Homeric Responses

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Chapter 1. Homeric Responses [1]

Each time the Iliad was performed, over the many centuries of Homeric performance traditions, let us imagine how a given audience would have heard these words of the Achaeans’ response, such as we have them in Iliad 7.400-402. For each new audience, it is notionally the exact same response all over again, because the original words of the original hero are supposedly being “quoted.” These words of response would be imagined to be the “same” each time, I argue, not because they are written down – and to that extent my use of the word “quoted” is imprecise – but simply because they are performed. In terms of performance, the original words of a Homeric response are being spoken by the original speaker – in this case, by the hero Diomedes. The mentality of “quotation” is basically performative. What matters ultimately, as we will see, is the actual performativity or “quotability” of hupokrinesthai in its Homeric contexts. Having made clear that I use “quotation” in a performative sense, I will hereafter omit quotation marks when I use the word with reference to Homeric contexts.

The notional “sameness” of a Homeric response on each occasion when Homeric poetry is being performed is part of an overall mentality of unchangeability in Homeric performance itself. Such a mentality, I am arguing, is revealed by the Homeric contexts of hupokrinesthai. In other words, Homeric poetry presents itself as the same thing each time it is performed, just as the words of heroes (and gods) that are quoted by the poetry are imagined to be the exact same words on each occasion of each new performance.

Having noted this clarification, we are ready to survey some additional Homeric contexts of hupokrinesthai. Taken together, these contexts show that Homeric poetry views itself as a performance medium. Further, they show that this poetry has close links to another kind of performance medium, “mantic” or “oracular” poetry. In other words, Homeric poetry equates its own performance with that of a seer or mantis who performs oracular poetry in responding to questions about omens.

My first example of such an equation is Iliad 12.228, describing a hypothetical situation where hupokrinaito (ὑποκρίναιτο), meaning ‘he would respond’, has as its subject theopropos ‘seer’. The speaker is the hero Polydamas, a comrade of Hektor, and he has just interpreted a teras ‘omen’ (12.209): it is the vision of an eagle that drops a snake in midflight. This omen is quoted directly by the words of Homeric narrative at 12.200-209. Then the meaning of these poetic words is interpreted by the likewise poetic words of the hero Polydamas at 12.210-229. The hero is quoted as saying, at the conclusion of his words, that these same words of interpretation could be matched by the words of interpretation spoken by a hypothetical seer (12.228-229). In other words, what the hero performs in the Iliad corresponds to what a theopropos ‘seer’ would perform if he responded to the same vision that has just been narrated by the Iliad.

Once Penelope’s vision of the dream about the omen of the eagle and the geese is expressed in her own performance (19.536-553), the ambiguities of its meaning are ready to be resolved in the counter-performance of a response. Surprisingly, the response in this case is already quoted within the dream, when the protagonist of the vision, the eagle, begins to speak and proceeds to interpret, within the dream, the dream itself (19.546-550). In effect, then, Penelope already has a response built into her dream, but she nevertheless challenges the disguised Odysseus to give his own response (19.535).

The rhetoric of Odysseus’ response starts with a declaration that the meaning is so complex as to make any solution impossible. But then there follows a shift to a counter-declaration: that the meaning is in fact so simple that it is clearly visible. The solution, in other words, turns out to be self-evident. {24|25}

In this passage of the Odyssey, of course, the time has not yet arrived for Odysseus to clarify his own identity, and so the ultimate clarification of the meaning of Penelope’s dream is postponed. The point remains, though, that the clarification had depended on the quotation of the words of the eagle – words that had in fact already interpreted or mediated the meaning of the omen seen by Penelope in her dream.

In both these Odyssean passages about interpreting the meanings of omens about eagles and geese, as expressed by hupokrinesthai, it is essential to keep in mind that the omen, as quoted, is a vision. In the case of Odyssey 15.168, when Peisistratos asks Menelaos to respond to his question about the teras ‘omen’ of the eagle killing the goose, he says that it had been sent as an epiphany by a god: ἔφηνε θεὸς τέρας ‘the god made as a vision the teras’. In the case of the omen that is Penelope’s dream, her words make it clear that she is quoting what she actually saw. At Odyssey 19.537, Penelope describes herself in her dream as seeing her geese (εἰσορόωσα) at the very moment when the eagle is about to swoop down on them; at 19.567, her words describe dreams in general as things that one sees (ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται).

