Homeric Variations on a Lament by Briseis

Conclusion. Tradition and Innovation

A single man or even a group of men who set out in the most careful way could not make even a beginning at such an oral diction. It must be the work of many poets over many generations. When one singer … has hit upon a phrase which is pleasing and easily used, other singers will hear it, and then, when faced at the same point in the line with the need of expressing the same idea, they will recall it and use it. If the phrase is good poetically and so useful metrically that it becomes in time the one best way to express a certain idea in a given length of verse, and as such is passed on from one generation of poets to another, it has won a place for itself in the oral diction as a formula. But if it does not suit in every way, or if a better way of fitting the idea to the verse and the sentence is found, it is straightaway forgotten, or lives only for a short time, since with each new poet and with each new generation of poets it must undergo the two-fold test of being found pleasing and useful. In time the needed number of such phrases is made up: each idea to be expressed in the poetry has its formula for each metrical need, and the poet, who would not think of trying to express ideas outside the traditional field of thought of the poetry, can make his verses easily by means of a diction which time has proved to be the best. [1]

[83] Literary criticism of Homeric poetry is often concerned with finding the particular aspects of the Iliad and Odyssey that are the invention of Homer. Under this model, Homer is envisioned as a master poet who took the raw material of the epic tradition and created something new. This newness is equated with poetic genius. It has been argued for example that Homer “invented” Briseis, and even such a central figure to our Iliad as Patroklos. [2] But [84]in the system of Homeric poetry as it has been defined by Parry and Lord, innovation is a complex concept. As Parry shows in analysis of epic diction, change within the system occurs slowly and in very specific ways. I propose to conclude my analysis of the place of Briseis in the Homeric tradition by exploring the concept of innovation on the part of individual poets and on the part of the tradition with specific reference to Briseis’ character.

Both Knud Friis Johansen and Gilbert Murray speak of Briseis as invented. Murray writes: “In the Iliad Briseis is a shadow, a figment of the poet.” [3] Friis Johansen argues likewise:

I submit that Briseis is far from anonymous. I have tried to demonstrate in this book that when a character is introduced elliptically, a vast storehouse of tradition connected with that figure is often assumed by the poetry. [
5] We may compare the formulation of Richard Martin: “The full ‘meaning,’ and the full enjoyment, of traditional poetry come only when one has heard it all before a hundred times, in a hundred different versions.” [6] But it is not enough to have heard the Iliad and Odyssey a hundred times. One must have heard hundreds of other tales as well. These hundreds of tales and versions of those tales form a backdrop of tradition every time a song is sung.

Not all tales and versions of those tales can have coexisted, however. Some are tied to specific localities, others were no doubt well known at one time but less well known at other times over the history of the epic tradition. There are no doubt some traditions about Briseis that are, from a diachronic perspective, later [85]than others. [7] One might argue that the name Briseis (“daughter of Brises”) is earlier, and Hippodameia is later. Hippodameia could in theory be hundreds of years later, even post-classical, although I have maintained throughout this book that this is not the case. Following the work of Nagy on the Epic Cycle, I have argued that Hippodameia is a local variant, and as such, potentially much older than the relatively more Panhellenic Briseis.

The system in which the Iliad and Odyssey were composed allows that both older and later traditions be “authentic.” [8] A diachronic perspective accommodates and accounts for innovation over time. For innovation can and certainly does occur within the Homeric system. Parry demonstrated how new formulas could be created in performance on the principle of analogy, [9] and Lord’s work shows how poetry that is centuries old can be applied to new conflicts and thus gain new significance. [10] Linguistic evidence proves that over centuries in the ancient Greek tradition new formulas and new grammatical forms replaced old ones, even while other extremely old forms survived. [11] Nagy has shown how Homeric poetry gradually became Panhellenized, and local versions of stories were screened out in a slow process. [12]

It is important to understand that any of these changes in the system of Homeric poetry happens gradually, and innovation on the part of any individual poet is not self-conscious. Individual poets “innovated” throughout their careers, emphasizing the deeds of one hero or another as local custom and occasion called for it. Nevertheless, as Lord has shown, the individual poet does not strive for anything “new.” A poet within a traditional system does not step outside of his tradition and want to be different. [13] The poet of a traditional song culture [86]rather claims to sing the songs exactly as he heard them, even though this never in fact occurs. [14]

