Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts

  Barker, Elton T. E., and Joel P. Christensen. 2019. Homer's Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts. Hellenic Studies Series 84. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BarkerE_ChristensenJ.Homers_Thebes.2019.

Introduction. Why Thebes?

Some of this attention may be due to the absence itself—we love mysteries, and it is tempting to reframe the fragments that we do have in order to tell the stories that we want to hear about Thebes. In itself, however, this is insufficient to account for the refocusing of a critical lens onto the Theban epic over the past decade. In part, the renewed interest in Thebes relates to a trend in recent scholarship to reconsider fragmentary works more generally, especially with a view to paying due attention to their contextualization in, and reframing by, later sources. More importantly, however, the study of epic fragments has been revolutionized by oral theory. All examples of Greek hexameter epic poetry, whether the ”complete” poems of Homer or Hesiod, or fragmentary remains from alternative traditions (such as those related to Thebes), as well as other performance-based poetry, like lyric or elegy, are now subject to analysis in terms of their shared language and motifs.

Before setting out this methodological approach in more detail below, we first want to consider Thebes’ epic credentials. The clearest evidence for thinking about Thebes in epic terms comes from a passage of the Works and Days where Hesiod pairs Thebes with Troy (156–165):

Αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ καὶ τοῦτο γένος κατὰ γαῖα κάλυψεν,
αὖτις ἔτ’ ἄλλο τέταρτον ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ
Ζεὺς Κρονίδης ποίησε, δικαιότερον καὶ ἄρειον,
ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων θεῖον γένος, οἳ καλέονται
ἡμίθεοι, προτέρη γενεὴ κατ’ ἀπείρονα γαῖαν.
καὶ τοὺς μὲν πόλεμός τε κακὸς καὶ φύλοπις αἰνὴ
τοὺς μὲν ὑφ’ ἑπταπύλῳ Θήβῃ, Καδμηίδι γαίῃ,
ὤλεσε μαρναμένους μήλων ἕνεκ’Οἰδιπόδαο,
τοὺς δὲ καὶ ἐν νήεσσιν ὑπὲρ μέγα λαῖτμα θαλάσσης
ἐς Τροίην ἀγαγὼν ῾Ελένης ἕνεκ’ ἠυκόμοιο.

But when also this race he had hidden beneath the earth,
again still another, the fourth on the fruitful earth
Zeus the son of Cronos made, more just and brave,
a divine race of hero-men, who are called
semi-divine, the race prior to ours, throughout the boundless earth.
Evil war and dread battle destroyed them,
some at seven-gated Thebes in the land of Cadmus,
when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus,
others when it had led them in their ships over the great deep sea
to Troy for lovely-haired Helen.

This passage has long been recognized as disrupting Hesiod’s depiction of a cosmic fall from grace, which charts a serial decline from a golden age society of easy living and righteous behavior to the present day world of his audience, an “iron age” characterized by hard graft and corruption. Prior to his description of that world, Hesiod inserts “a divine race of hero-men, who are called semi-divine” (ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων θεῖον γένος, οἳ καλέονται / ἡμίθεοι). Here, Thebes and Troy are paired as a way of denoting this heroic age, as the sites where major conflicts took place. These conflicts, while bearing witness to the characteristic feature of this age—men who were “more just and brave”—also have the instrumental effect of wiping out the race of heroes, which leaves the world populated by mere mortal men. This grim existence of having to scrape out a living is the scenario envisaged and explored in the Works and Days. Hesiod’s poem, then, provides a cosmological frame for thinking about the “generation of hero men” and their relation to the world of the present, where there are no more heroes anymore.

At the same time this passage suggests a metapoetic reflection on, and rivalry with, heroic epic as a genre. One of the few remaining fragments from the so-called heroic epic poem the Cypria, apparently from its proem, sets out how Zeus planned to rid the world of heroes through conflict at Troy, in order to relieve Earth of her burden of men (fr. 1.4: κουφίσαι ἀνθρώπων παμβώτορα σύνθετο γαῖαν). While the Iliad’s proem is conspicuously less explicit, there are hints of such a narrative in the reference to Zeus’ plan, the focus on conflict (between Achilles and Agamemnon), and the description of the myriad souls of heroes being sent to Hades (Iliad 1.1–9)—heroes here being almost a generic marker for this kind of epic (ἡρώων, 4). [3] Later on, at more or less the midpoint of the poem, Homer pans back from the fighting to situate his narrative of the fall of Troy in the context of the disappearance of this heroic world, using the striking description of “semi-divine” (ἡμίθεοι). We say “striking” because the only other occurrence of ἡμίθεοι in the whole of the hexameter epic corpus is in our passage from Hesiod, where it serves to delineate further the generation of heroes. This “divine race of hero men” (ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων θεῖον γένος) turns out to be only semi-divine (ἡμίθεοι); that is to say, crucially, these heroes are mortal. [4] This is the point of the passage in Hesiod, which, as we have seen, describes their annihilation at Thebes and Troy; it is also the force of the passage in the Iliad, where Homer describes the action of his epic from the perspective of a much later age when the heroes of Troy are dead and buried. Along with the evidence from the fragment of the Cypria, the impression is that heroic epic, as a genre, not only celebrated the great deeds of men but also dramatized the destruction of the race of heroes, as if part of some broader evolutionary narrative.

What that broader evolutionary system might look like has been articulated by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold who have shown how Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey fit into a putative cosmic history mapped out by four extant hexameter epic poems. This history begins with Hesiod’s Theogony, which describes the origins of the cosmos itself (including the birth of the gods) and explains how Zeus came to rule supreme (and will rule forever); it culminates in the Works and Days, which provides an epic view of ordinary life in its divine framing of the human business of working hard and pursuing justice. [5] In between these two poles are the Homeric poems. The Iliad covers the story of the end of the “race of heroes.” What is important here is that the Iliad is not only set in the now bygone heroic era; to a certain extent it also accounts for its destruction. Through its protagonist Achilles, the Iliad charts a movement from a world full of gods to a world of men. The poem’s first movement is dominated by “godlike Achilles,” especially his interaction with a number of divine figures. In Achilles’ final appearance, it is his status as “the son of Peleus” to which Priam appeals and by which he contemplates their common mortality; the gods are conspicuously absent (since even the boundary-crossing Hermes recuses himself from the scene); the poem itself ends with the burial of this other, very mortal hero, Hektor. Along the way, we see Achilles slaughter countless numbers of Trojans, who (we are led to be believe for the first time in the war) have only been enticed out of their walls by his initial absence and a mistaken belief that Zeus now favored them. By the poem’s end, then, the fate not only of Troy but also of the heroes who fought there is sealed. That is not to say that some heroes do not make it home: the Odyssey picks up the tales of those who did. But, as this poem shows, they have to undergo a kind of transformation to make it home. The Odyssey begins this process with its very first word—this poem will be about the man (ἄνδρα, 1.1) Odysseus. It continues with a pared-back divine apparatus that casts into relief human agency and responsibility. In turn, its investigation of what constitutes appropriate behavior for mortals is picked up by the intense interrogation of justice in Hesiod’s Works and Days. [6]

Whether poems about Thebes similarly situated their narratives within such a cosmological framework is impossible to say in the light of the fragmentary remains, but this question and the related issue about the degree of their Panhellenic appeal is a concern to this book for a very good reason. Hesiod’s passage clearly pairs Thebes and Troy in the destruction of the race of heroes. The pairing is not limited to the idea of these two cities as the sites of total war, where the heroes perished. Given what we have just said about the Iliad’s depiction of the Trojan War and the Odyssey’s post-war vision, to pair the two cities is also suggestive of comparable narrative traditions, as if we should expect heroic epics about Thebes (which we don’t have) as well as those about Troy (which we do). From a Hesiodic perspective, then, the wars and traditions about Troy and Thebes are notionally equivalent, in that they both serve to relate the extinction of this former race of heroes. It is also true that the two cities share a certain cognitive distance. In Hesiod they already exist on the margins of time, as if belonging to the (already) doomed race of heroes. In later performance contexts, too, Troy and Thebes enjoy a degree of separation from their audiences: where Troy is the city that is forever doomed to fall, Thebes is the city that is forever under siege. [7] Thus, although only fragments of a Theban tradition remain, in contrast to the tradition of the Troy story represented for us by the Iliad and Odyssey, [8] these fragments tend to be grouped together to form functionally equivalent epics. The resulting poems—namely the Oedipodea, Thebais, Epigonoi, and Alcmeonis—are reconstructed from later representations (especially tragedy), references in works of historiography, comments of the scholastic tradition, and the story patterns of Homer’s epics. [9]

One pressing issue for us has been how to negotiate such a notional equivalence of these two cities, when it is only Homer’s poems about the war at Troy and the return home that have survived. If Hesiod’s invocation of the cities of Thebes and Troy were the only pairing of these two cities, it might be possible to understand it as merely a broad reference to a heroic mythical past. But the cities—and their attendant motifs—are compared and contrasted throughout early Greek poetry. Pindar, for example, pairs the marriages of Cadmus-Harmonia and Peleus-Thetis (Pythian 3.86–105) as golden-age unions that precipitate the wars of heroic extinction around Thebes and Troy. Anacreon, too, (fr. 26 cited above) contrasts the affairs at Thebes (τὰ Θήβης) and the wars in Phrygia (Φρυγῶν ἀυτάς) with his own non-martial poetry (ἐμάς). In Attic tragedy, Thebes is established as the “other” city always under siege, a counterpoint to Troy, the city always sacked. At the same time, however, it may well be mistaken to consider Hesiod’s association of Thebes and Troy, at any rate, as a pairing of equal members. As we will discuss later in the book (e.g. Chapters 4 and 5), early Greek poetry often provides lists and doublets that culminate in the most significant entry—a case of last is better. Here, Hesiod’s diction and presentation does little to betray that one city may be more important than the other apart from the sequencing that positions Helen’s Troy as coming after Oedipus’ Thebes. What is interesting, as we shall see (e.g. Chapters 2, 3 and 4), is that the temporal priority of the Theban conflict is consistently exploited by the Homeric poems to lend greater weight and significance to the events around Troy. [10] What Thebes had started—the destruction of the race of heroes—Troy finishes off. Or, to put that differently, Thebes is insufficient to do the job itself.

A brief survey of the use of the name and label “Thebes” in the Iliad serves to show the underlying importance of this city to Homer, or, perhaps better, the anxiety felt in this narrative about an epic siege of (another story of) another epic siege. It will also help to anticipate the content and form of the approach that we follow in this book (cf. Barker and Christensen 2011). When Agamemnon describes the walls of Thebes as “sacred” (ἱερὰ τείχεα Θήβης, 4.378), his words evoke descriptions elsewhere in the Iliad of other walls and other cities. The epithet “sacred” is used most often in the Iliad to denote the city of Troy itself: its use here by Agamemnon might indicate poetic tension, especially since elsewhere in extant poetry Thebes is described by this epithet. [11] Clearly, Thebes can be described, like Troy, as being a “sacred” city. Yet the one time when a Thebes is described as sacred in the Iliad, it is another city altogether. As early as book 1 Achilles declares that he has sacked Thebes—but this is neither Boiotian Thebes nor the similarly famous Egyptian Thebes, but Thebê, “the sacred city of Eetion” (Θήβην, ἱερὴν πόλιν Ἠετίωνος, Iliad 1.366). The immediate qualification suggests Homer’s care in defining this city for his audience. This other “Thebes” is further elaborated in book 6 when Andromache describes its sack by Achilles and the death of her father, the aforementioned Eetion (Iliad 6.414–20). Significantly, Andromache’s description of this Thebes also includes the epithet “lofty-gated” (Θήβην ὑψίπυλον), which is used otherwise only of Troy. [12] The redeployment of Thebes’ epithet as “sacred” to denote another (not) Thebes, the elevation of that other (not) Thebes to the lofty heights of Troy, and its sack (already) by the hero of this narrative, all suggest a sustained assault by the Iliad on its rival city-under-seige.

