θεύγνιδός ἐστιν ἔπη |23 τοῦ Μεγαρέως· πάντας δὲ κατ’ ἀνθρώπους ὀνομαστός.’ |24 ἀστοῖσιν δ’ οὔπω πᾶσιν ἁδεῖν δύναμαι.
|19 Kyrnos, let a seal [sphrāgís] be placed by me, as I practice-my-skill [sophíā], |20 upon these my words. This way, it will never be undetected if they are stolen, |21 and no one can substitute something inferior for the genuine thing that is there. |22 And this is what everyone will say: “These are the words of Theognis |23 of Megara, whose name is known among all mortals.” |24 But I am not yet able to please [= verb handánō] all the townspeople [astoí].
Theognis 19–24
I have written about this passage: {171|172}
Like the code of [a] lawgiver, the poetry of Theognis presents itself as static, unchangeable. In fact, the sphrāgís ‘seal’ of Theognis is pictured as a guarantee that no one will ever tamper with the poet’s words. Outside this ideology and in reality, however, the poetry of Theognis is dynamic, subject [like the law code of Lycurgus] to modifications and accretions that are occasioned by an evolving social order. And the poet is always there, observing it all—despite the fact that the events being observed span an era that goes well beyond a single lifetime. [64]
With his “seal,” the figure of Theognis is authorizing himself, making himself the author. There is an explicit self-description of this author as one who succeeds in sophíā, the ‘skill’ of decoding or encoding poetry. [65] On the basis of this success, the author lays claim to a timeless authority, which resists the necessity of changing just to please the audience of the here and now, who are described as the astoí ‘townspeople’. [66] The author must risk alienation with the audience of the here and now in order to attain the supposedly universal acceptance of the ultimate audience, which is the cumulative response of Panhellenic fame: [67]
|367 Οὐ δύναμαι γνῶναι νόον ἀστῶν ὅντιν’ ἔχουσιν· |368 οὔτε γὰρ εὖ ἕρδων ἁνδάνω οὔτε κακῶς·|369 μωμεῦνται δέ με πολλοί, ὁμῶς κακοὶ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσθλοί· |370 μιμεῖσθαι δ' οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀσόφων δύναται.
|367 I am unable to decide what disposition it is that the townspeople [astoí] have towards me. |368 For I do not please [= verb handánō] them, either when I do for them things that are advantageous or when I do things that are disadvantageous. [68] {172|173} |369 There are many who find blame with me, base and noble men alike. |370But no one who is not skilled [asophos] can reenact [mīmeîsthai] me.
Theognis 367–370
Here the notion of mimesis becomes an implicit promise that no change shall ever occur to accommodate the interests of any local audience in the here and now, that is, of the astoí ‘townspeople’. The authorized reperformance of a composition, if it is a true reenactment or mimesis, can guarantee the authenticity of the “original” composition. The author is saying about himself: “But no one who is not skilled [ a-sophos] can reenact my identity.” [69]
9§38 Here we see an ultimate ellipsis, formulated by poetry about poetry, where an entire succession of performers is being shaded over in order to highlight a single “original” composition-in-performance, executed by a prototypical poet who eclipses all his successors.

Elliptic Homer

9§39 We come now to the fourth and last question: how does Homeric songmaking use ellipsis to typify itself? A prime case in point is the Homeric “I,” which highlights the prototypical singer of tales, elliptically shading over an open-ended succession of rhapsodes in the lengthy evolutionary process of countless recompositions-in-performance over time.
9§40 We have already seen an Iliadic passage that reveals a symbolic reference to such a diachrony of rhapsodes. While Achilles, becoming the ultimate paradigm for singers, is represented as actually performing the epic songs of heroes, kléa andrôn ‘glories of men’ at Iliad IX 189, Patroklos is waiting for his own turn, in order to take up the song precisely where Achilles will have left off. [70]
9§41 I have argued that both the plural usage here of kléa andrôn ‘glories of men’ (as opposed to singular kléos ‘glory’) and the meaning of the name Patrokléēs are pertinent to the rhapsodic implications of this passage: “it is only through Patrokléēs ‘he who has the kléa [glories] of the ancestors’ that the plurality of performance, that is, the activation of tradition, can happen.” [71] In this light, I repeat my earlier argument:
9§42 So long as Achilles alone sings the kléa andrôn ‘glories of men’, these heroic glories cannot be heard by anyone but Patroklos alone. Once Achilles leaves off and Patroklos starts singing, however, the continuum that is {173|174} the kléa andrôn—the Homeric tradition itself—can at long last become activated. This is the moment awaited by Patrokléēs ‘he who has the kléa [glories] of the ancestors’. In this Homeric image of Patroklos waiting for his turn to sing, then, we have in capsule form the esthetics of rhapsodic sequencing. [72]
9§43 By contrast, the “I” of Homer, as in the first verse of the Odyssey, implies that it will always be Homer who is told the tale by the Muse and who will in turn continue to tell it each time he invokes her:
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε Μοῦσα …

Narrate to me, Muse, …
Odyssey i 1
Still, this “I” of Homer is interchangeable with a “we,” as in the ἡμεῖς ‘we’ of Iliad II 486 or in the καὶ ἡμῖν ‘us too’ of Odyssey i 10, and I propose that such a “we” can refer elliptically to a whole vertical succession of performers. [73]
9§44 Still, no ellipsis can ultimately overshadow the lonely uniqueness of the performer when the vertical succession at long last reaches him, when his moment comes in the here-and-now of his own performance. [74] Though the present of performance, as Egbert Bakker notes, must be included into the “accumulated mass of the tradition,” [75] there must remain nevertheless “a certain distance” between the countless performances of the past and the unique performance of the present. [76] What must happen is a “reexperience.” [77] The singer is just about to have such a reexperience when he says about the number of Achaean warriors who came to fight at Troy:
|488 πληθὺν δ’ οὐκ ἂν ἐγὼ μυθήσομαι οὐδ’ ὀνομήνω, |489 οὐδ’ εἴ μοι δέκα μὲν γλῶσσαι, δέκα δὲ στόματ’ εἶεν, |490 φωνὴ δ’ ἄρρηκτος, χάλκεον δέ μοι ἦτορ ἐνείη, {174|175} |491 εἰ μὴ Ὀλυμπιάδες Μοῦσαι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο |492 θυγατέρες μνησαίαθ’ ὅσοι ὑπὸ Ἴλιον ἦλθον· |493 ἀρχοὺς αὖ νηῶν ἐρέω νῆάς τε προπάσας.
