Part I. Chapter 4. Allusion and Interpretation

To the Iliad’s modern audiences, compelled by the urgent momentum of the poem’s action and absorbed in the inexorability of its progress and the frontal intensity of its character portrayals, the epic’s digressions from the imperative of its plot can seem to be a perplexing distraction, and its texture of oblique allusion and elliptical reference, of glancing, arcane hint and obscure, indirect suggestion can seem to be interlayered against the grain of its densely compact dramatic core. Where the Iliad has been described as subtly symmetrical in its formal construction, these features would appear to overbalance or re-center its inner patterning. [1] They have been accounted quirks of style: hallmarks of ancient epic, to be sure, but peripheral narrative features whose appearances have been justified as compositional “devices,” serving the exigencies of the bard’s technique. [2] Thus an exemplary school text designed to introduce students of Greek to selections from the Iliad will, for instance, bracket Nestor’s speeches and will propose that, if short of time, the reader may omit the Meleager episode; it will itself forgo including the entire story of Bellerophon. [3] The Iliad, in other words, may be satisfactorily introduced without such passages.
Our example of Thetis suggests that allusions, both abbreviated and extended in lengthy digressions, are highly charged and repay scrutiny for the myths whose resonance or “reverberation” they carry into the narrative as a whole, signaling a constellation of themes that establish bearings for the poem as it unfolds and linking it continually to other traditions and paradigms and to a wider mythological terrain. [4] We might say that allusions provide the coordinates that locate the poem’s action within a multidimensional mythological realm.
Evocations of the succession myth through allusions to Thetis’s role in it ground the Iliadic theme of mortality in a complex set of divine-human relations. The Iliad presupposes an established hierarchy on Olympos, but behind the static resolution that hierarchy represents lies a history of contention and struggle, as the gods themselves obliquely but forcefully remind each other. Zeus’s authority is firmly in place. Claiming a preeminence that cannot be subverted, Zeus asserts that not all the other gods combined can dislodge him from his position of superiority. References to their past efforts to do so—or suggestions of possible attempts in the future—are reminiscent of such combats as are described in the Hesiodic version of divine competition for supremacy. Specific elements recognizable from the Hesiodic account are present in the Iliad, as in the passing mention of the monstrous Typhoeus at 2.782. But competition among the gods for power—and indeed reconciliation among them—is now, as it were, managed symbolically, through the partisan efforts of the gods on behalf of the mortal adversaries they favor. The gods’ very participation in the war on behalf of competing human interests becomes an allusion to their own history: when they take sides against each other in the war, that is, in aid of Greeks or Trojans, their actions rehearse the older, larger conflict that digressions about divine strife have recalled.
There are, therefore, more layers of allusion than one, and in this sense the term “reverberation” is particularly expressive. Digressions about divine disorder echo another clash; they refer us to the ultimate contest for cosmic rule. Allusions form a system of evocation in which each reference produces not a single meaning but a sequence of overlapping significations—as with echoes, in which it is not the original sound but each subsequent iteration that is picked up and relayed. The direction of allusion may be reversed, proleptic: as when (for example) Hera refuses to renounce her intention to destroy the Trojans and their city, and Zeus resignedly accepts her intransigence but promises that in the future he will in return unhesitatingly sack whichever of her favorite cities he chooses—remembering her savagery toward his beloved Troy (4.30ff.). Here Zeus sets in motion a prospective allusion, anticipating an episode in the future that will allude to his present accommodation over Troy, and thus to their history of conflict. [5]