There is a further significance underlying the description of Troy and Thebes as “lofty-gated” (ὑψίπυλος) and holy (ἱερή). Both terms would seem to suggest security, either physical (as in gates that are high and difficult to breach) or conceptual (as in cities that come under the protection of the gods). Yet that is not how these terms are deployed in the Iliad. As Corinne Pache has observed, the adjective “high-gated” (ὑψίπυλος) is used in the Iliad only in the context of the sacking of a city, either in fact, as with Andromache’s Thebes (6.416), or in intention, as with Troy (the gods prevent its actual sack in this poem: 16.698 and 21.544). Furthermore, while the epithet “holy” applies to a number of cities (including Plakaian Thebes, as we have seen), the only two cities to have walls that are specifically described as “holy” are Troy and Boiotian Thebes, when Agamemnon recalls how Tydeus gathered men to attack “the sacred walls of Thebes” (ἱερὰ τείχεα Θήβης, Iliad 4.378). “The holiness of the city walls,” Pache writes, “provides no protection and is brought into play at a city’s most distressing moments.” [13] The same point emerges from the description of Thebes in the Catalogue of Ships as “the strong-founded citadel” (ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον, Iliad 2.505). This account is already curious in that it is “lower Thebes” (Ὑποθήβας) which is described—as if Thebes were the city-that-ought-not-to-be-named. This Hypothebai, which must refer to the settlement “below the city” that survived the sack of the Epigonoi, is nevertheless described as “well built.” For Geoffrey Kirk, the epithet “well-built” (ἐϋκτίμενος) “does not accord with a particularly low status for Hupothebai, but seems to be applied somewhat arbitrarily.” [14] As Pache argues, however, its application is far from arbitrary, since, “as in Andromache’s description of her own fallen city of Placaean Thebes as ‘high-gated,’ ‘well-built’ lower Thebes also calls our attention to what once was but is no longer there… The epithet ἐϋκτίμενος thus calls attention not to the present condition of Hypothebai, but to the glorious past of Thebes and the ominous fall of its supposedly impregnable walls.” [15]

Thus deeply embedded in the imagery and very language of heroic epic poetry is the memory of these two cities, Troy and Thebes. Their well-built, lofty, and holy epithets serve as reminders of their previous security and sanctity and bring their current predicament to the fore. Or, rather, in Homer they serve to commemorate Thebes’ (already complete) fall and anticipate Troy’s (endlessly deferred) sack. The picture is further complicated by the Iliad’s marginalization of Thebes through the substitution of an alternative Thebes (Plakaian) and the supplement of another (Hypothebai).

The ultimate replacement of Thebes as a city (worthy) of epic song may also be behind the Iliad’s redeployment of these epithets in the first place. Troy’s place in the tradition as “holy” is explained in its foundational story, where king Laomedon contracted Apollo and Poseidon to build the city’s defenses. [16] Thebes’ defensive constructions were arguably even more famous: its walls and seven gates function as a metonym of its fame and the stories of the wars that surrounded it. [17] As Singor 1992 has shown, the Iliad inverts the logic of the Trojan tale by depicting the Achaeans constructing a wall around their ships, with the result that it is the besieging Achaeans who become the besieged. The fact that the Achaean wall is conceived and built during the course of the narrative (indeed, in one night, it seems) is suggestive of a motif that is not germane to the war at Ilium but a conceit of the Iliad. Indeed, its presence in the Troy tradition is specifically limited to this poem: not only does Apollo breach it like a child kicking over a sandcastle; when Homer pans out to situate his poem in epic history, we are told that the wall was destroyed without trace by the pro-Achaean Poseidon in anger at the Achaeans’ lack of sacrifices (in a replay of his “original” anger at Laomedon’s foundation of Troy). [18] If we already suspect that the trope of the Achaeans under seige belongs to a Theban tradition, the fact that this hastily constructed wall is at one point specified as having “seven” gates—like the famous wall of Thebes—would seem to confirm the Iliad’s sack of Thebes and ransacking of its motifs. The Iliad’s challenge to Thebes is not so much through the wall itself as through the narrative sleight of hand, in which the fame of the Theban wall is repurposed to magnify the stakes of this version of the Trojan War, where the Achaeans’ very survival seems at stake.

Our response to the question Why Thebes?, then, is to assert that the references to this city’s history in Homer’s poems can help us better understand the epics about Troy. Accordingly, the chief concern of this book will be to investigate what the use of Theban material in the Homeric epics tells us about Homeric poetics; that is, we are interested in identifying and exploring the strategies the Iliad and Odyssey employ both to develop their own themes and to distinguish themselves from rival mythological and poetic traditions. We do not deny that stories about Thebes may have explored common themes and issues shared with our epics, perhaps even in similar ways—indeed, we make a stab at identifying and discussing what some of those themes and issues might have been in Chapter 4. But our premise is that the Homeric poems selectively (re)present Theban narratives and (re)deploy Theban references in ways that amplify their own pre-eminence. In this way, our primary aim is to explore what the use of Theban myth within Homeric epic can tell us about that tradition’s view of its own mythic past—how, in other words, Homeric poetry uses other story traditions to tell its own tales. As such, this book is not truly about Theban myth; rather, it is about the strategies and aesthetics of Homeric poetry. This is Homer’s Thebes.

Still, why talk about Thebes in Homer now? After all, while new research has done much to bring to light (or, at any rate, bring together) hexameter fragments of Theban material, the references to Thebes in Homer are well recognized and have been in plain view since the fixation of the poems themselves. The answer lies in the growing maturity and progressive alignment of two strands of Homeric scholarship—the oral theory of Parry and Lord and the idea of poetic competition. Over the past decade the study of epic poetry has been revitalized by a focus on the ways in which meaning is generated in each oral performance both by drawing on a long established repertoire of phrases, scenes and stories (“traditional referentiality”) and by playing off it for particular effect (“agonistics”). Our work enters the debate by focusing on the importance of oral-traditional poetics and poetic rivalry for thinking about the use of Thebes within Homer’s poems. Indeed, we believe that an investigation of Homeric poetics, as informed by its use of other narrative traditions, can shed new light on the poetic culture that helped decisively shape the epics we have received from antiquity. By presenting a series of case studies, this book probes how much we can say about the imperfectly known contexts of Homeric performance based on the evidence internal to the poems themselves. In particular, we will be concerned to read Homer’s Theban representations vis-à-vis the often cited, but little investigated, contemporary Panhellenic developments that were taking place in the period of the Homeric poems’ likely composition.

In the rest of this introduction we set out the literary and cultural perspectives that frame our work. To begin with, we discuss the various ways in which scholars have approached reading Homeric epic in the wake of the oral-formulaic theory introduced and advanced by Milman Parry and Albert Lord. While recent studies applying the models of allusion, neoanalysis, and intertextuality have all made contributions to our understanding of Homer’s poems, we make the case that traditional referentiality and resonance can better bring to light the strategies each poem employs in dealing with Thebes. In the second part, we discuss the cultural phenomena of competition and Panhellenism that we see as most pertinent for understanding the development of Homeric poetry in its negotiation of Thebes. Such cultural features operated alongside, and shaped the conditions of, the performance of Greek epic. In particular, as we discuss throughout this book, the relationship between the poetic traditions centered around Thebes and Troy was framed and defined by agonism; in turn, the cultural forces of Panhellenism helped to sharpen poetic competition, and, as we will argue in the final chapters, were in part responsible for Troy’s ultimate eclipse of Thebes.


In our first work on this subject (Barker and Christensen 2008:2–9), we emphasized two broad trends in the study of Homer. One treats Homer as an author-genius in much the same way as one would a Herman Melville or Ezra Pound, following the ancient biographical tradition which posits “Homer” alternately as having temporal and/or cultural priority over his rivals (see on allusion and neoanalysis below). The other, which lays more emphasis on the “traditional” nature of the Homeric poems and the importance of oral poetics, presents a range of “Homers” of varying degree of fixity and textuality (see on traditional referentiality). The implied polarity is a somewhat artificial one, but the range of current interpretive responses to Homer makes it more pressing to distinguish one perspective from another.

In accepting the Iliad and the Odyssey as oral-derived texts, we must also face hotly debated issues around conventional versus intentional meaning as well as oral versus literary aesthetics. Throughout our work on these topics over the years we have returned to Foley’s theory of “traditional referentiality” and the idea of “resonance” as articulated by Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold 2005. There are two primary reasons why we believe that these approaches are the most appropriate means for addressing the question of how the Theban references in the Homeric poems work. The first concerns the relationship between a particular instantiation of a story and its larger storytelling traditions. As we noted before, stories set around Troy and Thebes share what Jonathan Burgess has called a “mythological substructure.” [24] This means that they draw from familiar language, motifs, and themes for sometimes very different ends. The second relates, as Foley and Justin Arft have written, to the idea that individual poems emerge from larger traditions as “instances” not “artifacts” (2015). Only once they are transcribed do they become artifactual, at which point they should be treated both as oral poems and as fixed texts; that is, they present additional layers of interpretive complexity because they carry the echoic associations of multiple oral performances, while at the same time also constituting for us as readers the physical fixity of a single text. Such tensions were likely latent for the first “readers” of the poems who were also exposed to living oral traditions; as modern interpreters, we must labor intensely to develop approximate understandings of the effects of the poems’ oralities, while also remaining vigilant and attentive to the opportunities afforded by our own literacies.


This second point refers to the idea of allusion as it is often conceptualized within general literary theory, when applied to literature—works that are self-consciously written down as texts and written within a literary-based (reading) culture—outside of the Homeric poems. Here allusion tends to mean the direct and intentional quotation of or reference to a motif or even phrase from an earlier text/author by a specific author. [28] As such we find it problematic to apply allusion to Homer for at least two reasons. First, since we have no certain evidence for the content of “texts” prior to the Homeric epics, and no evidence for a cultural tradition of intentional allusion, allusion is aesthetically an anachronistic concept with which to think about oral poetry (though it can still be useful heuristically for identifying and thinking through different kinds of intertextual relations). [29] Second, the emphasis that it places on direct reference between two texts (text B is referring to text A) and intentionality (author B is deliberately referring to author A) seems particularly ill-suited to the dynamics of oral-derived poetry, no matter what one thinks about the idea of intentionality as a useful heuristic device for literary analysis more generally. What we mean is that, so far as one is able to tell from comparative analysis, oral poetry—which we can define more broadly as works that are composed in performance before an audience—places greater demands on the audience to recognize the intertextual relations and (re)construct meaning from it.

Figure 1.1 below is our attempt to provide a schematic representation of how allusion works. While undoubtedly over-simplistic, we find it helpful for drawing attention to how allusion takes insufficient account of the critical contribution of audience to meaning-making, assumes a fixed text with an intentional author for Homeric poetry, and also posits a reference to a more or less fixed prior text.

Allusion, as a manner of understanding the technique of an author and/or the cultural framework for artistic production, can play an important role in interpretation if the critic has these rather limited goals. But, by placing the emphasis on authorial intent, it ignores altogether the importance of audiences in the process of (re)constituting the text. As such it seems to us insufficient as a theoretical approach for thinking about Homer.

Barker-Christensen fig1-1
Figure 1.1. Allusion: ‘Text’ refers to a prior ‘text’ (by authorial design).


Barker-Christensen Fig 1-2
Figure 1.2. Neoanalytical Allusion: Intentional reference to a prior text known to audience.