The visual orientation of oracular poetry is evident in the ultimate teras ‘omen’ of the Iliad, the vision interpreted by the seer Calchas. The Iliad quotes {25|26}the seer himself as saying at 2.324: ἡμῖν μέν τόδ᾿ ἔφηνε τέρας μέγα μητίετα Ζεύς ‘Zeus the Planner made as a vision for me this great teras’. The teras ‘omen’, which is framed by the narrative of Odysseus (2.284-332) – which in turn is framed by the overall Homeric narrative – is the vision of a snake that first devours eight young birds and then the mother bird (2.303-320). The vision happened in the first year of the Trojan War, during a sacrifice on the occasion of the assembling of Achaean forces at Aulis (2.303). Next, we hear that Zeus, ‘the god who made the vision’, (θεὸς ὅς περ ἔφηνε, 2.318), proceeded to make this vision permanent and unchanging – by changing the snake into stone (2.319). In the words of Odysseus, the whole vision is a sēma (2.308), which we may interpret not only as a mental ‘sign’ but also as a concretized ‘monument’, a landmark.

Just as this petrified vision of the story of Ilion – and of the Iliad itself – is imagined as permanent and unchanging, so too is the kleos or poetic ‘fame’ that radiates from the words of the seer Calchas as directly quoted by Odysseus in Iliad 2.323-332. In the words of the seer himself, as we already saw at 2.324, ἡμῖν μέν τόδ᾿ ἔφηνε τέρας μέγα μητίετα Ζεύς ‘Zeus the Planner made as a vision for me this great teras’. Then Calchas goes on to prophesy that the kleos of this teras will never perish:

ὄψιμον ὀψιτέλεστον, ὅου κλέος οὒποτ᾽ ὀλεῖται
[… this teras], late in coming, late in coming to fulfilment [telos], and its kleos will never perish.

Iliad 2.325

That was then, at Aulis, in the first year of the Trojan War (Iliad 2.303). Now, as Odysseus is quoting back those same words of the seer, it is the ninth year at Troy (2.295). Calchas was saying, back then, in the words that are now being quoted by Odysseus (2.323-332), that the nine birds are the nine years that the Achaeans will spend at Troy, and that the citadel will now be captured finally in the tenth year. After Odysseus quotes these words of the seer, he adds: τὰ δὴ νῦν πάντα τελεῖται ‘and they are now reaching their fulfilment [telos]’ (2.330).

Conversely, the prophecy of the seer is not only fulfilled by the epic but also becomes the epic. The kleos of the vision interpreted by Calchas, described as permanent and unchanging, becomes coextensive with the kleos of the Iliad, which likewise describes itself as permanent and unchanging. Moreover, the Iliad prophesies – even at its very beginning – that its own ultimate telos ‘fulfillment’ will be the same thing as the irrevocable will of Zeus: Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή ‘and the will of Zeus was reaching fulfilment [telos]’ (1.5). So also the ultimate telos ‘fulfillment’ of the prophecy of Calchas will happen only when the tale of Troy is ended, when Troy is finally destroyed: only then will the prophecy ‘reach its telos’: teleitai (2.330).

There is a similar coextensiveness between the plot of the Odyssey and the prophecy of Helen concerning the omen of the eagle that kills the goose – a vision that challenges Menelaos to ponder how to ‘respond’, hupokrinesthai, at 15.170. As we already saw, it is Helen who seizes the initiative instead, and she is the one who utters the poetic words of response, quoted at 15.172-178. Speaking as a mantis ‘seer’ (μαντεύσομαι, 15.172), she prophesies how the course of narrated events will reach telos ‘fulfillment’ (ὡς τελέεσθαι ὀίω, 15.173). The words of this oracular performance by Helen, quoted at 15.172-178, express the meaning of the omen, and this meaning is equated with the outcome of the overall plot of the Odyssey: just as the eagle kills the goose, so also Odysseus will kill the suitors as the narrative reaches its telos.