Such allusions as this, intertwining divine and human interests, bind past and future in a continuum whose effect is to blur the boundaries between digression and the narrative proper and to show the poem reasserting those boundaries by taking stock of, or reflecting on, its own plot. In the Dios apatê in Book 14, Hera’s purpose is, literally, to create a digression, a countervailing movement against the narrative’s momentum. Her seduction of Zeus is filled with innuendos of every kind, including suggestive hints about cosmogonic disharmony, as she enlists the services of Aphrodite and Sleep, and as she inveigles Zeus into thinking that the idea of their going to bed together is his. [6] Zeus appropriates the making of allusions, cataloging his former lovers (14.313ff.); and it is these erotic references that are resonant, more than Hera’s staged reminiscence of Okeanos and Tethus, because they remind us of what we know from Thetis’s mythology: Zeus’s omniscience fails in the face of his own desire. Invincible and all-knowing, he is nevertheless baffled by eros. In the Dios apatê he is unable to see beyond his desire for Hera: the digression becomes the action; and the consequence is that the plot of the Iliad is temporarily out of his control. Thus when he awakens to find what has happened, his response has less to do with punishing Hera than with reclaiming control over the narrative: he declares what the plot of the rest of the poem will be, and goes beyond:
Ἕκτορα δ᾽ ὀτρύνῃσι μάχην ἐς Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
αὖτις δ᾽ ἐμπνεύσῃσι μένος, λελάθῃ δ᾽ ὀδυνάων
αἳ νῦν μιν τείρουσι κατὰ φρένας, αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὺς
αὖτις ἀποστρέψῃσιν ἀνάλκιδα φύζαν ἐνόρσας,
φεύγοντες δ᾽ ἐν νηυσὶ πολυκλήϊσι πέσωσι
Πηλεΐδεω Ἀχιλῆος· ὁ δ᾽ ἀνστήσει ὃν ἑταῖρον
Πάτροκλον· τὸν δὲ κτενεῖ ἔγχεϊ φαίδιμος Ἓκτωρ
Ἰλίου προπάροιθε πολέας ὀλέσαντ᾽ αἰζηοὺς
τοὺς ἂλλους, μετὰ δ᾽ υἱὸν ἐμὸν Σαρπηδόνα δῖον.
τοῦ δὲ χολωσάμενος κτενεῖ Ἓκτορα δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
ἐκ τοῦ δ᾽ ἂν τοι ἕπειτα παλίωξιν παρὰ νηῶν
αἰὲν ἐγὼ τεύχοιμι διαμπερές, εἰς ὅ κ᾽ Ἀχαιοὶ
Ἴλιον αἰπὺ ἕλοιεν Ἀθηναίης διὰ βουλάς.
Let Phoibos Apollo rouse Hektor into battle
and again breathe strength into him, and make him forget the pains
that now wear down his spirit; let him meanwhile turn the Achaeans
back again, urging them to unresisting panic,
and let them, fleeing, fall among the benched ships
of Achilles, son of Peleus. And he shall send out his companion
Patroklos; but him shining Hektor shall kill with the spear
before Ilion, once Patroklos has killed many other
young men, among them my son, radiant Sarpedon.
And angered because of Patroklos, brilliant Achilles shall kill Hektor.
From that point I shall contrive a continuous, steady
retreat from the ships, until the Achaeans
capture steep Ilion through the plans of Athena.
But if the divine battlefield has become the human battlefield, it is not that the Iliad represents the suffering of its characters merely as a function—or as a reenactment at one remove—of divine dissatisfactions. Allusions to Thetis’s mythology in particular, continually retrojecting into a pre-Iliadic past the process of resolving divine discord, help to evoke stages in an evolution of cosmic order in which men have had a part—in which there is a place for the human condition. In the Hesiodic version of the achievement of hegemony on Olympos in the Theogony, Zeus averts the predicted challenge of a child who will overmaster him by swallowing one goddess and giving birth to another; men are not in the picture. [7] The solution implicit in the mythology of Thetis, by contrast, posits a relationship between the achieved stability of the divine order and the mutability of the human order, where each generation must yield to the next. Allusions recalling hostility and competition among the gods, then—far from serving either to burlesque the drama at Troy or to emphasize the gods’ role as vicarious spectators—link divine and human in a profoundly reciprocal connection, pointing to an intersection between the two that accounts for the gods’ stake in the war as other than that of detached, if sentimental, onlookers.