Initially, then, neoanalysis may appear somewhat more promising than conventional literary approaches, since it attempts to explain the source of problematic material independently of the Homeric text and thereby provide new perspectives on the ways in which the Homeric poems are crafted. Indeed, neoanalysis has been important for challenging the assumption that grants priority to Homer, and for drawing attention to the broader background to the Homeric poems. Even so, while neoanalytical studies have identified patterns repeated in the Homeric epics and (lost) texts in ways that have improved our understanding of Homeric structure, composition and aesthetics, nevertheless, their overall aim remains the establishment of the priority of one tradition over another. [32] (See Figure 1.2, opposite, for an image of neoanayltical modelling. The broken arrow indicates an unknown relationship between the act of “transference” and audience reception.) That is to say, the relationship between these oral poems is still configured in terms of a set hierarchy (e.g. the Aithiopis as prior to the Iliad) with a direct (and intentional) one-to-one mapping between them (e.g. in its representation of the death of Hektor, the Iliad refers directly to the Aithiopis’s depiction of the death of Memnon). In addition, as Jonathan Burgess has noted, the complex system of “precise correspondences” identified by many neoanalytical arguments does not survive intact if “we drop the assumption that epic intertextuality was implemented through texts” (2009:61). [33] The level of specificity and correspondence assumed by neoanalytical studies relies on levels of fixity and repetition characteristic of literary texts and not oral traditions.


Faced by the intractable problem of the so-called intentional fallacy, many literary critics have preferred a different method (and term) to mark the interplay between two texts without positing either authorial intention or a source-recipient model. Intertextuality is the theory that attempts to describe the relationship between two (or more) texts, without implying priority of one over the other or an author consciously making that connection (and asserting how it should be interpreted) themselves. Until recently, explicit articulations of intertextuality in the realm of classical studies had largely been restricted to Latin literature: it is no coincidence that the rich evidence supplied by the late Roman Republic and early Principate of a highly literate and referential literary culture should prove amenable to applications of this particular theoretical method. [34] More recently, however, “intertextuality” as a term to describe the cross-reference or even “quoting” (Tsagalis 2008:xii) between different types of hexameter epic material has gained traction. Whereas in 1987 Pietro Pucci radically (for the time) talked about the intertextuality of the Iliad and Odyssey (specifically where the Odyssey seems to be engaging self-consciously with an Iliad precedent), the method is now applied to similar references and topoi among lost traditions (like those of the epic cycle) and myth in general. [35] As Currie again notes, the evolutionary development of Homeric epic as posited by Gregory Nagy (and others), although “incompatible with unidirectional allusion, remains accommodating to a very differently conceived bidirectional intertextuality” (2016:17). [36] Such “bidirectionality” is, indeed, significant—but the oral background provides for much more than that.

It is often the case that Homerists conflate the terms allusion and intertext (as we ourselves have been guilty of in prior work), which can result in somewhat dizzying and none-too-distinct academic prose. In attempting to reconcile neoanalysis, allusion, and intertextuality, Jonathan Burgess pointedly writes: “Whereas classic neoanalysis has reserved discernment of motif transference to the scholar, it is more probable that the reflection would be recognized by a mythologically informed audience. In this case, motif transference is more than coincidental, casual, or merely vestigial. It is significant allusion, at least in the matter that oral intertextuality can be understood in the Archaic Age” (2009:71). Burgess, here, makes a salient point and, incidentally, demonstrates that Homerists will frequently refer to the same phenomena with different language. He credits the contributions of neoanalysis by shifting the responsibility for meaning making from the scholar sniffing out arcana to the ancient audience steeped in mythological narratives. Here, the “allusion” is the indication of that other tradition, the transference of motif that increases meaning.

Generally speaking, this understanding of the intertextual process applies well to the use of and interaction between broad images, motifs, and poetic structures in an oral poetic milieu. (See the representation of meaning-making in Figure 1.3 below.) Yet intertextuality remains problematic from a conceptual perspective if it relies on specific phrasing, or what a modern reader might understand as “quotation.” The programmatic statement that sets out the case against thinking in terms of intertextuality is Gregory Nagy’s assertion that “when we are dealing with the traditional poetry of the Homeric (and Hesiodic) compositions, it is not justifiable to claim that a passage in any text can refer to another passage in another text” (1979:42). [40] For Nagy, the very orality of the Homeric poems—in the sense that they are composed (and recomposed) “in performance” at each and every performance—disqualifies them from being (able to be) thought about in terms that imply discrete and definable relations between finished (and finite) products—inter-texts. In response, Burgess has attempted to reframe what he means when he applies the term “intertextuality” to a performance culture (2012:169–170), by emphasizing that “correspondence of material” (structures, motifs, even phrases) need not indicate “poem-to-poem intertextuality” (a phrase we interpret as meaning fixed-text to fixed-text); instead, in the contexts of performance before a knowledgeable audience, “early epic is potentially allusive.” Burgess concludes that a “textless intertextuality” emerges from close readings of specific phrases, reflecting “not one text influencing another, but the traditional articulation of an episode being reflected by a secondary articulation of it” (2012:181).

Barker-Christensen Fig 1-3
Figure 1.3. Intertextuality: Reference of text to prior text (and internal reference) is identified and processed through audience reception.

The approaches that we have so far outlined are underpinned by a common set of assumptions: first, that there is a relation between actual and fixed texts; and, second, that this relationship is hierarchical and mono-directional. Of these methods we are most sympathetic to applications of intertextual readings. Our primary discomfort—beyond the rather mundane one of nomenclature and the emphasis on text—is that, in the case of early Greek poetic traditions (specifically, but not limited to, hexameter epic), we must face vague and undefined inheritances that appear to have established fleeting “intertexts” over time. The plurality of intertexts and the repetition of performances add quantitative and qualitative complexity to oral-derived epic’s array of potential meaning. In addition, as we have emphasized in earlier work, models and methods that assume stability and fixity in poetic traditions are insufficient for representing the multidirectional and a-hierarchical engagements possible in living performance traditions, to which we turn now.

Oral-Poetic Frames: Traditional Referentiality

One of the advantages that literary/textualist approaches to Homer have is that they sidestep issues relating to the context of oral performance, the role of the bard in the production of poetic verse from a traditional repository of knowledge, and the competency of—or, better, the range of competencies among—the audience for interpreting and reconstructing the meaning of that composition. Yet this interpretive move merely substitutes one difficult unknown with another. There is an uncomfortable circularity in claiming that an author (or tradition) was sophisticated enough to deploy a meaningful structure, device, or allusion because we detect the use of that structure, device, or allusion in an oral-derived text.

However, these acknowledgements are still not enough to correct cultural and disciplinary prejudices about what interpretation means and what its results might look like. According to Robert Lamberton (1986:21) the existence if not preeminence of nonliteral meanings of the poems was taken for granted by Homer’s earliest interpreters, showing that interpreting poetry “engaged the reader in an active role.” And yet, one of these earliest interpreters is also one of the first to privilege the author’s control over meaning over audience engagement. In his Ion, Plato (through the figure of Socrates) cross-examines a rhapsode (Ion of the dialogue’s name) about how to interpret Homer in a way that best respects the poet’s “intention” (dianoia). As Lamberton notes, Socrates’ suggestion in the Protagoras (347e)—where he expresses a desire to interrogate an author for meaning—shares a strong affinity with Enlightenment literary tastes and Hellenistic editorial principles (299–300). In many ways, Plato’s model has dominated literary approaches (especially by classicists) ever since, with the exception of more recent approaches that are informed by both post-modern literary theory and studies in orality.

As an alternative to this model of trying to recover authorial intention, we have found the orality models articulated by John Miles Foley 1988, 1991, 1999, Barbara Graziosi and Johannes Haubold 2005, and Egbert Bakker 2013, among others, to be more or less effective in both challenging our (literary-based) assumptions and offering new ways of thinking about how Homer’s poetry works. Foley describes the difference in basic cognitive framing implied by the adoption of his traditional referentiality:

Foley proposes that meaning in an oral tradition is essentially metonymic—that through synecdoche the relationship between the particular instance and traditional convention produces meaning that is “inherent.” [
45] While some of the language deployed in this definition is rather too fuzzy for our liking, we endorse the emphasis placed on the audience’s role in producing meaning. According to Foley, the audience uses “extratextual” knowledge to interpret the performance of oral poetry in much the same way that many modern critics allow a literate reader to draw on prior and external knowledge in reading a text. Accordingly, Foley presents reader response approaches, or Receptionalism, as a model to be compared with his theory of traditional referentiality. [46] The perspective of receptionalism is invaluable for any genre that has its origins in performance.

Taken together, these terms and concepts furnish us with a range of descriptive approaches for interpreting the Homeric poems that give due weight to both the medium (their orality) and the cultural context (their traditionality) of this kind of poetic creation. In addition to allowing us to talk about the orality of Homer in an informed and structured manner, however, two further critical trends encourage our adoption of traditional referentiality as a mode and method of analysis. First, studies in linguistics and cognitive science lend support to the notion that communication relies on shared inheritances with particular offshoots. A model that we have found useful for thinking with in this context of linguistic and cultural diffusion is the concept of the rhizome—the latest, and more nuanced, version of a linguistic tree. According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987:21), “Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs and even nonsign states…The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.” As an analogical model for language and cultural diffusion, the rhizome is attractive because it focuses less on center and periphery (and thus less on hierarchy and authority), and instead values—or, better, draws attention to—connectivity and the potential for adaptation and change. In addition, since the rhizomes’ roots and connections are hidden beneath the ground, it also functions well as a metaphor for the remains of an oral tradition whose “roots” and origins are obscure and irrecoverable.

Given that “oral poetry works like a language, only more so” (Foley 2002:127), it is not surprising that several studies have used cognitive science to think anew about the language of Homeric poetry and have posited that its composition-in-performance emerges from the same structures and dynamics that condition “natural language.” [51] For example, the widely observed phenomenon of repetition as a structuring element characteristic of Homeric poetry has been linked to cognitive analyses of everyday language, [52] while William Duffy and William Short (2016) have suggested that modern theories of cognitive metaphor can aid our understanding of how audiences may have conceived of epic (and their relationship to it). Other studies have more daringly examined the composition of the language itself, and, in turn, the poems. Cristobal Cánovas and Mihailo Antović have demonstrated that oral formulaic theory is functionally equivalent to usage-based cognitive grammar (2016:85) and that both descriptive categories depend on universals of human cognition. Similarly, Michael Drout has used evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology to argue that their evidence supports the development and “stability” of multiforms within oral traditions. He aptly describes our inability to “grasp multiformity” as a “cognitive weakness” (2011:448)—one that we would attest is reinforced by cultural paradigms which (over)emphasize stability, textuality, and authorship. According to Drout, by looking for similarity mental systems create a feedback loop in communities that leads to “increasing complexity as lineages ramify through cultural space and interact with each other” (2011:467). Such a feedback loop by definition includes the audience, who are perceived as working alongside performers in the creation of meaning through multiple iterations.

When dealing with the Homeric epics as “transcripts” at the end of a dynamic tradition such as we have just described, talking about resonance encourages the acknowledgement that multiple poems provided multiple points and levels of engagement for different audiences over time. It is also the argument of this book that the prolonged and repeated experience of epic poetry in communities also involves identity formation and cultural expression: oral poetry developed as part of Greek culture that was increasingly competitive and which used forms of poetry for self-definition and prestige.

Barker-Christensen Fig 1-4
Figure 1.4. Traditional Referentiality: A particular text arises out of overlapping traditions­—audiences make associative meanings between the text, prior iterations, and what they know of the traditions.

Rivalry and Panhellenism

Earlier, we introduced a vegetal metaphor—the rhizome—to describe the emergence of themes, structures, and poems from larger poetic traditions. Within the larger “organism” of early Greek myth and poetry, several traditions developed that shared the same language and aesthetics—even many of the same stories and what we would call poetic devices—while being localized physically in different regions and thematically in different story traditions (often emphasizing particular genealogies). Within this larger structure, which we will discuss shortly, the story traditions vied for attention and prominence. This is not to say that the different narrative traditions were directly in competition with each other, as pointedly recreated and reimagined in the so-called “Contest” (Certamen) between Hesiod and Homer; rather that competition was embedded in the very act of oral composition, where poems were created in performance and performers needed to arrest the attention of their listeners just in order to gain a hearing. As these creations were in turn adapted and remolded to appeal to each successive audience, so each new context favored the selection of more effective or engaging story traditions over others. This process was concentrated when performance competitions became institutionalized in the later Greek world.

