The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad

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The Poet as Hero: A Conclusion

{231} Contact and distance. In these terms, I have approached Homer’s Iliad, in an attempt to overcome the long years in which the poem has been a text, to regain some sense of the poem as performance. I have claimed that the poet had a word for “performance” in the sense of authoritative self-presentation to an audience. I used this word— muthos—to gain access to the genres on which heroic style relies: commanding, flyting, and acts of memory. And I investigated the style of the most expressive hero, Achilles, concluding that his “language”—and not any other hero’s—was none other than the foregrounding of Homer’s own aesthetic. But if we have established thereby some contact with the performance of the epic, what are we to gain, as readers of the poem, at this distance? Two practical results, in the first place, I believe arise from hearing Homer’s voice in Achilles. A third result, less practical but perhaps more important for our understanding of archaic Greek lifes comes from seeing the heroic assumptions that produce the monumental epic: from proposing, in other words, that Homer composes like his heroes.

For the first result to make sense, we must return for a moment to the notion of contact and distance. In the light of comparative research into epic, the Iliad as we have it appears two-dimensional because we have little sense of an audience hearing the poem. This goes against the grain of the Iliad‘s own representation of the act of important speech, since all but a handful of its hundreds of quoted speeches take place before a critical listener or group of listeners. It {231|232} also contradicts all the evidence that points to a participating audience as a key element in the performance of oral epic.

If we look at reports of such performances from Asia and Africa, we glimpse the contractual nature of the epic event and the intensity of contact thus produced. In Central Asia, the Burjat audience of epic actually begins the performance, singing an invocatory song to the singer, “Let us search in our chests and draw there from ten arrows. Let us begin, then, our tale of the eldest of the thirteen glorious khans.” Not only does it thereby set the program, as it were; by continued poetic intervention during the course of the performance, the audience guides the shaping of the narration. At times, it sings an interruption (seg daralga), consisting of a one- or two-stanza “journey verse” as a hero moves from one place to another: “We wish him happy arrival at the place he rushes to.” Or the audience asks, in a stylized poetic form, for information from the narrator: “On the shore of the yellow sea fell yellow snow. Which enemies have the glorious and mighty khans overcome?” Notice that the Iliad contains tropes strongly resembling the latter, only they are in the voice of the narrator (at least in our texts). Compare the type: “Then whom first, whom last did they slay, Hektor son of Priam and brazen Ares?” (5.703— 4). [1] In Swahili traditions, the royal epic of the Bushong people has refrains of dialogue with the audience which similarly interrupt the recital of the narrative. A more stylized variety of this “interruption” that makes up a vital part of the epic occurs in the Lianja tradition of the Nkundo in the Congo basin. The epic narrative consists of prose, and is recited by one performer, while a chorus of audience members sings the many songs interspersed in the narrative. [2] We are reminded of Indie and Irish epic narrative texts that have a similar mix of prose and verse segments, and which may represent the format of the earliest Indo-European epic tradition. [3] The poet, meanwhile, also maintains contact with the audience through such devices as addressing it directly (“intelligent people”) or filling in with admonitions (“listen, pay attention”; “I tell you”; “hear me”), {232|233}some of which occupy entire verses. [4] In one East Asian tradition from the Philippines, this interaction of poet with the audience of the tale becomes a kind of competition. As the story is told, the audience regularly adds comment; characters who are not introduced formally by the narrator are identified, with much show, by the members of the audience. [5]

We see, then, a range of possibilities, from informal to highly stylized, by which the audience is included in performance. This is not to say that the event is any less an artistic event, however. Inherent in such performances are linguistic markers that distinguish the speech event from everyday examples of language in contact. The intermixture of verse and prose, for instance, is one of a class of devices that are implicitly “metanarrational” and foreground the event as being different. [6] The text of the Iliad contains such markers of narration, as well, devices that have been seen as breaking the illusion of the narrative’s immediacy—deictic pronouns, rhetorical questions, tense shifts are some. [7] Of course, this does not “prove” that the Iliad is an oral poem in any sense. It does, however, force us to rethink the relationship of contact and distance in the epic. Rather than being opposed, these features coexist. We have seen that Homer can actually use the distancing mode to characterize a hero: Hektor, whose speech is often reduced or merely summarized by the poet, recedes from view, while Achilles comes closer to us because the poet chooses him as the channel to contact his audience.

