Homer’s Text and Language

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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§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.

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 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

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§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:

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}

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):

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:

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. [

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§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:

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}

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]

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.” [

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§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:

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).