While such a description must remain speculative given the scarcity of evidence, Homer nods towards such performance contexts in the Odyssey. These hints occur most obviously when the Ithacan bard, Phemios, sings about the (failed) nostoi of the Achaean heroes of Troy to entertain the suitors, or when the Phaiakian bard, Demodokos, regales the disguised Odysseus with epic-like songs about Achaeans fighting among themselves, the gods at (serious) play, and the sack of Troy. But the idea of poetic performance is there too, when Odysseus himself plays the singer of tales and for three whole books holds the Phaiakians entranced with his stories about monsters (Laistrygonians, Cyclopes, Scylla and Charybdis) and the supernatural (Circe and the underworld). Odysseus, of course, is instrumentalizing epic song, in the sense that he is singing for his homecoming (partly by keeping his hosts enchanted, partly, too, by providing them with paradigms by which to judge their own behavior). But his narrative serves to highlight how familiar motifs and stories can be adapted to suit a particular context (and audience). This, as well as the intersections with other narrative traditions—voyaging into unknown magical worlds recalls the adventures of the Argonauts, the meeting with the dead Herakles’ katabasis, and so on—also reveals the strongly agonistic character of Greek poetry. [60] The internal world of the Homeric poems more generally reflects this competitive aesthetic, particularly in its questioning, and instantiation, of political behavior. [61]

The idea that the Homeric epics are closely related to each other goes back to antiquity, with Aristotle’s judgment that the two poems complement each other to communicate not just the full experience of the Trojan War story but also the broadest range of human experience in general. From the simple idea that the two poems avoid repeating or referring to events related in the other (Monro’s Law)—beginning with but going far beyond the fact that the Iliad narrates the war at Troy, while the Odyssey picks up the story of the return home—their relationship can easily be conceived of as agonistic. [62] In these terms, each poem bequeaths to its tradition not only the paradigmatic telling of the sack and return home respectively, but also different narrative styles and structures. [63] In earlier work, we have emphasized that this rivalry can also be conceived of as intergeneric, in the sense that it was likely a part of the poetic relationship between different narrative traditions, defined by performance context (e.g. sympotic vs. assembly) and poetic form (epic vs. elegy). [64] Our argument in this book draws on some of these same ideas but instead emphasize an intrageneric rivalry, using it as the framework through which to read how both the Iliad and the Odyssey use and redeploy material from the Theban tradition in the creation of their own narratives. This includes suppressing whatever themes or issues the Theban tradition had projected in favor of putting them at the service of the narrative ends of these two poems. [65] What sets this type of competition apart, we believe, is that it occurred as a process over time—at least for the duration over which both epics were being formed—and, quite likely, in multiple directions. That is to say, we see this rivalry not limited to one direction—the Odyssey responding to the Iliad, say, or the Homeric poems drawing on the Theban epics—but potentially in both directions simultaneously, as each discrete poetic production in each of its respective traditions sought to gain a foothold and an audience in a crowded marketplace of epic song. We have called this dynamic rivalry to denote this multidirectionality.

An important, and potentially decisive, step in this process is the emergence of the Homeric poems as common property for the whole Greek world—in others words, as a Panhellenic epic koine. As our work has developed, we have come to realize that the poems’ narrative strategies, particularly their (re)use of other traditions, are intimately connected to the process by which they became adopted as Panhellenic narratives writ-large. As Christos Tsagalis has written: “ ‘Homer’ then reflects the concerted effort to create a Pan-Hellenic canon of epic song. His unprecedented success is due…not to his making previous epichoric traditions vanish but to his erasing them from the surface of his narrative while ipso tempore employing them in the shaping of his epics” (2008, xiii). Since our earlier approaches only partially acknowledged the importance of Panhellenism, this book needs to address how we think it frames poetic rivalry and the conditions that helped to shape the Iliad and the Odyssey. In Chapter 6 we will consider and discuss in some detail the role that Panhellenism plays in the eventual preeminence of Homeric epic. To anticipate that argument briefly here, our view is that a Panhellenic culture increased both the opportunities for rivalry and the incentives for engaging competitively with other traditions.

It was Anthony Snodgrass in 1971 who first outlined Panhellenism in its modern form. According to Snodgrass, Panhellenism refers to a historical process that indicates a gradual expression of shared “Greekness” through the embrace of common cult sites, agonistic aristocratic games, and the Homeric poems. [66] In antiquity, the idea of Panhellenism finds articulation only in later writers, and even then often problematically. The first expression of Panhellenism arguably comes in Herodotus, when the Athenians define “Greekness” as common blood, language, religious ritual, and customs (8.144.2): but, while this speech helps to articulate the lines of a Greek coalition against the Persian invader, it is given more as a show of loyalty by the Athenians than as a clear statement of Panhellenic unity—which Herodotus’ narrative clearly demonstrates is never fully achieved. [67] Similarly, the very insistence of Isocrates on pushing the case for Panhellenic action rather betrays his lack of success in subordinating competing political motivations under the banner of a united Greek homeland. For all the flaws within these political attempts to exploit Panhellenism, modern scholars are right to identify it as an influential phenomenon implicit in the culturally shared entities identified above. [68] Constituent aspects of this Panhellenism were present at an early period in the generalization of local cult features and stories during migration and colonization (see Malkin 1998:140–145), in the development of Pan-Boiotian (see Larson 2007:8) and Pan-Ionian traditions, and in the transformation of Greek culture during the emergence of the city-state (see Nagy 1999 [1979] and 1990). Hesiod and Homer, as the foremost poets who (again according to Herodotus) “taught the Greeks their religion” (2.53.1–3), came to stand as representations of a shared Panhellenic song culture. Accordingly, part of the aesthetic of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry is the enforcement, and continual reinforcement, of a broader, more general cultural program—what Ian Rutherford has referred to as “Panhellenic Poetics” (2005:11). In the field of Homeric studies, Gregory Nagy more than anyone has explored the manifestations of a Panhellenic negotiation between local and broader traditions, and the repercussions for thinking about Homeric poetry that follow. For him, Panhellenism serves as a useful heuristic for appreciating the development of Homeric epic as Greek poetry. [69]

Swift-Footed Achilles, Again

In fact, in his summing up of the renewed crisis in the Achaean camp, Homer elaborates on the contrast between the usual swiftness of Achilles and his current raging inaction (1.488–492):

Αὐτὰρ ὃ μήνιε νηυσὶ παρήμενος ὠκυπόροισι
διογενὴς Πηλῆος υἱὸς πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς·
οὔτέ ποτ’ εἰς ἀγορὴν πωλέσκετο κυδιάνειραν
οὔτέ ποτ’ ἐς πόλεμον, ἀλλὰ φθινύθεσκε φίλον κῆρ
αὖθι μένων, ποθέεσκε δ’ ἀϋτήν τε πτόλεμόν τε.

But he raged, sitting there among the swift-wayed ships,
The divine-born son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.
Neither was he ever going to the assembly where men win glory,
Nor ever into war; instead he was eating up his dear heart
Waiting there, though he was full of desire for the battle-cry and war.

Here, the man of action and speed is marked out for everything he is not doing: neither was he going to the assembly, nor was he going into battle. The duration of this inaction is doubly marked too: the poem uses the imperfect iterative twice to develop the tension between his sustained avoidance of frequenting the assembly and his lingering desire to do so (πωλέσκετο… ποθέεσκε); it also repeats the indefinite temporal particle ποτε (“ever”), even though in reality only a short period of time can have passed since he has withdrawn to his ships. In effect, “swift-footed Achilles” is as stilled as the “swift-wayed ships” (νηυσὶ ὠκυπόροισι) among which he sits, ships that haven’t moved for nigh on ten years. So striking is this passage that ancient scholars appear to have found it perplexing enough either to offer the explanation that “a hero is opposed to inaction” or to want to do away with it altogether. [

Why, then, is Achilles described as “swift-footed” in all of these instances, when he is simply standing to speak? Early responses to the articulation of oral-formulaic theory by Milman Parry (and then advanced by Albert Lord) pointed out problems (some sensible, others imagined). On the one hand, oral-formulaic theory provided an explanation for why Homer would use the description “swift-footed” to denote a hero who was motionless. [74] It was a turn of phrase, or epithet, that was particularly associated with the given hero, which sums up or encapsulates who they are. Achilles has the epithet “swift-footed” because essentially he is “swift-footed” or “swift of foot.” Similarly he is also “divine-born” or the “son of Peleus,” while Hektor is “of the shining helmet” and Odysseus is “much enduring,” etc. At the same time, this particular epithet for Achilles is used here in accordance with the demands of the meter: that is to say, given the fact that epic hexameter is strictly limited (to six metrical feet), and given the fact that Homer, who was composing on the spot, wanted to describe Achilles standing to speak in the assembly, by the time he came to the end of the line he needed an epithet that would fit the remaining length. “Swift-footed” fits the bill on both counts. While providing a reason why “swift-footed” is used in these instances, however, the explanation hardly satisfies. It seems to imply that “swift-footed Achilles” is a conventional phrase used simply for metrical convenience without any meaning; [75] indeed, it could be argued to be the definition of meaningless, given the seeming incongruity with its usage here. And it is not merely the epithet that may be limited in its evocation of meaning. The beginning of the epic could simply be regarded as the deployment of a conventional type-scene (West 2013:83; Arend 1975:116–121).

The tension between recognizing the flexible economy of hexameter verse and the lingering dissatisfaction with a “poetry-by-numbers” reading of Homer has in large part driven Homeric scholarship for the last forty years, particularly with regard to the place of oral theory in studies of literary criticism. The challenge has been to think about ways in which units of utterance, like the epithet, can be both functional and contextually meaningful at the same time. Using this same example we can reflect on the different approaches to reading Homer that we set out above, and test them in their capacity to explain how this line might have been heard by ancient audiences of epic.

A neoanalytical reading of this particular epithet (and its use throughout the epic), for example, could help draw attention to its intra-textual, as well as its inter-textual, meaning. Although the evidence is fragmentary, we know from other poetic traditions that Achilles was renowned for his swiftness. In the Cypria, for example, he apparently overruns and wounds Telephos and ambushes Troilus, while in the Aithiopis he kills Penthesileia and Memnon: it is conceivable that the Iliad knows these episodes and alludes to them through the epithet “swift-footed,” though without the evidence it is difficult to understand exactly how or with what effect, and it still doesn’t explain the incongruous deployment of the epithet at the beginning of the Iliad. As the poem unfolds, of course, we do get to witness Achilles’ swiftness (when, at length, he returns to battle), which might suggest that its usage in Book 1 is intratextually proleptic, in that it anticipates the hero’s later actions in the epic (though these fleet-of-foot actions are themselves complicated, as we shall see in a moment). We are on safer ground with the Odyssey, since the close relationship, even intertextuality, between the two Homeric epics is well established. [76] During the games among the Phaiakians, a young prince mocks Odysseus and claims that “man has no greater glory as long as he lives / than what he can do with his own feet and hands” (οὐ μὲν γὰρ μεῖζον κλέος ἀνέρος, ὄφρα κεν ᾖσιν, / ἢ ὅ τι ποσσίν τε ῥέξῃ καὶ χερσὶν ἑῇσιν, Odyssey 8.146-147). The same theme is further articulated shortly afterwards, when the bard Demodokos sums up his tale of Ares and Hephaistos by declaring “Wicked deeds do not prevail: now the slow overcomes the swift / just as Hephaistos who is slow has caught Ares” (οὐκ ἀρετᾷ κακὰ ἔργα· κιχάνει τοι βραδὺς ὠκύν, / ὡς καὶ νῦν Ἥφαιστος ἐὼν βραδὺς εἷλεν Ἄρηα, Odyssey 8.329–330). It is possible to read these specific passages in direct relation to the Iliad—not least because in the Funeral Games of Patroklos we witness the allegedly sluggish Odysseus outsprinting all the Achaeans (though, of course, Achilles is not competing). From this perspective, one might want to say that the Odyssey is alluding to the Iliad by casting its hero as slow in body but mentally agile. Or, if one takes the idea of intertextuality seriously, one could equally read the Iliad’s opening depiction of a hero marked out by his epithet for being swift of foot deliberately removing himself from the action, as a response to the downplaying of physical prowess in the Odyssey.