When we speak of the invention of a character like Briseis, who appears in both epic poetry and the visual arts, we are dealing with two different kinds of innovation. For the invention of a character involves not only a radical addition to the system of traditional epic composition and song, it also involves the creation of the myth around which the system of composition is built. [15]

Malcolm Willcock was one of the first to theorize about a Homer who invented myth ad hoc to suit the purposes of the character or the narrative. [16] Willcock speaks of invention “for the needs of the moment.” His arguments suggest that the pressure of performance causes invention, as the poet struggles to make mythological exempla suit the needs of the context. [17] In reference to the use of the Niobe story as a paradeigma in Iliad 24 he writes: “The Niobe story shows that, in order to produce his parallel in the paradeigma, the author of the Iliad is prepared to invent the significant details of the myth” [emphasis Willcock’s]. [18] For Willcock, the process of composition-in-performance causes the oral epic poet to invent myth for the moment.

[87]But in the Iliad Briseis is not part of a paradeigma, nor does the invention of a character who is fundamental to the plot fit any of the other scenarios that Willcock and his followers have attempted to define. [19] Briseis was part of Cyclic traditions; she is mentioned by name in Proclus’ summary of the Cypria. If more of the Cypria survived we would no doubt know more about at least one version of her story.

The work of Parry and Lord, moreover, refutes Willcock’s suppositions about the pressure of performance. Composition-in-performance cannot occur without a traditional system of epic diction in place. This traditional system of epic diction presupposes traditional content. If the content of the epic narrative changes, the epic diction must evolve in order to express the new content. In the citation of Parry with which I opened this concluding chapter, he discusses the process by which a new formula enters a traditional system. It is only after a new formula has been found to be both pleasing and useful to a generation of poets that it becomes part of the traditional diction. In other words, epic diction changes very slowly. Because the content of the narrative can only be expressed in traditional phraseology and within a traditional system of themes, change can only take place gradually, over several generations of poets.

It cannot be claimed therefore that Briseis or any character is the “invention” of any one poet, even though traditional tales can be shown (by an outsider to that tradition) to change over time. If we are to appreciate the Iliad and Odyssey as oral traditional poetry, a different model must account for Briseis’ and other minor characters’ brief appearances. Such a model presents itself in the poetic technique of compression and expansion. As the formulation of Martin that I have quoted near the beginning of this concluding chapter suggests, the appearance of Briseis or any other character in the Iliad operates within a traditional system of expanded tales and variations on those tales. In the more fluid stages of the evolution of the Iliad, it is possible that multiple variations on expanded narratives about Briseis coexisted. Briseis had not only a history, but possibly many histories. In less fluid stages of a poem there are fewer variations, but variation continues to occur on the level of expansion and compression. [20] I argue that Briseis’ seemingly minor role in the Iliad, like that of many other characters, is a compression of at least one variation on her story.

But as I have argued in this book, it is not enough to recover Briseis’ story in however many variations it existed; we must also contextualize Briseis’ story within traditional story patterns. Much of the meaning of the poetry comes from the interaction of the Briseis narrative with other traditional narratives: love stories of maidens and foreign enemies, the capture and destruction of cities, the [88]carrying off of daughters, the loss of husbands, the enslavement of royal women. [21] This interaction with traditional patterns becomes even more important when we consider the gradual screening out of local versions in the context of the Panhellenic festival of the Panathenaia, a process that coincided with the process of text fixation for the Iliad and Odyssey. As the text became more fixed, so many local and variant traditions were lost to the culture. A fifth-century Athenian audience of the Iliad may have known very little more about Briseis than modern readers do now. [22] Instead, much of the force of her character would have been paradigmatic, in that the compressed references to her story served mainly to evoke traditional patterns.

We have seen that this kind of interaction with traditional patterns is important also in vase-paintings. Certainly there were different rules of composition for the visual artists, who were constrained neither by the dactylic hexameter nor by the pressure of performance at high speed. But I have argued that, like the epic poet in a traditional song culture, vase-painters did not conceive of breaking free of tradition. One can strive to be the best painter without deliberately changing traditional patterns. [23] Snodgrass has noted for example that in the geometric period, the best paintings and sculpture are the ones that are most “geometric.” [24] In the archaic period, Briseis appears in scenes that are above all traditional: she is a lovely maiden holding a flower, a wine pourer, and she is led away by the wrist in a scene of abduction. The scenes are not generic. They are a visual representation of narrative. But the narratives in which Briseis plays a role evoke other similar narratives about other women, to the point that if many of the Briseis scenes were not labeled, we would most likely identify them as generic, or else as depicting someone else.