Viewed from the vantage point of the mythology they recover, the digressions that encase these evocative allusions—in some instances at length—take on a different aspect from that assigned them in many recent studies of the subject, among them Erich Auerbach’s memorable opening essay in Mimesis. [8] Citing correspondence between Goethe and Schiller on the digressive mode of epic, Auerbach affirms his own sense that Homeric style is not impelled by “any tensional and suspensive striving toward a goal.” Yet he proposes that the origins of the digressive style must be accounted for not so much in terms of its peculiar effect on the movement of the plot, but more as a consequence of a characteristic Homeric phenomenology: an object (or character, or action) is constituted by whatever can be expressed about it on the surface. Auerbach explains: “The basic impulse of the Homeric style…[is] to represent phenomena in fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts.” Observing that the long passage in Odyssey 19 that describes how Odysseus acquired his distinguishing scar might easily have been recounted not as part of the “externalizing” descriptive narrative but as a recollection voiced by Odysseus himself, Auerbach elaborates: “But any such subjectivist-perspectivist procedure, creating a foreground and background, resulting in the present lying open to the depths of the past, is entirely foreign to the Homeric style; Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.” [9]
As our understanding of the distinctive properties of oral traditional poetry has grown over the past several decades, however, we have come increasingly to see that—as the present study aims to demonstrate—fundamental to the poetics of compositions like the Iliad and Odyssey is a process of selection, combination, and adaptation that draws out the full resonance and evocative power of the mythological material the poems incorporate. To an audience familiar with the mythological corpus available to the poet, the digressions create a topography the recesses of which reveal a rich and dense foundation beneath the evenly illuminated surface Auerbach describes. The more we are able to perceive the range and coherence of the references themselves, the more we can see how they serve to provide a context and a perspective in which to account for—to make sense of—character, action, and theme.
For all that he may underestimate the background they constitute and the shadows cast by the very obliqueness of their allusive representation, Auerbach himself clearly perceives that the continuous integration of mythological passages supplementing (although they appear to delay) the poem’s narrative progress must be appreciated as the reflection, on the level of style, of a distinctive way of seeing and comprehending epic personages and events in their totality. This mode, which Auerbach takes to be characteristically Homeric, we may recognize, in all its cognitive dimensions, as intrinsic to traditional literature of the archaic period, including the poetry of Hesiod, the Homeric hymns, and Pindar.
More recent discussion has concentrated on the relationship of digressions to the exigencies of their immediate narrative situation. [10] Students of the subject have focused in particular on the function of digressions as paradeigmata exploited in a rhetorical strategy designed to persuade an addressee toward or away from a particular action. Attention has been fixed so determinedly on this point that it has led some scholars to the conclusion that the mythological allusions employed in hortatory situations were “ad hoc” inventions, improvised by the poet to offer his characters greater rhetorical power. [11] It is certainly true that our sources for identifying and piecing together the mythology underlying any number of epic allusions are limited and that the subtlety and virtuosity with which fragmentary references are worked into the poem may make it difficult to know even where to look for the appropriate sources, especially because the more familiar a reference was to the Homeric audience, the more abbreviated or schematic its presentation is likely to be. Yet to infer that allusions for which we have no other corroborating text are inventions devised for the sake of the immediate context is only one—and perhaps not the most far-reaching—approach to the workings of traditional narrative. Indeed, the logic of an argument that puts emphasis on the hortatory context for mythological allusions would seem to require that in such contexts the most familiar, recognizable exemplars would be cited as instruments of persuasion; presumably a speaker would most effectively advert to a paradigm that had obvious meaning for his audience, in order to compel assent. [12]
As analyses of such digressions as the Meleager episode have shown, details may be suppressed, highlighted, or significantly rearranged; and as we see from the multiple versions of the Oresteia story within the Odyssey, the speaker’s point of view may be shown by the poet to be a factor in the shading of details of a well-known model. [13] Beyond their utility for the speaker, however, is their meaning for the narrative as a whole; much as the Oresteia story has meaning that includes, but does not end with, what any individual speaker intends, its themes of seduction, betrayal, and the disintegration of the oikos are resonant beyond the persuasive or dissuasive goals of a particular narrator. Rather than assuming, then, that mythological precedents are invented “ad hoc” to suit the speaker’s particular hortatory injunction, it would be equally possible to suppose that the rhetorical situation is created as a vehicle to introduce and frame mythological material valuable for its thematic impact.