So far we have drawn on a combination of neoanalysis, allusion, and intertextuality for interpreting the Iliad’s curiously still swift-footed hero. What, then, is the meaningful contribution of traditional referentiality and our emphasis on interpoetic (and intertraditional) rivalry? To take the former idea first: traditional referentiality allows us to hear any and all units of utterance—the language, as well as the themes, type scenes and story patterns—of the specific poem-in-performance diachronically in and against past performances. Through this process of being continuously heard in relation to other songs, the poem accrues meaning; or, to put that differently, by virtue of the listening out for what units resonate with others, and how, the audience gives meaning to the poem. Of course, the performers’ intentions and certainly their design play an important role in the creation of meaning; but audience experience of (and relatedly expertise in) past performances activates the poem’s semantic power. In this sense to search for discrete references to specific texts is to limit that power, where to hear a formulaic unit of utterance could bring to mind any number of referents, depending on the audience member’s experience and expertise, with no single specific target text in mind.

The phrase “swift-footed Achilles” is a good example. We have already seen that its use in Book 1 of the Iliad runs counter to its ostensible meaning: on each occasion “swift-footed” introduces an immobile Achilles. Far from (re)enacting his epithet, this Achilles acts in a way that strikes an off-key note with it. Were there only the one instance, we might be tempted to think that it points to a specific moment in Achilles’ epic career when he was swift-footed (as we discussed above); cumulatively, however, they suggest something rather different, namely that the Achilles of this poem is going to be different from his traditional portrait, and that the emphasis of this poem lies somewhere other than on his martial prowess: its target is the tradition as a whole, not any single other instantiation of it. In the opening scene Achilles is swift to anger (rather than of foot) and, digging in his heels, withdraws from battle. As a result, for the majority of his epic “swift-footed” Achilles is to be found kicking his heels in his tent, missing from the action, still. Each use of his epithet, then, reminds us how far his performance departs from his previous epic career. Contrast this usage with the case of Iris, the gods’ messenger who is “swift-footed” (πόδας ὠκέα) only when she is actually swift of foot (i.e. in motion as a messenger). For Achilles, however, to whom this phrase is most often applied, the vast majority of cases introduce him speaking. In other words, the phrase is so clearly associated with Achilles that in the Iliad Homer can use it even when Achilles is not in motion. [77]

According to Roger Dunkle, the traditional expectations that an audience might bring with them to a tale about Achilles here contrast with his present action to create what Foley describes a “gap of indeterminacy” in their understanding. [78] As Dunkle argues, this gap is later resolved when the plot summons “forth the traditional Achilles to pursue and kill Hektor” (Dunkle 1997:233). Yet, when finally roused, Achilles turns out to be not swift-footed enough: first he is diverted from Troy by the even fleeter of foot Apollo (21.509–611); then he races Hektor around the walls of Troy (22.136–166), [79] all the time unable to catch him. Homer captures the central paradox in a memorable simile that dwells on the inability of this swift-footed Achilles to outrun his prey: “as in a dream a man is unable to catch the one fleeing before him, / the one is unable to flee nor the other to catch, / so Achilles was not able to grab Hektor in his fleetness nor Hektor to escape” (ὡς δ᾽ ἐν ὀνείρῳ οὐ δύναται φεύγοντα διώκειν: / οὔτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὃ τὸν δύναται ὑποφεύγειν οὔθ᾽ ὃ διώκειν: / ὣς ὃ τὸν οὐ δύνατο μάρψαι ποσίν, οὐδ᾽ ὃς ἀλύξαι, 22.199–201). Achilles’ swift-footedness is of even less importance in the Funeral Games of Book 23, which again he sits out (and where, as we noted above, it is his epic rival, Odysseus, who wins the prize for being fleetest of foot: 23.758–783). It is also the least of his qualities to emerge during the ransoming of Hektor in Book 24: when he “springs up like a lion” (24.572), it is to see to the formalities for Hektor’s return, not to strike down an opponent (though this line is prefaced by Achilles warning Priam not to anger him).

Yet, while the unit of utterance πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς survives only in our Iliad, the motif or idea of Achilles’ swift-footedness, if not this precise verbal quotation, is widespread and not limited to the world of early Greek hexameter epic. Arguably, our preference for thinking in terms of traditional referentiality rather than text-based theories of allusion or intertextuality is best demonstrated by two non-literary examples. Zeno’s famous paradox explicitly uses Achilles as the paradigmatic fleet of foot man who is not able to overtake a tortoise (Aristotle, Physics VI 9 239b10 15). [82] From the world of material culture there survives an Attic black-figure kylix (drinking cup), circa 570–565 BCE, on which the ambush by Achilles of Polyxena and Troilus is depicted (see Illustrations 1a and 1b). We could read this scene as an illustration of the epic poem, the Cypria, where this episode is said to have taken place, though scholars are more wary now of assigning episodes on Greek pottery to textual sources or even thinking of them as illustrations. Indeed, even though this example presents a static image of Achilles—as determined by the medium, of course—nevertheless, the artist adeptly manages to capture his speed of foot with the placement of Achilles at one end of the frame and Troilus at the other, and by depicting the latter on horseback. As we turn the cup in our hands, so that we can see all the figures, the stationary Achilles becomes animated in our imagination as the “swift-footed Achilles” who can chase down even a galloping horse in order to slay Troilus.

These examples demonstrate the broad scope of traditional referentiality, which brings us to our second methodological claim: to read Homeric epic in terms of its intergeneric (and intertraditional) rivalry with other poetic forms. As we have discussed elsewhere (see Christensen and Barker 2006:15 and passim), we imagine that in the course of their lives, audiences of early Greek poetry would have been exposed to multiple performances of multiple genres that explored many of the same ideas and issues in many different forms and with many different outcomes. Moreover, these different performances of traditions and genres would have responded to and reformed each other. For an indication of how this might work, the motif of swift-footed Achilles is again useful to think with.


Barker-Christensen Illustration 1

lllustrations 1a-1b. Attic black-figure kylix by the C Painter. Side A (top): Achilles, crouching, waits for Troilus. Side B (bottom): Troilus and Polyxena flee from Achilles’ ambush. Paris, Musée du Louvre, CA6113. Photos, Wikimedia Commons user Bibi Saint-Pol.

In a fleeting fragment recorded by the later rhetorician Athenaeus, Xenophanes, one of the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers, uses language that strongly resonates with the fleet of foot Achilles of Homer (Xenophanes fr. 2, 16–19 = Athenaeus X 413f–414c):

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·

Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most
in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest
—could never make a city governed well.

While the form ταχυτὴς ποδῶν does not occur in early Greek hexameter epic, the near-equivalent form ταχὺς ποδῶν does. Mostly it occurs in the Iliad’s scenes of battle, as if denoting that being swift of feet would (or should) normally describe an action in battle. [
83] Without considering the broader referentiality of πόδας ὠκύς, nevertheless, the last instances of ταχὺς ποδῶν all relate to Achilles, suggesting again the association of swift feet with this specific hero. [84] In rejecting swiftness of foot as a sufficient value for governing a city, Xenophanes could be alluding to the conflict set up at the beginning of the Iliad, where the swift-footed hero contests the king’s authority and precipitates a political crisis in the Achaean camp. [85] Or one might think too of the Phaiakian youths in the Odyssey, whose swift-footed ability in the games Odysseus questions as a signifier of heroic stature. Earlier in the poem Xenophanes asserts first that “our wisdom is better than the strength of men and horses” (οὐκ ἐὼν ἄξιος ὥσπερ ἐγώ. ῥώμης γὰρ ἀμείνων / ἀνδρῶν ἠδ’ ἵππων ἡμετέρη σοφίη, fr. 2 14–15), and again that “it is not just to prefer strength to good wisdom” (ἀλλ’ εἰκῇ μάλα τοῦτο νομίζεται, οὐδὲ δίκαιον / προκρίνειν ῥώμην τῆς ἀγαθῆς σοφίης, fr. 2 15–16). Here, then, Xenophanes frames his comments about the swift-footed hero within culturally-charged language about the importance of sympotic wisdom and intelligence over physical strength. [86] Indeed, the sympotic context for Xenophanes’ poetry would both complement and replace the quasi-sympotic banqueting of the Phaiakians.

While offering, as we see it, a series of suggestive echoes, such readings assume, as we argued above, a one-to-one mapping from the source text (Xenophanes) to its target (either the Iliad or Odyssey or both), where the relationship goes one way, all the way back to Homer. However, such a view not only overlooks the likelihood that these sources belong to a much wider exploration of the value put on physical excellence (biê) or intelligence (mêtis)—a tension that runs deep in Greek culture from Pindar to Plato. [87] We suggest too that Homer is part of this debate, not separate from it. A non-hierarchical model, such as we have proposed above, turns on its head the idea that Xenophanes is alluding to Homer to suggest that the Iliad itself is (re)deploying the swift-footed hero to present a challenge to the political arena, where the issue of government lies at the heart of his striving with Agamemnon. In this understanding, the Iliad is both reimagining the values that Achilles supposedly represents in heroic epic and engaging in intergeneric rivalry of the kind that we see voiced by Xenophanes. For its part, the Odyssey’s depiction of the Phaiakians in a quasi-sympotic setting may well suggest this epic’s direct engagement with the poetry and politics of the symposium. [88] Thus we see such moments of contact between different poems, traditions and genres (even media), as illustrated by the motif of “swift-footed Achilles,” not as singular one-to-one matches or lines of direct influence that issue from the priority of Homer, but rather as a plural and dynamic set of responses to and representations of the idea of the hero and the relative importance of physical strength in an ever-shifting, competitive environment. For the tradition is always shifting to include new receptions and reconfigurations of what appears traditional. [89]

One final example may serve to illustrate the extent to which the themes, ideas, and very language of early Greek poetry were continually used and repurposed in the reception and rethinking of mythical material for present concerns. If Xenophanes’ reuse of the “swift-footed” motif can be said to communicate anxiety about prizing physical excellence over moral worth—and in turn contribute to the debate on selecting appropriate leaders and an awareness of the dangers of big individuals (or “heroes”)—a rather different slant is provided by one of the victory songs in praise of the tyrant slayers Harmodius and Aristogeiton, also preserved in Athenaeus (XV 695a = PMG 895):

φίλταθ’ Ἁρμόδι’, οὔ τί πω τέθνηκας,
νήσοις δ’ ἐν μακάρων σέ φασιν εἶναι,
ἵνα περ ποδώκης Ἀχιλεὺς
Τυδεΐδην τέ †φασι τὸν ἐσθλὸν† Διομήδεα.

Dearest Harmodius, you have never died,
But they say you live in the isles of the blest
Where swift-footed Achilles
And Tydeus’ fine son, Diomedes, are.

