Greek Mythology and Poetics

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Chapter 1. Homer and Comparative Mythology

Still under the spell of Heinrich Schliemann’s rediscovery of Troy, students of ancient Greece have been accustomed to regard the Greek epic tradition of Homer as a reporting of events that really happened in the second millennium B.C., the Mycenaean Bronze Age. [1] This view must be modified by the perspective of comparative mythology, as most clearly articulated in a three-volume series, Mythe et épopée, by Georges Dumézil. [2] This perspective takes the methodology of Indo-European linguistics beyond the level of pure language and applies it on the level of myth as expressed by language. In this sense, it is appropriate to think of comparative mythology, more broadly, as comparative philology:

Just as the Greek language, is cognate with other Indo-European languages, including Latin, Indic, and Old Norse, so also various Greek institutions are cognate with the corresponding institutions of other peoples speaking other Indo-European languages. In other words, such {7|8} diverse groups as the ancient Greek and Indic peoples have a common Indo-European heritage not only on the level of language but also on the level of society. To appreciate the breadth and the depth of this Indo-European heritage in Greek institutions, one has only to read through the prodigious collection of detailed evidence assembled by Emile Benveniste in Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes. [
4] For now, however, we shall concentrate on Dumézil’s argument that one such Indo-European institution is the tradition of epic as reflected, for example, in the Indic Mahābhārata. The comparative approach, as we shall see, gives a vision of epic that is significantly different from the picture emerging from a “separatist” approach that restricts the field of vision to Homeric standards.

What comparative philology teaches us is that epic is a reflection not so much of historical events as of myth. According to this scheme, epic allows myth to take precedence over reality as we know it. Even where epic utilizes the raw material of real events, the argument goes, it will reshape these events to accommodate the requirements of myth.

A solution to these problems may be found in archaeology—not in the evidence of the second millennium B.C., the represented era of the Homeric heroes, but in the evidence of the eighth century B.C., the era of the incipient Homeric audience. Whereas the archaeology of the second millennium has encouraged students of Hellas to concentrate on the historical realities found in Greek epic, the archaeology of the eighth century may lead them to perceive the mythmaking framework that integrates these realities.

In fact, Homeric poetry is a formalization of both these phenomena; it synthesizes the diverse local traditions of each major city-state into a unified pan-Hellenic model that suits the ideology of the polis in general, but without being restricted to the ideology of any one polis in particular. [14] Perhaps the clearest example is the Homeric concept of the Olympian gods, which incorporates yet goes beyond the localized religious traditions of each polis; the pan-Hellenic perspective of Homeric poetry has transcended local phenomena such as the cult of gods, which is functional only on the local level of the polis. [15] By “cult” I mean a set of practices combining elements of ritual as well as myth. For a working definition of “ritual,” I choose the following formulation: “Ritual, in its outward aspect, is a programme of demonstrative acts to be performed in set sequence and often at a set place and time—sacred insofar as every omission or deviation arouses deep anxiety and calls forth sanctions. As communication and social imprinting, ritual establishes and secures the solidarity of the closed group.” [16] The insistence of ritual on a set order of things should not be misunderstood to mean that all rituals are static and that all aspects of rituals are rigid. Even in cases where a given society deems a given ritual to be static and never changing, it may in fact be dynamic and ever changing, responding to the ever-changing structure of the society that it articulates.

Besides the cult of gods, another example of interplay between polis and pan-Hellenism in Homeric poetry is its attitude toward the cult of heroes. Erwin Rohde’s monumental book Psyche remains one of the most eloquent sources for our understanding the hḗrōs ‘hero’ as a very old and distinct concept of traditional Greek religion, requiring ritual practices that were distinct from those associated with the gods. [17] What archaeology now tells us is that this Hellenic institution of hero cults, without much difference from what we see attested in the Classical period of the fifth century, is shaped in the eighth century B.C., the same {10|11} era that shaped the Iliad and Odyssey. [18] It is of course tempting to explain the upsurge of hero cults throughout the city-states as a phenomenon motivated by the contemporaneous diffusion of Homeric poetry, [19] but it would be better to follow Snodgrass in looking for a more comprehensive explanation. [20] Again, the key is the twin eighth-century phenomena of the polis on one hand and pan-Hellenism on the other. I cite Rohde’s thesis that the cult of heroes was a highly evolved transformation of the worship of ancestors—a transformation that took place within the social context of the polis. [21] This thesis, perhaps most appealing from the viewpoint of cultural anthropology, [22] allows room for considering the constituent elements of hero cults to go back far beyond the eighth century. [23] In other words, we can posit a lengthy prehistory for not only the epics of heroes but also the cults of heroes, with this qualification: the ultimate forms of the epics and of the cults were definitively shaped in the eighth century. The strong eighth-century upsurge in the local cults of heroes can thus be viewed as a phenomenon parallel to—rather than derivative from—the pan-Hellenic epics of heroes, namely, the Iliad and Odyssey.