The Iliad’s fundamental narrative mode of evocation elicits from its audience a particular kind of recognition that retrieves as full a context as possible for each fragmentary reference: a process of continuous recollection operating simultaneously with the audience’s anticipation and apprehension of the developments of the poem’s plot. As this study has aimed to illustrate, allusions remind the audience of other enriching traditions and serve to alert us to instances not of invention but of selection and adaptation. The Dios boulê, with which the poem opens, itself alludes, it has been convincingly argued, to a tradition explicit outside the Iliad with which its audience would have been well acquainted. [14] Proclus’s summary of the Cypria, at the beginning of the Epic Cycle, mentions Zeus’s taking counsel to arrange the Trojan War. [15] More specifically, a scholion at 1.5 gives a historia ascribing to the Cypria the account of a grand plan devised by Zeus to lessen the oppression suffered by Earth because of overpopulation and to punish men for their lack of piety. War is to be the remedy, war generated by Thetis’s marriage to a mortal. [16] The scholion proceeds to quote seven lines from the Cypria as illustration, in which Zeus’s solution for relieving Earth’s burden is specified: it is the Trojan War; the heroes will perish at Troy.
The encompassing implications of this reference may be echoed in two proleptic digressions later in the poem. It has been shown that the passages in Books 7 and 12 about the obliteration of the Achaean wall by Poseidon and Apollo evoke nothing less than the conjoined themes of mankind’s destruction and of heroic glory, by alluding to a mythological complex linking the plan of Zeus, the separation of men from gods, the demise of the demigods, the end of the Golden Age, and the threat of a universal deluge. [17]
With the image of divinely orchestrated devastation prefigured in the passage at 12.3–33, “the poem places its events far away in a past which becomes remote and fated not only to end, but to vanish.” [18] The passage concludes as follows:
ὂφρα μὲν Ἓκτωρ ζωὸς ἔην καὶ μήνι᾽ Ἀχιλλεὺς
καὶ Πριάμοιο ἄνακτος ἀπόρθητος πόλις ἔπλεν,
τόφρα δὲ καὶ μέγα τεῖχος Ἀχαιῶν ἔμπεδον ἦεν.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ κατὰ μὲν Τρώων θάνον ὅσσοι ἄριστοι,
πολλοὶ δ᾽ Ἀργείων οἱ μὲν δάμεν, οἱ δὲ λίποντο,
πέρθετο δὲ Πριάμοιο πόλις δεκάτῳ ἐνιαυτῷ,
Ἀργεῖοι δ᾽ ἐν νηυσὶ φίλην ἐς πατρίδ᾽ ἔβησαν,
δὴ τότε μητιόωντο Ποσειδάων καὶ Ἀπόλλων
τεῖχος ἀμαλδῦναι, ποταμῶν μένος εἰσαγαγόντες.
ὅσσοι ἀπ᾽ Ἰδαίων ὀρέων ἅλαδε προρέουσι,
Ῥῆσός θ᾽ Ἑπτάπορός τε Κάρησός τε Ῥοδίος τε
Γρήνικός τε καὶ Αἴσηπος δῖός τε Σκάμανδρος
καὶ Σιμόεις, ὅθι πολλὰ βοάγρια καὶ τρυφάλειαι
κάππεσον ἐν κονίῃσι καὶ ἡμιθέων γένος ἀνδρῶν·
τῶν πάντων ὁμόσε στόματ᾽ ἔτραπε Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων,
ἐννῆμαρ δ᾽ ἐς τεῖχος ἵει ῥόον· ὗε δ᾽ ἄρα Ζεὺς
συνεχές, ὄφρα κε θᾶσσον ἁλίπλοα τείχεα θείη.