In this celebratory song the tyrant-killer is said to have joined “swift-footed” Achilles and Tydeus’ son Diomedes in the Isles of the Blest. [
90] The overlap of these two figures is interesting (for more on which see Chapter 3), but of immediate concern to us is the selection of the two heroes in the first place: why are they singled out, and not other heroes from myth? The answer lies, we suggest, in their role as heroes who are recognized for standing up to authority. In one way this would seem to be a pointed throwback, or allusion, to their role in the Iliad, where Achilles contests the authority of Agamemnon, and Diomedes equally pointedly recalls Achilles’ challenge as a precedent for his own verbal sparring with the king—both acts which, importantly, are figured as laying down a new political framework for dealing with crises in the Achaean camp. [91] These later “popular” verses—lines from a drinking song—praise and elevate a figure from the more immediate past, the tyrant-slayer Harmodius, to the level of a culture hero of all time on par with an Achilles or Diomedes from the Iliad. In this move, the epic heroes themselves are transformed, from figures who stood up to authority to those who successfully slayed the king—as if Harmodius had made good on Achilles’ initial impulse to strike down Agamemnon in Iliad Book 1. [92]

In sum, in this book we ply as eclectic an approach as possible, by drawing on the tools which traditional referentiality and neoanalysis afford us, with certain caveats in mind. We try to avoid, for example, the positivistic assumptions of neoanalysis, which sees signs in our textualized poems as relying on something specific that no longer exists. We also are reluctant to overly limit the range of meanings available in a text by relying solely on authorial intention or allusion between fixed moments. In addition, while many of those who use the range of approaches that fall under the term “intertextuality” will come to results similar to ours, we prefer to use a method of analysis that enables more complex and dynamic interactions. In our endeavor to model a method of reading that is less hierarchical and more reflective of a range of potential interpretive associations, we believe we offer an approach to the epics that can simultaneously embrace the responses of ancient and modern audiences alike.

Homer’s Thebes: Overview

As we anticipated earlier, this book will proceed with a series of “case studies” that will function as a way both to examine how the Homeric poems use Theban material and to test, advance, and at times challenge our methods. Although we have already made it clear that our intention in this book is not to reconstruct Theban myth or lost epics, on occasion we will introduce and discuss material about Thebes in order to provide the necessary context for better appreciating and understanding the iconoclastic character of Homer’s use of Theban myth. Rather than ordering these reflections in terms of the notional cosmic history of Theban myth (e.g. starting with Cadmus and then following in succession to Herakles, Oedipus, and the Seven) we organize the material thematically, which entails moving back and forth in mythic time and between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Our choice of themes—politics, time, form, strife, distribution, and Panhellenism—reflect what we consider to be the most pertinent, and certainly the most forceful, issues through which Homer’s poems probe the ideas behind Thebes, and their limits.

Chapter 1 (“Troy: The Next Generation”) explores the Iliad’s engagement with Thebes through the theme of politics. The Theban material that we focus on here is the story of the Seven and the exchanges among Agamemnon, Diomedes and Sthenelos in Book 4. One reason for beginning our investigations here is because this material is among that which is most explicitly flagged as being drawn from other sources. (Agamemnon frames his account of the Seven as a story that is well known and derivative—“they say.”) In this example, it is clear that the Iliad is aware of the rival tradition of Thebes; as a result, this passage represents the ideal case for thinking through what Theban elements are referenced and how they are (re)deployed in the context of the Iliad’s narrative. What makes this example particularly interesting is the competitive frame in which Thebes is cited: it becomes, quite literally, the site of battle—yet not its own battle but rather a battle for what Thebes might mean in the Iliad. It occurs in the context of the continuing dissection of Agamemnon’s leadership, as that hero initially retells the story of the Seven as a lesson for his own troops (namely Tydeus’ son, Diomedes), only—again—to meet resistance and challenge. Through the different responses that Agamemnon’s story provokes, the story of Thebes in—and its significance for—the world of the Iliad similarly becomes transformed. The tale about singular action becomes a means for stressing the importance of collective action, as the Iliad instrumentally projects antiquated values on to the heroic action at Thebes.

As well as the theme of a single, and singular, warrior, Chapter 1 also brings to light the Iliad’s positioning of Thebes as a world where the values of individual heroism hold sway: this world is now, from the perspective of the Iliad, a thing of the past; concurrently, Thebes as a paradigm is relegated to irrelevance. Chapter 2 (“The Labors of Herakles”) explores this idea of being out of time in more detail through the figure of Herakles. Herakles is the hero of Greek myth par excellence, at once immortal and mortal, against whom all other mythological figures, including Homer’s heroes, must be assessed and matched. Both Homeric poems, however, simultaneously appropriate and marginalize Herakles from a nebulous range of myths, and characterize—or, better, define or limit—him as a Theban hero; his greater Panhellenic potential is quietly but insistently suppressed. In particular, Herakles functions as a locus through which metaphysical questions such as the boundaries of human life and excellence are reframed. In this way Homer’s heroes use Herakles to make sense of their world and to confront, and deal with, their own mortality. Herakles, as a result, becomes a strangely isolated, inimitable figure, neither a mere mortal like them, nor, however, the immortal demi-god of popular myth. Immortality in Homer’s world is to be sought through other means, the power of epic song.

The question of poetics—how the Homeric epics compose and create using material extraneous to their particular tale—is central to the third chapter on form. This chapter (“Homer’s Oedipus Complex”) lingers on the scene where we leave Herakles, in the Odyssey’s Nekyia where the eponymous hero himself positions his story in and against particular (and peculiar) presentations of other heroic traditions. Using the fleeting reference to “Oedipus of many pains”—an epithet that explicitly aligns this Theban character with Homer’s quintessential suffering hero—we trace the ways in which Odysseus promotes his fame, not only by virtue of the language that he uses to describe heroic endeavor, but also by the means through which he communicates it. Crucial to the success of his enterprise is the broader context in which Oedipus’ not-so tragic tale is embedded: the catalogue of Theban women. By considering how the Odyssey integrates this alternative poetic form into its own narrative, we are provided with an opportunity to reflect on Homeric poetics more broadly and how epic fame can be (re)formed.

The final three chapters turn away from the pattern of focusing on specific tales or story traditions to consider larger movements in and around epic poetry, based on the idea of interpoetic rivalry. In Chapter 4 (“Doubling Down On Strife”) we investigate the theme of strife (Eris) as a compositional and cultural feature of Homeric poetry. Before considering strife in Homer, we examine in some detail the ways in which Hesiod provides not one but two origin stories for strife in his cosmological epics. By recontextualizing strife within the Hesiodic framework of a “cosmic history,” and using the ideas of interformularity and intertraditionality discussed above, we then explore how the Homeric epics are engaged in an interpoetic debate about rivalry not only with the Hesiodic epics but also, so far as we can judge, with the remnants of the Theban tradition. What is particularly interesting is the sense that this metacontest (striving about strife, as it were) is at once both highly competitive and significantly productive. The form and meaning of strife appear to shift and evolve through its varying representations.

One strong theme to emerge from this investigation is the “domestication of strife.” Chapter 5 (“Theban Palimpsests”) explores further the idea that strife can somehow (in some ways) be managed and negotiated for positive ends. Where the previous chapter takes a broad view of the general resonance of the theme of strife, Chapter 5 explores its representation and significance in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here, Homer’s tales reveal what we call a certain “secondariness” in positioning themselves both as temporally coming after and as final respondents in a discussion about strife. This idea relates to the positioning of the Homeric poems within the epic cosmos as foundational narratives—poems that not only narrate events that take place in a bygone age of heroes (cf. Hesiod) but also explain the death of the race of heroes and set out what comes in their wake. In the place of the exploits of an individual hero is collective action enabled by and structured through the foundation of institutions. In this way, one positive outcome of the strife that erupts at the beginning of the Iliad is the establishment of a political community based on the management and negotiation of dissent. The story we will tell is not, however, a wholly progressive one, as the Odyssey in particular returns insistently to probe the difficulties of and fissures within managing strife.

The proposal that the Homeric poems emerge successfully (with Hesiod’s poems) to articulate a Panhellenic epic cosmos that stretches from the beginning of the cosmos to the present day brings us back to the question of why Thebes?—why Theban epics did not successfully make the critical transition to writing. In our final chapter (“Beyond Thebes”) we reflect on the relationship between Theban and Trojan narratives through the frame of Panhellenism. Our investigations in Chapters 4 and 5 suggest that poetic agonism conditioned a culture of replacement and succession in epic narratives in part as an instrument of or function within the development of Panhellenic culture. We explore this idea more critically in Chapter 6 where we suggest that Homer’s Thebes (the culmination of all the Theban narratives expropriated) is colored as a specifically Boiotian tradition. As part of poetic rivalry and the eventual preeminence of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey “re-localize” Theban tales even as they elevate their universalism. In developing this argument, we consider two alternative movements: first, how individual local Boiotian traditions were integrated within Hesiod and other tales; and, second, how repeated intersections between and negotiations of epichoric narratives and emerging Panhellenic tales helped in turn to condition the Homeric epics.

Our epilogue briefly reflects on Homer’s Thebes. It suggests that the process in which and by which the Homeric poems became “victorious” continued well past their textualization. We also look ahead to some of the ways in which the contributions of this book might be tested or reconfigured. In particular, we consider some examples of heroic reburials as analogs for the process of reception. Such a process is at once an example of the discrete and countless steps that we consider part of the generation of the larger tapestry of Greek myth and a metaphor for the process of re-reading and “repatriation” in which we too are implicated.


[ back ] 1. Σὺ μὲν λέγεις τὰ Θήβης,
ὃ δ’ αὖ Φρυγῶν ἀυτάς,
ἐγὼ δ’ ἐμὰς ἁλώσεις.
οὐχ ἵππος ὤλεσέν με,
οὐ πεζός, οὐχὶ νῆες,
στρατὸς δὲ καινὸς ἄλλος
ἀπ’ ὀμμάτων με βάλλων.

All translations are our own.

[ back ] 2. Willcock 1977:xi regrets the loss of Thebais precisely because it “would have provided the best of all possible parallels to the Iliad.” On reconstructions of the Theban poems, see note 9 below.

[ back ] 3. On ways of reading the connection between the proems of the Iliad and Cypria (such as it survives), see: Finkelberg 2000; Marks 2002; Barker 2008.

[ back ] 4. The use of ἡμίθεοι in conjunction with heroes in Hesiod may be charged: Nagy 1999 [1979]:159–160, who argues that “semi-divine” is “more appropriate to a style that looks beyond epic.” See Haubold 2000:4–8 for limitations on the “hero” as leader in Homer.

[ back ] 5. Graziosi and Haubold 2005. Cf. Clay 2003; and Mackie 2008:34–40.

[ back ] 6. For justice in Homer and Hesiod, see the classic debate between Adkins 1970 and Lloyd-Jones 1971, recently revisited by Allan 2006.

[ back ] 7. See Zeitlin 1986 and Chapter 6, “Burying the Seven and Heroic Remains,” below. Troy’s non-Greekness may have facilitated its adoption and popularity: see Easterling 2005:57 and further in Chapter 6 below.

[ back ] 8. For the fragments, cf. Chapter 4, 28–42.

[ back ] 9. Pausanias even claims that the Thebais was best, after the Iliad and the Odyssey (Pausanias IX 9.5). For reconstructions of the Theban epic tradition see Davies 2014; cf. Cingano 1992, 2000, and 2004. For the suggestion that there were multiple epics about Thebes: Wehrli 1957; Torres-Guerra 1995a and 1995b; cf. Huxley 1969. On the Thebais’s place in the construction of an “epic cycle,” see Burgess 2001.

[ back ] 10. On Theban myth in the Homeric tradition, see Barker and Christensen 2008: 2011 and Nagy 1990:414–416; see also Ebbott 2010:240–242; Arft 2014.