|488 But their number I could not tell nor name |489 (not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths |490 and a voice that was unbreaking, and if a heart of bronze were within me) |491 if the Muses of Olympus, of Zeus the aegis-bearer |492 the daughters, did not remind [mnē-] me, [78] how many came to Troy. |493 But now I will say the leaders [arkhoí] of the ships, and all the ships.
Iliad II 488–493
9§45 All of a sudden, the singer steps out of the elliptic shade, and he starts to sing … {175|177}


[ back ] * The original version of this essay is N 1997c.
[ back ] 1. LSJ 535–536.
[ back ] 2. Cf. PH 177–178.
[ back ] 3. PH 177–178.
[ back ] 4. Cf. PH 155 and 192 (with n195) on Peisistratídai in the sense of ‘Peisistratos + his son + his son + his son …’
[ back ] 5. Cf. PH 218n23 and 220–221n34.
[ back ] 6. Watkins 1979:270 = 1994:645.
[ back ] 7. Watkins 1979:270.
[ back ] 8. The α of accusative plural ας in archaic (vs. innovative) situations is consistently long in Homeric diction: see Janko 1982:58–62, especially p. 61 (“the large number of older formulae with long endings that it [= the Odyssey] retained”); cf. MP 61–63.
[ back ] 9. PH 459n108. I need to correct three typographical errors in the 1990 printed version of that note (see also already Ch8 no. 43) at line 2 (two times) and at line 6 (the second time), read – – X … not – X …
[ back ] 10. We may note the wording in Plato Menexenus 237b on Mother Earth as being τῆς τεκούσης καὶ θρεψάσης καὶ ὑποδεξαμένης ‘the one who gave birth, nourished, and accepted [them] into her care’, with reference to the Athenians as her autochthonous children cf. Loraux 1993:84n71; also pp. 58–59). I infer from this kind of phrasing that Athena in Iliad II was really pictured as nursing Erekhtheus. I see here a pattern of differentiation between older and newer concepts of the goddess.
[ back ] 11. Kirk 1985:206: the phrasing “suggests an annual festival; there may or may not be some idea of an early form of the Panathenaia, which was held in the month of Hekatombaion.”
[ back ] 12. On the homology between Erekhtheus and Phaethon, see BA 191–192.
[ back ] 13. Nilsson 1921.
[ back ] 14. Cf. Schwyzer 1939:638.
[ back ] 15. Schwyzer 1939:638.
[ back ] 16. Schwyzer 1939:638.
[ back ] 17. Pylos tablet Cn 3.1; see N 1970:148n187. On the basis of the forms Mukḗnē and Messḗnē, I suspect that even the suffix -ḗnē is endowed with an elliptic function. Also, the element mésso- of Messḗnē implies the semantics of ellipsis, in that the idea of the middle is highlighted while that of the periphery is shaded over.
[ back ] 18. Schwyzer 1939:638.
[ back ] 19. Schwyzer/Debrunner 1950:43.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Odyssey i 1–2.
[ back ] 21. Muellner 1976:70.
[ back ] 22. Page 1959.
[ back ] 23. Footnotes within the quotations contain my own comments on Page’s reasoning.
[ back ] 24. Page 1959:238.
[ back ] 25. Page 1959:238.
[ back ] 26. Page 1959:300.
[ back ] 27. Cf. HQ 138–145.
[ back ] 28. The involvement of heralds in the narrative containing the Aiante problem, I suggest, is relevant to the involvement of heralds in the “Embassy” scene of Iliad ΙX, containing the problem of the dual-for-plural usage.