As long as Hektor was still alive and Achilles still wrathful
and the city of lord Priam remained unsacked,
for so long did the great wall of the Achaeans also remain steadfast.
But when all the best of the Trojans had died,
and many of the Argives were crushed, and some were left,
and the city of Priam was sacked in the tenth year,
and the Argives returned in their ships to their dear homeland,
then finally Poseidon and Apollo contrived to destroy
the wall, sending the strength of rivers against it:
as many as flow from the mountains of Ida to the sea,
Rhesos and Heptaporos and Karesos and Rhodios
and Grenikos and Aisepos and brilliant Skamandros
and Simoeis, where many ox-hide shields and helmets
fell in the dust, and the race of the demigods.
Of all these rivers Phoibos Apollo turned the mouths together,
and for nine days he hurled their stream against the wall,
and Zeus rained unceasingly, to dissolve the wall more quickly into the sea.
The Iliad echoes here a myth of destruction that is reflected in both the Cypria and the Hesiodic Ehoeae—in which Zeus is said to have planned the Trojan War in order to destroy the demigods, so as to widen the breach between gods and men; it is prominent as well in Near Eastern traditions that make the Flood the means of destroying mankind. [19]
Yet the Homeric poems, as this study began by observing, are interpreters of their mythological resources at every step; and “destruction” as understood by the traditions represented by Hesiod, the Cycle, and Mesopotamian literature has been reinterpreted by the Iliad and translated into its own terms. The Iliad evokes these traditions, through passages that retrieve the theme of destruction, to place them ultimately in a perspective that, much as it rejects immortality, rejects utter annihilation as well.
Components of the mythological complex of the end of the race survive in Iliadic allusions, and reverberate, but are transformed. Thetis’s marriage to a mortal is central to the Iliad, not as it is to the Cypria, as an instrument in the wholesale eradication of heroes—not to efface human beings from a crowded landscape—but as a paradigmatic explanation of why human beings, in order not to threaten to be greater than their divine parents, must die. The themes of separation of men and gods, of human calamity, are not—in G. S. Kirk’s phrase—“watered down” by the Iliad, but are distilled. [20] The plan of Zeus is there, but it is the plan agreed upon by Zeus and Thetis to honor her short-lived son, the demigod, before he dies. Earth’s complaint requesting that her load be lightened is rendered by the Iliad in Achilles’ anguished self-reproach that he is an ἄχθος ἀρούρης (achthos arourês, 18.104)—a burden to the earth. Destruction means not the decimation of humanity, but the shattering loss and sorrow that inescapably define the life of every individual.


[ back ] 1. On the structure of the Iliad, see, for example, J. T. Sheppard, The Pattern of the Iliad (London, 1922); and especially Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, chap. 11.
[ back ] 2. See, for instance, G. Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1934; reprint, 1961), chap. 7, esp. 173ff.; C. M. Bowra, Tradition and Design in the Iliad (Oxford, 1930; reprint, 1963), chap. 4, esp. 84–86; also his Homer (New York, 1972), chap. 4; J. B. Hainsworth, Homer (Oxford, 1969), 31.
[ back ] 3. The otherwise extremely sound A. R. Benner, Selections From Homer’s Iliad (New York, 1903) serves as an example.
[ back ] 4. “Reverberation” is M. Lang’s effective term; see her article “Reverberation and Mythology,” in Approaches to Homer, ed. Rubino and Shelmerdine.
[ back ] 5. Similarly, Hektor at 7.81–91 anticipates subsequent retrospection over the death of the hero he expects to kill in the duel to which he challenges the Achaean chiefs.
[ back ] 6. See Janko 1992, ad loc.
[ back ] 7. The mysterious threat of a son, at Theogony 897–98, never materializes.
[ back ] 8. E. Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton, 1953), chap. 1, 1–20.
