The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad

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Gregory Nagy

{ix} The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the “Iliad,” by Richard P. Martin, inaugurates the “Myth and Poetics” series. My goal, as series editor, is to encourage work that will help integrate literary criticism with the approaches of cultural anthropology and that will pay special attention to problems concerning the nexus of ritual and myth.

For such an undertaking, we may look to the comparative testimony of relatively complex societies, such as the Ndembu of Zambia, and also of the very smallest, such as the Yukuna of the Colombian Amazon. [1] Just as important, we must pursue the varied testimonies of the most stratified societies, including those which go under the general heading “Western civilization.” It is precisely here that the meaning of myth is most misleading—and most challenging. In a small-scale society myth tends to be viewed as the encoding of that society’s concept of truth; at the same time, from the viewpoint of Western civilization, myth has become the opposite of fact, the antithesis of truth. [2]

Since the ancient Greek concept of politelā serves as the foundation for the very word civilization and for our concept of Western civilization, {ix|x} more than one of the books in this series will deal primarily with ancient Greece. The testimony of the Greeks is particularly instructive with regard to our central concern, the relationship between ritual and myth. The very word myth, as derived from Greek mūthos, is a case in point: the semantics of this word bring to life, in microcosm, the relationship between myth and ritual in ancient Greek society.

In order to grasp the special meaning of Greek mūthos, let us consider the distinction between marked and unmarked speech (in the terminology of Prague School linguistics). We find that marked speech occurs as a rule in ritual contexts, as we can observe most clearly in the least complex or smallest-scale societies. It is in such societies also that we can observe most clearly the symbiosis of ritual and myth, and the ways in which the language of ritual and myth is marked whereas “everyday” language is unmarked. The Greek language gives us an example of these semantics: muō means “I have my eyes closed” or “I have my mouth closed” in everyday situations, but “I see in a special way” or “I say in a special way” in ritual. Hence mustēs is “one who is initiated” and mustērion “that into which one is initiated, mystery (Latin mysterium).” Hence also mūthos, “myth”: this word, it has been argued, is a derivative of muō and had at an earlier stage meant “special” as opposed to “everyday” speech.

A striking example occurs in Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1641-1644: the visualization and the verbalization of what happened to Oedipus in the precinct of the Eumenides at Colonus are restricted, in that the precise location of his corpse is a sacred secret (1545-1546, 1761-1763). Only Theseus, by virtue of being the proto-priest for the Athenians of the here-and-now, is to witness what happened, which is called the drōmena (1644). This word is what Jane Harrison used to designate “ritual” in her formulation “myth is the plot of the drōmenon.” Thus the visualization and the verbalization of the myth, what happened to Oedipus, are restricted to the sacred context of ritual, controlled by the heritage of priestly authority from Theseus, culture-hero of the Athenian democracy.

From an anthropological point of view, “myth” is indeed “special speech” in that it is a means by which society affirms its own reality. In the poetry of Homer, however, as Richard Martin’s Language of Heroes demonstrates, mūthos is not just “myth” in the sense of a narrative that affirms reality. It is any speech-act that affirms reality. In making this argument, Martin applies the theories of J. L. Austin {x|xi} and J. R. Searle concerning the performative aspects of language. A speech-act, according to Austin and Searle, entails a situation in which the word is the action; the antithesis of word and action is neutralized. Here we may invoke Barbara Johnson’s application of Austin’s notion of speech-act to poetry—an application that Austin himself resisted. Going one step further, Martin applies the notion of speech-act to the oral performance of oral poetry, the dynamics of which have been made known through the pathfinding works of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. As Martin argues, the mūthos is not just any speech-act reported by poetry: it is also the speech-act of poetry itself. Viewed in this light, myth implies ritual in the very performance of myth. And that performance is the essence of poetics.

The speech-acts that constitute Homer’s narrative match in their distinctive style the represented speech-acts of Homer’s greatest hero, the Achilles of the Iliad. Just as the speech of Achilles is unlike the speech of other heroes in the Iliad, Martin argues, so the speech of Homer is unlike the potential speech of other epic composers. Such is the power of Homeric myth-making and poetry.

The Language of Heroes boldly advances Parry’s and Lord’s discoveries about the oral heritage of Homeric poetry. Among classicists, one major excuse for resisting the findings of Parry and Lord has been the absence of a satisfying explanation for the sheer monumentality of Homer. Martin has developed a hermeneutic model that accounts for this monumental quality. What makes Martin’s explanation even more compelling is that it simultaneously solves a major difficulty for Homeric criticism of the last few decades: the problem of explaining the stylistic and even grammatical uniqueness of the language of Achilles as dramatized in the Iliad.

Martin proves that the characteristics of Achilles’ discourse, which make this hero sound superior to all other heroes, are parallel to the characteristics of Homeric discourse, which make “Homer” sound superior to the rest of archaic Greek epic poetry. In other words, an extraordinary hero requires an extraordinary poet. The beauty of this parallelism is to be found not in any simple formulation but rather in the detailed empirical demonstration that Martin executes with expertise and sensitivity. What we witness in this book is an extraordinary synthesis of oral poetics and literary perception.


[ back ] 1. See V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967), and P.-Y. Jacopin, “La parole générative: De la mythologie des Indiens Yukuna” (diss., University of Neuchâtel, 1981).

[ back ] 2. See especially M. Detienne, L’invention de la mythologie (Paris, 1981), and my review in Annales: Economies Sociétés Civilisations 37 (1982) 778-80.