[ back ] 11. Kirk 1985:369 ad 378 notes, “The walls of Thebes are ‘holy’, according to T because they had been built through the power of Amphion’s lyre; but more probably because ἱερός is a conventional epithet applied fairly indiscriminately to different places (primarily to Troy, cf. Ἴλιος ἵρη (etc.), 20x Il., but also e.g. to Euboea at 2.535).” In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo the description of “holy Thebes” (ἱερῇ ἐνὶ Θήβῃ, 426) seems to refer to a pre-populated site of the famous city—a pre-epic Thebes, as it were, when gods still frequented the world of men. Cf. the “sacred city” (ἱερὸν ἄστυ) of Thebes mentioned in athletic victor epigram of the third century BCE (Ebert 1972, no. 64, 7). Quintus of Smyrna refers to the “famous city of Thebes” (Θήβης κλυτὸν ἄστυ, 4.544).

[ back ] 12. It occurs in a repeated contrary-to-fact proposition: “Then the sons of the Achaeans would have taken lofty-gated Troy [had not]” (Ἔνθά κεν ὑψίπυλον Τροίην ἕλον υἷες Ἀχαιῶν, Iliad 16.698 = 21.544). Tsagalis 2008:21–22 attributes the use of the epithet ὑψίπολις for Andromache’s Thebes to the influence of seven-gated (Boiotian) Thebes, since “Hypoplakian Thebes was an unimportant and small city, which could not have been famous for being ‘high-gated’ (ὑψίπυλος)” (21).

[ back ] 13. Pache 2014:283, 285.

[ back ] 14. Kirk 1985:194.

[ back ] 15. Pache 2014:284.

[ back ] 16. For the building of the walls by the gods, see Pindar Olympian 8.30–46; Hellanicus FGrHist 4 F 2 and Metrodorus of Chios, fr. 3 (=Schol. Gen. ad Iliad 21.444). Cf. Apollodorus 2.103.

[ back ] 17. Pache 2014:291 suggests that the seven Achaeans sent against the Trojans recall the seven gates and champions of Thebes (ἕπτ ̓ ἔσαν ἡγεμόνες φυλάκων, Iliad 9.85).

[ back ] 18. See Clay 2011:59; cf. Pache 2014:293.

[ back ] 19. See West 2012:29: “The way [the Iliad] refers to subsidiary episodes of the [Theban] saga suggests knowledge of an ample epic narrative, and there are certain lines that [it] may have adapted from [its] source.” For the Homeric agonistic awareness of Theban traditions, see Pache 2014:295–296. Sammons 2014:297 remarks that it is striking that the references to Theban myths are restricted in scope. Ebbott 2010 compares the references to Theban myths (for her, the epics) to broken “hyperlinks” (cf. Ebbott 2014:319–320).

[ back ] 20. For this question, see Tsagalis 2014:239–246 who concludes that oral epics were “known” to “Homer”. Cf. Pache 2014; contra, Burgess 2009:61–70.

[ back ] 21. Willcock 1997:175; cf. Kelly 2012:221 for a nod to this before an assertion that the stakes still matter.

[ back ] 22. For the term “oral-derived” see Foley 1988. Cf. Martin 1989:1–8 for a concise articulation of the importance of recognizing the orality and performance culture of the epics.

[ back ] 23. See Arft and Foley 2015:10–15 for an overview of the complex relationship between literacy and orality in artistic production.

[ back ] 24. Burgess 2001:3. On this, see also Arft 2014:399–400 whose re-articulation of traditional referentiality has been useful. Cf. Foley and Arft 2015.

[ back ] 25. For discussion of these methods with an emphasis on motif transference, see Burgess 2006. For a brief overview of the terms used, see Edmunds 2016:1–8; cf. the very in-depth presentation of Currie 2016:4–38.

[ back ] 26. Currie 2016:12. Shortly afterwards Currie offers a somewhat bewildering circularity: “If fixed texts are a precondition for specific, unidirectional allusion, so the demonstration of specific, unidirectional allusion, if it can be made, will imply the presence of fixed texts in this tradition. In short, nothing prohibits us from believing in discrete and sufficiently stable poems, some of which would be capable of alluding to others, rather than multiform ‘traditions’ reciprocally influencing each other throughout the archaic period” (2016:16).

[ back ] 27. Currie 2016:11. Cf. Currie 2006:5. Currie draws on the neoanalytical work of Usener 1990:7–8; Kullman 1960 and the typological studies of Fenik 1968. For a criticism of this, see Kelly 2012:228: “the targeted element is still to be isolated from normal Homeric usage in order to reveal its ‘interaction’ with another text/poem.”

[ back ] 28. For allusion and intention, with critiques of the stance, see Hinds 1998:47–51; Heath 2002:59–97.

[ back ] 29. Cf. Fowler 2000:116 for the objection that allusion limits what a reader can do; cf. Lyne 1994:187; and Barker and Christensen 2006:12–13.

[ back ] 30. For an expanded version of neoanalysis, see Currie 2016:22–29. On this, cf. Edmunds 2016:31. For examples of neoanalysis, see Kakridis 1949 and 1971; Kullman 1960 with an overview in Willcock 1997:174–189. Cf. Danek 1998; Currie 2006. On its contributions to the analysis of Homer more generally, see e.g. Burgess 2001; Montanari, Rengakos, and Tsagalis 2011. For a discussion of the creation of an earlier scene as a source for the Iliad, see Tsagalis 2008:239–271 on Thetis’ lament and the broader tradition. Marks 2008:9–11 criticizes neoanalysis for a diachronic approach that betrays a “source and recipient model” (10).

[ back ] 31. “Oral theory gave neoanalysis a way to explain how Cyclic poems, generally agreed to have been recorded in written form after the Iliad was recorded, could have been the source of motifs in the Iliad.” Edmunds 2016:5. Cf. Tsagalis 2008:67, 135. Kelly 2007:12n42 notes the possible uses of neoanalytical readings in oral-based inquiry. On the kind of neoanalytical reading that has much to offer oral theory, see Danek 1998.

[ back ] 32. Kelly 2012:227 suggests that for the most part with neoanalysts “the aim is still to establish the priority of the non-Homeric material.”

[ back ] 33. Burgess (1997; 2015) is even less positive about Homeric quotation of lost epic poems, but he remains impressed with the typological and motif-transference contributions of what he refers to as “post-neoanalysis,” in particular the work of Kullmann 1960.

[ back ] 34. E.g. Fowler 2000 and Lyne 1994.

[ back ] 35. For intertextuality in Homer, in addition to Pucci 1987, see Rutherford 2001; Schein 2002; Currie 2006:7–15; Burgess 2009:56–71.

[ back ] 36. Cf. Bakker 2015:158. On Nagy’s evolutionary model, see Ch. 6 nn7 and 90.

[ back ] 37. He has also called this “mythological intertextuality;” see Burgess 2012:168; cf. Currie 2016:12.

[ back ] 38. More recently, Margalit Finkelberg has adapted terms from Burgess 2009 to identify Homeric epic as “Meta-Cyclic,” either “acknowledging the Cycle tradition and making it part of his own narrative or disacknowledging it and tampering with it” (2015:135). She concludes that “Homer does not simply appropriate the other versions of the Trojan saga or challenge their authority: he absorbs the Cycle tradition with the purpose of superseding it” (2015:138).

[ back ] 39. Tsagalis 2008:xii; see also Bakker 2013:149–160 and Burgess 2006:177 for “motif transference” as a “type of intertextuality.”

[ back ] 40. Cf. Currie 2016:10 for a critique of this claim as emerging from “dichotomous thinking.” In earlier work (2016:89n1; cf. Barker and Christensen 2014) we suggest that intertextuality is appropriate primarily for fixed texts and less so for oral epic poetry.

[ back ] 41. For seminal works on oral theory, see M. Parry 1971 and Lord 1960. Cf. Foley 1988. For surveys see M. W. Edwards 1997 and Russo 1997. For criticism informed by oral theory see, for example, Whallon 1969; A. A. Parry 1973; Austin 1975; and especially Rutherford 1986:162 with n87; 1996:58–61. For the classic description of the operation of themes in oral poetry see Lord 1960:68–98. Foley 1988 prefers the terminology of “oral-derived,” while the importance of recognizing orality is noted by Martin 1989:1–8. For literary-based objections to oral perspectives, see the bibliography cited by Kelly 2007:1, to which may be added Heiden 2008a:10n9.

[ back ] 42. Burgess 2009:56 admits that the “fluidity of oral narrative is certainly susceptible to a post-modern analysis in which everything potentially connects in an endless association of texts.” But he worries that “the infinite regress of this approach…limits its utility.”

[ back ] 43. In a recent article, Edmunds 2016:4 contrasts intertextuality with traditional referentiality or resonance: he argues that the latter “dissolves formular diction in a great sea,” whereas the former “with the assumption of some degree of textual fixation within ongoing oral traditions” may function well as “intertextuality without texts” to explain “correspondences between the proems of the Iliad and the Cypria.” Edmunds argues that intertextuality can be pursued in early Greek epic if there are two conditions: one is that oral song traditions must be aware of one another; another is that one (in his case the Iliad) is not and does not rapidly gain precedence as the “standard” (2016:7).

[ back ] 44. Foley 1991:7. Cf. Foley 2002:114–17. Cf. Kelly 2012:222–223; critique of this at Scodel 2002:11–12. See Danek 2002:13–19 for an appraisal of the method. See Currie 2016:4–7 for a misrepresentation of traditional referentiality that conflates allusion and intertextuality. For traditional referentiality applied to Thebes, see Arft 2014.

[ back ] 45. Foley 1991:9–11. Dué 2002:2: “The traditionality of Homeric poetry allows the phrases, in the words of Lord, to ‘resound with overtones from the dim past whence they came.’ In other words, the traditional themes and phraseology carry with them powerful associations for a traditional audience, the ‘echoes’ of many past performances. Words can resonate within their context, recalling by association countless other song traditions.” Muellner 1996:15: “a given traditional theme can carry with it ideas that poet and audience have learned to associate with it elsewhere.”

[ back ] 46. 1991:37–60. Foley draws on the work of Iser 1974. Hainsworth 1970:92 distinguishes this as an essential feature of any approach to Homer: “Invisible though it is in the printed text, the audience is a partner and contributor to the performance.” For a more literary application of reader response, see Taplin 1992:2–7.

[ back ] 47. Graziosi and Haubold 2005:53. Foley often uses the term “resonance” in a descriptive fashion. See Foley 1999, e.g. 6, 20, 164. Special thanks to Justin Arft for this citation (and many useful references and discussions).

[ back ] 48. Bakker 2013. These approaches have been developed in our earlier articles: for these methodological statements see, Barker and Christensen 2008:6–9; 2011:9–12; and 2014:16–19.

[ back ] 49. As Cánovas and Antović write, “it seems to us that [the] approach to oral composition in performance may be revived…and appreciated even better as ahead of its time, if it were viewed through the lenses of the cognitive sciences” (2016:4). For the cognitive turn and the novel, see Zunshine 2006; Zlatev 2008.

[ back ] 50. For questions about the evolutionary development of the human capacity for narrative, see Ledoux 2002 and Gottschall 2012:26–31.

[ back ] 51. Homeric language as composed of intonation units that correspond to the hexameter cola: Bakker 1997. Cf. Sifakis 1997; Foley 1999.

[ back ] 52. For repetition, see Minchin 1996; for ring composition and orality from a cognitive perspective, see Person 2016.

[ back ] 53. See Drout 2011:467 for individual multiforms as a spare “fossil record” of culture.

[ back ] 54. Edmunds concludes that a specifically oral intertextuality is “plausible” and stronger than relying on Foley’s “immanent art” (2016:20); Tsagalis’ metaphor of the oral palimpsest to describe the way the poetic tradition functions is borrowed from Foley who describes its potential “to be ‘erased’ and rewritten in accordance with traditional structure and within the limits of the multiform idiom” (Foley 1990:31, cited by Tsagalis 2008:xi). In both cases, however, these authors and others are working with poems and remnants of poems that present a certain degree of fixity and whose “cross-references” they posit as happening in the same synchronic plane.

