One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey

  Kretler, Katherine. 2020. One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hellenic Studies Series 78. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Interlude 2. A Source for the Iliad’s Structure

Now that we have drawn out the performative virtues of the Iliad’s use of the Protesilaos story, let us pivot around and look again at the question of sources and intertextuality. What are we to make of the genealogical connections among the female figures in the background: Marpessa, her daughter Kleopatra, and her granddaughter Polydora? As Pausanias [1] remarks, one after the other all kill themselves when their husbands die.

The possibility certainly exists that some clever person, the author of the Cypria or someone else, noticed the connections between the two couples, Protesilaos and his wife and Meleager and Kleopatra, saw how the Iliad used them to structure its plot, and made one woman the daughter of the other as a midrash on the Iliad. But the connection between Kleopatra and her daughter seems too deeply enmeshed in the structure of the Iliad to be a later invention. Iliad 9 shows detailed knowledge of Marpessa’s story. Both the Catalogue of Ships and the plotting of Books 15 and 16 show familiarity with stories of Protesilaos’ leap, death and return to life and used them in developing the figure of Achilles and his plot. These stories of Protesilaos’ death and return from Hades are inseparable from the love story of Protesilaos and his wife. Once this is admitted, their story takes its place beside the story of Meleager and Kleopatra both as a background against which the tragic story of Achilles and Patroklos plays out and as an inspiration for the shaping of that story.

The existence of a tradition that Protesilaos’ wife Polydora (or Laodameia) was the daughter of Kleopatra, who was the daughter of Marpessa, strongly suggests that these two love stories (Meleager/Kleopatra; Protesilaos/Polydora) were not put together for the first time by the poet or poets of the Iliad. It is rather as if at some point in the development of the Iliad, a poet was inspired by catalogue poetry relating the genealogy of Marpessa, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and used them to structure the Iliad. This is a more elegant solution to the genealogy’s relation to the Iliad than the midrashic one suggested above, according to which a later author noticed the role of the women in the plotting of the Iliad and invented a genealogy to suit it.

The use of erotic scenarios, and even romantic stories, to constitute not only the background (Helen) but the structure and the very fabric of his story of war might seem to be an innovation of the poet of the Iliad. The combination of erotic story and war is quite traditional: witness Hesiod’s Theogony and also the Catalogue of Women, which ends in the strange montage of the beginning of the Trojan War and the twilight of the heroic age. And the use of erotic tales to structure or frame an individual battle scene is found elsewhere in Homer: for example, the duel between Menelaos and Paris and its postlude, recalling Paris’ earlier abduction of Helen. Protesilaos’ story is used to frame and deepen the scene at the beginning of Book 16. This framing, however, we now see taking its place in a broader structure: the use of the genealogical stories not only to frame a single episode but to connect the scene in Achilles’ tent in Book 9 with the reappearance of Achilles and Patroklos “at home” in Book 16. This connection can be seen as an expansion of the catalogue form. This would be another example, besides ring composition, where the deep structure shapes turning points in the plot as well as virtuosic performance moments.

Whether the use of these women’s stories is traditional or innovative, one should not be diverted by Quellenforschung from observing the particular effects achieved by the placing of these stories in the background—not “suppressing them,” because there is not a wholesale rejection, but rather the strategic deployment of an erotic tale as background. Although the poet relegates other erotic stories, including heterosexual ones (for example, Meleager’s love for Atalanta) [9] to extra-poetic space, he does so not out of any kind of epic distaste for those stories. [10] Rather the contrary: to draw out the harmonics, so to speak, of the tune he is singing—to spark his histrionic performance, he deploys these stories in the background by such means as are discussed Chapter 2. δεινὴ δ’ ἡ κευθομένη ἔμφασις. [11] The love story running behind Book 16 and the rest of the poem is powerful because it is in the background, and seems to “run the characters from elsewhere.” The very mysteriousness of the force it exerts, the “ungrammaticality” it introduces into the story, is crucial to the sense of tragedy and to the virtues of the poem in performance. As Slatkin writes, “What becomes instrumental in this mode of composition is not only what the poet articulates by way of bringing a given myth (with its associated themes) into play, in relation to his narrative, but also what is left unsaid; for his audience would hear this as well.” [12]

As for the highly compressed story of Marpessa (and Alkyone) looming behind the story of Kleopatra, one may interpret the compression of that story and its time-delayed release into the speech of Kleopatra in terms of the erotics of the passage in which it is embedded and also in terms of Kleopatra’s mind. Our interpretation, however, focused upon the speaker, Phoenix: the speech erupting from Kleopatra, motivated by the story of her mother Marpessa, seemed to burst out of him involuntarily. Yet at the same time Marpessa bore a strange resemblance to Phoenix himself, as though we were given a view here of associations in Phoenix’s memory, associations that hijack his speech and fuel a contrary message about the sack of a city.