As we see from the precise wording of Odyssey 15.168, the meaning of the Odyssey is formulated as an explicit oracular response to an explicit question about the vision of an omen. When Peisistratos refers to the teras ‘omen’ of the eagle killing the goose, sent as an epiphany by a god, he asks Menelaos {27|28} to respond to this question:

ἢ νῶϊν τόδ’ ἔφηνε θεὸς τέρας ἦε σοὶ αὐτῷ
Did the god made as a vision this teras for you or for the two of us?

Odyssey 15.168

Just as the poetic words of an oracular prophecy are expected to match exactly the realities of the future that is being prophesied, so also the poetic words of Homeric narrative are expected to match exactly the realities of the past. Since Homeric poetry figures itself as the fulfillment of the prophecies made in its own past, it is coextensive with oracular poetry: just as oracular poetry guarantees the future, Homeric poetry can guarantee the past. When a hero says, as we have seen in Iliad 12.228, that his quoted words are the same words that a theopropos ‘seer’ would have ‘responded’, hupokrinesthai, if he had seen the same vision, (ὧδε χ῾ ὑποκρίναιτο θεοπρόπος), this quotation is ostensibly reinforcing not just the credibility but also the exactness of the Homeric wording.

The recurring sameness of Homeric quotations, as signaled by such oracular words as hupokrinesthai ‘respond’, corresponds to the recurring sameness of the given vision that calls for the question that calls for the answer. In the case of the words of Calchas as quoted back by the Iliad at 2.323-333, the sameness of the original vision that is being retold is concretized in the image of petrification: Zeus turns the snake into stone at the critical moment when it has just devoured the nine birds (2.319). In doing so, the same god who had made the original epiphany has now made the centerpiece of that epiphany into a permanent landmark:

τὸν μὲ ἀρίζηλον θῆκεν θεὸς ὅς περ ἔφηνε
And it [the snake] was made a radiant thing by the very god that had made it visible [as an epiphany].

Iliad 2.318

The petrified snake, like some splendid statue sculpted by natural forces, radiates a permanent vision matching the permanent words that give it meaning. Such words provide the permanent response to the question posed by the permanent vision. It is this kind of definitive response, I repeat, that we see conveyed by the word hupokrinesthai.

The mentality of unchangeability, where the response to the question is always the exact same thing said in the exact same words, is signaled here again by the word hupokrinesthai. In this case, of course, it is also signaled by the fact that the response is written down in the inscription. The letters will not change, just as the words of oracular response will not change. Still, I will now argue that the actual writing down of the words is not at all the cause of the mentality of unchangeability in this inscription but simply an effect. So also with the word hupokrinesthai: I have been arguing all along that the usage of this word can be viewed as the effect, not the cause, of an overall mentality of unchangeability in oracular poetry and, by extension, in Homeric poetry.

In this case, then, the unchanging response is notionally spoken by the dedicated object, the statue, who is the “I” that responds to all the questions that come from all those who engage with the vision of statue. To repeat, I concede that the mentality of unchangeability is reinforced by the writing down of these words. Still, ideologically, these words of response would stay the same even without writing, since they are predicated on the overall vision of the statue.

In this light, let us take a second look at the notion expressed in Plato Phaedrus 275d, that an author’s writing gives the same meaning each time you ask it to respond. This notion is actually linked with another notion, about the experience of vision: when you look at a painting, zōgraphia, and you ask it a question, its response is nothing but an august silence (275d). Such a mentality is quite different from the one conveyed by hupokrinesthai, where visualization can be translated directly into verbalization: the vision provides the question, which in turn provides the unchangeable response. When an oracle responds to a question about a vision, the unchangeability of that oracular response {31|32} is a sign of the vision’s responsiveness. By contrast, Plato’s notion of viewing a painting presupposes the notion of a vision’s unresponsiveness to the viewer. In terms of these Platonic notions, when you ask a painting what it means, it cannot answer you, and so also when you ask a piece of writing what it means, it can only answer you with the words that you read in the writing.