The claim can be made, then, that the themes associated with the major Homeric heroes do indeed match the themes associated with {12|13} gods, and that Dumézil’s doubts about the applicability of his reconstructions to Greek epics can in the end be dispelled. Moreover, since the Greek evidence shows parallelisms of god and hero attested even on the level of cult, Dumézil’s vision of epic as structured by myth may even be extended one level further: from epic to myth to ritual.

There are other epic touches as well in Homeric Hymn 15, as for example in these verses describing the Labors of the hero Herakles:

πλαζόμενος πομπῇσιν ὑπ’ Εὐρυσθῆος ἄνακτος
πολλὰ μὲν αὐτὸς ἔρεξεν ἀτάσθαλα, πολλὰ δ’ ἀνέτλη

Homeric Hymn to Herakles 15.5-6

Set off-course on missions at the direction of Eurystheus the king,
many are the reckless [atásthala] things that he did, many the things that he endured.

Let us compare the verses beginning the Odyssey:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε Μοῦσα πολύτροπον ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσε.
πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ’ ὅ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα

Odyssey i 1-4

About the man sing to me, Muse, the one of many turns [polú-tropos] the {13|14} one who many times
was set off course after he destroyed the holy citadel of Troy.
Many are the men whose cities he saw, and he came to know their way of thinking,
and many are the pains that he suffered at sea.

In the Hymn to Herakles, the anaphora of πολλᾲ…πολλᾲ ‘many things…many things’ at verse 6 in the context of πλαζόμενος ‘set off-course’ at verse 5 is parallel to the anaphora of πολύτροπον…πολλὰ/πολλῶν…/πολλὰ ‘the one of many turns’…’many’/’many’ …/’many’ at Odyssey 1/3/4 in the context of πλάγχθη ‘was set off course’ at I 2. Further, the expression πολλὰ…ἀνέτλη ‘he endured many things’ at Hymn 15.6 describing Herakles is parallel to πολλὰ…πάθεν ἄλγεα ‘he suffered many pains’ at Odyssey i 4 describing Odysseus, while the ἀτάσθαλα ‘reckless’ deeds of Herakles at Hymn 15.6 correspond to the characterization of Achilles in his own dark moments of savagery as ἀτάσθαλος (e.g. XXII 418). [

Thus the primary narrative of Greek epic, which is the Trojan War, is self-motivated by the Indo-European social principle of counterbalancing praise and blame.

Thus the Judgment of Paris, the ultimate point of departure for the narrative traditions that we know as Homer’s epics, can itself be judged as an epic theme with an Indo-European foundation. More broadly, Homer can be judged an authoritative source for the myths inherited by and through the Greek language. {17|18}


[ back ] 1. A noteable example is Page 1959.

[ back ] 2. Dumézil 1968, 1971, 1973.

[ back ] 3. Dumézil 1985.15 (my translation).

[ back ] 4. Benveniste 1969.

[ back ] 5. Cf. N 1982b, reviewing Detienne 1981, and Martin 1989. On the truth-value of myth: Leach 1982.2-7.

[ back ] 6. My translation, with slight modifications, of Burkert 1979b.29. Although I recognize the need for the additional term “legend,” besides “myth,” in the work of others, I find it unnecessary for the purposes of this book.

[ back ] 7. The basics: Parry 1971 (collected works) and Lord 1960.

[ back ] 8. Cf. also Martin 1989.1-42.

[ back ] 9. Dumézil 1969.580-581; cf. also 1982.8, 52, 112-113.