The Iliad and Odyssey are a synoptic representative of an entire system of individual singers that developed over hundreds of years. As Parry already shows in his analysis of Homeric diction, any innovations that are present in the text as we now have it were introduced by means of a complex process over time, and cannot be attributed to any one poet. The same is true for the content expressed by that diction. Briseis, like many other minor characters in the Iliad, [89]can best be understood as a figure with a long history, whose role in the epic tradition became increasingly compressed over time. The loss to the Homeric tradition of traditional narratives about Briseis occurred concurrently with the Panhellenization of the Iliad in the context of the Panathenaia.

In this book I have tried to reconstruct the force of Briseis’ character from a diachronic perspective. In earlier, more fluid, stages of the epic tradition I have argued that Briseis had a story that was well known, involving the sack of her city and capture by Achilles. It seems likely moreover that there were at least two variations on her story, because of the two-fold pattern she fulfills in ancient references. In one variation she is a wife whose husband is killed by Achilles in the sack of his city; in another she is an umarried girl, the daughter of a king, whose parents are killed in the sack of her city. Our Iliad seems to allude to multiple variations on these two basic themes.

But the loss of a more expanded version of Briseis’ life and capture, whenever that occurred in the history of Greek poetic traditions, did not prevent her from retaining a powerful role in the structure and poetics of the Iliad. The traditional patterns that she evokes unite her in meaningful connections and substitutions with the other women of the Iliad. Briseis’ lament is on one level a timeless expression of love and loss, on another a communal outpouring of grief for the hero Achilles, for whom Patroklos substitutes. As Briseis shifts roles from daughter to sister to wife, her lament becomes ever more universal, even as she is expressing her most personal feelings. The traditional lament links Briseis with the most ancient and basic story of them all, around which epic poetry is built and with which epic poetry is infused at every point, the song of sorrow.


[ back ] 1. Parry 1932, 7–8 (= Parry 1979, 330).   

[ back ] 2. On the inherent flaws in any combination of “Homer + verb,” see Nagy 1996b, 20-22. The particular combination “Homer invented” is connected with a common misconception of Homer as a master poet who has somehow “broken free” of the oral tradition. See Nagy 1996b, 26–27. On Patroklos as an invented character see Howald 1924, 11–12 as well as Dihle 1970, 159–60 and bibliography ad loc. Phoinix is another character who is thought to be “invented.” Bruce Braswell has suggested: “The character of Phoinix was either invented or adapted by the poet to give the embassy greater weight” (Braswell 1971, 22–23). Interestingly enough, two archaic cups in the Louvre by the Brygos Painter (B 22 a and B 22 b) depict Briseis and Phoinix, two frequently cited “invented” characters, together in a scene not found in our Iliad. (See chapter 1.) The scene is very likely sympotic in nature (Briseis is pouring wine into a drinking cup held by Phoinix), but the possibility of a narrative is nevertheless there.   

[ back ] 3. Murray 1911, 221 (= 1960, 205). On that same page Murray refers to her as “Briseis, the character of fiction.”   

[ back ] 4. Friis Johansen 1967, 153. On the problematic concept of the text of the Iliad as a “source” for or influence on artistic traditions, see chapter 1.   

[ back ] 5. See also Lang 1995, 149 and discussion above, pp. 13–14.   

[ back ] 6. Martin 1993, 228.   

[ back ] 7. For the terms synchronic and diachronic with reference to the system of Homeric poetry see Nagy 1990a, 4: “By synchronic I mean the workings of a system as it exists at a given time and place; by diachronic, the transformations of this system through time.”   

[ back ] 8. For Homeric poetry as a system see Parry 1928, 6–8 (= Parry 1971, 6–8).   

[ back ] 9. Parry 1928, 85–99 (= Parry 1971, 68–79).   

[ back ] 10. For Lord’s comparative work see Lord 1960, 1991, and 1995; this work has been expanded upon by many subsequent studies of oral traditional epic in the Balkans, Egypt, and elsewhere. For application of this principle to Homeric poetry see, e.g., Aloni 1986 and Higbie 1997.   