[ back ] 55. Kelly 2012:221; cf. Edmunds 2016:5.

[ back ] 56. As Burgess 2001 (passim but especially 117–126) makes clear, the Homeric epics became influential later than is commonly supposed; cf. Burgess 2012:170. Cf. Kelly 2007:10n33 for the warning that accepting Homeric poetry “as the norm of poetic composition in the Archaic period” causes us to relegate other forms of epic to an inferior position; and Edmunds 2016:7–8.

[ back ] 57. We are not advocating here that thinking about the “design” of the Homeric poems is fruitless: in his (still unsurpassed) commentary on Iliad 24, Colin Macleod (1982) demonstrated the manifold echoes in that book with the beginning of the poem (“ring composition”), while Bruce Heiden (2008a) has argued convincingly for a “three movement” structure of the Iliad, which draws attention to the significant dynamic (and mismatch) between Zeus articulating his plans at the end of a movement (Iliad 8 and 15) and Achilles coming to his own decisions at the beginning of the next (in Iliad 9 and 16). Indeed, we could describe our analysis of Homer’s Thebes in terms of their design on downgrading of this rival tale. Our point, rather, is that we choose to stress the structures within the poem rather than the poet’s presumed intentions.

[ back ] 58. Θήβας λέγεις μοι καὶ πύλας ἑπταστόμους, [ back ] οὗ δὴ μόνον τίκτουσιν αἱ θνηταὶ θεούς.

[ back ] 59. Drout 2011:466 explores biological speciation as an analogy for individuation within a multiform oral tradition. He argues that individual representations will “appear discontinuous” because of a “pressure…to differentiate from each other.”

[ back ] 60. See especially Collins 2004. Cf. Griffith 1990; Kurke 1999. Not all scholars agree. Scodel 2004 has effectively questioned the agonistic nature of Homeric poetry (see Burgess 2009:58).

[ back ] 61. For the deeply competitive nature of Homer’s world, see van Wees 1992 on values, and Martin 1989 and Parks 1990 on verbal dueling. Griffith 1990:188 identifies Greek cultural competition as “zero-sum” but later (191) proposes that the ambiguity of tales of judgment offers multiple possibilities for victory. For zero-sum in Homer, see Wilson 2002a:36–39; Scodel 2008:16–24, and Christensen 2018a. Elmer 2013. The idea of competition lies at the heart of the analysis of the Achaean agora in Barker 2009: see further Chapter 5.

[ back ] 62. On poetic rivalry in the strategies enacted by the Homeric poems: see Pucci 1987 and, with an attempt to integrate oral theory, Tsagalis 2008. On the agonistic context of archaic Greek poetry, see Griffith 1990; cf. Lloyd 1987:50–108. Barker 2009 reads the Odyssey’s representation of debate as a response to (and complication of) the Iliad’s valorization of dissent. Hearing the other side—or, better, giving the space for the other side to be heard—is never that easy, and it is never without consequences.

[ back ] 63. Lowe 2000. Where the author of On the Sublime attributed the different, more everyday style of the Odyssey to Homer’s aging, Graziosi and Haubold 2005 see it rather as a further step in the evolution of the epic cosmos from the Theogony to the Works and Days. The proem’s immediate focus on “man” positions the Odyssey at a stage further on from the Iliad’s tale of the death of the race of heroes, closer to a world of men, where the divine apparatus is all but stripped away in favor of stressing human responsibility.

[ back ] 64. See Barker and Christensen 2006. Cf. Irwin 2005a for a similar analysis of the rivalry between martial elegy, Solon and Homeric epic.

[ back ] 65. See Burgess 2001 passim but esp. 12–33. Burgess also criticizes Griffin’s assertions persuasively that Homer’s partial suppression of details from rival traditions is highly nuanced. See, for example, C.J. Mackie 1997. Cf. Finkelberg’s reformulation of Homeric epic as “Meta-Cyclic”, either “acknowledging the Cycle tradition and making it part of his own narrative or disacknowledging it and tampering with it” 2015:135. She concludes that “Homer does not simply appropriate the other versions of the Trojan saga or challenge their authority: he absorbs the Cycle tradition with the purpose of superseding it” (2015:138).

[ back ] 66. For a stronger Hellenism emerging during the Persian Wars, see Hall 1989; Cartledge 1995. Cf. the longer discussion of Panhellenism in Chapter 6.

[ back ] 67. See Barker 2009:196–197. Cf. Price 2001:71.

[ back ] 68. On the somewhat different emphasis on Panhellenism in modern scholarship, see, e.g. Mitchell 2007.

[ back ] 69. Cf. Nagy 1999:7: “from the internal evidence of its contents, we see that this poetic tradition synthesizes the diverse local traditions of each major city-state into a unified Panhellenic model that suits most city-states but corresponds exactly to none.” Rutherford 2005:11 calls this “Panhellenic poetics,” which he describes as “the enterprise, through poetry, of reconciling and building connections between myths and genealogical traditions from different parts of Greece.” Elmer 2013:274n2; cf. Scodel 2002:45–46. See González 2015:18 for Athens as becoming the dominant center of Homeric performance. Cf. Nagy 1996a:42.

[ back ] 70. E.g. Finley 1954; see Ross 2005 for a “Proto-Panhellenism” in Homer; pace Cartledge 1993.

[ back ] 71. See Nagy 1999 [1979] for an exploration of the Panhellenizing tendencies of Homeric epic and the local orientation of hero cult. Cf. Scodel 2002:4–46. Nagy 1990:70–79; Tsagalis 2011:217–218 and 236–238. For the Odyssey’s higher degree of “epichoric” material, see Tsagalis 2014:243. For the Homeric epics, along with Hesiod, as being more Panhellenic (as opposed to the more localized cyclic poems) see Nagy 2015:63.

[ back ] 72. See Barker and Christensen 2008:8–9; this was originally inspired by Graziosi and Haubold 2005:51–53. See also the discussion in Dunkle 1997 and Foley 1991. Cf. Christensen 2015. For a similar comparison of different methodologies with reference to Iliad 10, see Dué 2011.

[ back ] 73. Schol. A ad Iliad 1.488 notes that Zenodotus athetized this entire passage. Schol A ad Iliad 1.492: “‘He was longing’: For the hero is opposed to inaction. He is especially desirous of honors for deeds” (<ποθέεσκε:> ἐχθρὸς γὰρ τῆς ἀργίας ὁ ἥρως, φιλότιμος δὲ περὶ τὰς πράξεις).

[ back ] 74. See Dué 2011:171–173 for a good use of oral-formulaic theory. In our summary here, we are presenting a rather inaccurate view of the work of Parry and Lord, but one which is particularly common among their detractors.

[ back ] 75. Parry (1971:146–72) allows for some particularized meaning where Lord (1960:66) appears less flexible. See Nagler 1974 and Vivante 1982 for attempts to reconcile oral poetics with the contextual meaning expected from a literary perspective. Recent work (Foley 1988 and 1991; Bakker 2005) illustrates that Homeric verse can be at once traditional and innovative. For Achilles’ epithets, see Nagy 1999 [1979]:326; cf. Shive 1988.

[ back ] 76. See especially Pucci 1987. Tsagalis 2008:67–68 explores the engaging notion that the Odyssey may allude to poems that formed after it; his argument shows how oral poetry necessarily reflects rival song traditions in the performance that creates a single text from “variae lectiones on the level of myth” (68). For a thorough treatment of the Odyssey’s citation of itself and use of other traditions from a largely neoanalytical perspective: Danek 1998.

[ back ] 77. πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς is generally used to introduce speeches: 1.58, 84, 148, 215, 364; 9.196, 307, 606, 643 (i.e. it structures all his responses to the embassy); 11.112, 607; 16.48; 18.78, 97, 187; 19.55, 145, 198, 419; 21.222; 22.14, 229, 260, 344; 23.93, 776; 24.138, 559, 649, 751. The only exceptions are: 1.489; 11.112; 22.229, 23.776; 24.751. Otherwise, the phrase “swift-footed” (πόδας ὠκέα) applies to Iris, the gods’ messenger: 2.790, 795; 3.129; 8.425; 11.199, 210; 18.202; 24.87, 188; cf. Hesiod Theogony 780.

[ back ] 78. See Dunkle 1997:227; Foley 1991:41.

[ back ] 79. The two are brought together in their speed grammatically by Homer’s use of the dual: “the two of them whirled around the city of Priam three times with swift feet” (ὣς τὼ τρὶς Πριάμοιο πόλιν πέρι δινηθήτην / καρπαλίμοισι πόδεσσι, Iliad 22.165–166).

[ back ] 80. See Slatkin 1991:36–37; cf. Barker and Christensen 2008:9.

[ back ] 81. For lameness bestowing upon a figure “the privilege of an uncommon man, of an exceptional qualification” see Vernant 1985:21. For the contrast between biê and mêtis, see Nagy 1999 [1979] passim. For the operation of the mêtis motif in the Odyssey, see Cook 1995. In Aesop’s fables, feigned lameness is a characteristic of clever, devious animals, see Aesop Fables 198 and 214.

[ back ] 82. The idea of swiftness of foot and its insufficiency can be found too in Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. We thank Andreas Michaeopoulos for these references.

[ back ] 83. 5.885; 6.514; 8.339; 13.249, 348, 482; 17.676.

[ back ] 84. 17.709; 18.2 (Antilochus as a messenger to Achilles), 354, 358; 20.189 (Achilles makes Aeneas run swiftly); and particularly his inability to catch Hektor (21.564; 22.8, 173, 230).

[ back ] 85. See Chapter 5, “Enabling Strife, Founding Politics.”

[ back ] 86. Archilochus appears to draw on similar notions when he famously declares: “I don’t love a tall leader, or one striding far / or one who takes pride in his hair or shaved beard…” (οὐ φιλέω μέγαν στρατηγὸν οὐδὲ διαπεπλιγμένον / οὐδὲ βοστρύχοισι γαῦρον οὐδ’ ὑπεξυρημένον, fr. 114).

[ back ] 87. Pindar similarly redeploys the phrase ταχυτὴς ποδῶν to celebrate the athletes at the games (Olympian 1.95; cf. Isthmian 5.10). In contrast, Plato’s Socrates argues in his defense that he is of far greater service to the state than victors at the Panhellenic games (Apology 36d).

[ back ] 88. See further Barker and Christensen 2006.

[ back ] 89. Cf. Scodel 2002:32 who argues that “traditionality…is a cultural construct, the social memory of the past.” On social memory in conjunction with Homer, see the discussion of Panhellenism in Chapter 6.

[ back ] 90. ποδώκης…Ἀχιλλεὺς is an alternative form of the more popular πόδας ὠκὺς ᾿Αχιλλεύς. It occurs at Iliad 18.324; 20.89; 23.792. Cf. Plato Com. fr.15.1.

[ back ] 91. On Achilles as standing up to authority (in the form of Agamemnon), see Barker 2009; cf. Chapter 5 below.

[ back ] 92. Of course, such tales are not always positively received: Plato’s Socrates, for example, objects to tales that depict leaders pursuing personal enmity (Republic 378c1-d3).

[ back ] 93. Thersites enjoys a lively afterlife for his epic dissent, which is configured as either (or both) comic (e.g. Lucian How to Write History 14) or (and) political (e.g. Libanius Progymnasmata, Encomium 4). In Plato he is of interest precisely for the kind of afterlife he might enjoy: in Gorgias (525e) he is an example of a soul that can be cured in the afterlife; and in Republic (620c) he chooses to be reborn as an ape. On Thersites as a “bona fide satirist,” see Rosen 2003:123 (on the Aithiopis). Halliwell 1991:281 too draws attention to Thersites’ role as a “habitual entertainer,” and points to Plato’s shrewd description of him as a γελωτοποιός (Republic X.620c3).