[ back ] 10. Throughout this book, I use the word “theme” (and “thematic”) as a shorthand reference to a basic unit in the traditional subject patterns of myth. My model for a sensible deployment of this word is Lord 1960.68-98.

[ back ] 11. Snodgrass 1971 (see esp. pp. 421, 435; also pp. 352, 376, 416-417, 421, 431).

[ back ] 12. Again, Page 1959.

[ back ] 13. Snodgrass 1971.421, 435. Hereafter, the word pólis will appear in plain roman print: polis.

[ back ] 14. Cf. N 1979a.115-117.

[ back ] 15. Rohde 1898.1:125-127.

[ back ] 16. Burkert 1985.8

[ back ] 17. Rohde 1898; for a survey of Rohde’s treatment of hero cults, see N 1979a.115-117.

[ back ] 18. Snodgrass 1970.190-193. Cf. Snodgrass 1987, esp. pp. 160, 165.

[ back ] 19. Cf. Coldstream 1976.

[ back ] 20. Snodgrass 1971.398-399; also Snodgrass 1987, esp. pp. 160, 165, and Morris 1988.754-755. For a reappraisal, stressing regional variations, see Whitley 1988.

[ back ] 21. Rohde 1898.1:108-110.

[ back ] 22. Cf. Brelich 1958.144n202 and Alexiou 1974.19.

[ back ] 23. Cf. again Snodgrass 1971.398-399.

[ back ] 24. Rohde 1:184-189.

[ back ] 25. N. 1979a. Cf. also Vernant 1985.101, 104, 106.

[ back ] 26. Further discussion in N 1979a ch.5.

[ back ] 27. Burkert 1975.19; cf. N 1979a.142-143.

[ back ] 28. Dumézil 1968.33-257.

[ back ] 29. Cf. Burkert 1975.19; cf. N 1979a ch. 7.

[ back ] 30. Cf. N 1979a ch. 7.

[ back ] 31. On the antagonism of Achilles and Apollo, I refer again to N 1979a ch. 7; on the antagonism between Odysseus and Poseidon, see Hansen 1977. It is fitting that a complex figure like Odysseus should have more than one divine antagonist. On the implicit antagonism between Odysseus and Athena, see Clay 1984.

[ back ] 32. See Davidson 1980.

[ back ] 33. N 1979a.153-154. Cf. also Vernant 1985.101, 104, 106.

[ back ] 34. N 1979a ch. 2.

[ back ] 35. For more on the thematic connection of Achilles with the epithet ‘reckless’, atásthalos (ἀτάσθαλος) see N pp 163ff.

[ back ] 36. The nonspecialization of the Herakles figure in comparison with the main heroes of attested Greek epic suggests that the Herakles theme may be appropriate to poetic forms other than epic: cf. Burkert 1979a.94.

[ back ] 37. Dumézil 1971.

[ back ] 38. Dumézil 1968.117-132.

[ back ] 39. The father/son combinations (to repeat: in each case the fathers are gods and the sons are mortals): Dharma/Yudhiṣṭhira, Vāyu/Bhīma, Indra/Arjuna, the two Aśvin-s/Nakula and Sahadeva.

[ back ] 40. Cf. West 1978.191.

[ back ] 41. More on these heroes at p. 126.

[ back ] 42. More on this passage in N 1979a.159-161. Cf. also Vernant 1985.101, 104,106.

[ back ] 43. More at p. 126 on the Hesiodic visualization of heroes.

[ back ] 44. More in N pp. 219-221.

[ back ] 45. On the Will of Zeus theme as represented in the Iliad (I 5), see N p. 82 § 25n2, with further references.

[ back ] 46. See Dumézil 1968.168-169.

[ back ] 47. Cf. Vian 1970, esp. p. 55.

[ back ] 48. N 1979a ch. 11-ch. 15.

[ back ] 49. N pp. 34-35, 240.

[ back ] 50. Dumézil 1943; updated in Dumézil 1969.

[ back ] 51. Detienne 1973.

[ back ] 52. N 1979a ch.11-ch.15.

[ back ] 53. See Dumézil 1958.

[ back ] 54. Dumézil 1969.580-586. For further important observations on the Judgment of Paris theme, see Dumézil 1985.15-30.