For Plato, such a response is of course insufficient, since it may not suit the question. For Plato, a response from a book cannot foresee every question. In the case of archaic contexts expressed by hupokrinesthai, by contrast, a response suffices to the extent that it has been made – in performance – to suit a question about a vision. That is, such a response suffices so long as the meaning of the vision is made clear.

When we examine the contexts of hupokrinesthai in historicized accounts of oracular responses, as in the History of Herodotus, we can see even more clearly the importance of the vision, of the visualization of the vision, as the basis for verbalizing any given oracular response. For example, Croesus of Lydia knows that he has had a vision when he ‘sees’ (ἰδόντι) horses devouring snakes, and he recognizes this vision as a teras ‘omen’ (1.78.1); he therefore orders his theopropoi ‘seers’ to consult the oracular exēgētai ‘interpreters’ of Telmessus with the question, ‘What does the omen [ teras ] mean [ sēmainein ]?’ (τὸ θέλει σημαίνειν τὸ τέρας 1.78.2). The theopropoi, once they get a response, do not have a chance to apangellein ‘announce’ it to Croesus because in the meantime he has already been defeated and captured by Cyrus (1.78.2). The content of the oracular response given by the interpreters of Telmessus is at this point quoted in indirect discourse, introduced by the expression ‘these were the things they had recognized’ (τάδε ἔγνωσαν, 1.78.3). The response makes clear the basic equation: that the snake is the same thing as an autochthonous native son, that is, Croesus the Lydian, while the horse is the same thing as an enemy newcomer, that is, Cyrus the Persian (1.78.3). Then, the content of the oracular response is concluded with the expression ‘these were the things they had said in responding [hupokrinesthai]’ (ταῦτα ὑπεκρίναντο, 1.78.3).

What, then, is the word for what Themistocles is doing at the moment when he gives a different interpretation of the Oracle’s words? Galen in his Protrepticus (13) describes Themistocles at this moment as engaged in the process of hupokrinesthai; in the idiom, the words of the oracle become the direct object (ὑποκρινομένου τὸν χρησμόν). That is, Themistocles is intepreting the oracle in the process of quoting the words, performing them all over again.

Here we confront a basic problem. How is the performance of Themistocles, as expressed by the word hupokrinesthai, different from that of the Pythia, as also expressed by hupokrinesthai? The mind of the priestess, as chief {34|35} mantis, is notionally possessed by the god, inspired, at the time of her performance. Are we to say, by contrast, that Themistocles was not possessed at the time of his own performance? Here it is relevant to cite Plato’s description of the prophētēs as an oracular poet who, unlike the mantis, performs without being possessed or inspired:

τοῦ δὲ μανέντος … οὐκ ἔργον τὰ φανέντα καὶ φωνηθέντα ὑφ᾿ ἑαυτοῦ κρίνειν … ὅθεν δὴ καὶ τὸ τῶν προφητῶν γένος ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐνθέοις μαντείαις κριτὰς ἐπικαθιστάναι νόμος· οὓς μάντεις αὐτοὺς ὀνομάζουσίν τινες, τὸ πᾶν ἠγνοηκότες ὅτι τῆς δι᾿ αἰνιγμῶν οὖτοι φήμης καὶ φαντάσεως ὑποκριταί, καὶ οὔτι μάντεις, προφῆται δὲ μαντευομένων δικαιότατα ὀνομάζοιντ᾿ ἄν.

But when some person is in a state of mental possession, … it is not that persons task to sort out [ krinein ] the visions that are made visible to him or the words that are voiced by him. … For this reason it is customary to appoint the class of prophētai as kritai [= ‘those who sort out’ = ‘judges’] presiding over oracular utterances [manteiai] that had been made [by others] in the state of mental possession by the god. They [= the prophētai] are called by some, in ignorance, manteis. This is to ignore completely the fact that they [= the prophētai] are hupokritai , by ways of riddles [ainigmoi], of oracular utterance [phēmē] and oracular vision [phantasis]. So they would be most accurately called the prophētai of things that are uttered by those who function as manteis.