The technique I have just described can be paralleled in living oral epic tradition. In a number of performance traditions, the bard and the hero he sings about nearly become one. In an African example, “bards strongly identify with the principal hero of the epic; they may suggest his physical presence by means of some of the objects and accoutrements. The scepter carried by the Nyanga bard, Rureke, suggests the magical conga-scepter of the hero, Mwindo,” reports Biebuyck, adding that a warrior’s spear and knife, the mark of a bard {233|234} also, must be present at performances. [8] In the Turkic Körogh epic, the teller “becomes” the hero in the song-portions, and the hero himself then is characterized as an impromptu composer. The bard introduces his direct speech with the words “Let us see what soylama he sang here,” then shifts from prose to a rudimentary verse form, to repeat the hero’s praises of his horse, himself, or his musical instrument. [9] An implicit and even unconscious identification of hero and bard can affect the narrative. One African performer in the third night of his epic recital has the hero, Ozidi, placed under a spell. The bard’s tiredness “finds articulation in the plight of the cramped and powerless hero” and the lines the hero recites at this point could be the bard’s comment on his own condition. [10]

In some cases, the bard keeps himself distinct from the hero, but the hero is thought to be present at performance, ensuring that the human singer keeps to the accuracy of the tradition about him, and punishing errors. A bard of the Burjats singing the Geser epic saw a magic horse descending from the sky as a reward for his performance, but at the last moment it was snatched away and a voice—the hero’s presumably—was heard: “The tale is well told but the whip is missing.” The bard had neglected to add to his narration the detail that the hero lost his whip. [11] Some Filipino audiences of epic believe that the hero, while distinct from the bard, communciates information to the narrator through their “familiar spirits” and the performer is then said to be a favorite of the hero. [12] Is Homer the “favorite” of Achilles, then, as much as Achilles is the poet’s? [13] Does Achilles’ voice fade away because the Iliad is over in Book 24, or is it vice versa?

Despite the evidence for interaction of heroic cult and epic tradition, I do not want to propose that Homer communicates with the spirit of his hero. I suggest, instead, that Homer uses an attested epic {234|235} convention for both establishing contact and at the same time keeping distance between himself and the audience of the Iliad. By assuming the voice of Achilles, making the hero’s performance as monumental as his own, and using turns of phrase in Achilles’ voice that only Homer as narrator uses elsewhere, he turns the figure of Achilles into the “focalizer” of narration. The “authorial knowledge” possessed by Achilles—his ability in Book 1 to say why Khryses came, or how Agamemnon thought—is not then an accident of composition, but a poetic strategy. [14] In a way, this is to validate the notions one sees in both Hesiod and Plato regarding the relation between a narrator and narrated speech. Both assume that, to a large extent, the poet takes on the role of the speaker in his poem. To the eighth-century poet, the overlap is a status-raising device, in that his Theogony shares in the authority of divine speech. By the fourth century, such shape-shifting mimesis is thought dangerous to the soul by the philosopher. [15] Whatever the reception of this strategy, I believe its consistent deployment by Homer with regard to Achilles can help explain two long-standing critical problems in the Iliad: the use of apostrophe and the dual verbs in Book 9.

Adam Parry first made the fullest argument for the view that the poet’s rare use of direct address to certain figures in the Iliad and Odyssey is only partially determined by metrical necessities in a rigid system of name formulas. Heroes thus addressed—Menelaos and Patroklos in this poem—are “all in other ways treated with particular concern by the poet” and are “represented as unusually sensitive and worthy of the audience’s sympathy.” [16] More recently, critics have located the motivation for apostrophizing less in a regard for character and more in the creation of emotional effect, to increase the poignancy of Patroklos’ death or highlight the themes of protection and responsibility for which they are the focus. These are certainly the intended effects of apostrophe in other narrative and lyric traditions. [17] If we ask, however, why Patroklos alone is given prime attention, apostrophized eight times in the course of a single book, {235|236} the explanation seems to lie in a more specific association between the narrator and Achilles, focalizer of the narration. Mueller notices this general effect, but does not tie it in with the use of apostrophe: “The peculiar horror and pathos of Patroklos’ death are in good measure a result of the manipulation of the reader’s response so that he stands in for Achilles and becomes the witness of the friend’s death.” [18] I would say that Homer himself sees the death through the eyes of Achilles, his alter ego. In this regard, apostrophe is natural: Achilles, after all, is the one hero who most often addresses Patroklos in the course of the poem. If Homer puts on the role of his hero, this speech habit comes with it.