[ back ] 9. Ibid., 3, 4, and 5, respectively.
[ back ] 10. So, for example, Willcock, “Mythological Paradeigma,” followed by B. K. Braswell, “Mythological Innovation in the Iliad,” CQ 21 (1971): 16–26. In a subsequent article, “Ad Hoc Invention,” 43, Willcock describes his earlier study as “endeavor[ing] to show that Homer has a genial habit of inventing mythology for the purpose of adducing it as a parallel to the situation in his story.” In this article, which supports the original thesis by explaining “invention” as an inevitable consequence of “formulaic composition,” Willcock concludes that “the oral poet concentrates on the particular scene which he is describing. He does his best to make it acceptable, producing corroborative evidence and circumstantial details as he requires them to that end” (45). N. Austin’s perceptive study “The Function of Digressions in the Iliad,” GRBS 7, no. 4 (1966): 295–312, emphasizes the role of digressions in “concentrat[ing] tension” at “high points in the drama,” so as to create “dramatic urgency” (311–12). A. Köhnken, in his thoughtful discussion of Auerbach’s essay in “Die Narbe des Odysseus: Ein Beitrag zur homerisch-epischen Erzähltechnik,” AuA 22.2 (1976): 101–14, also assigns priority to the narrative circumstances as giving significance to the digressions; see esp. pp. 107–8.
[ back ] 11. See especially Willcock, “Ad Hoc Invention.”
[ back ] 12. Thus the address of Nestor to Agamemnon and Achilles at 1.254ff. would have seemed an effective place to interpolate a reference to Theseus. On 1.265 as a later, Athenian addition, see Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary ad loc.
[ back ] 13. See the discussion in Kakridis, Homeric Researches, chap. 1; N. Felson-Rubin, “Penelope’s Perspectives: Character from Plot,” in Beyond Oral Poetry, ed. J. M. Bremer, I. J. F. de Jong, J. Kalff (Amsterdam, 1987), 61–83.
[ back ] 14. See W. Kullmann, “Ein vorhomerisches Motiv im Iliasproömium,” Philologus 99 (1955): 167–92, as well as “Zur ΔΙΟΣ ΒΟΥΛΗ des Iliasproömiums,” Philologus 100 (1956): 132–33.
[ back ] 15. With Themis or Thetis? See A. Severyns, “Sur le début des chants cypriens,” Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, afd. Letterkunde n.s. 28, no. 5 (1965): 285–89.
[ back ] 16. See schol. AD ad A 5–6. Thetis’s marriage is called Thetidos thnētogamian; for the text, see A. Ludwich, Textkritische Untersuchungen über die mythologischen Scholien zu Homers Ilias, vol. 1 (Königsberg, 1900), 10–11.
[ back ] 17. I refer to Scodel’s important article “The Achaean Wall and the Myth of Destruction.”
[ back ] 18. Scodel, “Achaean Wall and Myth of Destruction,” 48.
[ back ] 19. R. Scodel, “Achaean Wall and Myth of Destruction,” provides a convincing demonstration of the Iliad’s evocation of the myth. See frag. 204 Merkelbach-West for the Hesiodic reflection of the myth. For the Babylonian epic of Atra-hasis, see W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969); also J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 2d ed. (Princeton, 1955). Among the increasingly rich and valuable studies of the interconnections between Near Eastern and Greek mythology and literature, see now especially W. Burkert, Die orientalisierende Epoche in der griechischen Religion und Literatur (Heidelberg, 1984), in particular 85ff.
[ back ] 20. G. S. Kirk, “Greek Mythology: Some New Perspectives,” JHS 92 (1972): 79. Kirk writes: “The ‘plan of Zeus’ at the beginning of the Iliad was probably in origin a reflexion of the Mesopotamian or Egyptian gods’ recurrent itch to destroy mankind; the Cypria preserved the idea, but in the Iliad this un-Hellenic conception is in process of being watered down into Zeus’s more limited intention of gratifying Thetis by avenging Achilles.”