Plato Timaeus 72a-b

As with prophētēs, so also with hupokritēs: it does not need to be taken in the sense of a performer who is no longer possessed, no longer inspired by the god. Plato’s wording, as we have seen, describes hupokritēs as one who interprets, by way of performing, the utterance [phēmē] and the vision [phantasis] of a given oracle. There is no need to follow Plato, however, in assuming that such a hupokritēs must be disconnected from the visualization and the verbalization of the oracular vision. Just as the verb hupokrinesthai is predicated on the idea of a preexisting vision, so also the noun hupokritēs. In the case of hupokrinesthai, as we have seen, the idea of vision is evident from the word’s conventional associations with such other words as theōros, meaning literally ‘he who sees [root hor-] a vision [thea]’. In the case of hupokritēs, as we will now see, the word is associated with theatron ‘theater’, meaning literally ‘the vehicle for achieving vision [thea]’. In fact, hupokrinesthai and hupokritēs become the words for ‘perform’ and ‘performer’ in the language of Athenian State Theater.

The concept of the rhapsode is basic for understanding the central argumentation of this essay – and of this whole book. Just as the rhapsōidos performs Homer, so too the hupokritēs performs drama and other forms of poetry. Conversely, just as the hupokritēs acts out his given role in drama, so too the rhapsōidos acts out his given role as the master narrator of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey.

Whereas the art of the rhapsode, as conveyed by the word hupokrinesthai and related forms, is associated with the idea of responsiveness, Plato seems to associate this art with the idea of unresponsiveness. We may consider in this regard another compound of krinein, that is, anakrinein, which means ‘interrogate [judicially]’, as in Thucydides 1.95. In Plato Phaedrus 277e, we read of logoi that are rhapsōidoumenoi ‘performed rhapsodically’ and are exempt from anakrisis ‘interrogation’ (οἱ ῥαψῳδούηενοι ἄνευ ἀνακρίσεως).


[ back ] 1. An earlier and shorter version of this chapter is Nagy 2002b.

[ back ] 2. (An earlier and shorter version of this chapter is in Nagy 2002b). Cf. Koller 1857 on a basic insight: that the prehistory of oracular discourse in early Greek civilization is relevant to the prehistory of the word hupokrinesthai. (His article also provided a bibliography of earlier research on hupokrinesthai and its derivatives.)

[ back ] 3. For analogous attestations of hupokrinesthai, see Odyssey 2.111 and Homeric Hymn to Apollo 171. In the Hymn to Apollo, the quoted words of response, verses 172-174, are a description of “Homer” – as quoted by “Homer” himself: see PH 376.

[ back ] 4. The “quoting” of words in Homeric poetry is equivalent to performing the “quotation”: see Nagy 2002a:21-23 with reference to Martin 1989, esp. his p. 117.

[ back ] 5. HQ 40, with bibliography.

[ back ] 6. LSJ s.v.

[ back ] 7. PH 168 n. 95.

[ back ] 8. On the poetics of perception in quoted dreams, I value the insights of Murnaghan 1987:52.

[ back ] 9. See further in Chapter 3 below, where I discus Odysseus’s rewording of the offer to Achilles by Agamemnon, as reformulated by Odysseus in his quoted speech from the Embassy Scene. Cf. Martin 1989:116-117, 123.

[ back ] 10. PH 244-245. On the epithet aphthiton in Iliad 9.413, see Chapter 2 below (originally published as Nagy 2000d). There I stress that attributive and predicative usages of adjectives can be explained as syntactical variants within one formulaic system, from the standpoint of the generative grammar. See also Volk 2002.

[ back ] 11. On Telemachus as a representative of the “post-heroic” age, see Martin 1993.