The vexed problem of the dual-number verbs in the embassy scene of Book 9 admits of a similar solution. Rather than rehearse the many attempts to explain why verb forms referring to two persons should be applied to an embassy comprising three—Phoinix, Odysseus, and Aias—let me cite the most recent summary to put the problem in perspective: “The problematic aspect of the duals is not an isolated and contained philological difficulty but a determining feature of the narrative and dramatic structure of Book 9—that narrative drama which tells without telling.” [19] It is essential to place our solutions in this larger context of the poem. Gregory Nagy’s suggestion that Odysseus, the traditional nemesis of Achilles, is the intrusive element in the embassy has the advantage of being grounded in attested themes of Greek epic. If we prefer a solution from larger patterns of narrative voice, then the close contact between Homer and Achilles, his voice, would lead us to consider Phoinix the odd man out, because the relationship between Achilles and Phoinix is such that the young hero, speaking, could assume the presence of the older man as natural and address dual verb forms to Odysseus and Aias, neither of whom belongs in his quarters. [20] It is one of the more pragmatically interesting features of literary semantics that a speaker may assume the presence of a nonintroduced hearer who shares his own knowledge. [21] Achilles is such a speaker; Homer, as narrator, takes the {236|237}stance of Achilles and uses the speech habit again (duals) associated with this stance.

Thus far, I have offered practical explanations based on my finding that Homer as narrator carries over into the poem certain habits that properly belong to Achilles as focalizer. My third proposal does not attempt to answer an old critical dilemma. Instead, encouraged by the evidence that Homer throughout the Iliad pays exact attention to the style and effect of heroic speech, I wish to ask how Homer himself conceived of poetic speech. What speech-act does the poem make? This particular question has not been asked before, yet the general theoretical question of the status of fictional communication has aroused much interest. [22] Homeric poetry may have something to add to the debate.

Nor do we necessarily face a dead end on encountering, in the invocation to the Iliad, the line “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles” (i.i). In Chapter i, I argued that the taxonomy of speech terms is culture-specific. The same applies to notions of singing. Among the Maori of New Zealand, instrumental music is classified as a part of “song,” and both, ultimately, are regarded as part of “speech.” [23] If performances of epic in other traditions are of comparative value, it seems that the word, rather than musical accompaniment, is primary; “sing” does not imply melodic performance. [24] And surely Homeric poetry struck later critics, especially the Romans, as akin to oratory rather than song. [25] The reader finds it today to be rhetorical, “conceived as a massive utterance, inspired by the Muse, following its thread independently of an author’s will, ” in one critic’s view. [26]

Homeric diction does not pose the poem as an utterance, nevertheless {237|238. Rather, it is an authoritative speech-act, initiated by a request for information, which is then recounted at length. The key word for this interpretation is the verb ennepe, “tell,” which opens the Odyssey but occurs as well in the Iliad, to introduce Homer’s request to know the best of the Achaeans (2.761): “Who, then, was by far best—Muse, narrate to me (su moi ennepe Mousa). ” The semantics of this verb have been described by Ernst Risch as referring to formal and artful reporting. [27] This places the verb within the sphere of meanings that we have discovered associated with muthos and the verb mutheomai in Chapter i. The formulaic evidence confirms this: whenever a word describing speech is made the explicit object of ennepo, that word is muthos. Consider the expressions muthon enispes (11.186), ennepe muthon (8.412); muthon enispo (11.839), all naming commands, and muthoisin terponto pros allelous enepontes (11.643), referring to the stories that Nestor and Makhaon exchange. [28]

To sum up, then: Homeric poetry is a muthos, specifically an act that we can classify as a feat of memory, the third heroic genre of discourse, Achilles’ specialty. Because the diction of Homer frames the poems in this way, I suggest that we can view the Iliad as we do the speech-acts of the tellers within the tale: this is poetry meant to persuade, enacted in public, created by authority, in a context where authority is always up for grabs and to be won by the speaker with the best style. Most important, in my view, is the further implication of this view: that Homeric muthos is inherently antagonistic and that the poet (like Diomedes in his contest with Glaukos) invents incident to overpower opposing versions. The poet of the Iliad, as an enacter of a muthos, must by this implication be a poet against others, out to obliterate their performances by speaking in more detail, about more topics—in short, in a more monumental fashion than any other epic performer. Achilles is the poet’s voice and his emblem, a heroic speaker who outdoes others in style. I submit that the Iliad, a poem about contest, was created for a contest, of the type we see described in a number of texts, both in other traditions, and in Greek from Hesiod to Corinna. [29] It is only fit that Homer has been commemorated {238|239} within a tradition of tales about his exploits. As with the traditional singers of the massive Kirghiz poems about the hero Manas, the sheer effort of performing the Iliad would have earned him a place in popular tradition as a hero. We can still appreciate his overpowering art in the Iliad’s recording of the language of heroes. [30]


[ back ] 1. On the Burjat epic, see Shoolbraid 1977: 22-23.