In the case of Meleager and Kleopatra as a model for Patroklos and Achilles, the story looms over the Iliad in an obvious fashion, since it is used outright as a paradeigma for Achilles. Much of the tragic effect of the Iliad comes from the way the Meleager story looks forward to an intervention of Patroklos that does not occur until a massive delay has pushed the paradeigmatic story into the background. Likewise, the tragic events of Books 15 and 16, centered around Protesilaos’ ship, gain depth from the story of love and death playing underneath the figures of Achilles and Patroklos. In this latter case, the tale of Protesilaos and his wife and their genealogical connection to Kleopatra lurked within the deep structure, rather than being invoked outright as a paradeigma. That is, at least in part, why scholars such as Kullmann have failed to recognize their role in the Iliad, while they could not deny the role of Meleager and Kleopatra. Yet if the Iliad was capable of using one married couple as a paradigm for Achilles and Patroklos, it was surely capable of using another. The rewards for the Homeric audience of recognizing this particular couple are hard to overestimate. The story adds to the deepening sense of tragedy, and, like the Meleager story, works by setting up expectations that are then reversed. It opens up interpretive trajectories that cannot be circumscribed, as the audience’s knowledge of the themes connected with Protesilaos—love, return from death, fashioning a substitute, boundless grief, and suicide—is drawn on just at the dawning of Patroklos’ aristeia and his death.


[ back ] 1. Pausanias 4.2.7; see page 221 above.

[ back ] 2. West 1985a:32. Cf. Merkelbach 1951; Page 1955.

[ back ] 3. West (1985a:35) remarks that recent papyri reinforce this view of Apollodoros and the Catalogue.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Hainsworth 1993:134–135 and his stemmata. On the shared name between Idas’ father and Althaia’s brother, see Hainsworth 1993:131, 136.

[ back ] 5. West 1985a:174.

[ back ] 6. Despite the probability that the Catalogue of Women contained the line Marpessa–Kleopatra–Polydora, I hesitate to single out that particular poem as it appears in the extant fragments. If, as Irwin (2008) argues, the gods in the Catalogue stand in for elite males, the story of Idas and Apollo fits somewhat awkwardly; but for that matter so would the Odyssey’s Nekyia (Irwin 2008:41). But perhaps both the Nekyia and the Catalogue incorporate women’s traditions: see Doherty 1995, 2008.

[ back ] 7. Severyns 1928:303.

[ back ] 8. Whitman 1958.

[ back ] 9. Felson and Sale 1983. Griffin (1977:40) writes that the Homeric poems avoid “romantic” elements just as they do the “miraculous” or magical, on which see above, Chapter 2. Nagy (1990b:72n99) attributes the Homeric poems’ avoidance of both elements to Panhellenism: both types of story reflect localized interests, since miraculous stories reflect local cult, and love stories lead to conceptions of heroes, a theme in genealogical poetry promoting the localized aristocrats connected with these heroes.

[ back ] 10. It should be noted, however, that this is how some scholars have taken the absence of an explicit statement in Homer that Patroklos and Achilles are lovers (Janko 1994 ad 16.97–100, following Dover). See also Friedrich (1977:283): “Achilles grew up with Patroclus, and addressed him with a quasi-kinship term for respected, older persons (ētheios)—indeed, Achilles acts toward Patroclus as though the latter were a sort of structural elder brother.” Friedrich disputes the notion that Achilles and Patroklos are lovers against the assertions of “psychoanalytically oriented scholars.” The present argument is not psychoanalytic but structural and thematic, concerned with how the poet has framed Book 16 mythologically. For one interpreter, “An erotic interpretation of the Iliad—however philologically inappropriate it might be—can be explained in historical terms as the effect of a perspective that merged the actual text of the Homeric poem with its eroticized reinterpretations” (Fantuzzi 2012:3). I agree that the poem offers “no explicit evidence” that the two were “bound by an erotic bond, or were anything more than exemplary good friends” (Fantuzzi 2012:3). Nevertheless, the Protesilaos story is deployed in such a way as to accomplish—among other things—an eroticizing, however delicate, of the ongoing story. The Iliad is, to a certain extent, already a complication of and meditation upon the “elegiac love-in-death fantasizing” that for Fantuzzi (2012:253) is a later working-up of a “martial” bare-bones Iliad. Cf. Halperin 1990: whereas Halperin shows that the Achilles–Patroklos relationship, like that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and David and Jonathan, is compared with relations of kinship and conjugality to “make the friendship between the main characters into an image of sociality” (Halperin 1990:85), I am making sense of the fact that the Achilles–Patroklos relationship is connected in particular with stories of married couples in the background of the plot—not only that of Meleager and Kleopatra (cf. Halperin 1990:84) but also Protesilaos and his wife.

[ back ] 11. “There is strange power in the hidden impression/significance”: Demetrius On Style 261.

[ back ] 12. Slatkin 2011:20. Cf. Slatkin 1991:101–102: the use of the Thetis myth is “the definitive instance of the potency of myths in Homeric epic that exert their influence on the subject matter of the poems yet do not ‘surface’ (using Watkins’ term), because of the constraints of the genre. Nevertheless, the poem reveals them, through evocative diction, oblique reference, even conspicuous omission.”