[ back ] 12. On the involvement of the figure Peisistratos, as notional ancestor of the Peisistratidai of Athens, in the teleology of Homeric narrative, see HQ 43 n. 58.

[ back ] 13. The particle δὴ here has an “evidentiary” force (‘Aha, now I see that…’); for more on this sense of δὴ, see Bakker 1997:74-80. As for the usage of teleō ‘come to fulfillment’ here at Iliad 2.330, we may compare Odyssey 19.547, where the talking eagle of Penelope’s dream prophesies that this dream (hupar) will come to fulfillment – that it will be tetelesmenon (verb teleō).

[ back ] 14. On the use of a relative pronoun for an indirect question, cf. PH 221 n. 34.

[ back ] 15. I no longer agree with my translation as given in HQ 35 n. 25: now I take the genitive-plural construction ‘among men’ to go with “who,” not with “Antiphanes.”

[ back ] 16. Svenbro 1988:33-52 (= 1993:26-43), esp. pp. 36-38 (= 29-31); cf. also Day 1989.

[ back ] 17. Svenbro 1988:36 (= 1993: 28-29).

[ back ] 18. In his discussion of Plato Phaedrus 275d, Svenbro cites analogous passages in Plato Protagoras 329a (when you ask them a question, books have nothing to answer, apokrinesthai [not hupokrinesthai], nor any questions to ask), Hippias Minor 365c-d (not directly relevant to books per se: Socrates says that it is impossible to ask Homer what he really meant to say, so that Hippias should answer Socrates on Homer’s behalf as well as on his own; cf. Republic 2.378d), Laws 12.968d-e (only tangentially relevant; no direct references to questions and answers), Letters 7.343a (on the idea of the ametakinēton, the ‘unchangeable’, in writings).

[ back ] 19. Moving from Herodotus, we may note the usage of hupokrinesthai in Thucydides. At Thucydides 7.44.5, we read that the Athenians did not know how to respond, hupokrinointo (ὑποκρίνοιντο), to the xunthēma ‘watchword’ of the Syracusans. From 7.44.4, it becomes clear that both the Athenian and the Syracusans had their own watchwords, which were formulated in the form of erōtēmata ‘questions’. To save your life, you had to have the right response (hupokrinesthai) to the right question. (The Oxford Classical Texts edition [1901+] of H. S. Jones simply prints the M manuscript reading ἀποκρίνοιντο, without indicating the lectio difficilior ὑποκρίνοιντο, as found in other manuscripts.) The Athenians, in the darkness, would keep asking, erōtōntes, their password, thereby making is saphes ‘clear’ for the enemy. The Syracusans were understanding, epistamenoi, the xunthēma of the Athenians, while the Athenians did not correspondingly (homoiōs) understand, ēpistanto, that of the Syracusans (7.44.5).

[ back ] 20. For further discussion, see PH 164-167.

[ back ] 21. PH 168.

[ back ] 22. Note, too, the context of promantis in Herodotus 6.66.2.

[ back ] 23. See further in PH 168 n. 95.

[ back ] 24. For a general discussion, see PH 164-169.

[ back ] 25. Of particular interest are stories suggesting that the Pythia was on various historical occasions “persuaded” to declare oracular pronouncements that were prejudiced in favor of special-interest groups: see, for example, Herodotus 6.66.3, 6.75.3 (cf. PH 163).

[ back ] 26. PH 163-164.

[ back ] 27. Nagy 2002a:10.

[ back ] 28. Ibid.:28.

[ back ] 29. PP 86, 220.

[ back ] 30. Murray 1996:110, referring to Koller (1957:104), who cites collocations of hupokritēs and rhapsōidos in Plato Ion 532d, 535e.

[ back ] 31. LSJ s.v.

[ back ] 32. Nagy 2002a:10-11.

[ back ] 33. Koller 1957:101.

[ back ] 34. Ibid.:102.

[ back ] 35. This point is argued most effectively by Martin (1989; se esp. pp. 231-239).

[ back ] 36. Martin 1989:220-230.