The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics

  Tsagalis, Christos. 2008. The Oral Palimpsest: Exploring Intertextuality in the Homeric Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 29. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


The title of this book (The Oral Palimpsest) with its learned oxymoron and its allusion to analogously oxymoronic titles (for instance Written Voices and Spoken Signs edited in 1997 by E. Bakker and A. Kahane) might seem no more than a smart appeal to the sophisticated reader, but in fact it announces the various paradoxical, mysterious and enigmatic aspects of Homeric poetry. Christos Tsagalis is a virtuoso interpreter of this poetry, as he has shown in his book Epic Grief (Berlin-New York 2004), and in this new endeavour he straddles felicitously the contradictory, ungraspable aspects of the Homeric poems, as he moves on the razor’s edge that holds united the fluctuating Homeric diction, always completely traditional and yet completely new. Specifically, the palimpsest image refers to Tsagalis’ careful pursuit of the traces of rival poetic versions that the Iliad and the Odyssey let emerge and simultaneously exclude. Just as the erased text of a palimpsest still carries traces of a previous writing, so the Homeric texts reveal their knowledge of rival versions in the act of producing the signs of their erasure. Tsagalis’ title is impressively precise.

By this strategy, the two poems yield extraordinary results. They manifest on the one hand their absolute control of the traditional epic songs, and on the other, by the exclusion of alternative variants, the selectivity and unitary force of their narratives. By eliminating the themes, the tones, the shades that would obscure or corrupt the fundamental coherence of their poetic effect and significance, the poems throw light on the image of their poetic self-awareness. Of course many other features, characters, and scenes (lamentation, representation of Achilles, Helen, Penelope, etc.) point to this same awareness.

The idiosyncratic, unique interpretation of the heroic kleos, the odd poetic liminality of Achilles within the Iliadic plot, the upsetting and paradoxical gesture whereby Thetis puts her son Achilles within the reach of death, and the desperate disparity between the goddess-mother and Achilles are some of the closely-knit poetic themes in the Iliad. These themes, however, are not simply described and elaborated as the thematic nucleus of the poem, but they are shown to mirror the direction and the goal of poetic activity. As Thetis sends Achilles to Troy and asks Zeus to restore his lost time (honor), she delivers her son to death, and “figuratively asks Zeus to make Achilles the hero of the Iliad, to allow the poem to make of him its subject matter.” Every scene and every character, in Tsagalis’ analysis, mirrors the poetic tenets and thrust making their staging possible and endowing them with the Iliad’s particular tragic inflection. For the Odyssey Tsagalis illuminates “not the unfailing fame conveyed by kleos aphthiton, but the unfailing memory of enchanting and pleasing song.”

The author moves with great caution upon the slippery and treacherous ground of formulaic diction and intertextuality. As he writes, the formulaic diction opens “labyrinthine paths” leading us either to the alluring and enriching meanings of intertextuality, or to nets of senseless and ultimately infinite connections. How to control this game of references and allusions? He succeeds with convincing resolution thanks to the precise principles he adopts and his extraordinary sensitivity in symbiosis with a thorough knowledge of the epic language. He finds the right expression to define this ground of research when he attributes to the language of the poems “a fluctuating regularity”: the technical and critical language in this book is of admirable precision and originality. When confronting the thorny question of how to treat the poems, as texts or oral compositions, Tsagalis engages in a creative dialogue with Nagy’s theory about textualized oral song-cultures, showing that in fact oral intertextuality is possible within the complex web of myth. Intertextual analyses are precise and rigorous: he begins by distinguishing four types of intertextuality and then illustrates how each of them works through richly commentated case-studies, replete with the author’s special feeling for Homeric style.

Tsagalis is constantly in dialogue with the critics and writers of our time: he seems not to exclude any scholar from whom he may learn something useful and exciting. This on-going dialogue opens the vast panorama of our present studies on Homer that reflect the enormous complexity, the mysterious and fascinating power of his poetry.

Pietro Pucci
Professor of Classics, Cornell University