[ back ] 2. Knappert 1983:13, 20.

[ back ] 3. On this, see Kelly 1974:62-73. On the basis of the strong differentiation between narrrative and speech sections, in terms of correption, Kelly argues that Homeric epic shows signs of having been at one time completely made up of dramatized speech, with connecting narrative added later.

[ back ] 4. Knappert 1983:129. This continues in the written tradition in the form of an address by the scribe to his readers.

[ back ] 5. Wrigglesworth 1977: 106.

[ back ] 6. On these devices, including naming, quoting, onomatopoeia, and style, pronoun, and media shifts, see Babcock 1978:73.

[ back ] 7. Bassett 1938:86. The device of forecasting action comes under this category—see 2.724, 12.8-33, I7-I97, 24-85-

[ back ] 8. Biebuyck 1978:351.

[ back ] 9. Başgöz 1978:314-17. Shoolbraid 1975:25 observes that such praise-songs in the eastern Burjat tradition are sung by the bard, then chorused by the audience.

[ back ] 10. Okpewho 1979:186-87.

[ back ] 11. Shoolbraid 1975:2, 24. Another example of a spirit competing with the bard at actual narration cornes from Yakut epic: Hatto 1985:516-17.

[ back ] 12. A belief in the close contact between the hero’s presence and the narration may underly the performance of the epic of Husein’s death for liturgical purpose in Swahili tradition: Knappert 1983:59. Shamanistic ideas of spirit contact affect the Ob-Ugrian epic tradition, which associates songs in which the hero demands 300 reindeer with, the performance of sacrifices to the hero: Gushing in Hatto 1980:224-30.

[ back ] 13. As Eustathius said: 745.52, on the scene describing Achilles’ lyre playing (9.189).

[ back ] 14. On this feature, see de Jong 1985, esp:15. On focalizers, see Rimmon-Kenan 1983:71-85.

[ back ] 15. On Plato, see Détienne 1986:22. On the Muses, Walsh 1984:27-33.

[ back ] 16. A. Parry 1972:9.

[ back ] 17. On the emotional effect, see M. Edwards 1987:37; on theme, Block 1986:160. The apostrophe is often used in the Malay oral performances viewed by Wrigglesworth 1977:106. For its use in Central Asian epic, see Hatto 1980:305-6 and Chadwick and Zhirmunsky 1969:45-46. In general, see Culler 1981.

[ back ] 18. Mueller 1984:52.

[ back ] 19. Lynn-George 1988:54. A thorough summary of earlier opinions appears in M. Edwards 1987:219-23.

[ back ] 20. M. Edwards 1987:228 seems to lean this way: “The oddity of his not being with Achilles, as Patroklos is, remains and may well be related” to the duals. For the explanation from theme, see Nagy 1979:49-55.

[ back ] 21. Van Dijk 1970:54.

[ back ] 22. Critics such as van Dijk 1976 45-50 argue that the literary text does not represent an actual speech-act, but an imitation of one. Searle 1979:58-75 points out that no strictly textual property enables us to distinguish between “real” and fictionalized speech-acts, however; at most, we can say that the illocutionary act behind the latter is one of pretending. Levin 1976:148-55 believes that the opening of a poem contains an implicit performative, to the effect “I imagine myself in a world and invite you into one in which. …” For a survey of work on literary speech-acts, see Ihwe and Rieser 1979.

[ back ] 23. Hymes 1974:31. See also Bauman 1978:12-13.

[ back ] 24. Bowra 1952:39. I choose not to rely, as Austin does 1975:65-66, on the term “epic” for evidence that the Greeks recognized a continuing association between the poetic genre and the meaningful “word,” since Koller has shown that the genre term derives from the use of epos (utterance) to mean “line of verse.”

[ back ] 25. Cf. Cicero, Brutus 40, Quintilian 10.47-51.

[ back ] 26. Vivante 1970:5.

Risch 1985,esp.:9. On the cognates describing narrative genres (Irish seel; Latin insece—used by Livius Andronicus to translate ennepe) see Fournier (1946) 3-4.

[ back ] 28. A similar phrase to describe recollections by Odysseus and Penelope is at Od. 23·3θΐ.

[ back ] 29. Peabody 1975:270-72 has a good collection of the relevant material.

[ back ] 30. On the Kirghiz epic poets as legendary heroes, see Başgöz 1978:3181″. Wrigglesworth 1977:105 describes a performance that resembled a test of physical endurance.