[ back ] 29. The addition here of a third role—earlier in the narrative we saw only two roles—is comparable with the layering of two vs. three ambassadors in the “Embassy” scene of Iliad IX.
[ back ] 30. Page 1959:272–273.
[ back ] 31. HQ 40.
[ back ] 32. E.g. Hainsworth 1993:355 (and, earlier, p. 346).
[ back ] 33. Puhvel 1977:399–400.
[ back ] 34. Janko 1982:228–231.
[ back ] 35. MP 29.
[ back ] 36. Page 1959:299.
[ back ] 37. Rengakos 1993:76–77; cf. PP 138. See also Matthaios 1999:378ff and the comments of Rengakos 2002.
[ back ] 38. Rengakos 1993:9; cf. PP Ch.5.
[ back ] 39. Bakker 1997b.
[ back ] 40. HQ 138–145.
[ back ] 41. Again, HQ 138–145. Cf. PH 5–6: when an older and a newer form compete for the same meaning, one of the things that can happen is that the older form, ousted from its old meaning, develops a newer meaning that becomes a specialized version of the older meaning now held by the newer form.
[ back ] 42. Lord 1960:100. The italics are mine. Already quoted in Ch.2.
[ back ] 43. See Ch.2.
[ back ] 44. Kirk 1985:1–16.
[ back ] 45. Janko 1992:20–38, with reference to Janko 1982:228–231.
[ back ] 46. Underlines will indicate my highlightings.
[ back ] 47. Kirk 1985:201.
[ back ] 48. Kirk 1985:201.
[ back ] 49. Kirk 1985:201.
[ back ] 50. Kirk 1985:359.
[ back ] 51. Janko 1992:48.
[ back ] 52. Janko 1992:48.
[ back ] 53. Janko 1992:69.
[ back ] 54. Janko 1992:132.
[ back ] 55. Janko 1992:218–219.
[ back ] 56. Again, yellow highlight will indicate my highlightings.
[ back ] 57. Page 1959:237.
[ back ] 58. Zumthor 1972:507 (“le caractère de l’oeuvre qui, comme telle, avant l’âge du livre, ressort d’une quasi-abstraction, les textes concrets qui la réalisent présentant, par le jeu des variantes et remaniements, comme une incessante vibration et une instabilité fondamentale”). Cf. Zumthor pp. 43–47, 65–75.
[ back ] 59. PP chapter 1.
[ back ] 60. Detailed discussion in PH 42–44, 373–375.
[ back ] 61. PH 42–44, 373–375.
[ back ] 62. PH 42–44, 373–375.
[ back ] 63. PH 42–44, 373–375.
[ back ] 64. N 1985:33.
[ back ] 65. On sophós ‘skilled’ as a programmatic word used by poetry to designate the ‘skill’ of a poet in encoding the message of the poetry, see PH 148. See also PH 374n190: “A successful encoder, that is, poet, is by necessity a successful decoder, that is, someone who has understood the inherited message and can therefore pass it on. Not all decoders, however, are necessarily encoders: both poet and audience are decoders, but only the poet has the authority of the encoder.”
[ back ] 66. In this and related contexts, astoí ‘townspeople’ seems to be the programmatic designation of local audiences, associated with the special interests of their own here and now. The anonymous referee draws my attention to Archilochus F 13 West, where the emotional state of the astoí seems to be contrasted with the stance of the poet: as I interpret this poem, the poet too is represented as feeling the same emotions of grief as felt by the rest of the community, but he urges all to transcend those emotions—as does the poem.
[ back ] 67. This theme of the alienated poet is examined at length in N 1985:30 and following.
[ back ] 68. The “doing,” of course, may amount simply to the performative level of “saying” by way of poetry.
[ back ] 69. For a fuller discussion, see PP 221–223.
[ back ] 70. PP 71–73.
[ back ] 71. PH 202. For a fuller discussion, see PP 71–73.
[ back ] 72. PP 71–73. It can also be argued that Patroklos as the solo audience of Achilles becomes interchangeable with the general audience of the Iliad. See PP 72n37 for further discussion and bibliography on the Homeric device of creating an effect of interchangeability between characters of epic and members of an audience.
[ back ] 73. At Odyssey i 10, the expression τῶν ἁμόθεν γε ‘from one point among these’ seems to me pertinent to the idea of vertical succession in εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν ‘narrate to us too!’ (addressed to the Muse).
[ back ] 74. Perhaps the expression κλέος οἶον at Iliad II 486 is pertinent: the singer hears the kléos or song “alone,” as if he heard nothing else. Perhaps also pertinent is the singularity of the Muse invoked at Iliad I 1—and at Odyssey i 1.
[ back ] 75. Bakker 1997b.
[ back ] 76. Bakker 1997b.
[ back ] 77. Bakker 1997b.
[ back ] 78. For subjunctive + potential particle ἂν in the apodosis and εἰ + optative in the protasis, Kirk 1985:167 compares Iliad XI 386–387: “Your bow and arrows could not save you, if you did attack me face-to-face with your weapons.” It seems to me that both constructions are contrary-to-fact: if the Muses did not remind me (but they did) and if you did attack me face-to-face (but you did not).