[ back ] 11. For three different approaches see Parry 1932, Palmer 1962, and Janko 1982.    

[ back ] 12. For Panhellenization, see chapter 1.   

[ back ] 13. See Lord, 1995, 3. The traditional and above all formulaic nature of Homeric diction was in fact emphasized already by Meillet. (See especially Meillet 1923a, 61 and Parry 1928, 9–10 [= Parry 1971, 8–9], as well as Lamberterie 1997, 418–19.) On the pull of tradition in the process of composition-in-performance, see, besides Lord, Nagler 1974, xxiii. Cf. Parry 1932, 9–10 (= Parry 1971, 331): “Whatever change the single poet makes in the traditional diction is slight, perhaps the change of an old formula, or the making of a new one on the pattern of an old, or the fusing of old formulas, or a new way of putting them together. An oral style is thus highly conservative; yet the causes for change are there, and sooner or later they must come into play. These causes for change have nothing to do with any wish on the part of the single poet for what is new or striking in style. They exist above the poets, and are two: the never-ceasing change in all spoken language, and the association between peoples of a single language but of different dialects.” Parry’s observations about Homeric style are equally applicable to Homeric content. The pull of traditional diction continues to be a strong force even in the composition of the tragic poetry of Aeschylus. Pierre Judet de la Combe has argued that an awareness of the inherited epic tradition is crucial for our understanding of Aeschylus’ own unique phraseology, even while the tragic poetry transforms and critiques the traditions it assumes. As Judet de la Combe (2001, 385) notes: “Innovation, then, means to stick close to tradition.”    

[ back ] 14. See especially Lord 2000, 27–29.   

[ back ] 15. For a refutation of the arguments of those who speak of the invention of myth see Nagy 1992 and 1996b, 113–46. Nagy argues from the perspective of social anthropology that for the ancient Greek poets “creativity is a matter of applying, to the present occasion, myths that already exist” (Nagy 1992, 312). Lowell Edmunds also speaks of the application of traditional stories or myth to the present occasion: “A story, or myth, is therefore, in retrospect, a set of variants on a fundamental pattern, while, on the occasion of any retelling, the present, individualist version is the authoritative one. Myth occurs, one could say, at the juncture of performance with tradition” (Edmunds 1996, 420). Edmunds’ definition of myth is in perfect accord with the process of composition-in-performance of oral traditional poetry. We may compare Nagler’s (1974, 26) words on Homeric diction: “all is traditional on the generative level, all original on the level of performance.” On the application of mutually contradictory variations of the same myth on different occasions within the same poem see Edmunds 1996, 421–22.   

[ back ] 16. Willcock 1964 and 1977. For arguments regarding mythological invention in Homer see also March 1987.    

[ back ] 17. See especially Willcock 1977, 45.   

[ back ] 18. Willcock 1964, 142, following the arguments of Kakridis 1949, 96–105, and with further bibliography at notes 1, 2, and 4. For more on the story of Niobe and its place in Iliad 24 see the afterword.   

[ back ] 19. See Willcock 1964 and 1977, as well as Braswell 1971 and Griffin 1980, 185.   

[ back ] 20. It is useful to think here of horizontal and vertical axes of selection and combination, as they are formulated by Jakobson. (See, e.g., Jakobson 1960.) In more fluid stages of the tradition, there would have been more variation on the vertical axis of selection. In less fluid stages variation happens in the form of compression or expansion along the horizontal axis of combination.    

[ back ] 21. On the interaction of traditional themes see Lord 1960, 95–98.   

[ back ] 22. A fifth-century Athenian audience would have been acquainted with some version of what we know as the Cypria at least. Aeschylus’ Myrmidons must have also featured Briseis, and it has been suggested that she may have had a role in other tragedies as well. There is a reference to Mynes (to whom Briseis refers in her lament at Iliad 19.296) in Sophocles’ lost Aikhmalotides; Blumenthal 1927 suggests that the title of that play refers to Briseis and her fellow captives. For Briseis in these and other lost tragedies see Jacobson 1971, 335 and note 11, with references ad loc.    

[ back ] 23. See also chapter 1 for arguments that others have made for believing that artists strove to work within tradition rather than break free of it.    

[ back ] 24. Snodgrass 1998, 48–49. He cites Martin Robertson (1951): “the finer the work of art, the more geometric.”